The Purgatory Blues: Chapter 1

I was ready to die when it happened. I’d been ready for months. And as I lay in that hospital room, as they pumped serums into me and pick out all the splinters of skull, I knew the moment had come. And I was not afraid.

I was relieved.

There was no pain. I think I was beyond it then. But I could hear everything – the shouts of the nurses as they ran down the corridor, the murmur of the surgeon as he concentrated, the rustle of his sleeves. I heard the monitor flatline. My surgeon started cursing as the crash cart rumbled in. I don’t know how many times they tried to resuscitate me. But eventually they had to call it.

That was when I opened my eyes. Not my physical eyes, but the eyes – or perhaps awareness – of whatever was left of me once my physical body was gone. My body lay next to me, cold and motionless. Pale. Red matted the side of my head and my face was a mass of bruises. I looked away from my former shell. I didn’t need to see the damage. I’d lived it.

The surgeon pulled down his mask, revealing a thin, downturned mouth in the middle of an aging face. A nurse came around the side of the bed, walking right through my non-corporeal self to fold my body’s arms. She didn’t seem to notice a thing. When she was finished, she went over to the surgeon and put a hand on his shoulder.

“Do you think they’ll catch the guy who did it?” he asked. He sounded weary and frustrated. I reached out for him almost instinctively, touched that he cared. No one else in my life had.

She just patted his shoulder. “Come on,” she said, and turned him toward the door.

When they shut that door, I saw him. He stood behind it, barely more than a shadow. But when all the people were gone, he stepped into the light.

I knew he was like me, because he was staring straight at me. He was tall and thin – almost skeletally so – with jutting cheekbones and a sharp chin. His eyes were large and lilac-colored, and black hair hung to just above his shoulders in greasy strings. With his wide eyes and pale face he looked like a rag doll.

“Are you ready to go to the afterlife, Rachel?” he said. He extended his arm.

I nodded and placed my own, translucent ghost-hand in his. I’d always wondered what kind of a place Heaven was.

Unfortunately, Heaven wasn’t where we were going.

***

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Wingbeats, Part IV

Click here to start from the beginning

***

The next night, Arianne leaves the window open and sits at the cherry-wood writing desk. She has brushed the tangles out of her hair and smeared some foundation onto the dark, bruiselike circles under her eyes. It is a long wait until the allotted time, but she does not read, nor write, nor sleep. She simply waits. There is a hope that burns in her stronger than any fire. She can think of nothing else.

She does not flinch when a swan lands on her windowsill, stretches its long neck forward, and steps into the room. It hops down onto the floor, scratches under a wing with its beak, then looks up at her.

Arianne kneels so that her head and the swan’s are close together. She pulls the head forward until her nose touches its beak. “It has to be you,” she breathes. “Tell me it’s you.”

And suddenly, she’s not touching feathers and down, but soft skin and the strong muscle beneath. “It’s me,” he says, and it’s not wings but arms that come up to enfold her and press her tight against his body. He feels so corporeal, she can’t help but run her hands up and down his back, along his arms. She touches his hair and shudders at the exhale of his breath on her cheek. So real.

When she tells him so, he laughs. “But I am real. Just for tonight, I’m real.”

“It was you, all that time?” she asks. He nods. She strokes his throat, looks for the pulse of life that used to throb in the well of his collarbone. It is the only thing missing in this otherwise perfect vision. “Why didn’t you just come to me? Why all the birds?”

He cups her face in one large hand. They were always soft, the hands of an artist. They were no rougher now. “There are rules,” he murmurs. “There are always rules. You had to realize yourself, and you had to want it, truly want to be with me again. And it can only be tonight.” He stands, and pulls her to her feet, then pulls her in again.

She has a million more questions – about how real he feels, about where he when he disappeared in the river, about what happened to him after he died – but instead she’s choking up and the tears are streaming down her face like waterfalls and all she can manage to say is, “Why you? Why did you have to go and leave me behind?” Then she is overcome, her voice falls to pieces and she can do nothing but sob into his chest.

He shushes her and strokes her back until she subsides. When she is a little calmer, he draws back and regards her. His gray eyes are kind but firm. “It was not something I meant to do. But life takes a strange course for all of us, Arianne.” He lifts her and she wraps her arms and legs around his trunk, holding on against tomorrow and the worlds that separate them.

He whispers into her ear, “Don’t lock yourself away here for the rest of your life. You deserve happiness and a future full of laughter and light and hope.”

Beneath the thin shift of her nightgown, she feels the steady thump of a heart. Is it his or her own?

“I can’t,” she says. “There are so many things – so many people waiting to say they’re sorry, to see whether I can make it, to watch me struggle on without you.” Her future feels like the house – it’s too big.

Maybe being dead gave him the ability to read her mind. Or maybe he just knows her well enough to understand what she’s thinking. He turns his head and kisses her, slowly and sweetly, the kind of kiss he always gave her. Her heart leaps at the touch of his mouth.

When their lips part, he carries her over to the bed. “The house isn’t too big,” he whispers as he sets her gently down. “It’s just the right size.”

***

By the time the sun has risen, he is gone. But so are the dreams, she knows.

It will still be hard. There will be tears and little stinging memories. And there will be questions when she starts to show, she thinks as she looks down at her belly. But she can weather them. And life will bring joy, in time.

And she’ll leave water out for the birds.

Wingbeats, Part III

Click here to read from the beginning.
***

The next day Arianne can hardly move. Two sleepless nights have taken their toll. She ignores calls from her mother, her friends, her husband’s publisher. She wants to rip the phone cable out of the wall and throw it into the ocean. Around noon, unable to hold herself up any longer, she collapses on the couch. His book sits on the glass coffee table, bookmarked to page five. She hates looking at it but lacks the strength to throw it away.

Black and white, she thinks. A black and white living room, with white walls and a black couch, black bookcases crammed with volumes, a black and white grand piano. Alan loved the way she tinkered on the piano. The simple harmony of two notes together, he said, was more beautiful prose than he could ever write.

Her mother said she should try to play, after he died. She said it might help with the pain. But the notes fall in single file, discordant and rhythmless. She hasn’t touched the piano in weeks.

There, on the couch, she slips into sleep. Her dreams return, strong and angry and brutal, and she cannot escape them. When she finally wakes, thrashing and shouting, she’s covered in sweat and the afternoon has come and gone. She’s shaking.

She manages to eat. It makes her feel sick.

When night falls (mercifully late, with high summer approaching) she goes up to the bedroom with its dark furniture and its crisp white sheets and lies down. She does not move, and she does not sleep. The sky turns purple as night blooms and the world outside goes to sleep.

When the tapping comes, she is not startled. She is not surprised. It is 4:32. She slides out of bed, fetches the glass of water, and opens the window. Tonight it is a dove that alights on her wrist. It is lighter than the touch of a child, she thinks. And it is not afraid of her touch.

“Why have you come?” she asks. “Why don’t you sleep?”

The dove watches her, and waits. When she sets the water on the table, it steps down delicately and drinks. Its head bobs back and forth in a nodding motion.

She wants to speak to it but she doesn’t know what to say. It’s just a bird, but why is it visiting her? Why now? She and Alan never got birds like this, stepping through their windows, drinking from their kitchenware.

Alan. Even thinking his name brings tears to her eyes. “It’s not fair,” she chokes out as the water rolls down her cheeks. The dove pauses. It watches her with one bright eye.

She still feels somehow at fault.

They were walking along the edge of the river, one of the many paved paths in the tourist district. Alan loved walking beside the river. He took her every day, pointing out the new shoots that edged their way out along silver-brown branches, daffodils poking up sunny faces, all the sights and smells and sounds of life emerging after the winter’s sleep. The river was swollen from spring rains and the current poured over stones, creating rapids and little whirlpools in its haste to reach the ocean.

She recalls his smile, vibrant and infectious. It was a smile she couldn’t see without smiling herself. It grew wider as he pointed out the robin building her nest, or bent down to pick her one of the season’s first wildflowers. It faded when he saw the woman on the bridge, tremulously putting one foot on the rail. He started shouting when she stood, balanced like a dancer. When she dove, he broke into a run.

He leapt into the icy water. He was an excellent swimmer, and the current carried him down to her. She was fighting the water, bobbing up and down like a cork in her panic. When he reached her he picked her up and struggled to the river bank. She was able to grab hold of a tree root that had been exposed by erosion. He was not.

The last thing Arianne saw of him was his hand, reaching up as if in farewell. Sunlight flashed off the golden wedding band.

His body was never recovered.

“Sometimes, after the dark dreams, I have another. I’m floating down that river. The current swirls like a storm but I’m moving so slowly. It’s a warm day and the sky above is blue, bluer than the ocean, without a single cloud. I know I’m following him because I can hear his voice. He’s singing for me. And his voice gets nearer and nearer, but all I see is the sky, and before I reach him – ” She breaks off. Before she reaches him, she wakes. And every time she wakes she fears she’ll never have the dream again, and he’ll disappear forever. “I want to join him so desperately,” she whispers.

The dove hops into her hand. As she brings it up to her face, it leans forward, pressing its forehead against her own. Then it flaps away, through the window into the gray night.

Birds that act like men. Men that loved birds. Her hand comes up to her mouth.

***

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Wingbeats, Part II

Click here to go to the beginning of this story.

She tosses and turns that night, unable and unwilling to sleep. Her red-rimmed eyes itch from exhaustion but the notion of sleep terrifies her. She grips her wrist until the bones grind together and sallow bruises appear under the skin, but the pain isn’t enough and she slips into a fugue state, entering the strange twilight world nestled between the realms of asleep and awake, living and dead. She slowly becomes aware of a soft breathing and her eyes fill with tears beneath their lids. He’s so close to her – yet when she reaches out, she cannot touch him.

A tap on the windowpane jolts her into full wakefulness. It’s 4:32. The breathing was her own.

She wipes her eyes on a corner of the sheet and goes into the bathroom. She comes out again with a glass of water, then goes over to the writing desk and opens the window.

A pure snowy owl steps delicately from the windowsill onto the smooth tabletop. Feathers ripple down: white edged with black, shadow and light. Tawny eyes settle on her face. When she sets the glass of water down, the bird drinks briefly.

“You must be a long way from home,” she murmurs. The soft rustle of feathers is her reply.

Hesitantly she runs a finger along the soft down of its back. She’s heard that owls can bite, and bite hard. But this one allows her to stroke its back and wings. Her hand – so pale when twined through his tanned fingers – seems so dark against the predominant white of the owl. “White and black,” she muses. It was the color scheme for their wedding. Her parents had thought it strange, but her favorite color was black, and his white – and the more they thought about it, the more perfect it became.

“I was a night owl once,” she says. She gets the same sense of attentiveness from the owl that she got from the crow. It wants to listen to her. “I thought that the shadows were my place, that the daytime would only show everyone how dull I was. But Alan reveled in the sun. He wanted to show me how things could shine in the light…and so I wore black to my wedding, and he wore white. He said it was a union of opposites.”

The wedding featured in his novel. He told her she could read it when everything was finished. He said that it should be a surprise for her.

“White and black for the wedding,” she says. “But just black for the funeral.”

The owl leans forward and takes a strand of her long dark hair in its beak. She winces in anticipation of a sharp pull, but with great gentleness the creature lets the hair slide. Alan used to run her hair through his fingers like that.

Then it hops away. The wings flap like heartbeats and a few moments later it has disappeared in the gloom. A low fog has risen around the base of the trees outside. Tomorrow will probably be rainy, a day to stay in. But she never leaves the house anyway. Her nest, her prison, her future.

***

Continue to Part III

Wingbeats, Part I

The night is stifling, as it always is in the summer. Humid air rolls in through the window and makes everything clammy and sticky. She had to buy a special nightgown for the summertime. In the wintertime Oregon is cold and rainy, and drops fall from the sky like liquid ice. But from late May till August the rain falls just the same, but it is tepid and whenever she reaches her destination she feels like she needs to take a shower. Hot or cold – she needs the temperature change.

In the summertime her sleep is filled with nightmares. She wakes with the sheets tangled round her legs, like giant hands ready to pull her under. She wakes with his name on her lips.

He had to beg her to get the house. But he always got his way, especially where she was concerned.

“It’s too big,” she laughed as he nuzzled her neck in the little hotel room.

“It’s just the right size,” he whispered. “A perfect house for us and our kids.”

She hates and loves remembering that night. Just as she hates and loves him.

When she wakes on these wet summer Oregon nights, her face streaked with water (tears or sweat? Even she cannot tell), she lies, near catatonic, full of rage and hurt. How dare he, she tells herself. How dare he leave her in an empty shell of dreams and futures that can never come about? No children, no husband, no long journeys around the world. Just this great big west coast house, an empty chrysalis, a place in which something living was harbored. But nothing emerged come springtime.

Arianne rips the sheets from her and staggers out of bed. In the bathroom she pours herself a glass of water, then splashes some more onto her face. Its coolness is refreshing and helps her push the nightmare away. He died by drowning, but in all her dreams it’s something from his novel that kills him. Shadows like the ones his villains lurk in reach out with hands as dark as midnight to pull him down. He drifts away from her and even though she screams his name and tries to pull him back, he fades.

As she goes back into the master bedroom she checks the bedside clock. 4:32. She’ll get no more sleep tonight. Instead of going back to the bed, that hated place, she takes a seat at the old cherry-wood writing table. The wood is dark and flawless. She loves running her hands over its surface. The motion soothes her.

A sudden rustle at the window causes her to look up. Outside the trees are black silhouettes, paper cutouts in the gloom of the pre-dawn. The moon has slipped below the horizon and the stars are fading. And standing on her windowsill, watching her with one black eye, is a crow.

Crow and woman stare at one another. Arianne opens her mouth to shoo it off, but her voice doesn’t come. She feels as though her throat is a sheer mountain that the voice can’t climb. The crow, for its part, cocks its head. It lets out no caw or screech. Unnatural silence and stillness stretch between them. When at last she puts out her hand to undo the latch on the screen, the crow waits patiently for her and then hops onto the writing table when the way is clear.

It fluffs its glossy black feathers and lifts one black leg experimentally.

Water. Alan would give it water. She rises hurriedly and goes to  refill her glass at the bathroom sink. When she returns and sets it before the bird, it dips its beak in gratefully. It still says nothing.

“My husband would like you,” she murmurs.

At the sound of her voice, the head comes up from the water glass. The eye stares, unblinking.

“He always had a soft spot for animals,” she continues. “When his book became a bestseller he promised me he’d get a kitten. After everything in the house was settled.” A kitten. One of the things she hasn’t bothered to think about since his death.

She gets the funny sense the bird is listening.

“We even met over a bird. Not a crow. A pigeon. A dead pigeon. I think he hit it – I was walking on the sidewalk when his car swerved up on the curb in front of me and nearly knocked me down. I was so mad, when he jumped out of the car. I was ready to give him a slap on the face. But I saw him pick something up from the edge of the road. He stroked the pigeon and murmured to it, and a couple of moments later it flew off. I knew right then I couldn’t yell at him for that. So I let him take me to lunch instead.”

Tentatively, she slides her hand, wrist up, along the table toward the crow. “His novel was even about flight,” she whispers. The novel. She never finished reading it. Alan was reading it aloud to her and they were halfway through when he died. She tried to pick it up a few times. When others said how proud they were of the legacy he left in the world. But every word on the page, every syllable was pronounced in his stark Midwest accent, his measured baritone voice. The weight of that voice crushed her. She’s never been able to finish a page.

The crow suddenly sticks out one black scaly foot and presses it into her outstretched palm. It presses down lightly, then its wings emerge and it flaps once, twice, three times. The breeze it makes is refreshing; the steady thump is like the beat of a heart. The crow lifts away from the writing table, turns, and flies through the open screen back out to the gray world. It left no mark on her palm – it didn’t even scratch the surface of the writing desk.

Arianne stares after it for a long time.

Continue to Part II