Act of Courage

Image of Set Stories Free - 2018
Image of Short Story
She listened while he spoke. His voice was like a fuzzy caterpillar and barely audible against the glow of the holiday lights, sparkling blue and green, white and gold. Tiny bulbs like fireflies in December. The window he was facing was laced with scant shards of frost. Of course it was cold, but the little embers inside, in the room, and outside, framing the sill, were promises of warmth and future. In a setting like that, the darkest part of the year, the short days, were irrelevant. The French blue walls of the bedroom strengthened that promise of May, June, of another glorious summer overseas. This one would be the best yet, the marvelous moment where more than three decades would culminate in their union, at last. No more long separations, tugged apart by jobs in two different countries. All that was in the past, and many had told them it would make a great novel.

He sat in the worn wooden chair with the rounded back that was mismatched with the antique desk that has belonged, she thought, to her great grandfather. It was a desk with the mysterious air old things have because people who inherit them never knew the original owner, yet honor the miracle that gave them those treasures. She disliked the gloomy color, but hadn’t yet tackled the refinishing, unconvinced it mattered, uncertain she could even get that darkness off the wood where it had been so long.

She lounged on the bed, waiting for him to speak, unsure of how she knew this person who had been in her life for so many years and was often silent for long periods of time had now been silent for too long. How do you measure when silence starts? That moment when someone stops speaking? You can only tell when they break their silence, she thought. There was no flow nor glow any more in that space and time. She only knew he was sad.

The sound of his sadness told her what the words would be even before he said them, but she pushed them away with a vehemence invisible to his gaze. Maybe the sadness was echoed his eyes, eyes that spoke even more softly and musically than they had the afternoon so many years ago when he’d told her he was falling in love with her. Eyes so sad, dark, and handsome that they turned away from her to fix on a point somewhere beyond the blue wall of the small room. His shoulders drooped as well. He seemed to shrivel inside, invisibly, and he was trying to pull the skin on the surface of his cheeks and hands inward.

It was not a pretty sight and she felt as if some mechanical monster had shredded her heart. She had never seen him like that, so sad and defeated. She became very concerned, yet hopeful that she would be able to help, maybe offer advice or consolation. After all, she’d been with him for all these years. Maybe his older sister had taken a turn for the worse. Or, he’d been to the doctor and had had some tests, maybe with bad results. His sleep disorder couldn’t make him sad because he’d always suffered from that, along with apnea, and he’d never complained much about it. Had the tests revealed some more serious problem? She began making a mental list, hating herself for doing it: leukemia, brain tumor, Alzheimer, pancreatic cancer. Only something horrible would affect him outwardly that way. She steeled herself for the words that would wreck the shriveled silence that mimicked what was occurring inside him.

“There’s someone else,” his diminished voice winced. Not his expression, is face, but his voice. A stoic never shows things like that, emotions other humans feel. Well, those were not exactly his words. He’d said, “Hay otra persona” or maybe even “Hai outra persoa.” It mattered which language they used to communicate, it mattered a lot. She should remember which of the three they spoke, but she can’t, she just can’t.

Then his eyes and his head shifted further from her.

She knew she was stone.

The small room, blue and glowing, began to take on the feeling of an ice floe, adrift in the Arctic. The air congealed, the good quality mattress went from slush to slab, but quickly the slab of ice turned to stone. Granite, she suspected, but wasn’t sure because she was distracted by time, now dead and shattered all around her. Fortunately, this sensation didn’t last long and she managed to crawl inside where she was, like a child crawls inside a snow fort or an igloo. Then she melded into the vault and was space, stony space.

From within this vault, and as part of the walls, floor and ceiling she had now become, she was able to look out. Her voice was numb, but she could still comprehend how hard it had been for him to utter those words, how painful. She needed to protect him from what he had done, because he was the monster who had shredded her heart and much of what he’d believed he was, morally. He’d allowed himself to stop loving her and was mortally wounded. She didn’t want him to die, so from within the mausoleum or snow fort or vault she had constructed in the blink of an eye, she sat without a word. The Tao Te Ching came to mind, insisting she find courage in love. She did.

Later, he would leave, cross the ocean and be with a person she had known for years, as long as she’d known him. She would never be whole again, never write or say anything or create a work of art without feeling him somewhere beside her, perhaps inside the same stone-cold tomb. Yet she had given him the life he now craved, and perhaps he could rebuild himself. She would allow him that. She had to.

Long ago, even before she’d met him and looked into the eyes, heard the lilt in his languages, she thought of something else she’d read. Hemingway had written, in a book whose title she no longer knew: “Courage is grace under pressure.” The pressure in her heart to scream, cry, respond with vehement accusations, might have revealed her broken spirit, but it had not broken her will to release him to another, with grace.