le mot juste
© 2008 michele may


The Path to the River

This story is dedicated to my father, Michael H. Grossmith 1948-2004
I can only hope that in his final hours, he knew how much I loved him.

The path down to the river’s edge seemed steeper that night, and the pain in his legs made navigating through the stones and branches more challenging than other days. Perhaps it was because the sun had already gone down, and the night air’s chill had begun to awaken the ache in his bones that the warmth of the sun had kept in slumber. He did not normally venture out in the dark hours, but that night finding the peace of the water seemed necessary and urgent. He zigzagged down the slope slowly and carefully, surprised at the steadiness of his step despite the throbbing at his knees. The trees seemed to reach out to hold him, and he grasped their arms for assistance, flinching as his knuckles curved tightly around their branches.

Finally, he reached the bottom, and the water kissed the soles of his boots with welcome. Except for a distant owl and the sound of the wind shuffling through the fallen leaves, the night was silent. He stepped quietly and deliberately to keep from disturbing the sanctity he so desperately needed to surround him.

He walked for a few minutes until he spotted a rock glowing with moonlight. As he approached it, he was struck by its beauty and how it sparkled like a million tiny crystals pulled together by the sheer force of light upon them. Placing his palm onto the rock’s smooth surface, he maneuvered himself down until he was seated facing the water. The coldness emanated from beneath him and reached up into his throbbing temples. He closed his eyes and waited for his body to adjust to the temperature. With a shiver, he released the chill and opened his eyes. The woods looked blue now, and the gaps in the treetops allowed the moonlight to draw designs on his jeans. He moved his hands in and out of the rays, changing the shapes of the shadows on his legs and the shimmering rock beneath them.

He settled into his space, and although his pain found its way through every inch of him, his soul was momentarily hushed. The sound of his steady breath focused his attention away from everything else. Every now and then, the water licked at his feet, and each time it did, he smiled at its delicate attempts to reach him. It was in such stark contrast to the way he felt. There was nothing delicate about him this last year. He ached constantly. His legs gave out on him, causing him to crumble into a mess of a man in front of his loved ones. He cried all the time, even when he tried not to. It was agony. Every moment of every day. And he could never make them see or feel or understand why he could not get past it. Despite their love, he was alone. Shut in with this thing that had stolen his body, had a grip on his mind, and was reaching for his heart.

The tears came then, and even as he felt his medication coming upon him, he reached into his inside coat pocket for the beer he had brought along. It was a task getting it open, but once he did, his tongue and his throat welcomed the taste eagerly. To be numb was what he wanted – what he needed – and he gulped the liquid down before it could fill his mouth. Wishing he had brought more than one, he placed the empty can next to him and searched for his cigarettes. They were not in this left pocket and not in his right. He looked backwards up the steep slope and sighed with the realization that the cigarettes were still in his truck. His medication was in full force now, and the beer rushed it through his system and to his head. There’d be no way he could get up the hill and back down with the cigarettes. Even though he longed for the further high of the nicotine rush, he resigned himself to being without it.

His beer empty and his cigarettes absent, he was left with nothing but the company of the woods and the water. He looked across the river into the darkness and imagined a family camping there. His family. It had rained on them that day (it had almost always rained when they camped), and his wife and daughters were huddled close to the campfire drying off as he gathered more wood. They were young. He was young. There were hotdogs, marshmallows and burnt shoes. There was laughter.

It had been so long now since he laughed. Although there were brief moments of happiness, the pain would quickly chase them away like a jealous lover, and he would be left reaching. His memories were his solace. This monster inside him could not erase the strength he once had or the joys he had known before it arrived. He no longer questioned why this was happening to him. Acceptance had been a sympathetic friend, and he held tight to the pieces that could not be destroyed. He lived inside himself where he could still fish with his brothers, ride his motorcycle with the love of his daughter clasped tightly around his waist, or sit comfortably wrapped in the familiar grace of his wife.

He knew, however, that to live like this was hurtful to those that loved him. In order to find peace, he had to turn so far inside of himself that he could not be reached. His family needed him, and he could not be there. He could see them searching for him, wanting him the way he was. He was letting them down, and that was tearing at the final few shreds of his being. If he believed in anything anymore, he would pray for peace and wish for the way things used to be.

The wind kicked up, and he drew his denim jacket tight around him. The breeze knocked the branches together above him and created supple, even ripples in the water. He listened to its softness, and he was quieted. He sat still for a long time and let the ache ebb and flow with the medication and the beer. Something warm blanketed him, and he let his eyes close.

When he opened them, there were waves of swirling colors in the air. He pressed his palms to his eyes and rubbed them, but the colors only grew more vivid. Something brushed his cheek and he reached and caught it. It was a feather. Confused, he looked around. He saw the rock where he had been sitting, only now its shimmer was even more brilliant. There were feathers everywhere – on the trees, on the ground, and all around him.

The situation was surreal, and he thought maybe his medication mixed with the alcohol was causing some abnormal side effects. He raised his hands up in front of him, waved the feathers apart, and poked at the swirling hues of light. When he did this, his fingers changed colors as though he’d dipped them in paint. It felt so good that he dipped in his whole hands and waved them around. The sensation was the most wonderful thing he’d ever felt. It was warm; it was thrilling; it was comforting. But most of all, it was painless. He could move and bend and grip his hands in ways he had not been able to do for a long time.

He looked over his shoulder at the river’s edge, which now seemed as gray and flat as an old photo. There were cracks in his view, and he knew he no longer belonged there. He turned back toward the colors’ brilliance, and they beckoned him forward. Closing his eyes, he walked ahead and immersed himself fully. When he did, the colors exploded as though he were a match that lit them afire.

And then he understood. He understood it all. The love he knew, the love he questioned, the love he’d lost, the love he thought he never had – it all burned bright inside of him and all around him. There was nothing but love, ever and forever.

His pain turned to ashes around his feet. And there was peace.