Christmas is a time of joy, of well wishing and wonder. We rarely think of Christmas in the bittersweet way those left by the departure of their beloved regard it; best to avoid such contemplation so as not to call into question our own frail mortality.
It is such a marked person I speak of. One touched by loss and sorrow at the death of her husband; her other half. Such grief is all consuming, leaving a widower mourning not only the soul extinguished from this world, but also the loss of oneself too, a part of their own infra-structure fallen to ruin in the wake of the deceased, the ties binding the two abruptly severed.
She stands in front of me and regards me; stealing herself for the task ahead.
I have never had much use for vanity but I do believe I make a rather impressive sight. At just over six foot tall I cut an imposing figure and carry myself with a poise befitting my age. I listen as she chastises herself for the pine needles on the carpet caused by her over fussing.
A single tear creeps down her cheek as she begins to open the boxes diligently laid out on the floor. No longer does she possess the inclination to tackle the ceiling decorations, recalling how he would chide her come the New Year; perched atop a ladder, one hand lightly holding the ceiling for balance as he painstakingly dug the pins out.
Methodically she dresses me, tinsel brushes my trunk as decade old trinkets gleam under spotlight.
A small whimper escapes her as she autonomously reaches for the little wooden Santa driving the tram, decked out in festive red and green felt. Silently she appraises me, attempting to locate the most appropriate spot, the thick carpeting absorbing her soft treads as she steps nearer. As her shoulders drop I wrap my generous limbs around her in embrace; a lover returned.
When scrunched eyelids dare to open she steps backward in fright and trips over my many gnarled roots which peek out of the earth; remnants of humanity. Quickly my arms brake her fall, the cold snap of autumnal twigs underfoot filling the night air.
We lapse into a companionable silence, for she is unable to offer any words in the beginning. Confusion plagues her brow yet I detect her subconscious probing. She risks a furtive glance over her shoulder to aid an assessment of her newfound surroundings but remains uncertain how to engage. I do not wish to cause her undue distress, instead I opt to play coy and gently exhale, the rustling yawn of woodland.
‘Where am I?’
The untrained ear might not have detected such a barely audible question.
‘Am I dead?’
‘You are between worlds’. I hope the words offer comfort and yet she begins to cry, her damp cheeks trembling slightly.
‘This isn’t right. I should be with him’.
It is the emotion which coats the last word which guides my decision. The subject of whom she speaks being not the Almighty God she was raised to place her faith in; which has wavered in the recent past owing to her grief. Whilst there may have been prayer books and lace veils, rosary beads and hymn sheets and crosses on Palm Sunday, above all this it is him that she worships. I see his face rise in her mind, a mighty sail sheltering all the memories she cherishes most. His skin maybe weathered but the eyes remain as exuberant as the first time she placed her hand in his.
‘He has been waiting. But one cannot remain a bridge to both worlds’. It is in his direction I implore her to search.
Her colour returns as immediately she begins to imagine her distance to him dwindling. She turns around to take in the full spectacle of this place, undressed toes curling against the ground but sensing no chill. Perhaps ten or so metres from where she stands lies a river unlike any she has seen before. It appears frozen but flexes and bulges as though attempting to liberate itself from its own trappings. At first the water presents itself a beautiful azalea blue, but almost in response to her lingering gaze it seamlessly changes to a deep sapphire, its crystalline surface glistening under the moonlight. Flecks of light ignite from its depths, extinguishing only when they hit the icy crust, creating a persistent tapping against glass.
Her eyes squint, struggling to identify anything beyond the river but gradually as her eyes adjust to the deepening black, as though expecting her arrival, a small island beyond it emits a dull glow, softly illuminating itself.
Certainty grips her; he is there, she knows this through to her bones. She will not shrink away in fright, all the accumulated pain and worry of the years gone by recede as she races to the waters edge, barely registering as the ground rakes the soft flesh of her feet. A strange chattering fills the air as though the river itself were screeching to her in an unknown tongue. It generates a dense mist which clings to her clothes. Then she sees it, miraculously hovering above the fluid mass, a wooden bridge; his bridge. She knows he has crafted it just for her, whether by mind or hand remains irrelevant to her now in this place.
Quickly she covers the few metres of ground and reaches up to the guardrail, ornately decorated with the figure of an eagle clutching a fish beneath its impressive talons, a mirror image, albeit slightly larger, of the bird he carved by hand in his workshop, which now rests under an old duster in his wardrobe, propped against clothes hanging untouched since the day he left them. She pauses for a second before dismissing any doubt and hoists herself up. The wood feels warm beneath the soles of her feet and under the caress of her palms, as if basking in sunlight, just as he would hang his completed works in a sunny spot whilst the varnish dried. She notes some carvings in situ, deformed shapes with his unmistakable pencil markings and telltale signs of the chisel having recently been put to work. These misshapen sections seem to almost brood for his touch, as if the creature envisaged inside is pleading for its creator to free it from its wooden tomb.
The tapping increases to a drumming rhythm. It draws her gaze away from her explorations of the bridge and for the first time she peers over to the side to investigate the source of the noise. The mist recedes to reveal countless souls aflame, all shooting up from the unknowable depths of the river only to have their efforts thwarted by its glass ceiling, eternal screams etched upon the wasted remains of their wretched faces. A loud pop pierces the silence and steam jets from the watery grave, followed by hundreds of spiders; the nauseating sound of those spindle legs scuttling across the river’s surface instantly causing her skin to itch.
His voice carries to her now, breaking her trancelike state, her mind and legs benefitting from purpose once more. The bridge stretches endlessly before her. She fears she will forever be covering its length until finally the island can be briefly glimpsed in the distance, as though shyly revealing itself, dimly shining in the distance.
Spongy earth greets her feet. She lets his voice guide her as she knows it will, she hears the smile in it and knows he is waiting for her in this place.
She navigates her way with care, aware of the sound of her footsteps, reluctant to disturb anything such is the stillness. But it is not an oppressive place. It is then that she remembers those things scrambling out of the river and looks behind her fearful they may have followed in pursuit, but there is nothing. The bridge, the river, indeed all that was before is now gone. To her it is as though the world itself has fallen away and there is only this place, this tiny island. She does not feel fear, her concern only for him, she walks further.
Her progress is halted by the revelation of a tree the type of which she cannot discern. A glossy blood red ivy which seems to positively thrum with vitality climbs up the trunk and clings to it. Delicate blue and red veins spurt out from varying branches. Even its bark seems to be shot through in places with gold. It appears host to a multitude of microorganisms. Without warning it appears to undergo the seasons at a speed not attributable to nature. Its lushness and vibrancy giving way to autumnal colours and its beautiful white blossoms floating to the ground all around her, the most delicate snowfall, as if the tree itself were weeping.
She begins to cry, her shoulders heave with the weight of all the tears she has tried to hold back, the tears she could not let her children see. She sobs as though an infant, uncontrollably and without restraint, sat atop folded legs silently beseeching him. She stays this way for some time, until her eyes are swollen and her throat is coarse.
She had not noticed the thumping sound in her distress but slowly as she comes to her senses she pays it particular attention now, her ears straining to identify its source. She scans her surroundings again but there is no movement. Only that rich half darkness and the smell of antique earth and that gentle thumping, not dissimilar to the rhythm of a heartbeat, it reminds her of all the nights she had spent laid against his chest, being lulled to a contented sleep by that very same rhythm. The breeze gently brushes her face, strokes her cheek.
She steals herself and rises to her full height and takes in the tree once more; gripped by the ravages of winter. She watches awestruck as its branches begin to gently flex, not the natural sway caused by a strong wind, rather they probe the air until gradually turning toward her outstretched in offering. She no longer needs her faith, she practically leaps the short distance and attaches herself to the tree with all her remaining strength.
Her soul sings, projecting precious memories, stolen moments, the idle talk of would-be lovers. Their first union as man and wife, his patience and gentleness. Mapping each other’s body. The intimacy only lovers know. Instinctively her fingers curl inward intertwining the weight of his hand in hers.
When at least she opens her eyes again everything has fallen away. She is set adrift, crowded by thick darkness but she does not fear it, the atmosphere itself seems to thrum as though anticipating the break of dawn.
And then he is before her. His presence insubstantial, the image flickering; candlelight caught in the wind. With every tentative step toward him he gains substance, as though her closeness alone were sustaining him.
She pauses before taking those final steps, remembering those she has loved but content, at last unshackled from her mortality as her soul tears free of its envelope of skin and two hearts ascend into light.