The Birch Trees Like Whale Bones

Bodies retrieved from the water can only be beautiful to those who have loved them long enough to take those bodies for granted.  And only then when enough time has passed so you’ve bartered with the universe—just a glimpse, please, no matter how awful.  I looked at my husband Sean’s bloated, discolored face, twisted in the terror of hypothermic shock and suffocation—a face so unlike any he ever wore, but I saw the man I loved.

I had been visiting my sister Jennie in Nashua the Friday night he fell through.  Of course we spoke about Sean then.  It didn’t seem substantial at the moment, just conversation, but I have to look back on that as the last time I talked about him without knowing he was gone.  Like how the moon might feel when it looks down on us with memories of Pangaea, before the world exploded into what it is today.

In hindsight I feel I should have had some sense of what was happening, but after dinner and a board game, and her husband’s incessant talk about politics, and a third glass of wine, I drifted off to sleep without giving Sean a second thought.

I called on Saturday morning and left him a message, saying I’d be going shopping with Jennie and planned to be home in the evening.  Sean and I weren’t one of those couples who felt compelled to call each other frequently, so when I didn’t hear back, I thought nothing of it.

It gets dark around 4:30 this time of year, so the sun had disappeared and the moon was on the rise when I pulled into the driveway, the snow piled in mounds around the front door and the garage.  The lights were on.

“Hello,” I called, walking in the door and heading straight for the bathroom.

And then, not hearing a response, I walked to the bedroom, the upstairs bathroom, the den, checking the usual places in the way you look for keys or the remote control. I dialed his cell phone, his work number, his mother.  It wasn’t like him to be gone like this.

I put my jacket back on and went outside.  Sean was an outdoorsy guy, constantly cross-country skiing, snowshoeing.  He was fifty-three years old and still made snow forts.  Me, I’m more of a spectator when it comes to that.  I don’t like to break a sweat once the temperatures drop below freezing, but I do enjoy watching Sean.  We have a little shed where he keeps all of his supplies.  My heart warned me about opening the door.

It’s kind of a disaster, the shed:  a heaped assortment of lawn tools, half a croquet set, and the myriad snow and water sports paraphernalia one acquires.  But I saw immediately what was gone, and without shutting the door I jogged down to the shore.

Bathing the surface of the ice in pale white, the moon stood high, illuminating the wide expanse of river.  I didn’t see a hole.  I guess it had closed up and been dusted by the powdered snow floating from pines and cedars.  What I did see were his shoes, sitting patiently by the old folding chairs we keep on the edge of the river to help the transition from terra firma onto the slippery frozen sheet.

I never knew Parks departments had their own chaplains.  What their day-to-day consists of is beyond me, but when somebody lives up the road from a state park, and when that person’s hundred and eighty pound husband decides to skate on ice capable of holding up only half that amount, and when they begin conducting a man hunt even though everybody and their brother knows the man being hunted is not lost in the woods, the Parks chaplain pays that man’s wife a visit.  It was day two when the Reverend Brian Wolthsinger knocked on the door.

“Mrs. O’Neil?” he asked.

“Call me Kathleen.”

He introduced himself as a chaplain, but I was unable to see anything beyond his black garb and windbreaker.  He looked like a DEA agent.  More accurately, he looked like an accountant dressed up as a DEA agent for Halloween.  Although he was thin in general, he had a pudgy neck, no jaw line, and oval wire-rimmed glasses.

“I just want you to know I’m here, if you need me,” he said with what may have been a sympathetic tone but which couldn’t have sounded more clichéd to me at the time.  I finally noticed the collar beneath his fat neck.  Later he would tell me he was a Unitarian Universalist, which to be fair, is about the same as being a heathen atheist like me.  I wasn’t in the mood to be fair at the moment though.

“I’m sorry,” I told him, “but I don’t think we’ll be needing your services.”  And vanilla as that was, I could still feel my hackles rising and my pulse begin to race, and I was sure he could see my eyes challenging him to defend not only his religion, but the concept in general.  I was sure he would pick a fight like a door-to-door missionary, but instead he nodded politely and said he’d be on his way.

“Hang on,” I said.  “You drove all the way out here; at least let us offer you a brownie or something.”

I think Sean’s aunt Maura, seeing the collar enter, breathed a sigh of relief.  I saw her sidle up to Reverend Brian and while I couldn’t hear what she said, the look on her face when I saw him say Unitarian was priceless.

Reverend Brian did the dishes.  Friends and relatives were bringing over a feast, every casserole you could imagine, and the serving plates, forks, and wine glasses piled up all day long.  Perhaps it’s the irrelevance of his profession, or perhaps it’s exactly why he exists, but the Reverend Wolthsinger had a lot of time on his hands to help out with the cleaning.

“I really don’t mind,” he said when Jennie told him to take a break.  “I broke my hand once, about fifteen years ago.” He paused, “I guess maybe twenty now.  Anyway, I broke it and had to have this cast for six weeks.  Couldn’t shower without a bag, couldn’t go swimming, nothing.  When I got the cast off, my hand was so stinky, I washed it there in the hospital sink for five minutes straight, and then again when I got home.  The water felt so good I realized washing dishes in sudsy water is a kind of pleasure that should be illegal.”

Damned if he wasn’t a strange bird.

“How’d you break your hand, Reverend?”

“Please,” he smiled. “Brian is just fine.”

“OK, Brian,” I said.  “Same question.”

“Promise not to tease?” Brian asked.

“I promise nothing.”

“Fair enough.”  He dried his hands and leaned back against the counter. “I got dumped by this girl I was seeing.  Actually, we weren’t really going out, but I thought we were, and when she cleared it up I felt humiliated.  I remember thinking I should punch the wall, you know, like in a movie.  It wasn’t all that impulsive, but it might’ve been better if it had been, because after thinking it out I decided if I punched the wall part I’d make a hole.  So I punched the door frame instead.”

“Wow,” I said.

“Stupid, I know.”

“And that’s when you swore off women and took up the cloth?”

“Not quite.” Brian said, looking at his shoes.  “Anyway, it was embarrassing.  I drove myself to the hospital, trying to think up some lie, but the ER nurse immediately knew what was up before I could explain.  A boxer’s fracture, she called it, and I thought that was an optimistic diagnosis.  She told me most of the people she saw with it weren’t boxers.”

“And then you had to wear a cast for a month and tell everyone about your pugilistic exploits?” I laughed; mean as it was, I laughed for the first time since coming home because imagining a young pudgy-necked Reverend Brian getting fired up enough to physically assault a door jamb was the most absurd thing I’d ever heard.

The next day he was over around lunchtime.

“Any updates?” he asked.

I ushered him in and offered him aunt Maura’s quiche.

“Nothing.” I sighed.  “Except we all know what’s what, don’t we?”

Brian looked at his hands, then up at me.  “And how are you doing, Kathleen?”

How was I doing?  I had a constant gnawing at my stomach that destroyed my appetite despite the sickeningly fragrant smell of half a dozen roasts and lasagnas and cakes filling up the dining room.  There was a constant feeling of disbelief followed by the crushing realization of the truth.  I knew there was just about no way he could still be alive, but there was one little part of me that kept expecting him to stroll over the hill with a story about a fall and amnesia and a kindly neighbor who nursed him back to health.

Brian must have seen all that play across my face.  “I don’t have a great spiel for you about this kind of thing.” I started to interrupt but he held up a hand, “Not that you’d want one anyway.  All I can say is we’re taking it one day at a time.  There’s not a lot of hope, but it isn’t hopeless either.  I won’t insult you by offering you the comforts of the church,” we both chuckled, “but, as a friend, I’ll be here if you want to talk about anything.”

I didn’t tell him how earlier that morning the police department had called and offered to send over a social worker to do presumably the same thing Brian was doing.  I’d let that officer know I was fine with the folks from the Parks Department, and they could save their social worker for whatever horrors they already had on their plate.

“We had this joke, Sean and I, about how we planned to haunt the other after we died.”  Brian mopped the kitchen floor, waving off my efforts to help.  “If I died first, I was going to change his radio from sports talk to NPR, so every morning when he started the car he’d get a blast of Morning Edition instead of the Celtics score.”

“A sports fan, eh?”

“You’d think he played for the team, the way he always talked about, ‘when we won this,’ or ‘we need a better rebounder.’” I sighed. “And he always said if he went first his ghost would wander through the kitchen at night leaving cabinets open.”

Brian gave me a look over his shoulder.

“I don’t know why it drove me crazy, but the man just couldn’t remember to close a pantry door.  I’d walk in and it would look like we were moving or something.”

Brian laughed.  “Anything else?”

“Not really.  I guess we didn’t put a lot of thought into it.  As atheists we don’t put much thought into the Great Beyond.  What’s the Unitarian platform on afterlives anyway?”

Brian rested the mop against the wall.  “Nothing official,” he said spreading his hands.  “We don’t preach fire and brimstone, but we’re not averse to heaven and/or ghosts.”

The days of the manhunt passed like the final miles of a marathon.  Never had getting through a day been more difficult, but at the same time some biochemical mercy dialed my brain down to its most basic level of functioning.  Left foot.  Right.  Again.

Attendance was sparse on the fourth day.  People had to check back into their real lives, and so I was forced to survive off the leftover casseroles stacked in the fridge.  I made a cup of tea and sat by the window, looking off toward nothing in particular.  It looked cold outside.  The sky was white and the snow was white and the ice was white and the trees were brown.  Every once in a while a squirrel would dart across the lawn and up a tree, but otherwise, the morning passed in still silence.

Sean never got lost.  Me, I couldn’t find my ass in the dark with both hands if you spotted me a flashlight, but Sean had a natural sense of direction, like those birds with iron in their noses that acts like some sort of innate compass.  He loved to wander off into the woods, and if you watched him his eyes would be up in the tree branches the whole time, his feet never tripping over rock or root.

We’d only been on a couple of dates the first time I went hiking with him.  We got a late start for some reason or another, but he was still sure we could do the trail before dusk.

I had been under the impression we would be following a trail from start to finish, so Sean surprised me when, seemingly at random, he stopped and looked into the forest.  A patch of ferns grew along side the trail, and the light came through the canopy at an angle.

“I hope it’s still here,” he said.

This was early spring, so not everything was in full bloom.  We walked between the trees, him a little before me, and his hands reached out and gently touched the buds on the branches we passed.

When we got to what he was talking about, I stared.  An ice storm had crushed a stand of birch trees, removing their branches and bowing them over at rounded angles.  The white tree trunks made the shape of the ribs of a whale carcass whose bones had been bleached by years of sunlight, whose spine and head could’ve been hidden under the mounds of dirt.  It was one of the most beautiful things I think I’ve ever seen.

We sat down on a rock and ate some trail mix he’d packed.

“So they’re pretty much done,” I said, “the trees?”

“‘Fraid so,” he said. “No coming back from that.” Some of the trees nearby had snapped in half; it was incredible these had bent the way they did.  “Birch is a flexible wood, so the branches snap off because they’re thin, but the trunk can withstand quite a bit before it falls.”

“It’s amazing.”

Sean nodded. “Hell of a way to go.  It’s just a shame it’s so far out here no one but us will probably ever see it.”

The sixth day passed the hardest.  We had all expected to hear by then, each of us in one way or another preparing ourselves for the body to be found.  But after six days, we began to wonder:  surely they would have come up with something by now, right?

I stayed in bed until noon.  Normally, I’m up with the sun, and even if I want to sleep in, I’m too antsy around seven and shuffle downstairs for a cup of coffee and the paper.  But that day, I slept a shallow yet paralytic sleep, dappled with occasional sounds of family coming in and stirring around downstairs.  I thought, This is too fucking much for a person to deal with.  Every part of me ached.

I thought with jealousy of those good little Christian soldiers who could at least comfort one another with God’s plan, thoughts of heaven.  Gone is gone.  In the same way you didn’t exist for an eternity of years before you were born, so you didn’t exist after you died.  But all those fools had the morphine of their faith in times like these while I was left with raw nerves and open eyes.

Voices from downstairs began to congeal into actual words, and tilting my head, I heard, “It’s not like her to be up there this late, someone needs to check on her.” That would be Sean’s aunt Maura.

“OK, that’s all fine and well.  But I’m not sure I’m the most appropriate person, ma’am,” Brian replied.

I heard Maura’s heavy footsteps stalk away to the den.  Then from the kitchen a moment later I heard the sound of dishes clattering in the sink.

“I think your aunt wants me to bring you into the fold,” he told me when I sidled up next to him to dry.

“You don’t sound very preacherly when you say things like that.”

He shrugged.  “I’m a Unitarian.”

“Right,” I said.

He turned toward me. “This must be difficult for you, drawing on like this.” 

“Last night I dreamed they found the body,” I told him. “And when I woke up and realized he was still missing, I was disappointed.”  I dried my hands off, put the towel on one of the drawer knobs.  “The one percent of me that feels he might still be out there, alive, is eating through the rest of me.  The weird thing was, I thought about praying.”

“Really?”

“Just for a second. I always scoff when people say, ‘No atheists in a fox hole.’ But there it was.”

“People of faith do the same thing in reverse, doubt God or Purpose or however you choose to look at it, wonder what it all means.” Brian drained the sink. “I think it’s just a part of being human.  And as for the manhunt, it can’t go on forever.  You’ll get an answer soon, I’m sure.”

Later that night, after everyone left, I wandered from room to room, tidying here, putting things away there, just trying to keep my hands busy until I could fall asleep.  I walked into the kitchen where someone had left the glasses cabinet open.  I sat down and wept.

Seven days passed before they found him washed up about a quarter mile down the river.  He’d gone under and the current beneath the ice had carried him into the state park. Sometimes you hear people talk about how the worst part is the not knowing, but you know.  What they mean is the battle your conscience wages against itself, its two primary weapons, truth and delusion, capable of inflicting enormous casualties.

I am entitled to my anger.  Why would he do something so reckless and stupid for the sake of, what, the beauty of the moment?  Why do existentialists feel the need to so grossly disfigure themselves in death, always crashing into things, or catching fire, or falling from great heights?

I felt compelled to understand it.  Kneeling beside his bloated body with these tears so free and sharp and the air rushing into my nostrils and pluming out of my mouth.  Seven days ago, Sean walked down the gentle slope from our back door to the river.  Few things in the world are as black and white as this night.  The pale moonlight washes out colors the sun embellishes all day.  Birch bark and patchy snow, icicles drip lazy like yawns stretching after sleep.  And the stars, so many goddamn stars.  He must’ve felt like he could breathe them in, making himself dizzy looking up as he took those first three or four strides toward the center of the river.

[This story originally appeared in the 2013 edition of The Labletter.]