Friday, December 19, 2014

The Last Christmas


Early Christmas morning, Edward kissed Helen’s hand, just as he had on their honeymoon fifty-four years earlier, and laid it back on her chest. His thumb brushed the heart-shaped birthmark on the side of her throat. For a painful second, he believed his eyes when they told him her faint lashes had fluttered on her cheek. He knew it wasn’t so.
 
His Helen was gone and had been for an hour. He sat talking to her after her final soft exhalation of breath, holding her hand and ignoring the way her skin lost its warmth as the minutes passed.

With tears spilling from his rheumy eyes, he explained all those days he’d risen in the morning with dark circles betraying a sleepless night.

“You always believed my excuse of insomnia—didn’t you? I was too embarrassed to tell you why I didn’t sleep…. I would lie next to you, watching the slow rise and fall of your chest on nights when the moon was full, watching your lashes flutter against your cheek while you dreamed. In the quiet, I watched you sleep, still unable to believe, after five years or ten or forty, that you had chosen me and loved me despite my bad habits and big nose and quiet ways. I never got over that disbelief, and I studied you at night to memorize the line of your jaw, the slight upturn of your nose, the precise color of your lips—afraid one day you might come to your senses and find a man without so many faults. You were too loyal for that, I know, but I watched you sleep just the same.”

Now he would have to face the nights with only the memory engraved by thousands of moonlit hours.

Edward grabbed his cane and pushed himself up from the bedside chair. The dull ache in his knees flared brighter, his hands seemed to tremble more, the color of the sunrise appeared muted and flat as he shuffled from the hospital room. Nurses offered condolences, but he hardly heard them. He made his way down to the lobby, aware that the sharp antiseptic smell had vanished from the hallways. Reaching the bus stop, he lit his pipe, but the tobacco had no flavor. Helen had taken the essence of everything with her.

 
He went through the motions of life: rising in the morning, eating at the proper times, and keeping the house neat. But the days held no meaning, and the moon illuminated nothing. More and more, Edward sat in his easy chair, staring at nothing, with no one to notice.

On a Sunday, as Edward walked home from the bus stop with his small bag of groceries in one hand and his cane in the other—going through the motions—he was woolgathering, wondering how long he would have to endure his faded imitation of life before death would finally embrace him. A weak whimper interrupted his thoughts. He paused on the sidewalk and tilted his head, thinking the noise might have come from his own lips. The cry came again, from a solitary lilac bush growing wild at the park’s edge.

He bent to see deeper into the thick shadows. Curled in the dirt, a patch of darkness whimpered again. Edward lowered himself, pushing away the pain and stiffness, until he kneeled beside the bush and parted the profusion of heart-shaped leaves. An Irish Setter puppy peered back at him. The animal trembled and whined, shrinking back.

“Here, pup,” Edward whispered. He tried to suppress the palsied tremor in his hand and held it out to the puppy.

The dog watched him with wary eyes for several minutes, gaze darting for an escape. It started to lean forward, pulled back, started toward him again. Edward kept his hand out and waited. Inching toward him, the setter stretched its neck out, and ventured a nervous lick at his hand. He let it sniff until it came out further. The puppy wagged its tail as it slinked into the gap between Edward’s legs and huddled there. The perfume of lilac came to him then, overwhelming in its dizzying sweetness.

The pup wore no collar. Edward carried it home, and made it a small bed, and cooked some food for it, grumbling that he didn’t want the burden. He told himself he had no business keeping a dog and would find her another home. He scanned the paper for days and checked the neighborhood for flyers. In case someone called, he left his name and number with the dog pound, but the phone stayed silent.

 
On the fourth day, as he sat in his easy chair and the dog lay at his feet, he felt her eyes on him. He resisted the urge to meet her gaze. Her head lay on her paws and she crept closer and closer. He wouldn’t give in. Soon she lifted her head, slow and sneaky, until it touched the hand resting on the chair’s arm. She nuzzled it and insinuated her head under it. Edward sighed and let his hand smooth the silky hair, then scratched her ear. As his hand drifted lower, she lifted her chin, asking for more. Her head tipped back, exposing her throat. For the first time, he noticed a tiny white patch there. Shaped like a heart. His resistance melted away, tears dampened her hair, and he named her Ellie.

He chastised her for getting on the bed and nosing through the trash. Ellie followed him around the house and sat patiently by the door when she needed to go out. They went on walks, neighborhood children begged to play with Ellie, and she obliged. Edward and Ellie watched old movies on Saturday nights, with her in the spot beside his chair and his hand resting on her head. She lay next to his bed every night. When he woke, he would find her soulful gaze on him, watching.

The color seeped back into the sunset. Food tasted better, and his pipe, left in its stand on the mantel for ages, found its way back into his shirt pocket. Smells returned, sounds became richer once more. Ellie brought the essence of everything back to him.
 
Early Christmas morning, Ellie snuck onto the bed with Edward. Her big dark eyes watched him sleep. And when the last soft breath left his lips, she licked his hand as it lay on his chest.

2 comments:

  1. Nice. I loved this piece. www.nairawriter.com

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  2. Thank you very much, Don - glad you enjoyed it. :)

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