Now that the end was here, she pulled her aching body from the bed. Forty-five minutes of pulling, grinding of bones and fighting taut tendons. At eight the next morning, her home help would arrive and find the bed stained and cold and empty.
She left her gnarled stick beside the bed. This journey she would take on her own legs, creaking and weak as they were. Swollen ankles would carry her far enough. She didn’t need a jacket either. It would only rub at the sore on her shoulder, only make it bleed and itch and burn.
Nothing to hold. She paused in the dark hall. How odd to go out alone. How wrong to venture out with nothing. Her husband had always carried her handbag when he was still there, but since then she had become used to it on her shoulder, even if it was mostly empty. Her children made her carry a phone now, a panic button too. Everywhere she went, they wanted to come. She had agreed because it bored her to argue, bored her to say the same thing again and again. I’m me, I’m me, I’m me. It made her eyes dry, and she hated when her eyelids felt like gravel.
At the door, she picked up an old bear. It had been important once. It had belonged to one of the children. Or maybe the dog. Whoever it was had loved it well. It had a beady eye missing and a fold over the vacuum that looked like a repair she might have made. She held it close to her face. Yes, she could see the stitches there, careful but imprecise all the same. Even when she could move her fingers, she had sewed like a fisherman. She had put it back together for someone. Or maybe just to keep the stuffing in.
But she took it anyway. Out there to the woods. Just something to hold in the dark.
The night was all black, but she knew the way. Her old empty home behind her, the path to the woods beyond. Small steps to the end. Her limbs rejected these movements, and the joints seized. She toppled, slowly, almost ridiculously slowly, to the ground. Another eternity wasted on climbing back to her feet, one now turned away, a lookout.
Down to the trees then, pulling this odd limb behind like an obstinate child. This was the spot. Once she, her husband and the children had had family picnics here. It had felt like it was theirs, their hideaway. And when they had brought the children, they had made it full and noisy, and spilt fizzy fruit juice into the ground and she would always end up standing in it, bare feet coated in sugar. She would stick to her shoes all the way home and still then until the children were asleep and she could run the bath. He had always joined her for a bath on nights like that, whispering in the candlelight.
Those had been the warmest nights.
He had told her there was water under their picnic spot too. He had held divining rods and told her it was below their feet, but she had only found children’s sugary juice. Perhaps tonight was the night. It was her last chance anyway. She thought it would be hard to leave the world, but this wasn’t hard. Living had become hard, without purpose, without him. But she would take the path after him now and see him beyond.
It was here where they had laid the blanket, under this old tree. How nice to lie here again in the cold wet grass, the bear in the crook of her wasted arm. Without the tincture, she could feel the green under her fingers. They had been a long time numb, and fumbling – forgetting how to hold, good only to be held.
How sweet to lay her head here. The great canopy filled with shifting moonlight sheltered her, adorned her with spinning vital fruits from their own bodies. How warm in their hollow. She pulled on the buttons of her nightgown; her calcified joints unable to work them, she resorted to wrenching them free. A light pearly round rolled down her bare stomach and into the grass. A tear.
How good to be free, to leave life behind.
She was luminous then. Maybe she was the moon, feeling the tides inside her. She felt the river below. He had been right all along. Perhaps she would feel its cool waters soon.
Her stomach swelled before her, heavy with life again. She could feel creatures moving as the children had, swirling up and down. Heat rising and falling at her core. How good to nourish.
She was so still that the forest came to her. Foxes, timid of man, snuck into the hollow to lick under her chin, gnaw at her soft jowls. How she had hated to see that soft flesh fall, to look so much like her own grandmother but, here, these red beasts loved it, nuzzled it, nipped at it. She was the queen of small carnivores. A feast.
She was so buoyant and so full. When had she last felt so light? Her body wrinkleless and plump as when she was a child.
She was the only island in the sea and even the water was hers alone. She was the waves, a great rush of life. She caught in gleaming pools in the grass. Her sweep made the blades sway and twitch, and swept insects out into the world. She had shaken free of the cage, left it there white against the dark rich soil. There, where a great tree might grow now, to mark the spot where she had been.
Now she was spread wide under the trees, dancing in rivulets towards the river. Down, down to the water. Here it was, just like he said, but huge now, a rushing artery.
She dipped a drop into the water and felt it carried away, faster than she had moved in decades. When was the last time she had run? When had she last danced? This grotto was dark, too far from the moon for light, but soon she would flow out to the sea and the sun would shine on the waves like thousands of flickering candles.
Time to be swept away, then.
Heather Palmer is part of the New Voices Workshop. She was mentored by NVW Editors Tommi Sopenperä, Amanda-Marie Kale and Nicole Caratas, as well as Sonali Misra, Co-founder at The Selkie.