After the funeral the husband sat on a bench near the cemetery, folding and unfolding a slip of paper he’d found. He watched squirrels and waited. He considered sleeping on the ground, waiting for the grass to grow and cover him, but the only thing he really wanted to do was go home, so he did.
On the way through the town, he watched the houses of his neighborhood come into view; they grew taller as he grew closer, as if they were stretching to meet him. He pictured his wife fainting, falling to her knees on their soft new rug, glad to have him back. “Don’t cry,” he’d say, “I’ll make dinner. How about that?” He was scared, had been scared since he first met her. One of the few things he could remember, now that he was older, was the day he proposed. She had worn a long blue scarf wrapped around her throat, and the wind threw bits of leaves over her hair. She was so beautiful she did not seem real; he worried, when he started to ask the question, when she started to unwrap her scarf, that her head would fall and he would not be able to repair it, would wander the earth carrying it for the rest of his life.
But it did not fall, and instead he repaired many other things over the years in their home. Most of the time he fixed simple things, like the chain to the handle of the toilet, because he didn’t want his wife to slip her hand into the cold, sour-smelling water. Another time, months into their marriage, his wife imagined their bedroom with another room inside it, so that she could sit and read, or sit and think, without being bothered by the rest of the house. So he moved clothes from their small closet, took down walls and built new ones. When he finished, their closet was empty and ready to fit his wife, the old pink chair she liked, and three small shelves for books or other things. He worried about her eyes and put in an egg-shaped window to let in the light.
He thought of this, his general handiness and her old loveliness, and could not understand why she would want him gone. He walked toward their neighborhood, which pressed against and in some cases obscured the pear trees across the road, and tried to remember which houses he’d helped build. It was harder and harder for him to picture the families he’d worked for when the town was younger. Of course, this was before the wives began leaving, or just after it started, and no one thought it would happen to them. At that time everyone could look out their windows and watch the pear trees’ flowers give way to fruit; there was nothing to block the view.
The husband passed a man who looked familiar but strange, the way someone real changes to someone else in a dream – only their way of moving or speaking stays the same. They passed each other on the sidewalk: the husband nodded his head and the other man did the same.
“You think there’s any snow coming this way?” the man said.
“Hard to tell,” the husband said. The clouds had turned gray, then lighter and lighter, until the sky was so white everyone’s eyes strained to see it, and no one could tell whether it was empty or full. The two men stood for a moment together, trying to judge the weight of the sky and whether or not it would hold.
As the husband approached the top of the hill near his street, he thought he’d worked long before with the man on a house. The husband had been in construction two or three years when the man came on the job, younger, his face plain and open as a boy’s. On breaks the men ate sandwiches and drank coffee, and this boy talked on about his high school track records, how he could run as fast as he could raise a wall. Finally the husband asked him to race, tired of the bragging. The husband stretched his legs and wiped his hands on his pants, which had once been the blue of his wife’s scarf, then faded with sun and sawdust and sweat. He thought he’d win and tell his wife about it that evening, but he started out too fast, and he lost. There were no hard feelings. The other men called him old for a while, and he allowed them that.
He wondered if this man remembered him, too. The man probably thought the recognition would cause embarrassment, or he no longer wanted to flaunt his youth in the face of an old man. No one wanted to ask the questions the husband was prepared to answer, the ones he’d practiced: What happens to the body? It is the same body; those bones are not your own. They are only placeholders, for people who need to imagine you in the ground. What about pain in knees? What about the soul? Knees still hurt. Hips still feel like wood that needs to be sanded. But then you just step away for a bit, give it a rest. Fold the body up so it won’t wrinkle, leave it on a chair. Or somewhere harder to reach, if you don’t want the cat sleeping on it. The soul is the part that doesn’t need to remember what it’s like to slip on warm socks or eat a good steak; it’s very small. See that ant carrying another ant? Something like that.
Instead they asked about the weather, and he still had no idea about the weather. Or they asked where his wife was, why she was not with him, and he couldn’t answer that either. When he finally reached home, stood on their porch and rang the bell, his wife did cry. But all she said was, “You have to leave.” He sat next to her on the couch and watched her watch TV. His first regret about coming home was that he could not turn it off and tell her about his day, or at least change the channel.
After that night, his wife refused to speak to him. When she began to cry, which was usually after dinner, between hospital dramas and the news, he walked quietly to the bathroom and shut the door. This happened more often than he had allowed himself to imagine, and he did not enjoy it. After a week of this he began taking walks around the neighborhood in the evenings, avoiding his wife entirely. He waited for her to scream at him and leave for good, but she didn’t.
Other wives like her had disappeared from town much earlier in their marriages, sometimes two or three in a week. One minute they were in their gardens, pinching dead buds, or even tilting their heads to meet their husbands’ lips, and the next they weren’t there at all. The husbands opened their eyes, leveled their heads, and grasped at air. But the men kept on, some waiting for their wives to return, some trying to forget them all together. The ones who kept their wives slept nervously, and each night prayed that the women would remain in the morning. They taught their daughters to grasp solid things – fence rails, walls, trees – and they taught their sons to be solid men.
The truth was the wife did not want to leave him, but she had been waiting, hoping he would leave her. She couldn’t say why she’d married him, because she could no longer make sense of what she’d wanted when she was young. Her friends had married at the same time, but they had been lucky: they told her of waking up one morning and loving their husbands, after a year or two. In some cases they had to wait longer, until their tenth or twentieth anniversaries. It seemed to the wife they must have swallowed devotion like spores from the air, and it had grown inside them. Though she never asked, she began to suspect her husband had been lucky in this way, too. They were approaching their thirtieth year together, and she had started breathing deeply to encourage love.
One night, when the husband left the house to wander the neighborhood, the wife brought her dinner to the room inside her room. A piece of bread floated in a sea of cauliflower and broth, but she couldn’t bring herself to eat it. She pressed the side of her face against the window. It smelled like frost and made her cheek clammy, as if from fever. She decided to call her mother.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” her mother said. “He always was a needy man. That time you were in the hospital, that pneumonia, he didn’t know what to do with himself. After visiting you, he was here, wanting to take me to get a hamburger.”
“Maybe he’s angry because we never had children. He wishes we had,” the wife said.
“He needs a job. Let him do some work if he’s going to sit at home, sulking all the time,” her mother said.
The wife sat in the room until her bowl of soup was a soggy hill of bread and her fingers were cold from holding her glass of water. She put on her coat and rubbed her hands together and ate her soup. When she finished, her husband was sitting on the couch with his head in his hands.
“How long have we lived together?” he said, not looking up.
She looked at him and saw essentially the same man she had married, but shrunken slightly, his skin looser. It was as close as she’d come to love, this ability to see her husband despite all the changes over the years. She thought of all the times she had wanted to leave him and decided not to count. “A long time,” she said. In the morning the wife stapled signs to street posts and grocery store bulletin boards, next to ads for weight loss and pet-sitters: Good home for children – no questions asked. She knew there were fathers in the town left alone with their daughters, unsure what to do with them.
The next day, going out to get the mail, the wife noticed the sky seemed to have gotten heavier; it bowed in the distance, hid the tops of the tallest pine trees. Then, at the end of the driveway, she saw a little red-haired girl sitting cross-legged, tracing shapes in the air with her fingers. The girl was dressed like a gift: she wore a ruffled, green dress that fanned out around her on the concrete. The wife kneeled to adjust the white ribbon tied around the center of the girl’s head, her hair combed away from her face and shoulders. “What is your name and would you like to come inside?” she asked. The girl did not speak. She opened her hands and closed them, which the wife understood as a yes. She picked her up and carried her to the door, this thin but heavy girl who must have been five or six, and she lowered her to the floor of their house, smoothing the wrinkles of the girl’s dress with her hands.
“See,” she said to her husband, “don’t you remember your daughter?”
“Yes, I’d forgotten our child,” he said, though he thought they had passed the possibility of those years some time ago. “That’s right, she has your neck. It’s going to be long and graceful, you can tell,” he said, though what he really wanted was to be alone with his wife, like they had always been.
The husband knew that when his wife chose to lie, she usually made a nice dinner, so that he would smell meat baking in the oven or onion softening in oil before he entered the house. On their first anniversary, he’d walked in on her kneading dough, her hands dusted with flour. She had never made a meal before. At the dinner table, he halved his roll and slid butter across it, marveling at his wife’s unexpected usefulness in the kitchen. He could never guess what the lie would be; it was always a surprise. That first lie was something so small he’d forgotten it.
So when he returned from his walk the night after the girl came, he knew something was wrong: his wife wore an apron, and the girl sat at the table, playing with the napkin in her lap. His wife brought them each slices of pie before she sat down with a piece for herself, and he noticed her hand was bare, wedding-ringless.
Later he discovered the ring was not lost down the sink with the soap from her hands; it was wrapped in a tea towel, set in the second drawer of her nightstand.
“It made the most awful pain,” she said when he brought it to her. “I woke in the middle of the night and it had tightened around my finger like a belt, so I took it off. ‘My ring!’ I remember I cried out, trying to get it over my knuckle, but you didn’t wake up.” She said this as if it were his fault for sleeping through her pain. She said, “It must have grown too small.”
He thought he did remember waking up, but he hadn’t heard his wife cry. When he opened his eyes to find her, she was asleep, curled into herself like a woman who’d just received bad news. He put his hand on her back and suddenly felt far away; it was as if he was looking at her from the beginning of a long hallway, and she lay at the end, a sleeping dot. By morning this had been mixed up with his dreams, so that he did not think of it again until she said of her ring, “It must have grown too small,” and then the feeling of distance came back to him, the image of his wife shrinking before him, until she too was the size of the ring, and he no longer fit her.
As soon as his wife shut her ring in a drawer, he began losing his. The ring would fly off his finger at the smallest gesture – folding a section of the newspaper or pulling off his socks at night. Finally he put it in his drawer with other metals, paperclips and nails and old coins found at construction sites. His wife didn’t put her ring back on, and they lived like that, married and without symbol to prove it.
He began taking the girl on walks, which started earlier and earlier in the day, once his wife retreated to her room. He was glad the girl was older, because he could take her outside without people saying, “Look at the dead man walking his baby!” which seemed to him the saddest sentence in the world.
From the house they walked up the hill, stopping to look at pretty rocks or dead snakes. From the top, they could see the pear orchard, though the trees were stripped and black against the white sky. He could also see the tip of the Hatina house beyond the trees, a great three-story monument a man had dreamt up to bring his wife back once she’d gone. The husband remembered that house more than the others he’d built – he’d spent many days working on its roof, looking across the pear trees toward his own house, though he couldn’t pick it out. He was the oldest among the other workers, then, and he no longer challenged anyone to anything; during the day he listened to the younger men talk, those who were married and those who had run out of women to choose. Two trusses came together over the middle of the structure, an outline of the roof, and once he’d knelt in that valley, thinking of all the lives that would pass through the finished house, future ghosts in the empty space below. But he’d doubted Hatina’s wife would return because of the house. He hadn’t heard of any of them returning, though he liked to think that if his wife left, he could bring her back. He wouldn’t build her something she didn’t need. He’d knock down the walls of their home like he did when they’d married, and he’d take everything away but her room with the egg-shaped window. And then one of the workers on the ground had yelled up to him, and he stood, hoping his wife was there, thinking she had come to take him home, and before he fell he thought he saw her, small and then larger, closer, coming up the gravel path in the field where the men had parked, her old blue scarf a scratch across the sky.
But the husband realized, standing there on the hill with the girl, that he couldn’t have seen his wife, because he hadn’t told her when they tied the trusses to the walls; she didn’t know that the house was a complete skeleton, ready to be filled in. He sat on the ground next to the girl and pointed to the trees. “They look dead now, but in spring, there will be fruit,” he said. The girl lowered her head. She smelled like grass and milk.
“How?” she said, so softly he at first thought it was the wind.
“They’re only resting,” he explained.
The morning after their walk, the husband woke to the girl shaking his shoulder. “Outside!” she said and pointed to the window. The sky had broken open, finally. His wife shut the door of the room within her room. He knocked once and leaned into the door. “It’s snowing,” he said. “I thought you might want to go to the orchard. It’ll all be white.”
“I should go to the store,” the wife said. “We’ll need food before the weather gets worse.” Fill the cabinets with bottled water, canned goods, and candles, they’d said on the news. Every winter the storms seemed to last longer, and without her husband to shovel a path from the door to the road, there would be no visitors, no need for her to leave the house. When he’d died she’d imagined sitting in the room inside her room as the snow fell, drifted up to her knees, as it had done the winter before, then up to her window, maybe even her neck. She could turn on her gas stove and boil water, steep a handful of hibiscus leaves to a sour purple and wait. She hadn’t felt like cooking in years; she’d no longer have to.
Once she had made a hundred lasagna noodles, a day’s work. The sweet smell of roasted garlic hugged the neighborhood. She rolled the noodles thin as paper and painted each one with a red wine sauce. At dinner she promised her husband she was fine, the entire world was fine. She didn’t say the baby she thought she’d wanted had gone from her body as if it had never meant to stay, that she’d wept into the lasagna as she assembled it. The sheets of pasta were nearly transparent in her hands. She’d arranged strips of dough on the counter as she cut them, pretending they were a row of streamers for a birthday party.
Now the thing she thought she’d lost sat on the floor of the living room, running her fingers through the carpet so that it appeared striped: dark, light, dark, light. The girl didn’t look sad or happy or surprised to be in their home.
The wife looked at each of them before leaving; there was almost wonder in her look, and then she waved at them both while backing from the driveway and turning her car up the hill of their street. Neither of them waved back. They watched her taillights climb to the top of the hill, the tires cutting two lines through the coat of snow covering the road. His wife paused at the stop sign, the taillights a flash of red, and then the lights were gone, lost to the other side of the hill. The husband sat on the couch and thought of the people who lived at the bottom of the hill: His wife would be driving toward them, returning instead of leaving, and the man wished he could be there for that moment, to watch his wife’s headlights grow closer and brighter through the snow. The girl stayed at the window, fingers and forehead pressed against the glass. Despite their walks, she was as much a mystery as his wife.
The man thought if the girl gathered enough sun, she would grow taller and older, right there in front of him, and her hair would turn to petals, and her hands would turn to leaves. Maybe he would know her better by then, or maybe not at all. He thought of the one picture he’d seen of his wife as a child: she sat on a towel, her back against her mother’s bare thigh. They were both wearing swimsuits, his wife’s patterned with white daisies. The ocean, he realized, was somewhere outside the frame, and the sunlight through the lens had flared, making the center of the scene disappear into sand and sky. The mother’s raised hand shielded his wife’s eyes from the sun and cast a gray shade over her face, but he thought he could make out the shape of her mouth, her lips turned down. “Why were you upset?” he’d asked his wife when he found the picture. “Oh, it’s hard to say anymore,” she’d said. His wife in black and white, as tiny as his thumb. Proof that she existed before they met and married. He put the picture in his drawer and took it out and studied it over the years, hoping if he looked close enough he’d discover why she was sad.
The girl was about the age of his wife in the picture, her hair had just the same slight amount of curl cupping her ears, and she was there in front of him, in color. He opened his pale arms, but she would not come to him. Maybe she was his daughter; maybe she was their daughter.
That evening his wife did not come back. He fed the girl applesauce and bread. They sat at the table together and watched the snow until the streetlights through the window made pools of light around their plates. When it grew too quiet and dark, he closed the curtains so that they might imagine it light outside, as early or late in the day as they liked. He turned on the TV and they watched a show about the world and all the living things in it. They learned gazelles sometimes escape death and birds’ wings can be painted like masks. By the time he knew elephants walked through sandstorms to reach water, the girl was asleep, her hands folded on her lap, her chin tucked into the crook of the couch. He carried her from the room as he’d used to carry the cat, its back curled against his hands, paws pointed toward the ceiling. The girl’s legs fell over his left arm, and her head lolled over his right, but she didn’t wake up. He set her in the middle of his wife’s bed and returned to the couch to see if he could finally understand the history of the world. When a young elephant was separated from the rest, blinded, when it turned to follow its mother’s footsteps in the wrong direction, he looked away. His arms ached; he was old and young. Knowing he would not sleep well inside his body, he tucked it under his pillow and tried to rise above it, above his house and the girl in it, above the sleeping pear trees and over the town, but he could not see his wife.
Photo courtesy of Rick Obst; view more of his work on Flickr