He knew it was going to be one of those days.
A clap of thunder woke him from deep sleep. The tinkling on the skylight said hail, and he threw back the duvet and put his feet onto the floor. It was barely dawn but he could see, just, his way into the dressing room without electric light.
He threw a robe over his shoulders, slipped his feet into moose hide slippers lined with rabbit fur, and climbed the steps toward the living room, brushing his knuckles along the plaster in a recently acquired but already automatic gesture of balance.
Condensation on the glass obscured his view onto the terrace, and he wiped a broad swath at eye level.
There the hailstones lay, pearls among the flowers purchased yesterday, still in their trays from the nursery. Even as he watched, the ice fell more heavily, ripping a petal from one purple petunia. The pellets gathered among the various colored blossoms now, like white roe, Italian ice, fish eyes.
A streak of lightning further split the morning, thunder rolling among the hills and hail bounced noisily from the tiles . Putting his arms through the sleeves of his robe, he pulled the belt tight. He would have to go out there and slide the trays of flowers under the marble table or they would be shredded.
Warily, for he did not want to slip -that’s what happened to people his age, he thought, an image passing quickly through his mind of the lady next door, found crumpled behind the door of her bathroom – he opened the door and stepped out outside onto the terrace The tiny spheres instantly turned to slush beneath his feet, and he slid back into the dream interrupted by the storm.
Little of it remained. He was asleep in a car, then awakened by the sound of singing, someone passing along the lane under the canopy of trees, Spanish from the sound of it, soon joined by other voices, these of chattering women from the restaurant. He was sweating, it was too close in the car. Why was he sleeping there, the singer wanted to know, when there were rooms at the hotel not a hundred meters away. The fountain was dry in any case, so there would be nothing to see if that was their intention, to stroll at first light up the gorge to see the cataracts.
The cold air was invigorating, he was suddenly happy to be awake, outside, his breath misting before his face. The cardboard flats were already soaking and doubled up in his hands as he lifted them one by one to safety beneath the table. Another gust sent hail like rice at a wedding down around him, and as suddenly as it had begun, the squall was over.
The air lightened around him as a patch of blue drew his eyes upward. Mist swirled around the crags of the mountain above the village. To his quickening delight, the lifting veil of cloud revealed snow among the pines up near the peaks. He twisted around to view the highest of them, the Teig, and was rewarded with rosy illumination as sunlight touched the snow cap.
As he turned to face fully the mountain, the heel of his slipper caught in the folded-over mat which he had for years successfully avoided when outside to smoke a cigarette. He toppled backward into, of course, where else, the great round pot of flowers he had already set out last week.
And so began another day in his long, but shortening, life.
Now he tugged at the flap of toilet paper dangling from the stainless steel cover and one square came away in his hand, fringed with the glue which had held it to the roll. He reached behind the cistern where he stored extra rolls. The blue plastic loop with which you carried a twelve-pack of hygenic paper came up too light, the last roll having been the one he just finished. And this on a day when he had a black case of wine diarrhea.
After that problem was solved – he did not like to think how – while he as brushing his teeth, his elbow shoved the tube of Colgate off the edge of the basin; the inviolate laws of the universe dictated that he step on it when he bent over to rinse. The squirt on his instep startled him, causing him to bump his head on the corner of the mirror, and the damn thing, always loose on its do-it-yourself Ikea hinges, started to let go. Luckily he kept the phillips screwdriver handy, but, unluckily, it was inside the door he was wrestling with, and his fingertips could not locate it. In the end he managed with a nail file, bending its tip beyond repair.
Then coming out of the shower, he couldn’t find a towel; there was not one towel in the bathroom, neither a his nor a hers, though he could have sworn his was on the rack when he stepped under the hot needling water. She must have yanked it away while he had his head under the steaming torrent, he decided, forgetting for the moment that she was still missing. He scooted the bathmat along the floor as he left the bathroom and crossed the treacherous polished tiles of the kitchen. He took no chances with wet feet since he had a couple of years back descended the steps on his back, trying to answer the phone.
Afterward, while dressing, he caught his toes in his trouser leg and fell into the open door of the clothes cupboard; he crossed himself and put his attention onto the immediate task: to finish dressing without breaking his neck. Sitting to put on his shoes, the heel of his sock ended up on his ankle. His T shirt was backward, not to mention inside out.
He walked to his office at the foot of the garden, turned on the computer and realized he had left his spectacles in the dressing room. He retraced his steps over the uneven flagstones, up two steps to the path paved with fist sized rocks cemented into the earth. In through the back door, up two steps, left turn another step up, left again, then three steps down into the bedroom. His spectacles were where he had left them, hanging with the belts and braces. He stuffed the glasses into his shirt pocket before heading back to the office.
It was as though he had been stricken by a new virus which affected his sense of time. All the books he had read in the last three decades ran together, The Old Man and the Sea and Delillo’s Underworld inhabiting the same time zone. It was as if there was only one book every written, in thousands of segments, millions of volumes, but all of it the same continuing story. And the people he had known over the years, including historical figures of the region, all lived simultaneously in his mind. He imagined the Archduke, dead in 1916, conversing with Robert Graves, who arrived on the island in 1929. The English youth who murdered his mother in 1960 was coeval with a suicide in 1981.
At first he tried to overcome his tendency to confuse faces in the bar with folk long laid in the dry tombs up by the church. He devised a sort of calendar, assigning his memories to their corresponding years and months. It became increasingly difficult to find this calendar when he wanted to check in with reality, and finally he had to give it up and accept his lot. He was caught in a sort of doldrums, a region in the time-line of his life where winds no longer push you along, nor do they hold you back; you are merely awaiting that inevitable moment when there will be no more drinking water, no more air to breathe.
Each day he sought a place in the sun where he sat with his hands together on the head of his cane, hardly aware of the occasional passersby. Nearly deaf, short sighted and absorbed in the whirl of people in his head, he scarcely moved and then only to fetch up in a sunnier nook, or back to the wood burning in his kitchen fireplace, which he kept going winter and summer.
On this, his eightieth birthday, he stopped by the stone bowl of the fountain and let the water run over the back of first one hand, then the other. The cold stream dealt him a vision of the boy who drowned off the coast, a young friend, some said a lover, of the Archduke. He had seen a sculpture of the young man, curled beneath an angel spreading white marble wings over him.
Now he rubbed his hands dry on the legs of his trousers. Precisely at that moment, a light rain began to fall, and he slowly hurried home. Darkness fell before he put the cane under his left arm, dug into his pocket for the house key, and feeling frustrated by his age and clumsiness, finally had the door open. He stepped inside, shaking himself like a dog.
The fire was nearly out in the kitchen hearth. He laid a pair of olive branches over the coals. On the roof he heard a sudden spatter of heavier rain, short lived. Going to the glass door overlooking steps leading up to his back terrace, he flipped the light switch. The drops from the roof tiles fell onto a potted plant, innumerable leaves like green tongues wagging in the breeze. Those shaded from the light were dull green; those aslant to the light, glistening like emerald wax. Directly under the bulb, bulging drops held onto points at the tips of the leaves, single diamonds trembling under the fine shower. Along the edges, crystalline droplets gathered – she called them nunnaly bones – not quite touching, to touch is to merge and fall; and situated in the center at the base of the leaves, many wet gems clustered into a liquid sapphire brooch. The leaves tossed now as the rain intensified, pelting the earth, like applause for the jeweler of all that.
The rain set his thoughts in a direction he could not resist, try as he would. Seldom did the telephone ring, neither the land line or the cell phone which he carried in his pocket during the day, and charging by the bed at night. When a call came, in the secret corner of his heart he still hoped it might be her. If he thought about it rationally, which he still could with a little effort, he knew it could not be. It had rained the night she was lowered into her underground niche, and not long ago he had renewed the rent of that niche for another five years. Still, sometimes, when the phone rang, hope raised her briefly in his head.
Recently he had begun calling the Guardia Civil to report her as missing; the municipal police had done nothing, he would say. He had taken them a photograph, a description of the clothes he thought she was wearing when she left the house – an earth brown skirt down to her ankles, and a soft green cashmir pullover and a paisley scarf around her neck. The car is still in the parking lot, he told them. So somebody must have forced her into another vehicle. On Wednesdays she has choir practice in Palma – is this Wednesday?
“I killed my wife,” he had told the town police when they couldn’t find her. They didn’t believe him. And they never would. They knew she had died of cancer.
But he knew something they didn’t.
Ten years before he met his wife, he had had a fling with an art teacher on Long Island. She was of Armenian descent, full of life and lived in joyful promiscuity. He had received an appeal from her a few years back, asking for financial help to confront the medical bills for treatment for cervical cancer. After googling cervical cancer again and again, he was convinced. It was generally believed to be transmitted sexually.
Somewhere in Texas, they were inoculating prepubescent girls against the disease, against the wishes of the fundamentalist Christians.
Outside for a smoke before dawn, he heard an owl shriek three times. He looked in the direction of the sound, but could only see the clouds breaking up in the light of the half moon. Listening for the owl, he noticed the torrent rushing down the valley, and the siquia flowing through the tunnel behind him. It always struck him how wind, water, and fire all had the same sound. As the owl cry split the near silence again, a bright star hove over the horizon above the Teig, and he recognized all over again just how beautiful it all was. He remembered a thought from earlier in the night: look not at the light, but at what it illuminates.
What the luxurious blooming almonds reminded him of: I dropped the three new-born kittens into the pail of water. Before I could cover them with a lid, one of them swam toward the surface coughing up a white cloud of milk. I pushed the lid into the bucket and weighed it down with a round stone, shuddering.
There was still sun by the spring. He folded his neck scarf and placed it on the cement bench.
Buenos dias, señor!
The rough voice of the fishwife who lived in the alley across from the fuente brought him out of his reverie.
Muy buenos dias, señora.
She asked if he was taking the sun, as if this was not obvious. He said yes, though it would soon be gone from this spot. There is more sun on the wall further along the road, she said, as if he didn’t know every inch of this end of town. He thanked her for the information and used his cane to lift himself into a standing position, slightly stooped. A white kitten ran straight up the nearly vertical stone wall to the terrace above the fountain. Yet another generation with the peculiar genetic heritage, a stunted, twisted tail.
Ay, age brings much dolor, she commiserated, placing her hand on the small of her own back, but as my man Juan says, as long as he can get out of bed every morning, he won’t complain.
Hasta luego. She hoisted a great bundle of bed linen higher on her hip and headed for the washstand fed by the fountain. She was slapping the sheets on the flat stone incorporated into the structure when he went that way fifteen minutes later. The sun was moving now into his own garden for the last rays of this day.
His garden fed other reveries, his mind ever more easily diverted from any attempt at controlled reflection; she had tended those roses for thirty years, he could see her gathering lemons from the tree, she was herself a sort of flower constantly rising from the earth. Tears winked on his cheeks, but he was smiling.
Now the church bell began its customary second chiming of the hour. This time he counted from the beginning. Ten o’clock. The sun would touch his terrace in fifteen minutes. He helped himself up with the olive wood cane and made his way down the narrow track. The neighbor had finished cutting the aged apricot tree, the logs stacked near the gate by the chicken coop. Later he, Juan, would come down with his tractor and trailer and haul the wood away to dry out for next year’s heating.
He concentrated on the uneven track, treacherous with stones and dips that when it rained would be puddles of muddy water. So many of his friends had fallen these last years, he had become more careful. Passing the chicken coop again, this time on his right, he stopped with one hand on the galvanized fence post. His tricky mind felt around in there for something, like a tongue investigates a hollow tooth, until it came up with – What was it? There. It fluttered past again. Something about flowers, fence post, pain…
It was spring, maybe ten years before she died. In the junction below Valldemossa, on the right, by the little bar, there was a tree with the most amazing flowers – yellow, with spidery stamens ending in gold the size of a pinhead. She asked him to stop when the seed pods had formed, and he parked in front of the bar, climbed down into the dry, overgrown bed of the torrente and up the other side where the tree was just within reach. Stuffing a handful of seed pods into his pocket he turned to go back the way he had come, grabbed a fence post for balance. The post turned to iron dust in his hand and he fell into the torrente. It was months before his wrist could grasp the neck of a cello, but the tree – he thought she called it a sessaltina – blossomed still every spring outside his studio.
She loved those flowers, he loved her, they loved.
He walked with her now toward the garden, he heavy with age and memory, she light with the joy with which she had lived. And the violet blossoms of her jacaranda covered the earth in the parking lot. In blessed delirium at the end, she had said, I want to be the oldest tree.
A moment’s hesitation, and she added. If I can’t be the oldest, then the next oldest?
Listen, she said, pulling his head to her heart. The air was noisy in her lungs.
It’s the leaves. They are awaiting me, impatient. Another moment passed, then she added, I’m sorry.
His heart could burst when she said that, which was every day, forever.
Note from JP: I found many different versions of this story. The one I’ve shared with you here was an “abbreviated” version, of which there were also several. I noticed that the .ODT file was slightly different from the .PDF, so I’ve blended them where I could.
Patrick Meadows 1934 – 2017.