I came across this short story I wrote 12 years ago, for a lesbian fiction anthology, Haunted Hearths & Sapphic Shades, for Lethe Press. It’s a ghost story. And it is suitable for all readers. (It’s approx. 7 pages.) I guess it makes for good reading in October.
A Path to the Woods
© 2008 Marilyn Jaye Lewis
Like Rose up at the house lying alone in what used to be our room, our world, but is now only spoken of as her “sick bed,” the roses here along the path are also dying. Fall does that to so many vibrant things; it pulls the warmth from them little by little until one night, what was once so gaily blossoming in the sun is suddenly deep into frost and beyond saving, beyond life itself.
Pink rose petals are now strewn all over this footpath – the one in our back garden. Even in near darkness, the fallen petals are heartbreaking, making it look as if a gentle pink snow has blessed us – an ethereal dusting from Heaven; something sacred and eternal and not just the ordinary death-knell of autumn. Well, maybe it’s true that we’ve been blessed, but regardless, this too – this snow of dying rose petals – will be so fleeting. Damn it. Everywhere my eyes look in fact, the fleeting beauty I find there pierces my heart and tears it to pieces. It is all in motion, the forces of life, and all of it separate from me. I am so small and alone here; so incapable of mattering. The tall trees towering overhead, so cleanly outlined against the black depth of a faraway sky are starkly profound. Trees survive us so effortlessly; Rose, me, everything. They dig deep and branch out and then just keep growing.
Tonight, there is only a slice of moon peeking through the trees. I sway a bit, looking up at it. I’ve officially given up all hope tonight, all expectation of miracles. I’ve given up my meager efforts to find strength and to be kind; I’ve abandoned all of it to the vast emotional wasteland of hopelessness. And in support of choosing to kill my heart, I’ve once again returned to the wine. I’m drunk. And I’m out here in the garden in the dark searching blindly for some spiritual corroboration that giving up is wiser now. I can no longer fool myself into thinking that Rose is not dying (or in truth, is as good as dead), and that I’m not alone.
I wish I could simply pull the plug on Rose and then claim that I’d had nothing to do with the lifelessness that would rush in to finally claim her. But Rose is not plugged in to any medical machines; there is no cord for me to pull. She is simply lying there in our old bed, drugged and laboring to breathe.
It has gone on too many days already, this feeling that her death is imminent. If only I had the strength to do what they did in old movies: ease the down-filled pillow out from under her delicate head and then smother her out of her misery. Do the right thing for once, no matter how legally wrong it was. Be courageous – help her. But I have no courage; it’s been my eternal downfall. If I were brave would I be this drunk right now? I hardly think so.
Beneath the blanket of dead rose petals, our garden path is paved with white pebbles. Lit every few feet by lamps that glow an eerie runway blue at night, the pebbled path leads down our yard and into the woods, where the crunching pebbles under foot abruptly become dirt. I follow it all the way tonight, wine bottle in hand. I like how it feels to be on the dirt path for a change – like walking off to oblivion; dense trees immediately enclosing me overhead, protecting me from everything heart-wrenching, inescapable and inevitable. Rose and I rarely ventured into the woods in daylight; we certainly never did it after dark. However, I need this feeling that all of the sorrow is obliterated now in order to ease the guilt I’m feeling over leaving the house at all. I know she’s in there rattling at death’s door. It’s bad enough to have gotten so drunk when she might go at any moment. It is worse yet to physically abandon her; to secretly hope that she will die while I’m far away from her, to save me from having to witness the worst of my fears: me standing impotently by in a world that is so suddenly without Rose.
There’s a small clearing somewhere in these woods. I remember it from one of our rare sojourns. I have no idea how far into the woods it is, or even if I’m going in the right direction. I’m hoping to find it not because it’s particularly beautiful, but only because there are large rocks there that I can sit down on. Then I can be far enough away from the house that the death rattle is no longer in my ears. I can sit and drink and cry and no one will hear me and I, in turn, will hear no one.
The slice of moon overhead is following me, gliding in and out of treetops. I can’t keep looking up at it, though. I’m stumbling drunk as it is; I don’t need to stumble literally and then fall and perhaps break an ankle out here in the dark. It’s a good sign, I suppose – I’m trying to keep at least some kind of grip on acceptable behavior. Rose would have been impressed.
Shit. Now they’re coming, all those tears that I’ve been trying to swallow, to keep at bay. God. The sound of my own crying breaks my heart even more. I am going to be so alone without her. I don’t want to be here without Rose. She is the love of my life. Before the illness ravaged her, she was so dark and lovely and transfixing – her soul was like that proverbial well, some kind of deep, dark water you would only find in a dream. Her brown eyes looked out from an ancient place, a place mysterious and bottomless. I worshiped her.
Why was I always so intolerant of her weaknesses, then? Why couldn’t I just love her? Why was I always so hard-hearted and mean? “Please tell me that wasn’t all I was!”
I’m crying out loud to the trees now when I should be up there in our old room, saying all this to Rose.
But she doesn’t hear me anymore. The Rose that could have responded to me is gone now. There’s only a shell up in our bed. I should have had the courage to say these things when she was still cognizant and able to give a reply; to forgive me.
What the hell is that? There’s an echo in these woods. My cries return to me a moment after they’ve left me. It is disturbing to hear. In fact, it’s scaring me.
Sniveling, I abruptly stop crying altogether but the echo continues. Oh my god, I realize; I’m not alone in these woods. Someone else is here; someone else is also crying.
I turn back toward the house to leave whomever it is that sounds so miserable, alone with her sobbing heart. I don’t want to invade someone else’s sorrow. I want to respect the stranger’s grief.
But no, that’s not really it, is it? I’m afraid of being needed. I always have been. I’ve always demanded that others be strong, as if it were something virtuous when, in reality, I was only in doubt of my heart’s ability to carry the burdens of others.
The sobbing continues. It’s a blessing in a way; it’s taken my attention off of my own breaking heart – finally. It’s a woman, I can at least tell that much from the sound of her cries.
I turn around once again and follow the path in the woods to the clearing I’d been searching for, and there she sits on a rock as I would have done, alone and sobbing. A woman with white hair; a thin, almost skeletal woman; her skin is luminous – too luminous to chalk up to only the hint of moonlight. I am compelled to approach her, even though it becomes quickly apparent that I’ve scared her to death.
“Christ,” she cries. “Stasha, where did you come from?”
She knows my name. Good lord, who is this? She looks so much like Rose. “Rose?”
She sniffles. “I’m sorry. I didn’t want you to find me like this. I was trying so hard to be stoic, you know? You seemed to be holding up so well and I wanted to be like you.”
“Rose, what the heck are you doing out here? And what’s happened to you?”
“What do you mean?” she asks, frantically wiping her eyes in a pitiful attempt to make it seem as if she hasn’t been sobbing her heart out. “I just needed to cry a little,” she defends herself. “We all need to from time to time.”
“I don’t mean that; I can see you’re crying. I was, too. But…” My voice falters. I am completely bewildered here. I set down the bottle of wine, feeling thoroughly spooked.
“Are you drunk again?” she asks. “Stasha, what is the matter with you?”
I try to pull myself together, at least together enough to speak. “Rose, how did you get out here? How did you even manage to get out of bed, let alone walk all the way down here, by yourself, and without my seeing you? And what’s happened to your hair? And where’s the nurse?”
“What? Am I a prisoner now? I’m not allowed to leave the house by myself, without your permission? I’m just sick, Stasha, that’s all. I’m sick. Everyone gets sick from time to time. It’s not like I’m dying. Yet.”
Oh god. These are the very words she said to me right after we’d learned about her illness and the unbearable prognosis.
“I still want to take that trip, you know,” she goes on insistently. “I’m scared; I admit it, but I’m not going to let this death sentence completely stop what’s left of my life. I’m going, even if I have to go by myself. That said, though, I still want you to come with me.”
“Come with you where?” I ask in horror – I know what she’s going to say because we had this conversation once before.
“To London, obviously. We have the tickets already. I’m going, Stasha. I don’t care what the doctors say.”
“Rose,” I say cautiously, “we already went to London – a year ago, Christmas. You got really sick there, remember? We had to take you to a hospital.”
She studies me strangely, as if I’m the one who’s out of place here; whose words are incomprehensible to her. “No,” she says, with faltering conviction. “That’s not true. The plane tickets are upstairs on top of the dresser.”
My mind goes to the dresser in our room and then I re-encounter the specter of her nearly dead body lying in our bed, laboring to breathe; the same bed where she’s been lying incurably ill for several months; nurses coming and going. I suddenly feel like I’m going to faint. Who is this woman who seems so like my Rose?
“Stasha, what’s happening to you? Why are you acting so crazy? I thought you were going to quit drinking, at least for my sake, until we got through this ordeal. I need to be able to count on you – to count on you being sober, being present for real, not just physically in the room. Or in the woods – well, you know what I mean. But look at you: you’re drunk. Goddamn you.”
I’m drunk, that’s what this is. I’m really drunk, more so than I think I’ve ever been. That’s what’s causing all this insanity. I’m drunk. I should never have betrayed her trust in me; I swore I would be right there with her when she died; that I wouldn’t leave her side. This is my punishment for leaving the house. This is my guilty conscience rising up from my dreams or something.
“Stasha, I am so disappointed in you,” she goes on. “I need you to be sober now. I really need you.”
“I’ll go back to the house, Rose, I swear. I’ll go right now and I’ll leave the wine here.”
“No! Don’t leave me,” she suddenly screams. She bolts toward me. “I know what’s up there! I know what’s in that room!” She grabs my arms to keep me from leaving. She is real. She is no dream. Up close like this, I can see into her eyes. Even in the dark, I recognize Rose. It is too alarming. How did she get here? And how did her damn hair get so white? “But you were in the house, Rose,” I splutter. “That was you in the room.”
“I know,” she says quietly, still gripping my arms tight. But she looks so desperate and defeated now, so tragic. She says it again, “I know.”
I stare at her, unnerved. She hasn’t been this alive, or this strong, in many months.
“I’m not going back in there, you know.” She is barely audible now. “I know what’s going on up there – in that room, that bed. Why did you leave?”
“What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean, Stasha. You left me there. Alone. I was –” Her voice falters. She lets go of my arms and turns away. “I was dying. Shit. What’s happening to me?” She looks around us at the surrounding trees then up at the black sky. “How did I get out here? Stasha, what’s going on? Help me. Please. I don’t want to die. I don’t know how to die.”
Out of habit, I reach down for the wine bottle. It is always my instinct: to get drunker still. But I offer her some first. “Maybe a drink would help?”
She looks at the bottle being offered to her. “Maybe,” she consents. “Maybe it will.” Rose takes the bottle and helps herself to a healthy swig of wine. “We need to figure this out,” she says. “We need to be rational and we need to be calm, right?”
“Right,” I agree without even thinking. If I were thinking, rational and calm would easily give way to panic and alarm. She admits that she was up there in the room dying, and yet she’s right here with me, asking for my help. It makes no sense.
“You could do the pillow thing,” she suggests.
“You know, put the pillow over my face. I know you want to; you’ve thought of it.”
“It’s okay, Stasha. You don’t have to deny it; I want you to do it. I don’t know how to let go, that’s my problem. I can’t find that light to go toward, that beacon we’re all supposed to see? I don’t see it. I can’t figure out how to cross over – cross over what, to where?”
She’s asking me to kill her, or to at least assist her in suicide. This is terrible. “Rose, maybe you’re just thinking too much about it. You sometimes do that. Maybe you just need to calm way down, you know? Get super calm and it’ll be like falling to sleep. You won’t even notice it. It’ll be very peaceful; you’ll cross over and then you’ll be dead.”
“I’ve tried it, believe me. I’ve been trying it for what feels like weeks already. I’m drifting to sleep and then I get to that point, that cliff – I feel like I’m falling over it, and then I feel like I’m suffocating; I can’t breathe. I’m falling to my death and I can’t breathe. Then there’s that jolt of fear and I’m back again. I’m still alive. I’m back in that damn bed and you’re standing there, staring down at me with a look on your face that tells me I must be pretty repulsive to look at now. You look at me with such – I don’t know – horror. And I know from that look that I need to get on with it already, that I need to just go now. But I can’t. I don’t know what the fuck to do.”
She’s crying again.
“Rose, honey. Don’t cry.”
She’s weeping in the same way that I’ve wept, night after night, alone in the guest bedroom, praying that the night nurse won’t hear me. Well, she has to have heard me, but I was at least praying that she wouldn’t come in. She never did.
“Rose,” I say. “What if I hold your hand? What if we go back to the house together, right now, both of us; we go back to the bedroom, you get back in bed and try to just fall peacefully asleep. I’ll hold your hand. It won’t be painful. You won’t fall from any cliff. You’ll just cross over, like you’re supposed to. You won’t even notice it.”
“How do you know? How can you possibly know?”
I admit that I don’t know. “It’s just a hunch. It’s what I think dying is like. Let’s at least try it, okay? You’ll hold my hand.”
She takes one final swig of the wine and drains the bottle. I have a quick pang of regret, I would have liked at least another swallow, but I don’t want to be selfish. It’s unbecoming to me and inappropriate to the weightiness of the situation. Let her be blissfully drunk when she dies, I figure. Let her at least have that. “Okay,” she finally says, gathering her courage. “We can try it.”
Together, we walk back through the dark woods, finding our way on the dirt path to the beginning of our backyard.
“Look at that house,” she says. “Isn’t it charming? I’ve always loved this house, Stasha. I’ve loved my life here with you. Every minute of it has felt effortless. Even those times we fought, I still felt like my soul was at home here – in this house, with you.”
“I think I’ve felt that way, too, Rose. I just didn’t know how to put it into words.”
“Then why do suppose you were always drinking? What was it you thought the wine could give you that you couldn’t simply feel by being here, alive, with me?”
“I don’t know, Rose. I honestly don’t know.”
“Be straight with me, okay? Is tonight the first night you’ve gotten drunk since we found out that I was sick? Did you keep your promise to me, for the most part?”
I take her hand. It is ice cold. I lead her up the white pebbled garden path. “I swear, Rose. This was the first time. I kept my promise.”
As we get closer to the sliding door that leads in to our kitchen, Rose holds back. “Look,” she says. “Someone’s in the kitchen. Is that nurse in there?”
“I don’t want her to see me, or to be in the room with us. She makes me nervous, Stasha. You go in by yourself and tell her you want some time alone with me, okay? I want to try it with just you and me. No strangers. This is my death. It’s important to me.”
“Okay,” I agree. “I’ll tell her.”
“I’ll meet you upstairs in the bedroom, then.”
“Okay.” I have no idea how Rose is getting into the house, but I’m guessing she knows a secret way. I slide open the kitchen door and the nurse smiles at me. She’s having a cup of tea at the kitchen table. She can tell I’m drunk; it’s obvious. But she’s very polite about it. “Getting some air, Stasha?”
“Yes,” I say.
“Listen, I want some time alone with Rose now. I’m ready to tell her good-bye. I think she needs to hear me say it. I think I need to hear myself say it.”
“I think that’s very wise, Stasha. I know it’s a very sad time for you, but I think this idea is best for you both. Call for me if you need me.”
I go up the stairs alone. For the first time in weeks, I am not dreading getting to the top of those stairs and seeing the door to our room standing open, revealing a near-lifeless Rose in our old double-bed. What does startle me, though, is that the more luminous, white-haired Rose is now standing next to our bed but the dying, dark-haired Rose is still in it.
“What’s going on?” I say quietly, but I’m starting to panic. “Who are you really?”
“I’m Rose,” she insists.
“Then who’s in the bed?”
“Me. I have to get back in that thing. God, look at me; I look awful. I used to think I was so beautiful.”
“You were,” I assure her. “I mean, you are. Even with all that white hair.”
“What do you mean?” Rose turns and finally sees herself in the mirror. “Shit,” she cries out. “Is that me? What the hell happened to my hair?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “You must be, like, the ‘soul’ part of you now or something.”
“I guess,” she says doubtfully.
“Well? Are you ready?”
“I think so, Stasha. I think so. I’m really going to miss you, you know.” The sound of tears is creeping into her gentle voice.
“Don’t,” I say. “If you start weeping again that nurse is liable to come running.”
“You’re probably right.” She stops a minute to compose herself and then she sits down on the bed next to her useless and now haggard body. “I guess I just sort of –” She makes a sweeping gesture with her arms. “I kind of just swoop in there, huh?”
“I guess. I was assuming you knew.”
“Hmm.” She studies the situation. “I wasn’t really counting on this part.” She looks up at me. “I actually have no idea how to get back in there.”
“Well, don’t look at me. I don’t even know how you got back into the house.”
She sighs. “Stasha?”
“Let’s do the pillow thing, okay? I think it’s going to be easier.”
“I can’t! I can’t do that to you.”
“You wouldn’t be doing it to me, really. I’m right here. The real me is, anyway. I mean, this would just be for the sake of convenience. I’m going to be right back out of the body again anyway, right? This way, I’ll just go directly from here. I’ll cross over like this. What do you think?”
“No, Rose, I can’t. I can’t kill you. I think we need to stick to the plan, do it the right way.”
“But I don’t want to get back in that thing, Stasha. I’m sorry; I just don’t. You have no idea how creepy it feels in there. It’s dark and clammy and cramped, and I can barely breathe.”
She gets up off the bed and slides a down-filled pillow out from under her body’s head.
“Stop it, Rose,” I shout. “Don’t do it. Don’t!”
But she’s doing it anyway; she’s smothering her near-dead form with her own pillow.
“Don’t! Rose, please.”
I struggle to tug the pillow from her grasp but she’s determined; she’s quite strong. “Rose, come on – don’t!”
But it’s too late. The shell of a body gives up with barely a noticeable struggle. She’s dead. She’s really dead. And the white-haired Rose is gone, too. I’m standing alone in the room in shock, in horror. She’s crossed over. And it all happened so quickly. I didn’t even get to say good-bye. It’s breaking my heart all over again. I look down at the love of my life, dead now; a fluffy white pillow over her face. I’m sobbing uncontrollably.
The nurse walks in and startles me from my grief. “Stasha!” she cries. “What have you done?”
“My god, no,” I insist, turning to look at her, but even I am having trouble believing it.
© 2008 Marilyn Jaye Lewis