Lydia waited in an upholstered side chair as the young people stood on hard tile flooring, shifting hip to hip, clutching their paperwork. At 81 she was too frail for lines, yet her posture in the chair was studied perfection. A friendly young man had marked her place in line, guided her to a seat and suggested that when the fellow with the tobacco can in his chest pocket – “See him there?” — reached the very front, she would be next up for the shot. So she waited with her gnarled, arthritic right hand resting over her unhindered left, and gray hair sprayed into an updo. After a while she lost track of the line and managed, with difficulty, to open her tiny clutch purse so she could study the photo.
It was a school portrait of a blonde-haired girl, six years old, unfamiliar, a red bow in her hair and toothpaste-blue glasses perched on her ears and nose. Though the girl was smiling, the lines of Lydia’s face, or what could be inferred of them around her gray flannel mask, pointed downward, her mouth and cheeks no longer rising for the pleasure of others.
A female nurse whose badge said “PAT” noted Lydia’s striking appearance: the impossible posture, a worn but stable pair of Velcro-strapped hiking shoes, and her crisp pink pinpoint blouse, partially covered with a faded green windbreaker.
“Is this number two for you?” asked the nurse.
“Only one grandchild,” Lydia said tersely, concealing her photo from the nosy woman and momentarily forgetting why she was even in this place.
“Alright hon,” Pat said, patiently holding the syringe. She watched Lydia scan the photo again, then bent down close to her, mask to mask, her green eyes glowing.
“What’s her name, hon?” the eyes smiled. Lydia froze. “The little girl,” Pat said. “Your grandchild.” For a moment the name seemed on its way from the recesses of Lydia’s mind, an abandoned eight-decade filing system of taxonomy, packed with the Latin names of insects, frogs, fungi and plants. But the name was lost, perhaps languishing in the angular space of an under-stair closet.
“That’s okay,” said Pat, “It’s a big day, isn’t it? Your card says this is your second shot! I’m going to take care of you, okay? Then you can go see …” she caught herself.
“Ainsley.” Lydia managed to retrieve it from her fragile memory but found no joy in it — only sadness at the effort required.
“Ainsley,” Pat repeated. “She’s quite the beauty.”
As Pat pierced the spotted flesh of her bony shoulder, Lydia cringed, emitting a little moan. When she looked up again, the nurse’s glowing eyes met hers.
“Go with love,” Pat said. “Will you do that for me, hon? Go with love.”
Not long after, a predictable fog of pain and confusion descended upon Lydia. But by the end of the fourth hour, her condition had turned so dramatically for the better that she came to believe she was fundamentally changed forever. Her mind, for example, was clear and footloose for the first time in three years. Her spirits were high. The muscles of her legs had newfound spring. The arthritis in her right hand, earned over years of yanking invasive Chinese privet from the ground, was suddenly relieved. She squeezed the hand into a tight fist, and not only was the pain absent, but the hand easily unfurled and flexed into its full span. She held the hand above her, partially blocking the sun, and saw its delicate structure in the piercing light, the flesh stretched over thin bones like the membrane of a flying squirrel.
Looking down, she found herself alone and completely disoriented on a paved, winding path in the woods. A beautiful stream flowed around the bend. Oak catkins floated on top of the water, and silvery minnows darted bravely under the surface. A stately bald cypress tree stood near the water’s edge, its knobby knees conjuring a tiny mountain range from the map of some fantasy novel’s endpapers. A call rang through the sky – kackackackackackack – and then she knew. She knew for certain where she was, at Ferncliff, the very state park where she gave so many guided tours, so long ago. Standing near the giant cypress, she returned the call of the pileated woodpecker and in mere seconds the giant bird stuck itself, like a red-bladed hatchet, to the trunk of the cypress tree, right before her eyes. The two creatures regarded each other in the quiet of the woods, and the bird flew away.
Lydia had no idea how she arrived at this place. She traversed the trail’s half-circle and reached the parking lot at the base of the mountain, where morning visitors poured into the park and children swarmed the playground. Of course. With renewed confidence she moved ahead, searching for a flash of yellow, and there she saw the cab, with Javier leaning against it. Hah-vee-air, she practiced, moving to his familiar smile. As Javier drove them through the arched canopy of trees, Lydia smelled spicy and unfamiliar fumes from his exotic lunch. She pulled the photo from her clutch again, recalling the unfortunate words she wrote and mailed to the young girl’s father, her only son, seven years earlier.
I won’t pretend … is how the letter started — haughty and full of hate.
I won’t pretend that your choices over the last six months have pleased me. I knew what you’d be capable of from your father’s history with women, but I’d hoped that my genes would prevail. I can see now that this is not the case.
Yes, the apple and the tree: one of the most vicious things a woman can say to a man — a sword to slay father and son in one blow.
The cab emerged from the park and moved a quarter-mile along a rural highway, the mountain’s shadow still looming. Javier switched the radio from the Hispanic station to something he thought she would prefer: classical music. As the station played Barber’s soul-wrenching “Adagio for Strings,” Lydia remembered writing the letter, along with the sense of moral certainty it gave her in the moment:
And now I understand that you plan to marry this woman.
One could imagine this icy monologue delivered by a super-villain, perhaps, perched on a starkly uplit throne.
I cannot stop you from doing so, but I can tell you that the harlot will not be welcome in my home. You, my son, the fruit of my womb, are welcome at any time. But the instigator of your infidelity will never be. No member of our family will attend your wedding.
“Stop the car,”Lydia said, trying to clear her head. As Javier leaned on the open door of the cab, she ripped off her mask and walked away from him on the gravel shoulder, each step slightly more certain than the last, pointing her back in the direction of the park, racing away from the words, the memories. It was the shot. The recollections, the energy, the absence of pain, the clarity! But she was not that woman. Not the person who wrote those vile things.
“Are you sure, Miss Lydia?” Javier called out, 100 feet away.
“I would never write that!” she shouted, whirling in the gravel, a tiny terror on the roadside. Then she departed the road’s shoulder, climbed down the small embankment and headed across a pasture to a familiar, comforting tree line. Javier watched her the entire way, wondering what he had done. As she walked, Lydia teased the hairspray out of her coif with newly vigorous fingers and looked to her wrist for a hair band she hadn’t put there in more than 30 years. Then she found the damned thing, balled up in the dusty right pocket of her windbreaker, and smoothly maneuvered her hair into youthful ponytail. Lydia stopped for a moment to pick a wildflower and breathe its nectar. Then she resumed her businesslike stride and disappeared into the woods.
With a new vigor Lydia remembered this forest, and the entire geography of Ferncliff State Park. As a naturalist, she volunteered here for a decade, after her son was grown, knowing she would need something to fill the void. For the usual reasons, her husband had disappeared long before. All the poetry had since been written, and there was nothing left to say. The woods, the streams, the mountain were reassuringly unmoving. They spoke for themselves and they spoke for her. After thirty minutes of walking, Lydia found her way to a little creek. She removed her shoes and socks and stepped in, feeling the smooth, cool rocks on her feet. The stream soothed as Lydia recalled the first line of the letter her son wrote back to her:
This is my family now. You can have all of us, or none of us.
Her knees buckled at the thought of it, but she placed a hand down in the water to anchor herself and then waded deliberately through the stream in search of a familiar stone. This creek had been one of her regular tours, working with elementary-aged kids and their parents. And, of course, the stone was still there, flat and round like a plate, and only slightly smoother than it had been thirty or forty years ago. Spreading her feet in the water, building herself a sturdy base, Lydia carefully lifted the stone so as not to cloud the water with mud. Under it was a huge crawdad, a nimble brown ghost only visible through rippling creek waters to the eyes of a master. The little freshwater crustacean remained in place just briefly before backing its way downstream in search of another home. When it had gone, Lydia turned the stone in her hands, rubbed a thick layer of algae from its underside and found her own name there, deeply carved with a pocket knife by a married man, and left there many decades ago in the most secretive way, a substitute for forbidden physical affection. The letters of her name were carved in the block capitals used by every ex-military man in creation.
A year after Lydia mailed her horrible letter, her son had a baby with his new wife, Allison. A photo soon arrived by mail, and on the back was a sticky note in Allison’s scrawling and, Lydia judged, unladylike hand.
Seven pounds, six ounces, and an armful of love. Ainsley Robin Caruthers. Born May 5, 2014. A heart was drawn in pen at the end of the sentence, adding what was, to Lydia’s mind, a needlessly childish touch. That same week, Lydia wrote in proper longhand a heartfelt and carefully crafted letter of apology to her son. Then she tore it up and rewrote it, making the letter slightly less vulnerable but still very sincere, still beyond the point of pain, sharing what she had done and admitting her wrongs. After staring out the window for 20 minutes Lydia then folded the letter crisply, tucked it into an envelope, inscribed only his first name upon it and concealed the letter inside her fireproof box with the locks of hair, the diplomas and the pediatric hospital bracelets. There it is, she thought, with a mix of righteousness and self-loathing. If he wants to understand me, he can do it when I’m dead.
Lydia replaced the rock in the stream, and when her feet were once again dry, she walked uphill, taking her time, to find the man who had carved her name in the stone. The riding stables were still run by Reggie, a whitehaired, barrel-chested man who was almost as old as her, and now receiving substantial help from his son. Reggie was dead-set against her proposal, at first, but Lydia moved to him, driven by a passion she was sure the shot awoke, and took him by his ringless hand. “I have always wanted to do this,” she said, as she placed her slender body against him, leaving a warm, long kiss upon his lips. Lydia lingered so long in the kiss that Reggie had time to stroke her hair with his hand, to smell the beauty of her rosewater scent, and to stew for himself a dark roux of regret. When their lips parted, Reggie gave her a wistful glance. His son, looking on in wonder from the stable, wanted to help Lydia into the saddle, but somehow, implausibly, she needed no assistance, scaling the slatted door of a stall on her own and mounting the great beast she coaxed with a granola bar.
Reggie and his son watched without words as Lydia rode away in the opposite direction of the horse trail. Lydia was headed up the mountain, a borrowed Spanish Bota bag of water hanging cross-body on one side, her tiny clutch with emergency shoulder strap forming an X across with it on the other, as the horse patiently accepted her guidance.
Woman and beast wound their way up the mountain, crossing more than a few hikers whose minds were trapped between amusement and horror at the sight of this nimble gray-haired woman confidently ascending the narrow foot trail.
When Ainsley turned six, Lydia had received another letter from her son. It contained the photo that was still in her clutch, the original incendiary missive she had penned to him about his impending marriage, and a short little note:
Mom, I’m returning your letter to let you know that I have released the anger it once gave me. Our daughter would love to know her grandmother, and all of us would be delighted to have you in our lives. Neither of us harbors animosity. What happens next is up to you. Sincerely, Ben.
Lydia could hardly breathe she was so wrought with excitement. But thanks to pride and awkwardness, and the fear of admitting a mistake, she didn’t respond at all. Foolish, she knew, but her fears were simply more compelling than any desire to heal.
On the trail, the horse swayed under her, and the swinging of her hips made her confident, young, alive. It was a clear day, just a little cool, with the promise of warmth in the afternoon. A pair of red-shouldered hawks circled the mountain as Lydia rode to the painted cedar sign that read “Overlook Spur.” Next to the sign, she lay forward on the horse and petted the smooth hair of its mane.
“Good baby,” she said. “Now it’s time.” With that, the shiny brown horse bowed gently to the ground, allowing Lydia to slide to her feet. The horse rose again, and Lydia tied its reins to the post, leaving him in the shade, with her tiny clutch and the Bota bag hung from the saddle horn. She walked down the spur alone, and at the end of the trail, the overlook revealed itself. Sturdy rails were placed there to guard against a sheer drop in the rock face. Beyond them she could hear the rush of the waterfall. The hawks rode thermals directly in front of her, and as they banked, she could see the black-and-white bands of their tail feathers. Lydia moved slowly and certainly, holding on carefully as she maneuvered her way to the other side of the rails. She stood, then, fully exposed, balanced on a small ledge of mortared rock, one hand hooked around the rail, with nothing but cool, swirling air between her and the deep canyon. In her naturalist days, Lydia had done this so many times — at least annually for ten years, in the early mornings, when no one else would be there to worry over her. But her focus was different today. In the past she would stare at the bottom and simply will herself to hang on. She would fantasize, perversely, about becoming one with this beautiful canyon, this natural treasure that saved her from the horrific memories of her husband’s betrayal and the pain of her child moving on, and that gave her something to wake up for each day. Each time she managed to climb back around the rails without falling, she would feel an unrivaled rush of excitement, a secret knowledge that death had again been cheated.
It wasn’t the bottom she was focused on today, but the other side of the canyon, beautifully lush and green, the part of the mountain where the short-leaved pines grew, untouched by loggers and those infernal pine beetles. This. Just across there: This was God’s own forest. With her free hand, Lydia pulled the photo from her pocket and glanced at it one more time. She released the picture and didn’t watch as it fluttered down the canyon and away from the mountainside. Her eyes were fixed on the pines as she unhooked her hand from the rail.
She didn’t fall from the ledge. She didn’t jump. Lydia leaped majestically for the other side, spreading her arms and legs wide. The curve of her glide at first threatened to dash her against the base of the other canyon wall, but with enough speed, a rush of rising air, and the determined lift of her chin against the wind, Lydia rapidly climbed, rivaling the hawks. High above the canyon she soared, until she entered a dark, sudden cloud, an unwanted bank of fog, and became disoriented. Her vision obscured, her heart pounding in her ears, Lydia felt the horrible sensation of her stomach rising as she fell through a dark, empty sky. Desperately, she squeezed closed her eyes and shouted to the canyon below:
I’m sorry! I’m so, so sorry!
Warmth now. Light. A comforting blanket. Lydia was snugly wrapped, abating somewhat the aches and chills her body experienced from the shot. Around her, also, were also the arms of a man, strong, young and welcoming. Lydia pulled a frail, shaking hand from the blanket and traced the hairs on his arm from the back of his hand to his bicep. She looked at the face of the man. He felt like her son. Perhaps he was still her son.
Ben held her there on his couch. He cradled Lydia like a baby — an elderly infant wearing a gray flannel mask — as he quietly spoke the words.
I’m sorry, too.
Lydia’s shoulder throbbed from the shot. The rush of energy had faded, and she had already forgotten what she said to prompt Ben’s words. With difficulty, she squeezed her right hand into a fist, to test it, and this time it remained curled, the unfurled frond of a fern. Once again, Lydia felt the arthritic pain.
The front door of Ben’s house opened, out of view, and excited voices echoed off the tile entry. Lydia heard the scamper of feet, and cautiously, into the room, came the girl from the photo. She was without the hair ribbon this time but still wore the toothpaste-colored glasses. Hers were the eyes of the child at the museum who has rounded the corner to find its most famous artifact.
Still, the child’s name evaded Lydia.
Holding the girl’s trailing hand was another stranger, a woman.
Her face was kind.
So, so kind.