By Judith Kelly Quaempts
Here, on this high plateau, with the wind sighing around the car and the faint echo of coyotes singing from a nearby ridge, they hold hands and do not speak.
It is midwinter; cold stars look close enough to touch. The valley below lies in shadow, the river winding through it, a faint silver thread.
He dressed her in warm layers for the drive here, carried her in his arms to the car for one last trip to this place they’ve come to for more than fifty years.
As the moon drifts higher, he squeezes her hand. He proposed on this very spot the summer after they graduated high school. He had a job as a ranch hand – hard work but satisfying too, because at day’s end he could measure his accomplishments in the amount of post holes dug, the miles of fencing strung, in the number of cattle branded or acres of alfalfa baled.
Besides, the job came with a house.
He and Mae thought it grand, in spite of the faded wallpaper, the scuffed linoleum, and window panes so loose in their frames they rattled in the slightest wind.
Mae planted lilacs – slender shoots from her mother’s garden – beneath the bedroom window, and in spite of drought and wind and freezing cold they took hold, and three years later flowered in exuberant shows of lavender and deep purple.
How he loved spring mornings when he and Mae lay entwined in their three-quarter bed with the spicy scent of lilac drifting through the window on the rosy back of dawn.
He remembers the wet day he came home coated in dust fast turning to mud, and found Mae in the yard beside her lilacs. Her eyes were closed. Rain beaded the planes of her face and lay on her hair like pearls.
His heart had nearly burst at the sight.
Now he swallows hard and lifts her hand to his lips.
“We’ve had so much,” she says in the whispery voice that takes all her strength these days.
“I know,” he answers. “I know.”
After her death, hollowed by loss, he drove for hours on back roads far from town, great solitary distances with landscapes empty but for telephone poles staggering toward the horizon or grain elevators thrusting toward the sky from fields where stoic cows, black and white as dominoes, grazed the frozen ground.
Once, when two does crossed the road in front of him, he broke down and cried. Their fragile beauty reminded him so of Mae, the graceful way she moved before the cancer took her.
That day, thick clouds promised snow. Ground mist claimed the fields. He knew the ranch house where they began their life wasn’t more than half a mile away.
Without thought, he pulled onto the shoulder and parked. He stripped off his coat, his gloves, even the watch his son gave him for Christmas the year before, and set off on foot. Let the cold take him. He’d heard it was an easy death.
But when he reached the place the house was gone, bulldozed into the ground. All that remained were Mae’s lilacs; bare branches slick with ice.
He snapped a twig, heard ice crack and fall to the hard ground with a sound like broken glass. The twig still held a few blackened leaves, a tiny clump of desiccated blossoms. He crushed them in his hand and let the icy fragments drop through his spread fingers.
He shivered. His shoes were wet, the hems of his pants rimed with ice.
Mae’s voice: strong as the cold, clear as the stars that blazed over the canyon.
He broke another twig from the lilac but this one he clasped to his chest like a talisman as he trudged back to his car. When, half-frozen, he reached it, he fell inside and drove home with the heater turned on high.
And so he got on with living, filling his hours with walks and reading, dining with his son, visiting friends. Every spring, he placed lilac blooms on Mae’s pillow before retiring.
In time, his mind began to fail, his past to disappear. One day he no longer knew his son, or how to brush his teeth, or what his keys were for. Yet, he often spoke of a woman, though he couldn’t recall her name.
“She has dark hair,” he’d say. “She loves lilacs and standing in the rain.”
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Judith Kelly Quaempts lives and writes in a small town in northeast Oregon. She is a member of the Internet Writers Workshop and her work appears on line in various publications, including Pemmican, Camroc Press Review, Corner Club Press, The Shine Journal, Internet Review of Books. Still Crazy will publish another short story in July of this year.