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Roots and Wings

"Someone like her needed to be shared with the world."

Published onMay 20, 2024
Roots and Wings

Photo by Keenan Constance:

I grew roots. She grew wings. My ground and her skies moved in paces that could only coexist for a short time. It was inevitable that we would part.

It was as amicable a split as there could ever be. We were both too aware of each other’s truths to know it could be any different. Without any resentment to distract us during our parting, the sadness was pure and the grief ran deep. We tried to stay in contact for a while, friendly conversations where we tried to content ourselves and our attraction with news of the other’s happiness, but inevitably the pull was too strong and the talk would turn to uprooting me or ladening her wings. There was never a decision, but we both realized our conversations were hurting the other and we each sacrificed by letting the other go entirely. Me buried, her spread to the winds.

She went on to travel and lived her life in every part of the world, mostly places where the cost of living was cheap and she could find work amenable to her need to wander, waiting tables, driving tour buses, and various forms of seasonal work. She spent her largest blocks of time as a tour guide, taking groups of high school kids to places they hadn’t even known existed, sharing her passion and knowledge with people prone to asking her what French fries were called in France.

She invited a string of casual lovers into her life, men with wings who were able to soar with her for brief periods of time before moving on. None of them, wings and all, were able to keep with her any better than I was. I believed she never knew a moment of loneliness. Her connections with people were immediate. She greeted everyone with pure, long, and honest hugs. Everyone. It was impossible to remain a stranger to her. Someone like her needed to be shared with the world. It would have been criminal avarice to keep her in one place, wall her off to some small slice of earth where only I was able to bask in her sunshine.

I laid my roots in a single-wide trailer amidst a craggy forest. I was making good money assembling Chevys down at the plant when I received a phone call from a law firm. My uncle had died. All I knew of him was that he was a bit of a hermit, and my dad hadn’t talked to him for over thirty years. He left everything to me.


My dad was pissed. Not that he didn’t get his brother’s land or money. He would have rather seen all of it burned to the ground. He considered my uncle leaving it to me as a final insult to their relationship, as big as not coming to his and my mom’s wedding, which was the final straw that cut their ties.

He was mad at me when I drove up to see the land, and furious when I called to tell him I was staying. I knew what his reaction would be. That night up in the forest whispered to me, though, and I knew I wouldn’t leave. Within weeks the truth in those whispers revealed itself. A disapproving father couldn’t change it.

“What the hell?!” he shouted. “Are you just gonna go up there and wander the woods like goddamn Jeremiah Johnson?”

“Dad, I belong here,” I said. I never raised my voice. He had other ideas.

“What the fuck does that even mean?!” he continued shouting.

“I can’t explain it,” I said.

“What about your job? You just gonna throw that away to be a fucking bum?”

I stayed silent.

“Is this some connect to nature bullshit? Cuz that ain’t a life, son. Go on up there, smoke a bowl, have your shaman moment, and then get your ass back to work before you get fired.”

“I can get by with the money.”

“That’s ridiculous,” he kept shouting.

“I got enough money. I’m no lazy ass.”

Now he was quiet. He knew I was right. What I’ve lacked for talent I’ve always made up with effort. My dad had always been proud of me. As far as father-son relationships go, ours was pretty good. I can’t blame him for the shock he felt at seeing his son following in his estranged brother’s footsteps.

There was a beep and the conversation was over. I thought I’d lost my father forever. Still, I could not return. A couple weeks later, an eternity for us to not talk to each other, he called. I considered letting it ring to punish him for not understanding, but realized I was asking him to comprehend the impossible.

“Hey, dad,” I said sheepishly, craving his approval again like a kid that just threw a baseball through a neighbor's window.

“I talked to your mom,” he said.


“Yeah. So, anyway, just because you're being a complete dumbass about this doesn’t mean I have to be one back to you.”

This is how epiphanies were communicated from my old man. Even though I knew I had scarred our relationship, this was healing.

“I’m not doing this to hurt you,” I said.

“That’s what your mom said. Then she started talking about ‘transference’ and other psychological bullshit. She wants to go down and visit when you’re ready.”

“That’d be great,” I said, “You can come, too.”

He paused. I worried just how deeply I had scarred him. “Alright,” he finally said.


Gravity settled me gently into my new life. There was a small slice of river bottom flatlands in one corner of my land. I had a few dozen acres here I used for cutting hay and planted a sizable garden. The hay I sold to my neighbor, Mrs. Camden, who kept a beef herd and farmed a long stretch of the river.

I lived among the forested, rocky hills. The terrain was rough and unforgiving, but beautiful. My trailer sat atop the first hill up a dirt drive, invisible from the gravel county road that ran by. It was inaccessible during times of heavy rain or snow, but I used the road out only rarely. Maybe monthly I would venture into town to restock groceries and other essentials. Other than that, I kept to myself.

Mrs. Camden I considered a friend. Most of the rest of the local population treated me with an extremely polite suspicion. Luckily, my uncle had given them a frame of reference and they considered me his successor. The harmless hermit of the hills. They never offered me a moment's mistreatment and I enjoyed existing amongst them, even peripherally.

Friends from my previous life slowly fell away. Texts and phone calls stretching out into longer and longer intermissions. My only regular communication was with my parents, and they would come visit me every year on my birthday. They would have stories to tell about what they had been up to. After the first year, my story had been told and I mostly just listened.

The hay and garden I attended to faithfully and kept productive. The bulk of my time, however, was spent in the forest. I cut and maintained an elaborate trail system. I kept the cedars from overgrowing glades, keeping just enough open space for a few small patches of wildflowers to bloom like an oasis every spring. Every morning I would head out in my UTV loaded up with a gas can, chainsaw, shovels, axes, and sundry other tools. I walked marathons behind a brush hog. I was the dutiful butler, and the land was my lordship.

Word got around and people slowly started showing up to share in the nature around me. Every so often a car would pull up by the trailer and people would get out and ask to spend the day hiking my trails. Sometimes they just parked down off the county road and didn’t ask. It didn’t bother me either way. Tied as I was to my inheritance, I never considered it mine. It was nice to have these infrequent conversations with strangers.

I learned the value of solitude the way I lived, but also of the dangers of a man spending too much time only talking to himself. Wild theory can become fact and a simple truth can become a raging internal argument. My visitors grounded me. They were my access to the world beyond my personal borders.

They would thank me when they left, but I never understood what it was I might have done for them. I had given them nothing. It was the land. In my early years here, when I was younger, I battled my craving to take some small piece of credit for whatever healing they may have found here. I wanted to prove value to myself. As I grew older, I realized how little it was about me, or my role, and simply performed the tasks before me.


A shadow fell over me as I checked the gap on the spark plug I had just cleaned but probably should have replaced.

“I put a quart of my three-bean salad by your door,” Mrs. Camden said. I hadn’t even heard her pull up. “A couple pounds of chopped beef, too.”

“Thank you,” I said. Mrs. Camden was always leaving me food in quantities greater than my single life required.

She ran a large farm with her three sons. All were married and the sons, wives, and grandchildren lived with her in a compound of four houses settled among the barns and silos. When her husband died, while the boys were still young, neighbors gave meals in tin foil pans along with their condolences. Their sympathies didn’t keep a few of the wealthier farmers from trying to get a good deal on a large plot. She defied them.

The gifts of food started immediately after I moved into the trailer. I figured the first batch of sausages accompanied by apple pie were just a welcome, but the offerings never stopped. We grew fairly close, and I looked forward to our informal visits even more than the delicacies produced on her farm.

“You’re looking skinny. You been eatin’?” she said. Skinny I was not.

“Every day,” I replied. “Coffee?”

She nodded. We walked into the trailer, and I pulled both of my mugs from the cabinet. She inspected my kitchen to make sure my bachelor lifestyle wasn’t out of control.

“One thing I’ll say for ya,” she said, “you keep a clean house. That’s good. My boys would have this place in a shambles if them girls weren’t around.”

“It’s not hard, no one’s around to mess it up,” I replied.

She smiled a frown at me. She worried over my solitude.

“Getting ready to bring the corn in?” I said, trying to steer her from telling me, again, I needed a woman in my life.

“Pretty soon now. Rain got the fields too wet. We’ll get it in before long.”

“Good year?”

“Real good. Looks like we’ll make money off it this year.”

I was amazed at how anyone could survive farming. The margins were thin, and success was often tied to things beyond control: weather and economics. Farmers have earned their reputations as hard workers, but they get little credit for the level of business acumen it takes to succeed.

“How’s the family?” I asked.

“Just fine,” she said. “Danny and Melinda will be heading to Mexico next month for their anniversary.”

“That’s great,” I said with happiness.

Mrs. Camden always filled me in on her family, especially Danny, her middle son. He had always been her problem child and had been rarely sober.

A couple years ago it all came to a head when she found him in the back of a barn, behind a harvester, face down in the dirt with an empty bottle of Xanax and an equally empty fifth of Popov vodka. During his state-enforced stay in a behavioral health unit they were unable to differentiate what was due to his underlying diagnoses and what was due to his self-treatment of them.

He had gotten on a good medication regimen and was improving. Mrs. Camden grew hopeful. He was working well on the farm, spending time with his family, and even made an appearance at the Evangelical Church the family frequented. Then came the call from the sheriff, with apologies, that Danny was in jail for punching a deputy in a Taco Bell parking lot. Mrs. Camden gave the deputy a beef quarter for the shameful behavior of her son and refused to make his bail.

I found him a couple weeks later sitting on a fallen tree in the middle of one of my glades. Wildflowers, delicate and slowly moving with the breeze, surrounded him. He sat there, haggard, staring. The sheriff had let him go after the deputy had admitted that he would let Danny hit him again if it meant another quarter of beef and didn’t want to make a big fuss over it.

I had been out repairing a few places in the trail that had washed out in the spring rains. I walked over to him, and he didn’t notice me until I was within touching distance. He looked up at me, too despondent for surprise. He cried.

I sat down next to him. His sobs continued and I remained silent.

“Mom took my pistol away after the bottle of Xanax in the barn, otherwise,” he trailed off, lacking emotion.

“Trying to decide between suicide and running away?” I asked.

He nodded.

We sat in silence a while longer. I listened intently to the woods around me. They whispered.

“Come on,” I said, “we’re going for a walk.”

He didn’t want to, but there was absolutely no fight left in him and it was easy to set him in motion.

When he returned home Mrs. Camden and Melinda were there. He offered no apologies or promises. Without an oath, he went back on his medication, got regular therapy, and started attending meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous. So far anyway, he’s held up.

“I don’t know what you did to that boy in them hills,” Mrs. Camden later confided, “but it worked. I can’t thank you enough.”

“Hell, I didn’t do anything,” I said. And I hadn’t.


“Hey, Jimmy.” The voice was changed, weak, but I recognized it immediately. My head filled with lightness at the sound of hearing her say my name.

“Hi, Beth,” I said. There was comfortable silence. I absorbed its warmth, too afraid to speak unless I should be cut off from it.

“How have you been, buddy?” she finally asked.

“Love you,” I replied. Conversation eluded me.

“Love you, too,” she said. I could feel the sincerity of her voice when she said it.

All these years without her. I was glad to hear a part of her had never let me go, as I had always kept some part of myself for her. I’d trodden these hills and she wandered the world, the whole time each of us saving room to carry the other’s memory.

“I want to see you. One more time,” she said.

“Just once?”

“That’s all the time I got, Jimmy. I’m pretty sick and, of everyone, I want to say goodbye to you.”

“You’re dying?”


I sat stunned. I wanted a three-volume set of answers but didn’t know how to ask any of the questions. She had clearly dealt with this reaction before.

“Ovarian cancer but spread all over now. I’ve still got a few months before I’m stuck in a bed with hospice on standby.”

“Beth, I’m so sorry.” Now I was blubbering.

She waited with small whispers of “It’s okay, it’s okay.” I should be the one consoling her, but hearing her voice was an emotional curveball and her news was a gut punch. I eventually regained voice.

“Where are you? When can I come?”

“Can I come see you?”

“Of course. When?”

“Week after Thanksgiving?”


We made arrangements for me to pick her up at the airport in St. Louis. It was only three weeks away, but the time passed slowly, and I had little success focusing in the interim. I puttered about until the time came when I could make the two-and-a-half-hour drive to the airport.

First, I missed the exit. Then I had to circle the airport three times before I could navigate into the parking garage. I fumbled about. I circled the garage, going up floor after floor before finding a parking spot. Crowds of people in motion had become foreign to me. I entered the airport and walked close to the walls.

Thirty minutes before her flight was to land, I started to watch every face that walked out of the terminal. I caught the glance of those that were expecting someone as they walked by, deeming me neither friend nor family before moving on. The rest were all responding to texts or marching eyes forward to their destination. I felt more and more alone, even more so than back home in my trailer.

I looked at the monitor tracking arrivals. Her plane was listed as on time. Hurry up and wait.

Her plane landed, or at least that’s what the monitor said. My chest tightened and my breathing became shallow. It was like building up the courage to ask her out for the first time all over again. A bolus of people filed past. She was coming. I scanned faces intently, scared she would walk past without seeing me.

I realized I was looking for someone from twenty years ago. How much had I aged? Would she recognize me? I suddenly felt very unworthy of being in her presence again. The litany of emotions was getting to me. The routines of my life had left me in poor emotional shape. I had become more cloistered than I realized.

I looked over and saw an airline customer service agent pushing a transport chair. I looked down at their passenger and there she was. All of the bustle and distraction going on around me vanished in an instant. She smiled at me and offered a friendly wave.

Her honey-colored hair was now the color of trodden straw. It was mostly thin, save a few patches of density that had somehow recovered from the chemo. Her cheeks were sunken and her frame skeletal. She couldn’t have weighed more than eighty pounds. Her coat hung from her, filled little more than if it were on a hanger in the closet.

My heart broke in love for her, and I rushed over and bent down to hold her. The airline agent had to stop short to save running me over. We said nothing and simply put our arms around each other. The agent stood patiently by.

We eventually let go and I stood up.

“Beth, you have a wonderful visit,” the agent said.

Beth reached under the chair trying to reach her purse to give him a tip. “Hold on a sec,” she said.

After letting her fool around trying to reach the purse longer than I should have I pulled twenty bucks out of my pocket and handed it to the agent. He thanked me and walked away.

I just looked down at her and stared.

“Do I look that bad?” she asked.

“I can’t believe you’re here,” I said. “It is so good to see you again.”

“You, too, buddy,” she said.

I realized I was hovering over her, so I bent down clumsily to hug her again. She had clearly not forgotten my awkwardness and accepted the hug gracefully.

I stood up wiping a tear away. She pulled a Kleenex out of her jacket pocket and dabbed her eyes.

“Ready to go?” I asked.

“Yes,” she replied.

I pushed her to my truck. She almost fell trying to lift herself up into the seat and I had to give her a lift. She seemed to weigh no more than the bags of alfalfa I used to overseed my hay fields.


Thirty minutes into the drive back a slow, cold rain started to fall. It took a long time of running the heater before she lost her shiver.

“Are you okay?” I asked, worried at how deeply the cold had seemed to penetrate her.

She turned her head towards me and took me in before answering. “I’m happy,” she said and patted my hand on the stick shift. A warmth flooded me.

We drove from interstate to two lane highway, to pot-holed county road, to gravel, and finally to the dirt driveway leading to my trailer. I worried over her as the road grew rougher and the truck began to bounce and sway, its suspension aged like the ruts of my drive.

She was a creature of motion, however, and simply took it all in from the window. I was relieved to see that the metastasis of her disease had failed to grow into her spirit, which was able to exist, with comfort and ease, wherever it found itself.

“I can see why you’ve stayed here,” she said. “It’s beautiful.”

I beamed. Not many people appreciate a hardwood forest when it’s in dormancy. It is a palette of brown gradients, maybe a few small green ferns sitting at the feet of tree trunks. Small dots of gray stones splashed about, the earth’s core coming through to its surface. I wanted her to appreciate it as much as I did, seeing its beauty as much an understanding of me as of the surrounding countryside.

We pulled up to the trailer. I helped her out of the truck, and we went inside. She sat down on the couch and took it in. The decor was spartan. I watched her waiting for a reaction. She had none, looked up at me, and patted the couch next to her. I sat.

She took my arm and wrapped it around herself like a scarf or blanket. She laid her head on my chest. I gently hugged her, scared of squeezing her too tight. I rested my face against her and took in her scent. We sat there, wordless, letting the twenty years of longing dissipate.

She looked up into my eyes. A grin appeared on her face, and she kissed me. Just a small kiss, but even a small kiss from her had a pure intimacy. She laid her head back down on my chest. The fatigue of disease and travel overtook her, and she fell asleep. I sat and let the waves of contentment wash over me until dark settled in the trailer. She woke up with a shiver.

I got up, went to the bedroom to fetch the space heater, and turned it on close to her. I grabbed my fleece blanket and laid it over her. I tucked the edges around and gave her a small kiss on the forehead.

“Are you hungry?” I asked.

“Not much,” she said, “but you must be starving.”

I pulled out a container of chicken and dumplings Mrs. Camden had dropped off and warmed them up. She sipped a little broth while I ate. She stared intently at my face.

“The beard looks nice on you,” she said.

“Getting some gray in it,” I replied.

She smiled, “it looks good.”

“You look great,” I said.

“Shut up,” she said, “of course I don’t. I know it. I’m sorry,” she said looking down. This may have been the first time I ever saw her embarrassed.

I knew there was nothing I could say that she would believe, so I reached across the table and took her hand. I gave a small kiss to each of her fingers and then rested her hand on the table.

“Want to play cards?” I asked.

“Cribbage?” she asked.

“What else?” I went into the bedroom and came back out with a cribbage board and deck of cards.

“Is that the same one?” she asked excitedly.

“Of course,” I said.

“I figured that was long gone by now.”.

“I wouldn’t have dreamed of getting rid of it.”

We had spent many nights playing the game together. Often in bed in just our underwear after making love. The board was worn and aged, and I had kept it all these years. Early after she had left I often pulled it out, ran my fingers over it, moved the pegs, and pined for her. As the years went by I would do the same, perhaps less frequently, but fondly thinking of her.

We played several games. She won more than she lost, as had been the case when we played all those years ago. After I won two in a row, due to her making simple mistakes, I knew she needed rest. To confirm she stretched and yawned.

I moved the heater into the bedroom and turned it on. She brushed her teeth and put on a set of thick flannel pajamas. When she came out of the bathroom I took her by the hand and led her to the bed. I pulled the covers down for her and she crawled in. I pulled the blankets under her chin and then got ready for bed myself.

I got in the bed next to her and laid my body close to hers. I put my arms around her. She took my arms and tucked them even closer to herself.

“I love you,” I whispered into her ear, and kissed her gently on it.

She snuggled her body closer to me. “I love you, too.”

I lay there holding her until she fell into a deep sleep. I got up, tucked the blankets tight around her again, and made sure to close the door on my way out, allowing the heater to make the room as warm as possible for her. I slept on the couch and woke early the next morning. She slept late.

She did a lot of sleeping over the next few days, more than she was awake, really. Any exertion, like walking outside to a little covered picnic table I had built a hundred yards from the trailer, would drain her. When she slept I would sit close by, perhaps a book on my lap, and meditate to the metronome of her breath.

I grew anxious to load her into the UTV and show her around my property, but nature didn’t cooperate. The rain grew from intermittent to steady, then mixed with ice. I inwardly seethed at not being able to take her around, to show her all I had devoted myself to. I wanted her blessing on it. I wanted it to touch her, to go through her, to leave her convinced of its power. I waited impatiently for the right time.

Instead, we stayed inside. I made a lot of tea. We played cribbage, read books, and shared the stories we had accumulated over our lifetimes. We would sit on the couch, shoulder to shoulder, and laugh like we had never spent a day apart.

“Want some help putting up your Christmas tree?” she asked one day.

“I don’t have one,” I said.

“Why not?!” she asked.

“It’s just me. Why bother?” I asked.

“If I’m well enough I’d like to stay through Christmas.”

“Wonderful!” I said, elated.

“I want a tree up,” she said. “I want to sit on this couch with your arm around me, with all the lights off, except the tree, and listen to Christmas music. Can we do that?”

I grabbed the keys to my truck. She would be napping again soon, and I decided to have it here before she woke up. “I’ll be right back,” I said.

I went to Walmart and bought the tree along with two other special purchases. I completed one other errand.


“That is the ugliest tree I have ever seen,” she said laughing. “I love it!”

“It’s all they had,” I said, laughing with her.

The branches were aluminum tinsel, as if someone had saved a small shrub from a woodchipper and chrome plated it. There were pre-strung white lights that reflected garishly off the mirrored needles. Where most trees had a star or an angel, this one had a plastic, blue, light-up snowflake. It only stood four feet tall and even that was too much for the stand and it leaned to one side.

I swept up all the loose tinsel that had fallen out when I pulled the tree out of the box. She put on the pack of small red orb ornaments I had bought and sat down to admire her handiwork. She yawned and stretched happily, like a cat.

“Thank you,” she said.

“You're welcome,” I laughed.

She looked up at me, caught my eyes, stared for a worried second, and then burst into tears. I went to her, but she put her hand up.

“I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry,” she repeated through sobs.

“For what?” I asked. The suddenness of her change surprised me.

“For leaving. For coming back. For being so goddamned awful to you. I’m so sorry, Jimmy. I’m so sorry.”

What could she possibly have to apologize for? I was speechless. I wanted to hold her. To tell her it was okay, but she saw my intentions and waved me off again.

“You don’t deserve this,” the heaves of her sobs losing energy.

“I don’t deserve this?! YOU don’t deserve this,” I said. “You don’t deserve to die. I don’t know why you love me, but you certainly don’t deserve to still love some tree stump of a man who couldn’t stay with you!”

Now I was sobbing, or yelling, or overcome, or I don’t know what. I kneeled down on the floor and placed my head on her lap, convulsing with sadness and wetting her pant leg with my tears. She gently stroked the back of my head.

Her diseased and tired body had made her unable to keep up with her emotions. Spending too many days in my trailer, out of my woods, had done the same for me.

Why couldn’t we go yet? I needed to take her. It would make everything alright. I knew it would, but still I had to wait. If I had learned anything, and I’m not too entirely sure I had, it was that I couldn’t rush these things.

I regained my composure and sat next to her. She leaned against my shoulder.
We said nothing and stared at the Christmas tree. The expenditure of emotion exhausted her, and she was soon asleep. I sat there enjoying the sound of her breath. I prayed, a rare thing for me, that I would get to take her to the woods soon. I held no hope the prayer was heard.

She woke up in a fit of coughing. She couldn’t catch her breath. A stream of bloody vomit came out of her mouth, a volume of which I felt her small frame would be incapable of producing. I ran to her. A horrified look appeared on her face.

“Sorry. I’ll clean it up.” She started to stand, swayed, and fell back down to the sofa.

“I’ve got it, I’ve got it,” I said.

I grabbed a few towels and wiped up the bulk of the vomit. I got her wiped off as best as I could. I put everything in the stacked washer-dryer that lived next to my water heater.

I went to her and unbuttoned her flannel pajama top. She didn’t have the strength to react to her embarrassment. As I took her shirt off, I noticed a cross of excision scars that divided her torso into quarters. Each line was dotted on either side with suture marks. Aside from the scars, her chest was a blank canvas of pale skin. Early in the journey of her diagnosis, the doctors had taken her ovaries and breasts, a full hysterectomy and mastectomy that didn’t materially change the course of her future.

She hung her head down and ignored my gaze. A small shiver came over her. I pulled the heater closer to her, kneeled down, and removed her pants and underwear. Her pubic hair was thin and patchy, like the hair on her scalp.

I went to the bathroom and got a warm washcloth and a fresh towel. I wiped her off and dried her the best I could. I grabbed the thick comforter off the bed and covered her naked body. She tried to rise again.

“I’ll help,” she said, the voice weak from shame and exhaustion.

I pushed her gently back down, there was no resistance. “It’s all done,” I said. “Stay here and warm up.”

I turned off the lights, so the only light was emanating from the tree. I bent over, kissed her cheek, and went to start the washing machine. It hummed and sang to us as I grabbed her a fresh set of pajamas.

I pulled the pants up her legs and stopped at her thighs, pausing only briefly when the light shifted putting her hysterectomy scar in relief.

She sat there before me. “Raise your arms,” I said. She complied.

I pulled a t-shirt over her head and then a soft, pink, fleece hoodie. I laid her back down and covered her with the comforter again. I sat on the floor in front of her. Her arm wrapped around me. She placed her head next to mine.

“I’ll leave. Tomorrow,” she said. “I have a care facility up in Smithville I’ve made arrangements at. It’s time.”

She was resolute, but I heard an apprehension in her voice. I don’t think it was her death that was scaring her, it was leaving again.

“No,” I said. “That wasn’t a big deal. I’ve handled worse,” I said.

“This isn’t a decision we get to make, Jimmy,” she said, trying to be gentle with me.

“Not yet, okay?” I pleaded.

“It’s bad enough you have to see me this way. I don’t want you to see me getting worse.”

“You haven’t even gone through the woods yet,” I said. “I want to show you the woods.”

“I don’t think I’m in shape for that.” She sounded tired again. I remained silent and rubbed her hand that lay on my chest.

She fell gently asleep. A panic rose in me. I internalized the attack and rode out the breathlessness that accompanied it. It passed and I settled into a mixture of morose depression and anger. How the hell was I supposed to let her go? There was more to share. I cursed whatever gods had set up the cruelty of bringing her back and refusing to give her everything that was here.

What was the point of bringing her here if not to be fully embraced by this land I had given such a monastic devotion to? Fate had sold her short by bringing her here and having me her only gift. For the first time I realized my uselessness to this place. It would be here and thrive without me as its attendant. I pondered leaving.

Maybe we could get an apartment together by her care facility in Smithville or anywhere else she wanted to go? She didn’t want to burden me with her death, but she also didn’t want to hurt me with it any more than she had to. It was easy for her to say she would come for one last goodbye, but neither of us were prepared for our reconnection. Excising me wouldn’t cure her and would be just one more round of useless surgical resection, parts of her killed while the disease thrived.

I made an infinite number of plans but saw the futility in all of them.

Finally, I heard the whisper. I got up. I made preparations.


She didn’t wake up until late the next morning. The rest didn’t seem to have helped her much. She had grown accustomed to feeling terrible, however, and her mood and spirit were light.

“Good morning, buddy,” she said, stretching out on the couch.

I was in an especially good mood. It surprised her.

“Hey, sunshine,” I said and gave her a kiss. “Want breakfast?” I was at least a smart enough man not to cook her anything she didn’t ask for. Even scrambled eggs can have a gut-wrenching aroma for the nauseous.

“Tea sounds nice,” she said.

I turned on the kettle. I pulled down one of the mugs and tossed a tea bag in it while the water boiled.

I had not slept all night. I had been in happy motion since I got up from the couch. Everything was laid out and ready. The only obstacle left was convincing her, but I admitted to myself it was only a formality. I was willing to pick her up and carry her all the way, ignoring any of her objections.

“I’m sorry about last night,” she said.

“For what?” I asked.

“For throwing up,” she said.

“That was nothing. Everything is already clean and dry,” I said.

“Also, for talking about leaving again,” she said, quieter. “I know it upset you, but that’s a reality neither of us can ignore.”

“Just not yet, okay?” I said. “Just not yet.”

She sat quietly, thinking. I suppose she decided to give me time for the inevitability to sink in.

“Okay,” she said.

She went over to the dryer and started to pull everything out and fold it. I knew even that would make her tired, but she needed that small accomplishment.

The kettle started to whistle, and I made her tea with lemon and honey.

She balanced herself on the washer.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she said. “Just dizzy.”

I went over and escorted her to the table. She sat down heavily and had to catch her breath. I brought her the tea.

“Want some toast?” I asked.

She pondered humoring me and saying yes, but then shook her head.

“Maybe later,” she said.

“Do you trust me?” I asked.

I’ve always had this habit. Asking deep questions or making heartfelt personal statements out of nowhere. The receiver of such statements and questions almost always needed a moment to recalibrate to the change in conversation. Most people were pretty gracious about it. She was able to just roll with it.

“Of course I do,” she said, waiting for whatever crazy thing I had to say next.

“Let’s go out into the woods today,” I said.

“I would love to, Jimmy, but I don’t think I’m up for it,” she said. She was trying her best to console me, being able to see how much I wanted this.

“You don’t have to hike, we’ll take the UTV,” I said.

She was dubious she was even up for that, but decided the worst it could do was kill her, and that wasn’t much of a different outcome than she was heading to anyway.

“Alright,” she said, then got to practicalities. “It’s awfully cold out.”

I went into my room and came back out with one of the extra purchases when I bought the tree, a set of insulated coveralls.

“Camo was the only thing they had in your size,” I said.

“They look warm,” she said. Practicalities meant more to her than vanities at this point anyway. “I won’t last long out there, though.”

“I know. It’s not too far anyway,” I said.

“What’s not too far?” she asked.

I ignored the question and grabbed a thick, fur-lined trapper hat I wore when I was out working in the cold. I walked up and pulled it on her by the ear flaps.

“Come on. We’re burning daylight,” I said.

I dressed her in thick layers. Multiple shirts, pants, and jackets all contained in a shell of coveralls. I gave her a set of mittens to accompany the trapper hat. She could barely move, and I admired my handiwork. I had her wrapped up like a Christmas present.

“Alright, let’s go,” I said excitedly.

She shook her head at me, humoring my excitement for this thing she didn’t want to do, that she felt she couldn’t handle. She started wobbling to the door.

I had the UTV parked outside. A tarp that covered the bed had a light layer of fine snow on it. She hobbled down the stairs and sat in the passenger seat, making a rough acclimation to the cold.

“No,” I said. “It’s a pretty rough trail. I’m afraid you’ll spill out.” I removed the tarp revealing the nest of blankets I had made in the back.

“So, I’m cargo?” she asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Precious cargo,” I said.

She shook her head at me again and walked toward the back of the UTV. The warmth of the covers did look inviting. I hoisted her in and laid her down, her back resting against the seat in front of her. I put a couple extra blankets over her and tucked them around her sides.

“Comfy?” I asked.

“Ish,” she said, but she was smiling.

“Good.” I got in and started it up.

With the wind, the sound of the engine, and our ears covered, it was hard to talk. So I just drove in silence.

I typically preferred making this journey on foot, but, as in her case, when that wasn’t possible the UTV came in handy. Its sound detracted from the experience, driving off wildlife before you could see them and drowning out the soundtrack of the forest. The light snow falling would have made a delightful pattering sound on the leaves of the forest floor.

We went up hills and passed through hollows. The trail wasn’t particularly smooth. The UTV was tilted on steep grades in ever changing directions. To me, the beauty of it all was worth it. To her, well, she probably wondered what the hell we were doing out here.

I ran the UTV down a particularly steep hill and into a hollow, a lee from the wind. We were in a depression of almost sheer rock walls. I stopped. I turned the UTV off.

“We’re here,” I said.


I got out and walked to the back where she lay. Her lips were blue and trembling. Even with all of the layers and blankets the cold had cut through her.

“I…I…I need to go back,” she stammered.

“Almost,” I said. I put my arms under her and lifted. A confused look came over her face.

“We have to go over there,” I said, nodding my head off the side of the path.

“I can’t,” she said.

“We have to,” I said. “I’ll get you there.”

I felt like I was losing my grip, so I slung her over my shoulder and started through the trees with her in a fireman’s carry. For all the trails I maintained through the property, I never made one that went here. It was one small precaution I took to keep the place a secret, as if my actions had bearing one way or another.

“You’re nuts,” she said, cold and in pain, but not fighting me.

“It’s not far,” I said.

We came to a sheer rock face cut from the hill, maybe fifteen feet high. A narrow fissure ran down its middle. Halfway towards the forest floor it widened into an opening. I had seen it many times before, but my heart rejoiced.

Especially in my early years, if the fissure remained closed when I arrived I had tried to find ways to open it. It was always a futile effort. Through silence, I learned to wait for the path inside to open on its whims and not my own.

I ducked slightly and carried her into the stone crevice. It opened quickly into a small room I called the antechamber. It was high-ceilinged and almost square. Fossils of ancient sea creatures could be seen in its walls.

Two small benches were along one wall, separated by an old armoire. The pieces were old, and the wood grain was worn smooth as the cave walls. On the other side was an old army cot. Opposite the chamber entrance was an old, heavy, round, wooden door on iron hinges mounted into the rock face.

It was warm in the antechamber. I sat her on one of the benches and she tried to regain her breath and warmth. I opened the armoire, took my coat off, and put it inside. I had a few electric lanterns hanging about and I turned them on.

I helped her out of her winter gear and put them away as well. She started to recover from the hypothermia I had put her through.

“It feels good in here,” she said.

“Just wait,” I said.

I gave her a few moments to take it all in. She started studying the wooden door. I, as I usually did when I brought people here, cut her off before she asked.

“I can’t say, but you’ll see soon enough. How are you feeling?” I asked.

“Tired, but okay,” she said. “What is this place?”

I shrugged my shoulders. I walked over to her and offered my hand to help her stand. She stood up but was unbalanced.

I put an arm around her to hold her up and pulled her close into me. I stared down into her face.

“Do you trust me?” I asked her a second time.

She just gave me a funny look in return, knowing I was up to something, but not knowing what it was. She probably figured I was about to do something stupid and comical, an infantile romantic gesture or something similar.

I pulled her in closer to me and put my other hand on the side of her face. I leaned down and kissed her. I kept my eyes closed as I pulled my head back away, savoring how much this woman drew me, pulled me against my inclinations. She lifted her hand behind my neck to hold the kiss for a few seconds longer.

I knew her libido had been poisoned and cut out with her tumors, but I could also tell what we shared in this kiss. It was an intimacy between us, appreciated for what it was and not what it would grow into. I simply held her tightly for a couple minutes, savoring the wanting of her.

I took a step back and let go of her, my eyes never leaving her face. As I let go, she wobbled a little bit and almost fell over. I quickly caught her.

“It’s okay,” I said, “I’ll go with you.”

“Where?” she asked.

“Through the door.”

Curiosity filled her. She had spent her life exploring all corners and peoples of the world, and she relished one last adventure. One last place she had never been, through a portal in the cave I had devoted my life to.

I sat her back down on the bench. I undressed, folded the clothes neatly, and put them in the armoire. I hadn’t ever been much of a gym patron, and my naked form can only be described, if generous, as “typical”. She watched me, confused and amused. A grin appeared on her face.

“Just like I remember you,” she teased.

I ignored the nagging thoughts of insecurity that came to me and focused on the purpose of being here.

I walked over to her and helped her up again. She reached around and pinched my butt and gave me the impish smile that had caused me to fall in love with her thousands of times.

“Careful,” I said, “you’re next.”

I helped her undress and we stood there naked together. My body, with soft rounded corners and edges, as if a couple of doting parents had baby-proofed it, and hers, angular and skeletal. We were definitely a pair. I was expecting her to be resistant, but she wasn’t. Maybe she really did trust me.

“Ready?” I asked.

“Almost,” she said, then pulled me close to her and wrapped her arms around me tightly. I had never forgotten how her body felt next to me. Though she felt different now, no breasts that cushioned against my chest, her pelvis like the corners of coffee tables, being like this with her was like coming home.

We eased the hug. I took her hand and walked her towards the door.


I swung the heavy door open, and light poured out of it. She took in a sharp gasp of breath. I, who knew what to expect, was overtaken in awe. I was every time.

This cavern was completely unlike the antechamber. The creamy stone had veins and swirls of rose in it. It radiated a pale iridescence, the chamber mutely lit by its own glow. Fingers of rock reached down from the ceiling and up from the floor, pointing their intentions to grow towards each other, patiently waiting for when they would finally meet in a gentle touch.

In the chamber’s center was a deep pool. Small satellite pools fed it with trickling waterfalls, fed from unknown reservoirs deep towards the Earth’s center. The water was a pale, sapphire blue and, like the stone, was luminescent. The light from the stone and from the water each had their own character, which blended in a musical harmony.

The warmth of the room didn’t rush past us when we opened the door, it gently flowed through us. I saw the heat reach Beth’s core. Every muscle relaxed in her, strain and tension wafting away towards the cave’s entrance. I supported her weight.

“Can we get in the water?” she asked, though I knew she was now hearing the whisper too, and knew she was invited.

I first held her up as we moved towards the pool. The closer we got, the less help she seemed to need. Whether that was due to the cavern sharing its strength with her, or its call invigorating her will I don’t know. I assume it was a combination, or that those were actually the same sacred entity anyway.

I escorted her into the water. We waded waist-deep before the pool had a large drop off, its blue tint obscuring its depth. She swirled her hands on the water's surface, concentric ripples journeying from her fingertips to the pool's edge, or our bodies, where they reflected back the way they had come.

Already she seemed less gaunt, her scars fading, her scalp less visible as her hair started growing back.

I let go of her hand and let her wade around on her own. Her steps were steady, and I knew that already the water would maintain her. I was usually out of the pool by this point with people, but I just wanted to share some small part of this with her and the whispers didn’t object. I eventually felt it was time to give her her solitude, to enjoy this place without distraction.

She held up a finger asking me to wait. She leaned back and let the water overtake her, completely cradled in it. She came back up and enjoyed the feel of the water running down her back to the pool as she stood.

She walked over to me and held herself against me one more time. She kissed me full. The power of the water always made me dizzy, but with the kiss, I thought I might fall over and drown in tenderness.

“I’ll be waiting in the first room,” I said.

“I won’t be long,” she said.

“Take your time,” I said.

She smiled at me, and I took in her beauty.

I waded back out of the water. At the door, I stopped and looked one more time. She was floating on her back, eyes closed, arms outstretched, the water gently washing over her. I stepped out of the chamber and closed the door.

I waited. I dried myself off and got dressed. Contentment overtook me and I laid down on the cot. It always made me tired when I came here, happily, but still a deep fatigue always set in. I almost always ended up sleeping. Time was lost to those in the cavern of the water and my duty to it was presence. I spent I don’t know how many hours pacing the antechamber before I learned the importance of inaction to my purpose.

I woke up and she was standing over me, dressed with a towel around her neck. She was gently stroking the side of my face. I rode a wave of panic. Usually, I woke up to open the door when people were finished. I fell asleep on the job, and I was worried something may have gone wrong.

“Are you okay?!” I said.

“Shh,” she said, “everything is okay. Scoot over.”

I moved to the side, and she laid down next to me. The cot was not large, and she was pushed tightly against me. Much of the gauntness was gone from her, but I knew her healing was not instantaneous. As miraculous as the pool was, healing is a process and not an event.

She fell asleep now. I took in her feel, her scent, and existed in that happy place between sleep and awake. It was a rare treat to stay in the cave after. I felt it’s invitation, a sort of honeymoon gift for the two of us. Underneath the perfection of the moment, I worried over what would be next.


“I have nipples!” she screamed, running out of the bathroom, topless, in the kitchen where I was making breakfast.

“What?!” I said, confused, trying to determine when to flip the pancakes but also very interested in this nipple situation.

She pointed a finger from either hand to some, small, pink areas over where her breasts were slowly growing back. The scars from her surgeries had already faded to memory.

She stood there, in only a pair of pink underwear, and did a happy little dance in the kitchen. She put two thumbs up.

“Who’s got two thumbs and nipples again?” she asked, pointing her thumbs at her chest, “This girl!”

She danced out of the room and back to the bathroom, humming happily. I laughed, threw the pancake into the trash can, and poured batter out for another.

She was eating again. The miracle of her regrowth required a lot of rest. She slept often, but her times of wakefulness were active. It was a glorious time. Christmas came and went, which we celebrated just the two of us. We hiked my trails, her patiently listening to me tell her of every tree, bush, and bird we came across.

Mrs. Camden came for coffee a couple of times. The two of them adored each other and had long conversations. My two coffee cups were suddenly not enough so Mrs. Camden started bringing her own. I mostly didn’t say much, just taking in how nice it was to have two people I cared about, from separate orbits, align in such easy company together.

In her healing, I waited for her to stretch out her wings, to need to soar on them again. I doubted I could handle the loss. The ignorance of youth is a shield, and aging had convinced me I could not handle a direct blow.

She was sleeping less, and we were doing more. We were hiking long distances during the day, and we made love in the evenings. Her previously gaunt frame now had curves; she was healed. I decided it was time.

I went to the shed and retrieved a large box that I bought when I got the Christmas tree. I carried it into the trailer and sat it down in front of her.

“What is this?” she asked.

“A present. Open it,” I said.

I handed her my pocketknife and she started to cut the tape and lift the flaps of the box. Anxiety and the fear of rejection gripped me. If she didn’t accept this offer, I didn’t know what I was going to do. I almost threw up.

She lifted the flaps and looked down at the suitcase inside.

“Are you kicking me out?” she asked, teasing.

“No, hell no,” I said. “I…I…I..”

Words escaped me. I looked at her, terror written on my face, an emotional aphasia keeping me from saying what I wanted to say. This was not how I wanted it to go.

She took my hand and guided me down to the couch by her side. She laid her head on my shoulder and gently stroked my hand.

“It’s okay, Jimmy,” she said.

“It’s not for you,” I said, “it’s for me.”

“The suitcase?” she asked.

“Yes,” I replied.

“There are things I’d like to show you,” she said. “Places.”

The tension of anxiety immediately flew from me. I was unprepared for the release and started to hyperventilate in relief.

She simply rubbed her cheek on my chest until I calmed down.

“Can you go?” she asked. “Do you have to stay here all the time?”

“No,” I replied. “I’ll leave altogether if you want.”

“That, I don’t want. What you do here is too important,” she said.

“I don’t matter here. The water will find someone else,” I said with modest confidence.

“You matter. You’ve mattered to so many people here,” she said, then added, “you matter to me. I wanted to come to you one last time, to spend my final good days with you. However many more I may have, that is what I still want to do.”

She waited patiently for my reply. Of all the vulnerabilities we had shared with each other since her return, this scared us the most.

“I applied for a passport,” I confided.

“You did?! When?!”

“When I got the Christmas tree. I’ll be drawn here when the water needs me, I think. We can do this. It’ll work. How? I don’t know, but I am not going to watch you go again. If you leave, I’ll follow.”

She kissed me, not too deeply, a quick peck really, but one that made me feel like it was my first one all over again.

So she stayed. We settled into a new life of routine together. The trailer became her home, and it was immediately like she had been there forever. She got work managing itineraries for a travel agency. We took trips but were always around when the water called a visitor in. The angular projections of youth had worn smooth, and we now fit in harmony together.

I had borne the years of isolation and loneliness well, unaware of the joy I would know at reuniting with her again. If I had known, I would have left my post and followed her anywhere she wanted to roam. Would I have missed a calling? A purpose?

I can only say for certain that I found a new devotion to Beth, one as strong as I kept to the land.

I grew roots. She grew wings. I became a shelter she could alight on, and she the sky my branches reached for.

Jeremy Grojean's short fiction has appeared in The First Line Literary Journal. He is the author of the middle-grade novel Amelia and Harry: The Bumps in the Basement and has been a guest columnist for the St. Louis Post Dispatch. Professionally, he is an Immunology Technologist, performing laboratory tests matching patients and donors for organ transplants. He lives with his wife, daughter, son, dog, and chickens in St. Louis, MO, USA.

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