When We Hiked the Mine-Shaft Trail
The baby had just turned one when we hiked into the blue hills, away from the
lodge where my cousin would get married. I sat in the venue's wild grass and watched
you strap our son into the expensive backpack, made you test picking him up and setting
him back down again until your forehead glistened with sweat and peals of giggles
echoed off the mountainside. The hike was steeper than we expected, and we didn't
speak to save our breath. Black moths gathered at the edge of puddles, sunning their
wings. Flakes of muscovite dotted the ground, winking in and out of sight. One of us
made a joke about missing the wedding. Would anyone even notice we were gone? It
was a thick Carolina day, and patches of sky visible through the canopy threatened rain.
I counted the screams of kestrel hawks, watched the baby sink into sleep. At the summit,
we found a clearing and witnessed the fog clinging to the treetops. I thought the sun,
hidden then, might be setting. Said maybe we should be heading back. You said you
finally knew why they call them the Smokies. My hand reached for yours and brushed
your fingertips, as if by mistake. You had already turned toward the mine. I followed,
sweat-soaked and losing ground, watching as you crossed a wood-plank bridge, the
baby's head bobbing curiously to the side. I lost track of you in the trees and heard you
shout, from somewhere that could have been in front of me or behind, I think I found it.
Then silence, silence. I scaled a cluster of small rocks, staggered on the wet leaves, and
called your name. It's funny to me now, to remember the yawning, black mouth of the
mine. All along I'd imagined a pit you could fall into, but the reality was a slow walk
down, long as a silk train. I took a step in and called "Hello?" in a nervous voice, a child's
voice. When you didn't answer, I transformed back into a mother. Did I have a plan as I
tore down the rocks, slipping and falling and trudging on, ankle already swelling in my
shoe? Rationality left me. My body in the grip of instinct. Only the baby could stop me in
my tracks, suspended there in the middle of the moldering bridge, strapped safely in his hiking backpack, legs swinging, body dangling in a single shaft of light. He smiled at me,
gap-toothed, innocent. Below him, a creek burbled with life; in the distance, one hawk
summoned another; at my feet, dark insects lay in wait; in the hillsides, a glint of gold. I
moved to him then, quietly, finger pressed to my lips as he raised his own in imitation. I
could've called your name, but didn't. You were probably just below the bridge, filling
your canteen. But I knew the end of this fairytale. Knew whoever or whatever reached
the baby first would get to keep him.
(After Amelia Gray)
When my wife came to visit, I was still living in the house where she'd died. I
couldn't bring myself to sleep in our bed, couldn't afford to move. I'd pass out nightly on
the living room sofa, face pressed into her pillow, cloaked in the blue light of the tv.
Sometimes I'd cry out for my lost wife, but mostly I'd just lie there, staring into the
darkness, waiting for one day to end and the next to begin. Then one evening, I roused
to find the television turned off and the porch lights burning. I stared awhile at the
starlit bulbs, blinking my way back into consciousness, watching the hammock swing
heavy with weight. I floated from the couch and pressed my forehead to the cold glass.
There, a black cord of hair, a lifeless foot draped over the side, the silver anklet I'd given
her looking strange and childish on the graying limb. I wasn't afraid as I opened the
porch door and reached out to her. The fabric breathed and she lifted her head to face
me. "Bedtime," she whispered and, not wanting to upset her, I nestled into the
hammock next to her and fell asleep.
I might have been convinced I'd dreamt the whole thing if I hadn't woken the
next night to relieve my bladder and found her in the bathroom, taking a soak in the tub.
I watched her through the mirror, working her lavender soap to a froth, running it along
the length of her white arm. We locked eyes. "Bath time," she said, and again I followed
orders, stepping into the bathtub, where I woke up the next morning, dry and alone.
So it continued over the next few weeks: me, waking to find my dead wife cooking
dinner, folding laundry, bent over a stack of papers to grade. Then rising alone the next
morning at the dining room table, paper stuck to my cheek, or on the cement floor of the
mudroom, body tangled in clean towels, or, most worrisome, amid the crumbs in the
kitchen, one hand clutching a knife.
"You're sleepwalking," my therapist said over the phone, after I'd called the
emergency number. "The house feels empty without your wife. This is the brain's way of
filling the space."
"That would seem to make sense," I said. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched
as my dead wife sat on the edge of the bed, struggling to pull on her pantyhose. "But at
what point, exactly, should I start to worry?"
Stephanie Devine's fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Nano, Louisiana Literature, Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, The Austin Review, Joyland, Pembroke Magazine, Cheap Pop, Atticus Review, Fiction Southeast, Treehouse
and Glassworks Magazine
. She can be found on Twitter @ensignbabyface