He will do it. I have come to stop him. Everything is that simple.
Michael moves a chess piece of red clay. He is folded up on himself, his shoulders shrunk. I see my own age in him. I see that I do not tell the whole truth to myself, that I would have come back to his house for some reason before I died. The stones, seeming dank in the firs’ shade, the caverns carved by shadow where my heartbeats throw footsteps down the trails ahead: these I understand. The city is what I do not understand. Had I died before seeing the house a last time, I would have become a ghost and lingered by the lanes and bus-stops where the dogs sniff each other in the early morning. I have always envied Michael the place where he lives.
His move has checkmated me, and he smiles as he reaches for my wine. My tastebuds have gone before I have, and it seemed dusty to me. But Michael gulped his an hour ago, and now his lips edge towards a smile as his tongue slips over the wine in my glass.
I am lulled, after our years of office-sharing, the way I was by the habits of my wife. For three years after I retired, I trailed in my dressing gown after her as she did her housework. Only after she died did I compare myself to the undergraduates who lingered in the cafeteria in the hopes of spotting Michael.
I shake my head. How tiresome, that I am still able to lie to myself. The years have simply made my lies more subtle. I see now that I came for another brawl with words, because he always acts without asking – beause, in fact, he asked me by letter. Now that I think, I doubt that I will be able to stop him when he tries to die.
Michael says, “It has always stood on the edge of the clearing for members of my family. It waits for me. It will call me, soon.”
“How could it have always been here?” I say. “The house and the clearing are a hundred years old, no more.”
He smiles. “Do you think it could be Tsonoqua? The tribes’ Cannibal Woman?”
“Not my specialty.” I mean that I do not remember the mythology. I have not been at the faculty club, even, for two years.
His faculty was English, the same as mine. All the same, he frees a small Henry Hunt print from the wall. He props it against the chess board, facing me. The puzzle-piece blocks of red and black fit into a person holding a basket. I do not know West Coast art, so I cannot say that I see a woman.
“There you go,” he says, “Cannibal Woman.”
His talk is like his tarot cards, like the witchy books whose pages he never turns. I use two fingers as tweezers, and toss the print aside.
“Your father moved here after the war,” I insist. “How could anything have been awaiting your family?”
“A father and an aunt. Two great uncles.” He counts on his fingers. “My grandfather on a visit. He was as old as I am now.”
“How can you believe?” I glared at him and go to lean on the mantlepiece.
He keeps silent.
“You can’t start to argue and then stop, Michael. I know too well that you’ll try to.”
Still, he does not answer. I stare furiously into the fire.
After a moment, he takes pity. “I doubt it will come tonight, Jonathan. Why don’t you sleep?”
He lets some wine lurch from the bottle into his glass. I do not say what I wanted to when I saw the label. I was young, when Okanagan wines were malt vinegar. I take my lacquered walking stick and start to the stairs. The further I move from the fire, the more the cold off the stones seems to slip inside me.
At the stair’s bottom, I turn. He is going to be awake all night. He will be sleepless, steady and sober, and he is six years older than me.
“You’ll be all right?” I say.
“I hope so,” he says. My neck hardens as I understand that we have different meanings.
“I wish I could hear the sea.” I climb two stairs and turn again. “Here in the trees, you forget there is a sea.”
“I could take you to the saltchuck tomorrow.” He opens last week’s paper to the chess problem. “Good night, Jonathan.”
“Good night, Michael.” I sway up to the landing. When my breath is not so tight about my breastbone, I walk in the darkness to my room.
Two, three times, I grope out, sleep-slowed, for my bladder’s sake. From the landing, I look down each time. I know Michael and I do not want to wake in the house alone.
On my last stare, his bald spot slides away to make room for his face. “I told you it probably wouldn’t come, Jonathan.”
I trudge back to gape up into the dark. I tell myself that he is drunk on words, that his family has been proud and chosen their deaths in lonely places, the way that cats are supposed to. But I sleep in a fever of doubt. Through jagged dreams, I watch as a stooped Cannibal Woman plucks men and women from the ground. Among her harvest is Michael, his tweeds thick with needles and loose with the damp. Dew dribbles down the branches on to his head.
When I fall out of sleep, I say, “This is it.” I would use the same tone for the long-awaited holocaust-by-button. I know, not knowing how I know, and I lash the sash around my dressing gown as I walk. In the dark before the stairs, I push my glasses up along my nose.
Michael is straightening a toque about his head. A black ski jacket coats his body.
I place myself in front of him. “It’s cancer, isn’t it? That, or something worse.”
I am sure that I will be faced with silence, his smugness so much worse than a curse. Instead, he smiles. “No, Jonathan. Just time.”
I move between him and the door. I was strong, when young. My arms were veined with strength. Now, I strain and grunt, and still I am pushed aside and into a chair.
How can these crying sounds creep out of me? My eyes itch with dryness.
I hear the lock open. My cheek is brushed by the rush of air.
“Good night, Jonathan.”
After a moment, I can hear him outside, walking with slow purpose, as if he is early for an appointment and looking for the address.
Twisting in the chair, I seem him easing into the dark.
Overhead, the wind ruffles the branches. It seems to dance through the dark as I stagger to the door.
By my car, across the clearing, Michael twists sideways into the bush. I see him, one hand raised to move a branch from his path. The hand straightens and rises a little as he sees me. He
does not wave.
Part of the dark seems to slip from the rest. It clings to him like a lover. There is a laugh like Michael’s—no.
There is only the twitching branch.
The trees seem to stoop after me. I have gone senile and want to giggle, but the beginnings of sweat are breaking out over my face. I have thought death thin, and bleak. Yet the night outside flows about me, as warm as bathwater. I want to close my eyes to remember. I want to invite the night in through the door. Instead, I leap to close it and I hurry away, faster than my heart would like.
Upstairs, I tug my dressing gown off. I lean over the bed, lowering myself face-first.
Mouth at the pillow, I speak to the dark. “They’ll have to solder my coffin lid down.”
After a second: “They’ll have to pin my heart down, and plant me in a place where two freeways meet.”
“I’ve always liked garlic. They’ll give me garlic for chewing tobacco.”
I carry a poor tune in the dark. I lunge at the light. “Me,” I whisper as I pick up the phone. “It should have been me.”
The silence that replies seems Michael’s, and, already, loneliness aches like a rib-bruise.
Tomorrow I will look for Michael in the forest.