Sea of Tranquility, by Kathryn Davis

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From Aurelia, Aurélia, a memoir, which will be published this month by Graywolf Press.

The driver let me out at the foot of an unpaved lane bordered by trees, their crowns black and still as stone. He wasn’t supposed to go further, he said, giving me the once-over. My husband had died a year earlier and I was used to being examined for symptoms, as if widowhood might be catching.

Flickering lights in the distance or near at hand, it was impossible to say—they could have been bugs, windows, stars. I kept walking without knowing where I was going, losing my footing from time to time on a root or a rock. It was very dark. Eventually I arrived at what seemed to be a back entrance; the cottage was set on a rocky promontory overlooking a large body of water. I could tell the water was there even though I couldn’t see it from where I stood, the way you can sense a person in the next room even if you think the room is empty.

“Hello?” I called. “Hello?” The screen door opened into a large kitchen where the refrigerator was running noisily and a faucet was dripping. There was a lot of sound in the room, considering this was the middle of nowhere. The refrigerator, the faucet, tree frogs, crickets, the lake. Summer was ending and fall was coming.

It was late. It had been a long time since I’d seen my daughter. I tried to remember when that had been. Maybe the last time I saw her was when the visiting nurse sent her into the kitchen for the morphine, which was in a little glass bottle with a calibrated dropper on the same shelf in the refrigerator as the homemade peach jam and the tomato chutney. I washed and dried a bowl and spoon; the inside of the bowl had a picture in it of a blue horse reared up on its hind legs, my daughter’s favorite.

Hi Mom, said the note. Sweet dreams.

Really, I was here because of the outdoor shower. Of all the things my husband had wanted with a strong and unbendable passion, an outdoor shower would have to have been near the top of the list. We looked for a place to install such a shower, settling on the side of the garage, a location that also turned out to face the part of our neighbors’ yard where they planned to erect an immense red play structure on which their little children, swinging, would get a great view of my husband’s naked body.

His body. I could look at the outside of his body and have no idea about the terrible things going on inside. My husband’s body had heft and substance when we met; he had worked summers as a bricklayer to help pay for college. As time wore on we all got older, but my husband’s body remained strong. People thought I was exaggerating the seriousness of his illness, partly because of the way he looked, and partly because fiction writers are known to make things up. The skin held the parts together. Then the corruption set in and the unity of the body was forever destroyed.

There were four beds in the cottage. Three of them were upstairs, but the fourth, the best, was at the far end of the screened porch overlooking the lake. When I got there, I slipped between the sheets, taking care not to wake my daughter, who was lying in the exact middle of the bed. The sheets were white, like the ones ghosts wear. There had been a ghost in my past. His name was John Waite and he lived for a while with me and the first husband in a white farmhouse on a hill. Sometimes when I walked past the door into what had once been the living room of the farmhouse, I used to think I saw a man, middle-aged, in the far corner. He was a sad ghost, the town historian told me. John Waite’s young wife died in childbirth and he felt like it was his fault. The dogs wouldn’t go into the room where John stood looking out the window.

Eventually I fell into an uneasy sleep, the kind where you remain unsure whether you’re asleep or not. For example, the moon had been an all but invisible crescent when I arrived at the cottage. When I woke, the moon was full and overlarge, as if it had exceeded perigee and was coming closer to Earth than it was supposed to. It wasn’t frightening.

I could see the moon’s individual craters beyond the screen window, how deep they were, the Sea of Tranquility, bigger and sparkling, bright black and shot with sparkles, the night sky, the lake. “Look,” I said to my daughter, but then I saw her side of the bed was empty.

What was wrong with me, I wondered, that I couldn’t make the people in bed with me stay there.

There was a hook-and-eye latch on the porch door, which swung open over what looked like empty space, beneath which a long set of ladderlike steps led to a narrow footbridge.

The bridge was made of something like thick burlap. Down below was a vast body of water, the surface broken at intervals by whitecaps. The horizon? Not even visible. This was no lake!

The minute I set foot on the bridge it began to sway. There was no way on earth I could make it to the other side, if such a thing existed. I took another step and felt the bridge swing to the right, tipping me to the left. I should turn around and go back, I knew, though turning would be awkward. Besides which, there was someone behind me. “We have to turn around,” I said. “Now!” I couldn’t look back to see him but I knew it was my husband. He was in the wheelchair we’d borrowed for him to use during his last month. Of course he couldn’t turn around or back up. We would have to stay there like that.

I could picture him, his beautiful face swollen by steroids. I wondered if he could picture me, balanced there, facing nothing.


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