Still Life in Shadow Ch. 04byAdrian Leverkuhn©
She was in her outlook a simple woman, and it had been said of her for as long as anyone could remember that she maintained a cool distance between herself and everyone else. Perhaps that's why she had come undone. She'd lost that cool distance from another human being when she began her campaign to take Jennifer; perhaps it was her soul's last great attempt to connect with another before the coming of night. Or perhaps she had just grown too hard inside to feel any but the most intense contact. Whatever it was, a profound change had come over Maria Louisa Delasandro, and no one was happy with the change. Especially not Max.
Something had happened on Bolero. During that brief storm when they had been below together. With Maria and Max tucked safely down below, I had thought they would weather the storm with no lasting effect; I was wrong. I couldn't get Maria to talk about it, and of course Max was, in his none too subtle way, also somewhat less than reticent to discuss the matter.
Dogs. Stubborn like nothing else in the world.
Max was, as I've mentioned, a Bernese Mountain Dog. If you've never seen one, think about a St Bernard, only black with a little copper here and there, and a small white diamond on the chest. Their stock is a mountain rescue breed as well, so coming to people's aid was about as natural for Max as breathing is for you and me. He wanted to help, he wanted to be involved. In fact, you couldn't keep Max from getting involved. It was genetically impossible.
And of course, some dogs are true empaths. They can look in someone's eyes and read the contours of that person's soul, they can see pain, feel melancholy, and share those brief moments of happiness that punctuate the human life like a shooting star. They can rest a chin on your thigh and suddenly you know, really know, that all will be right with the world if you just give it a chance. And you can rest your soul in theirs - knowing that you will be a better person in the sharing.
Max was such a dog.
Which made Maria's apparent rejection all the more telling.
Max had seen something. He had discovered a real truth about Maria, and she knew it. When Max looked at her now, all his years of devotion to her came down like broken glass on cold stone, and for a while he seemed to give up as his cancer began to eat away at him. He took to spending a night every now and then with Jenn and I in the hotel, but by and large he spent most everyday down on the breakwater with David Latham.
Those two had so much in common. Least of all their looming encounter with death.
While Bolero gleamed in the sun, it was fair to say that now David Latham, who was in his early thirties, looked like an old man. His gray skin hung in loose folds over his tall, gaunt frame, and his blue-gray eyes shone like sapphires against his yellow gray skin. Whenever he moved, he groaned at unseen spirits that lurked just under his skin, waiting, waiting to remind him of their advance through his body, and of the coming of night. And yet Latham approached life each day not as a stoic; rather he greeted the world with a smile, grateful, I suppose, that he had another day to tackle, another problem to solve. Grateful, I'm certain, of another day with Max.
Max and David lived on Bolero now, each in their way helping sustain the other, and it amazed not only Jenn and I but everyone in town how the two were struggling together, and keeping each other's spirits up as they did. While each was positively heroic in their resolve to soldier on, together they came to represent something much greater. They came to represent hope to a town that often had that in short supply.
After the storm, David resumed work on Bolero, resumed turning his home into a monument to his love for her. People in town noticed. On a Monday, perhaps, a new gallon of varnish would appear on the breakwater above Bolero. Maybe the next day some metal polish and a fresh bundle of new line would appear. Women carried down bowls of soup to Bolero when they heard David was having a tough day, and someone would always come and take Max for a short walk to the breakwater so he could do his business.
In this way, the town united in their love and admiration for David and Max.
Perhaps it was an irony that Maria Louisa had been relegated once again to her shadowlands. Men looked at her as she walked to and from work with a subtle leer, while the women in the village looked at her with unmitigated contempt.
Whatever it was that Maria had run from in Zurich, well, it had found her now. Whatever force it was that sustained love for David and Max with the townsfolk, it had found it's antithesis in their feelings for Maria. And to an extent, Jennifer and I both shared in this oppressive realization, we both felt it's scorn. In a very real sense, the town's reaction to the affair made it very clear to both of us that we couldn't stay on the island. We were visitors, as Maria was, inevitably, and we had worn out our welcome.
If Maria was guilty of burying her anger and sorrow in her work, I was guilty, too, of the same crime. I walked to the hospital before the sun came up, and walked home after sunset. I hardly ever talked with Maria; we had quickly grown so embittered with each other that we couldn't make eye contact anymore. She became prickly in the operating room, and nurses began avoiding her. People talked behind her back incessantly, and the whole affair soon came to be an abject lesson in social hypocrisy. When people came to the hospital, they wanted her to take care of their ills. When she saw the same people out on the streets, they shunned her.
One afternoon she asked me and Jenn to come out to her house after work. She needed, she said, to talk to us.
I told her that we would come as soon as I could drop by the hotel and pick Jennifer up.
That wasn't an altogether bright thing to have done, but you can never tell about these things.
She met us at the door; the sun was just setting on her little garden, and I couldn't help but reflect that this was apparent in more ways than one. She welcomed us, offered us drinks, but I could see a tiredness about her person that I didn't recognize. She didn't look familiar to me at all. I knew my feelings for this woman were complex; not long ago I had felt something akin to love for her. She seemed to be, like Max, empathetic and compassionate, and I had felt comfortable around her. Now I didn't trust her, at least not like I had, and Jenn seemed a little ill-at-ease too.
She'd already had dinner, so offered us Port, and we each took a glass and sat in the living room and looked down at the sea as the last of the day's sun drifted below the distant horizon.
"I'm going to leave the island," she said after a while. I could understand the impulse, but I thought her reaction too hasty.
"This will blow over, Maria. Give it time."
She shrugged her shoulders. "Perhaps. Perhaps not. It does not matter in the least. I miss my homeland, and intend to return there as soon as possible. I wanted to ask if either of you wanted to buy the house."
I think I was a little shocked by that. "I don't know, Maria. To tell you the truth, Jenn and I were thinking of moving on ourselves." It seemed a somewhat territorial statement to make, but I wanted to delineate the recent past from any possible future Maria might have in mind. I was staking my claim, so to speak, and Maria bristled at the implications in my words.
"Pete, have I acted in any way less than honorable toward you?" she stared at me while this question penetrated the air around us. It looked like she wanted to stir something up, and hoped I would back down, that I would avoid a scene at any cost. Did she want to humiliate me here, on her turf, so to speak.
"I beg your pardon?" I tossed back at her. "Are you seriously asking me that?"
"Seducing my girlfriend. Wasn't that enough, to, well - ah - strike you as something less than honorable?"
"Your girlfriend? But you had told me you weren't interested in a long-term relationship with Jennifer. Isn't that so?"
I could feel Jenn looking at me now, and I knew this was dangerous ground indeed.
"Not quite, Maria. I said I had no intention of marrying her right now. I said she needed time to get over the dispute with her parents, and to get her bearings. I never said I wanted to end our relationship. I think, perhaps, you heard what you wished to hear. I think I understand your present difficulties. Why you came here, why you came to Horta. And I think you understood only too well the difficulties Jenn and I faced when we first got here. And, and now maybe I'm off base here, but I think you took advantage of that."
Yes. I said that. And. . .
. . . Her eyes turned gray and lifeless before me, and I could see her anger and hatred falling away for a moment to reveal the tortured soul within. I didn't want to feel sorry for the woman, but I did. She had faced her demons long ago, mastered them in her way, but they had stalked her over the years just as certainly as any disease might, and when they struck they took her in a moment of weakness.
"Well," she said to Jenn now, "I wish you the best. I love you, dear girl, and I always will."
Jenn nodded her head, but I could tell she was trying to hold back tears of her own.
We stood to leave, but Maria remained seated. We let ourselves out, and I felt the lights in the room go out, and I turned to look at Maria as she sat in the sudden shadow.
Jenn and I walked back to town, and we walked under the stars. I held her hand now like I would never let it go again, and we listened to the gathering silence around us. The sounds of the sea could just be felt through the hum of the town below us, and as we crested the hill we could look down on the harbor spread out below like a black hole surrounded by amber-hued diamonds.
On the breakwater we could just make out the flashing lights of an ambulance.
Men were jumping on and off a boat moored to a dock there.
It was, we could see, the Bolero.
"Yeah? Hey, Pete!" came his faint voice through the growing fog.
"I sent Jenn down to the boat to check on Max. Is there anything I can do?"
"Get me out of here, Pete. I don't want to die in here. Get me back to the boat, wouldya?"
"Alright, Dave. Hang in there; I'll be back in a minute."
Jenn filled me in on the details: Someone had been walking along the breakwater and looked down at Max, who had seemed agitated, and they had seen Latham laying face down in the cockpit. They had called the Guardia, and the firemen had come for him. Now Jenn was down on the boat taking care of Max and straightening up the forepeak berth. I had carried a huge bag of ice down to Bolero, and some fruit juice in case David felt like drinking something, then walked back up to the hospital and arranged to have him carried back down to the docks.
Some firemen and I loaded him up and rolled him out to an ambulance, and we drove down to the dock and got him moved back aboard. Jenn and I walked him up into the forward cabin, and helped him into his bunk. I opened up the hatch over his head, and a sharp late winters breeze filled the space, and it tussled our hair on it's way through the boat.
"You want some juice, or some ice to chew on?"
"Maybe some ice. Got cottonmouth. Where's Max?"
Max was having his own troubles that night, as well. He was moving slowly now, and it was obvious to me that he too was in a lot of pain, but when her heard Latham say his name he ambled forward and sat down on the carpet next to the bunk. His tail started thumping, and he looked up at me expectantly. I leaned over and helped him up on the bunk and he scooted over and settled in next to Latham, with his chin resting on Latham's shoulder. His big brown eyes went from me to David and back again over and over, like he didn't know whether his allegiance belonged to the living or the dying, but after a few minutes of this he settled down and looked at David with a smile on his face. He seemed so full of love as he lay there.
"What's that, David?"
"Up there, through the hatch. It's Orion." I craned my neck over and looked up into the night sky. Almost directly overhead I could make out the Hunter's stars: Betelgeuse, Rigel, the belt stars and the short dagger with the fuzzy patch around the middle star, the Orion nebula. "That's my favorite night sight," he said. "I wish I could've gone there."
"Maybe you will."
He smiled. "Fairy tales, Pete. All fairy tales."
"Could be. Here, open up." I put an ice cube in his mouth and he smiled. I little runner dripped down his cheek and Max licked it off, and David smiled deeply as the familiar touch interrupted his journey through the stars.
"Pete? There's an envelope in the chart table addressed to you. Instructions, you know, for later."
"Sure thing, Dave. Don't worry about that now."
"If . . . I . . . ah, take care of Max . . . would you?"
"Count on it, David." I watched as he swallowed hard, and struggled to keep his eyes on Orion, but he gave up and looked down at Max, and he started to cry softly.
"Bye, buddy. Such a good . . . "
He tried to swallow again, but gave up. He breathed one last time as he reached up to rub Max's ear, then he grew very still.
I put my hand on his, felt the last moments of life in him, then wished him a good journey.
I looked at Max. He too seemed very still now. His eyes were closed, and he seemed to be at peace with this world, but his tail was motionless now, and so it would forever remain.
After a few minutes, I moved away from David and Max to sit with Jennifer, and though the world seemed suddenly a very cold and lonely place, I knew the love I held in my heart for those two boys would sustain me.
Life goes on. Isn't that what you're supposed to say.
Time to get on with it. Get your chin up. Get on with living.
Don't you get it?
I read through Latham's last wishes as I sat down below at Bolero's chart table, and it was all I could do not to laugh. I looked around at the masterpiece he'd created, at the honey-warm teak and the soothing brass oil lamps giving the space an unnatural glow, and I just shook my head in wonder at his insight.
He'd thought of everything. He'd planned what he wanted done, sought approval from the necessary bureaucracies, and left me contact information for what needed to be done to settle his affairs back in the States.
Max was an unforeseen complication, but it turned out nobody cared what happened to his body.
But I cared. It mattered to me. And I knew it mattered to David, too. But most of all, I knew what Max would have wanted, knew what he would have wanted me to do, and in the end he was my friend, too. Maybe the best friend I ever had.
I just had to pull it off, somehow. And everyone in the town looked at me expectantly that last evening as I walked out to Bolero that last time.
David Latham was down below on his bunk, and Max was still nestled up on his shoulder, though now they were wrapped up in one of Bolero's working jibs. I was alone in the cockpit, sailing Bolero out past the light at the end of the breakwater, out toward the open sea. I little patrol boat from the Coast Guard trolled along beside Bolero, and I looked back at the town. Most everyone on the island had assembled on the breakwater, and the people there began to light candles. The town's priest was talking to the people, and though I was too far away to hear anything, I knew what was being said.
They were being told that David Latham was a kind soul, one who had come to their village in a time of great personal need, and that he had touched all of their lives in profound ways in his passage through their lives.
It seemed that, in the end, Latham had turned out to be one of those so-called Microsoft millionaires, and that he left this earth with a ton of money in the bank. His instructions were simple: upgrade the hospital, the town library, the church and the schools were to be repaired or modernized. He left detailed plans on how he wanted some of his money used for local public works projects, and he wanted a statue of Max commissioned and placed on one of the headlands north of town that looked out over the sea. When the townspeople learned of Latham's gift, it was as though a miracle passed through the air all these people breathed. They knew their lives had been touched by Latham in small, personal ways, but they had never really understood what that meant, what the bigger picture was. Now they did, and now they stood on the breakwater, bathed in the glow of a thousand candles, and many of the people cried as he left the way he had come. By the way of the sea . . .
I set up the wind-vane self-steering and balanced the helm, and Bolero bit into the wind and began to dance again in the waves. I fell into that trance again; that place I go when the wind streams through my hair and I feel so connected to life on this planet, and I felt the water as it hummed through the tiller, it's vibration settling into senses. I stood with the wind in my face now, the last of the days light falling off and the sky around me a deep purple streaked with orange cloud, and I felt tears rolling down my face - only to be whisked away by the wind and carried back to the sea.
A dolphin broke the surface next to us, and I looked down into his black eye.
There might have been an infinity between us, but we were brothers in this instant of time.
The cabin below was awash in gasoline. I took Bolero's flare pistol and cocked the hammer, then called for the little Coast Guard ship to move alongside. I moved forward, moved to look at David and Max one last time, then held the pistol out and pulled the trigger. The fire started slowly, but once the elements were united in combustion they began to dance with all the fury of creation long denied.
I jumped across to the waiting boat and we moved off. I turned and looked at Bolero as we headed back toward town.
Bolero continued to sail perfectly away to the northeast, her interior at first trailing black smoke. Then a fierce glow down below could be seen, followed by naked flames dancing in the air around her topsides. The fire grew in hunger, waiting to absolve all sin with it's passing, and Bolero gave way to this passage. Flames consumed the deck and jumped into the drawing sails and moved skyward, toward the heavens, and I wondered as I guess we all do what awaits us on the other side of the night.
I made it back to the hotel later that night, and I finished packing my bags. Jennifer's bags were packed and stacked neatly in the corner of the room, but she hadn't come back yet, and it was then that I saw the note.
She would, she wrote, see me at the airport in the morning.
But she wasn't there when I checked my bags in that next morning. And she wasn't there when I checked through security. I walked out to the little Airbus when they called the flight, and walked up the steps and took my seat. I half expected to see her running out to the plane at any minute, but it wasn't to be.
The cabin door closed and the engines spooled up. Men moved around below and after a few more minutes the jet turned and taxied out to the end of the runway and turned around to charge back into the sky.
I could feel the power come on, and the jet hurtled down the runway.
I looked out my window as it rotated and began to climb into the sky. I could see houses below . . .