I was lost in my own thoughts until Marie squeezed my arm and pointed out a fox.
It saw us and darted into the bracken, startling a blackbird, which flapped wildly into a birch tree.
These nearly wordless walks through the birch woods on Sunday mornings were our joyful secret. We'd rise early and peep through the bedroom curtains, hoping for a pink sunrise. But even if the sky were still grey and drowsy, we'd still silently put on our walking clothes and sneak out of the flat, leaving our sleeping kids, shutting the door quietly so as not to wake them.
We rarely varied our route. We'd got to know every tree stump, every stone and bush along the way. So when Marie stooped to pick up a stick of birch I knew what she was doing: There was a muddy stream ahead that was hard to cross without the water getting into our boots. Every week we'd lay another little branch across the stream to help us cross.
The birch stick was a little small, I thought. I looked around and spotted a great beech trunk, nearly fifty feet long, which had fallen in the recent storms. It lay on the earth like a slain dragon.
Stretching my arms around it at one end, I dragged it across the stream.
I helped Marie up onto it. She perched on top of it, smiling. But her expression slowly turned to terror when she realized what I'd just done.
Later that day I lay on the sofa in the living room, drowsing in front of the TV. The afternoon sun poured through the window. The flat was quiet; the kids were out at friends. I'd muted the sound on the TV, and all I could hear was the distant roar of traffic and the gentle pinking of the radiator pipes. The heating had come on automatically; it must be cold out, I thought.
Marie entered and stood over me, blocking out the sun. Her face was in shadow.
"Here. I made you cocoa."
Hot cocoa in a warm house on a sunny Winter's afternoon.
I sat up and took the cocoa. She sat down next to me on the sofa. We sipped together. I put a hand on her knee. It felt nice.
She had firm, dancer's legs, which she liked to show off with short dresses or tight pants. She sometimes worried that she was getting a little old to dress in this way. She'd made me promise to warn her if she were starting to look ridiculous. I assured her she had nothing to worry about.
I stroked her leg. Her black tights were deliciously smooth and slippery. My hand moved higher.
"When are the kids back?" I asked.
She turned to me and smiled. "Not for a couple of hours."
We looked into each others eyes. Two old friends, two old lovers. We knew each others' thoughts and bodies better than our own.
"Here," I said. "You've got cocoa on your face."
I tried to wipe it off with a finger. But it didn't come off. There was a box of tissues by the sofa. I leaned over and took one. I turned back to Marie. The cocoa stain had grown. It covered half her face. She was weeping.
Marie wandered up into a clump of bracken. I waited for her to rejoin me. She sat down, so all that I could see of her was her head and shoulders peeping above the foliage.
"Are you having a pee?" I called.
"No. Come and lie down. It's soft. And cool."
The sunlight played on the birch leaves. Gnats drifted like dust particles in the air. In spite of the gentle Summer breeze, I felt hot and listless. I waded through the ferns and lay down beside her. I rested my head in her lap and stared up at the bright patchwork of blue and green overhead. In the distance, dogs were barking merrily.
I took off my tee shirt. I lay back and closed my eyes.
I felt something tickling me. Marie was playing a leaf of bracken over my chest. Gently she raised my head and lay it on down on the ground. She climbed onto me and straddled me. I caressed her thighs. She started gyrating slowly. She arched her body and removed her top. I held her waist while she undid her bra.
"Suck my tits." She bent over me. She teased me with her breasts, keeping her nipples just out of reach of my lips. She sighed and pressed them down onto my face, and I sucked at them hungrily. I ran my fingers down her back, kneaded and manipulated her ass. She rubbed her groin against my bursting hard-on.
She put her lips close to mine. "Close your eyes."
"Just close them."
I closed my eyes. I could feel her breath on my face. She kissed my nose, my lips. I felt something wet on my cheek. I opened my eyes. She was crying.
"Babe, what is it? What is it?"
A leaf of bracken had bent over, and obscured her face. I raised a hand to push it out of the way. But it wasn't bracken, it was something on her cheek. A tattoo.
"When did you get that?"
I touched it. It felt lumpy, mottled.
"Don't you like it?" she asked through her tears.
We hurried through the woods. There was a simultaneous flash of lightning and crack of thunder. We increased our pace, almost breaking into a run. The raindrops were huge, and hurt as they struck us.
I was disoriented.
"Where's the stream!?"
"I don't know. Down here, I think!" Marie headed off away from the path. I followed her.
We found the stream. It had turned into a river. Our little bridge of sticks had been completely washed away.
We would have to ford across.
Two white dogs, terrified by the thunder, bolted across our path.
A deep, unearthly hum. I felt the hairs on my body stand on end.
A blinding flash, a deafening crash.
"Marie! MARIE!!" A giant beech tree had caught fire. There was a groaning, tearing sound as it swayed and toppled.
We heard a screaming howl, which faded to a whimper.
I found the bodies of the dogs. One was dead, the other lay beside it, breathing quickly and lightly. It was trapped under a branch of the tree.
I awoke. We were still lying in the bracken. Maria stood watching me, crying.
I awoke on the sofa in the living room. I called to Marie. She stood, a cup of cocoa in her hand.
I was in a hospital bed.
I was dimly aware of a doctor's voice telling me I was due for another shot of morphine.
"Where's my wife? Where's Marie?"
"I'm here, darling."
"The storm. I remember... two white dogs. Under the tree."
"There weren't any dogs, babe. God. God I'm so glad you've woken up."
Slowly I looked around me.
Marie, my beautiful Marie, was sitting by me. Her face was a hideous, grimacing mask, half covered with a brown scar.
"The emergency surgeons did what they could, but they said my cheek had been broken in too many places. They kept saying how lucky I was not to have smashed my skull."
Her crying eyes were the only part of her face I recognized.
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