This story was announced today as Highly Commended in the NZSA Northern Branch Short Story Competition. We had to write on the theme of Loss. The story actually constitutes just one part of a larger work (more to come on that), but was originally based on my experience of miscarriage.
I press my hands deeper into my pockets, breaking a seam. The crack is tiny and violent.
Here, it is autumn. I kick through leaves and they split like skin too long underwater, clinging to my boots and to rocks shattered by an angry earth. Tree skeletons twist and hunch.
Ahead, the path tries to nudge through the early morning mist. I know that once I reach the top of the rise I will see what my memory has avoided for two years. I have flown endless hours to be here on this day, and now I am here I want to flee. So I suddenly stand still, and press deeper, and the next snap is like a wee bone breaking.
My back jeans pocket vibrates and I know immediately it is Simon, calling from another world. He will be working in the garden, beseeching the green to be born, the slants of evening light a benediction. I can see him, in his black gumboots and his old blue sweatshirt with the earnest daubs of paint; remnants of a weekend when we were both thirty and the fence was as new as us.
I can see him, phone at his ear and the other hand on his hip, staring at that same fence, wondering if it might need a new coat. As he waits for me to answer he will move the hand on his hip to rub his nose. He will leave a smear of fresh soil on his face. It will still be there in the morning.
I reach into my jeans pocket and swipe, and the vibrating stops. I bend to lift a clump of leaves and smudge it against my fingers. Leaf limbs cling. It is more complicated than it looked on the ground. Small twigs and stones and fibres were holding the mulch of it together before my hand came to break it.
Simon’s attempt to reach me forces me forward. He will try again and I will not be able to swipe him silent a second time. I want to at least be able to tell him that I have reached the top of the rise.
A branch stretches across the path, blocking my passage. When I crouch to pass under it I stumble, and a sharp stone greets my knee. I cry out. The forest snatches away the sound.
I stand, breathing hard. I sense movement to my right and I turn slowly, not out of fear but because this place has sucked the speed out of me. The stone that hurt me grinds beneath my boot.
I almost don’t see it as it crouches close to a tree. It is utterly still, its eyes giant. For a moment it does not make sense. Then I crouch down to beckon it, one gritty hand held out. My lips kiss together. Here, puss, puss, puss.
The cat is suspended, tormented by its choice. Every muscle is preparing for flight. I look at the ground, avoiding its eyes. A minute passes. Then the leaves whisper and the air shifts and I know it is closer.
The air shifts again and the small body is within arm’s reach. I glance up at whorls and stripes of grey and black. I reach out a finger and whisper it along a perfect curve. We are terrified together.
I risk two more fingers, and the cat shakes damp earth from a tentative paw. I imagine I can hear its heart, frantic and perfect.
I offer my whole hand. The cat curves its back into an upside-down U and brushes the length of it. A purr weaves into the silence.
My back pocket vibrates. There is an explosion of fur as the cat pistons through the leaves and rocks to the trees and is gone. I stare after it as my phone stops, then starts again.
Hello? Anna? It’s me. You okay?
I’m fine. I’m almost there. Please don’t keep ringing me. I’m not a baby.
Sorry? Not a very good line. What did you say?
I said, stop treating me like a baby.
You’ve seen the baby? What…
Simon, you don’t have to…
Was it another dream? Shall I call Dr Moore? I…
I swipe again and he is lost. I picture him staring at the phone like he is trying to make sense of it, the smear of spring soil a living thing on his skin. I turn the phone to silent, put it back in my pocket, and start up the rise.
The trees work harder here, spearing into the sky, severe on their milky background. My legs start to burn. My armpits itch and I breathe hard through my nose. The smell of wet and decay fills me up.
I reach the top of the rise.
When you have dreamt of something, something you once knew well and loved then left, it starts to become something else. The church is smaller than I remember, and less pretty. It crouches in the valley, its stone walls a pocked skin against the cold. The white wooden door has a new black latch.
I take my hands from my pockets and grip them together in front of me. I start down, my boots clasping on the carpet of leaves and slick stone. My thighs and buttocks clench.
When I reach the churchyard gate it is partway open, offering an ambiguous welcome.
I do not look at the gravestones as I pass. Tipsy grey sentinels in broken ranks, their unread epitaphs are slowly becoming unreadable. The path is cracked and eaten by moss. I pass around the side of the church and across a swamp of grass to the far-right corner of the churchyard.
There is only one tree in the corner. A sapling when we planted it in your memory, it is now taller than me. It looks brave and strong. I lay my hands on the smooth, uncomplicated bark. I bow my head and I tell you silently that I have come back, just as I promised. I have come back to tell you that even though I live thousands of miles and a whole day away, even though it was two years ago and you were never really mine, even though I lost you before I was able to see and love your face, even though the fertility doctors say it’s safe and your daddy tells me and perhaps I agree that it is time to try again, you are as close to me as my heartbeat and my breath and my longing for everything that isn’t this. And I will never let you go.
I open my eyes and the whirls and knots of the young tree’s bark shift and resolve and shift once more. I can hear the growing.
I can feel the fog lifting, a tremor of sun. I think of Simon, alone in our two-bedroom flat in One Tree Hill, wondering where the day has gone.
It just slips away from you. You know?
I take the small pack from my back and prop it against the slender trunk as I open the zip. I place the pink posy at the foot of the tree, on a bed of autumn fire. I step carefully back. I say your name, once.
The air shifts again and I turn and see the cat, trembling its wild face around the side of the church. I crouch down, hold out both hands, and call a soft welcome, and this time it hesitates only for a second before dancing its delicate way over stone and soil towards me, having judged both the danger and the reward worth the risk.