“It is difficult to be convinced of the death of one whom we have deemed to be another self.”
Nathaniel Hawthorne From “The Wives of the Dead”
In the north, as June approaches the solstice, the sun stays in the western sky higher and longer, and long after it begins its descent into the horizon, the shadows of trees lengthen and darken, until the ground is a patchwork mosaic of shadow and dimming light. Nocturnal animals, both predator and prey, are driven by hunger and hormones into the waning light, risking everything until the familiar blanket of night covers the landscape in blackness.
After the weather report on the 10:00 news, she stepped out the back door and looked out over the trees and fields to the western sky. The sun had collided with the earth, and a firestorm painted the entire sky blood red; the sky was bleeding and hemorrhaging in front of her. He’ll put it out, she thought. He’ll be back any time now. Feeling the chill of the night breeze in her face, she wrapped her shawl tight around her shoulders.
June 21st, the anniversary of their wedding, and the anniversary of the warehouse fire. Paul was 23 when he was taken, handsome and fireman fit, with thick brown hair that Rachel loved to run her fingers through. He’d be thirty now, still young but still two years older than she was, and they’d be celebrating their ninth wedding anniversary.
She still rented the same farmhouse outside of town that she and Paul lived in at the time of his death. She rarely left home, and she lost contact with all of her old friends. She was still, after seven years alone, stunningly beautiful. With porcelain skin and dark eyes and an hourglass figure, she turned heads on her infrequent trips to town, the heads of middle aged men congregated in the barber shop or the teenaged to twenty something year old gearheads perpetually fine tuning some classic car in Lacy’s garage.
Every year, as the 21st approached, she’d go to town and repeat the same sad ritual. Everybody knew that she’d pick up two New York Strip steaks and a couple of baking potatoes from the IGA and then she’d swing by the liquor store and purchase a bottle of the same wine. Everybody knew that she was preparing the same meal that she prepared on that night, and like she did on that night, she’d wait for her husband to come home. The first year or two, most people were sympathetic to the tragic circumstances and the profundity of her loss, but the last couple of years that sentiment was shifting to why can’t she just get on with her life, and why doesn’t a beautiful woman like that get out once in a while, she’s driving herself crazy living in the same house amongst all the same things. She remained completely oblivious to the fact that she and her sanity had become the subject of rumors and speculaion.
It’d been seven years since the first time she set the table with her grandmother’s china. Paul had just taken the steaks off of the grill when his pager went off. They looked at each other in utter disbelief, and laughed at the timing, saying they’ll just have to put off their celebration for a couple of hours. As he got in his truck she told him to be careful. Don’t worry, he said, I’ll always come back to you. They kissed through the truck’s open window and she waved to him as he backed out of the driveway onto the highway. She watched the red taillights fade in the low light of dusk as he drove off.
Maybe it was because there wasn’t a body to bury. Maybe it was because of the promise he’d made in his last words to her. Or maybe it was simply that she loved him too much to give up on him. Whatever it was, it was strong enough for her, despite all reason and logic, to look for him in every face she saw, and to see him sometimes in the shadows cast by the June sunsets.
This year, June 21st was like every year since that first June 21st. It was warm outside, and fireflies flashed on and off through the yard. She set two places at the table with her grandmother’s china, put out the bottle of her and Paul’s favorite wine and took two steaks off of the grill. She lit two candles and sat down and waited for Paul to return. And when the sun had finally set and the bottle was nearly empty she heard the gate by the machine shed loudly squeak open, and through the dining room window she watched the darkened figure approach the back door. She heard him softly speak her name through the screen door, Rachel, and she said Paul, oh Paul and she let him in. They quickly shed their clothes and make love in the darkness of the new night.
Then she was alone again, drifting off to sleep as from the highway the roar of the dual exhausts from a 1965 Ford Mustang echoed and faded in the night.