The Token of a Stranger
In contrast, the day itself was perfect. The sun cast its beams onto the fragile, young petals of the early morning while the wind, preoccupied with its own travels, brushed past buildings and trees as if lost in its own misdirection. Little waves of fragrance followed the breeze, like a child caught in the bed sheets, coalescing here or there. The scent carried by that wind was the collected smells of all it passed. The maples, the pines, the food carts, the lilacs, all gave their esters to the breeze like forget-me-nots to be enjoyed by the occasional weary traveler.
Where was I?
“He would have loved this,” was said with the casualness possessed only by strangers.
“This many people..,” the voice continued, “It should give you a modicum of comfort to know that he was loved.” The elevated inflection at the end of the sentence begged for attention I was unwilling to give. Who was this person?
The faces, the places. The past week was a blur of images and sounds displaced from time and space. Each day began in the same manner.
I walked through the rest of it, seemingly hoping to find the meaning somewhere.
Unoccupied minutes were subconsciously spent re-visiting important, and not so important, moments in our lives together. Unfiltered and unorganized. A word or stray movement brought on a cascade of memories and smells of our joined life enough to weaken me in the knees. The unexpected finality was shattering.
A scent floated past me, so recognizable as to pull me from my thoughts. From where did it come? I looked around the room filled with people, only some of whom I recognized. One broke free at my passing gaze and walked over.
“Madeline, my dear.” The well-intentioned man took me in his embrace. For the briefest moment, I was unmoved then I relaxed upon recognizing him. This was Eddie, Ben’s boss and the last man to see him alive. “There’s nothing I can say…” His face was drawn, the area around the eyes puffy and red. Sorrow clung to his every word, his every look, as if held in a physical embrace. It was revolting to me. No one could feel this despair, this level of hopelessness and futility but me. I stiffened in his presence as his monologue of surprise and lament continued.
Others came and went in the same manner. By the end of that first day, I knew true emotional distance from my own kind.
Darkness came, and soon I awoke again.
In a blur, I was within the same walls again, watching different people doing the same thing. The sameness contrasted horribly with the altered existence I now lived in. I would be forever alone doing all the things we did together, like half pretending to be whole. A different person doing the same things, over and over and over…
“Here,” the stranger’s voice assailed me again. “Take this.” His closed hand reached out to mine, and I felt the odd sensation of a cold, small metal object drop onto my palm. His hand was like ice. I looked up into his eyes and found the warmth there. The warmth of a life lived in love, compassion, and kindness - shared by two - nestled there and reached out to me. It extended itself out to me, eager for acknowledgment, drawing me, pulling me into its embrace. Still holding the object, I physically withdrew, stepping back and averting my eyes. A pronounced feeling of shame kept my eyes cast low.
“Madeline,” now, the voice was familiar. The stranger was no longer there. I placed the object brusquely in my pants pocket and extended my hand in friendly greeting yet again. “How are you holding up?” Sinead’s concern for me was breathtaking. Momentary images of us all, together, laughing, crying danced in my head as if allowing her access to my innermost self. I took her arm and held its soft warmth. Her hand was placed on top of mine. The visual presentation of two friends, layered upon each other, vertically through time or trauma softened me. She simply stood, hand-folded on mine, looking out over the sea of faces. Her strength rippled towards my weakness in gentle spasms, encouraging, protecting. My face cast down, embracing the quietude.
“He’s here. I feel him like I feel you.” Sinead surveyed the room as if searching. “It’s powerful and palpable.”
“No, no…don’t,” I whispered. “I can’t bear it…”
The darkness came again, and I slept, fitfully, disturbed. Again, I awoke.
The breeze was bitter and harsh on my face. Its scents stale of old-ocean. The grey molten sky cast its aspersions on the land below as the sun, as if in agreement, hid its face. The people gathered around the casket were oblivious or accepting, I don’t know which. The drone of the black-frocked priest melded with the rhythm of the breeze as it was carried up and away from all in attendance.
“You must look at it.” The stranger stood next to me. His presence now a dense thickening of the very air I breathed. I didn’t look at him. I couldn’t look at him. My hand unconsciously felt the small object through the fabric of my pants. “You must know.” The scent wafted, cutting through the odor easily and urgently.
I shook my head. Fear and apprehension filled my being. “No…no. I can’t.” I said aloud.
A warm hand fumbled for and clasped mine. My gaze followed the hand until it met Sinead. Her eyes odd, knowing. Her face was severe in concentration as her head moved from me to survey the area around us. Her hand squeezed mine more forcefully than she intended. Her presence gave me enough strength to feel the shape of the object. Yet, I couldn’t make it out. My hand continued to hold it, engulf it, as I picked up soil and tossed it in with the lowered casket.
As those present dissipated, I stood over the gap in the earth, the gap in my life. The stranger stood nearby, I felt him. He whispered, “Now,” rhythmically over and over until I was mesmerized. My hand fumbled in my pants pocket and, grasping the object, pulled it out. The voice now pulsating in time with the beating of my heart, growing louder, louder. I looked down at my closed fist, willing myself not to open it, as the sound continued to grow louder.
I opened my fist.
The object shone like an eternal fire in my palm.
A heart earring contained in the palm of my hand.
I was falling.
I looked up from the book I was reading and placed my hand to shield my eyes from the incoming sun. The man stood over me, then knelt down at my feet. He held something in his outstretched hand.
“Sorry. I hope I didn’t startle you.” The softness in his voice carried harmoniously on the wind as if eternally one with it. He was captivating.
I put my book down beside me and leaned forward to get a better look at his hand.
“I found this on the walkway over there,” he said, pointing a little distance up the pathway that ran parallel to and separated the beach from the tree-lined park. I often came to this park to sit under a wide-based tree, to read a book and get lost in its expanse.
Sitting forward, I looked up at his face, admiring its handsome features. His warm eyes looked at, no, delved into mine. The most unusual sensation fluttered within my chest. He hadn’t yet opened his hand.
“Ahhh, here,” he said as he revealed his palm’s contents. I reached over and pulled from his hand a heavy, ornately crafted, singular heart earring. It was exquisite. It was flawless. It was unpaired.
“I didn’t see you wearing any earrings. But I figured I’d take a chance in asking anyway.” He bobbed gently on his haunches in expectation. His slightly crooked smile charming in its authenticity. I looked in his eyes again…and this time, I saw eternity.
The cold breeze blew my jacket open and brought me back to the present. I felt dizzy and weak. I pulled on Sinead’s arm, telling her I had to sit…somewhere. As she turned and then drew me to the nearest bench, I noticed a man standing by a tree directly across from us. I couldn’t see his face, but I instantly recognized him as my stranger.
“Sinead,” I whispered just loud enough to catch her attention. Her worried, line-riddled face turned its compassionate gaze on mine. She had been shocked by Ben’s sudden death and had been my constant, shoring up my strength and comforting me in my depths. It showed. “Who is that man?” I nodded my head in the stranger’s direction.
“Over by the tree? The oak tree.” I stammered. “He’s leaning up against the tree over there.”
Sinead looked across the graveyard. Her gaze covered vast swaths of the yard in its search.
“Maddy, I don’t see anyone.” Her voice was that of concern.
“He’s right there!” I was annoyed.
“There’s no one there.” Her voice dropped to a whisper as her face took on an expression of awe. Her countenance took on one of confirmation as if a belief was being affirmed.
“Don’t say that!” I scolded. I pulled out the earring that was in my grasp and held it out to her. “He’s right there! He gave me this yesterday!”
Sinead’s eyes grew large, and her face palled as she realized what the object was. An understanding engulfed her that I fought desperately. She turned her head, almost reverently, in the direction that I alluded to. Her eyes scanned the area as her breathing became short and her body erect. “I knew it,” she whispered.
“What? What did you know?” I demanded.
“He’ll never leave you,” she whispered innocently as if he might hear. “He’s here. He’s been here the entire time.”
“Sinead!” She annoyed me with this nonsense. In truth, I was terrified. “Sinead! Ben’s dead. I just buried him. His dead body is not 50 feet away.” Grief lay on my chest and caught in my throat. Ben was dead. Although I heard myself speak the words, I refused it.
Sinead continued to scan the yard as she whispered, “He’ll never leave you.” Her voice and manner more subdued than before, as if a realization were sinking in. She then turned and searched my face. Her hand clasped my cheek as a wave of pity swept over her. “He’ll never leave you,” she said again, resigned.
We sat in the graveyard for a little while longer, alternatively comforting each other as old friends are want to do.
Eventually, the darkness came again, yet I didn’t sleep.
Initially, too many thoughts and emotions troubled my exhausted mind. Then, as the first waves of deep slumber were about to descend, I felt a weight add itself behind me as I lay on the bed. The weight then slid around my waist and coiled itself around my chest, as if in an embrace. I was unable to move. In terror, my eyes remained closed. The air itself grew heavy as my heart raced. Staying absolutely still, I felt the weight press itself up against my cheek, next to my ear. Breathing? Was that breathing? The air moved rhythmically against my ear as a phrase was intoned within my psyche.
“He’ll never leave you.”
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