William Cass

A Stillness and a Light

Tree in Autumn Wind by Egon Schiele

1

For September in Seattle, it was an unusually cool afternoon. Things had just wrapped up at the cemetery. My wife, Gwen, hadn’t really wanted a service or burial at all. She’d already walked down the hill to our car. I stayed behind looking at the little mound of earth beneath which our son, Ben, lay. He’d passed away the day after his fifth birthday. A bird called in the tree behind me: a raven, perhaps, or a crow.

2

The next morning, I arose ahead of Gwen, as usual. By the rise and fall of her back, I knew she was awake, too, and like me, had been for some time. I dressed quietly, then went into Ben’s bedroom. I picked up his stuffed elephant from the head of his bed; its right ear was worn bare from where he’d always held it. I replaced it, left the house through the back door, and started along the cracked sidewalk. The rain that had fallen throughout the night had stopped, but the streets were wet, the sidewalk was wet, the grass was wet, the leaves on the trees were wet.

I walked until I came to the lake. It sat still and wide. Through the low clouds, I could make out the floating bridge at one end of it, and on the other shore, trees and rooftops. I followed the footpath that fronted it until I came to a bench in a small park. I sat, looking out over the water, and found myself thinking about the night of Ben’s first long hospital admittance several years earlier. About two that morning, I’d walked Gwen downstairs from the ICU to the car so she could drive home and get some sleep. Before she opened the door, we hugged. She stayed in my embrace, her head against my chest. After a long moment, she asked what I would say if the doctors asked about adding life support measures. I responded that I’d tell them to do whatever they could for him, the same as I would if he wasn’t severely disabled or medically fragile. She didn’t nod her head. She just let go, got in the car, backed up, and drove away. She didn’t look back. There were stars, I remember, in the sky.

3

We were both teachers; Gwen at the local high school, and me at the elementary that fed it. We went back to work right away after the burial, re-established routines. Breakfast on the run heading out the door, lunch at school, dinners were usually just leftovers or a can of soup one of us heated at the stove and then shared at the kitchen table, mostly in silence.

Neither of us did anything about Ben’s bedroom until I collected a few of his toys and brought them down to the basement on a Sunday afternoon several weeks after his burial. That’s when I came upon my father’s bird watching books. They were tucked away in a dusty open box next to where I’d set the toys. I opened one and flipped through the pages. Some had been marked with scraps of paper, and many had faded pencil notations scribbled in the margins. I thought of my first bird watching trip with him when I wasn’t too much older than Ben had been when he passed away. It had been out to a marsh outside of Portland where I’d grown up. He let me carry the binoculars, and I recalled their heaviness around my neck. I remembered how excited he became when he saw a flock of mallards in the high grasses along a brackish slough, how he helped me find them in the binoculars, how his hand felt on my shoulder.

I brought the books upstairs and read through them over the course of the rest of that afternoon.

4

During the year before Ben died, our lives, by necessity, had taken different, largely separate, paths. He’d been moved from the acute hospital to the convalescent wing after a particularly hard pneumonia that had resulted in a tracheotomy to control his secretions and the insertion of a G-tube to prevent future aspirations. Both required round-the-clock care, especially the G-tube feeding, which involved a gradual titration schedule of slow feeds that began with twenty hours daily over many months to be sure he could tolerate larger bolus ones. During that time, Gwen usually went up to see him before her teaching day began, which her schedule allowed, and I went up to be with him after school. I always stayed until he was ready to go down for the night so I could rock him and sing the same three lullabies to him.

On the weekends, we had a similar rotation that involved longer stretches at home so we could each grade papers and prepare lessons for the following week. Gwen also started taking yoga classes during that time; she said they helped her feel more centered. I opted for my walks along the lake. I kept the yard up, and she cleaned the house. I did the grocery shopping; she handled laundry. Whoever got to the bills first, did those. Sometimes, we attended his medical appointments together. Sometimes, we went out for something to eat. After the first six months, she increased her yoga classes to include three early morning sessions each week, so that diminished some of her visits to the hospital. When I passed on to her some brochures about home nursing that the social worker in Ben’s wing had given me, Gwen left them unread and untouched.

After Ben’s death, not much changed. Her morning yoga classes became daily and often involved coffee afterwards with other attendees and instructors. She sometimes stayed at work through dinnertime and for longer and longer stretches on the weekends; her school was going through an accreditation review, she explained to me, and as department head, her responsibilities with that were extensive.

It was a couple of months after Ben’s passing, an early Sunday morning before Gwen had arisen, when I first ventured out with one of my father’s bird watching books. I headed not too far from town to a state park along a stream. A layer of fog hung from the slate-grey sky over the meadow I walked through along the fringe of the forest. I’d also found my father’s binoculars in the basement and used them now and then to scan the horizon in all directions.

I passed through low grass and into the trees, alone the entire time on the trail. After about an hour, the trail opened onto a pond where I’d hoped to see a few late mergansers. I found a large fallen tree trunk I could sit on to wait and watch. The pond sat flat, green-grey, and perfectly silent against the dark stand of trees until twenty or so minutes later when a flock of geese suddenly rose out of the reeds at its far shore. I watched them go off over the trees through the binoculars: a small set, Canadian, calling and flying in their tight V, until they disappeared into the distant low clouds. I hadn’t expected them. I thought it was probably too late in the fall and that they’d already all flown south. I set the binoculars in my lap and looked off where they’d been in the sky. It was still again. I found their picture and description in my father’s book, felt his hand again on my shoulder, and a small smile creased my lips.

5

More and more, as the fall turned to winter, I came upon Gwen reorganizing and cleaning: closets, cupboards, drawers, and other storage spaces. She’d always done that to relieve stress, and it was a frequent preoccupation when Ben had been most ill, but it seemed curious to me for her to be doing it then. Sometimes, I also found her gazing out the window for long stretches of time or just standing at the sink with the water running.Once, I discovered a journal she’d kept while she was pregnant with Ben. It was in a desk she’d recently
reorganized. I read through a few entries. One had to do with the dreams she had for him as he grew up.Another was about looking forward to watching him play catch with me in the front yard. I replaced the journal where it had been, next to our stack of unpaid bills. I wasn’t sure why she’d left it there.

6

Winter in the Northwest was mostly filled with rain, but that didn’t prevent me from heading out to bird watch. I began going on both weekend mornings, and sometimes after school, as well, when Gwen was still at work. I used the identical seasonal checklist I’d discovered in one of my father’s books that he’d begun with me as a boy. And I found many of the same birds on my walks that we’d checked off during those earlier years: various types of finches, woodpeckers, sparrows, and wrens, and the occasional eagle, chickadee, and starling. I joined a few hikes for bird watching groups on the coast and was pleased to also locate Northern Pintails, Snowy Owls, Merlins, and a nesting family of Black-bellied Plovers, which are species my father and I never found together.

In the evenings, I often read about birds, and there was one that became of particular interest to me: the Arctic Gyrfalcon. I’d first read about it and looked at photos of it in one of my father’s field guides. It was the largest of the species and flew at incredible speeds, preying on other birds like ptarmigan or small mammals. Its color varied from all white to dark gray-brown. It was very rarely seen our region, and then only in the winter during its southern migration, but the naturalist on one of my bird watching outings had told me that a sighting had recently been claimed up in the Samish Flats. For some reason, I became very intrigued by it and began a quest to try to find it.

7

When I’d started my birding outings, I’d told Gwen a little about them, but she seemed disinterested, so I shared nothing with her about my new fascination with the Gyrfalcon. I simply rose earlier than usual on that initial Saturday for the long drive up the I-5 from Seattle past Mt. Vernon and out the Chuckanut Road exit to the Department of Fish and Wildlife parking lot and the area known as “the West 90”. Dawn’s first light was just creeping over the Cascades to the east beneath a solid grey canopy of high clouds that stretched in all directions. I started up a trail to the northwest along the Samish River. I encountered no one else as I walked through spruce forest and out through a brackish slough surrounded by snatches of cottonwoods. The trail was flat and firm, and visibility was good. I walked slowly but steadily and kept my eyes busy, pausing on occasion to survey the landscape through my binoculars, but saw nothing except seagulls, passerines, and one Red-tailed hawk whose call startled me in the stillness.

I stopped about mid-morning at a clearing that edged a wide trough, emptied my daypack, and sat on it in the damp grass. It was cold enough that my breath came in short clouds, and so did the steam off the coffee I poured into the lid of my thermos. I scanned the estuary, sipped, and let my mind wander. I thought about meeting Gwen seven years earlier at our district’s orientation for new teachers; we were on a break, and she offered to show me around the area when she heard I’d just moved up from Portland. I thought about the time that had since passed, the things that had occurred, and where the two of us now found ourselves. I thought about my father. I wondered about how long it took the Gyrfalcons to make their flights down from Alaska and northern Canada. I wondered if there was one out there in the marsh somewhere that I couldn’t see, keeping itself and its intentions hidden. And, of course, I thought about Ben. Although those thoughts had lessened since his death, there was still hardly an hour that went by when I didn’t think of him.

8

As the months went on, Gwen and I saw our old friends less frequently, and she began spending more and more time with her new circle from yoga. A group of them also started biking together some afternoons.She bought a used road bike, helmet, and accessories from one of them, and they often stopped for beers and sometimes dinner after their rides.

We still watched television together fairly frequently on the couch. On occasion while we did that, she put her stocking feet under my thighs to warm them, but not as often as before. She still complained about students and problems at work, but not as often either. Once or twice, I found her in the middle of the night emailing on her laptop in our study; she told me that she had trouble sleeping and might as well get some work done. I just nodded when she said things like that.

9

I started spending most of each weekend looking for the Gyrfalcon. I rose earlier and earlier in order to be there for first light foraging, and often stayed until after the sun went down for any last hunting of the day. I also varied the locations where I searched. I went as far south as Padilla Bay Reserve and parts of Skagit Flats, and even drove across the Swinomish Channel a couple of times to March Point. But I spent the majority of my time in the northern reaches of Samish Flats along the upper part of Padilla Bay to the west and Samish Bay to the north. It was there that I saw the largest assortment of birds – mostly waterfowl, hawks, herons, and wigeons. On a particularly cold and clear Sunday morning just west of Edison, when the white, craggy top of Mt. Baker was just licked with brilliant sun, I did see a falcon make a tremendous drop, and my heart skipped a beat. But, when I heard its high-pitched call, and saw its limited size, short tail, and long wings, I knew that it was a Peregrine falcon instead – still relatively rare and impressive, but not the one I was seeking. It was enough, however, to narrow the location of my walks to that stretch of the flats along the bay out as far as Samish Island.

10

Increasingly as the winter progressed, when I got home from birding, Gwen would have a group of her new friends over for drinks. They were usually still in their yoga or bike riding gear sitting around the living room where she had the woodstove going. She introduced me to some of the more frequent visitors, two women about her age who were both named Deb, a trio of young couples from Ballard, and one of her yoga teachers, an older balding man named Don who wore small rimless glasses and stroked his long gray beard with an intense demeanor.

Sometimes, I joined them for a drink. But their jovial banter involved topics with which I felt little connection, so usually I excused myself and went into the study to do more internet research on Gyrfalcons. I familiarized myself with the differences in the size and coloring between males and females, and the variances in their calls when diving, foraging, or mating.

As I studied, I was aware of the easy conversation down the hall and the occasional, spontaneous explosions of laughter.

11

After his death, Gwen and I never spoke about Ben. She may have heard me making arrangements on the phone to donate his wheelchair and some of his other medical equipment, but if she had, she made no comment. When she came across me in his room sitting on his bed, she passed by without saying anything. If a song came on the radio that was one he used to seem to like, she would get up and busy herself in the garage or elsewhere.

I guessed that we just both grieved in our own ways. But, the truth, I came to realize, was that aside from the routine business of his care and medical needs, we’d talked less and less as those few years passed before he died. The whispered exchanges we used to have lying in bed late at night had ceased, the ones where we held each other, and she usually wept softly.

12

A bubble of hope about the Gyrfalcon arose in me on a rainy Saturday morning while I waited out a downpour under an umbrella along the wetlands on Samish Island just before the shoreline made its curve towards the wharf. The ceiling of clouds was very low and literally drifted along the tops of the small stand of spruce trees across from where I stood. I heard the first distinctive “chup, chup” that I’d listened to intently so many times on the computer from that stand of trees, and trained my binoculars on the area, but could see nothing, not even a trace of movement. Then I heard the same hoarse call repeated perhaps ten times and knew that a Gyrfalcon was foraging somewhere in there.

I approached slowly and cautiously, trying to remain as silent as possible. The stand was a thick one with dense undergrowth. I circled its perimeter one small step at a time, peering into its dark depths. I’d gone perhaps a dozen yards when I heard the “chup, chup” call another time followed by the hissing sound of large wings in flight. It had come from the far side of the stand where it bordered the beach and the sounds were quickly disappearing over the water. I dropped the umbrella and hurried into the stand, stumbling over the underbrush, no longer concerned about the noise I was making. It took me less than thirty seconds to emerge on the other side, but the sky in all directions was an empty wall of rain and heavy-bellied clouds. The tide had made its turn from low, and the incoming water caused rocks to quietly knock together as I continued to stand there in the downpour and gaze into the distance.

13

When I got home, I found Gwen sitting on the edge of our bed. There was a small suitcase on the floor at her feet. I stopped in the doorway. She’d been staring out the window but turned and looked at me. Her expression was blank. My breathing quickened.

She said, “I’m unhappy. I have a right to be happy.”

I looked from her to the suitcase and back. “I don’t understand.”

“I admire you and respect you, but I don’t love you anymore.”

I felt my knees buckle. I heard myself say, “No, no.”

“I need some time alone.”

“We haven’t been ourselves. Since Ben…”

“That’s not it.”

I asked suddenly, “Is there someone else?”

“That’s only a part.”

“Who?”

“Don.”

His face came back to me, the beard, the glasses, the stern demeanor. She stood up and lifted the suitcase.

I said, “Don’t go. Please.”

I reached for her, but she shrugged under my arms and through the doorway. I began to cry. Her footsteps echoed across the hardwood floors, the front door opened and closed, and then the sound of her car pulling away from the curb and driving off died away.

14

She refused to communicate with me in any way afterwards. I tried seeing her at school, calling, sending emails and texts, but she wouldn’t interact or respond. Nothing. I felt as if I was in a skiff with no oars that had become untethered in a fast river and was careening wildly and uncontrollably downstream. I just went through the motions at work, and at home, I moved from room to room in a sort of daze. Almost every evening, I wrote her long, pleading letters that I sent to her school address. Sleep rarely came, and I began taking longer and longer walks in the middle of the night until I became aware of the first birds tittering and saw the thin cusp of dawn.

I’ve heard said that the death of a child is the hardest single thing on a marriage, and that the next most difficult is dealing with one who is severely disabled or medically fragile. We’d had both.

15

I didn’t go birding again for better than a month. Then an early Saturday morning came when the sky was still full of stars and I had no idea how I would fill the day, so just to be doing something, I loaded my daypack and drove north again.

I went to the same place I’d been last along the coastline on Samish Island. The morning was clear and grew full of white light as I walked mechanically through the trees and the marshlands to the water’s edge. I didn’t come upon another soul. I passed the spot where I’d stood with my umbrella in the rain and walked around the small stand of trees across from it to the far side and the rocky beach there. The tide was higher than before and flat, no knocking. A little breeze, still cold but with a hint of spring, caused the tops of the spruce trees to nod slightly. I found a boulder with a good vantage point to lean against and made a slow sweep of the landscape with my binoculars, lingering over the edge of the stand of trees. Not a sound, and except for the treetops, no movement. I sat back, tried to think of things other than Gwen, and waited.

I’d fallen asleep when it happened. I heard the first sharp “kak, kak” call in that state between dreaming and wakefulness and hadn’t opened my eyes until the whoosh of the dive had already passed impossibly close to me. When I did, I saw a Gyrfalcon, almost entirely white, flying low and parallel to the ground where the underbrush met the shore perhaps thirty feet away. A small rodent, a mole or shrew, scampered ahead of it and into a tiny gap among a pile of large rocks. The Gyrfalcon swooped to a landing and scraped at the rocks with its talons as I slowly knelt, blinking, my heart thudding, and raised the binoculars to my eyes.

The bird circled the rocks, nipping at them with its curved beak, but unable to dislodge any. It paused just long enough to look up and stare at me directly, its head and eyes and plumage perfect and huge in my binoculars’ lens, before returning its attention to where the prey had disappeared. I felt my heart racing, full of awe. I suddenly thought of the Yeats’ quote in one of my father’s field guides about being filled with stillness and light and understood what he’d meant.

A moment later, another “kak, kak” sounded from high in the sky, and I lowered my binoculars to watch a second Gyrfalcon dive like a thunderbolt. Its massive wings lifted and flapped majestically and furiously just before the ground, then were tucked away as it settled next to its mate. By the larger size, I could tell she was the female, a mixture of grey-brown and white.

They both nipped and clawed at the pile of wet rocks. While I watched through the binoculars again, the female stayed intent on its foraging, but the male looked about often. Once he seemed to regard me again briefly, then he looked off over the open bay and gave the “chup, chup, chup” call over and over again. It sounded as if it was made partly in warning and partly in might.

I had a cell phone but took no photos or video. I just watched in amazement. Perhaps five minutes passed before the male gave a last call and flew off over the treetops with the female following him, the whistling of their wings in flight fading. I watched them until they disappeared in the distance. The grey of the female was the last I could see of them against the blue late-morning sky.

I looked around me and wished I had someone to tell. But there was no one there. Maybe it was the mated pair that made me wish, too, that I had someone to hold, but there was no one for that either.

16

I did two things that next evening I’m reluctant to admit. One I feel a little embarrassed about, and the other I regret. In a way, both are intertwined.

The first was that I buried a note to Ben in the earth at his grave. I went up to visit and brought flowers to lay there, which wasn’t unusual. I sat against his gravestone for a while, which wasn’t uncommon either. But before I left, I pushed the note to him in the ground at the base of the gravestone. The earth there was still soft; grass hadn’t had enough time to completely cover it yet.

The second happened in stages. It began that afternoon with a call I made to Gwen’s yoga studio saying that I was interested in classes I’d heard about taught by a man named Don.

“Oh, you mean Don Edwards,” the woman on the other end said, and then gave me the days and hours of his classes.

I looked him up in the phone book, and his address was there. I knew where it was.

I’d waited until the streetlamps had come on before driving up to the cemetery. Like the previous day, the weather was clear, and full darkness had fallen before I stood up from Ben’s grave and walked along the cinder path to the cemetery’s far end. The edge there was bordered by bushes and trees. There was no one else around; it was empty, still. From the hilltop where I stood, I could see out over North Seattle in one direction and a corner of the lake in the other. I could also see down into the street below and the backs of the houses there. It took me a few moments to locate Don’s, but I found it eventually, just below me perhaps fifteen yards and up a short ways.

His back porch was lit and so were all the windows. I swallowed when I saw the side of Gwen’s head where she sat on a couch in what I supposed was the family room. Don was in front of her putting a log on the fire. When he turned around, he smiled and held out his hand. Gwen seemed to hesitate and then stood up and came to him. At first, I couldn’t tell what it was that they began doing next. He took her hand in one of his and placed the other on the small of her back. She put her free hand on his shoulder, and then they began to move, shuffling in a sort of semi-circular manner. It was then that I realized they were dancing. Of course, I couldn’t hear the music, but by their slow movements, I imagined an old standard of some sort playing in the room. In a moment, Gwen had come around so she was facing the window. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen a smile like the one on her face. A moment later, as she turned a bit more, she closed her eyes and laid her head on his shoulder. Like the night she left, I began to cry, but harder this time. I don’t think if I could have felt worse even if I’d seen them in bed together.

I didn’t know what my plan was going to be after I found Don’s house. I didn’t know if I would feel compelled or have the nerve to knock on the door and confront them, punch him the face, hurl a rock through a window, slit his tires. I certainly thought about things like that driving to the cemetery. But I didn’t do any of them. I just drove home. I hoped, when I arrived there, I’d avoid going into Gwen’s bedroom closet, or Ben’s, like I sometimes did, where their clothes still retained their scents. I wiped at my eyes and the snot under my nose and hoped that time, as the saying went, would heal. And I hoped that the memory of the Gyrfalcons would help. It had, if only briefly, that morning when I’d awoken. It wasn’t exactly a moment of hope or joy, but it was related, a distant favored cousin perhaps. Like one you saw only infrequently, but who, when you did, somehow made you feel okay about life and encouraged about its possibilities.

 

About the writer:
William Cass has had over 180 short stories accepted for publication in a variety of literary magazines such as december, Briar Cliff Review, and Zone 3. His children’s book, Sam, was released by Upper Hand Press in April 2020. Recently, Cass was a finalist in short fiction and novella competitions at Glimmer Train and Black Hill Press, received a couple of Pushcart nominations, and won writing contests at Terrain.org and The Examined Life Journal. He lives in San Diego, California.

Image: Herbstbaum im Wind by Egon Schiele (1890-1918). Oil on canvas. 31.4 × 31.6 inches. 1912. Public domain.