They told him that evening that his marriage was at end.
They told him by means of a document, meant to be signed then stamped, an official diagnosis.
He didn’t understand its name, all Latin and laden with syllables, all those gnarled, clawing S’s and U’s. But he understood the tears when their eyes met at the bed and she promised it wouldn’t be half as bad as he thought it would.
Their fingers twined, when had hers grown so knobbly, when was the last time their hands had touched at all? All those empty years, he wanted them all back, and he wanted to spend them all asleep with May in his arms. He wanted to be in the school hallways again, and he wanted their honeymoon beach, and he wanted to jump into the sea because that would be less cold and less painful than a life drowning in the emptiness she’d leave behind.
“John!” she tried to breathe through the mask but her voice almost didn’t carry through; when she shifted an arm, all the tubes followed, all those tubes pumping bought life into her failing tissues. “I’m not done yet. I’m still...” But she failed to finish and her face contorted itself like a seven-year-old child’s, and she cried like one.
May was the springtime; she had stood in the garden some days, lace skirt and open arms, listening to the blooming trees as they had whispered her secrets he was deaf to. They must have been lovely secrets, because she’d always come back grinning like she’d found a million dollars. The irony shrieked, when a lone bird began to sing at the hospital door and the fragrance of the early flowers filled his throat.
He lived at the hospital, arriving as early as his timetable allowed, leaving when the lights went out.
Hours were spent weeping, sharing stories, May asked him to be kind and to keep loving as if she’d never left, even loving someone else if that would save him from the ache. He promised to be kind but he refused to love. The machine continued to beep to the rhythm of her heart.
It happened so fast he didn’t even have the time to stagger with the blow.
She left after midnight, when all the corridor lights had gone out. The nurses said she looked like a child soundly asleep, hands crossed on her sheets. Like an angel, they sighed between themselves, but he didn’t believe in heaven and he knew she had been swallowed by a great Nowhere.
He left the single blue flower on the countertop, brighter than all the lights around it.
His eulogy was too plain, he hated it, it would never capture her just as an old radio couldn’t transmit the sound of the trees touched by breeze. His eulogy was a great gaping void, just like he. Meaningless static in the dark.
Laura, almost ten and the frequent invitee of parties, learnt in weeks to live without her mother. Laura in the grass by the trees, always tripping on her shoelaces and vanishing across the next rise before he could catch up with her. Laura with frilly skirts and a bow in her hair.
He never learnt. He sank into the dark that could only be reached when one had decided not to live, and Laura couldn’t help him, damn it, Laura wasn’t home half the time and she was a smart girl with so much to do, he didn’t matter.
The pills were on his tabletop, and he wasn’t stupid, he cut them all open and poured the powder into a cup, the bleach was under the rusty pipes of the sink where the cockroaches nested.
Staring across the polished hardwood at the white wall beyond, he suddenly realised that he missed hearing her voice echo from these walls.
But he faltered, because he didn’t know how to explain himself. He stared at the cup on the table before him, reeking of chlorine and the days when she did the laundry.
Would she be ashamed of him?
She wasn’t there to be ashamed.
She wasn’t there.
And that moved his hand; he snarled and raised and tipped the cup down his throat and felt it burn and slash its way down his gullet, burn and slash with intent to kill, and in the trauma of his agony he—began to hear: he heard a chorus of birds erupt into song at the open french windows as the breeze stirred the world into being, he heard them sing into the spring as if there were all the world left to live, to explore, even if they would fade like shadows before the winter, maybe because they were too stupid to know. Did it matter? They were different birds from those of a decade ago but they sang like they always had, an ancient genetic unit, they built their nests on the same black branches and May had loved every one of them.
He writhed and choked, he wanted to live now, he wanted to live because she was still there, she was there in the flowers and in the throats of birds waiting to call each other, she was there in the gentle twining of the garden vines, as if she’d never walked away.
He began to vomit, his body struggled to survive and he didn’t just want to survive, May was in the treetops and Laura was in the roots, and they wanted him to be a person, to live.
He screamed, fingers scraping through his puke, he knew he was about to die. And all he heard, as the lights brightened, was the chatter of a robin that had finally found her mate.
John woke in a haze of light and the taste of sterility in his mouth. His chest and abdomen ached, as if he were swallowing knives.
Eventually the doctor came, and filled the gap in his memory: a good neighbour had heard him and brought to the emergency room, where his stomach had been pumped, and it was a good thing he’d gotten here in time, and was he undergoing any psychological duress?—to which he answered no.
For months after, he spent every afternoon on the garden swing where she used to rest sometimes. She used to leave the left side of the swing empty, waiting till he appeared after his work was done, so they could lean against each other and watch the butterflies dance.
He took his place on the left side, and this time he was the one who waited, waited for a woman who would not come. He waited still, and relished the hope, because the hope told him she was still alive, if not in flesh then in song and idea.
The twigs crossed and rustled, and he began to hear the secrets they’d been telling her for years. He heard the imprints of bird feet in the branches, and the seeds they scattered on the air, the anthers tuning, the flower buds humming and waiting to burst into tiny symphonies.
He waited for the brush of her fingers on her shoulder, and it never came, except in the form of breeze. May was the spring. Laura was away on a road trip with her school, digging fingers beneath roots, finding the creatures there.
He didn’t think, because thinking crowded all the soft sounds out. He only breathed, and listened.