HOW TO BE WARM AGAIN
She looked to the miles of blue stretched out below and breathed deeply. A strong pull of slightly salted air, cool and fresh straight into her constricted lungs. She took three more but exhaled them in extra long gushes as she had been taught in her yoga classes. It calmed her just as she knew it would. The breeze touched the bare skin of her neck, raising goosebumps in their wake. The young woman shifted her stance to fully face the sun gliding to the west. Given a few more seconds maybe the orange and peachy rays would warm her. She sat still waiting for heat. To feel again. Just for a little bit longer.
Her thoughts were knocking against the firmly shut door of her mind, but she paid it no heed. This didn’t feel like the right time. She just wanted to get warm again. For a few days now, it seemed like an insidious winter had been seeping into her bones, freezing her from inside out. Some days she felt like an icicle, and seriously considered breaking out her large puffer jacket even though it was August, and it was blistering hot outside. Why couldn’t she feel warm anymore?
Startled, she open her eyes. The wavering voice belonged to an elderly woman in an orange windbreaker walking a middling sized dog with long shaggy golden hair and a dopey smile. Once upon a time she had liked dogs. Today, gazing at the mutt with the jubilant tail, she felt…. nothing. The old woman’s smile turned uncertain, and a strange pang made itself felt somewhere deep in the cavern of the younger woman’s heart. So, she tried to smile. The half quirk seemed to strengthen the old woman’s flagging spirits.
“Lovely out here, isn’t it?” the old woman chirped, holding onto the straining leash of the dog.
The dog had, until then, been sniffing at the ground but now fascinated by the still figure of this strange young woman, was suddenly in a rage to meet her. The young woman sadly ignored the dog, so he slowly and uncertainly sat down, head cocked, looking askance.
The old woman gazed from the docile puppy to the equally docile younger woman. The thoughts inhabiting her seasoned mind could be anyone’s guess. Perhaps the old woman wondered, why this girl was wrapped up in a warmish coat on a day like this. What had brought her to this lonely but wildly beautiful spot? Why did she gaze beyond the breakers dotted with late afternoon surfers to where nothing invariably moved? Why would the undeniable friendliness of a canine inspire a considering gaze that almost immediately turned to blankness? Why, she must also be wondering, was it such an obvious effort to summon a smile to a friendly greeting?
“It is,” the younger woman answered in a slightly raspy voice. It was a voice that either hadn’t been used in a while or some great emotion suppressed its pure function, or perhaps, it just naturally sounded that way. For some reason the elderly woman rather doubted the latter.
The old woman found herself rooted to the spot, morbidly fascinated by this girl. But she really wasn’t a girl in that sense, rather she was much younger than her own advanced years. In that inexplicable way of old folks, she naturally diverted to a shared understanding that anyone not an octogenarian was most definitely a youth. The old woman wanted to talk to her, not because she was lonely, but because she wanted to touch something within all that unreachable stillness. For unreachable and distant she truly was, this girl. And the old woman just couldn’t abide it. She wasn’t a busy body, not by a long stretch. No, it was because she recognized the aura of stillness for what it was. Sadness. A bone deep, pitiless sadness that kept tugging, warping, consuming it’s host until it emerged near unshakeable, and maybe, fatally victorious. And this would be the spot, the old woman thought, from where to launch the end. With this sudden clarity of mind, the old woman’s very being rose against such a fate for, in her eyes at least, the child before her.
On the other side of the generational chasm, with face turned firmly away to the brightly orange hued horizon, the young woman felt the palpable desperation emanating from her uninvited companion. She recognized the panic, for clearly, the old woman had concluded that she, this younger vital being, was here to end it all. If she could smile at the wrongness of that, the young woman would have, but it felt like such an effort. Still, she thought, drawing up her knees, she should allay the poor old lady’s fears.
“I’m not, you know,” the young woman said quietly.
“You’re not what?” replied the old lady quickly and with a sharp measure of relief in her wavering voice.
“I’m not going to kill myself,” the young woman said. Turning her full gaze on her interlocutor, she willed the old woman to listen. To believe her. “I can’t. I have too much to live for.”
“I never thought you would!” the old woman cried, lying through her teeth, and the girl smiled her first genuine smile. A tawny haired tail immediately thumped in approval.
“You did. But it’s OK. I might have thought the same.”
“I like this spot,” the old lady said after a pause. Unsaid were the words, I don’t want it to be haunted by the spirit of a lost child. “It’s so beautiful and peaceful. Is that why you come here?”
The young woman was quiet for a beat, enough to make the elderly woman wonder if in implying that the girl made frequent trips to the spot, she may have overstepped the mark somehow. The girl shook her head slightly.
“This is only the second time I’ve been here.”
“Well, it’s a popular spot!” the old woman cried enthusiastically, relieved for something to converse on now that a suicide wasn’t imminent. “Only a few weeks ago we had a bunch of school kids picnicking here! And last week, there was a kite festival or some such thing. Though, I have to say I was worried the whole time that folks would fly their kites off the cliff!” She tittered nervously, realizing she was again hinting at death.
The young woman, the girl, had frozen. She said nothing but her gaze was blank, stark again.
Feeling somewhat helpless, the old woman determinedly plowed on, disregarding her companion’s chilliness.
“I must say the school kids were well behaved and were kept far away from the cliff face. I’ll tell you that! I saw myself how those teachers kept them corralled, and you know how hard it is to keep children out of mischief! Why at that age, no more than 6 or 7 they would’ve been, I have to say hats off to the staff. I couldn’t do it!”
The young woman stood up. She was tall and her posture was marvelously straight. The old woman found herself backing up slightly so she could look fully into the still face, and immediately gasped at the ravages of emotion apparent there. Hard tears glazed the girl’s light brown eyes.
“My dear…,” the old woman quavered, and lifted her hand in supplication, the skin paper thin and blue veins visible in stark relief. Old hands, old knowledge versus young torment.
“Have a good evening,” the girl whispered tightly.
She turned and walked away, pausing only to touch the soft head of the reposing dog very gently.
By the time the old woman was ready to move again, it felt like several hours had passed and the sun was in the last leg of its daily jog. Bright orange and peach rays gilded her white hair. The air was cooler and still, but with a hint of rain. Somewhere to the north, if her hearing had been sharper, she would have heard the slow rumble of thunder. A harbinger.
How long she had stood there trying to make sense of this most unusual encounter with the strange sad young woman, and the grief she wore, as tightly as her dark navy puffer jacket, the old woman couldn’t tell.
Just then her phone pinged. These loud alerts from her smart phone were the bane of her retirement — give her a landline any day! Tomorrow she would speak to Elias, her teenage grandson, and get him to work his magic. She smiled fondly. How proud she was of him. Going to Tufts! The world of possibilities ahead of him made her only slightly less smug than Glenys with her granddaughter, and her acceptance to UGA’s pre-med program.
Thinking to text Elias right then so she wouldn’t forget later, the old woman took out her phone and immediately saw the news alerts on the locked screen. More updates on last week’s devastation. Her heart broke for the families. So young. So vulnerable. They’d had no chance. She would pray for them tonight and for the poor teachers who died protecting them.
Using two worn fingers she swiped up while holding the phone in front of her face as Elias had taught her — facial recognition. Technology was marvelous sometimes. Immediately, the main story popped up and a young woman’s face stared grimly back at her. A face slightly bruised but still very recognizable. It was her. Her young woman. The old woman froze in shock, but quickly gathering her wits, scanned the headline.
“Sole survivor of elementary school shooting out of hospital”
Elias’s mum called her mother that evening, but there was no answer. She was only slightly worried, knowing from experience how often her mom forgot her phone on her walks. They would have to have a chat about that soon. Again.
That afternoon, while a carefully placed phone rang insistently against damp grass and soil, an old woman on faded knees knelt on a picturesque cliff, her dog at her side. No one knew how long she watched the last dredges of the evening sun disappear over the horizon, gliding gracefully into a moonless night. No one knew at what point she finally determined her vigil was over and that she had no further prayers to offer.
When a cold breeze suddenly swept inland, the old woman wrapped her arms around the dog to make herself warm again.