I Won’t Be Long
Yolan’s weathered hands are clasped in front of his head, which rests on Geta’s bed. A light blanket covers Geta, her hands open and motionless at her sides. Yolan does not pray. He simply rests. The aches in his legs and back never cease.
He raises his head and looks across Geta’s bed to the window, where bare black branches of an ornamental tree shiver in the early March afternoon. A red bird with a black mask and yellow beak sits on a branch.
“He has a sweetheart, Geta. I have seen her on that same branch. Her feathers are mauve and gray. I named them Jeffrey and Anabel. That is a fine place to nest. See all the buds just starting out? They will have shade there, and protection.”
Geta does not reply. Yolan watches, waiting for Anabel to join Jeffrey. He feels a change in the room. Maybe his eyes close, he doesn’t know. The bare branches beckon to him. He drifts.
Yolan is outside, walking in a meadow near the river. It has rained. The previous summer’s grasses lay in soggy brown clumps. Yolan’s tan canvas pants are soaked to the knee, but his solid boots keep his feet dry and warm. He walks to the flat ground that rises three feet above the dark water of the river. Some older men stand near the edge, talking. He removes the warm boots, strips off his clothes until he stands in just his underpants and white undershirt.
It is the day your father brought the winch truck to the Narrows, Geta, where they found the barrels sunk down to the bottom, caught by a jumble of rotten pilings and tree roots. I dive with the line and wrap it around the barrels, then he hauls them up. The water has not gotten inside. Sheriff pries the lids off right there. We see those boys, shoved in among chunks of concrete and broken I-beams, preserved through the winter, their faces hardly recognizable as faces through the dried blood and bruises. The water is so cold, but the shivering that bends my knees has nothing to do with the weather.
I pull my pants and shirt back on and sit in the cab of your dad’s wrecker. He loads the barrels into the back of the sheriff’s truck, then asks if I want to get lunch.
Your mom washes my clothes. I sit in their kitchen in your dad’s jeans and flannel shirt, and eat bean stew. You and your sister stare at me with your beautiful brown eyes. You are wearing your school blouses and plaid skirts. High school girls wore saddle oxfords then. Boys from my side of town whose fathers never returned from the war left school to work. I worked for your father for three years and never knew about you until that day.
You and Islah show me your flower garden, just mud with tulip shoots poking through. You say I need to come back and see it in June. Islah plays with the dog. You stand up on your tiptoes in those saddle shoes and whisper in my ear that I ought to ask her to go to a show because she is the pretty one, and then we all play cribbage and I see you are the smart one.
I want to talk more, but something is wrong with my face--it feels frozen in place. I fear that if I talk more, the lump against my windpipe will fly out. Nobody knows for sure what that lump is, but that day, after I see those boys, I know it is made of something bad, and if I talk too much, an evil thing will fly out and beat us all to death with its wicked wings.
You and Islah and your mother smile. Your dad asks me if I want to smoke with him. I say no. I’d rather stay with you. You are the only thing that can drive away the evil we saw that day. The dog comes over to me, presses his head against my leg and stands there, ‘like he’s your guardian,’ your mother says. I can keep my mouth closed, my eyes dry. But old Henry knows.
When your dad drives me home, your spell is broken. I turn my face to the window and sob.
A nurse enters the room and sees Yolan, eyes closed, leaning back in the chair, his lips moving. She checks Geta, makes adjustments, writes something. Yolan’s eyes are open now, and she asks him if he needs anything.
“Time,” he says softly. The nurse goes out. Yolan feels like he has been sitting in the same chair since he was a child, and he feels like he is waiting for the dentist or for a letter to come. He looks at Geta and remembers why he is in the chair.
“Where are you, Geta?” he whispers.
Geta does not answer. Yolan picks up her left hand and cradles it in his two hands. He sees the ring on the fourth finger. In his mind, he is placing it there. Geta’s dress has short sleeves. It is made of a sheer silvery material over a pink silk sheath with spaghetti straps. The sheer material is embossed with delicate silver roses. The veil over her face is so light, Yolan hardly feels it as he takes it in his fingers to raise it over her head.
It isn’t her bridal face he reveals. He sees her forehead streaked with sweat and soot, her dark hair sticking to her skin. She is wailing, her mouth frozen open as heaving sobs punctuate her wordless cries. The beautiful dress is covered in ash and blood, from the cuts on Geta’s neck and arms, except that it isn’t her bridal dress anymore. It is a plain, light green cotton dress she wears for working.
Halet lay in your arms, his little face so still against your breast. I try to raise you both, to take you away from the blowing ash and smoke, but I end up sitting beside you on the gravel, holding you as our house burns and burns. You cannot speak, you can hardly breathe, and I cannot cry. Your cries steal my grief, making me numb to everything except your sorrow, and all I want in that moment, and for days and weeks afterward, is to take my grief back from you, and take your suffering away, too.
How long was it before we could talk to each other again? It felt like years. Did you know that every night, after we put that little coffin into the dirt, I worried you would never lie down beside me again, and that every morning when I awoke by your side, I thanked your god?
When Lara was born, do you remember how I cried? You were calm, radiant. You prayed again, though it was still a prayer full of reproach alongside the thanksgiving. I couldn’t stop kissing her soft hair. You always said there was something about the smell of a baby’s head that is intoxicating. That was it; I was intoxicated; with you and with our baby girl. Lara was proof that we had survived, Geta.
“Dad?” Lara says softly from behind Yolan.
“I was napping. I thought you said my name. Do you need something?”
Lara takes her father’s hand, kisses the top of his head. Yolan sighs. He is happy when he sees Lara, between court and her travel. Right now, he can’t remember what to say to her.
“It’s, o.k., Dad, you don’t have to say anything.”
Lara kisses her mother’s forehead and then gently rubs her temples. Yolan watches, and in an instant, Lara becomes a child of six. Geta is lying on the kitchen floor, her head propped against the cupboard, their newborn son in her arms. Lara has helped Geta wrap the baby in a towel. They wait for Yolan to come. The roads are iced over, covered with three feet of snow. The electricity has gone out, but Lara keeps a fire burning in the wood stove, candles on the countertop.
I open the door, and there you are, with Lara and Mikka. Your mother and sister couldn’t get there. Your dad and me were pulling half-frozen people out of wrecked cars all night, no way to call us on the phone. But you and Lara managed, and when I walk in, you are both as cheerful as can be, Mikka nursing and Lara spreading sawdust on the floor to clean it, just like you would have. She bounces over to me and says, ‘Look, Papa, look what Mama’s done!’
I help you up and you are laughing at how hungry you feel. I make corn cakes and bacon, but no eggs because I can’t get to the hens until I shovel a path through the drifts. After I shovel, Lara and I bake a birthday cake in a dutch oven, and we wait out the rest of the storm.
There was a newspaper article. Remember? The reporter wrote ‘by the grace of God,’ and that made you mad, because to you there was no grace, no God in a world that burns one of your children to death and tries to freeze another. ‘It was by the wits of a six-year-old and my own stubbornness that this child is here. Nothing more.’
Lara is still standing beside Yolan’s chair, but now Mikka is there, too. Yolan says, “Mikka. I am glad you have come.”
Mikka’s brown eyes shimmer in the light from above the bed. He kisses his father’s head and says, “Yes. I have come.”
Lara and Mikka exchange a look. The look says, something is wrong with him. Yolan doesn’t know Mikka has been there all along, and Lara, too. The cousins and aunties and uncles come and go, but Lara and Mikka are constants. Their father looks at them, but they realize he doesn’t really see them.
Yolan lays his head beside Geta again. This time, he slips away with eyes still open.
‘I will just be gone for a moment, Geta, you won’t even notice.’ I say it softly, my hand on the doorknob. I am not really talking to you. I tell myself that I am a good, honest man.
You turn your face from the window to look at me, your brown eyes blank, your lips pressed into a dark line. ‘Just for a moment, I promise.’ I open the door. The sun is shining outside, the grass and the leaves on the cottonwood trees have taken on the deep greens of midsummer. The gravel beneath my feet whispers a question, which I ignore. The chickens cluck softly in the shade of the old truck. ‘You don’t know, you don’t know, you don’t know,’ they say. They are taunting me. They see it is a fool’s errand. But I want to go.
I hear the door open behind me. I turn, and there you stand, two steps in front of the porch, pointing my shotgun at me. You’re ten feet away and I see your face, one eye closed as you draw a bead on me. You say, ‘Come back into this house, or you will bleed out in the dust.’ I invoke the children. ‘They deserve better than a dirty dog for a father,’ you say. We stand like that for at least five minutes. I think your arms will grow tired, but you do not waver. I put my hands up and walk toward you. ‘You win, Geta.’ I stop a foot from the barrels.
In that moment, I think what a hard, hard woman I married. You lower the gun. I should have known, when you put the safety on. You swing that son-of-a-bitch so fast. I don’t know, until I’ve crawled through the dust the rest of the way to the house, what hit me.
The music stops. Yolan raises his face from his hands. His suit feels strange, like it was made for another man. Before him, a line of people walk past a casket. Some stop, touch it, kiss it. Others cross themselves. The pretty woman and tall man in front start to play their guitars and sing again. The tune is familiar. Yolan feels like singing, but he can’t make the words come.
Mikka and Lara help him stand. “Come, Dad, let’s say good-bye,” Lara says, her brown eyes sparkling with tears. She is pretty, so pretty. Like Geta, her dark hair curls where it springs from around her face, but so heavy, it straightens once it reaches her waist.
Yolan sees Geta standing just beyond the casket, but then she is gone. He wonders where she could be. It isn’t like her to miss something this important. He takes slow steps toward the casket. He can see it, can hear the music, can feel his footsteps, but it dawns on him that he is not really moving toward her, so he tries harder, and stumbles.
Mikka guides his father gently. His military uniform fits him well. His stern expression softens when he looks at his father. The older man gazes at the casket, his face an open question.
Was it in this church where you wore that dress, with the veil? You carried flowers. Were they lilies of the valley? They smelled so good. Oh look, Geta, there are lilies of the valley up there on the casket. Yes that must have been what you carried. Your hands are cold, Geta. Are you feeling well?
Yolan’s weathered old hands move over the closed casket. The dark wood gives off a dim sheen. It was made by monks. They sanded and buffed it until it felt like glass, and polished it with wheat oil, but Yolan doesn’t know this. He touches the wood with his fingertips, then with his palm. It is smooth, like brown skin. The flowers smell sweet; there are more around the casket--sunflowers and coneflowers in one arrangement, pale yellow chrysanthemums and crimson gladiolus in another. There is a basket with lavender, flowering thyme, and lemon balm. Frothy pink and white hydrangea blooms burst from a translucent blue vase.
It is late March, but Yolan thinks it must be summer, with all of these summer flowers. He looks around, trying to find Geta, to take her hand again. His children are on either side of him, and the pretty lady and tall man are off to the right. A priest in white vestments stands beside the casket. His face is unlined, his short hair is the color of wet rust. His pale nose and forehead are sprinkled with freckles.
“Do you know Geta?” Yolan asks softly. “She will like these flowers, I think.”
The priest nods. Lara pats her father’s shoulder. Mikka is holding his father steady.
“But where is Geta?” Yolan whispers. “She was just here. I told her I was going to get some soda and a packet of crackers. I won’t be long, Geta.” His voice gets louder. His steps, though short, are emphatic. Lara and Mikka turn him back toward the front pew. The song ends.
“I won’t be long!” Yolan says loudly into the sudden silence. He cannot see the faces of the people. Their dark clothes absorb the colors of the sun’s light through the stained glass windows. An inky stillness wraps itself around Yolan.
“I won’t be long,” he whispers.
Yolan’s eyes drift open. He sees textured tiles far above. He thinks they’re twelve inches on two sides and eighteen on the other two. He doesn’t know what’s become of his tape measure, and he can’t reach the tiles anyway. He thinks this warm room is Geta’s, where he sat many days, telling her about Jeffrey and Anabel. He wonders why he is lying alone in Geta’s bed.
To his left, Mikka and Lara talk softly to a man in a shirt and tie with a hospital badge. Yolan cannot see the man’s picture or name. Straining to see makes him want to close his eyes again. Instead, he looks at the ornamental tree with purplish leaves outside the window. A brighter red moves among the branches.
Is that you, Jeffrey? Where is Anabel?
As he starts to close his eyes, Geta sits down beside the bed. Yolan can barely make out her face, but her dark eyes shine. She is wearing a dress of mauve silk with silver and sooty pink highlights and shadowing. It moves on her young body like water. Her lips are full and red. The garnet earrings and necklace her mother gave her as a wedding gift glisten next to the black hair streaming in a fat strand onto her shoulder, over her breast to her waist. She takes Yolan’s hand. Her smooth brown skin is warm and soft.
Are you ready? she whispers.
Yolan sighs. He closes his eyes and hears the laughter of children and the clucking of chickens. He can smell lilies of the valley and ashes. The leaves of the cottonwoods around the house sound like light applause in the breeze, like the applause after they said their vows in the church. Yolan feels Geta’s warm hand in his. His back is straight and strong, his legs do not ache, and his head is clear. He drifts with Geta through the meadow near their house, the river farther on sparkles in the sunlight. Something tells him they will not be home before nightfall. He knows Lara and Mikka will understand.