Shadows of the towering oaks that stood sentinel over the dead stretched long and lithe in the final yawn of light.
I hung back, hesitant, wary and waiting, while the visitor paid her final respects.
She stood, a lonely wraith in the eternal breath of a midsummer sunset, a silent statue over an unremarkable headstone amongst a sea of the same. Tall and lean; willowy and pale. Her hair was like moonlight, curled in a wispy knot at the base of her bowed head. Her white skirt rippled on the wave of a gentle evening breeze, the only indication of her corporeality.
Of course, I knew who she must be. This stranger. This vision. This woman in white.
The object of Danny’s obsession.
Captor of his heart. Driver of his drink. Leading lady of his writing.
A lifetime of laments whispered from the book concealed in the bag slung over my shoulder as if it sensed she was near. The book I found him face-down in, grief and secrets etched in blue ink on his cold cheek. The book that I carried with me as a reminder, as proof, that it wasn’t my fault.
I meant to turn around, leave, come back another day.
Instead, I found myself awkwardly clearing my throat as if intruding on a private moment between lovers. The plastic wrap that swaddled a bouquet of white lilies crackled in my shaking grip as I approached.
She raised her head, and her eyes - god, those eyes - met mine. Turquoise and cold as a glacial lake, they appraised me with a dancing flick from head to toe and back.
I tucked a strand of greying split-ends behind my ear and tried to lace my nerves with steel, forcing out the question to which I already knew the answer.
"How did you know my husband?"
The ice in her gaze melted slightly; the corners of her stern lips softened. "It was a long time ago." Her voice was light and musical. So beautiful. So horrible.
Looking back down, she brushed a delicate hand across the top of his stone. "I am so very sorry for your loss. I’ll leave him to you."
She turned to float away and was ten graves gone when I blurted at her back, "He wrote about you!"
She paused, chin tucked to chest.
"Every day," I huffed, ignoring the stinging in my eyes. I'd wept enough for him, for her. "He wrote about you every day."
I held my ground and clenched my teeth, ignoring the chill that skittered up my spine as she revolved, slowly, to study me with an unreadable expression. It wasn’t long before I wilted under the sting of gold flecks and aqua frost that flew from her gaze, and it all tumbled out.
"You ruined him. Destroyed him. You broke his heart, and he spent his life loving you anyways. Spent our life loving you."
"You read what he wrote about me?" she asked, drifting back to stand on the other side of him.
I was cowed by her blinding beauty. The longing poetry and praising prose that stuffed the pages in his book, words of worship that I thought could only have been inspired by bourbon and rose-tinted memory, fell lightyears short of adequately capturing this glowing goddess who had loved and left Danny before me. I pressed on anyway.
"I found his journal, after."
"And it would have you believe he the victim, and I the villain?"
I dropped the strangled corpses of my lilies to retrieve the well-worn, tear-stained book from my bag.
Her laugh was lyrical, otherworldly, when I offered it to her.
She waved it away. "I don't need to see it."
My face burned. My arm hovered uncertainly. The journal hung suspended between us, two ghosts of Danny’s past haunting his grave.
The sun dipped lower, and I felt the cool claws of shadow caress my cheeks, while the final flare of light wreathed her head in a halo of white and amber.
"You. Me. That." She gestured to the book, to his freshly packed dirt. "Is exactly what he would have wanted.”
“Wanted?” I spat. “You think he wanted to live heartbroken all these years? You think he wanted to drown your loss in liquor until he died?”
“I think he reveled in the romance of tragedy. I think he was infatuated with the glories of unrequited affection. I think he had grandiose ideas of what love should be and ignored its reality.”
She so easily described what I had struggled to define for twenty years. My fury dissolved and I immediately realized how foolish it was for me to have so readily believed his memoirs as fact.
I had spent our marriage trying to temper expectations for a life that couldn’t exist, for a version of me that wasn’t real. I had navigated the soaring highs of his grand gestures and amorous proclamations. I had survived the paralyzing lows of his disdain for the mundane and withdrawal into regret and booze.
I had stayed in spite of it.
She had left because of it.
“I don’t mean to speak ill of the dead,” she continued quietly, “but whatever story he wrote, whatever life he lived, it was of his own making. A product of his truth. Don't let it be yours. I never let it be mine."
The light faded and the halo that crowned her fair hair winked out. Grey dusk crept into the tired lines that fanned out from the corners of her eyes and across her brow, not so different than those that graced my own face.
I closed my eyes and let the collection of handwritten fantasies fall with a thud to the ground beside the crumpled flowers.
“Why are you here?” I whispered.
When I heard no reply, I opened my eyes to find her gone. A diamond ring lay abandoned atop the journal at my feet, its promises dulled by time and the life neither of us had given him.