Contest #26 shortlist ⭐️


Fiction Contemporary Sad

He wakes up in an empty bed. A pang of hollowness stabs him. It will take a long time before he’s used to this, the raw ache of missing. It’s a familiar feeling. It feels like losing a limb.

For a minute he lies there, crushed by the weight of a thousand empty mornings stretching out before him. He doesn’t want to get out of bed, to face the loneliness of the future that yawns like a gaping mouth. How can he bring himself to move forward into a world without her?

He will not think of the future. Not yet. Today is for remembering. He forces himself out of bed.

The void where she should have been says, “Good morning, Eddie,” and goes to the kitchen to make coffee, singing. She was always singing. Singing and baking and sewing and painting. To drown out the silence he turns on the radio that sits on the dresser. Mozart spills into the room. Far too cheery, but better than silence.

He goes to the closet to pick out a button-up shirt. As he reaches for a pale purple one, his hand brushes his tuxedo. It’s tucked in the far corner of the closet, where it’s been hanging, untouched, for the past forty-four years. He hardly ever thinks about it anymore, but today he pauses and remembers the day he hung it up. When his heart was splitting and the world was crashing to ruin around him, when he folded up his future and all his dreams and shut them away to gather dust in a closet for the rest of his life.

As if on cue, the Mozart piece comes to an end with a flourish, and the melancholy strains of Bach’s fifth cello suite stream from the radio. The warm, rich tones of the cello are so beautiful it hurts to listen to. It took him a long time before he could listen to the cello again. For almost ten years, the sound of the instrument filled him with unbearable pain. Eventually, he grew to appreciate its beauty again, though it would always be mingled with sadness. Still, he considers it the most beautiful instrument in the world.

He pulls out the purple shirt and puts it on, leaving it unbuttoned. His daughter Joanne will button it up for him when she arrives. After forty-four years, he’s learned to do most everyday tasks on his own, but there are still some things he’ll never be able to manage without help. The cello soars from the radio, and he remembers how Flo buttoned up his shirt for him every Sunday as they got ready for church. He has a vivid memory of looking down at her thick cascade of curls, bright auburn at first and then fading to grey over the years, as she stood close to him and deftly fit buttons through holes. He has a sudden, fierce urge to wrap his arms around her and gently kiss the top of her hair. The cello wraps around him like a river of purple and pulls him, aching.

With a jerk he fumbles for the radio. His thumb finds the switch on the second try and compulsively pushes it down. In the sudden silence he hears his own ragged breathing, the agonized beating of his heart.

This is going to be a hard day.

After a minute he goes to the bathroom to shave and comb his hair. His thumbnail is getting long; he feels it digging into his skin as he grips the comb. It irritates him. Flo hasn’t been here to clip it for him.

He tries to shift the comb for a better grip, and it slips from his hand and clatters into the sink. Without warning Flo’s voice fills his ears, as clearly as if she were standing beside him. You can’t hold onto everything.

She was full of simple wisdom like that. She first said it to him when Joanne, their oldest, got engaged to a stock broker in New York who was, in Eddy’s opinion, not nearly old enough or mature enough to be making the amount of money he was making. He had grave reservations about letting the boy marry his daughter, but Flo convinced him to let Joanne make her own decision. They helped pay for the wedding. They travelled to New York when Zoe was born, and again when Lucas came along a few years later. And neither of them said I told you so when the stock broker left her for a blonde CEO and she came back home with her two children, utterly broken. They helped her gather the threads of her unraveled life and slowly weave them back together. Eddy has a clear memory of listening to Joanne crying in the hallway and Flo holding her, gently murmuring, “You can’t hold onto everything.”

Another, more recent memory floats into his mind. Just a few weeks ago he sat beside her bed in the hospital, enfolded by the cold symphony of humming and beeping machines. Her wrinkled face was pale and gaunt and she lay so still on the white sheets, barely with him. He was gripped by the absurd notion that if only he could hold her hand, lock his fingers tightly between hers and never let go, he could keep her from leaving him. Instead, all he could was place his hand on top of hers and curl his thumb under her palm, slowly tracing a circle over her skin like he’d done a million times before. He didn’t know if she could feel it, but he wanted her to know he was there. Deep down he knew that even if he’d had all his fingers, he couldn’t hold onto her any more than he could hold onto a river.

She was always the one who knew when to hold on and when to let go, he reflected. After the accident, when he was caught in an unending whirlpool of loss, she held him and kept him afloat. When he was blinded by grief, unable to see past what could have been, she was able to see beyond the present pain and realize that life would go on. She convinced him to put away his concert programs and newspaper clippings into a box downstairs, instead of burning them. The cello, too, which he had a strong desire to violently smash, went into the basement. Her foresight paid off when Zoe, at the age of ten, took an interest in learning cello, and they were able to give her the birthday present of a lifetime.

Joanne arrives, and greets him with a long hug. They don’t say much. She helps him get ready. She makes him coffee, helps him button his shirt, and clips his thumbnail. He’s grateful, but he can’t help but wish it was Flo helping him. Then they get into the car and drive to the church in silence.

They’ve dressed Flo in her favourite purple dress. Seeing her body feels unreal. There is his wife, lying in a wooden box as if asleep, and yet it’s not her. What is it, he wonders, that leaves a person when they die?

He remembers the warmth of Flo’s hand on his shoulder as he put away his cello for the last time. He knelt and looked at it for a long time. He was remembering the thousands of hours he’d spent cradling the instrument, in practice and in performance, drawing out the depths of its loveliness as he played. Sometimes it felt like the cello had a soul of its own, and when he played his best, his soul and the cello’s soul collided and fused into one. He remembers kneeling, looking at the instrument he’d never play again lying still and lifeless in its case, and then finally closing the lid and latching it.

They shared that grief. She loved listening to the cello as much as he loved playing it, and whether he was practicing scales in the living room or playing for a packed house in front of a full orchestra, he played for her. He remembers the cruel irony of the newspaper review of his last performance: a prominent musical critic had given it a rating of nine out of ten. The critic had praised Edward Taft's extraordinary virtuosity and vivacity, and predicted a long and fruitful career for the young prodigy. A few short days after the review came out, he’d lost nine out of ten of his fingers.

The church is full. He knows his wife didn’t belong to him alone, that her life touched so many others, but he still feels an irrational resentment toward the crowd. He doesn’t want to share his grief with all of them. No one knew her like he did. No one will miss her like he will.

The service is heavy and long. Their son Andrew gives the eulogy, a tearful tribute that paints Flo in pastel hues, all light and no shadows. The words feel superfluous. How can you summarize the impact of a life in a five-minute speech, especially a life as full-lived as Flo’s? The air is thick with the heat of several hundred bodies, too thick to be stirred by the frantic spinning of the ceiling fans. People are fanning themselves with their programs, Flo’s oval-framed face flapping all over the sanctuary. The wooden pew feels harder than it did an hour ago.

The coffin is open in front of the stage. On either side are two of Flo’s paintings. One is abstract, a fluid medley of blues and purples. The other is a picture of a river flowing lazily through an autumn forest. The trees are like orange torches, showering sparks into the river that float away downstream. There’s a bridge over the river, with two people standing close together and looking down. They have their back to the viewer, and they are just close enough to touch.

He remembers cool spring evenings with Flo, before they were married, walking together in her parents’ apple orchard. Passing through aisles of blossom-laden trees, enveloped in sweet fragrance, fingers intertwined, white petals drifting down around them. They didn’t talk. They didn’t need to. It was enough just being surrounded by beauty and being together.

They used to go canoeing together, back when he could hold a paddle. Flo loved being outside, and she had a fascination with rivers. “It’s like life,” she would say. “You’re on this winding journey that’s mostly out of your control, and you never know what’s around the bend. That’s half the fun of it.” That was what gave him the idea. He remembers the warm, sunny day in late summer, when he invited her for a paddle down the river. He’d made sure she sat in the bow. He remembers watching her, the way her hair shone like copper in the sunlight. The trees were just starting to turn golden at the tips, and the river was like glass. They rounded a bend, and there, hanging from a string attached to the trees on either side of the river, blowing gently in the breeze, were large cardboard letters painted gold that spelled, Will you marry me? He heard her gasp, and she stopped paddling. She turned around in her seat, and he was kneeling on the bottom of the canoe, holding a ring. She’d said yes, then promptly flung herself at him in a hug so exuberant they nearly capsized the canoe.

Andrew finishes the eulogy and goes back to his seat, blowing his nose. At any other event, there would be applause. The silence somehow makes the atmosphere even more stifling.

Then Zoe stands up and walks to the stage, carrying her cello, the one that used to be his. She doesn’t give a lengthy introduction. She just says, “I’m going to play Oh Shenandoah. It was Grandma’s favourite song.” Then she sits down. Joanne, who sits beside him, looks at him with a bittersweet smile that says, Mom would be so proud. She reaches over and takes his hand, holding it tightly. The crowd holds its breath. Zoe breathes in deeply, places the bow against the string, leans into the instrument, and begins to play.

The melody wraps around him like wind, flowing through the sanctuary with a fullness that somehow makes the air feel lighter. He watches his granddaughter move the bow across the strings with such confidence and expression, and his heart swells with pride. He remembers countless afternoons, when Zoe and her brother came to their house after school because Joanne was at work. Lucas would sit at the kitchen table and do homework, or help Flo with a baking project, while Eddy taught Zoe how to play cello in the living room. It made Flo so happy to hear the house filled with cello music again. And Eddy remembers sitting beside his granddaughter day after day, watching her fall in love with the instrument that was so dear to him, and realizing that he had healed. He still missed playing, but he felt no wrenching pain like he would have in the years following the accident, when the loss of his cello career had completely unraveled his life. With Flo’s help, he’d been able to slowly move on. The grief never fully went away, but it became one more strand in the pattern of his life he’d re-woven from scratch.

Zoe and Lucas are teenagers now, and they no longer need their grandparents to babysit them after school. Zoe is taking lessons from a professional now, someone who can show her as well as tell her how to play. She knows how to make the instrument sing, to bring out the depth and richness of the cello’s soul. He closes his eyes and lets his mind drift with the ebb and flow of the melody. He hears Flo’s voice, singing the bittersweet song she loved so much.

Oh, Shenandoah, I long to see you

Away, you rolling river

Oh Shenandoah, I long to see you

Away, I’m bound away

‘Cross the wide Missouri.

For a moment he feels Flo beside him, as though the cello has brought her spirit into the room. Her presence is so strong, so real, he can almost feel her slender fingers, her head resting on his shoulder. He wants to freeze time and stay in this moment forever, here at the intersection of him and Flo and the river and his daughter’s hand holding his, and the beautiful, beautiful cello, holding them all together.

But the music is alive, and it moves steadily forward like a current until the song ends. Zoe holds the last note for a long time, letting it slowly fade before releasing it to silence. The pool of tears that has been gathering under his eyelids finally spills down his cheeks. Flo is gone, and life moves inexorably onward. He will learn to live with this grief. He will weave it among the others strands of his life as he settles into a new pattern of living, like Flo taught him. As Zoe lowers her bow and stands up, he curls his thumb around his daughter’s hand, holding.

February 01, 2020 03:18

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Chris Sharrock
01:03 Feb 04, 2020

This is so good! It’s very hard-hitting and really does a great job of describing real and complex emotions.


Carmen Friesen
02:35 Feb 06, 2020

Thanks! I appreciate the feedback. Glad you enjoyed it.


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