By Brian Le Marquand
Willa Trent was eighty years old and lay dying in her bed. She had been dying for a week. Her husband Ben was at the kitchen table. From the kitchen he could see up the hall to the open door of the bedroom. At his feet sat his dog, Jack.
“Nothing to be done,” he said to Jack.
Jack drank from a bowl.
His master drank from a bottle.
“Doctor says not. I’d be in there now, but she’s sleeping.”
Jack stopped drinking.
His master did not.
“I know,” said Ben. “I should sleep myself I can’t. Have to be here wide awake.”
Jack lay at his master’s feet with eyes open and ears erect.
Ben, already floating in caffeine and alcohol, poured himself another coffee and plonked the cup down next to the bottle. Except for a nap here and there, he had been awake for most of the week. His face was slack and heavy, eyes bright and alert. The three o’clock moon, lit up the yard. Looking out the window, Ben could see clearly the shed out back, almost the nail heads in the planks. He knew where each one was, having driven them in fifty years ago.
“I’m not sure she understands. The stroke last year took much of her daily awareness. There is a child-like wonder about her.”
A cloud almost obscured the moon, but did not quite manage it.
“The friends and family we’ve lost in recent years.” He shook his head. “Not that she remembers them properly. All she seems to know is there is too much space around her. She feels the emptiness.”
He pulled the skin on the back of his hand and watched it settle into a wrinkle. Somebody had told him that it was a sign of youth, how quickly the skin snaps back. Five minutes later the wrinkle was still there. He rubbed it away.
“Sometimes Willa looks at me as if I am a ghost.”
His head drooped and he leant forward over the table, chin on his hands, eyes closed. Jack sat up and let out a small bark. Still Ben rested. A chill breeze came through the screen door. Jack could smell things out there, her things. Ben had left it open to keep him awake, the cold air.
The kitchen was quiet but for the ticking of the clock.
Ben snapped awake and looked around wildly.
“Is everything all right, Jack?”
Jack lolled out his tongue and licked his wet nose.
Ben stared at him for a minute, then put out a hand and patted him on the head.
“I think I’ve been dreaming just now. I don’t remember anything but words. It may sound silly, but listen.” Ben recited the words from his dream: “Superfluous, celebrate, holiday, gold, marching, daffodil, magic.” He stopped. “Does it mean anything to you, Jack?”
Jack got up, walked around the table, and sat down again.
“The thing is,” said Ben. “Since her mind has been going,, each morning is new to her. A day is a miracle. At night a full moon holds her gaze. When a thunderstorm splits the sky, she hugs me in fright.”
Jack listened without interruption.
“There are times when it’s like our first date. When it’s all uncharted We stumble along and share the moment, live it. There is nothing else.”
Ben stared at the ceiling. “When we first came here there were six hundred acres of empty fields and a shack. It was part of the Settlement Scheme because of what I did in the Pacific.” He chuckled. “I split the logs and Willa chopped the kindling, right out there on the block.”
Jack suddenly tensed and looked up the hall. Ben jumped to his feet and ran from the room.