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Ronin

Michael Chadwick


ORbits presents a selection of stories which made the shortlist of the Oxonian Review Short Story Competition, 2013. Our final story is Michael Chadwick’s ‘Ronin.’

I

It’s difficult to recall coming down the trail now that I’ve been shown her injuries. Now that I know she’s going to be fine. No, I wouldn’t’ve counted the four puncture wounds, or noticed that the top two were wide enough to fit my index fingers. Or how long it took to get to the car. Forty minutes. Forty seconds. Forty days. But there was no time. It happened in the unbound space between zero and one.

I cannot remember if she was silent or screaming, because it registered as the same noise: the susurrus from the evergreens in the wind.

How the helicopter was at the trailhead. Someone must have called. They looked at me and asked if I could drive myself. I forgot to close my eyes when the woodchips frenzied off the ground.

Some working definitions for shock: Time displaced by fire. Reality displaced by dream. The awareness that one occupies space and time, in a river. Perception alit at its edges, curling into impenetrable ash. That a second and a lifetime are measured by the exhalation of breath.

They arrived together at the hospital. She was still in her pajamas, a pilled pair of tartan blue bottoms thinning at the knees and my grey university tee from when me met in school. Her nipples embossed in the shirt. She took that shirt from my dorm the first night we slept together. We had to keep our bodies pressed tightly to fit on the twin mattress I kept on the floor. She introduced him to me. Clint. Sylvie didn’t have any shoes on, and her arms were stippled with gooseflesh.

She looked at me with doughy eyelids. “Today is about our daughter”, she said.

I told them what I knew. Two skull fractures, each the size of a nickel. Some leakage of spinal fluid, but the punctures missed the major veins. No hemorrhaging, which would have killed her in minutes. They’ve already taken tissue as a thin sheath to cover the exposed brain and are fusing the skull fragments back together. “Like a jigsaw puzzle”, she said.

She’s going to be fine, we’re told. Fine: the hospital’s word for she’s not going to die. The only thing to look for now is infection, the doctor said. She’ll need to be monitored initially. We understand.

They spoke a few hushed words in the breezeway and Clint made a sideways glance toward me when he tried giving Sylvie back her car keys. So they brought her car. And he drove. Did she drive to him when she first received the call, or was he at the house? It doesn’t matter.

She is shrewd, my wife, intentionally or otherwise, knowing that nothing could shock me more. Might as well meet him on the same day. But I’ve never once grown tired of her breasts. Each a beautiful scoop of cream I run my fingers underneath, the gentle weight spilling over knuckle and nail.

Her wounds were dark inkwells. I could feel pulsed flow babbling underneath my hand that cupped the back of her neck. Her chin set in the declivity of my collarbone, her forehead rubbing my ear and temple as I ran, holding her. It was viscous, her blood, like tamarind paste, and it soaked through my handkerchief pressed against the base of her head, then my bundled shirt, until it was just my hand again, plugging the holes with the pads of my fingers. Some smeared on my lips and I tasted her ferric tang. Her blood branching down my forearms, my bare chest. Only once the blood traveled the length of our bodies, absorbed and dried in my socks and pants, did it take on its typical vermillion hue. I knew she lost unconsciousness when I felt her urine on my stomach.

II

When I came out of the bathroom she was pushing our bed sheets into the washer.

“I didn’t have time to clean them”. “It’s late”, I told her. “They need to be cleaned”. I understand.

“You don’t have to stay here”, I said. We both know Salal won’t be out of the hospital for a few days at least.

“My car’s at his place”.

“I know. I’ll take you”.

“You don’t have to do that. I can get picked up”. “No. I want to”.

What could I have said to her bounding down the trail? That everything will be all right, that I was there for her, that I loved her. No, I could say nothing—to the urgency, the fragility—in that moment. I remember my lower arm cradling her weight, how I tried to keep her neck and head aligned on my shoulder. Breathing into her bloodied earlobe. Everything I could have told her was in our embrace, in our breathing, its constancy; my deep controlled heaves, her soft wisps. That in my embrace I hoped she didn’t feel alone. That in our holding already was the possibility to heal.

I held her hand in the car and she didn’t take it away. It took ten minutes to get to his house, but there, in the car with her, I felt our entire relationship dismantle itself from time. We held our past and future in the creases of our interlaced fingers, humming without a telos. My life with her suspended in the rarefied air. “How did you two meet?” “On the ferry. After work one day”. They parked next to each other on the deck and he held open the door for her into the stairwell. “He works downtown and we started having lunches”. They’ve taken the same boat home for the past three months.

“Did you know?”

“Yes”.

“When?”

“One night you came home smelling like chlorine. Your roots were damp but it hadn’t rained”.

The ones I kept to myself: you stopped kissing me on the mouth when you came home from work. You began to take showers at night. You encouraged me to take Salal on longer hikes. She’s ready, you said.

Salal. I watched the cougar bound over your namesake’s foliage.

“Are you going to be O.K.?” “I don’t think so”, I said. She squeezed my hand before letting go, and I could sense her breath quickening. Begin to cry. Hold her. Do something. Do Something! I turned and she was looking at me, her chin complexly dimpled as a tear fell down her cheek. “Goodnight”, I said. She got out of the car and I pulled her bag out from the back seat and handed it to her. “I love you”, I said. She looked at me, hunched under the hood, with her arms wrapped around the bag against her chest, and it seemed to me she was hugging someone or thing other than the duffel. Perhaps herself. “I love you, too”.

I don’t feel as if I’ve done anything differently, but I’m too afraid to ask. I don’t know if she loves him.

She has always been smarter than me. She makes more money than me. Maybe she needs more partners than me. That shouldn’t be a problem. The Times has articles encouraging infidelity. It can satisfy the urges that are not met. It can round out her being—make her feel whole. But I don’t know what those needs are, or why I haven’t been asked to fill them. Clint occupies something in her that, with me, has been misplaced, taken, extinguished.

Monogamy was never the benchmark for our marriage. It was happiness. For me those terms have never clashed, but it’s O.K. if for Sylvie they do. Tell yourself that it’s O.K.

You’re not inadequate. You just don’t provide enough.

Is his penis longer than mine? Of all the concerns, you fuck.

I waited in the car until she went inside. When the door opened I didn’t see him.

III

I can see its clenched eyelids. Little black knots tightly wound shut. The back of her head lost in its mouth, her two pink legs writhing underneath four. When I say I felt nothing I mean I didn’t feel pain or fatigue or mindedness. Nothing was the white fuzz teeming at the edges of my vision. Nothing was my body’s fluidity and emptiness, so that my every punch to the skull between its pinned ears felt like two water currents converging.

It released its mouth only after I kicked it on the taut underside of its belly. I suspect we both looked confused and manic to each other. He – I learned the sex the following day – stood a few feet away like any other tense cat: neck twisted over shoulder, head crouched low, facing me sideways, watching me. I held my arms above my head, yelling. Neither of us looked at Salal. He leapt into the woods when I hurled my backpack.

She was ten, no more than fifteen feet ahead of me, slapping at the wet rhododendrons with a stick. Before I picked her up I could hear her gagging for air.

IV

The sheets were cold in the dryer. I held the crumpled bundle and thought of my wife, the way she held the duffel, her face looking at me. That night apart I imagined us holding together the exhausted past, the delirious present, Salal, each other. She said she loved me and I believe her. I have to. In the sheets I held everything dear, everything ravaged. Clint lapping my wife’s clit with his tongue. Our daughter asleep in the hospital. The bare mattress in our bare room.

I went into Salal’s room and lay on her bed. A paisley smudge of dried saliva sloughed under my nail as I breathed in her oil, her dander, impressed in the pillowcase. It held a faint hint of dampened cinnamon, but it was more complex than that. Never will I smell her or her mother’s roots and grasp their earthen scents. Never. I lay on her mattress, the same size as my dorm’s long ago, on which her mother and I, stoned and naked, stroking one another under the comforter, found that love is the smoldered sublation of one’s loneliness into another’s.

I pulled the mattress off the frame and slept on the floor. Under her comforter, under her flannel sheets, I refused to ask myself why.

They called the next morning, asking me if I wanted to see it. They had found it and killed it. “He attacked one of the dogs and wouldn’t tree”, the ranger said. “Highly unusual”. He. He lay on his side on the metal counter. His coat was a windswept field of wheat, its coloration marked by the angle of its sway in the sun. Speckled taupe fur wrapped the body, limned with white along the undersides of his belly and legs. A streak of dusky ash ran the length of his back. His tail looked dipped in ocher. Every color seemed to converge back on his face. Mottled white beneath the eyes, red striae atop his head, earl grey ears, the black smear from eye to snout. His chiseled gaunt cheeks. I ran my hand over the undulant recesses of skin between his ribs. The sagging skin felt hallowed. “He was emaciated all right”, the ranger said. “Probably lost his territory”.

He was eighty pounds underweight, most of it taken from his torso, his atrophied hind legs, but I could still feel the power in his paws, plump and sharp and long. I felt the calluses, the furless leathery creases, on each pad. I laid my head down, rubbed my cheek and ear into his bristles, and listened. It wasn’t a sound but a recognition of space, like putting your head in a well that doesn’t have an end. He was beautiful. He was starving. Wandering in a land no longer his.

Michael Chadwick [1] is reading for an M.St in English at St Hilda’s College, Oxford.