GemmarianTales


Road Diverging

The Old Man was dying. Indeed, he had been dying by inches for several months now, but, at last, he was slipping away. Every rasping breath came with such effort that it seemed impossible there could be another left to be drawn. For three days the house had been filled with the sound. It was nearly done. Garin looked out of the window into the rain and listened to the fight in the other room. Day or night, in every part of the house, that desperate gasp sounding as though it must be the last—but never was. He no longer heard the sound, but felt it as though it was he, and not the Old Man, who refused to let go.

"How much longer?" he whispered to the rain streaming down the outside of the window, "How much longer can it go on?"

Somewhere upstairs his cousin (not the Uncle's daughter—he had no children) slept, silently. She had been there for two months now, allowing him to take a day here and there to go away for a 'rest.' Of course rest was impossible. He no longer had to be present to feel the weight upon himself. Dutifully it followed him where ever he went: the Old Man, the pain, the smell, and the blind going on.

'Arrangements' had been made months ago, as learned opinion had promised the thing would be over in a matter of weeks. This opinion had not reckoned with either his uncle's refusal to believe that he was dying, now with the Old Man who lay in his uncle's bed and continued to take breath after breath long after he should have stopped. People continued to ask about "your uncle" and Garin would answer telling them how "my uncle" was doing—but it was a lie. His uncle was gone and had been for some time now. Where, he didn't know, but over the course of a few weeks the Old Man had taken his place in the bed and slowly displaced everything else in Garin's life. He continued to call the impostor "Uncle" when there was anyone present, but in his soul he knew it wasn't so. In his head he called him the Old Man.

For a time he could go to the inn to have a drink and he would meet with a friend and talk. Garin would feel a bit better, at least until it was time to go back to the house. The Old Man took that away. He could still go to the inn, but the Old man would be with him, and he could no longer have his own time. Once or twice he tried to explain it to friends, but they didn't really understand. Garin realized that it was impossible for them to do so, and unreasonable to expect it. He stopped talking about the Old Man. What was the point?

Daily he found himself more detached, not only from the Old Man and the situation at home—but from everything. It was as though he was the one dying and had begun to isolate himself in preparation. Not only was there no point in talking about the Old Man any more, but the act of talking itself had become an effort which he no longer wished to make. As no one seemed really interested in doing anything about it, and every one was powerless to change the situation in any case, detachment seemed the only reasonable response. The less he allowed himself to care the less power the Old Man would have when Garin was away from the house. Perhaps it was possible to detach himself so completely that nothing would matter any more, not even the Old Man's presence. Garin no longer cared enough to try.

He heard a sound behind him and turned to see his cousin enter the kitchen.

"Morning" He said softly, knowing she was not ready for conversation yet. She half nodded as pushed the straw colored hair back from her forehead then let the short locks fall back. Garin handed her a cup of tea and left the room. It had once been a courtesy, it was now a habit.

He walked down the short hall to the other room and passed the Old Man's room where the rasping continued its counterpoint to their lives. Garin glanced in to see the wasted form lying in the bed, eyes staring at the ceiling. 'How much longer?' The question was a living thing in his head now, no longer making any sense, just there.

Stepping onto the front porch he closed the door behind him. The air was crisp with morning and the slow arrival of winter, but not quite cold enough to see his breath. He could no longer hear the Old Man in the house, nor hear his cousin in the kitchen making her morning meal. There was only the wind and an occasional bird to break the stillness. Garin looked toward the road that snaked up through the pass then down to distant valleys. His gaze traveled up the mountain, which the road half circled, and up its steep sides to its peak—which this morning was clear against the sky. The apex was isolated and aloof from everything—supported only by its mountainous body. Looking, he could feel the cold of the snow and ice which covered unyielding rock beneath. You would have to go thousands of miles below that, he thought, to find anything else—before there would be enough heat to make the rock melt. It wears away eventually, but no one sees it. A tree yields to the wind, or breaks, but a mountain can force the wind to change its direction. It may loose in the end, but the battle is well fought.

"Let this be a lesson," he whispered to no one, "don't be a tree, be a mountain. Don't give in. Don't feel. Don't think. Then you'll never be bent to the ground or snapped off for not bending. If you're going to be broken in the end, make them work for it."

Garin looked to the mountain then back to the road. How wonderful it would be to leave everything and walk up that track through the pass and down the other side on and on until it ended at some ocean. He would sit in the sand and wait until he could remember nothing and hear nothing. He would stop being responsible for anyone and never think of the Old Man or that sound again.

Without thinking he walked to the road and looked up the rise. A small animal ran from one side to the other and brought his attention to the present. There were a hundred little chores that still needed doing—if only to fill the time. He re-entered the house and began to wash and put away the dishes. He wiped the table, swept the floor. Methodically, he put things back into their places. He poured another cup of tea, and sat at the table to make a list of things that needed doing next.

His cousin returned to the kitchen, having washed and dressed for the day. She sat across from him, occasional making suggestions for additions to the list, and volunteering to take care of others items. The list making done, they sat for a few moments in silence. Silence.

"He's stopped." The woman said quietly. It didn't register. It was as though she had said to him: "He's become a horse." They sat without speaking. Garin could hear a bird singing in the yard and the scratching of a branch on the side of the house. He could not hear the Old Man—even if he concentrated.

"He's stopped," he replied at last, sounding unconvinced, especially to himself.

"We had better go check on him," she said.

"Yes." They rose and made their way to the room where the Old Man had been engaged in battle.

The bed almost filled the room. The posts were tree trunks, the rails beams, and the headboard a wall. A lake of dark blue blanket covered it from shore to shore, the white sheet a bit of foam at the top edge. In the center was a pale stick which had been the Old Man. Blue eyes pierced the ceiling and the mouth gaping—waiting for them to enter the room before taking another breath.

It's a trick, Garin thought, he just paused to fool us, he'll start again at any moment. He waited. The woman moved to the bed and examined her uncle. She checked the wrist, then the neck. She struggled to close the eyes. The Old Man was still fighting. At last she closed them, and turned to Garin,

" I suppose we had better start notifying everyone."

Then the silence was gone again. People in and out, meals, visits, chats. Then, finally, the Last Gather and the walk to the burial ground. Garin did and talked, came and went, greeted and made farewells. The noise and activity eddied around him, but never touched him. His body made motions, his voice sounds, but Garin refused to get involved. If he let down, the Old Man would spring the trap and he would have no defenses. Any moment now, the Old Man was certain to return.

Then all were gone, and the silence was back—and the Old Man. Not the stick in the bed, too obvious that, but now he filled the house not with sound but weight. He was everywhere and in everything. Day and night Garin was pressed down by the Old Man. Sleeping and waking were the same gray haze.

He made lists of tasks that must be done. Sometimes it took nearly an hour to make even a short list, but it was the only way Garin could remember what had been done, and what still waited. Pieces of the house found their way to friends and relations: furniture, linens, crockery, decorative bits, all given as The Old Man had directed—or if there had been no specific instructions—at the whim of the moment. A neighbor joked that there would be nothing left but the walls, at the rate Garin was distributing the remnants. Garin nodded, and checked off another item for the latest list. What was there to say?

Day followed day. He had no idea of what the future might offer, no plan, no fears, no desires.

One morning he woke to a driving rain on the roof. It had been about two weeks since the body had left the house. Garin had been sleeping on a mattress in the middle of the floor with the two remaining blankets wrapped around him. His own clothes, a rucksack, a pan, a kettle, one plate, one bowl, and one place setting of flatware, and an oil lamp were all that remained in the house. And The Old Man. Garin lay listening, unwilling to move, the weight being too much to shift.

Slowly an idea began to work its way through the fog in his head. It was not the sort of idea Garin had ever had before. It was bold and outrageous. It was counter to everything he had ever done or considered doing. He rolled it over and over in his mind. He considered the angles, archs, and tangents. He weighed the effects and ramifications. Then he made a throaty chuckle.

Garin rose, washed, dressed, and made breakfast. He was deliberate. Inside the idea was tightening his stomach and quickening his heartbeat, but he would take each step as it came. He washed the dishes with a studied care. He then got the rucksack and put it in the middle of the floor of the main room. Piece by piece he put the clothes, blankets, cook ware, and dishes into it. He put on his heavy boots, and rain gear. He took the bulging rucksack out to the yard and put it under a tree to keep it dry. Returning to the house, he took the lamp, unscrewed the cap on the reservoir, then slowly poured the fuel onto the floor. He made an attractive wave pattern as he backed toward the front door. The last drops of oil fell on the threshold as he set the lamp down on the porch with gentle precision. He took two steps back and pulled the match from his pocket.

From the road the smoke and flames were clearly visible. The heavy rain wasn't putting the fire out, but kept the flames from spreading from the house to the trees or grass. People had begun to come up from the village to see what was happening. Garin waited to make sure that the flames were enveloping the house, and that any sparks were quickly dying. The first villagers were just coming into shouting distance.

Garin lifted the pack to his shoulders. He felt light enough to fly. Then he started up the road towards the mountains, the cries of the villagers growing fainter behind him.