A Slow Decay, Ashley Webster

I come across her near the water. She is sitting on top of a picnic bench, her slippers and a couple cans of Monaco strewn beside her, glinting in the low light. A purple butterfly clip sits in her hair, glittering. I move closer to her, pulled in but hesitant to break her reverie. As I do, her head snaps towards me before she goes completely still, like an injured animal ready to bolt. I realize then that she’s crying, eyes rimmed with red. There’s a beat or two before she relaxes and I find myself wondering what she was afraid of. 

She has a metal bucket next to her on the bench. It’s filled with dark red stones, stacked carefully on top of one another. Jasper. She lifts them up, turns them gently in her rough hands, holds them up to the light. In a wavering voice she tells me that they’re the pieces of her heart she’s lost along the way. She’s been picking them up, stitching them back together. Making herself whole again. I recognize that feeling in me, too.

My mother always wanted to be a geologist. It’s one of her regrets, I think. I remember her teaching me how to tell apart the rocks we would find on the beach or alongside the road. She’d tell me what they meant, how they were formed. Jasper, in the simplest of terms, is a strange amalgamation of quartz and other things, all broken down together to make something new; as red as a beating heart, a candied apple, a fresh wound. It’s glassy and smooth against the fingertips and there’s a funny sort of weight about it. It symbolizes a wholeness of heart. Tranquility. Stillness. 

I ask the woman if she wants company. She does, so I sit down beside her and she begins to talk. She tells me, in a roundabout sort of way , that she is either praying or pleading, but she’s really not sure which. I don’t ask what she is praying for, uncertain she would know the answer if I did. We sit in silence for a while before, in an awkward gesture of trust, I tell her my name.

She sits with that for a while, running it over the back of her tongue and testing it between her teeth before she raises her face and grins into the sun, eyes closed and blissfully tells me that she can hear me singing somewhere, echoed in the hills beyond us. A quiet voice, like it hasn’t sung in a long time, but is learning how to again. She moves her hands to her neck as if she’s choking, makes a gargled noise, as if she’s lost her voice. She tells me that her words sometimes don’t come out the way that they are supposed to, asks me if I feel the same. My answering nod makes her smile again. Then, stirring, coming to life in the evening light, she asks if I can help her with something. I say that I will. I start to wonder if I’m dreaming, if the next thing she’ll say is a riddle, if I’ve somehow stumbled into a folktale. 

The sun is setting, brilliant and as red as the jasper in her bucket. It hits the horizon, framing a column of light up into the sky as we walk back along the dirt path. I carry her bucket and the stones slip and scrape against one another. She tells me to be careful. I tell her I will. I am holding her heart, after all.

The dream is starting to list, though. She smells stale, like cheap liquor and old cigarettes. Her steps halt and jolt, off kilter, and her face is tired underneath the harsh street lamps in the parking lot. I follow her to a dusty blue sedan, tucked into the corner. She struggles with the door and wrests out a tree stump shaped like the head of a boar. Its jaws are agape, just missing the apple. She strokes its cheek absentmindedly. 

She tells me a story, and it sounds a bit like a question. It asks, what is love, and why do we need it? But then, who are we if not lovers? She tells me that the stump reminds her of him, and that she doesn’t need the reminder anymore. We haven’t quite covered who he is, but I’m guessing if I followed the trail of jasper back through the years I might find my way there, slipped between the pages of an old book.  

Together, one hand gripping either side, we carry the stump to the river. It sits heavy in my palm, bark eating at the tender skin between my fingers. Her gray hair is lit like cobwebs from the street lamps behind us, forming an odd sort of halo. I start to think that maybe she couldn’t have done this alone, that maybe I’m supposed to be here. The minutes tick by slowly as we walk back along the dirt path. Her butterfly clip shimmers against the hue of the sky. 

We stop for a moment when we reach the bank. She asks me if I have any words to say, anything that needs cleansing. I tell her I don’t, but that I wish her the best, that she finds relief where she needs it and strength where she doesn’t. With that small prayer and a plea of her own, she heaves the stump into the water and we watch as it floats down the river, disappearing around the bend.  

I turn to look at her. Her shoulders have dropped and the last of the dying sun makes her look young again. The booze glaze has left her eyes, and they water slightly, though her tears have mostly dried. I feel relieved too, like a piece of my own sadness has unhooked from somewhere between my ribs and floated downriver, too. We exchange niceties on the way back, in no rush at all as twilight sets in. We say our goodbyes into the chilly night air. She tells me that she might see me again, when the sky is burning, when she needs an angel. I don’t feel like an angel. I only realize as I watch the red blur of her headlights drive slowly away that I never learned her name.

About the Author

 Evangeline Unger · University of Alaska Fairbanks

Evangeline Unger, of Unalaska, Alaska, is an undergraduate student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Besides writing, she enjoys drawing, photography, and getting out into nature as often as possible. This piece first appeared in Ice Box. 

About the Artist

Ashley Webster · Christian Brothers University

Ashley Webster is a mixed media artist with an interest in printmaking and illustration that explores the relationships between people and nature. She is a passionate advocate for environmental education and tries to educate through her work. This piece first appeared in Castings. 

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