by Kathryn Craft
|I wrapped myself in a parka and headed into the storm. Max tried to wriggle his way out when I opened the door. He’d been anxious without Ron, wanting to stick close. I’d even broken my own rule and allowed him to start sleeping on my bed. But today I pushed him back. “Stay, boy.” He looked up in worry, seeking my eyes—but I needed to walk through this door alone.
Rain pelted the tin roof of a porch whose burden weighed on me. Stalled me. From Ron’s mother, the peeling metal glider with its squashed plastic seat pads and metal chairs so rusty no one ever used them. Only barn cats sat on the teak loveseat—we’d bought it in a moment of romantic whimsy, then never bothered to keep it clean. A wheelbarrow full of shovels, work gloves, and pickaxes—the boys, just eight and ten, were gamely helping me lay new gravel on a driveway perpetually washed out. In the corner, an array of cobweb-laden balls and rackets from play long forgotten.
I’d always wanted a porch lined with rocking chairs.
I flipped up my hood. I couldn’t afford to let my energy spill all over the place, so I stepped down onto the old brick walk. It had been flush with the porch when Ron and I married fifteen years earlier—even the bricks had had trouble holding up. In a dozen strides I reached the parking area at the top of the driveway. The animals were tucked away out of the rain but the horses nickered when they heard my shoes grind against the gravel. Chickens clucked from the other end of the barn. Yellow leaves dove from their branches.
From my pocket I pulled my bold declaration. I kicked aside some leaves, unfolded the page onto the stones, and exposed my words. A stiff November wind tried to flip the paper away even as rain pasted it to the surface. Go—stay. Yes—no. I stomped on its edge—I was done with indecision. I would take this step and take it here, at the very heart of the property where Ron and I had built our life together. I held a butane lighter to the paper—flick, flick—but couldn’t get it to ignite.
Our sons were at school. My only witnesses were buildings set into a hillside: the two-hundred-year-old farmhouse behind me, the Pennsylvania bank barn in front of me, and the deep semi-circle of outbuildings between the two that rimmed a grassy courtyard. Generations of memories pulsed through the beams of this old farm; it was no stranger to the cycles of life and death, hope and despair.
Directly across the courtyard from where I stood, Ron’s woodworking shop stared me down. We’d built it on the foundation of an old pig barn to house tools whose names he loved—radial arm saw, drill press, router—each necessary to make his dreams for this farm come true. Over the years we’d gutted and renovated every room of the house, adapted the bank barn for horses, and restored several of the sheds, but he was never happier than when designing and outfitting that shop. One Christmas I’d had a Pennsylvania Dutch hex sign painted for him, which he’d proudly attached beside the shop door: “Ronnie’s Place.” He’d spent long hours out there organizing shelves of screws and nails; even longer hours seated at his desk beneath them, drinking whiskey and appeasing credit card companies with scant payments. Now, only the shards of glass still clinging to its window frames and a lingering stench of mace bore the honest marks of tragedy.
But I knew to look for the circle faded onto its rough-hewn siding. And the wood near the door handle, now splintered from forced entry. The three concrete steps, freshly painted gray to hide the evidence, to neutralize the horror.
The hiss of the rain, a howling wind, the hoof stomping of nervous horses, Max whining inside, a rush of memory. Only weeks before, Special Emergency Response Team troops took cover behind these buildings, the telescopic sights of their rifles trained on the shop, Ronnie’s Place, side arms strapped to their thighs. Pockets swollen with ammunition. Camouflage uniforms whose jackets were 3-D leafy and said POLICE across the back. Pants tucked into laced-up boots. Black body shields. Bullet-proof vests, helmets. Goggles. Bull horns: Leave your weapon inside and exit the building. We can help you. Ron cowered inside, his dreams eroded by alcohol. His final act, marking with blood splatter, words scrawled at a dramatic pitch: Till death do us part.
The sane geometry of the buildings steadied me. Even the ancient chicken shed, with its sagging floor and listing piers, was still weathering storms.
Why wouldn’t this paper burn already? I flicked the lighter again. Again. The paper damp, the ink blurred, the flame licking at it as threatening as Max’s soft pink tongue. Circumstances be damned—I would create my own reality. I could not allow Ron the last word.
For weeks horror had been pounding my skull. Freeze-drying my stomach. Nerves frazzled, buzzing so I couldn’t sleep. Talking about what happened, over and over, fried in that high voltage moment as powerless to leave as a woman strapped to an electric chair. I was as bound to Ron in death as I had been in life. Despite his twist on our vow, Ron’s death did not feel like the end of our marriage. As “the widow,” my life was still defined by him.
I needed to divorce him. So I wrote my own decree longhand and signed my full legal name at the bottom—I wanted this to be both personal and businesslike.
I’d reach out to him across death’s divide by sending my wishes on flames. I had not predicted the storm. But out in the driveway that day I welcomed the rain, after all; instant conflagration would not have been as cathartic.
Divorce should be effortful—and I was ready to face off with Mother Nature to make it happen.
I squeezed past my fretful dog to fetch a golf umbrella from the house and try again. The wind whipped it back and bullets of rain pummeled my face but I prevailed, and pulled the umbrella down to shield the paper. Despair may have grabbed hold of Ron, but the boys and I would not go down without a fight. And I would fuel our fight with whatever I had on hand—flick: anger, flick: disappointment, flick: obstinacy, flick: irrational hope. An edge caught, sputtered. Fire won out. I watched the paper blacken and curl.
When my words were no longer recognizable I rose and let the wind scatter the ashes.
Rain rolled down the unreadable faces of the outbuildings. The grass was still browning; this rain would not revive it. Yet it was a season of change. The trees would soon stand naked against the sky. And the shift within me was essential. I shut the umbrella, stood for a moment with my face turned toward the cleansing rain and whatever meager light the day had to offer, and returned to the house to dry off.
My children would soon be home, and they needed me.