The Poison Pie Publishing House presents:

Wouldn't the Wood Weird
a post-existential romantic fantasy
Impractical Prayers from the Spindle of the Void
(link to main page of novel)


March 1, 2018

The Baptism

The Prime Minister ran through the fragmented shadows of the tree canopy cast by the moon. Although she tired, the heavy footfalls behind her urged her forward. Accustomed only to the slow, regular pace of hiking, she eventually lost her breath. Clutching her side, she stopped and turned to meet her fate. In this moment of admitting defeat, her resolve hardened. No mercy would she show to that which sought to destroy her.

The tree came to a stop before her. He seemed diminished now by the destructively stubborn expression set upon the crone's face. Extending his wooden arms, the tree gently, almost tenderly, grasp her and lifted her up into the air. All her life she had been scrawny and even now she weighed scarcely ninety pounds.

She uttered not a word nor showed any indication of fear. Even as the roots of the tree rumbled beneath the ground and excavated earth, forming an opening, she showed no terror at the would-be grave that awaited her. Tendrils of fine roots swayed like the proverbial hypnotized snake as they extended upward, searching for her dangling legs. Grasping them, the Prime Minister was pulled down into the earth.

The relationship between trees and fungi are no longer secrets to Homo sapiens. Through patient investigation scientists have revealed that virtually all trees form symbiotic relationships with microbes dwelling in the soil. In particular the roots of trees form finely detailed organic architectures in cooperation with mycorrhizal fungi. These fungi, nestled among the roots, transfer nutrients in the soil containing especially phosphorus and nitrogen, into the physiological organism of the tree itself. The mycorrhizal fungi cooperate with other fungi responsible for the actual decomposition of organic matter into forms of nutrition. A part of these other fungi emerge above ground, the mycelium, and periodically generate the familiar fruiting bodies, known commonly as mushrooms.

It was into this symbiotic relationship between tree and fungus that the Prime Minister descended. Before the earth had closed over her, the process of decomposition had already begun. The process was painless because Wouldn't the Wood Weird had performed this ceremony many times and he had learned the delicate execution of the prescribed rites. We shall, at Wouldn't's request, refer to this process as a baptism. The baptism fell somewhere between an immersion and an immolation, though it evoked not the elements of water and fire, but rather those of earth and wood and mycelium.

The purpose of baptism, like any other rite of initiation, was rebirth, accomplished through a procedure in which the components of the whole were disassembled. Under ideal circumstances, this altered state allowed the individual to perceive themselves and their role in the wider world from a different point of view. Then, reassembled with this broadened perspective internalized, they were ostensibly able to move forward along a trajectory different than the one on which they had been following.

This process could be described as healing inasmuch as those who sought the aid of the tree were driven to do so by ailments of the mind. To be sure, this rite could not be forced upon anyone; they had to come to Wouldn't the Wood Weird of their own volition. That such a statement seems at odds with the capture of the Prime Minister as described here is only a result of having neglected to mention the brief stay of the Prime Minister at the Lake View Hospital for Psychiatric Rehabilitation decades earlier, when she was but a child of six. This omission we shall now correct.

March 2, 2018

A Flashback

Although this was her first child, the mother knew, early on, that there was something wrong with her daughter. The infant seemed incapable of performing the quite frankly infantile tasks for which babies are so well loved. The child did not respond to the caresses of the mother with anything other than stomach-churning wails, which grew increasingly tiresome and led to the child being largely left alone to, on the well-meaning advice of the grandmother, cry itself out.

As the child grew, she continued to demonstrate an utter inability to reciprocate emotions and to empathize with others. This trait, combined with a set of unflattering neuroses, led her to be shunned by the other children in the mountain community. Quick to take offense and quick to anger, she thought grudges should be written in stone.

The child experimented with releasing her rancor on the toads and baby birds she was able to catch in the wild on her own. When her mother discovered her grisly handiwork, her apprehension regarding the girl's problems deepened, but still she took no action. They were a poor, country family, with limited resources; one managed the best one could. However, the child next exercised her grim trade on a neighbor's son, carving a deep gash in his arm with a shard of glass.

After an evening of shouting and abundant corporal punishment, followed by soul-searching, the parents pooled their own meager savings and borrowed what they could from the mother's parents. An appointment was made with a doctor at the closest mental hospital, a facility in a modestly sized town two hours south.

Having no education beyond high school and little experience with the health industry, the parents did not understand that a mental ailment would not be healed as quickly as a physical ailment. They left their daughter at Lake View thinking that, in a week, they could return and retrieve her and that things would be, if not perfectly resolved, at least better. One week was a rigid timeline since the exorbitant cost of the facility exhausted their savings in that time.

Of course, not much could be done in one week. After the initial shock of being abandoned by her parents, the girl wandered the pastoral grounds. She sought to take vengeance in her usual way. She was not quick enough to catch scurrying squirrels nor birds on the wing. Consequently, she was forced to exert her will against the bark of a tree, idly prying off chunks of bark.

"P-p-please d-d-don't do that," said Wouldn't the Wood Weird, who had been institutionalized virtually all of his extraordinarily long life. However, he was not an entirely static character and he had not yet learned the trick to controlling his stuttering, as he would in later years.

The girl had never met a talking tree. Had she been approached by a man, she would have fled, but a tree seemed so strange that it disarmed her ordinary reflex of distrust. She allowed her curiosity to get the better of her and engaged in an initial brief conversation with the tree. When pressed, she revealed her name, "Maggie."

The tree introduced himself in a pile-up of syllables, which we have come to know as Wouldn't the Wood Weird.

Over the course of the week, the doctor's at Lake View examined the child at length. No clear diagnosis was made. She was placed somewhere on the high-functioning end "of the spectrum". Between clinical examinations, the girl repeatedly returned to the site of the tree.

"What's wrong with you?" she asked the tree. Obviously, everyone in the nut house had to have something wrong with them.

"Somebody put a t-t-tree in a man's b-b-body," he explained. "I'm better now."

In reply to the tree's analogous query to her own condition, the girl replied, "People don't like how I am."

The tree suggested that perhaps she should change, but she insisted that she did not know how to do so. The tree then suggested that if she snuck out that night, he could show her how to change. So, on her last night at the hospital, knowing her parents would come to claim her in the morning, the girl did manage to leave the building and venture onto the dark grounds. There she voluntarily offered herself to the tree, who pulled her underground and disassembled her molecule by molecule.

When she was distributed among a virtual infinity of parts, each atom surrounded by atoms of dirt and microbes, she did indeed see the world in a different way, but there was already a sickness inside her and that sickness could not be undone by mere transcendental revelation. She observed that she had been made at odds with the social fabric that governed the world of men but the means by which she might extricate herself from this situation was not made manifest to her.

Thus when Wouldn't reassembled the girl, it proved only a kind of tempering, which had resulted in a steeling of her resolve. Indeed, she was an outsider in this world; she now recognized that her attempts to change that status had been futile and misguided. Her path was set and she was more determined than ever to be true to her nature and to follow the destiny laid out before her, though it be filled with misery, equal parts her own and that those with whom she came in contact.

Clearly, Wouldn't failed in this regard. He long regretted this failure. He sometimes daydreamed in the following decades of an opportunity to make up for it. He honed his skills and healed many in the intervening years.

As for the girl, her immediate reaction to the failure of the baptism was to resort to her usual tactics of anger and resentment. She fled back to the hospital and in the alarmed voice of a child described to the night nurse at the desk how the patient named Wouldn't had lured her out of the hospital where he had tried to molest her. Doctors examined the child and found no signs of physical abuse. Nevertheless, thereafter the staff of the asylum kept a careful eye on Wouldn't, for he was now regarded as a suspected pedophile.

On the following day, the girl returned home. Her parents lamented that they had wasted their savings, for her behavior was unchanged. The family never again mentioned this stay in the asylum. They allowed the girl to grow in her own, nasty way.

When she was of marriageable age, they married her off to a man known to be so gruff and violent that no other woman would have him. The couple effortlessly made each other's life miserable. In the midst of this antagonism, they opened the bakery, for the girl proved singularly talented in that regard and they had to meet the practical material requirements of life, an obligation which the husband could not satisfy, owing to his enduring alcoholism.

The mother bore to the father one child, a son. That, as a young man, he should fail to stop the regimen of poisoning administered by his mother, which ended the life of his father, is a testament to the conflicted and ambivalent emotions that he held for both of them.

March 3, 2018

A Second Attempt

"Maggie," said Wouldn't to the crone when he had disassembled her into countless atoms.

She had worked most of her life to forget this state, though the scar it had left on her thinking had persisted. As she again approached this state of dissolution, she heard the tree voice her speak name but she refused to respond. She considered it an act of dignity not to stoop to his level.

Surrounded by the Earth, she again perceived her modest role in the grand scheme of the dynamics by which her community and the entirety of the global ecosystem and the universe itself unfolded. She recognized that there had been paths she could have taken, which would have significantly altered her relationship to other individuals evolving within the same framework. She observed that most of those paths were no longer accessible and accepted that, had she the opportunity to encounter them again, she would again refuse to take them. She acknowledged that she was an imperfect child of a wretched world, full of misery and suffering, often necessarily so and sometimes gratuitously so. That the aspect of her person resonated with the actuality of the world seemed natural to her and served as a source of comfort.

Into these thoughts, Wouldn't gently intruded. "Maggie," he said again, speaking to the lingering atoms he had found sixty years earlier in the child. In soothing words, he offered her respite from the constant battle she raged.

To be sure, the crone felt the temptation of the offer; it was impossible not to be tempted. However, she had behind her exactly one lifetime, guided by a set of principles, and she felt that accepting an offer of relief constituted a greater betrayal of her being than did refusing.

Wouldn't the Wood Weird did not intend to abandon this second and surely final chance to redeem the child. He held her quietly within the earth, allowing the soil to work its patient progress.

The crone felt it too. Something was breaking down her will, burrowing its way toward a vulnerable core within her, which would capitulate to an offer of tenderness, a lifetime of evidence to the contrary be damned.

It doesn't take mental illness to damage the sanctity of a person, only violence and apathy. The Prime Minister gathered her reserves and examined her alternatives. She could pull herself together and claw her way out of the earth. She had that much strength left within her. She contemplated in the timelessness of Wouldn't's grave her remaining years on Earth and found this future to be a not particularly appealing prospect. She therefore exercised her will and chose a different alternative. She simply refused to allow Wouldn't to reassemble her atoms.

The tree was surprised by this request, since no one had ever made it of him before. He could not deny the appeal of the warmth and security of being cocooned in earth. He called her name, "Maggie," one last time and, receiving no response, felt her dissipate. The earth was silent when she was gone.

Those same minds who considered Wouldn't first interaction with the child a violation would likely consider this second interaction a murder. Wouldn't himself was not entirely sure that he had an adequate defense against such an accusation.

March 4, 2018

The Release

When Samudra woke in darkness, the room seemed less stuffy, though she barely noticed as she was most concerned with the urgent need to empty her bladder. She fumbled for her penlight and soon discovered the door to the freezer had been left open. Her excitement at this finding momentarily distracted her. She shouted at Ohu and the astronaut to wake.

"The door's open!"

The astronaut activated his light and illuminated Samudra standing in the open doorway.

"Great," said Ohu, as she too rose. "I've got to pee!"

"So do I."

Even then they dared not race out into the larger cavern for fear that they rush headlong into the Prime Minister and her shotgun.

The trio cautiously exited the small side chamber. The astronaut cast his light to the cave wall in the direction from which the voice of the exterminator had come. He found that door too open. Thinking that the exterminator had freed himself and rescued them as well, he briefly shined his light into the room, only to find the exterminator asleep on the stone floor.

"Prime Rib!" he called.

The exterminator woke. He rose to a sitting position and turned on his lantern. "How did you get out?"

"We just found the doors open," answered the astronaut.

Further conversation was postponed. As a group, they walked through the cavern, all stiff from sleeping on beds of stone at a cool temperature. They passed the trailer with the vehicle and its parts, and out the tunnel into morning light, where they were greeted by groggy dogs, who threw themselves against the exterminator. The astronaut noted that Wouldn't was not where they had left him at the entrance to the cave. None of them craned their necks to the sky, where they might have noticed the shotgun flung impossibly high, hidden in the topmost branches of a nearby tree.

The exterminator led them into the house where they each in turn took advantage of the lavatory. Then the exterminator made them all coffee and they sat around a circular table in a rustic kitchen, decorated in a style of wallpaper decades out of fashion.

A speculative discussion then ensued. First, they debated whether the Prime Minister or Wouldn't had opened the doors to their cells. Samudra thought there would be some explanation required when they revealed that there had been a fourth member of their party but the exterminator already seemed aware of this fact.

"I don't think my mother was in any frame of mind to let us out," said the exterminator.

No one argued the point.

"Where do you think she is?" asked Ohu.

"Where is Wouldn't?" asked Samudra.

They drank at their leisure. The exterminator pointed to an old toaster and a loaf of store-bought white bread. "I can offer toast."

They all initially declined, out of the sort of courtesy one finds when the generosity of a poor man embarrasses a wealthy man. However, they soon overcame this awkwardness. Ohu manned the toaster and the exterminator rummaged through the refrigerator emerging with a tub of butter and a jelly made of preserved scuppernong. As Ohu delivered the toast two slices at a time, the exterminator buttered them and spread the ominous looking greenish-pinkish jelly.

However, upon tasting the jelly, they found its appearance misleading and complimented the exterminator profusely.

"I didn't make it," he admitted. "Sometimes, I don't get paid in cash."

A round of apologies followed.

"I'm sorry we trespassed on your property," said the astronaut.

"I'm sorry my mother locked you in the freezer," said the exterminator.

"I'm sorry I acted like you were some country monster," said Samudra, recalling how she had hidden in the car from him on her first visit.

"I am a country monster," said the exterminator, which made Samudra nearly choke on the coffee in her mouth.

They stayed for more than an hour. Eventually they ventured outside and called for Wouldn't. They continued to discuss where the tree and the Prime Minister could have gone to, but no obvious answer materialized. In the end Samudra, somewhat reluctantly, exchanged phone numbers with the exterminator. "If he shows up, give me a call and I will come get him." Her breath crystallized in the crisp, morning air.

"What about your mother?" asked Ohu.

"She can take care of herself," the exterminator assured them.

He walked them down the gravel path and around the first bend where they found Samudra's car just as she had left it. Here too, there was no sign of Wouldn't.

"Did you find what you were looking for?" asked the exterminator of the astronaut. In truth, he wanted to make sure there was no further need of midnight invasions of his property.

"I did," the astronaut replied. He neglected to mention the communicator now located in his pocket.

"Good," said the exterminator with an air of finality.

Ohu and the astronaut got in the car. The exterminator began walking back down the gravel path toward his home. Before joining the others in the car, Samudra called out one more time for Wouldn't. Her voice disturbed a crow, which cawed at her as it sought a quieter spot in the woods.

March 7, 2018

Unsubstantiated Anxiety

They felt obligated to stop by Lake View Park on the ride home, though they were all exhausted. The astronaut worried that for the first time he had broken the rule of attending Sunday morning services, but he said nothing to the two women on this point. He would deal with whatever repercussions arose on his own.

As expected, they did not find Wouldn't at the park. There was no way that he could have returned such a distance so quickly on foot.

Standing at the edge of the remains of the fog that had crept up the slope from the river, Ohu voiced her fears most distinctly. "Do you think we have left him in a cell in the cave?"

"Of course not," said Samudra, who, despite the unlikelihood of the suggestion, nevertheless felt a surge of queasiness at its mere mention. "He opened the doors for us. It had to have been him. The exterminator said his mother would not have let us out." Samudra folded her arms across her chest and shivered. The damp of the fog seemed to enhance the ability of the chill to work its way through the various layers of clothes into her flesh.

"What if," Ohu replied, "mother and son were part of an elaborate scheme playing us for fools? What if their object all along was to capture a tree? We can't just abandon him!" She was beginning to get herself worked up; Samudra suspected that she had missed a morning dose of her various medications.

"Let's get you home," she said to Ohu. "Your mind is playing tricks on you now. Once you're home and warm again, you will see things more clearly and realize what you are suggesting is completely impossible. They didn't even know about Wouldn't; how could they devise a trap for him?" Of course, Samudra had no way of knowing herself that the Prime Minister and the tree had first been acquainted sixty years earlier. Even if she had known of this existing relationship, she would not have mentioned it now.

The astronaut seemed to sense an imminent episode with Ohu as well. Following Samudra's lead, he coaxed her back into the car with reassuring words. They delivered her to her home, where Samudra's parting words were a casual-sounding comment to not forget to take her meds.

Ohu leapt forward and hugged them both emotionally before closing the door behind her.

Outside the apartment building, Samudra and the astronaut spoke candidly. "What do you think?" she asked him.

"I have no idea," admitted the astronaut.

"I just want to hear you say that there is no chance that Wouldn't is trapped in a remote, underground bunker at the mercy of an insane mother and son."

"There is no chance that Wouldn't is trapped in a remote, underground bunker by an insane mother and son," the astronaut dutifully repeated, concluding with a smile.

"Where is he then?"

"He's probably wandering through the woods," said the astronaut, "clearing his mind. There's a lot to take in from last night, especially for one as ordinarily sedentary as a tree."

An Heir

Later in the week, Samudra agreed to have coffee after work with Ohu, only because the older woman had left numerous messages on her phone, each growing progressively more frantic as the days passed. They sat across from each other at the familiar cafe.

There were rings under the eyes of the psychic, as if she had not slept well. "Thanks for meeting me here," Ohu said with exaggerated gratitude.

"It's nothing," Samudra replied, waving her off.

"Wouldn't still wasn't back this morning, I checked."

"Give him a few more days," Samudra said, expressing a confidence she did not feel. "Wouldn't keeps to his own schedule."

"That's what I needed to hear," Ohu admitted, sighing with relief and casting another look of gratitude at Samudra. She then added, "But that's not the only reason I needed to talk to you."

Samudra tried to imagine what other topic could be on Ohu's mind. She had a premonition that Ohu considered her a rival for the affection of the astronaut. In truth, Samudra was not eager to engage in this convoluted and misguided fantasy. Nevertheless, it seemed she had no choice. As absurd as it seemed, she mentally prepared the words to deny any romantic aspirations with regard to the astronaut.

However, Ohu caught her off guard. She had not come to speak of the astronaut. "I am sorry," she finally blurted out, "for what I said in the cave." Her expression now revealed that she had been dwelling on something that had caused her great distress. "I made fun of your drowning."

The public mention of this made Samudra extremely uneasy. "It's nothing," she said in a hushed whisper, as she looked around to make sure that no other patrons were eavesdropping on their conversation. "I've already forgotten it." In truth, she had allowed those words to dissipate but not the reaction they had provoked from her. In the cave, she had declared her thoughts with a directness and clarity she sought to avoid, preferring instead to keep her intentions hidden.

Ohu read her face more clearly than Samudra would have desired. "It's not okay," she repeated. Ohu had consulted the spirit world. This incident would not be repaired until Ohu had atoned for it. "It was wrong of me to say anything. I am so sorry."

Still whispering, Samudra said, "Your apology will mean the most to me if you never speak of it again."

As these words registered with her, tears came to Ohu's eyes.

Samudra feared the humiliation of a breakdown in a public place. She reached out and grasped Ohu's hand on the table. "It's okay," she told her in a calming voice. "We are friends. When friends get locked in a freezer together by a madwoman with a shotgun, they have to forgive each other for whatever they said in the heat of the moment."

The absurdity of these words brought a wan smile to Ohu's face, but she did not abandon her mission. "You have missed my point," said Ohu, who had at least fallen into a quiet voice. "If I never speak of it again, I leave it alone inside you, where it could fester."

"Don't worry about me," Samudra assured her.

"No," said the Ohu. "I must worry about you. Left alone you could become like the Prime Minister, knotted with anger."

Samudra was both deeply offended by the comparison and touched by the concern, however misplaced she felt it might be. Although she had never given the comparison any thought, she was alarmed by how on the mark it seemed, at least at this moment. She took a deep breath. "Alright, Ohu, I am letting it go."

It was Ohu's turn now to squeeze Samudra's hand.

In this way, we observe that, as unlikely as it may seem, Ohu already understood that of those who had joined Wouldn't's cause, it fell to her, seemingly the most useless of the lot, to carry on his tradition of healing.

March 8, 2018

A Request

At work on Monday, the astronaut's boss, the minister's husband, mentioned in an off-handed way that he had not seen him at church on Sunday. The astronaut contemplated a lie, perhaps he should just say that he had overslept. He also contemplated saying that he had gone out the night before with friends and hadn't gotten back in until late the next morning, an excuse which, given how it would likely be interpreted, contained no more truth than the outright lie. In the end, he said nothing and was gently reprimanded with the admonition, "We hope to see you next Sunday."

The astronaut had entirely cast such worries out of his mind during the course of the week as he tinkered with a power cable from the shop to recharge the communicator he had taken from the cave. He worked patiently because he did not want to fry the electronics and ruin his only chance of contacting his wife.

He thought periodically of Wouldn't and wondered whether the tree had yet arrived back at the park but he had not yet gone to see for himself. He did not worry as Ohu did, or Samudra to a lesser extent, simply because he imagined the tree as existing outside the dangers posed to mere mammals.

On Thursday, when he returned home from work, he found Ohu sitting alone on the iron stairs on the side of the house that led up to his rented dormer.

"I'm stalking you," she said joyfully at his approach. She seemed so pleased just to see him. He observed her smile as a veneer over tell-tale signs of anxiety and little sleep.

"You have found me," he agreed. He debated as to whether he should invite her inside. It was certainly not embarrassment at his modest accommodations that prevented him from doing so. He sat one step down from Ohu and sometimes looked up over his shoulder at her as she spoke.

"Wouldn't's still not back," she said. "I checked again this morning."

"He probably is enjoying the forest," answered the astronaut.

"When do you think he's going to be back?"

"Probably by this weekend," the astronaut guessed, mostly to placate his friend.

It seemed to work, for Ohu nodded and changed the subject. "Tony?"

"Yes, Ohu?"

"In the cave, you prayed for the exterminator."

"I did," the astronaut agreed.

"Who taught you how to pray?"

"Nobody. Am I doing it wrong?"

"That's not what I meant," said Ohu. "I don't think there's a wrong way." A silence followed before Ohu asked, "Do you pray for anyone else?"

"I'm trying to pray for everyone," said the astronaut and added as clarification, "one person at a time."

"Have you prayed for me?"

The astronaut thought back. "No, not yet."

"Have you prayed for Samudra?"

"Yes," he answered truthfully.

"When will you pray for me?" she asked, with a hint of petulance in her voice.

"Tonight," he promised, "before I go to bed."

March 9, 2018

A Prayer for Unrequited Love

Lord, it seems that love more frequently
than hatred goes unrequited, perhaps,
because one is easier than the other.
O Lord, was this imbalance by Your design

or was the symmetry broken sometime
after You set events in motion? O Lord,
steady my hand as I break a heart
for what little love I find within me

is obligated to another, lost
though she may be. Lord, commission
one from your multitude of spirits
to offer consolation to each of the heart-broken,

each individual who loved foolishly,
who in their inexperience with matters
of the heart succumbed to infatuation,
or who, despite damage from earlier missteps,

made themselves once again vulnerable
to the whims of another and were spurned.
O Lord, Your world is full of wonder
and our hearts are readily tempted to partake

in an exercise as lofty as the clouds hovering
ambivalently above us. Heal us all--the well-loved,
the poorly loved and the simply unloved--
so that we may, by Your grace, try again.

March 10, 2018

The Call

On Saturday morning, the astronaut took an early, empty bus to Lake View Park. He did not find Wouldn't there, as he had hoped. Disappointed, he sat down on the damp earth beside the empty tree and wondered what Wouldn't was doing at that same moment in time. No clear answer came to his mind.

The astronaut had intended to consult Wouldn't prior to attempting to contact his wife. He knew that the tree would not have any particular advice to dispense but he also knew that he would feel better after such a conversation. In the end, he had to be satisfied with making the call from the spot previously occupied by Wouldn't. It did not offer the same level of comfort.

The astronaut withdrew the phone. Only one number was entered in the list of contacts. Although he had dreamt for months of this moment, he did not experience a wave of excitement but rather succumbed to an unpleasant sense of foreboding. Nevertheless, he pushed the call button.

He listened to the ring once, twice, then three times. As the phone continued to ring; he imagined his wife at the other end, listening to the same sequence of rings. Surely, she recognized the incoming number. He gave her another moment to gather her resolve before she answered the phone.

He listened as the ringing stopped abruptly and the line went live. However, he was not greeted by a familiar voice. In fact, no one spoke at all. The astronaut and his wife navigated silently through the waves of electromagnetic radiation that, for the time being, connected their devices.

A minute passed. A clock on the screen of the device recorded the current duration of the call. "Hello," said the astronaut, for fear that if he said nothing then his wife would hang up. He added unnecessarily, "It's me, Mitätön."

More silence ensued. The astronaut took this opportunity to luxuriate in the return of his long, lost companion, even if it was by phone, even if she did not speak. He thought he heard her breath. He listened to the barely perceptible rhythm of breathing carried through the distance separating them. "I'm here," he said, as if confirming that, in fact, they were now together.

He understood that his wife found it difficult to speak. He too experienced much the same difficulty. The circumstances of their separation had been traumatic. They had been apart for a prolonged time. There was an unfamiliar strangeness between them.

The astronaut gathered his courage and began to explain, at first tentatively but later with calm, methodical detail, how he had spent the time in her absence. He admitted early on that he had woken in the hospital only to discover that two of his arms had been amputated. He recalled how the doctors had doubted that he was an astronaut and that he had ever been married and when he persisted on these points, they sent him to a sanitarium for further treatment.

He spoke of Wouldn't the man-tree, the wood weird, as he was called. He described the drowning witch and the helpful psychic who, after his release from the asylum, had driven him to their crash site and had, unfortunately, fallen in love with him. The astronaut described to his wife how he had demurred as gently as he was able. He recounted his trip to the scrapyard and both trips to the exterminator's farm. "The second time," he said, "I succeeded in retrieving this communicator. When I saw that the other one was missing, I knew you had already been there. I knew my search was almost at an end." He added, as an afterthought, "I'm worried about Wouldn't. Ohu--the psychic--fears he is trapped in a hole underground."

When he was done speaking, silence filled the device again. Still, his wife did not respond. The clock on his device reported that he had gone on for more than twenty minutes though it seemed to him as if a much shorter time had passed.

The astronaut interpreted in his wife's silence the unavoidable conclusion that she was not yet ready to speak. Perhaps, he had not said the right words. He tried again.

"I saw the vehicle. They say someone shot at us, probably the exterminator's mother." He paused. "I am sorry if I initially thought that you wrecked us on purpose."

It would take the best of us some time to digest such an apology. Acknowledging this, the astronaut did not expect that his wife would immediately accept the apology. "I will keep the communicator charged and active," he told her. "When you are ready, I will be here for you."

The clock counted the long seconds as the gulf of silence returned. The astronaut could not conceive of an end to this interminable quiet. He waited.

Eventually, he accepted that the parting, too, fell to him. "I kept looking for you," he said, "because without you, I am nothing. Please come back."

Whatever her reaction to this request, the astronaut's wife made no sign to share it. Her steady breathing continued on the phone. Each waited for the other to end the call. Eventually some chance, external event related to the trajectory of satellites orbiting the planet created a momentarily interruption in service, which mercifully terminated the call.

March 11, 2018

A Dénouement

"You should tell them that you're okay. They are worried about you. Ohu thinks you're stuck in a hole in the cave," said the astronaut's wife as she was perched nimbly in a high branch. March had arrived but only a premonition of spring was evident; not even the cherry laurels, first to blossom, had yet opened.

"Huh!" said Wouldn't. "They are the ones who would still be locked in the cave, if you hadn't let them out." The dawn sky had painted the sky orange but the sun itself had not crested over the peak to the east. Whichever day of the week it was had already commenced. "Lucky for them," he concluded.

"It was hardly luck," answered the astronaut's wife. She had spent some considerable time in the mountainous woods about Tulliver's Valley. She was fairly certain that the exterminator had detected her presence, though he appeared to have kept that knowledge to himself. She had waited patiently for her husband to come around.

"Anyway," said Wouldn't. "It's you he wants to see, not me." They were miles south of the farm, deep in the shadowed low places that wove between the shoulders of mountains. "Why did you not speak when he finally called you?"

The astronaut's wife scanned the tree from trunk to crown. "I'd rather not say. It's a private matter between husband and wife."

The tree shrugged. "Suit yourself. But if it's a matter that a little touch of transcendental revelation can remedy, I know just the trick."

The astronaut's wife smiled. "You have offered before and, once again, I must decline."

"It's not for everyone," Wouldn't admitted. There had been recent evidence of this fact.

The sun eventually rose sufficiently high that its light fell through the branches of the forest. The hemlocks and rhododendrons responded accordingly. The yet leafless, deciduous trees, including Wouldn't, bided their time.

"When will you return to Lake View?"

"I'm in no hurry," answered the tree. A breeze, not strong enough to rustle the mat of leaves damp with snow melt, shifted lazily past them. "When will you return to your husband?"

The astronaut's wife contemplated this question in the pleasant bird song of the forest.

We have come to the end of our story. We know almost nothing of the astronaut's wife. It is impossible for us, with so little space left, to provide a description of the machinations of her thinking that had driven her from her husband. Alas, a tidy summary eludes us.

We could wait for her to speak, but she has already resolved to keep her thoughts to herself. If she will not share them with Wouldn't, she will not share them with the likes of you or I.

Marriages fall apart. Usually it doesn't take something as dramatic as the crashing of a spaceship to make it happen. Rather, this dissolution relies only on the unpredictable, chaotic dynamics of interpersonal relationships and the turbulent environment in which they unravel. Proponents of functionalism argue that this dissolution is often for the best. When the joy of a marriage has dwindled, it is proper for two right-thinking individuals to part and seek other circumstances, perhaps different partners, with whom the world can more readily be made a better place.

Sentimental folks like myself take issue with such an argument. We find it better to love the other regardless of the circumstances, even when it seems pointless, perhaps especially so at such times. Life is long, longer when one is lonely, but it is not fear that drives this choice. Rather, there is a virtue in stubborn fidelity. The world welcomes the familiar routines of two people who have lived together for many decades. Young couples see in this reciprocity a hope for themselves. There is a discipline to the heart that only be learned over the course of a shared lifetime.

So what if the astronaut and his wife have hit a rocky patch? It happens in all marriages. The astronaut is waiting. The astronaut's wife is waiting. There is a fragile inevitability to their reunion that brings a flush of warmth to my heart, even though it lies beyond the capacity of my limited imagination to visualize the mechanism by which their joy will again materialize.

March 14, 2018

A Prayer for Married Couples

Mary, Mother of God, Luke wrote of you,
"And a sword will pierce your soul too--
so that the secret thoughts of many may be laid bare."
I now bare my secret thoughts to you, not

because they cause me anguish but rather
so that your suffering shall not have been in vain.
Mary, when you met your Son on the way to His death,
He found at your side your sister and other women.††

Nowhere was your husband, Joseph, to be found.
Where did this man go, he who loved you
so dearly that he swallowed his pride and remained
beside you, even when another fathered your Child?

Perhaps, there was a kernel of resentment,
a seed of doubt within him, which embittered him
despite his obstinate devotion to you. Perhaps,
it ate away at him until he expired of a selfless,

inexpressible agony. It comforts me to think
of your broken marriage. Mary, carry a prayer
for my wife, wherever she may be, and for myself,
to the Lord, who sits in judgment over us.

Mary, pray for the imperfections in all marriages.
May the thoughtlessness of husbands wane!
May the petty vindictiveness of wives wither!
Pray for spouses who refuse to separate for joy,

that they may find in the vices of stubbornness
and resignation, a hidden, tireless virtue,
which brings them together in a way that we can,
without embarrassment, describe as miraculous.

Luke 2:35

††John 19:25

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