So They Walked
BY TIM SCHLEE
They sat, the pair of them, old and decrepit, at adjacent ends of the breakfast table so that when looking straight ahead they did not see each other except out of the corner of the eye.
“It’s official,” said the man. “The water’s poisoned.”
He was large and sat with his elbows spread wide across the longer side of the table in order to disperse his weight. His head hung limply between his shoulders, bent pitifully toward the plate beneath him, as though even sitting were too tiresome. So positioned, the act of eating was reduced to just a flick of the wrist.
“It’s not poisoned, you old kook,” said the woman. She rearranged the food on her plate, cutting and scraping and stirring until at length, for a moment, it might look appetizing. “There isn’t anyone to poison it.”
“It’s in the taste,” he said. “You can taste it.”
“Then don’t drink it.”
He laughed. “And die? You’re mad.”
Thus they ate, he in a whirl, without thought or design, she with a stubborn deliberation. When his plate was clean, he belched. “That was shit,” he said. “Why can’t we have oatmeal?”
“We haven’t any oatmeal,” she said.
“We haven’t any oatmeal?” He searched the pantry. “But I had some just the other week. Was that really the last of it?”
“You didn’t have any the other week.”
He searched the pantry but it was empty.
“We haven’t had oatmeal in years,” she said.
“How can you say such things?” he cried and began to rummage in a nearby cupboard.
She returned to her plate, slicing and mashing and reconfiguring, but to no avail.
“This won’t do,” she said when she was finished. “This just won’t do.”
“Nothing ever does,” he moaned. “But perhaps, and I just had the thought so forgive me if it’s not well formed, but perhaps I’ll make a trip into town. Surely I could find some oatmeal there. Someone must have some, right?”
“Town?” She grew angry now, thrusting her silverware away from her with some force, so as to make a noise. “What town? There isn’t any town.”
“There used to be.”
“There are many things that used to be but aren’t anymore,” she said.
“But how do you know it has ceased to be?”
“There,” she said, her arm erect before her, one jagged finger extended toward the window. “Over the hill there, in the sky. We used to see smoke. Fire or coal or whatever it was. Now it’s there no longer.”
He frowned. “I never saw any smoke.”
“You never see anything.”
His face lightened. “That would be something, wouldn’t it? Never seeing anything. Never having seen anything.”
“And besides, you wouldn’t make it halfway there with your leg the way it is.” She scraped her food into a bowl on the floor, the unsavory conditions in which the poor dog they kept or rather didn’t remove was forced to eat. “Now where is that mutt?”
“Only, if I didn’t have sight, would I retain the other senses? Touch and taste and smell? I could certainly do without smell. But that would be so tantalizing, would it not? To lose one sense and keep the others? Perhaps if I could rid myself of them all…”
“Now,” she said, “the sun wants to rise.”
“Ah, and there’s your smoke.”
She looked. “That’s only a cloud, you idiot.”
“Well,” he said and paused. He watched as the dog emerged to lick his plate. “His coat seems to be improving. Or perhaps I’ve only gotten used to it.”
The woman paid him no mind. She cleaned the dishes and wiped down the table and then drew a deep breath as if in preparation. “It’s time,” she said at last.
The old man nodded faintly, very faintly. “I suppose it is.”
“Then I suppose we shall set off.”
“I suppose we shall.”
So they set off. Outside, it was spring. Winter had passed. The trees were in bloom and the flowers overwhelmed them with their saccharine scents. There were no trails that they followed, only the guiding hands of trees they had once known as saplings. Birds called and needed no response, were happy just to hear themselves sing.
The woman noticed that they had set off in different directions and came to a halt. “Where are you going?” she called.
The man stopped and looked puzzled. “Where we’re both going. Where are you going?”
“But it isn’t that way. It’s over here.”
“No, you’re wrong. I remember. I left the shawl she used to wear. I threw it over that branch.” He pointed overhead.
“There isn’t any shawl there.”
“Perhaps not. The wind might have taken it. But I remember it nonetheless. And it was to mark that we travel in this direction.”
“You couldn’t be further off unless you set off back toward the house,” she called and turned to continue in her direction. The man conceded and hurried, as well as he could, to catch up. They walked apart, and the forest unfolded before them as if caught unaware. Nothing was hidden from view. Branches stretched forth with an ease that seemed almost impossible in their jagged, static forms. There was a peace here, in the forest, a sublime and graceful peace.
“But,” said the old man, after many moments, as though in a single utterance he could leap across the chasm of silence and revive words spoken long ago, “I don’t remember this.” He examined a shrub, pulled at a leaf, sniffed it. “If this is the way, if this is the path we always travel, I should remember it, I think.”
“Oh?” said the woman, halting her gait only after a significant distance had accumulated between them. “You don’t remember it? They’re trees! They’re all the same. There’s nothing to remember.”
“But I would think I’d remember something,” he mumbled, scratching at the bald patch on the crown of his head.
“Well then what do you remember if not this?”
“I remember….” said the man, his face scrunched in effort. “I remember…”
“You don’t remember anything.”
“I remember the way things used to be,” he said at last.
“You play at this game every day, as if you had a clue. But you don’t, my dear, and you never will.” She turned to continue forward.
“I remember when we were happy.”
“You remember fictions.”
“But wait,” he cried.
“What now?” A breeze crept gently through the branches, and tickled the ankles of the old woman beneath her tattered dress.
“Why must we hurry so much? Why must you move so quickly? I’m old, darling, and my foot is beginning to ache.”
“My God,” she cried, and reached up to the heavens. “Your foot always aches. And when we reach the top of this hill, you’ll sigh and say you need to remove your boot as it’s causing you too much pain. And then we’ll progress twice as slowly.”
“I won’t,” he said, his voice soft now, drawn inward like a turtle beaten into its shell. “I promise.”
So they walked. The terrain was not even, and their progress was slow, for the man had an uneven gait and had to take the steeper inclines almost sideways. It was impossible to measure the passage of time. The trees were too thick to even see the sun circle across the sky.
They had a manner about them: their conversations were like warzones, flattened smoky battlegrounds in which enemy commanders sketched out a tenuous armistice. She craved silence and grew impatient of his words. He, however, craved noise, to distract himself. Silence bred thought, and that he wanted to avoid.
“I can’t do it,” he cried.
“We’re nearly there,” she said. They were now together, at the top of the hill, where she had waited for him so that he wouldn’t lose sight of her and drift away, as he was wont to do. “We’ve reached the peak. It’s all downhill from here.”
“No,” he panted, sitting or rather falling onto his buttocks. “I can’t. My foot is too sore. I can’t go on.” He wrestled with his boot, and with a great effort, with a final climactic gasp, he tore it free.
“You can’t turn back now,” she said. “I won’t take you.”
“Then at least let’s rest. For a moment.”
So they rested, he panting on the ground with his foot pulled into his lap so as to massage it, she pacing back and forth along the ridge, until at last she grew impatient.
“You’ll sit here forever if I let you,” she cried and pulled him up, somehow, large though he was, with a single thrust.
“Not forever,” he said. “I won’t live that long.”
But she had already set off through the woods once again, and he scrambled to follow her, boot in hand in case he should decide to wear it once again.
“Did we ever try again?” he said, to break the silence. “Perhaps we could have had a son.”
“Did we every try in the first place?”
“Do you think we would have had a son?” He grew nostalgic of a past that wasn’t his. “I would have loved a son, I think. We could have wrestled and joked and started snowball fights with unsuspecting neighbors. And when I talked with him I wouldn’t have left feeling as though I had missed the point of everything, as though I had spoken out of turn and said things whose meanings were different for me than for others. Though maybe that would still have been true. Maybe that’s always true.”
“We didn’t have a son,” she said. She was very matter-of-fact. “We had a daughter.”
They walked, she slightly ahead. Her steps were deliberate, accurate—not quick but steady. His were flimsy and inconstant. He frequently stopped to catch his breath. She did not look back.
“Have we ever taken the dog out here?” he asked on a whim.
“Here in the woods?”
“Yes, out here with us when we walk this way.”
She frowned. “He’d only run away. And then what would we have?”
“We’d have each other,” he said.
It wasn’t hot, but from the exertion of stumbling through the woods, they had both broken out into a sweat, hers a light glistening on her forehead, his a dark moistness in his armpits. The forest extended before them indefinitely.
“We’ve passed this way before,” said the old man.
“We have,” said the woman, “yesterday, when we made the same trip.”
“No, I mean today. I remember it. The way that tree splits off into two just a foot from the ground—we’ve gone in a circle. We haven’t made any progress and we never will!” He was growing manic.
“Calm yourself,” she said, not stern but not comforting. “We’ll get there in time.”
“Or perhaps the forest is merely repeating itself,” he said. “Like a hall of mirrors, and we’re caught in the center.”
“Perhaps,” she said, considering the idea. “Perhaps…”
They soldiered on through the leaves and vines and underbrush, whisking branches out of their faces with greater and greater effort as the day passed. The ground seemed to grow more uneven, the inclines steeper, their bodies heavier. The pain in his foot throbbed louder.
“That’s it,” he cried as he fell in exhaustion to the ground. “I’m done. I can’t do it. I’m going home.” He struggled into his boot, as if that would make a difference. “We’re no closer than we were an hour ago. We should have been there by now.”
“Shhhh,” she hissed.
“It shouldn’t take this long. It doesn’t take this long. I’m not going any further. We should have gone my way, I knew it.” He stood and brushed himself off. “Let’s go home and try again tomorrow. Maybe we’ll find it then.”
“Shhh. Come here.”
“No, I’m done. Go on ahead without me.”
“There’s nowhere to go,” she said. Her voice was soft now, brimming with a quiet wonder. “We’re here.”
He scrambled to meet her. It was true. They were there.
The trees broke and opened on a verdant clearing. The grass shimmered in the breeze as its springtime dew caught flashes of sunlight now free and unobstructed by branches and leaves. There it was, emerging from the mound in the center of the field like a monolith, not tall but casting a shadow that stretched far and seemed not so much to end as to dissolve. The words carved into the stone were deep, not new but not yet eroded.
“My God,” said the man. They approached slowly, as if in a daze. “So it’s true.”
“Of course it’s true,” said the woman. “It’s always been true. And it will always be true.”
“She’s there, then,” he said and he looked downward. They had forgotten to bring flowers. They always forgot to bring flowers. “She’s down there.”
“She’s not here in any case,” said the woman. “With us.”
“Was she ever? It seems so long ago. Was it not a dream? A figment of our minds? Some desperate deception of our imaginations? Perhaps she never was at all.”
They stood and watched the stone. Nothing changed. Nothing ever changed.
At length the woman fell to her knees and began to sob. The man watched her with bewilderment. She beat her fist occasionally on the ground and howled. He made as if to touch her, to comfort her, but hesitated and decided against it. It went on this way for a while, and then silence crept in. She rose and dried her eyes and stared at the headstone before them. Neither spoke. Even the animals in the woods ceased to call and sing and ruffle sticks and leaves with their movements. He stood beside her and was, for once, unable or unwilling to speak.
Then the breeze fluttered back in. A leaf blew across the clearing and, for a moment, caught on the stone and wrapped around it along the edge, obscuring the date, the second date, the one that still could not be fathomed. For a moment, it was not so. And then the wind carried it onward, the leaf, and things returned to the way they were—not back to normal but to the way they were.
“Well,” said the woman at length, turning. “I suppose we shall be off.”
“I suppose we shall.”
So they walked, she ahead and he slightly behind, her motions steady, his jagged and a little lopsided. They left, but the stone remained. It always remained, no matter how many times they made the journey. No matter how many times they tried, it was always there. It was always there and it always would be. So they walked.
TIM SCHLEE started writing in his elementary school days when he would conceive parodies of common folktales (such as Little Red Riding Hood) and adorn them with hand-drawn illustrations. In middle school, he loved Stephen King and wrote horror stories. As he grew, so did his tastes and so did his desire to explore ever newer methods of expression.
Professionally, Tim writes for the web design company Red Nova Labs in Westwood, Kansas. He attended Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri, graduating in 2012. He studied English with an emphasis in creative writing and linguistics, and had a blast doing both.