I originally wrote this story for a performance with the Latino literary group Los Nortenos based out of Seattle. So this story goes back to around 2003. I rewrote it as the longer version you see here.
By Patricia Herlevi
Hispanic Voice Series
Margaret saw it coming as the rift in her marriage to her taciturn husband Peter Olsen widened. Their son, Peter, Jr. died in a war which itself seemed hard to believe. Then the government added further insult, by refusing to send the soldier’s remains for a proper burial, stating something about the progressive media distorting facts.
Staring at her husband across the expanse of a large polished maple dinner table, she noticed Peter’s dry eyes after receiving the rejection for their son’s burial.
Unlike him, tears flowed from Margaret’s eyes and softened her skin dried by the harsh Minnesota weather and the stress she endured losing her only son. She glared at her husband of twenty-five years.
“He died an honorable death so why won’t the government we pay taxes to allow us to find closure?”
Peter looked away from his wife. “I don’t know.”
“What do you mean you don’t know? You’re the one who supported our son’s cause to fight in Iraq. I was against it, but you gave him that patriotic speech and now…”
Peter shrugged, “That’s the chance we take when we go to war with another country. Parents lose their children…”
“How can you act so detached when that someone was your son?”
Peter rose from the table and he ambled from the dining room. As he walked through the hallway he gazed at the family photographs—vacations in Wyoming, a trip to Hawaii when Peter Jr. was in his toddler stage, and a photograph of the birth of his premature son. The pain crushed his soul and ripped at his heart, but the tears refused to surface. He knew also that his marriage lain in shambles. Later that night when Margaret slept, Peter packed his suitcase, climbed in his BMW sedan and drove off into the night. He thought of leaving a note, but considered that he already said everything he could on the topic.
The next morning when Margaret awoke she sensed that Peter had left her for good. All the years of spending quality time with each other, building a family and a life together crumbled like Humpty-Dumpty’s wall. She went through the motions of frying an egg for breakfast, but everything she ate tasted like cardboard and after crying for days, her eyes were left in a bone dry state. She lived in denial.
Perhaps the news would sink in after the ink dried on the divorce papers or upon her son’s birthday that loomed in the future. A velvety darkness descended pushing Margaret further into an endless tunnel.
The same family photographs housed in their gilded frames that destroyed her husband only reminded Margaret of bittersweet memories frozen in time. They reminded her of everything that she lost. Once the neighborhood wives envied her, but now Margaret became a target for their pity. She learned to avoid their constant stares and found comfort in her nightly dreams.
One reoccurring dream featured thousands of bats. In the dream, she didn’t run away in horror and her fascination for the bats grew. They’d never harm her and instead of sucking her lifeblood they lead her through a transformation. She believed that they promised her a new life. When she felt that she lost her sanity, the bats’ whispers seemed logical and comforting. They guided her as she descended further into the tunnel. Margaret groped and stumbled searching for the proverbial light that would eventually appear. Even if the light failed to materialize she grew accustom to the darkness, void of any dreams, hopes or desires, but also of suffering.
Although Peter died, she felt as if she was the one being lowered into the damp and wormy soil. She felt the crushing weight and her bones disintegrating into ashes. Decades from now, she thought, archeologist would dig up her bones while searching for stones and artifacts in the blurred future. They’d say that she was a solid-built woman with upright posture with a dark complexion, or so she thought. They’d search for a husband and next of kin, but come up empty handed then the experts would extrapolate on an Isis-Osiris theory of the 21st century on NPR.
However, a real death didn’t await Margaret, but a symbolic one followed by her rebirth. At some point she’d sell the house and leave her memories behind. She’d journey across the desert and across the sea, forgetting her son who never showed her courtesy and a husband who buried himself in his work. And only then, she finally cried tears and shed the weight of her regrets. Those tears only came to free her from the burden of someone else’s dream.
In time, Margaret emerged as a powerful woman who knew great sadness. When she looked in the mirror she finally saw someone staring back at her. And the fleeting glimpses of the future recalling a fox hiding in the foliage, gave Margaret the courage to keep moving towards a better life, a different life. She reasoned, just because she couldn’t see it didn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Her salvation came in an intangible form when she relocated to Southern France and started a new life as a gardener.
Meanwhile, Peter quit his job, bought a sailing boat and settled his grief out at sea. He drowned out his memories of family life listening to Bach’s preludes on his portable CD player which sounded tiny and insubstantial in comparison to the waves that hit the side of the boat and the wind that whistled in the sails. The smell of salt often misted his eyes and his sleep brought memories that would forever haunt him. He felt dismembered by the loss of his marriage and the death of his son. But he had faith that the grief would subside in the way that tempest subside in the morning light leaving the sun sparkling on the renewed ocean, earth, and sky.
But one memory, the evening when his marriage to Margaret disintegrated played out like one of the Mexican soaps his wife so dearly loved and he despised. Why all that drama?
That evening, Margaret set out Peter’s favorite meal of roast beef with baby potatoes drenched in rosemary butter, and an expensive bottle of wine. She finally cleaned house after weeks of neglect and pulled herself together to shop for groceries and prepare that meal.
When she sat the platter with roast on the table, Peter could barely drum up appetite. He avoided eye contact with his distraught wife, but not because he didn’t feel love for her. Sensing that she had more strength than he’d ever acquire in a lifetime, he stared at the newly polished silverware and his glass of wine. He envied her.
Peter finally gazed at his wife’s haggard face. “I’m sorry.”
Tears slipped from Margaret’s eyes. “Why won’t they allow us to see our son one last time?”
Peter placed his hand on Margaret’s hand which she yanked away defiantly.
“You heard the news that none of the parents will get the chance to see their children. Why should it be any different for us?”
Margaret raised her voice in a passionate plea. “There was a time when we would have organized and pulled out our picket signs.”
“What good would that do now? We’re not even permitted to discuss our son’s death with the reporters.”
“Not that I want to and I’m sick and tired of those reporters sniffing around here and their attachment to other people’s grief. But that might bring closure if we could talk to someone.”
“No, we’re on our own this time.”
Margaret stared defiantly at her husband and headed back to the kitchen.
Peter covered his face with his hands attempting to erase the tragedy that visited him. He once thought he had all the answers, but those days had passed.
As the sun rose over a distant island, Peter drank a cup of black coffee and stared out at the sea, the smell of salt and roasted beans mingled in his nostrils. He thought about Margaret and wondered where she was at that time. He regretted walking away from his marriage. Now that the dust finally settled he obsessed about second chances.
# All Rights Reserved (Not available for publication)