Issue January 29, 2008

Short Story: Honorable Mention 3

Up Above and Down Below

By Matthew David Kaufmann

The couple’s son was eaten alive by a shark. His mother and father received the news as dinner was put on the table. Chicken, potatoes, green beans, salad with balsamic vinaigrette dressing, and corn bread formed a minor feast; their son’s favorite meal. The food was a flame on a candle, never to burn again. The policeman asked if the parents could come identify the body. The steam rose from the food, its smell could no longer reach the noses of the family it was meant to nourish. The food would lie on their table, getting stale and drawing the occasional bug, for three days.

The couple was tingly with anxiety as they drove to the hospital. The father refused to cry, and his wife would not let him touch her. She noticed a chip on her wedding ring, and drifted into thought as the car sped through the night, why does love cripple me? She held her tears like a woman refusing to give childbirth. Walls rose in her mind to block the terrible light.

They opened the doors to the room that held their son, and when the sheet unveiled his mangled body, the mother lost all control. She grabbed her husband and for the first time in their marriage their tears flowed together.

Her hands gripped the back of his shirt like she was holding onto a lifejacket. The man felt her tears against his chest, and his pain poured out of him into her hair. Walls broke down. They held each other to hold onto reality, nothing else seemed tangible; their surroundings took the shape of some depressed surreal painting. Their son faced the ceiling, staring up with lifeless eyes, an ironic appearance of peace illuminating from his face. A strange thought passed through the man’s eyes, only when we want nothing will we find our happiness.

The family’s dog loved the boy that died. He waited in the boy’s room for three weeks, leaving to occasionally eat, drink, and dispose of the items of his consumption outside. The dog still insisted that he poop along the borders of his fence, his boundaries became ever more important. The dog refused all treats, and carried around one of the boy’s dirty socks wherever he went. One day the mother took the sock from the dog, and after that day the dog refused to eat or drink until she salvaged the dirty sock from the trash and gave it back to him. The dog was very grateful.

The couple tried to talk, but they didn’t know where to begin. Every time the man touched his wife, she would withdraw, looking at her husband with a mixture of grief, longing, and anger. Poisoned thoughts began to melt into the man, thoughts of how he didn’t love his son enough, of how his wife never loved him but simply her idea of what she wanted, of how bleak the future looked. The man stood outside in the sand, staring into the ocean that took his son. The waves washed over his feet as he gradually sunk like the depressed descend in doubt’s tainted memories. He went back into the house to apologize to his wife for not loving her enough, but when he looked at her, he knew the time for forgiveness already past him.

The man let his tears glisten like a clean mirror, and his wife approached him with sadness and grace. He could taste his salt collecting on his lips; something horrible was swimming towards him. He prepared himself, when one breaks one must embrace the world with an open heart.

She said, “I need to leave.”

The man wanted to ask why, but only said, “I know.”

“I’m sorry,” she said.

He went to hug her, but she cringed as he approached. “Oh,” he said, “I guess I’ll leave so you can pack up what you need.” It’s been a long time since the couple used their words and love to discover each other; they’ve been in the habit of using them to maintain things. The dog watched the couple, the boy’s dirty sock dangling from its mouth.

The man walked along the beach thinking of his son and wife, of how he no longer had either. The loss reinforced how fragile consciousness is. He sat and watched a hawk circle the ocean, thinking it strange to see a hawk in these parts. His thoughts drifted to his childhood, of how his parents sacrificed to make a life of happiness possible for him. He thought back to how when he became a better son, they became better parents. He thought back to when he stopped showing his son he loved him everyday, his son started to leave him, and now he’s gone. He thought back to when he felt his wife hindering his growth, and resentment built its walls brick by brick, until they were nearly strangers. The man thought of the shark that killed his son, and he believed he was responsible. The hawk began to circle above the man like an angel trying to turn his eyes to the heavens.

The woman packed up some clothes to go to her mother’s house. She didn’t have a plan, except that she was going to start over. She left all of the pictures, and the clothes she bought since her marriage. She did love her husband for most of their relationship, and they seemed to gradually grow into the molds that each other needed. He was emotionally supportive, content, and dependable. When they first married it seemed that joy was inevitable. They found salvation in the everyday things: coffee together in the morning, smiles from strangers, hugs from friends, meaningful work, respect from each other, dependability, and finally the birth of their son. However, over the years he lost his passion for her, and she never forgave him that humiliation. She hated the idea of their life being reduced to a love of convenience. She cut her long hair so that it was short and spiky, she threw the hair into the fireplace with a few logs and miscellaneous papers; they burned into ash. She called the dog, but he wouldn’t come; she went into the boy’s room, grabbed the sock out of the dog’s mouth, and the dog followed her into the car. She drove down by the ocean, and saw her husband walking out into the waves. As she traveled down the road, she noticed a hawk gliding above her. She couldn’t help but think of a phoenix rising from its ashes.

The waves were tall and steady on this day. The ocean mourned for the family. The waves hugged the feet of the man, calling him to step deeper into her embrace. The man thought of images from his childhood religion. He was raised Catholic, and heroized the saints as a child. He wondered if God also felt loss when his son was nailed to the cross. He thought back to how earnestly he once believed, and he regretted that he didn’t have more faith. Feelings of unworthiness dripped down his face as he looked into the holiness of the ocean. His feelings moved as his tears moved, moving to feelings of awe, moving to acceptance, and moving to a release of a past self that closed its eyes to glory.

The salt of his tears brought out his soul like it was waiting for someone with the appetite to drink in all he is. The ocean called him, and he stepped into her. The salt water pressed against his legs. He walked further and further out until he was swimming in the deep sea, the tears running down his face as if they were returning home like a pack of lost puppies. Up above, he admired the hawk spreading its wings over the ocean, deep down below a shark lurked. The man felt the danger, but as he tread he looked above.

And his tears fell into the waves as he squinted into the sun. His arms and legs worked in the water; he wearied, and floated on his back, letting the ocean rock him like a baby. The walls disintegrated as he surrendered like a newborn reaching for his mother’s milk. The movement of the sea purged his spirit; his heart steadily reached for the horizons, as if this place and the hawk could teach his soul to grow. The hawk circled high above, its shadow shed a gliding cross on the water. A shark swam underneath, its hunger compelling its eyes.

He could feel the ocean as a great big teardrop washing his body, giving itself to him like a woman in love. Every wall poured from his eyes, releasing the sorrows and deceptions that clogged his ears from the song holding the universe together. He began to feel gratitude for the life he had been given. He heard the hawk call, and he watched it dive down to him, deep below, the shark sped for the surface; an ironic look of peace illuminated from the man’s face.