As a child, I shinnied the coarse trunks of trees, carrying a book in a backpack or clamped resolutely between my chin and chest. I’d sit in the boughs of shady retreat and dappled light up there where the wind blew through leaves, and the leaves were an instrument, accompanied by birdsong, and I’d read of dichotomous fairyland entities who struggled against one another. The hero’s armor always shone, and he’d raise his double-edged sword above his windblown hair in righteous victory. The villain was always diabolical, sometimes of misshapen form and other times human, but beastly in nature; always the villain was intent on domination, always intent on fulfilling evil desires through evil deeds.
I’d look up only after finishing a chapter and notice the tree being joggled by an evening wind, and I’d turn my face to the west and observe the reddened sky and would mark the time by this beauteous sight. I’d lean back on my branch and imagine a hero come into existence. There should be heroes, I would think, heroes to rejuvenate the world gone brown and smoggy under the iron-mawed machines of crooked dictators. I had the idea that degradation of any kind—be it Third World poverty or the ripping away of nature’s llanos and wildwoods—were setbacks. I had the notion that meliorism was the true nature of being. All it would take to return the world to its right and hale state was a hero who had risen from the trash-littered grasses along the highwayland or who had crawled from the labyrinthian world up through the sewers into ours.
I would listen to cricket song, frog song, the rattling of cicadas, and chew a last piece of bubble gum as the planet spun me, and everything I knew, toward evening.
I guessed that there were heroes out there yet unnamed—martyrs stretched saltirewise, tortured, unable to fight and, nevertheless, unwilling to renounce their noble causes. I fantasized about being a hero, about dying with joy in the glory of agony. I wished it upon no one else, I swear.
I grew up and realized there were no heroes as I had imagined, only varlets bumbling through life, trying to serve the vacant suits of armor that were bought at too high of a price and were made of inferior things—the hinges rusting after the first run through the dishwasher. I abandoned the books of my childhood, and I read the classics where the heroes do die, where sometimes there are no heroes. My palate grew to lose all taste for saccharine magic; I relished it only if it was real. The world got worse, and then the body, like an extension of this abuse, turned on itself. I dreaded the thought that Natalia would have to suffer, that the cancer would ravage her body in the end. A wasting disease it was called. A slow death sentence is what it was. Carrying her up a ladder and hanging her from a cross would be better than what she was to be given. If there were heroes, I would think they were the ones I love, but how is it possible for an antagonist to reside in the body of a beloved hero?
Life is villainy. Not the living of it, not the growing and the dying, the eating of life for sustenance, or how each step is a second closer to reaching final dysfunction. It is the experience of it. It is being conscious of it all. Life is life. And life must do what it must do. But why the knowledge of the act?
I looked up at a tree. I no longer climbed them. Traffic hummed by on the city street. There were children nearby, laughing and throwing a Frisbee. They had a dog with them. The dog would wait to see where the disc would land and then would take off and, by the time it got there, the Frisbee would be ready to throw again. It kept trying, the dog. It attempted, but it was not successful, and the children did not think to let the dog have the Frisbee just once. The dog did not pick up on the rhythm, did not adjust its pace and timing to the act of retrieval.
How many times must one try something before giving up on it?
The doctor had said it was too progressed. There was nothing to do. I kicked a rock. A car honked its horn in the empty street. I acquiesced in giving my consent of joinder to the audience simply awaiting her death. How did I view myself in light of this? How could I not question my character? So I shuffled along the sidewalk between the park and the street. Small, evenly spaced trees ran along the park side of the sidewalk. A few feet of empty grass bordered the street side. There was a soccer field in the park. I knew this because there were two blue-painted soccer goals facing each other with an expanse of brown grass in between. I stopped and stared at the soccer goals, though my mind was elsewhere.
Who was I? A man who had given up on companionship so easily so early. A man whose life was spent in study of dead words and whole dead languages, as if I was focused on abandonments larger than mine in an unconscious attempt to demonstrate that my own was nothing compared to this demitting of entire tongues. Yet I could not be so hard on myself, could I?
I turned around and retraced my steps. The trees there seemed identical and were spaced exactly apart. I imagined they were softwood trees. I could not envision my child-self in any of them. They were not the trees of my youth. They were saplings and, if not saplings, then cheap decoration for the park. I could not see them surviving another local drought or a real rush of wind.
No, it was not only I who had had enough—Natalia, too, understood the prognosis. She chose to cease any kind of treatment, to live her last days in advance rather than in retreat. She lived with the disease. She would die of the disease. All this was certain. And if there were a cure around the corner, to be found somewhere deep in the cabalistic archives, what of it? She would have to wrestle with mortality sometime. No more dirty tricks, chemicals or radiation. She would face the knowledge of her temporary existence clean and clear-headed, totally afraid.
I leaned against our car, willing the tears to recede. Then I opened the door, I got in, and I drove home.
by Randal Eldon Greene
A linguist, a lake monster, and the looming shadow of death—news of an unknown creature in the New Bedford Lake coincides with news that Natalia’s cancer has returned.
On the shores of the lake in a strange house with many secret doors, Robert and his family must face the fact that Natalia is dying, and there is no hope this time. But they continue on; their son plays by the lakeside, Natalia paints, Robert writes, and all the while the air is thick with dust from a worldwide drought that threatens to come down and coat their little corner of green.
A lament for what is already lost and what is yet to be lost, Descriptions of Heaven leaves only one question to be asked: What’s next?