Only You Will Find Me
by Jeffrey Greene
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
Alan Brierly’s wife left him and his dog died, in that order and barely a week apart and, at first, the twinned events felt like two blows from the same bat, leaving him a concussed sleepwalker, and no judge of catastrophes.
Several months had to pass before he knew it was less Sarah’s desertion than Angus’s death that had hit him harder. He and the old white Lab had logged so many miles together in their daily walks over the roads and trails of his still-sparsely populated neighborhood in rural Montgomery County, miles that Sarah had rarely graced with her tense, lean, impatient presence, busy as she had increasingly been with other things, other people. Long-distance cycling had only been the most recent excuse for making herself scarce.
“For every cult, a costume,” he’d said, as she was going out the door one Saturday morning in her tight, unflattering, garishly colored biking outfit. His comment may have decided her then and there to tell him about the “profound feelings” she’d recently developed for the divorced lawyer in her cycling club.
It was unfortunate, if only an accident of temperament, that walking, his first and only athletic love, had bored her, as cycling both bored and terrified him. The more they’d grown apart over the years, the harder his grip tightened on the image of the woman he’d married, the one who had loved him enough to recite those hopeful vows of everlasting devotion.
He hadn’t dated since the divorce, and wouldn’t even consider getting another dog. Right now all he could do was stay busy with work, see a few friends once in a while, and take long walks by himself on weekends.
The droughty summer was a fading memory, effaced by a chill, rainy fall, and Alan Brierly was about to turn fifty-one. It was already late October, a stunningly pure, blue Saturday, red, yellow and brown leaves swarming on the wind as he climbed the steep grade of Maiden Lake Road. At the top of the hill was a county park where he’d often walked with Angus but, just before that, on the left, heading straight into the late afternoon sun, was Dunworthy Road, a narrow, woodsy gravel path dead-ending about three-quarters of a mile downhill. He turned that way.
A pair of light-boned teenagers jogged past him uphill, checking their watches, then a puffing, thirty-something man on a touring bicycle towing a veiled, two-wheeled baby car. None of the three more than glanced at him, their faces straining with that fever of intent — the kids with their training, the man with the immensity of new fatherhood — that Alan seemed lately to have lost. Without that spinning flywheel of purpose, he thought, how easily one drifted into stagnation. Grief and anger, too, could corrode the moving parts of that necessary engine. He had arrived at the age of disillusion, when it was no longer possible to pretend there was more life in front of him than behind.
If he didn’t begin once again to seek and strive, the spores of death would start settling on him and take root. Yet wallowing was pleasant, too, to play the game of omniscient observer, watching from a place of imaginary safety while all the human-purpose machines whirled by on their self-important errands. And now he had the road to himself, and could half-guiltily, half-deliciously relax into solitude.
But he wasn’t alone after all. There was someone not far ahead of him, a tall young woman, walking in the same direction he was. He’d probably missed seeing her before because the sun was in his eyes. She kept passing through zones of light and shadow. Either that, or she’d just come out of the woods and her clothes were, well, fall-colored. She seemed to blend into the autumnal forest. She was moving quickly and, although his own pace was quite respectable, he couldn’t gain on her. She was soon out of sight.
* * *
At the dead end of Dunworthy Road was a mossy, mildewed mailbox, the resident name long since obliterated, set atop a rotten post, standing on the right side of what once must have been a dirt driveway, but which had been taken over by a dense grove of the largest bamboo he’d ever seen in this area, a botanically incongruous local landmark that was the turning point for most of his walks. It was always dark in there, even at midday, because the bamboo stalks grew at least sixty feet tall and so closely together that they seemed to devour the light.
He stood in deep shadow before the mailbox, listening to the wind gusting through the canopy of thin, leafy branches and the thick, green, segmented stalks creaking and knocking together.
“It’s called Madake.”
He hadn’t heard her approach and was badly startled. Embarrassed, he turned and looked into a pale, thin face framed with lank black hair and dominated by big, dark, under-circled eyes that stared into his with a searching, serious expression. Her voice had sounded as if she were speaking into his ear, but she was standing a good eight feet away, and by her rust-brown pants and sweatshirt, he recognized her as the young woman walking ahead of him on the road.
He nodded and said, “Hello,” in a voice barely above a whisper.
“Japanese Timber Bamboo,” she went on, without acknowledging his greeting. “One of the tallest species. Only stand in the county, far as I know.”
She, too, was tall, he noted, and thin enough to be called skinny. “I never knew that,” he said.
“Hear the silence?” she asked.
He nodded uncertainly.
“It’s always like this. Nothing native to this place has any use for bamboo.”
“I’ve wondered why it’s so quiet here,” he said, noting that in spite of her wasted frame and pallid complexion, she was rather pretty. “You seem to know a lot about bamboo. Are you a botanist?”
“Bamboo creates a dead zone where it grows,” she said, perhaps not hearing his question, as the wind had been gusting. “Nothing else can live alongside it, not even weeds. Only the coldest cold can hurt it. You have to be serious about getting rid of it, and my father wasn’t.”
“He planted it in the sunniest corner of the property, not knowing or caring that it was running, not clumping, bamboo. If he’d chosen clumping, our lives might have turned out differently.” She had a low voice, deeply earnest yet with a droning flatness of tone that jarred on his ear. It didn’t match what she was saying.
“So this was your yard,” he said. “I’ve always wondered who lived here. When did you move away?”
“We’re still here,” she said. “The house is back there in the bamboo.”
“Really?” he said, unsure if he was being kidded. “Doesn’t look like there’s room for anything but bamboo in there.” He had to admit, though, that visibility in the grove was limited to a few yards. She could be telling the truth.
“It was a beautiful yard, once,” she went on in her oddly mechanical voice, once again either ignoring or not hearing his response. “A full acre of native plants, trees and shrubs. Until the bamboo took over. Everything else died after that. Not enough sun.”
“Is there another driveway?” he asked. “Seems like you’d have to clear a path through some of this stuff, for the sake of convenience.”
“You can’t have some of it removed,” she said. “It’ll just come back. It’s all or nothing.”
“Oh, I see. So your father did nothing, and now you’re surrounded.”
She nodded, her eyes staring unblinkingly into his.
“Well, I guess I’d better...” Alan said, smiling as he turned to leave, but she didn’t seem willing to encourage a strange man by returning his smile. He approved of her caution, even as he began to wish she would smile.
“Where is he?” she asked.
“Oh. So you’ve—”
“Many times. You and your big white dog.”
“It’s true, I often walked here with him. But I’m sure I’ve never seen you before.”
“Where is he?” she asked again.
“He died.” Absurd how hard it was just to say it, even now.
“Everything does,” she said. “The loved and the unloved.”
“I miss him,” he heard himself say.
“Yes,” she said in the same affectless tone. “I miss my family.”
He wasn’t sure if he was soothed or put off by her slightly off-key attempts at sympathy. “You lost your family?” he asked. “I thought you said they were—”
“I meant, I miss the way things used to be. We all live in the same house. Just not together.”
“That sounds familiar,” he said with a bitter smile. Then, surprising himself: “My name’s Alan. Brierly.” He started to extend his hand, then put it in his pocket when she didn’t offer hers.
“Elspeth Waldron,” she said, turning toward him and at the same time looking away.
“Pleased to meet you, Elspeth.”
“Would you like to see my house?” she asked.
“Uh, sure. Yes.”
“I’ll show it to you next time.”
“Oh. You have to leave now?”
“They’re expecting me back,” she said, walking with her quick, decisive stride toward the bamboo. “But you’ll see me again. If you want to.”
“Okay,” he said. “I would. When and where?”
“Here. Same time,” she said over her shoulder, already fading into the perpetual shadows of the grove.
Strange, he thought, as he headed back up the hill, how she’d just shown up next to him and started talking. He was mystified, never having seen her around here before, but also, he had to admit, rather charmed by her. The oddities or tics in her demeanor — her lack of affect, the way she seemed to hear or respond selectively to his questions, her monotonous style of speaking — made him wonder if she might be autistic in some high-functioning form.
Well, at least he could say that nothing half so interesting had happened on one of his walks, not for a very long time. He hoped to see her again, if only to satisfy his curiosity, but he didn’t think she’d put herself in that position twice: a young woman alone on a dead-end street with a strange man.
And, too, he was twice her age. What was he hoping for, anyway? He knew from experience that too much solitude could lead to impulsive decisions, at least when it came to women. And men his age — “in midlife,” as he’d been pointedly told by one of his ex-wife’s female friends — often developed “morbid attractions” to younger women. “It’s all just denial of death,” she’d said.
“What isn’t?” had been his response, which hadn’t pleased either her or Sarah.
* * *
Copyright © 2020 by Jeffrey Greene