Penumbra

A short story
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Mark and Laura had come to Ireland, though neither of them had said so, in pursuit of a miracle caused by joy. In the months between his diagnosis and their trip, Mark had believed in his death only for brief moments, shudders of a fear that was near euphoria and that gave way almost immediately to shy pride, as if he'd discovered that he had a talent previously unsuspected by anyone. It was true: he, Mark Driscoll, high school history teacher, husband, father, as ordinary a person as he could imagine, had an incurable fatal disease, and was dying. It seemed impossible that he should be doing something so outrageously dramatic. Who am I to be doing such a thing? he'd nearly think. The cancer itself was real, of course—the treatments, the discomfort and expense and awkwardness of it. He'd lost his hair; his face was swollen by medication; he'd grown terribly thin; his balance had become poor; he had no desire for food or sex; even sleep was rarely restful. He knew that strangers found him grotesque and that old friends pitied him, and pitied Laura because she was burdened with him. He pitied her too. So when she proposed the trip to Ireland, he agreed: maybe something would happen. A miracle seemed to him no more unlikely, no more inexplicable, than dying. In any case, they'd always wanted to go to Ireland.

And then, without warning, on St. Patrick's Day, halfway through their three-week stay, as they were dressing to go out for a walk, a moment of terror came and stayed, deepened, thickened. He was suddenly blind with it: he staggered wildly out of the room where Laura stood barefoot, braiding her hair, and careened down the short hall of the hostel and into the street. He knew it, knew it: he was going to be dead. Five more months, maybe six, the oncologist had said in February, and he'd thought then, Oh, that's good, it'll all be over before the holidays. But now, for the first time, he knew that he would be dead, and he could not bear it, and he stood in the chilly Galway street and wept in helpless, wordless fear against the side of a building.

Laura came and got him, and helped him back inside, to the room, to the bed, and sat with him, her hand on his chest, until the sobbing stopped and he was quiet.

When he could speak, he said, "I'm afraid."

"Of course you are," she said. "So am I." And then, quietly, sadly, she began telling her fears—the loneliness, the children's confusion, the future without his company, growing old and facing her own death without him.

She had said these things before; maybe the story of her widowhood comforted her. But hearing her tell it, he realized now, had pleased him. He'd been flattered, he could see now, and the tawdriness of that, its near obscenity, forced a groan from his chest, and he turned his face to the wall.

"Listen," she said, "it's been raining for two days, and we've been stuck in here. That's all this is—bad cabin fever." She patted his back briskly. "What we need to do is get out, go somewhere. I think we should rent a car and go to Kerry."

He couldn't admit his fear, how absolute it had been, and he couldn't say what this was now, this deep shadow of that fear, this understanding that life had nothing to do with him. Nothing mattered. Nothing at all. "All right," he murmured, and for the rest of that day and the next he did as she suggested, dressing, eating, walking within the flurry of her telephone calls and guidebook consultations, her plans for this complicated excursion to Kerry, the Ring of Kerry, Kerry the Kingdom. The darkness weighted his bones, his tongue, his vision, his mind: he would be dead. No: he would be nothing. He would not be. He felt only and obscurely that he should behave well, cause no pain or trouble.

He slept thinking that and woke the second morning beside her. He could feel that she was awake, lying quiet at the slight distance they kept between them now, since sex had stopped—the distance that had once held the pettiness and comfortable meannesses and easy generosities of marriage but was now filled with careful politeness. He was chilly, and thought of the blanket on their bed at home: it was a wool blanket; it had been pretty expensive; they had discussed buying it; it was a blanket like the blankets of his childhood, weighty and rough.

He wanted it. To be there, under that blanket, in the bed and room and house that had been his for so long, was a thing he wanted, and he said aloud, "Laura, we have to go home, now, today."

She stroked his back. "You know we can't do that," she said.

"Jesus," he said, "why not?"

She stopped her hand and then took it away. In his mind he imagined her answers to his question: the cost of changing tickets, Kerry, he'd feel better soon—and to all the answers he replied silently, So what, so what?

"You're upset," she said gently.

"I'm not upset, Laura—I'm dying, and I want to do it at home, not on the damned sidewalk in a foreign country."

He knew now that he would not die heroically, or with wisdom or humor, or by the generous courage of suicide; he wished at least to do it privately. He insisted, bluntly, immovably, as they dressed and ate and walked beside the bay and came back to the hostel, and there, hours later, she finally agreed.

And then, as she left the room to begin the necessary telephone calls, an island, distant and stone-blue, surfaced through the calmed despair of his mind.

All through the afternoon, while he dozed and Laura talked to travel agents and to family members back in Idaho, the small island grew more solid, soothing him, even when she reported that they couldn't get a flight with connections until Thursday. As evening fell and she finished, and came and sat on the edge of the bed beside him and sighed, the island was so close and real that he could almost make out the welter of stone walls, the noise of waves against cliffs.

"We've still got three days," she said into the near dark. "Maybe we could do something."

"Two full days," he agreed. "Not long enough to get to Kerry and back, is it?" It was barely a question.

"No," she said softly, and then, "but thanks," and in a moment she went on. "Maybe we could go to the Aran Islands—Lyle's wife said it would be sunny there." She had her hands in fists in her lap, tapping her knuckles together.

Lyle was an older American man they had met and chatted with most mornings on their walk beside the bay—a man, Mark had thought before, pretty obviously smitten with Laura, and embarrassed by it, because he was quite a bit older, and because Mark was sick, a poor rival. Mark had found it a little irritating that Laura had been so oblivious, but he hadn't quite been willing to tease her about it. And then this morning Lyle's wife had come with him, so maybe she'd noticed it too, in something Lyle had said, or hadn't said. At any rate, she'd come along this morning, and she had said the Aran Islands were sunny—"Bright as Arizona," in fact—and he'd forgotten, had hardly heard her, but surely that suggestion explained this island in his mind.

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