CLAW THE EARTH by William Gill


LAST NIGHT I MADE MY WAY to her. I lay with her again and we made our bed beneath the stars, beneath the sheltering elms that direct their roots to her for nourishment, for payment of their faithful guardianship. I stretched my hand to run my fingers through her hair, closing my eyes and feeling the strands, close cropped and not so luxuriant as in the past, feeling in my blindness more like turf and not at all like hair anymore. I came for her, but despite her closeness she did not respond. I whispered to her and she remained silent.

In my mourning I have become poetic. Not outwardly. To speak like a poet is to be thought of by others as being touched. People associate flourishing words with mental illness or narcissism. So, I keep my conversations as pedestrian as possible. I have no need to spread concern among my friends who concern themselves with me too much as it is. They might try to give me a pill.

But at any given moment my heart unleashes a grief so fluid and angry that I feel consumed by the heat. I have become a vapor, dispersed and hovering over the shell of my life that remains attached to the earth like the husk of a cicada. Slowly I cool and settle back on the crust of my body, my spirit forming like dew and innervating my bones and muscles once more. Then I feel as if I can make it. I feel there is no other choice until I reach out in forgetfulness and find nothing, not even the scent of her skin to keep me steady. Then the full scope of memory floods me and it is too much. I burn off in a cloud. It is impossible to maintain myself and I am split, mind from body, soul from matter. Is this is what madness feels like? Things are out of control. All order is lost.

Ruth’s father is a minister. He performed her funeral. How odd is that? How odd to watch. Odder still for him, I’m sure. He has tried to be a source of comfort for me these past few weeks, but it is nearly unbearable to be around him. Joseph lost his own wife, Kay, Ruth’s mother, whom I never met, ten years ago and I think he feels beyond all of his other commitments to me a bond within this commonality we share. It is a mentoring bond. A shepherding bond. He wants to walk with me through the depths that no man should have to travel alone.

We are widowers. It is an awkward word that contains one too many syllables. Widows and orphans are expected, but that natural order seems undone by widowers. They must either remarry or quickly die. They are not made to linger. The older ones like Joseph can give their lives to God. They can die to the world and thus live on. The younger ones need a more proactive plan.

My package from Peak Form arrived this morning. The UPS man backed away when I opened the door. I hadn’t bathed in three days. Last night at the cemetery, living people avoided me as if I was a vagrant. Nothing is worse for me lately than having to keep up appearances. Bathing, shaving, ironing a shirt: it all feels artificial, like something I should do to keep myself busy so my mind will be occupied with the tedium of life. It is all a way of working through grief, but I’d rather not bother. I have found it makes me angry, because it implies that only tedium is left. I have let all pretense of normality crumble, because the foundation is missing.

I smiled at the UPS man. He seemed as startled as my friends seem concerned, and besides, I was glad to receive the box. It contains the instruments of a plan. A plan that will nullify all concern with laundry and hygienic issues.

This is the age we live in, those of us who are fortunate enough to be alive: the age of fast actualization. Next day delivery, just-in-time inventories, and internet shopping. This is the age that has allowed my mind to come back from the edge. Tonight when I go out to the cemetery, I will bypass my wife’s plot and engage my energy into an ambitious forward thinking act that will bring me closer to her than sleeping on her grave could ever do.

It was cold in May, colder still at an hour when the sun had buttered the earth with only its oblique morning rays. Colder yet again when mounted on a composite frame, slicing through the blustery cross winds, dropping down the rolling hills like a diving hawk.

There were few things that satisfied my soul as much as riding with Ruth. It was a culminating experience that affirmed the complex richness of youth. No sport represents the simultaneous collective and solitary dynamic of life better than cycling. On a bike I was alone, left to rely on my own stamina, my mental and physical grit to push me along the course. No one took that burden of motion away; no motor was present to relieve the repetitive circling of my churning legs. But Ruth was with me, beside me, behind me, and at times leading me. We drafted each other, pressed each other, prodded, encouraged and cursed with one another. We felt the burning in our quadriceps and the numbness of our exposed skin, the exhilaration of tucking in and screaming down a twisting descent and the anguish of the uphill climb.

We needed each other, were compelled by our competitive spirit past our imagined limits of exhaustion. We digested the pleasure, the danger, and the staggering self inflicted pain. We came back for more, time and again, together, until our legs lacked the strength to stand. Riding with Ruth was like making love in a free fall.

And sometimes in my fitful paralyzed moments that have replaced what I used to call sleep, I still feel an unexpected spike of joy. I sense the frigid wind and see Ruth slipping past me, smiling as she cuts downhill. She is forming a tight tuck, pulling her back horizontal, saying something that I cannot hear. She doesn’t get far ahead until she is beside me once more, repeating her pass. My heart skips each time I see her. I am so surprised to have found her again. I am thrilled by her closeness. The months have been kind. She is a bloom of health. I reach out with my left hand to feel her form rush by.

Then I notice the chill. It is not August, it is May. My heart beats rapidly in confusion and I can no longer pull her beside me to repeat her pass. I cannot hold her back and I begin to sense what I cannot bear. Something will happen. I know it. I try to retrieve her. I have foreknowledge that is making me breathless. Somehow I fear that this may be all I have left, and in an instant I decide that it is enough. It is enough for us to be like this, together on the downhill, side by side, Ruth smiling, over and over, until the end of time. But it will not be. She is too strong. She cannot hear me. She pulls too far away, leaning into the serpentine switchbacks, balancing her life on less than two centimeter’s width of Michelin rubber.

I have convinced myself that she didn’t see the truck, that she felt the fear of impending fatal contact for only an instant. The glancing blow that threw her from the road sent her high and sidelong, spinning her body, sending rider and bike off into the woods. I believe she was so disoriented that she never realized what had happened. She certainly never saw the tree. She held on instinctively, squeezing the hand grips, waiting to land, watching ground and sky swirl curiously around as a brief feeling of weightlessness enveloped her.

Shortly after Ruth’s accident – I forget the exact day because the time she lay in intensive care blurred together into one long homologous hell that liquified the distinction between hours and minutes – Joseph sat with me in the hospital chapel and broached the subject of burial.

“They’re waiting upstairs for your word,” he said softly. His hand was on my shoulder. I had not noticed him until he sat beside me. “And then we need to start making arrangements for her. For a resting place.”

I had wandered down to the darkened shoe box of a room on the ground floor following the neurosurgeon’s final assessment of brain function. How long had I been staring into the backlit stained glass window, my thoughts frozen along with my emotions?

Life support was pointless, I was told. There was simply nothing left to buttress, no aid to give while healing could occur, because all that needed to be healed had been destroyed. “She’s gone.” I can’t remember who first said those words, but I remember Joseph’s hand on my slumped shoulder as the surreal became real and my puzzlement turned to nausea.

The next thing I remember is touching her. I was back in the ICU, the stained glass replaced by Venetian blinds that hid the sunlight. I laced her fingers through mine as Joseph nodded and the respirator was switched off. It is the worst of all my memories, those next few minutes as her breathing quickly became labored. I felt her fingers twitch and jerk as I stood helplessly by and watched her body struggle to swim in the sea of the living.

Her auburn hair had been shaved away and at the edges of the snow white gauze that wrapped her head like a snug bonnet, I could see the horrid rents of cuts and incisions held together by metal staples. Staples. They had put her back together the way a child might clumsily try to repair a broken doll. They had patched her wounds with glue and tape and staples and that was the best that could be done. She inhaled with a raspy clicking noise, and with each breath a pulse of pain and desperation shoved into my gut like a lance.

“Jesus!” I cried out to the resident physician. “Isn’t there something you can do for her?”

“Yes, Lord Jesus,” said Joseph. His voice was unbroken. He was entreating the Lord to take his daughter home and he placed his hands on her forehead as he prayed.

“We can give her more morphine in her line to ease the pain,” said the resident. He was just a kid really, half a decade younger than I, and he was standing in his blue scrubs and long white coat, looking exhausted and awkward, as if he had lived this same scene too many times in a young life and feared that he would never know what to do or say.

This cannot be happening, I thought, and even as I thought it I realized the triteness. As her breathing grew weaker and her fingers moved less, I, like Joseph, began to talk to God. I commanded him to bring her back, to take the past few days away with his mighty hand and to simply let this horror be undone. I pleaded that I would be his servant and I warned him of my fury if he chose not to intervene.

Ruth stopped breathing thirteen minutes after being taken off the respirator. Joseph closed her eyes and thanked God for his mercy. I don’t know when I quit squeezing her hand. I don’t remember anything about the following few hours.

I was home that evening. Joseph and I were sitting in my living room, he on the couch and I in the matching easy chair. The sun was setting through the large picture window, casting red light on the family photos that smiled from the mantle.

“I don’t want to leave you here alone tonight, David.”

What precipitated his comment was lost on me. Evidently, we had been conversing, but I was at that moment like a man wakened from sleep. “Okay,” was all I could reply. In the few seconds of silence I began to comprehend what had transpired. My mind was flooded with gall.

“Do you want me to stay?”

“I’ll be okay, Joseph.”

“Can I do anything for you?”

“You can give me back my goddamn wife,” I said calmly.

Joseph slept in the guestroom that night. He refused to let me close my bedroom door. I noticed the next morning that my razor and my steak knives were missing.

Peak Form sends me greetings from the Colorado Rockies along with my order of their exclusive micro sized cams, Micro Blades they call them. They are tiny retractable anchors that can be plunged into a horizontal rock crevice. The spring loaded metal teeth expand out to fill the fissure and hold the weight of a climber. The smallest AAA size is designed for openings of less than a half of an inch.

Peak Form makes the best micros in North America. I have used their Dura Cams, a larger product line with more holding power for most of my test climbs in the Red River Gorge, an hour out of Lexington. Everything from my harness to my equipment sling is Peak Form, purchased from the Bluegrass Climbing Outlet. BCO didn’t have Micro Blades though, so I had to go online.

I take the cams out of the plastic case and hold each size in my hand. Going into my climb blind, I have had to plan for a variety of possible openings, so I ordered two complete kits of Micro Blades. They are indeed as thin as knife blades, flexible and amazingly strong. The reinforced nylon loops are color coded for size to eliminate guesswork. With proper placement they will help me reach my goal. In my kit, I see a free can of lubricating oil. That’s good business. After all, I’m a new mail order customer. Perhaps they would have saved the can if they knew that this was to be my last order as well as my first.

On the lid of the kit is a short product statement, written in italics. Fits in the shallowest seams to allow for multiple anchor points. Never hang your life on a single piece of equipment! Words to live by. I’d hate to die in the ascent before I had the chance to reach the top and kill myself.

Thinking back on it now, I should have seen the portents. It was all in front of me. Vultures circled overhead as we unloaded our bikes at Masterson Station Park. Ruth’s chain came off and she cut her hand on the gear wheel sliding it back on. I gave her a rag from my saddle bag while I looked for a bandage in the car. “Careful. You’re bleeding for two, now,” I told her.

She shouldn’t have been riding that day in the first place. For days she had been vomiting, complaining about a virus that wouldn’t go away. I’m not sure at what point she bought a pregnancy test.

“I’m not sure you should ride with me,” I told her.

“Are you kidding? It’s Saturday. We always ride on Saturday.”

“Things are different, now.”

“Not yet. Give it a few months.”

“Uh, huh.”

We were smiling. It hurts to think of how much we smiled. As we left for the park on Saturday morning, she dashed off an e-mail to Joseph: Have a good morning, Grandpa!

“Shouldn’t we wait before we tell people?” I asked.

“I have a peace about it. Just don’t die and make me a single mom.”

“I promise,” I said. And then we both laughed. “Seriously, I thought everyone always says to wait six weeks before making announcements.”

“What’s six weeks?” said Ruth. “The blink of an eye.”

My God, what I wouldn’t give now for the blink of her eye.

Henry Clay stands above the treeline, twelve feet tall and illuminated by floodlights at night. He looks over the city of Lexington like a vigilant sentinel from atop a 120 foot limestone Corinthian column. The monument rises in the same cemetery where my Ruth rests, next to her mother in a spot originally intended for Joseph.

The subject of Ruth’s burial site is an awkward one for Joseph and me. When he suggested using his plot for Ruth, he did so and I agreed in the shared awareness that neither of us would be laid to rest beside the woman we had loved. There were only the two plots. No more. I have wondered less about why he offered than about why I accepted. Corporeal matters seem to weigh lightly on Joseph. In his advancing age, he has chosen to focus his attention on the spirit and the afterlife.

My feet, however, are firmly planted on terra firma. So, it bothers me, my decision to allow my wife to sleep at her mother’s side. I imagine myself cut off from her forever. I want to cling to her body the way I cling to her memory. The fact that I can no longer touch her is at the core of my… restlessness? Anger.

“At the resurrection, there will be no husbands or wives,” Joseph tells me. “We’ll be like the angels.” His face glows when he says things like this. It is as if he has seen it. For all I know, he has.

“Then I’ll have to make sure to see Ruth again before that happens,” I reply.

Joseph places his hands on my shoulders. “Ruth is in heaven right now, David.”

“I haven’t seen the Son of Man descending in a cloud,” I tell him as gently as I can manage. “And I still see plenty of goats among the sheep, Joseph.” It is all I can do to not cuss a blue streak. Part of me, a part increasing in influence, wants to strike him repeatedly across the face. I feel like I’m losing control again, so our goodbye is curt. I know exactly where Ruth is: she’s in the Lexington Cemetery. I know, because I closed her casket and let dirt fall from my palm onto the polished aluminum lid the day they buried her.

Hiding in the cemetery until the gates are locked and the guards grow complacent turns out to be the easiest part of my task. I unloaded my gear, including my extension ladder, in the late afternoon, stowing it behind some thick bushes and covering the lot with a camouflaged tarpaulin. After that, I simply drove my car out the main entrance, parked it on the street, and hiked back inside.

In the darkness I blend into the scenery, like one more chiseled monument among the grave markers. When I feel confident that I am the only living breathing man outside of the guardhouse, I make my way through the plentiful shadows to the site of my stash. I slip out of my black clothing, revealing my mottled gray undersuit, and strap on my bandolier and climbing harness. I note with satisfaction how my carabineers and cams are neatly clipped to my belt according to size. I look like a professional, like I’m ready to ascend El Capitan. For the first time in weeks, I realize that I am taking pride in my appearance. This is a good sign. It bodes well of success.

I am close to my target, and hoisting the ladder overhead, I cover the distance to the Henry Clay monument in less than half a minute. Within the ten foot high pedestal of the column are the tombs of the Great Compromiser and his wife. They lie together as if sleeping, but their beds, no matter how close, are separate. I give pause after telescoping my ladder and leaning it against the side of the mausoleum. Who am I to presume a greater supply of wisdom than the auspicious senator? Yet, my plan will succeed. I will achieve reunification.

It is intensely tedious work ascending the column. So much so that I lose track not only of time but of space as well. Only the heavy tug of gravity reminds me by way of discomfort that I am out of balance with the physical laws of nature. I am resisting invisible forces which vie to limit my position. I shift in my harness and tap another climbing nail into position. The rock is similar to what I have worked with down in the gorge, and I am encouraged by how well my practice has prepared me.

The Micro Blades are better than advertised; they snap into place like tiny metal miracles. But, the column is for the most part free from rifts or cracks. My hands search the fluted lines for imperfections and find only superficial chipping. I am having to drive more pins than anticipated and begin to worry forty feet from the capital that I may not have brought enough.

I had reasoned that the sectional striations formed by the separations between the barrels of the column would give me the latitude to circumnavigate each section and find the best approach for each succeeding piece. This strategy has been even more crucial than I realized. By repeatedly replotting my course, I can utilize fewer pins which are in short supply, and use more micro cams which are extractable. By extracting my holds as I climb, I am making it difficult for anyone to follow.

The sun is breaking over the horse farms out toward Winchester as I near the top. I reach upward and touch the overhanging flourish upon which the statue rests. It will be challenging to maneuver around this impediment. I have inverted myself in training off longer patches of overhanging sandstone and granite, though nothing quite as horizontal as this man made decorative lip.

The wind has picked up considerably as morning dawned. Lexington is such a damned windy place, full of bluster and energy that serves no good purpose. Pausing to consider my next move, I sweep my eyes across the flat paved expanse of what used to be bluegrass. Intermittent swatches of vegetation dot the city. I see a few cars that are not using headlights and it occurs to me that I am now nakedly visible, like a wart on the side of a giant finger.

I begin to work feverishly, placing Micro Blades along the perimeter of the shaft and the capital. Once my carabineers are clipped I sling my body left along the trailing line of rope until I hit the terminal point of tension. Kicking off from the column, I carom to the right, kicking off in succession until nearly at the right terminal. With a final frog-like jump I fly off the column upward at an angle, reaching my chalk covered hands to meet the edge of the overhang.

It is a drastic move borne from frustration for below me I can see the flashing blue lights of a cruiser. Hanging from both hands I begin swinging my body side to side. Like a monkey I grapple and throw a foot over the lip of the base. With an effort I had not known I possessed I pull my body higher.

Voices rise to meet me, shrill commands to desist mixed with the squawk of a police band radio. For a moment I dangle like an overripe bundle of grapes. I feel the fatigue of a full night’s exertion and the despondency of being discovered. I want to drop and stop the whole endeavor. The failure of my mission seems complete.

But, I grit my teeth and hurl my tired head above the lip. Then my forearm is resting on the inclined shelf. I strain more deeply and feel the muscles in my upper back wrench in pain. Then my knee is over the edge, then my entire body. I have arrived. Late, but I have arrived. I rise to my feet and hug the hardened calves of Henry Clay.

The noise intensifies below. Now a television van is pulling up to the pedestal of the column. Blue lights are multiplying. I am oblivious to what is being said through the bullhorn. It sounds indiscriminate, like the amplified bleating of sheep.

My legs are wobbly and numb from hours in the harness and the descending slope of the statue’s base make it problematic to stand without constantly sliding. The climbing shoes are not exactly best suited to the present environment, so I begin to focus on the endgame. Cops or no cops, TV or no TV, I still have one more facet of my plan to enact. Unbuckling my harness with my free right hand, I gently slide it off my right leg and then my left. This takes considerable time and effort, because it requires me to twice rest my weight on one foot. I keep my breathing steady and work methodically, much as I have during the previous long ascent.

My carabineers are next. In a matter of seconds I am completely free. All that is left is the final plunge from 40 vertical yards. I notice that I am not standing on a side near Ruth’s grave. I will have to slide around the base and move my embrace to the senator’s knees and then the right side of his frozen figure. It will be a hazardous journey; I can see clearly that the path along the rim will take me over an uncomfortably looking slick spot to the fore of the statue while the distinguished Mr. Clay’s posture by being balanced on his rear leg leaves the opportunity for a tight grip at less than optimal.

If it is not enough that my mouth is dry and my heart escalating toward tachycardia, I hear a noise that for the first time causes me to break my concentration. An obnoxious high pitched wet plea is being cast toward heaven. I glance down to see a red Ford Taurus among the vehicular crunch amid the parking lot. While there are many red Fords in the world, one of them is owned by my father-in-law.

Joseph, a man whom I had never seen shed a tear, looks distraught even from a vertical distance. His face is wet, the shine reflecting in the ancillary light from the police cruisers. From a great height I can see contortions of anguish.

“Why didn’t you cry like that for Ruth?” I shout. By saying this I am accusing him of playacting, of a ruse, of maintaining an elaborate disconcern for his daughter’s life and the matters of this earth. We know one another well enough to know where to place the tip of the knife, though I am sorry for having said it the moment it clears my lips.

Joseph, of all people has loved me on my own terms. But has he loved me most because I married his daughter?

“David. You’re all I have left! You’re my son. Don’t take away my son!” His words pierce me as I’m sure they were crafted to do. I try to shut it off, the unfathomable interference of Joseph, the disclosure of sunlight, the failure of my purpose. It was one thing to dive into the earth with only my wife to notice, but quite another for channel 13 to be aiming a steadycam my way.

“Ruth and Kay were taken from me!” blares Joseph.

“Taken by God!” I shout. “Taken by God.”

My foot slips and I scramble to remain upright. Why do we choke on the food that sustains us? Why does the oxygen we breathe eventually kill us, poisoning our bodies with free radicals? Why does the warm light of the sun tear our DNA apart? Why did Ruth pass me that day? At that particular moment?

“How can I be angry with my maker, David? What you’re doing is not an act of God. It’s suicide. It’s murder.”

“Maybe I’d like to do it on my own terms,” I scream so he can hear it.

“I’ll be a witness, David.” His words are so filled with genuine pathos and grief, that I am slapped by their power though they are thin and crisp by the time they reach my ears.

“You’ll make us all witnesses!”

I grip tighter to the left side of Henry Clay. He had famously said, “I would rather be right than be president,” but had he become president he might have been able to prevent the Mexican-American War and thereby save his son who died fighting in it. He knew the unfathomable pain that accompanies intransigence. Now he looks down over the cities of dead and living, his gaze never strays from the horizon. His column is twenty feet taller than Trajan’s in Rome.

“That’s got to be some compensation for having never lived in the White House,” I whisper and an involuntary grin stretches my cheeks. The wind is my only answer save the electronic garble from below and the sound of fervent prayer. “What should I do?” I ask.

I am not impatient for the senator’s reply. What kind of compromise can there be with death?

WILLIAM D. GILL lives in Kentucky with his wife and children.  His writing has appeared in storySouth, The Scrambler, and SNReview.  His stories Confidence and The Monkey and the Diamond were published in the United Kingdom.  He loves the three Rs -- running, writing and reading -- and wishes he could work on just one project at a time, but has long since given up on actually living out that particular fantasy.


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