Home > The Language of Hoofbeats(9)

The Language of Hoofbeats(9)
Catherine Ryan Hyde

Vernon clicked off the TV. It was sudden, and it surprised me. The silence was stunning after all that noise, and it should have been a relief, but it wasn’t, because there was something strange in the air between us. When I looked up at Vern, he was staring at me. He didn’t say a word, and he didn’t look mad, but it was a strange stare. In thirty-three years of marriage, I didn’t ever recall seeing quite that look on his face. He looked almost as though he was curious about something, something that could be found in me, and if he looked harder he might locate his answer.

He scratched near his hairline, and a few wisps from his thin, sandy island of remaining hair trailed onto his forehead, and he didn’t seem to notice. I wanted to brush them back into place. I restrained myself.

A few seconds passed, until I felt I couldn’t take it anymore.

“Why are you staring at me with that strange look on your face?” I asked him.

Here’s what he said for an answer: “What do you like, Clem?”

“That’s a very strange question,” I said, hoping to put the matter to rest.

“I don’t see why. You always used to like things, just like anybody else. You know. Before things got so bad like this.”

He didn’t say anything about Tina, or mention her name, but I swear I could hear it as clearly as if he had. When he stopped talking, I could hear the echo of her name, the one he didn’t say, hanging in the silence, like the way the peal of a church bell stays in the air long after the hand that rang it is gone. Except this was a bell no one had rung.

I didn’t know what to say. Words were stuck in my throat.

So he went on.

“Now we watch the news every day, and you tell me all the things you don’t like about the world. And you meet new people, and you tell me all the things you don’t like about them. But what do you like? I don’t even know anymore. I know you think I’m being sarcastic, or saying all this to criticize, but I’m not. I really want to know.”

That seemed to knock loose my ability to speak.

“This is a perfectly ridiculous line of questioning, and I refuse to dignify it with any kind of answer at all.”

“You sure it’s not because you don’t know, either?”

I jumped to my feet, brushing off the front of my dress as though it were spattered with this conversation and I could dismiss it just that easily.

“I won’t listen to another minute of this,” I said.

And I went into the kitchen to start that pork roast for our dinner.

After a few silent minutes, I heard him click the TV back on. The bass fisherman had caught something. I guess the show wouldn’t be interesting for long if they never did.

I woke up in the wee hours of the morning, already knowing something was wrong. Yet there was nothing to know it by. It reminded me of the times when Tina was little, and I’d wake up with a thought in my head—well, partway between a thought and a voice—saying I should go and check on her. And sure enough, by the time I got into her room, she’d have a fever or so much congestion it was almost hard for her to breathe.

A mother knows.

But I wasn’t even a mother anymore. Or was I? When you’ve only ever had one child, and she’s gone, are you still a mother? Maybe. But I don’t even know.

I opened my eyes.

Vern was sitting up on the edge of the bed, fully dressed. He had that thin jacket on, the one he usually wore to church. He wasn’t moving at all, just sitting there, his back to me, the slump in his spine and shoulders telling a tale I didn’t care to hear.

I lifted my head to get a better view, but my nightgown was all caught and bunched beneath me, and it held me at my throat—a more literal version of how trapped I suddenly felt. I didn’t want to lift up to rearrange it, because I didn’t want him to know I was up. Something bad was afoot, and I was convinced that all it needed to arrive was for me to prove myself awake.

As my eyes began to adjust to the light, I saw Vern’s big old leather suitcase sitting on the blanket chest at the foot of our bed—the one he used to take to that mountain lodge when he would go up there for a week of hunting. Another thing he used to do before, but no longer did. Another part of life lost, now that it was after.

I swear I made no movement or sound, but he turned his head. Just a little. Then he turned it away again.

“You’re awake,” he said. I couldn’t tell if he was relieved or disappointed.

“What are you doing up?” Then I immediately wished I hadn’t asked, because I knew he would tell me.

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