Man o'War by Rayne Ayers-Debski
From the window of our cottage on Florida Bay, my husband Jake watches the November sun sink. With his good hand, he touches the glass as if to try to stop it. I’m sitting on the couch behind him, one leg tucked under the other. I don’t want him to see me watching—since his stroke he’s uncomfortable with my premature grief—so I lower my head closer to my knitting.
“No crying, Jane,” he says.
The blanket I’m building is an amalgamation of thirty years of leftover yarn: pink and yellow and blue from the kids’ sweaters, red from my scarves, and grey from Jake’s socks. It’s done except for the binding. Working on it has kept me busy in the evenings and given me an excuse to hang onto our lives. “Remember this color,” I say. “I used it for that sweater I made for Kim when she went to Maine.” Sometimes he plays along.
Tonight he picks up his glass of Haig & Haig Pinch and drains it. In his earlier years he was leonine. “No eulogy, rosary or flags,” he says.
“Got it,” I say, unwilling to meet his eyes. Instead I look past him a couple hundred yards to the shadow of the barrier island where we used to go for picnics, our feet skirting the washed up man o’wars, their blue, luminescent bodies and venom-filled tentacles strewn along the beach.
I pack up my knitting to preclude what I know is coming next, but I’m not fast enough. “Lay my body on the boat,” he says. “Push it into oblivion.” He wants gulls to sing hymns, salt to anoint his wounds; sun to burn the body that has betrayed him.
I nod as if I will do this. We both know I won’t. With his cane for support, he shuffles to the patio door, his left side an unwanted anchor. “Useless,” he says stepping onto the patio. I don’t know if he’s talking about me or him.
I do know better than to follow him outside. Let him do things for himself the doctors said. Make him food he can’t choke on, exercise his limbs, play word games. For the last six months I’ve grilled tilapia, poured glasses of pinot gris, and rubbed his legs with herbal stimulants. My best friend Kathryn said to forget about sex, but still I press my body against his, stroke him, and take his weakened penis in my mouth. He is twenty years older than me, and he’s the only one I’ve listened to for thirty years, but now I cannot do what he wants. The only thing I can do is let him sit on the dock in the moonlight and listen to the water urgently lap against his fishing skiff. I pour myself a glass of scotch and settle into bed with a book.
At dawn, the gulls awaken me with their bickering. I reach beside me. Nothing. I sprint into the living room and out to the dock. His boat is gone. My heart threatens to tear through my chest; my head pounds so hard everything is shrouded in black. I listen for a small boat engine and hear nothing. I shove the dinghy and oars into the water and row toward the island. With every pull of the oars I’m more and more afraid. Why wasn’t I more vigilant? Why didn’t I hide the boat keys? An osprey’s scream pierces the air; the incoming tide tries to push me back home. Sweat pours down my face until I’m certain I’m nothing but salt. I can finally make out sandpipers darting through the tidal pools ahead of me.
On the lea side of the island, our skiff dances unmoored in the water. It’s empty. I exhale and wipe my face with my shirt sleeve. My neck is stiff and my shoulders ache. My hands are numb from rowing. A heron picks his way along the shoreline. And then I see it, the rows of pinks and blues and greys atop a hump in the sand.
Slowly I row the dink ashore and step out, careful to avoid the man o’wars. His slack body is peaceful. In the grey light his face looks youthful, and he’s Jake, the man who brought home my favorite ice cream, who taught me to swing dance, and who guided my hand on the tiller to keep us on course. I lower myself down next to him and cover us both with the blanket. Gently I brush the sand from his face. I hope it’s enough.
© Rayne Ayers-Debski, 2016
Rayne Ayers-Debski is the author of numerous short stories. Her work has appeared in Mslexia, The Summerset Review, Necessary Fiction, flashquake, and other print and online publications. She is the editor of two anthologies published by Main Street Rag. She grew up in NJ and Florida. After years of corporate anxiety, she now spends time working on a collection of stories or hiking the Appalachian Trail. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and two dogs.
Man o'War was read by Kristin Calgaro for the Short & Sweet Flash Fiction edition on 3rd August 2016