by Leslie Johnson
Something good happened this morning: a Blue Heron. It was standing on a rock in the river, quite a ways down. I don’t know too many birds, but I know the Great Blue Heron. That long neck, curved like a question mark. Tall legs like thin, jointed stilts. Very still.
I turned to a blank page in my journal, started sketching her.
Then suddenly! Her wings flared wide, like two magnificent fans, white center feathers flaring into ridges of deep blue-grey, and she lifted in the air and glided toward me. Such ease. Landing on another rock, she seemed to look right at me for an instant before her wings folded in, covering her sleek body like close-fitting armor. I was hypnotized, watching her dip her sharp beak deep into the water, searching for sustenance. Then with a quiet swishhh she sailed away, and I thought: a sign.
A good sign. It must be.
I like this chair. It’s an Adirondack, unpainted, the wood worn smooth, wide enough to pull up my feet and sit cross-legged when I draw or write. The spot’s shady, close to the bank of Rapid River. They named this whole place after it: Rapid River Recovery Retreat. Wouldn’t anyone think twice about putting the word “rapid” in the name of a treatment center? Especially when they preach patience from day one. They probably just couldn’t resist all the ‘R’s,’ the way they roll off the tongue.
Maybe it’s the water level, summer drought, because from my view, the river looks anything but rapid. I see barely a ripple on the wide expanse, more like a mirror of still clouds and treetops.
Next month, I’ll have my fortieth birthday here: lunch on the Retreat Deck at a table set with flowers and linens. Quiche and a salad and a cake. Ed will come, and I will eat. I’m already practicing with bites of scrambled eggs and small pieces of soft bacon and half-teaspoons of ice cream. I chew and swallow with my eyes closed, my hands clenching involuntarily into fists, and near my ear my counselor Minke says: I am kind and resilient…I care for myself with joy and ease. Her voice is supposed to be my voice in my head. I’m supposed to think these words, say them in my mind along with her as she says them, as I fight the urge to spit and gag.
During the years that Ed and I were trying to conceive, I considered myself recovered, but I’d backslide sometimes after a negative test. I’d stop eating for a few days, needing that lightness and clean clarity that comes with fasting, craving it like a high. When I finally got pregnant, though, with the help of a clomiphene prescription, I did as I was told. I took the vitamins and drank the supplements and logged my calories for the doctor and prayed like a true believer before the biweekly weighs-ins at his office that he required of me, to be on the safe side. I swear to God I did. Minke says that I have to keep reminding myself that this is true, and believing it.
After the miscarriage, we barely talked for over a month. This is what I’m supposed to be writing about in my journal today, sitting here in the Adirondack, instead of drawing a bird. For most of that time I stayed in bed while Ed occasionally appeared in the room like a specter, covering me with a blanket, bringing water glasses and fluoxetine, bowls of Kraft macaroni and cheese that would congeal like orange alien brains.
Then one day he got into bed beside me, stretching out sideways, not touching. He wore gym shorts and an undershirt, his calves and forearms pale on top of the navy comforter.
‘If you care about me at all any more,’ he said, ‘you’ll try. It’s time.’
I waited. I was waiting like an animal.
‘You’re not the only one.’ His voice quavered. ‘Who’s going through this…’
My fingers felt at the slippery silk sheet covering half of my head, swiped it away like a jungle leaf. My eyes blinked, coming out of the camouflage. I said, ‘You disgust me.’
He didn’t react, as if I hadn’t spoken. Had I? Or had I imagined my lips moving?
I tried again. ‘It makes me sick to be married to you.’
He was on his feet now, circling the bed, crying.
I wanted him to say it. To say I could never be a mother. Because I’d ruined myself. Ruined it all. I wanted him to scream it at me.
Instead he grabbed a piece of sliced banana from the useless plate of lunch on my end table, jabbing it against the closed line of my lips. ‘Please! Please, honey.’ I tried to swing my arms at him, kick my legs, but they were weak. Suddenly he stopped, wiping the banana mush from his fingers into his hair. He stepped back, shaking his head at me. He mumbled, ‘God, what am I doing?’ then moved quickly to his phone on the dresser and pressed the numbers for the ambulance.
I’m supposed to be writing all this down.
Instead I keep flipping back to my drawing of the heron, the Great Blue, adding a few feathery fringes to her rounded breast, some tall grasses to the riverbank in the background.
Seeing signs is a kind of magical thinking. Childlike. Step on a crack, break your mother’s back. I agree with Minke on that. There’s nothing wrong with contemplating the meaning of signs, she says, like a spirit animal or a falling star, as long as you see them as projections of your own intentions. Like avoiding on purpose a fracture in the pavement, or dragging your foot across it. Grinding it with the heel of your shoe.
With the side of the pencil lead, I add three small shapes to the river—lurking fish, not yet devoured.
Leslie Johnson’s fiction has been broadcast on NPR, awarded the Pushcart Prize, and published in literary anthologies and journals including The Threepenny Review, Glimmer Train, Colorado Review, december and Cimarron Review. Leslie teaches at the University of Hartford and conducts workshops for the Connecticut Office of the Arts.