Free Fall


The pain comes as I walk. It’s a twinge and then a spasm in my knees. I’m not sure if it’s going to get worse. Maybe the pain is like thunder off in the distance and there’s a chance the storm will fade before it gets close. I walk slower, but don’t want to stop. Stopping admits that the pain decides things for me, but walking is a sorrowful thing when it hurts.

I walk, slower now, the street quiet, the sky clear, and despite the pain, there is beauty in muscle, bone, heart and lungs working to move me forward and that I can still do this at eighty. I pass a newspaper not yet retrieved from a driveway. The breeze lifts its corners as I read the headline, Refugees Flood Europe. Five thousand miles from where I walk, refugees make for the ocean, scramble on flimsy boats and clutch their children as they sail toward a distant shoreline. They must have hope when they start until they reach a brand new country and discover that even nearly dying on the journey isn’t enough for them to gain entry. The pleasure of being out in the morning shivers, trembles and is gone. The news gets worse each day and I try not to think about it, but to ignore it is to feel unmerciful. I have survivor’s guilt I hadn’t expected, not this late and not for so many.

My house is around the corner. The pain in my knees has faded and I pick up my pace until I reach my driveway. Exertion has made my face damp with sweat, but I want to keep moving. I retrieve the broom and dustpan from the shed in my backyard and return to the street. Currents of wind and rain have filled my gutter with sand, stones, cigarette butts, and a single gleaming strand of aluminum foil and I begin to sweep.

The lady on the blue bicycle comes into the court. I see her ride past my house every once in a while, her feet pedaling so slowly and rhythmically that to watch her is to be lulled into a state of peace. She says hello and I say hello to her. She has lovely olive skin and gray hair the breeze sweeps back from her face. Her profile is delicate with a crosshatch of lines around her eyes and mouth. I guess that she is close to my age. There’s a trace of an accent in her voice, but I can’t quite place it. She moves on to the end of the court and turns around, her pedaling still slow and steady as she looks straight ahead.

The pile of sand glitters at my feet as I sweep. Is it mica that makes the sand gleam? I hear a slight squeak of metal upon metal and turn around. The woman on the bike is stopping in front of my house as she points at the cherry tree in my front yard. It’s beginning to bloom, the branches dipping with the weight of the blossoms. It will be beautiful when it’s in full bloom, but when the blossoms fall from the tree I’ll track them into my house on the soles of my shoes for weeks. It’s my rite of spring. She tells me it’s a lovely tree, one of her favorites in the neighbourhood, and I thank her. Now that she’s spoken so many words I hear her French accent. Her accent gives elegance to the familiar English words she speaks. She tells me she loved cherry trees the most when she was a girl since they were the only softness amid the destruction after the Germans invaded. I picture her as a young child, the Nazis close enough for her to hear the scrape of their boots and the clatter of their guns, her homeland made strange and dangerous. I don’t tell her it must have been terrible for her, but I shake my head. The older I’ve become this gesture says more than words.

She tells me the cherry trees in her homeland were full of cherries. She asks if my tree renders fruit. I admire how she uses the word render. I can’t remember the last time I heard it used in casual conversation. No, I say, no cherries grow on this tree.

When I was young I used to believe that all the tyrants and dictators were finally dead when the war ended and that I was alive in the best of times. I wonder if this woman ever believed the same.

Standing under the late morning sky, I want peace and that clean feel of the world when I was young. There are just a few clouds in the sky and a silver crust of the moon. It’s the moon that makes me remember learning about zeniths when I was a girl sitting in a hushed planetarium. We all have a point marked high above us, our own zenith, I remember learning that day. It thrilled me to know this and I saw that point above me as a tiny silver spark in the blackness. My imagination carried me away back then, but that spark made me feel noted, present. But there are no sparks. I lost that notion a long time ago, but I think of them all the same.

The French woman seats herself delicately upon her bike and grips the handlebars as she prepares to continue on her way. Her eyes move from the cherry tree to me as I stand with broom in hand. She tells me to have a good day. I tell her to do the same and wish I could send her off by saying something in French, but my mind is blank. Au revoir comes to me too late as she rounds the corner and is gone.

I return to my sweeping, filling the dustpan with sand, cigarette butts, stones and that single strand of aluminum foil I’ve managed to capture. As I finish my work, I picture the silver spark of my zenith as it moves back and forth in the darkness far above me. A silver spark slides slow and straight above the French woman as she pedals toward home. The refugees in their swaying, rickety boats return to my mind. My fragile contentment fades. I imagine a spark above each of the refugees, marking them, making them present, but there’s no comfort in this, not in this tumbling free fall.

Denise Kline is retired from the U.S. Navy and lives in Virginia. She has been published in Onetitle and a handful of stones.