Her cane was a twist of finished walnut. It pronounced wet smacks as she hurried across the earth. Brittle bones and a loose blanket of skin left her relying on her cane more and more. As grey tendrils of hair scurried about her face, she thought gratefully of her walnut cane.
Tidebrook Cemetery in the late fall was littered with warm leaves beneath a low mist. Headstones sat in the background like distant humps through cataract-afflicted vision. Crows hopped along the damp grass in a murder, fighting over the worms that were fighting over the buried. The little old lady fought her way to the nearest bench, willing herself not to think of six below.
She let out a soft sigh of delight as she reached her destination. There was a time she could frolic along hills without a single care. As she aged, the lady’s imagination had given embodiment to time – a hulking figure carrying a hatchet used to chop off the years of people. Then she remembered where she was and smiled ruefully; despite feeling disrespected by the cruelties of time, she was still standing. Though time had stretched her out, gotten its hits in and left her skin saggy and worn, she was still breathing. She shut her eyes to relish her own survival and sat down, willing herself not to envision the hatchet’s relentless swinging.
When her eyes reopened, she was startled by the sight of a young man sitting beside her. It seemed time had stripped her of her hearing as well as her mobility.
“Ah, young man! I am much too old to be snuck up on!”
The boy, smirking, bowed his head in apology. Just then the lady thought he looked very pale. The space around his eyes was a sleepless shadow. Other than this, his skin was pristine porcelain. Once again, she could not help but reflect on youth’s glowing and unblemished appearance. It made her feel like a soggy scab next to him.
“Oh, but are you alright? You look ill!”
“As well as I can be, I suppose.”
His voice was calm yet hoarse. Hairs at the nape of her neck stiffened. He appeared to be on the verge of manhood– as if stuck in that last crucial stage just before it. Goosebumps ran up her arms that had nothing to do with the autumnal wind. The boy stared toward the graves.
The lady cleared her throat and placed her hands atop her cane, one over the other. They sat in misty silence, the strange sick boy and the little old lady. If not for the distant cawing of crows and the rustling foliage, the pair might have entered a bubble of time where they were entirely alone. The lady argued with herself that no one was alone in a cemetery. She pulled her shawl tighter against her shoulders at the idea.
“It’s cold today. What brings you out?” the boy inquired, rather brazenly.
The lady clicked her tongue. She couldn’t quite rein in her irritability and felt slightly ashamed. The boy had been kind enough, even if sickly and quiet, yet she felt his question inappropriate. What could he know of loss? Of grief? She turned a sharp eye on him. He did not return the look, but… there she felt again something in his face that seemed off. Definitely unwell, she thought.
“I am here to… pay respect to someone.”
At this, the boy looked back at her. She turned away quickly, knowing the burning in her cheeks would betray some privacy.
“I see. A family member, perhaps?”
The reddening of the lady’s cheeks deepened. She felt something angry rising in her throat at the way he went off unashamed and prying. Another of youth’s afflictions. She cleared her throat. Despite her indignation, she couldn’t bring herself to scold the boy. He closed his eyes. The cawing of the crows had stopped, as if suddenly aware of the pair on the bench. As if the lady’s temper had interrupted some important avian squabbling.
“I can’t remember,” she admitted.
This made the boy smile, which made the lady want to weep.
“Time is cold. Cold as ice. It will freeze you right up after enough of it has passed.”
The lady peered solemnly at the ground as the words sunk in. It struck her as odd that the young boy would say such a thing. A moment ago she had felt affronted, slightly incensed by how tactless the boy had been. Yet now she had to reconcile that embarrassment had been a part of that reaction. When she spoke again her words were as soft as the murmuring trees behind her.
“How could I have forgotten?”
The boy sighed – less with impatience and more with commiseration.
“Well, dig deep! Tell me something about him.”
The lady looked up to the sky. A sudden gust sent leaves twisting wildly down. Over her shoulder, the mist swallowed the world beyond the cemetery. She held her eyes shut tight. A natural scent of spice hit her nose, like a sprinkle of cinnamon carried on a crisp fall breeze. In her mind, she saw an open window. Steam issued from the window in lazy streaks, breaking for the sky. Through the window…
“We were baking a pie,” she said to the boy, breaking from her reverie.
“Mmm. Apple? Only, that’s my favorite.”
The lady smiled and nodded.
Her eyes closed again as she willed her mind to transport her back through her memory. Back then she was much younger, blind to the injustices of nature. Time had not yet passed along that wisdom. It was a happy space. Warm like spiced apple pie, which was his favorite.
Here her memory faltered. She clearly remembered being with someone dear to her, only–
“His name,” said the lady, “was…”
The boy didn’t smile at this. He turned away from the lady.
“Well, that’s okay.”
The lady frowned at him. Was he belittling her? Did he pity her aged mind and its shortcomings as it failed her? If her pride had allowed, she might have cried. But she knew better than to satisfy youth’s sick sense of superiority. How could this young man possibly understand a hazy memory?
“You were baking. Did it come out?” the boy pressed on.
“It was a long time ago.”
Somehow her tongue sharpened her tone without permission. She meant to sound nonchalant, meant to wave off the topic as if it were no longer important. The boy opened his mouth to say something, but she cut him off.
“Aren’t you sick? Maybe you should get going.”
The boy closed his mouth. For a moment that seemed frozen, he considered the old lady.
“It’s not something I worry about anymore.”
She stared at him. The whole situation seemed suddenly ridiculous to her. Something told her she should leave, yet the sight of the boy held her transfixed. In her mind, down a curving lane filled with bulging roots and overgrown shrubbery, she fell back to the happy place:
It had been a similar fall day back then, damp with the thawed frost of the morning, yet comfortable. Not so cold that they couldn’t keep the window open to air out the sweltering kitchen. The lady– back then a young woman– smiled at the rush of heat from the oven. Across from her stood her boy. His back was to her as he worked at a countertop, slicing apples. The knife he used was old and dull, with a chip at the tip and a few rust stains along the blade’s edge. The lady noticed as much when she stepped up behind him to examine his work. She placed a hand on his shoulder.
“Oh, honey, why don’t you grab a different knife?”
Beneath a dark curl flashed the hint of a smile on the boy’s face. He did not look up nor discontinue the slicing.
“It’s the biggest. It works.”
The woman let out an amused sigh.
“Maybe. But a sharpened blade is much more effective.”
The boy did not respond to this. She could tell by the sound of the slicing that he was having a hard time. The sound was disjointed as the blade got stuck in the apple flesh and he forced it through, instead of the quick and smooth carving that comes with a clean cut. All the same, it produced that final thwack against the board following each slice. He was happy with his work.
She turned away, deciding to let him keep his satisfaction when his breathing became labored. The slicing stopped.
He burst into a coughing fit, stepping back from the counter. The knife crashed against the tiled floor.
Startled, the woman turned back to aid her boy. She guided him to the sink, where she filled a glass of water. His fit continued.
“Honey, did you take your medicine this morning? Did you do those exercises?”
The boy nodded fervently as his coughing became more violent. When at last the fit subsided, the boy turned to the woman. Tears streamed down his face and his cheeks were a burning rouge.
“Mom,” his voice a croak, “it hurts.”
In the cemetery, the little old lady sat shaking her head. A cold sting on her cheeks alerted her to unbidden tears. She turned to the boy. Through a wavering blur, she saw the sad smile buried within his lightless eyes.
She couldn’t get the words out. They stuck in her throat like some virulent bulb glued to her tonsils.
In her mind, Time’s hatchet came down again and again and again. I’ve lost it, she thought, eyes bulging. Yet… her boy sat before her. A buried memory made manifest. Perhaps tarnished by age, but still readily visible to her.
The boy stood from the bench and faced her.
“Time passes, and so do our memories. Youth fades and our minds forget,” he said.
Tears streaming, the lady looked up at him. Her boy. Time had stripped away her memory, and she felt a sort of guilt that was nearly palpable.
“Time is cruel.”
The boy reached down and grabbed the lady’s hands. She found that his touch was weightless. While chilling her to her fragile bones, his hands also brought her a deep sense of comfort. She stopped crying and stood from the bench. Her walnut cane fell to the ground with a soft squelch.
They began to walk away from the bench, the boy leading the lady by the hand. The cawing of the crows resumed as the pair walked by, encouraging them through the mist. As they made their way, the lady noticed the fog becoming denser. It obscured the path, yet she felt confident in the boy’s guidance.
All at once, they stopped in front of a small tombstone. The boy turned to face the lady and let go of her hand.
“Time can be cruel, but it is also a gift. It dulls the sharp edges of grief. As time falls away, the shadows that cut will rust and chip,” said the boy, “You will forget me again.”
With this wisdom, he bowed his head. The lady tried to take his hands again.
“Oh, now you’re being terrible. I’m not yet blind! I can see light, and dark. And now I can see in between!”
Once again the boy smiled sadly at her, then faced his monument.
“You needed to know that it’s okay to let time carry you on.”
She wanted to protest, but her words came as if uncontrolled.
“I’ll see you again soon.”
She blinked back another wave, and the boy was gone.
She turned away, willing herself not to think of her walnut cane– willing herself to believe that she could overcome time’s harsh gifts and accept how it eventually fell away from her. Back through the dense fog, she carried on.