Westwind

Wake

Michael Tran

The lights drew nearer—brilliant yellow eyes unblinking, searching. Everything else withdrew into the black night, but the eyes careened toward him with inexorable speed. They burned upon his cheek and lit up his face in a white golden light until he could bear it no longer.

He closed his eyes and let go, waiting, waiting for an end—

Eiric blinked. The bedroom hung with a pregnant silence. Outside, sheets of rain steadily buried the sidewalks under a deep grey. He closed his eyes and focused on the warmth of his comforter, trying hard to drift off to sleep. But he knew there was no use. Eiric looked around him; everything in the room held its collective breath, waiting for her to come home. Open packets of Nytol littered the rosewood coffee table. From open pages of old photo albums Mora smiled, eyes always a laughing dark brown. Beyond that, the upright Steinway invited dust to rest on its keys.

The bed was cold on the other side where she used to lay, and Eiric thought of those mornings he would wake for work and watch her sleeping. He’d trace the freckled triangle limned under her eyes and follow her eyebrows as they frowned peacefully with each breath she drew in. But these images had blurred, reflections in a rippled pond. Eiric now remembered his Mora only as he had seen her last.

It had been a small viewing, at the mortuary home before the funeral mass. Maybe it was the faint smell of formaldehyde he imagined or the fluorescent white lighting overhead, but she looked artificial. The blush on her unblemished skin could not hide the pallor of her cheeks, nor could her auburn hair—worn down and combed to the right side—disguise where her skull had been crushed in. No one seemed to notice anything wrong about the setting of her features but Eiric, though he did not say anything. It was his last time with Mora but Eiric did not speak nor did he cry; he only stared at her grey rubber-mask face.

Eiric did not cry at her funeral either. That Sunday it had been raining and guests shivered in procession as the high winds knocked about their tenuous umbrellas. He caught only fragments of the priest’s prayers—here “walk in” then “shadow of death”—for the wind roared in his ears and the pelting raindrops thudded on umbrellas. As valedictory flowers were dropped into her grave, Eiric thought of the way Mora would feign sleep. On nights he had come home late, she would lie there with eyes clenched tight and lips pursed tensely as he undressed for bed. Boo! she would say when the time was right. Did I scare you? And he wouldn’t answer but would smile as his heart quickened. Now Eiric waited for her to emerge from the grave— like some escapist from a locked water tank— all smiles, saying Gotcha! He didn’t believe it was real. He waited and waited in patient silence until he stood alone over the elevated patch of grass that marked her grave. The deep, resonant tolling of the church’s tenor bell finally broke his silent wake, and it was then that he knew she would not be coming home.

Over a week had now passed since the accident. Eiric had stayed in the hospital for three days with a dislocated shoulder and a minor concussion. When he came home, friends and relatives swarmed to offer their condolences. Old Mrs. McFarley from next door had brought over a loaf of banana bread last Friday. Mora’s favorite, she said, and Eiric thanked her quietly. Mora’s family had also visited him during the weekend of the funeral; they drifted quietly around the sleepy house and ran their fingers over her things, reminiscing aloud about how nervous Mora was when she had played her first recital, and suppressing sobs as they remarked how small and shy she looked in a photograph of her first communion. Eiric occasionally nodded or muttered something, but was mostly silent. He loved her so much, they whispered to one another.

He looked at the clock at his bedside. 2:14a.m. He needed sleep. Whenever he had trouble sleeping, Mora would play him one of her pieces—Ravel’s Ondine or perhaps Debussy’s Clair de Lune—and Eiric would fall asleep to the lulling harmonies of Mora’s fingers dancing into the night. By the dim lamplight at his bedside, Eiric picked up one of the newspaper clippings he had saved: “Brilliant piano virtuoso dies in untimely automobile accident… Mora O’Flaherty, a rising piano prodigy, suffered a massive cerebral hematoma and died within minutes after a drunk driver struck her silver Corolla late Monday night. She is survived by…” and Eiric stopped reading. He had read this too many times already, each time wanting this detached account of her death to replace what he had seen himself.

The police had interviewed him on his first night at the hospital. The chief detective was thickset with a red moustache. He was very apologetic and bowed his head every time he spoke. He asked Eiric what happened that night. Eiric told the detective everything he already knew: they were driving back from the airport. The road was wet from rain. A car came from the opposite direction. It started swerving back and forth. Then Eiric paused and took a deep breath, trying to sort out the details of what happened next. The detective began to urge him on but stopped, wary that Eiric was perhaps emotional. Eiric finally continued his account: the car came toward them and he tried to avoid it but could not. The last thing he remembered was the blinding headlights of the drunk driver. And that was the end of the questioning.

Even then, Eiric knew he had left out something. He had told the truth, but not all of it. Something else had happened, something terrible he had done, but he could not remember it. In his mind, he replayed the details of that night like a film reel. The images played accurately until the very end. Every time, the ending would contain a portion of the police report or an article in the paper that had spliced itself into his memory. He would see the car with its weaving headlights, and then only silence.

He cast away the newspaper clipping and swallowed dryly. His figure cast wild retreating shadows against the buff-colored walls as he stumbled out of the room to get a glass of water. The rain had long ceased and the clouds floated away like mass-less, emptied sponges. Moonlight bathed the kitchen. It looked eerie and ethereal all at once and Eiric stomped loudly against the cold tiles to give himself company in the silence. He never believed in ghosts and, of course, had been alone before, but this kind of loneliness was different—her infinite absence affected him in peculiar ways. Creaking doors sent glacial shivers down his spine. Little chirps and crackles raised his hairs on end as his senses sharply amplified the night noises. Once when he was washing his face at a sink, he glanced up at the mirror and in a flash saw something black scurrying across the doorway. He hurried straight to bed that night, lying locked in stillness as his heart beat furiously, until dawn perforated the quiet dark of the house. He never found anything in the house.

He longed to lie in bed, shut his eyes to nighttime, and open them for the morning. But ever since the funeral he had not slept soundly. Had he even slept? There was no telling. Eiric lay in dreamless reverie each night and faded in and out of consciousness, but he was acutely aware the entire time. Aware of his breathing and the ticking of the clock. Aware of the howling wind and the furnace clicking on with a roar. He heard this heightened sensitivity often happened after one suffered a loved one’s passing, that he would have troubled sleep for some time and then it would go away. But it had been nine days and he was still up.

During the first few nights, he would think about her and the sound of her laughter. God was her voice beautiful. Her voice was deep but feminine, a refined sophisticated laughter. Some said it contrasted her sometimes-facetious nature, but Eiric thought it was complementary.

Eiric thought of those Sundays mornings at St. Michael’s. He had become a “part-time Catholic” after his confirmation, but after they met, Mora began dragging him to church again. Eiric loved to go to church with Mora when she wasn’t playing in the choir. When they stood together in the pews, he always glanced at her sideways, filtering out the choir voices to hear her singing. When she saw him looking, Mora would pretend to harmonize, often skipping back and forth across octaves, a mischievous smile etched on her face.

After the accident, during one of his crepuscular musings, Eiric had remembered her voice as he lay supine in bed, eyes closed.

—    Eiric, will you still love me forever?

—    Yes of course, he had whispered in reply.

—    Promise?

—    I promise.

Then it was quiet. They were just words after all. Memories of old things she used to say to him. But then he had heard something else:

—    Why didn’t you save me?

—    I—It was too late! he said, his voice trembling.

—    You didn’t want to save me, did you?

—    I couldn’t! The car was—I tried to…

—    No you didn’t. You let me die.

And he had sat up and looked around, terrified and bewildered, so sure that she’d been right next to him.

Eiric swallowed another sleeping pill and washed it down with water. He tried hard to feel its soporific effects. Outside, the moon had retreated behind the clouds, creating a penumbra that glowed faintly like a halo. The black sky was lit only by the few streetlights hovering over the sidewalk. Eiric returned to his bed and switched off the light. Now he sat in silence and entered deeply into thought. He thought about many things. He thought about when they had been newlyweds, how in love they were. It would have been two years next month.

They had met three years ago. Eiric was interviewing her—a rising talent at twenty-three years of age—for the Arts section of the Boston Globe. He fell for her completely and immediately; by the end of the interview they had already planned not one, but two dates. He certainly admired her talent, but really loved her more for who she was away from the piano. She was composed and serious around her music, but without it, she was witty and carefree. They spent days lying on the grass watching clouds, and nights awake reading Henry James and drinking tea. With Mora, Eiric always felt like he was pulsing, throbbing with life.

They got married at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. Afterwards, they stayed in Milton, where Mora’s studio was located. She traveled extensively to play at the prestigious music schools and all the major classical music concerts, and quickly gained national recognition. Meanwhile, Eiric went about his job at the Globe. When the senior editor of the Arts column retired, Eiric was offered the position.

He finally saw some good come from his hard work. To him, Mora had always harbored natural talent, and he envied her for that. Mora told him her success was a blessing from God, because she trusted Him above all and never doubted Him. But when she said this, Eiric noticed behind her sweet smile and playful manner a slight tone of condescension. When Eiric told her of his promotion, Mora merely applauded him and told him to keep up the good work.

Gradually their professional lives had enveloped them—she spent late hours into the night recording at the studio or traveling, while he struggled with his promotion as editor. After some time, their marriage fell into a rhythm: they would part in the early morning for work, and return to one another in the evening for sleep; the next day would follow the same routine. Eiric thought about their quarrels caused by the stress of their professions; they fought about foolish things: he accused her of being unconcerned with his career, while she complained of his apathy toward hers. One night they had fought about something into the early morning. Eiric missed a deadline and his section did not go to press. He lost his post as editor, and was once again a staff writer. But of course, he couldn’t tell her about it. For he knew, he felt, the tacit understanding between the two of them: that he was inferior to her, that she was the talented one supporting the two. And the truth destroyed him.

Now he was suddenly aware of something, a soft clattering, ever so slight, yet clear. The melody started faintly at first—like a tune he was humming in his head—but intensified. Eiric recognized it, one of Mora’s best interpretations: Reverie. He lay there not knowing whether he imagined it or if it was real. That it was Mora’s song paralyzed him with a strange fear and he clenched his eyes tightly, not daring to look. The playing continued, harrowing and hauntingly entreating. Eiric finally squinted his eyes and looked to the left corner at the Steinway, his heartbeats loud and fiercely out of rhythm against the slow, intricate harmony of the piece. The faint, distant moonlight had crept to the bedroom now and there in the corner, at the piano, was Mora playing.

—    Mora! he gasped, but no words came out.

Eiric sat up and stayed still for a long time. His mouth hung dreamily and his eyes peered languidly at her as she continued on, ignoring him. He gazed at her, mesmerized, for what seemed like a lifetime. But he dared not go nearer. She was terribly beautiful, her face a heavenly white and her eyes a stolid unblinking brown. He could smell the fragrance effervescing from her body. But was this real? She looked more real than the Mora at the viewing; she had to be real. Finally the music stopped. The room was dead and stagnant as soundlessness rang in the air. It was silent for a long time before she turned her head to look at him with a plaintive, knowing look.

—    You can remember now, can’t you?

It was a late autumn evening and the rain made the roads slippery and dangerous. Mora sat in the passenger’s seat and stared out the window at the rows of yellow streetlamps rushing by. She just came back from an audition to play at Carnegie Hall. But it hadn’t gone well at all. Her fingers had been heavy, not light and dexterous as she was used to. Her counting and coordination was off, too, for she didn’t get much sleep the night before. Another argument with Eiric. Was this the beginning of the end of her musical career? She stamped the car floor with her rain-slicked boots. Eiric looked at her for a moment, then drove on silently, quiet as usual. He squinted his eyes, his brows furrowed in thought.

—    Well… are you going to say anything? she asked. Ask me how it went?

A pause. Then he answered:

—    How was it?

—    See? You don’t care.

—    You know I do, I just have a lot on my mind, he said with exasperation.

—    Why are we always fighting? It was your fault, what happened today, Mora said.

—    I don’t even know what happened, he said.

—    We fight every night and look what it does to me. You can’t be selfish.

—    Selfish? You don’t give a shit about me anyhow.

—    A shit about you? What’s there to care about? You’re grown up, an editor now, and have to learn to be responsible. Boo-hoo.

—    Yeah don’t you make it sound so easy, he warned.

—    Well maybe it is, she said, turning toward him.

—    What are you trying to say? Eiric asked, blood rising. It wasn’t my fault you messed up.

He watched the fog crawl up the windshield ever so slowly, while outside the rain intensified its assault, each drop a well-aimed dagger pointed to the earth. In front of him, red lights flashed sporadically as cars sped and stopped, slowly meandering homeward.

—    I wouldn’t have done so poorly if it wasn’t for you, she said. You know, sometimes I wonder how you and I ever stayed together.

—    You know, not all of us are born with natural talent. We don’t wake up in the morning and try to change the world. We just try to get by.

—    Well, my gift comes from God. If you showed more love and appreciation to him, then maybe your life wouldn’t be so miserable.

Her words jarred him, pierced him, deeper than he could believe. He had tried his best and failed and here she was, ever lowering her foot upon his head, always blaming him for everything. He never knew this side of her. He didn’t want to hear the next part, didn’t want to hear it because he knew he could take no more.

—    Your job, she said, is easy. Mine is not.

The rain was crashing outside now. The wipers flic-flacked back and forth, counting out seconds of silence between the two. The wind was picking up too, here a blowing whisper and then a furious howl.

—    You, she said, do not have to support this relationship. I have that burde—

Eiric slammed the brakes. The car broke the dividing yellow lane lines and skidded violently forward, tires squealing, screeching before their momentum finally ceased, and they rocked slowly backward to rest.

—    What the HELL? she screamed… and all of a sudden it was quiet.

He looked straight ahead. As the raindrops plotted slower upon their stopped car, he could see ahead in the distance a pair of yellow headlights approaching. He watched the headlights swagger, straighten out, then change direction: veering right into their lane, then left, then lurching right again. Their car was in between the two lanes. Mora was screaming something at him but he didn’t hear her anymore. There was no sound. She pushed him, hit him, pointed at the pair of headlights that loomed ever nearer. Her brown eyes exclaimed in horror, but his stared at her uninterestedly. Eiric didn’t move. The car was less than thirty yards from them.

Then, everything came back. The blaring horn of the oncoming car. Mora’s screams melting into desperate sobs. The headlights illuminating their figures like a photographic flash. Then Eiric realized what was about to happen. His hands leapt from his lap and gripped the steering wheel firmly. He felt his shoulder tense, turning the steering wheel to the right. His foot left the brake and he felt the empty air between the brake and the accelerator. But it was too late. Everything became bright all at once, and then it was dark.

Eiric sat up. He was sweating profusely, his shirt clinging wet and cold against his back. He wanted to believe that Mora’s death was not his fault, that it was unavoidable. But it was avoidable. Everything in the room shifted into clear focus. But his mind lay buried in questions, unanswered questions that festered in the still air. Why did he hesitate to move the car? Eiric couldn’t understand what he had been feeling. In his moment of unthinking rage, had he truly wanted his Mora to die? No, he loved her, didn’t he? Outside the cool evening was setting in. The sun was gone but near the horizon, the sky stayed lit in a few patches of light, where the sun had stained it with a tinge of cerulean before descending. A few sparrows flitted overhead, chirping a song of joyful homecoming in the quiet dusk. The world outside was oblivious. He needed to leave the house.

Eiric trudged through the cold wintry air. He took the city streets, past Dobson’s bridge, which underneath lay flooded in sewage, past Thompson’s tavern, where the late night crowd of revelers was just beginning to assemble. If only he had snapped out of his apathy sooner, it could have been avoided. He would have Mora still. In hindsight, his reasoning was incomprehensible. He tried to go about the events chronologically, asking questions at every turn and answering them. Had he been unaware of the danger in front of him? No, that wasn’t it. He knew there was a car approaching. Then why did he hesitate to move? Eiric had entertained a notion of escape, of no longer allowing himself to be cruelly mistreated by life. But this was transient, only a fleeting thought.

He walked past the corner of Bristol and Lexington. On his right, he passed a small deli that was closing up for the night. There was one customer within ordering from the shopkeeper. The dimming yellow light inside and their hushed voices cast a sleepy air to the shop. Eiric walked on and he realized that across the street was her studio. He waited at the stoplight to cross. He wanted to recreate his emotions again, to feel his frustration so that he could justify his action, if only for a second. Eiric thought of what Mora had said to him, how his dissatisfaction arose from his lack of devotion to God. He hated the way she patronized others’ actions by pointing out their sins. He thought about the way she had belittled his work, how she was the reason he had lost his editorial position. The thoughts angered him, but these feelings, too, only sparked, then quickly dwindled like a match flame.

The traffic light turned green and Eiric walked across the street to the studio. As much as he tried to summon hatred for his wife, he could not. Eiric was haunted by her screams, those last noises he had heard before the impact. Mora’s expression of horror and desperation were suffused into an undying terror. Eiric stopped in the middle of the street, trying to rid himself of the images. But he couldn’t. Her clangorous wails echoed inside his head, reverberated with incredible intensity. He had never heard her sound like that, never in the years he knew her. Every note was discordant, every pitch broken and jutting in different directions. Her face twisted in a primitive helplessness. Her eyes gaped wide with disbelief and her tears smeared her makeup and glistened in blackened trails trickling down her cheek. But then a car honked, and Eiric was roused from his stupor. He was in the middle of the street, in front of a row of cars waiting to pass. Eiric hurried to the sidewalk.

The studio was closed. Eiric walked to the side of the building and passed through an unlocked gate. He came to a small window in the back, through which light from a small lamp shined. Inside, the furniture, soundboard, and recording equipment were still there. The pianos were still there as well, but black cloths covered them. There were three of them. The lamp was in the very back of the large studio room and cast gaunt, oblong shadows of the large pianos. The pianos under their black cloths resembled large coffins draped over with palls. Eiric left the studio lot.

He quickened his pace and lengthened his stride. He couldn’t do this alone, could no longer bear the guilt gnawing on him from within. His breathing was shallow and he could see the little wisps of warm air disperse into the cold as he exhaled. He continued down Lexington. Night had swallowed the world and his mind was aching and empty, only registering the loud and soft din of passing cars.

He finally came to St. Michael’s Church. He had not gone to mass on his own for years, not since he had been confirmed in his late teens. But he needed help. His mind throbbed with the condemnations that he hurled upon himself. His eyes were wide and sunken, with an insatiable hunger like a man condemned to death. A sign read “Confessions: Wednesdays 7-9 p.m.” He pushed forth through the heavy oaken doors and entered the church. It was dark inside, except for the lighted candles that lined the corridors. He was immersed in a heavy, meditated silence. No one was in the pews. Next to the altar was lit a single candle, a point of light seemingly drowned by the sea of black, tenebrous aisles. It burned on fiercely, even as the encroaching darkness weighed in heavily.

He came to a door on the left that read: Fr. Fitzgerald. Eiric recited again in his head the ritual prayer that echoed from long ago:

“Bless me Father, for I have sinned…”

Eiric felt a glint of hope, and hurriedly prepared what he had to say, to rid himself of this burden before it suffocated him in his frailty. His heart seemed to breathe again—maybe he would find peace. His mind, overjoyed, played again a familiar cadenza in his head, one that Mora had always played, some indistinguishable melody that rose in him like a tide, imbuing him with a renewed vigor.

He reached for the door and turned the knob.

Inside the small room was a dimly lit lamp mounted onto the wall. A golden glow rested upon the face of an elderly man. His hair was white and his glasses rested low on the long bridge of his nose. He smiled gently and sat in a wooden-backed chair.

—    Come in, come in. Please, sit down.

His smile seemed to warm the little room. The room was musty and smelled faintly of incense. To his left was a silver screen with a kneeling stand, but the father gestured for Eiric to sit in an empty wooden chair next to him.

—    Hello Father.

The priest began the sign of the cross and Eiric followed.

—    …and the Holy Spirit, Amen. Bless me Father, for I have sinned. My last confession was about 5 years ago.

The priest nodded in assent, his head bowed low to listen carefully.

—    Father, I’m here about my wife, Mora.

—    Oh, yes. You are, Eiric? She talked of you often. I’m very sorry for what happened to her. She was a great woman.

—    Thank you, Father. I just—I need to confess to you something.

Eiric felt his face grow warmer. The priest urged him on.

—    I think—I am—responsible for her death.

Eiric was sweating now. He watched the old priest’s reactions, waiting for his smile to crumble. The priest nodded his head slowly, but kept the smile on his face.

—    I understand, my son. Let me tell you something. Whenever a loved one has died, people come to me, always thinking that somehow it was their fault. They come and confess old memories of how they had argued with their loved one, or fought with them before their death. They think that somehow, this argument was the reason that their loved one had passed. But, it is no one’s fault. The Lord works in strange ways, ways that we can never understand.

He put his hand on Eiric’s shoulder and squeezed it tightly, consolingly.

—    My son, you can’t blame yourself for what happened. I myself read the papers. May the Lord have mercy on the poor soul of that driver.

Eiric wanted him to stop. He wanted to stand up and yell aloud, “I killed her! I killed my Mora!!!” But he just sat there. The lights were too dim, too sleepy for such excitement. The old priest looked at him with such understanding. Eiric couldn’t bear to look into his eyes and to shatter such kind love. Inside him, something told him that yes, the Father was right. There was nothing you could have done to save her. Nothing. But no, Eiric knew he had to confess it now. This was his only chance.

—    Is there anything else? Anything else you would like to confess?

Eiric’s mind raced quickly against his heart. This was it. He took a deep breath, trying to calm the violent beating of his heart. Was there any point confessing this now? It would not bring her back. Inside his head the thoughts came flooding, but he kept his gaze steadily at the Father.

—    Well, my son? Is there?

—    No.

Immediately, Eiric felt like he had let go, that he was falling now. There was a hushed silence in the room, so loud that he couldn’t bear it.

—    Then, my son, I suppose the only thing left to do is pray for Mora.

The priest opened the door and led Eiric out to the pews. Eiric looked behind him, at the closing door of the confession room.

—    Pray that she can safely enter God’s kingdom. Until then, my son, there is nothing else you can do. I will be leaving now, but you can shut the church door on your way out. The priest gathered his coat from one of the aisles. He smiled kindly and gently at Eiric. His face was lit by the row of candles along the hallway leading out of the church.

—    Goodnight, my son.

Eiric wanted to tell him to stop. That he had something important to tell him. He opened his mouth to speak, but no words came to his mind. He stood there dazed as the old priest slowly ambled to an exit on the side of the church. Eiric didn’t move. He listened to the Father leave. With each step the priest made, an echo resounded in the hallway. With each step, Eiric felt himself slipping and thought about saying something, something to bring the priest back. Finally, he heard the door creak to a close, and then slam shut.

—    Father? he cried, voice slowly breaking. Father, are you still there?

No answer.

He looked up to the altar, so that he could see Christ overhead on the cross, could find some consolation. But the candle had extinguished itself, and the altar slept in peaceful, dark quietude. There was only blackness, staring, staring back at him. He was alone.

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