“This!” Sonya shouted, fist to sky. “This!” She yelled out over the cove, over the waves. The willets rose in a flock, circled, and as the echoes died down and the shorebirds settled, Sonya lowered her arms and sighed. I watched the tension flow out of her shoulders.
“He can’t take this from me,” she said, gesturing over the bay. “He can’t take this.” She opened her arms to the edge of the forest along the bluff. “He can cut off our money. He can sell our house. He can rip apart my life. He can break our boy’s heart. But he can’t take this. He can’t stop me from loving this earth.”
I felt the dirt beneath my feet. We breathed in the smell of kelp and salt and the distant dust of the agricultural fields on the mainland.
“This earth,” she said. “I may be homeless. I may not know where me and my kids will be staying, six weeks from now, but I know this earth is my container. No one can keep me from loving this earth.”
We sat on the edge of the bluff, listening the waves roll over the pebbles, and the willets call back and forth to each other.
“I haven’t asked questions,” I said. “But that doesn’t mean I’m not interested. It just means I respect you and your need to work things out. I am here to listen to whatever you want to share.”
“I appreciate that,” Sonya said. “I can feel your caring. So, I knew why you were quiet.”
We were alone on the bluff. Elise was babysitting the Delgado kids at the other end of the bay. Shingo was teaching Bernard how to paint ducks, back at the house, and the three anachronisms stayed back with them.
Sonya and I had headed out to pick thimbleberries and huckleberries. The thimbleberries were for us, not for selling. They’re too dry to make a decent pie, and too scarce to cook up for jam or jelly, but a handful tossed over granola made one of the best breakfasts we could think of.
We had taken the long way back, through the north woods, for I had wanted to see if the pileated woodpecker still nested in the old Doug fir. When we emerged through the woods, and the sun caught our eyes, and the light danced off the bay, that’s when Sonya set down her basket of berries and cried out to the sky.
“It was nothing dramatic,” she said. “It was the opposite of fire and ice. You ever watch a houseplant wither? It was like that. No matter how much you water. How tender your care. It drops leaf by leaf. You don’t throw it out. You keep it, holding out hope. You think that it’s OK if it sheds its leaves. It will grow new ones, right? You keep vigil over the crooks in the branches, those intersects where the new leaves form, and sometimes, you even imagine that you see glimmers of new green.”
We lay on our backs under the late summer sun. I closed my eyes and the warmth descended. It’s impossible to feel a broken heart when the summer shines like this, so I let Sonya talk.
“I kept hoping, like Bernard, that he’d join us,” Sonya said. “But Elise knew better. He’s not her father, you know. She was two when I met him. Her dad passed. It was…” she waved her hand against a stray cloud. “Anyway, he’s not her dad. I kept holding out hope. You know, a break would do us good, right?”
I turned on my side to watch Sonya’s face. She tried to smile, but as she continued to speak, the light faded from her eyes. “It was when he closed the Verizon account that I knew he was done. For good. And we were on our own. We are on our own. And do you know why?”
Of course I didn’t. I couldn’t imagine what might make a man who’d had a child with this beautiful strong woman leave her, especially when that child was a bright and funny boy like Bernard.
“It must have happened years ago,” she said, “when those leaves started withering. Yes, I think it was after Bernard was born. You know, he told me a few nights before the kids and I left to come here that he couldn’t live without love. ‘You don’t have to,’ I said. ‘I love you. We love you.’ ‘Not like that,’ he said.”
I heard the pileated woodpecker drumming against the Douglas fir deep in the woods. “Listen!”
We listened for a moment, and Sonya smiled at me. “Your bird is still here!” she said.
We heard its laugh-like call.
Sonya turned on her side to face me. “So, you know what he said? He said he felt like he was dying inside. He couldn’t live without that spark. He wanted to be in love again, and he couldn’t live without it. For me, being a family was always enough. Even once it started fading, I could look at him and say to myself, ‘This is my family,’ and I would feel a rush of warmth that filled me with strength and patience to carry on. For me, that’s enough in life. That’s all I need. But for him, he told me he felt that he was dying. He needed that rush, like what we had in the beginning, and he couldn’t see a way to get that with me.”
I saw the pain in Sonya’s face, and my mind went intellectual all of a sudden. Analytical. I started thinking of the powerful chemicals of romance and infatuation. They’re addictive. I thought of the sociobiological reasons for a man to feel like that, to get hooked on that neurochemical, hormonal high. Sonya’s eyes were large and moist. I didn’t think she’d find comfort in my analysis.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“I am, too,” she replied. “I always thought that family was enough to keep us together.”