LONG NIGHT MOON

7004157-mdA full moon punched its way through the clouds, bleeding silver light onto jagged rocks slick with rain. Water droplets glistened on the branches of pine trees like tiny ornaments. His screams came at wider intervals, cutting through the soft black night and boring into her bones. She should have continued walking with him up the trail; she shouldn’t have turned around when the rain began falling, shouldn’t have let him go on by himself. Then they would both be up there, trapped on a thin rock ledge, columns of mountains around them and a helicopter circling helplessly overhead. We’d die together, she thought, shivering either at the thought or from the cold that seeped through her jacket and leaked into her blood.

It was December and dark was falling early. They had been standing in one spot for more than two hours — Shelby and the Search and Rescue men who she’d called when evening slid blue and cold across the sky, and Tim’s screams first echoed down from a spot so high on the mountainside she could barely find him even with binoculars. A fine, light rain had been falling for most of the afternoon. When it started, it was obvious that it wasn’t going to let up; the clouds were low and thick and determined to stay.

“I’m going to go up and come down the other side,” he called to her, already getting smaller as he strode up the narrow trail.

But there was no other side. There was just a narrow mountain, carved by time and rivers into the shape of a grain elevator, close to another mountain of the same shape. “He must have thought it led to some sloping hillside behind it,” she told Frank, the head of the Search and Rescue team, when they first rumbled up in their trucks. “I don’t know why. He usually knows everything about the mountains he climbs.”

Moonlight feathered the clouds that had earlier brought rain. She and Tim should be standing there together, awestruck by the beauty above them. But instead he was trapped in the worst place possible. The rain had made the trail so slick he’d slipped from where she first spotted him and had landed on a narrow ledge of rock, so far down between the two mountains that the helicopter couldn’t descend close enough to save him. Men had started up the trail, but the conditions were slippery and treacherous and they had no way to reach him either, so they had to turn back.

“I’m sorry,” Frank said. “There’s nothing we can do but wait. Come dawn, if no more rain falls, we can try going up the trail again to see if we can repel down to him. But right now it’s just too dangerous. I can’t risk my men’s lives.” A thin cloud drifted across the moon’s calm face and Shelby thought about how the day and night should have gone. Their plan was to go on a hike in this canyon and then stay the night at a nearby hotel. “Just get away from the city for a day or two,” Tim said.

But then the sky clouded over and the rain began. Shelby watched him walking away from her, his blue work shirt and jeans not enough to keep him warm. But he wanted to go on alone. They had been together over a year. Shelby knew enough to respect his need for solitude. But now he was going to die alone. No one wishes for that.

There was a long period of silence, nothing but owls hooting and wind through branches. She could hear Frank’s breathing, and a few of the other men scraping their feet on the ground. Then a final wrenching scream cut through the darkness, spiraling downward into trees and folds of night and the ruin of everything they once believed lay ahead of them. Shelby’s memory fractures at that moment. She can remember hot tears burning her face and Frank’s arm around her shoulders, but she can’t remember anything that anyone said to her. She can’t remember driving away later, or calling Tim’s parents even though she knows she did.

She does remember checking into the hotel they were booked at because it was too long a drive back to Los Angeles. The desk clerk glanced up at her and said, “Just one?” She nodded and something in her demeanor made him back off, not ask anything else. She remembers sitting on the narrow balcony with the parking lot below and the full moon hovering above her, almost like it could comfort her. But nothing could. It was the longest night of the year — the winter equinox. And it would always be the longest night of her life.

Shelby was nineteen. Tim was twenty, almost twenty-one. They were going to go to Canada for his birthday; he said there were some great hikes there. It was eight years ago.

She was twenty-six when she met Gary, and early on in their relationship she pressed him about what sports or outdoor adventures he liked. Having no idea why she was asking, Gary at first decided to have some fun with her. He described surfing the big waves in Hawaii, skydiving, taking lessons to be a race car driver. Shelby’s eyes retreated from him, blue turning to gray as she seemed to travel inward to a place full of shadows.

“Sorry,” he said. “I was joking. I hit the gym and bodysurf some waves if I go to the beach. I rent a bike sometimes but I always wear a helmet. Is that okay?”

They were sitting at an outdoor cafe and the sun fell warm on their shoulders, but Shelby trembled from a deep cold that lived in her blood; she pulled her sweater tight around her. She told him then about the screams, how they echoed and bounced off rock. How even his last scream still trailed on for seconds after he had already landed and died, as if the wind wanted to hold onto his voice. They found his body the next day wedged between two pine pines that had witnessed lifetimes of men’s foolish choices.

Shelby and Gary got married just after her twenty-seventh birthday. As much as she loved him, she kept one secret from him. She never told him that, whenever the moon was full, Tim visited her in her dreams. It had started after he died — when the lunar cycle brought the moon to it’s full shape. At first she thought the visits would end in time as her grief grew lighter.

But for years, with each full moon, he came to her. He slipped in on the back edge of sleep, just when she felt she’d dropped into deep water. Sometimes he was waiting for her, other times he swooped in as if he had mastered the art of flying. The first time he came, she cried and in the morning her pillow was still wet from the tears she thought were only in her dream. He was always wearing the clothes he died in, but they looked as clean as they were that morning when they started driving north. Sometimes they talked, but there were other nights when she just leaned against him. He smelled like pine trees and fresh rain.

The strangest thing was, he aged as he would have aged had he lived. Over the years, his face narrowed a bit, his cheekbones appeared sharper and there were lines around his eyes. In the gossamer world of dreams, it didn’t seem odd that he knew about her life before she even told him. He knew she was pregnant before she did. The next day she bought a pregnancy test and he was right. But he would never tell her about the world he’d gone to. Whenever she would ask, he’d fade a little, as if the question itself could make him vanish. So she stopped asking. She knew she would never tell anyone about his visits. Not Gary, not her child.

In the fifth month of her pregnancy, when she and Gary found out they were going to have a boy, Shelby wondered if their baby would be born under a full moon. What would happen? Would Tim still visit her? Would the intersection of birth and death be too much for him?

As her due date approached, she calculated that it would be a half moon. What she couldn’t have calculated was that the night she went into labor, a fierce storm had parked itself over southern California. Roads were flooding, there were reports of power lines down. Gary tried to hide the fear in his eyes as he handed her an umbrella and put his arm around her, leading her gingerly down the front steps to the car.

“We’ll be fine,” he said. “Just keep doing your breathing.”

Of course, they don’t tell you that no amount breathing can dull the pain, and the pain is like nothing you’ve ever experienced before. Gary had to drive slowly; rain pummeled the car and the sound of the tires through deep puddles made Shelby wonder if she was going to have her baby right there, wedged in the car. But they made it to the hospital in time and in the white room, when the pain became unbearable, she closed her eyes and remembered Tim’s last visit.

“It didn’t hurt,” he told her. “I was so cold, I was numb. I was scared up there, I knew they couldn’t get to me and I was going to die. But when I fell, life slipped off me like clothes I didn’t need anymore. I knew I’d died before and I’d be born again.”

Shelby drifted past the pain and the room with its too-bright lights, but then they were telling her loudly to push, that this is it, shouting as if she couldn’t hear them if they spoke at a normal volume. Why are you yelling, she wanted to ask, but then her son’s cries filled the air and there was nothing else but that.

Gary said they should name him Storm. Shelby laughed at first, but the idea grew on her. They had discussed family names and had rejected all of them. Gary’s father’s name was Addison and Shelby’s father was Lester. They looked at names of grandparents on both sides, but those names seemed dated and stuffy too.

“He was born during a big storm,” Gary said. “It’ll be a good story for him to tell.”

“Especially if he becomes a weatherman,” Shelby told him.

She didn’t mind the sleeplessness, the interrupted nights. Storm was a peaceful baby except when he was hungry. She’d take him to an armchair in the living room and pull the drapes open so she could see the sky while she breastfed him. She watched the moon grow night after night, wondering what Tim would say when it became full and he visited her in dreams again.

On the first night of the full moon, with Storm nestled against her, she closed her eyes and with silver light bathing her face she let herself sink into sleep. Tim didn’t come. Her dream was vast and empty — a flat landscape that seemed to stretch on forever. She called for him and her voice trailed out into darkness and mist, reaching no one. She woke up with a start, jarring Storm awake too. She soothed him, whispered to him that it was okay, he should sleep now. But she felt confused and abandoned. For a moment she considered telling Gary about the past eight years, about Tim’s visits every full moon, but she decided to keep their secret.

The moon is actually only full for a moment; after that it starts to wane. But to the naked eye, the full moon appears to last for three nights. On the second night, Shelby again fell asleep in the chair with Storm at her breast. Again she wandered through a vast and unwelcoming landscape with no sign or echo of Tim anywhere. Tears fell from her eyes and landed around her feet like slivers of ice. When she woke, she saw that tears had dropped onto her son’s tiny head. But he didn’t wake this time; he slept as if cradled by angels.

On the third night, when sleep took her, she found herself at the base of a sloping green hill. White clouds rolled above her in an endless blue sky and wind rustled the grasses around her feet. Someone was calling out to her. She looked toward the hill and a lanky brown-haired boy was waving at her, motioning for her to join him. He was a teenager, but a young teenager. As she got closer, she saw the smooth contours of his face, a gap between his two front teeth. He’ll need braces, she thought, and that’s when she realized it was Storm.

“Come on,” he said, turning and heading up the hill.

She watched his back, just as she had watched Tim’s back that afternoon so long ago as gray rain fell and the temperature dropped.

“Wait!” she called out. Her voice balanced on the wind, traveled to him with every tear she had cried, every regret that had bruised her heart.

He smiled and walked over to her. Tiny dust clouds rose up around his feet. “It’s okay,” he said, holding out his hand for hers. “Not everyone falls.”

 

 

 

4 Responses to LONG NIGHT MOON

  1. Eve says:

    Awesome story ! As usual your writing is an invitation for healing and hope,

  2. Marcus Barone says:

    “As though the wind wanted to hold on to his voice.” ..priceless line..

  3. David Marks says:

    Proving, once again, that there is great complexity to fate, and with fate, there can be no coincidence. Life has gifts all its own, and they are tendered very periodically, but when they are, they tilt what we hesitate to ever know as fact. Love itself breaches experience, and we would be vastly remiss to question what would otherwise seem to remind us of a simple truth. In life, people matter, and when they appear to matter more than others, perhaps that affection is given to us for reasons better never asked or known. This, Patti, this is what life is truly all about, and we must gather what drives us and never stop giving. Dreams come to us for a reason, a contract with some higher power, but never by arbitrary happenstance.

  4. Nancy Morrison says:

    I was led to this page via your open letter to He Who Shall Be Ignored. This only goes to show, there is goodness in every situation.

    Beautiful piece. I want to keep reading what you write. Your transparency draws me in.

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