I have had the pleasure of following the 3-season serial epistolary novella online for the last 18 months, and last evening, the final letters were posted. You can read this post HERE, or you can view the website HERE with all three seasons intact (hurry, though; this will disappear in a few weeks in preparation for greater things).
My first reaction was one of heartfelt devastation. Last week, I realized how it was going to end (or so I believed then), and my assumption was correct. But the way in which it was fulfilled was done with both brilliance and simplicity: a three-letter ending that leaves the door wide open for further writings, should the authors, Jodi Cleghorn and Adam Byatt, choose to go in any such direction. They certainly don’t need to, as the story they began on April 10, 2012 is a stand-alone masterpiece that does not need the wraparound winds of further stories. With that said, doors are open. We as readers can only wait and see.
My first response is a literary one. I offer a short story that I penned many years ago, that somehow seems appropriate to share with the Postmarked authors and readers today. It is titled, “Alice Flows.” I did not change a single word to fit the ending of Postmarked; as you shall see, though, there are some similarities that might explain my affinity for these characters, as well as for this story.
I tip my literary cap once more to Jodi and Adam for the journey they have shared with us. I am a better writer, reader, and individual for the experience. Writers around the globe, pay attention: taking risks with our words and our form is a dangerous thing at times. It is through these risks that diamonds emerge through the many rocks cast on the literary cairn. Jodi and Adam have given us more than a story; they have given us the courage to explore new ways to tell timeless stories. I am grateful for all they have given to us, both in the present and for years to come.
So, here is my literary response. I will have many more reflections to follow in the days to come. I raise my glass of chocolate port to each of you and congratulate you for providing a reading experience like no other.
Sunset nears. The rocks are glazed with ice that traps daylight’s last few hues, and the water of little hunting creek that flowed through here just weeks ago now remains frozen as if caught in mid-thought. This is just not the way it was supposed to turn out for Alice and me.
“What now?” I ask. But she does not answer. How can she?
The ice beneath my boots melts from the warmth and the weight we bear upon this time-smoothed stone, and I feel as if Alice and I have thwarted winter’s call¾if but for this moment spent in quiet desperation.
We never thought that death would come so soon, nor did I ever imagine that this creek might be frozen when the day arrived to carry out her wishes. Alice wanted to be returned to these waters within three sunsets of her passing; how were we to know that winter would arrive so early?
“We were not yet done with autumn,” I whisper to her in my arms. “But autumn, she seems to be done with us…”
* * *
The William Houck area of Cunningham Falls State Park, between Frederick and Hagerstown, is adorned with Maryland’s highest waterfall¾78 feet to be exact¾and the very popular 42-acre lake that is frequented by anglers, boaters, swimmers, and even scuba divers. Alice and I had known this section of the park quite well; since in our twenties when we first married, we had visited Houck several times a year, getting to know some Thurmont folks who opted for this smaller tourist attraction in lieu of the more commercialized Ocean City and Deep Creek Lake resorts several hours east or west, respectively.
It wasn’t until our drive to the park just six weeks ago that Alice wanted to go to Houck’s oft-unmentioned sibling, the Manor Area, before succumbing to the cancer that had taken a disturbingly silent-yet-terminal residence within her.
For years, Alice and I had joked that the Manor Area seemed like an afterthought. Without the diva attraction that the falls provided Houck, Manor was destined to be seldom more than a hang out for local teens or a scant celebratory meeting place at its shelter for birthdays, anniversaries, reunions.
So Manor remained, without Alice and me, until this past October when we approached its entrance, and I felt Alice’s faint pulse as she squeezed my hand weakly.
“Jared,” she said. “The crowds might cheapen this somehow for us at Houck, you know?” Her soft-spoken words flowed from still softer lips, seemingly untouched by the death that dwelled within. As much as the cancer had stolen from her, she held on tightly to the inner peace that radiated such kindness and gentle ways.
Alice was right about the crowds. When the cancer surfaced seven months ago, we pared down our social circle, and even strangers at the falls would somehow dilute the reason we had come.
We entered Manor and scanned the lot for others; autumn had bloomed brilliantly in a cacophonic canopy of browns, oranges, reds, greens. I parked along the northern bank of little hunting creek, abandoned.
Alice was happy.
She left me in the car and headed to the water. Within a few steps, she was past the picnic bench and at the bank, looking west, then east, then west again. In both directions, the creek veered to the left and rolled out of sight around a bend.
I gave her a moment at the water’s edge before joining her. There wasn’t much to look at. Having visited Houck for so long, I couldn’t help but think that Little Hunting Creek¾maybe 15 feet wide where we stood¾was blushing, the runty kid sister of the Homecoming Queen. It was hardly more pronounced than the small spring from which it originated in the Catoctin Mountains, and I scarcely believed that little fanfare could be made further downstream, even where it joined Big Hunting Creek and then, eventually, the Monocacy River.
This absence of pomp and circumstance freed the sounds of the crisp water churning over rocks and dipping in and out of stone-bed pools; winds whistled through leaves and broken bark and brought to us the fragrances of wild sarsaparilla, spice bush, and even pine sap. We stood there for several more minutes, acclimating ourselves to the richer sounds of squirrels scurrying for winter’s keep and the softer sights of sunlight sifting through leaves like light through stained glass.
This is why we are here, I thought. We are all here for some sort of spiritual sun-worshiping, but, unlike those at the other end of the park, we have come to touch the sun before it touches us.
* * *
With a firm patch of earth now under my feet, I stand without sound as the sporadic road traffic nearby hums a sing-song of comings and goings. Very close, I think, and a poor musical substitute for the water that once rushed over these rocks that run east to west, around the bend, no end in sight.
The unadorned, brown urn I carry with Alice’s ashes is heavy, yet the weight does not bother me as might holding one of these stones from this creek. It is the weight of ever-present thoughts, more than anything, reminding me that her remains are in my arms, cradled with the same fragility of a newborn life, a compact world of endless possibilities unexplored, unrealized.
I leave the bank and join the creek’s bed of iced-over rocks, seeing that a smaller stream, trickling from under a pool of frozen water, has somehow eluded winter’s icy grip. I hold Alice close to me as I leave this safe patch of earth, but as vigilant as my steps may be, I slip on a small, flat rock that sends me¾and Alice¾into the air…
* * *
Alice removed her sandals and walked effortlessly to a shallow pool formed by some of the larger rocks. From this pool flowed a tiny, constant stream of water that trickled over smaller pebbles: a miniature Cunningham Falls gleaming with promise.
There stood Alice, centered, visibly at peace. On the ride up, she had talked about meditation and transcendentalism and that Buddha stuff that helped her focus, maybe even live a little longer. Here she stood now, focusing, perhaps hoping for a few extra days. She had said that meditation made her cancer seem nonexistent, suspended; there was an abeyance about it, she had said, where as long as she stayed centered, as she clearly was now, life would never cease flowing through her; death would come only in the most physical of senses.
I had never been so deep to meditate and see things that way. I had always spent my time turning over rocks, looking for a marbled salamander, finding perhaps an eastern newt. Or, I had spent my time looking for things that don’t seem to belong; maybe they have a greater glow, a greater effervescence about them. They stand out, catch my attention, beg me to be taken from here. Or so I believe. I just cannot leave without some tangible treasure.
Alice stood there in that pool, her arms open wide, her face to the sky. Leaves dropped, some on her, some in the water, swept away, down the river.
Then she looked down, kneeled into the water, cupped her hands as she dipped them and pulled up a pool filled with her reflection. She brought the water to her shoulders and arms till beads ran off her fingertips and back into the pool and down the little falls.
With her hands still wet, Alice pressed them against her neck where she had first found the cancer. She held her hands there, as if somehow cleansing the area, purifying it, making it innocent once again.
“You okay?” I called out to her. She nodded briefly, barely acknowledging my concern as she seemed too focused¾if not too weak¾to do much more.
As I continued to watch her, Alice scooped up half a palm of ground stone that formed a miniature cairn in her hand and knelt down into the pond. She looked at the tiny pile of sand, then to the water that surrounded her waist. The ground stone was but a mere fraction of the life pool around her. She brought her hand down to the pond and let the water flow¾a swirling fluidity that broke the cairn down, tiny grain of sand by tiny grain of sand, carrying each through the gate, over the rocks, beyond the bend, and on and on.
I was downstream of her. Painful as it was, I decided to remain, not battle the waters coming down to me. To walk upstream at this point seemed to go against some natural force of what was to be. I waited.
She walked toward me, taking each step carefully along the slippery rocks, following the water’s path. She did her best to stay immersed in these waters, as deeply as possible, even if only being wet to her ankles at times.
I offered her my hand, and she kissed me gently on the cheek and rested her head on my shoulder.
“I’m ready,” she whispered. I wrapped my arms around her and held her close to me, but after a moment, she gently pushed away. With her head down, she walked slowly to the picnic bench and sat.
I took one more glimpse of the river upstream where it turned to the left, bending then disappearing. As my eyes sifted down to the pool where Alice had immersed herself, I noticed two flat rocks leaning against and supporting each other, framing an area where some of the water was running through.
I looked over at the bench where Alice sat, as she brushed a few remaining granules of sand from her hands. I thought how I often was the one who did more of the leaning than Alice; I had spent my time feeding off of her strength when I felt it should have been the other way around. Our closest moment had now been frozen, immortalized; yet there we remained, so far apart.
* * *
I catch my fall with one hand, blood now flowing from it as I balance the urn in my other hand. I try to stop the bleeding myself, but the cut is too deep.
I crouch, precariously perched between the obscure, trickling falls and two supporting rocks, comrades leaning more or less on each other.
We never considered how this part was to be done. Just dumping her ashes into this scaled-down stream would choke its flow, and stagnant water would most certainly freeze with these temperatures.
I recall Alice’s last moments here, bending down and allowing the small pile of ground stone in her palm to be lifted by the water’s rush and carried away. It had been at that moment that she had made up her mind how to proceed with all of this. The solution, however tough until that moment, seemed natural and almost relieving to her, as if this were the last great decision she would have to make.
There is nothing relieving about this for me, though. I know how to follow her directions, fulfill her final wishes, allow her to flow with her earth like she always tried to do while she was alive.
What I don’t know is how to live life without my Alice. I don’t know that inner peace that she knew. I don’t know anything but the soft touch of her lips, the I-love-you’s in her eyes, the whispers of comfort in her words.
I fear I won’t know how to carry on after today. I won’t have my Alice; I won’t have love.
I turn the urn on its side and immerse it into the small stream. As I slowly remove the brown lid with my bleeding hand, the urn swallows the water, and a wisp of air¾much like a sigh¾escapes as Alice’s ashes flow downstream. Suddenly I feel unsteady on the rocks, dizzy with the finality of having to say goodbye to her. I do everything I can to keep my focus, reminding myself that this is what she wanted. This is what she needed. But the emotion is just too much for me, and I drop to my knees. My hands around the urn dip deeper in the icy water, and I shut my eyes to force back the tears as much as to bear the sting of the freezing water.
This is all too much. I cannot bear to say goodbye as she drifts away from me, around the bend, on and on, out of my sight. There was so much to do, so many words unspoken. We were never meant to be separated so early.
I open my eyes to see if she is gone. At first, I think the sting in my eyes has painted the river red. I close my eyes, open them to the sky, and then bring them down to the creek.
I look at the urn under the water and see the ashes continuing to flow, but they are joined by my own blood: mingling, journeying as one with my Alice.
I cannot explain the overwhelming feeling of love this brings me. It is unlike anything I have ever known. Yet, it is everything Alice always talked about: love transcends the material, the physical, she said.
This moment with her makes the spiritual eternal for us both.
I wait for the last of Alice’s ashes to wash from the urn before I emerge from the creek and walk back to the frozen banks. From there, I see the lingering hint of red make its way around the bend as the sun slips below the horizon. In my sorrow, I feel a hint of a smile return to my face as a soft breeze whispers its comfort, as if Alice herself is telling me everything’s going to be all right.
I place the urn on the picnic bench. My hands are covered in tiny grains of sand as the bleeding stills, and I resist the urge to brush them clean. I came here to let Alice flow, and I leave with a treasure like any other: the sands she now mingles with, over the rocks, beyond the bend, on and on and on.