By Rus VanWestervelt
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 midthought.
This is just not the way it was supposed to turn out for Alice and Jared.
“What now?” he asks. But she does not answer. How can she?
The ice beneath his boots melts from the warmth and the weight they bear upon the time smoothed stone, and he feels as if they have thwarted winter’s call- if but for this moment spent in foolish desperation.
Jared and Alice never thought that death would come so soon, nor did he 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 two sunsets of her passing; how were they to know that winter, too, would arrive so early?
“We were not yet done with autumn,” he whispers to her in his arms.
“But autumn, she seems to be done with us.”
* * *
If you’ve been to Cunningham Falls State Park between Frederick and Hagerstown, you know all about the William Houck Area. Its beauty is adorned with Maryland’s highest waterfall- 78 feet to be exact- and the very popular 42-acre lake that is frequented by anglers, boaters, swimmers, and even scuba divers. Alice and Jared had known this section of the park quite well; since in their twenties when they first married, they 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 their 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 Jared 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 hangout for local teens or a scant celebratory meeting place at its shelter for birthdays, anniversaries, or reunions.
So Manor remained, without Alice and Jared, until this past October when they approached its entrance, and Jared felt Alice’s faint pulse as she squeezed his 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 swirling within her. As much as the cancer had stolen from her, she held on tightly to the inner peace that radiated such kindness and gentle ways. Her grace saddened him that much more, knowing what was to come.
Alice was right about the crowds. They had had plenty of social moments in their 30 years of marriage. They grew up together in these Maryland woods, keeping just fit enough to handle the challenges of the soft-soiled, sometimes rocky trails, the shallow rivers, and the temperamental Chesapeake- good times always enjoyed with even better friends. But when the cancer hit Alice a brief 7 months ago, they had pared down their social circle, and Jared understood that even strangers at the falls would somehow dilute the reason they had come.
They entered Manor and scanned the lot for others; autumn had bloomed brilliantly in a cacophonic canvas canopy of browns and oranges, reds and greens. Jared parked along the northern bank of Little Hunting Creek and turned off the car. The area seemed abandoned, left alone by the masses who went elsewhere to gather their rosebuds or swim deep in other waters. Alice was happy.
“No wonder William Houck’s been treated like an only child all these years,” Jared remarked.
Manor just wasn’t that kind of tourist trap; it certainly wasn’t awe-inspiring, and it wasn’t on the map as a Kodak moment.
Alice ignored Jared- or perhaps never even heard him speak, as she left him in the car and headed to the water. Seventeen soft steps, and 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.
He gave her a moment at the water’s edge. There wasn’t much to look at. Having visited Houck for so long, Jared couldn’t help but think that Little Hunting Creek-maybe 15 feet wide where Alice stood- was 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; little fanfare could be made of it further downstream as well, 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 them the fragrances of wild sarsaparilla, spice bush, and even pine sap. They stood there for several more minutes, as if in a decompression chamber, acclimating themselves 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, he thought; we have come to touch the sun before it comes to touch us.
* * *
With a firm patch of earth now under his feet, Jared stands without sound as the sporadic road traffic close by hums a sing-song of comings and goings. Very, very close, he thinks; 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 he carries with Alice’s ashes is heavy, but the weight does not bother him. It is the weight of ever-present thoughts, more than anything, reminding him that her remains are in his arms, cradled with the same fragility of a newborn life, a compact world of endless possibilities unexplored, unrealized.
He leaves the bank and joins the creek’s bed of iced-over rocks, where a smaller stream trickles quickly from under a pool of frozen water, escaping winter’s fate. He holds Alice close as he chooses carefully each rock, working his way closer to the little stream. But even with his strongest effort, his greatest care for Alice in his arms, he cannot help but slip on a small, flat rock that sends him- and Alice- into 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 rambled over smaller pebbles, a miniature Cunningham Falls gleaming with promise.
There stood Alice, centered, visibly at peace. On the ride up, she had talked with Jared about meditation and transcendentalism and all that Buddha stuff that helped her focus, maybe even live a little longer. Here she stood now in front of him, 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, she had stated plainly, would come only in the most physical of senses.
Just flow, she would always tell him. Let the world carry you along, on and on. Simple, huh?
Jared had never been so deep to meditate and see things that way. He had always spent his time turning rocks (not flowing over them), looking for a marbled salamander, finding perhaps an eastern newt. Other times he searched for things that didn’t seem to belong; maybe they had a greater glow, a greater effervescence about them. They stood out, caught his attention, begged him to be taken. Or so he believed. He could never 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, and away they were swept, down the river, around the bend.
She looked down, kneeled into the water, cupping 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.
Alice nodded briefly, barely acknowledging Jared’s concern. To him, she seemed too focused- if not too weak- to do much more.
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. She brought her hand down to the pond and let the water flow, a 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.
Jared was now downstream of her. Painful as it was, he decided to remain, to stand his ground and not battle the waters coming down to him. To walk upstream at this point seemed to go against some natural force of what was to be, and so he waited.
He marveled at her beauty in solitude. It was difficult for him to see any clear distinction between the life within her and the life that surrounded them: paralleled beauty enveloped in the mingling, nurturing solace of primitive spirits.
She stood up and began walking toward him, doing her best to stay immersed in water, as deeply as possible, even if only being wet to her ankles at times.
When Alice reached Jared, She kissed him gently on the cheek and rested her head on his shoulder.
“I’m ready,” she whispered.
He wrapped his arms around her and held her close, but after a moment she gently pushed away, turned, and walked out of the water and toward the picnic bench.
Jared took one more glimpse of the river upstream where it turned to the left, bending then disappearing into an unknown eternity. His eyes drifted down to the pool where Alice had immersed herself. Just below the pond were two flat rocks leaning against and supporting each other, framing an area where some of the water was running through.
He looked over at the bench where Alice sat, staring at her hands, brushing the few remaining granules of sand from her hands.
I was the one who did more of the leaning, he thought, and it was true. He had spent much of their 30 years together feeding off of her strength.
This is our closest moment, frozen and immortalized. yet here we remain, never farther apart.
He could not have felt more ashamed and proud at the same time to be her soul mate.
* * *
Jared catches his fall with one hand, blood suddenly flowing from it as he balances the delicate urn in his other hand. He pushes his hand against his navy blue coat, his pulse, warm, wet with each beat.
He thinks only of Alice, though, close to him, as he continues on until he reaches the pool of icy water.
He crouches, precariously perched between the obscure, trickling falls and two supporting rocks, comrades leaning more or less on each other.
They 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.
He recalls 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.
Jared cannot believe that this is it. He pulls the urn closer, tighter, the pulse of warm blood still flowing from his hand. He remembers the first time they had touched in a late October so long ago, that lingering feel of her smooth hand on his, and then the smile, the blush, the unmistakable, embarrassing laugh. How he then leaned in to her, and when they kissed, time ceased and he wished his lips would never leave hers, the moist, tentative breath of love, the slow and inevitable sigh and then the slide of his body into hers.
I now know Love, he had whispered to her. And when she melted into him a second time, he vowed that he would never let her go.
He stands in the water, holding her one last time, fighting the urge to forget her final wishes and turn around, back over the icy rocks, into the warmth of the car, and return home.
I’m ready. . . .
Jared cannot stop the tears. He knows what he must do. He brings his quivering lips to the top of Alice’s urn and kisses her one more time.
“Flow, Alice. Flow,” he whispers.
He turns the urn on its side and immerses it into the small stream, slowly removing the brown, pottered top with his bleeding hand.
The urn swallows the water, and a wisp of air- much like a sigh- escapes as Alice’s ashes flow downstream, as does Jared’s blood: joining, mingling, journeying as one with his Alice, over the rocks, beyond the bend, on and on and on.
Flow, my lovely Alice. Flow, he thinks.
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