By Greg W. Taylor
To many, Martin Leonard appeared the epitome of suburban failure. Lost in any gathering, no matter how small, he knew how replaceable he was. Not only in his work as a bookkeeper at the Dalton regional tax office, which he executed to a standard barely sufficient to maintain his position, but in his home as well. His wife Nevena, who had added fifty-five pounds to her once athletic frame in their fifteen years together, had only recently stopped her constant chastisement, replacing her blatant contempt with a new and punishing silence. The criticisms had been levelled at everything from his dress and personal habits – he chose to wear the same shirt to work two days in a row, ostensibly to save his wife the chore of extra washing and ironing and he didn’t always manage to gather every one of his toenail clippings from the bathroom floor – to his admitted lack of either humour or friends. Similarly targeted had been his lowly job and the commensurate salary it provided the couple and their childless but cat stinking two-bedroom apartment. All unquestionable demonstration of his failure to provide what she insisted he had promised so many years ago: Wealth. Presence. Continuity.
They had met because he had been delayed on his way to church, held up for almost half an hour behind several ambulances blocking the road. A boy on a bicycle had darted in front of a city bus and, although the youth disappeared unscathed and unrepentant, several passengers were hurt when the driver hit his brakes. By the time Martin arrived at the First Evangelical Lutheran Church, the service was already started. He was too embarrassed to make his way all of the way to his favourite seat in his favourite pew near the front and on the far side where parishioners were bathed in the brilliant, multi-hued sunlight filtered through the ornate stained glass windows.
That morning, he would always recall, the congregation was standing, singing full voiced.
Heaven has confirmed the great decree
That Adam’s race must die:
One general ruin sweeps them down,
And low in dust they lie.
He found a space in the back pew but hesitated when he saw the next place was occupied by a red-headed woman, still seated, crying quietly, her shoulders heaving. He had never seen her before. Whispering, he leaned over to ask her if she was all right. She briskly shook her head but, from her action, he couldn’t tell whether she was letting him know that she wasn’t all right – it had been a stupid question, after all – or that she wanted to be left alone. When he spoke again, the man in the pew in front of them, turned, increased the volume of his singing, and glared.
Martin led the distraught woman outside. There, sitting on the church steps and in her very limited English, Nevena Kovacevic explained that the man who had helped bring her into the country had stolen the little money she had left, leaving her helpless and terrified she would be sent back. She swore that she would kill herself rather than return to the horror that was her homeland. By her gesticulated description, Martin believed that it truly was a hell on earth.
Seven weeks later, they were married. Her abuse began less than a year later, once her citizenship papers arrived in the mail. Most of the time, the attacks were only verbal. But three times she had sent him to hospital with broken bones, twice more with concussions. Having been raised in a strictly religious home, Martin had learned several unquestionable truths. One of these was that a man absolutely never struck a woman. Another was that divorce was a sin against God. And God knew how to punish.
It was just after six-thirty on a March evening in 2011 that Martin arrived home to find his wife sitting silently in a flicking darkness, an open, half-empty bottle of Absolut clutched in her meaty fist. She appeared to be watching the news on the huge wall-mounted television screen that she had insisted he buy. (One of the few “luxury” items he had ever been able to afford. The largest one in the store.) Wolf Blitzer on CNN, the omnipresent anchorman’s already balloon-like face bigger than life, his words muted.
Martin received no acknowledgement. It wasn’t an unfamiliar greeting.
“Hello, darling,” he said, and waited for her reply. When her silence persisted, he pointed at the official looking letter lying open on her lap. “Is it bad news?” he asked quietly.
He watched as her eyelids drooped, blinked open then closed. He couldn’t tell whether her smeared mascara had been from crying or if she simply had been rubbing her tired eyes.
Gingerly, he reached down and took the piece of paper. He had seen enough of the magazines she read to recognize that it was written in Bosnian or some closely related Eastern European language – his wife was from somewhere over there, although, from the beginning, she had been stubbornly sketchy about certain details about her past. The letterhead looked official. But not from a government office. A law firm, he judged.
“What does it say?”
Again, her eyes blinked open and she seemed to be searching the air for the right words. Then, she pointed the neck of the bottle at the letter and translated: “Regrettably to inform you of the dying of your father from cancer.”
As much as this news apparently was distressing to Nevena, it came as most surprising to Martin.
“I’m sorry to hear that. But I thought your father died years ago, in the fighting? Before you came here?” he asked quietly, holding the contradictory news between his thumb and forefinger.
As if she had finally been stirred fully awake, her eyes leapt to his. Reflexively, he braced himself for the sharp retort or derisive laugh, her response to his having totally forgotten whatever she had really told him. Instead, she made no sound, continuing to look drunkenly at him. Still, there was a measuring in her narrowed eyes that he had never seen before. Finally, she set the bottle on the floor, rocked backwards and levered herself to her slippered feet. Upright, she extended her empty hand towards him, beckoning with her softly curled fingers.
Martin froze, his chest suddenly filled and his skin grown hot. It had been more than five years since their flesh – even their hands – had met in anything more than the most accidental collision. Reading in her gesture what his trampled heart desired despite what her eyes informed, he was overwhelmed by the startling promise. Of being touched. Of touching her. Of comforting her in this epiphany of her vulnerability and need. Overwhelmed he was as, for several seconds, the earth suspended its spinning chore.
Finally, abruptly, her lips expelled an impatient smacking sound, her fingers shot out and she snatched away the letter. Martin stood staring at his empty hand, belatedly piecing together the realization that she had left him alone again, retreated to her bedroom and closed the door. Without a word.
In the space of a breath – he realized that he was holding his – he had been startled awake from the anaesthetized somnolence that had sustained him for so many years, been shown a diamond-bright ember that he had been certain had long been extinguished, only to find himself sent plunging even deeper into the stygian depths of a new self-knowing, a chasm from which it was impossible for him to conceive of ever recovering.
Martin closed his eyes. His head spit fireflies of green light. He felt his legs wavering beneath his weight and reached, collapsing into the chair just deserted by his wife. He landed on something hard and, immediately, his head was filled with voices. High pitched screams of panic. All of them yelling at him. But the words made no sense. In his confusion, he imagined that it was that lawyer’s letter, made human, screaming at him. Shouting in its native tongue.
He reached down, picked up the vodka and took several long, hard swallows. As the alcohol quickly suffused his body and mind, the panicked screams were replaced by a single voice. This one was speaking earnestly to him. In English. The tone deep and reassuring.
He opened his eyes and found himself gazing into the bearded visage of Wolf Blitzer. Unnaturally erect, perfectly dressed and, with a mesmerizing sincerity, the newsman spoke to Martin. Yes. To Martin alone. Telling him there had been an unimaginable catastrophic event. Across the Pacific in Japan, an earthquake. A tsunami. Nuclear power plants gutted open to the sky, spewing their poison. Thousands upon thousands of lives had been lost. And this was just the beginning. Immeasurable death and destruction behind and still ahead.
Reluctant, but driven, Martin finally stood, crossed the small living-room and pushed back the sliding door to the balcony. A ragged blanket of lights still flickered below. He lifted his gaze and was struck by how clear the stars were as well.
He took another long gulp of vodka and returned to his seat. Soon, his own eyes grew heavy.
A loud crack brought him back. How long had he been gone? Not long, he thought. Because Wolf was still revealing, telling him now about how the nuclear reactor had been flooded. A meltdown was imminent. Wolf was wringing his hands. Deadly radioactive materials filling the air. To envelop the city. To fill the sky. Sending the earth back to the beginning. A boiling mass of molten rock.
Martin didn’t know whether he saw the mushroom cloud on the screen or only in his head.
He remembered the hymn.
Once you must die, and once for all:
The solemn purport weigh;
For know that heaven and hell are hung
On that important day.
“But how could this happen?” he asked aloud, staring into the newsman’s dour countenance. Wolf held up a finger as if telling him to hold that thought while he continued to try to explain how the end would come.
And Martin drank as, with diagrams and maps and animations, he came finally to accept the gravity of the situation. The truth. In vivid detail.
All was lost. There was nothing to be done. Nothing at all.
He lifted his eyes to the screen again. Wolf was gone, replaced by a woman. Her hair was long and dark and now it was she who was speaking to him. Repeating and embellishing what Wolf had said. Promising the inevitable yet to come.
Extraordinary,” he thought, how much she reminded him of Nevena so many years ago, crying helplessly on those church steps.
But she was not Nevena.
Where was Nevena?
He had to save her. From the apocalypse.
She was terrified of the fires of hell. Her only weakness. And he could almost feel the flames himself.
He found her asleep, lying on her back. A droning whistle emanating in rhythmic waves from her nose and throat.
The pillow was thick and dense against his chest. And when he lay across her face, his eyes squeezed shut, he saw the flames leaping into the air. Extinguishing every star in the winter sky. He felt the rumbling inferno beneath him, the enormous pressure trying to push him off. But he had to save her. He loved her so much. He would finally be able to keep his promise. He would never allow the roiling mass to consume her.
©2011, Greg W. Taylor
*NOTE: ‘Wolf” was originally published in Summer 2011 by Shark Reef (http://sharkreef.org/fiction/wolf/) as well, in Fall 2011 by Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts (http://www.servinghousejournal.com/TaylorWolf.aspx).