The first time he noticed the young woman, she was in the park in the center of the next town over, floating past the duck pond with a bulging sack under one arm. The evening was clear-skied, and the vanished sun still threw a thin silver sheen across the world, as if glancing back at the space it had vacated. Michael could see this odd afterglow of the sunset playing across the trees and over the complicated tapestry of weeds and duck feathers and rocks that led down to the pond’s edge.
For a moment, he felt certain that he’d seen this young woman before, but the next moment he thought not. Surely he would have noticed and remembered her. He hadn’t noticed very much at all lately, he supposed. His life had been busy with office work and drinks with bachelor friends and, just lately, a wife whose need for support taxed his resources more than he’d imagined it would before they’d married. The way that his sales job required his attention combined with a disappointed vision of domestic happiness and caused him to feel himself the victim of some vague distress. Each evening, after dutifully eating the meal his wife prepared for them, he suffered from a swelling bubble of unease that filled his chest and caused his stomach to gurgle and effervesce. In an attempt to relieve this, Michael had taken to going for long evening walks that took him through grain fields and across an expanse of prairie and, tonight, into the next town a few miles down the river.
The young woman wore a long dress, the dusty blue of the forget-me-nots that bloomed beside his mother’s porch each spring of his childhood. The sack she carried was made of something rough-woven like canvas or maybe burlap. He watched her glide to a bench near the water and seat herself there amidst the wide spread of her skirts. Dark shapes boiled about beneath the bench, and she bent and extended an arm to them. The shapes slithered up from below until he could see that they were only two scraggly cats, who lowered their heads and shoved each other back and forth in a gentle contest to rub their ears against the woman’s hand. Tossing a lock of dark hair over her shoulder, she reached into her sack and withdrew a handful of something, holding it out and smiling as both cats at once ate from her hand.
Michael was not usually a shy person. He had, in fact, won his wife’s affections with his forward pursuit of her, composing direct appeals designed to convince her that he was a man’s man, unafraid of toiling for her alone and willing to devote his existence to worshiping her. His wooing was plain but, as with his clients at work, he gave such a show of sincerity and logic that he overwhelmed her objections.
Once they were married, what had seemed a simple victory—winning her over—had morphed into a continual drudge. He had wanted her to be his in the same way he might want a goldfish in a bag that you win at the fair by popping balloons. He hadn’t really imagined that his life would change much afterwards, but there she was every day wanting his words and his thoughts and his very self. There she was being sad when he only wanted to go out for drinks with his work friends instead of staying home and watching television with her. There she was every day and every night.
Now, he stood under a tree in the park feeling too shy to speak, and he observed the young woman in blue without moving. Full dark came on gradually, fading the color of her dress to a dark, smoky color like a box of Morton’s salt. Her dark hair all but disappeared against the dark sky behind her, and still he stood looking at her. Quite a while later—many minutes together, if not a whole hour of them—he suddenly came back to himself. He realized that he had gone away into his mind, thinking of nothing in particular other than what a splendid picture this lovely young woman made. Difficult to discern now, sitting on her park bench by the pond, the woman had hardly moved. Her cats may have run off or not, it was impossible to tell.
Michael shook himself and turned and went back across the prairie and the farmer’s fields, a few miles back along the river to his small house and his wife, Judith. It was so late now, that he found her already in bed and asleep, which saved him from having to offer an excuse for his absence, at least until the next day.
Judith, for her part, did not enjoy being married much. She had grown up as the well-loved child of middle-class parents, who suffered the way many parents do from a blistering sense of their own unfulfilled potential. In the guileless way in which unexceptional people feel entitled to hope, they believed that their daughter would grow up to do things, things that would eventually satisfy her parents’ own thirst for repletion. So, they taught her to expect to work for what she might get and to aspire to accomplish things that other people could see and appreciate.
Her parents did not, however, explain to her about how to manage love or its more commonplace stand-in, desire.
She had almost finished college when she met Michael. Her view of the world until then had been sidelong; she was inclined to assemble a picture of people and events based on collected hints, inklings, and traces gleaned from shadings of the words and behavior of others. If, for example, her roommate wanted to be left alone with a boyfriend, that fact would be communicated through insinuation because it wasn’t a desire that could be spoken plainly without attracting disapproval. Only unimportant things were communicated directly in Judith’s experience.
But then came Michael, pressing his suit. The first time they’d met, in a bar near campus, he shocked Judith by forthrightly proclaiming that he wanted to marry her after twenty minutes of chat. She laughed and looked around for her roommate, and it was all she could do not to roll her eyes at him, which would have been rude.
Each time they met after that—and Michael made sure to show up anywhere Judith might be—his directness continued, and the shock of it to her senses gradually wore into a pleasant glow somewhere below her sternum that straightened her back and her neck even as it lowered her demure chin and eyes and caused her to smile aslant in enjoyment of his focused devotion.
Judith was not without other attentive men at the time, being as golden and ornamental as any fresh Midwestern college girl and possessing a substantial and active intellect as well. No other young man pursued her with such frank ardor, though, and Michael bolstered those most secret beliefs about herself that she (like every youthful person) desired deeply to be recognized by others.
And so they married, twelve days after Judith graduated with a bachelor’s degree and one month before she began her first job, keeping accounts for a physician’s group in their small town. The first weeks and months of their marriage passed in a pleasurable haze that soon developed into something more solid: a sort of unremarkable congeniality that neither contented Judith nor flattered the institution. Unlike his ardent courtship, Michael’s companionship became listless and mostly silent, but since most of their time passed at their separate jobs, both of them assumed this chill was inevitable.
When Michael didn’t come home from one of his frequent long walks, it didn’t occur to Judith to worry. His desire to be out of doors and walking had seemed natural after so many evenings of quiet television and quieter bedtimes. During his walks, she spent her time doing puzzles or reading, so content that she barely noticed his absence. Several times, he had come home after she was in bed and reading in the slim light of the bedside lamp, so when he wasn’t yet home by the time she shut off the lamp and turned on one side to sleep, she knew he’d be there soon enough. And when she woke the next morning, there he was, just as expected.
Michael expected some difficulty with his wife after being out so late the night before, and if he was surprised when she made no comment on the topic at all, he wasn’t foolish enough to bring it up himself. He spent the day in long meetings often sighing and narrowing his eyes to try to mask the unfocused, far-off glint that might have given away his mental wanderings. It was the young woman in the blue dress, of course, who drew off his thoughts and overwhelmed his concentration. The daily chores of his job blurred past him, and instead of tendering any effort to do them well, he settled into an indistinctness of thought that centered on the question of whether he’d see her again if he walked again to that park.
As a salesman, Michael’s livelihood arose from an ability to convince people. He convinced them of his own good intentions, of their need for his advice, of the implicit fallibility of any course other than the one he suggested—in short, he convinced them that they wanted what he wanted them to want. He was good at it, but for all his skill, the origin of his own desires remained mysterious to him, as it does to all well fed and comfortable people. He only felt that his evening walk couldn’t come soon enough.
Judith finished work before him, and although she considered herself a modern person and a feminist, her enjoyment of the process of preparing food was undiminished by any of that. She made supper for them each day both because it was the practical thing to do and because of the heady alchemy of mixing vegetables and meat and grains and spices and fats in all the various ways that produce culinary delight. The kitchen was bright with the early evening sun slanting through an open window to the back garden, and she fired up the gas stove and sliced and chopped and fried and broiled away the tensions of the work day. The smells of cooking eased her thoughts from the columns of numbers she looked at all day into more plush and gracious thoughts that were hers alone and not her employer’s at all.
In his usual way, Michael came home just in time to sit down to eat. He gulped his food so that, Judith thought, he couldn’t possibly have noticed that tingle of thyme and scallions near the back of the tongue or appreciated the tenderness of the fish and the way the wine scent lingered in the nostrils between bites. He sat silent for several minutes over his empty plate, looking around the room with a jittery demeanor instead of the pinched brow and sour mouth he normally developed after dinner. Then he stood and blandly kissed her temple, saying he needed to walk. For the first time, Judith thought to wonder where he walked to in the evening.
Michael set out, nearly jogging in his impatience to discover whether or not the blue woman would again be in the park. He had no reason to believe she came there regularly; he had only his own bewildered longing to watch her again, to see what she might do, to lose himself in a formless and abstracted meditation, as before. He stumbled a little over the furrows of a recently harvested field and raced between the tall prairie grasses, seeking out the shortest route regardless of what burrs or seedpods might attach themselves to his pants legs.
His breath came rapidly, as much from anxious anticipation as from the exertion of his movement. A swath of trees marked the edge of the next town, and he would have to pass either through or around it to reach the park and the duck pond. Pausing to choose his route, he was startled to see movement through the trees and hear rustling and cracking as of a small animal running across dry leaves and sticks. Michael almost knew what he would see, and when he stepped forward and peered through the small wooded area, he confirmed that the young woman stood there among the trees.
She still wore the long, blue dress and carried the rounded sack under one arm. She came from behind a stubby evergreen, free arm outstretched, and glided to a stop next to a hundred-year oak, its wide-spreading arms tapering at a thousand points into woody twists and curls. As Michael watched, the woman dipped a hand into her sack and then held out the cupped hand close to the trunk of the oak. Michael craned his neck and squinted, straining to see her hand, but he didn’t move from his spot just at the edge of the trees. He felt planted, as if his feet were stuck in mud. He saw a puffy tail wrap itself around the bend of the tree trunk near her hand. Then a squirrel jumped from the tree to her forearm, sat with its bottle brush tail upright behind it, and began nibbling on something its tiny paws grabbed from the hollow of her palm.
The late day sun was still above the horizon, but the many leaves moderated its brightness to a twilight glimmer. Still, Michael could see her face more clearly than he had yesterday at the duck pond; her smooth complexion and rounded cheeks and narrow, delicate throat showed her to be even younger than he had believed—perhaps just barely old enough to rightly be called a “woman.” The waves in her dark hair, though, and the curve of her breasts brought a warmth to his throat that he could savor like a sumptuous meal. He stood looking at her until the darkness all but erased her, and then, as before, he shook himself as if waking from sleep and realized that he didn’t know how much time had passed. Michael walked home in a daze and got into bed beside his sleeping wife.
After this second encounter, he became an addict. He was hazy and wistful at work, mute as ever at home with Judith, and always in a hurry to take his evening walks. The young woman in blue didn’t always show up at the park or in the small woods—sometimes he found her beneath the great willows beside the river or lounging in the tall prairie grasses, always with some animal friends: rabbits or dogs or crows. Michael still only watched her. The only interaction they shared was when she would once in a while look right at him, and he was startled to find that in her seeing of him lay an unaccountable mixture of fulfillment and terror. Sometimes, however, he didn’t find her at all, and on those nights, he would race around, walking and jogging and even running to check every place he had ever encountered her and then slogging home, sweaty and disheveled and sulky. If Judith was awake when he got home, he might try to argue with her over any small thing, just to release the tension he’d built up.
Judith, as a creature of habit, took a while to register the changes in her husband. It had become his routine to walk for hours each night, and hers to occupy herself, and that was the way their life was. She told herself that if marriage was not the satisfactory ending she had imagined it would be, then it must be because she herself had held unrealistic ideals and needed to adjust her understanding. At the same time, though, part of her felt sure that their situation couldn’t be quite right. Often, the state of their marriage was not just unsatisfactory to her, but insupportable. She might as well live alone.
For a short while, she thought the trouble might be that she didn’t pay Michael enough attention, and she even briefly wondered if she should quit her job and focus on having babies. But she dreaded losing her identity the way people say mothers often do. Also, this default to assuming her own culpability galled her, with its implication that she was in charge of his happiness. Judith wanted to have her own story, and wouldn’t be only a detail in Michael’s. She wouldn’t be a pillar of salt to illustrate a moral or some replaceable daughter of Job.
These thoughts led her to consider about Michael’s perspective, which she realized with some distress that she had never really done before. Even in marrying him, she had considered how their unified life would be for her, with few thoughts about what his experience of living with her would be. Why did he come home from work only to go walking about for hours? Where did he go? For the first time, she wondered if there might be another woman, and she suffered both alarm and nebulous shame at the thought.
So it was that Judith decided to follow Michael one evening. She kept several minutes behind him and always wary, ready to dash behind something if he turned around, but he only rushed forward, a purposeful quality to his steps. It surprised her a bit when he left the road and walked out across a stubbly farm field, but she simply waited until he was across and had entered the tall grasses on the other side, and then scurried after him. He led her past the stand of trees at the edge of the prairie and a short way into the town, where he suddenly stopped and stood with one hand resting on the trunk of a basswood tree.
Beyond him was a manmade pond covered with ducks. It took Judith a moment to see what Michael was looking at, and when she saw the young woman on the park bench, she gasped. As swiftly as the gasp came out, her hand rose and covered her mouth. She worried he had heard her, but he didn’t turn. He stood very still and only looked at the woman in the blue dress, who appeared to be feeding ducks something from a bag. The ducks came very close, and even took food from the woman’s hand, something Judith had never seen a duck do before. The woman didn’t appear to notice that she was being watched, nor that her watcher was watched.
Michael was very still for what seemed to Judith to be a long time. She had begun to give up the idea that anything more would happen and to consider walking back home when Michael jerked wildly and made a strange, lurching step toward the park bench. He took another step and then another, moving as though suction cups were attached to the bottoms of his feet. Judith saw the young woman look up and stare, or rather (Judith thought), gaze dreamily at him. He continued to stagger forward, his footsteps becoming faster and smoother as he neared the woman. As Judith watched in wonder, the woman raised her arm toward Michael, a gesture that appeared to beckon him on. He reached out his own arm, walking almost normally now, and as soon as he came close enough, clasped that outstretched hand and sat down hard on the bench next to the woman.
Still holding his hand, the strange woman dipped her free hand into her bag and withdrew it cupped, as it had been when the ducks ate from it. Then Judith saw her husband, beginning to fade to an outline against the fading light, dip his head and, spine meekly bent, eat from the vessel of the woman’s hand.
About the Author:
Lydia Sanders lives in Wisconsin, where she surrounds herself with books, vintage furniture, cats, and the melancholy of the native recluse. Her peculiar fiction has appeared in Spectrum Literary Journal and Scrutiny: A Journal of Magic Realism