Spring 2008

Table of Contents - Vol. VI, No. 1


Poetry    Translations    Fiction    Book Reviews

Juleigh Howard-Hobson



To spare oneself from grief at all cost can be achieved
only at the price of total detachment.

—Erich Fromm

After her corgi died (Missy, the dog's name was. Fourteen years old, soft white-tan ruff of fur around her neck, warm moist breath and eyes that sparkled even after she grew old, grew arthritic, and finally grew death in the form of a large udder-like tumor on her small corgi stomach), after Missy died, Betty wanted no more. Pets bring love, yes they do, but they bring sorrow and hot tears and a catch in the throat trailing after them in the end. Betty had no more room in her for any more of that. Missy was the last she would grieve over.
She had had her fill of it, grief. An only child after her younger brother drowned in a small pond besides the churchyard (so poetic a way to go, a lady said to her later, but it was lost on his family). Grief took residence, a small hard seed, in her chest then. She was seven. He had been almost five.
And that small seed lay, hardly a real presence, as she grew from girl to woman. But it was there.
When her father died (heart attack, such a pity and him always such a devoted man to his family) it stretched to touch her ribs. When her mother died (they always follow each other, they do, them that have that love like that) there were times she felt it like a hard fist of a thing, sitting right there, between her lungs, not shifting, not dissolving, just there.
She had had a love. A truly magnificent love with bright intelligent eyes behind wire glasses, strong hands, poetry books and laughter. Always laughter when he was there. Until he was not. Fell off a ladder, on a bright sunny day. Helping his mother put up an antenna. Broke his neck. They came and told her and she felt the fist inside her chest punch into her lungs, both at once, and she knew suddenly what it was to gasp for breath and sink to her knees as sorrow covered her in a spinning blanket of grief.
They brought her his dog. A lovely dog, a collie dog. It nosed its wet confusion into her skirts and they mourned together, woman and dog, until they could mourn no more. Then they went on. The grief inside her now no longer a fist or a seed, the tears had wet it, sopped it into a cottony mass that simply was inside of her—no more, no less—just was.
She lived around it. The dog grew old, and was put down (digestive problems, hip problems, so common in these sorts of dogs –they made the last day a good day in the end, a day of no more for the dog). The cottony mass absorbed the sadness, but not without growing heavier.
A small area of ache formed around it when she was tired or something reminded her: a dog treat discovered in the back of a shelf, laughter, birthdays…
Of day to day considerations, she had none. Various things—funds, accounts, a house—were left to her by her parents. Some others were turned over to her by the parents of her love from so long ago: a coin collection, the dog, photos and in the end, later, a whole house of things they left behind with none to pass them to… but her. She who their son had loved.
So there she was. Completely alone then. Not even worries to distract her, only fluttering memories that came and went. Those memories she could quiet, very simply too: pruning her roses, the news on television, feeding the dog…all worked equally well at different times to drive her from the past into the present.
Although the throb of grief did not lessen over time.
And now, now there was no longer any dog to feed. First the collie (Lady was her name, she had a red collar and pink pads on one hind paw), then for a very short while a sad brownish pup bought on impulse from an overly bright pet emporium. It sickened and died within a month. Barely added to the weight of the sorrow she carried.
But, it did add something. She avoided dogs for years after that little pup (Brownie she called it, it had rheumy eyes and a dull lackluster coat, it never seemed to know it was her own pup). She brought home a few birds, silly yellow things—empty headed and easy not to love much at all. When they died though, they were missed, even as they were replaced, bird after bird. After a while of that, she was glad not to replace the last one (Chester was his name, he lived for seven years all told, Betty loved his chipper songs). It was too much, the small silent sadness of coming upon a dead bird--her holding a cup of seed and pulling back the cage covering. No more birds after Chester. Too fragile, too sudden in their passing. She had had enough of sudden passings.
Missy was a lovely dog. A stray at first--although how a corgi becomes a stray was a strange thing. A stray, though, she was. Found whimpering at twilight, huddled on the street by the big tree that shaded the outside of Betty's house. Betty took her in. Fed her bits of leftover chicken and found some old stale dog treats. Inquiries made as to former owners led to nothing. Missy was her own dog from then on.
Fourteen years they were together, through high barking young doggy-hood to slow paced elderly canine-ness to the morning that Betty rose and Missy did not. She lay in a cold furry heap on her pillow on the floor beside Betty's own bed.
Quite dead.
And the dormant grief that lay undisturbed all those years within the very fibers that were Betty sprang to terrible life again. Tears and aches in the soul and a vast cold unyielding emptiness followed Missy's leaving.
And Betty vowed no more. No more love to have pulled away from her, no more absolute loss, no more grief. No more of it. She had had enough. She was quite done with it. Made an old woman by it.
She thought about burning the house down, the house, and all the things inside of it, until it was all gone in the flames. All the old things--dog collars and opened boxes of bird seed and photographs in frames and furniture passed on from the dead and clothes with dog hair still unbrushed from the sleeves. All gone.
But, that was no way to do things. At least not her way. So she sold it. Sold the lot, as is, to the first family (three little girls they had, so fresh and young they seemed against the backdrop of that old house) who looked at it. Left them to figure out what to do with the cuttlefish and the old tins of coins.
She went away.
Gabon. The western coast of Africa. Libreville, to be exact.
She had read about it, years ago: a town of French ex-patriots, Peace Corps volunteers, and locals. Always it came back to her; the thought of going to that one place, with its heat and its strangeness and its name that sounded in her head like liberty. Always she put it off, always put it away from her mind as something to sit and ponder only when she was so old it wouldn't matter any longer whether she got there or not.
Now she was so old. So old, but not quite too old, not quite.
And so she left. She felt no grief at this passing, her own passing. No grief at all.
The suffocating sorrow that had weighed down her chest slowly withered from the unwieldy mass into that old fist sized lump. And then that fist itself grew small, and shriveled (she imagined she could feel) into a little hard knot. Nothing to catch in the throat or to sink like a stone in the gut--hardly there at all anymore. A pea. A speck.
She sat back, in a lounge chair, in the heat of a closing day, looking out across the dusty hot grass, seeing here and there the papaya trees that dotted the African property she now called her own. Nothing here held memories to take up room in her heart. She was completely alone under the blue cloudless sky.
All alone out there where she spoke to the young Peace Corps volunteers who were always surprised and a little alarmed that she was American. All alone when she spoke to the women who shopped alongside of her, buying turkeys, peanut oil and little hot chiles they called piment.
All alone. In Libreville, Gabon, Africa. She made it.


© Juleigh Howard-Hobson



Poetry    Translations    Fiction    Book Reviews

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