Her fiancée, Colonel William Turner, shot himself on the morning of their wedding. At night, she thought: Someone else is alive. Still wearing white and topped with a fancy nest, she listened at every door down the hotel hall until she heard a voice in a room. The voice belonged to Wilhelm, William’s best man, who was holding forth on his grief to some silent partner:
“The pain of loss is indescribable. Each second without him is a different type of cave. I start underground, where the air is insufficient. My lungs ache. I imagine upness; I try to dig my way out. But, I burst through into boiling water. So what? I don’t care about my life, that’s true, but I’m in pain, I think I like to breathe, so I kick through into the next, but the next is a motel swimming pool, and my hair is caught in the drain at the bottom. I can see my father up there, standing at the edge of the pool, but he doesn’t notice me. He’s telling a fantastic story to someone while I drown in that beautiful blue. Grief is a cycle of drownings. Drownings have an ache. That ache has a shape, and the shape rushes toward me. May I draw it for you?”
While he drew, there was silence. She kept her ear to the door and watched the dark end of the hallway. Under a spare arrangement of purple peonies—William’s favorite—on the floor beneath an end-table, someone’s silver purse glittered like ice.
When Wilhelm resumed describing his grief, his voice rolled over and caught on itself. He was crying: “William and I shared a room above a butcher shop when we were students. Our beds were two wooden benches covered in fabric. The benches kept breaking. Mine first, then his. Our beds just snapped in half. William was a small man, like me. Why did that happen? Years later, we walked past the address, and I was overwhelmed, for the first time, by the smell of animal blood, and I said, ‘How did we live here?’ and he said, ‘We were playful.’ He was right. We were. We are. There was—play. God. William.”
She opened the door and walked into the room. A young employee of the hotel was lying on the floor, his head propped up by his pale hand, his white shirt open wide. His feet were bare, and shyly he hid them from view beneath the bedskirt. Wilhelm’s parrot slept in its cage, under silk, and Wilhelm sat in an armchair, still dressed in a tuxedo, wrapped up to his chin in a tangerine scarf. The shape he’d just drawn lingered in the carpet.
Wilhelm stood up, and in standing disturbed the bird, and the bird screamed sharp, and she covered her ears.
“Elin,” said Wilhelm. “You’re still in your dress. You’re exhausted. Try to sleep. Don’t do what I’m doing. I’m not taking care of myself.”
“I’ve come to say goodnight,” she said. “Goodnight.” As she closed the door, the young man stood to leave, and she saw Wilhelm tell him silently, with his hands: Don’t go.
She returned to her room and sat at the window looking out over the quiet city. It was deepest night. A pigeon walked across the metal roof below, and she watched it walk its tricky line. Far away, a truck blew its fatherly horn. Then, the pigeon stopped and squatted and strained and released a drop of gray, a little trembling sack of silvery gray—quivering, lustrous, moonly gray—and the sack spread and split and became dozens of itself, rolling and quivering, and the pigeon waded through its sea of silvery sacks, blind and kicking, indifferent to what it had made.
But when it opened its wings to fly away, those sacks became its children, and they opened their wings too, and she saw that the pigeon was performing its role, not insensibly, not hysterically, but easily, easily, and she stepped down from her throne for good. The pigeon and its offspring flew away into the night, and she bowed before the richness of its life.
Kristen Gleason lives in Georgia. Her writing has appeared in Quarterly West, Everyday Genius, Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, The Collagist, and elsewhere. She is at work on her first novel.