Narrowed Passages

Flat round leaves slid back and forth over black marsh water.  Scattered amongst them were occasional yellow fisted lilies, some with their heads closed tight, others opened.

Maddie slid the front of the canoe into the water while Jim stood a good distance away, his legs shaking as he hobbled down the path with his knees bent.  She inched her bare feet into the cold icy marsh, “Oh Good God!”  She high stepped, letting only one foot touch the water at a time. “This water is freezing.”

She warmed one foot by rubbing it against the back of her calf before dipping it into the water and standing, her feet sunk into mud until they warmed. She waded in a little further and steadied the side of the canoe against a log. “Come on, Jim.  The day’s not getting any younger, you know.”  She smiled gaily and tucked her hair behind her ears, her sun hat wobbling. For one fleeting instant, because of the sun and the shock of cold water, she felt not half of her sixty-two years.

Jim slipped down the hill sideways, reed grass rising and clinging to his hairy white legs.  Looking up at him, she saw him not as Jim, but as others must see him, his patients, fellow surgeons.  When had he gotten so pale that even his eyes had lost color?

She submerged her arm in the water and watched it wiggle just beneath the surface.  Then, she looked up and saw him pull out his pocket watch.  He stood, seemingly unaware of her or even of where he was jiggling it, holding the timepiece up to his ear, and shaking it so hard he would have broken it if it weren’t broken already.  Then he popped the face off with no regard for Maddie.  She wondered if he even knew she was here.  What was it Dr. Sholl had said?  That a person could plateau for years, forget where he was at night and be absolutely fine the next day.  But be watchful, he’d said.  Sometimes dementias could move quickly.

She steadied the canoe, crouching low.  She looked at Jim and groaned.  Was he really engrossed in the watch again?  He’d been tinkering with it all morning, just now in the car and earlier while sitting on the deck at home, unscrewing the face and taking the gears out.

She held the canoe firmly but her hand began to ache.  “Come on, Jim.  Can’t you please move along so we can get in while it’s still light.”

The water stretched out before her like black glass, and in its depths Maddie could almost see Mrs. Boothby’s reflection looking back at her, her body swelling as the respirator filled her lungs, shrinking as the machine relaxed.  “I’m so sorry,” Maddie whispered, but of course Mrs. Boothby couldn’t hear her then.  She hadn’t even known Maddie was there.

The boat shook, reminding Maddie she was not in hospital room 322.  She was at the marsh.  The sun was shining, and Jim still hadn’t made it to shore.  If only he would put the damn watch away.  “Come here, Jim.”  Even a saint would have lost patience by this time, but still she hated to treat him like a child.

He inched haltingly down and looked up when he heard her, putting his arms out so he wouldn’t lose balance, and he would have dropped the fool watch had she not said kindly, “Will you just stop for a minute and put the watch in your pocket.  There.  Did you close the flap?”  When she saw he had, she said, “Yes, that’s good.  Now be sure to button it.”

He shuffled down the hill and, standing beside her, shook his head, looked around him at the water and trees, and his eyes cleared.  He was back, Jim again, that dear sweet man who’d been there all along.  They’d grown up together and now were growing old.

He held the canoe as she crept into it, keeping her body low.  Jim got in, and they paddled downwind, across the marsh, pushing the fat bellied leaves out of their way with submerged paddles.

The marsh bent to the right by a small rocky crag, and then it opened up dense and black as a vat of spilled ink.  On either side of the marsh were a few dwarfed trees and one pine stripped bare of its needles. Then, a field of reed grass stretched on, uninterrupted for miles.

She stopped paddling in a sun drenched patch of water, put her paddles in the canoe, and for a moment, in place of the breeze, she thought she heard the soft swell of Gregorian chants as they had played from the speakers above Mrs. Boothby’s bed, the music arching over the room, its hollow notes combining with the drone of the respirator, its barren tones resonating and fading, the soprano voice halting, and then a falsetto breaking through.  She had never been to church and she remembered their haunting sound making her feel uneasy.

Jim must have felt her distress because he started paddling, the boat, easing slowly toward the bend.  The boat seemed steady enough, and she closed her eyes, leaned back and stared into soft hazy sunshine.

“Such a lovely, lovely marsh,” she murmured.

Even the word marsh had such a sweet sound.  It sounded nothing like the slimy plants that climbed and arched around them, plants with terse and organic names such as Bladderwort and Pickeral weed, Pickeral Weed, such a harsh sounding name for a plant with leaves that flowed out of the water like praying hands.

She used to name plants by describing them, star flowers, plumed grass, but no more.  Now she made a point of having Jim repeat their proper names over and over so she could remember and repeat them back to him later, because late at night, he so often forgot.

But he recalled the entire passage of St. Crispin’s Day just the day before surgery.  She remembers him reciting it, word for word, and when he was done, he kissed her hand.  “You know, Maddie, I honestly believe that if I keep thinking and reciting and challenging my brain that I can beat this thing.”

Later that night, when she found him confused on the street, she thought he’d been sleep walking.  “You just fell asleep,” she reassured him, but he looked at her, so bewildered.  “I don’t know, Maddie.  I don’t even know where I am or how to get home from here.” Her heart sank then and again the next morning when he didn’t remember any of it.  “Are you sure you’re all right,” she said.  “Maybe you should just stay home and get some rest.”

‘But I have a surgery scheduled.  You yourself said I was sleepwalking.  People walk in their sleep, and then work the next day. It doesn’t mean I’m an imbecile, Maddie.  Please, trust my instincts. If you stop believing in me, I don’t know what I’ll do.”

So, instead of further upsetting him, she helped him get ready for work.  She made his lunch, ironed his shirt, and kissed him goodbye at the door.  He operated on Mrs. Boothby that day, and then he came home.

That night, Maddie stayed late at work correcting papers.  When she arrived home, she found Jim outside lying on a blanket, staring at the sky.  The night was clear, and the moon looked like a pitcher, tipped over and spilling stars.  When he saw her, he didn’t ask why she was late.  Instead he pointed low in the sky past a rim of trees and said, “Look Maddie, at how the constellations tell a story when you combine the stars into pictures.”  She headed into the house, but he said, “Please stay out here.  I could use your company.”  He tried to get her to see them, Pegasus and Orion, but of course, she couldn’t.  She’d never been able to imagine things that weren’t apparent, much less remember the names of all those constellations.

“I wish you could just appreciate beauty,” she said, “instead of constantly trying to turn it into something it’s not.”  But, Jim tried to get her to see each constellation, Andromeda, Pegasus anyway, and when she couldn’t, he said, “Think of the sky as an endless puzzle.”

She hadn’t appreciated it that night, but now, in light of such sadness, the thought of everything in the world interlocking makes sense to her; how Jim cut Mrs. Boothby, how Maddie pushed him out the door.

She looked at the stern of the canoe.  Jim had fallen asleep and his paddle dangled precariously into the water.  She had to slap his wrist to wake him, and when he grunted and roused, she quickly reminded him, “Remember dear.  We’re at the marsh.  See how lovely and fresh everything is.”  He rolled his shoulders, straightened up, and, after a moment, he looked like his old self.  Perhaps soon he would plunge his hand into the black pool as he used to, pull out a plant or submerged weed and start telling her about it.

“Maddie,” he rasped.  He looked chilled, and his hands shook, so she tossed him a fleece, and then he mumbled, “When we leave, if you don’t mind, I’d like to go to the hospital and check on Mrs. Boothby.”

The sun moved behind a cloud, and my, yes, it was cold.  She reached into her bag and pulled her own fleece out and put it on.  Then, she pulled the tiny jade pendant her mother had given her and muttered the words Mrs. Boothby had been unable to say: I forgive you.

The wind picked up and blasted into their faces.  Maddie found herself battling forces she couldn’t see.  Reed grass lay low facing her, and her landmarks confused her. The bridge that should have been to her left stretched out now over water straight ahead. “Please, Jim, you promised not to talk about work, and it’s so peaceful here.  Why can’t you just relax?”

But Jim wasn’t listening to her anymore.  He’d sunk into the canoe, deep and morose, mumbling, “I am her doctor, for God’s sake.  There was a time when the doctor- patient relationship meant something.”

Maddie kept her eye on the horizon, on a rowboat close to land.  A lone woman in the boat trailed her hand into the water.  What kind of relationship did Jim expect to have with Mrs. Boothby now?

A gelatinous green stem draped along the water’s surface, and she laid the plant across her seat in the canoe and called out, “Why look, Jim. Isn’t this a bladderwort?  I’m right, aren’t I?  You ought to be so proud of me for remembering.”  She felt the slimy branches and the black round beads she still hated to touch, even though he’d explained to her time and again that they were not eggs.  They were only bubbles.  “Tell me again, Jim, about the bubbles, how they got there and how they make the plant rise toward the surface.”  She’d planned to bring index cards so she could write these details, but now it was she and not Jim who’d forgotten something.  She’d left the cards, still in their wrapper on the dining room table.  “So much to know,” she muttered, and he shook his head and for a moment, looked like he was laughing at her.

“Why is it suddenly so important to remember every little detail when you used say minutia was boring?”

“Oh I don’t know.”  Small purple Pickerel flowers floated near the canoe, and she stuck her hand into the cold water and grabbed one.  “Maybe I’ve changed, or maybe my circumstances have changed.  At any rate, I want to know what everything is and how it works.”

Jim picked up his paddle, dipped it in the water and helped her row.  Their rowing fell into the familiar rhythm they’d developed from years on the marsh, although now her strokes had the greater strength.

Together paddling, they practically flew past the field with the following wind propelling them.  They rounded a bend, and then swerved past clogged weeds, around rocks and almost smack into a beaver dam that they had to jog around. From the canoe, she could barely make out a small boy perched on the bridge up ahead, leaning over a fishing pole.

“Oh, it’s sure nice knowing someone’s on the bridge watching out for us.”  Up ahead she saw the boy bend over the wooden rail and turn his head side to side, his eyes surveying the marsh.

“Why would you want someone watching over you when you’ve got me to watch over you?”  Jim had taken the watch out again and was holding it in his palm where he must have thought she couldn’t possibly see him fiddling with it.  “Aren’t I enough?”

“Of course you are, dear.”  That used to be true, but now he so often looked at her with those dull, uncomprehending eyes.

Maddie hadn’t been able to sleep the night of Mrs. Boothby’s surgery.  She lay in bed with her eyes closed.  Dr. Hogan, the head surgeon, called the next day, and when she asked, “Did something go wrong,” he said, “Maddie, I’m afraid that would be an understatement.”  There was silence on the other end, and Mike didn’t ask her about her job or any of the usual things.  “Keep him home for a couple weeks, Maddie, until we can get this all sorted out.”  When she asked him exactly how she was supposed to keep her husband home, he said, “Just do what you have to do.”

The marsh slogged around a small island and then narrowed into a streambed.  Maddie had wanted to find sanctuary but couldn’t stop thinking about Mrs. Boothby.  How could Maddie ever forgive herself when she knew Mrs. Boothby would never be well?

Maddie pushed the oar off nearby land and tucked the jade pendant beneath her shirt.  She’d been paddling for hours, and what was Jim doing? He was slumped over on the bench fiddling with that useless watch.

On either side of the marsh, wide oak branches dipped large leaves into black water. The bridge and young boy disappeared, and the stream grew narrower until their oars touched land on either side.  The stream broke into smaller passages, and she followed one down, until the channel narrowed, and she had to back out.  Jim took his paddle then, and they’d worked together, digging the oars into wet muck and prying the canoe free until they came to open water and could turn it around.  Then, they let the craft float.  His paddles rested inside while she kept one in the water to prevent them from drifting back.

Leaning forward, she stared into empty black water.  Why black, why not green or blue, some color that could soothe her?  But Jim liked night and dark places.  “Just connect the stars,” he’d said that night, “as if they were dots,” and she had because he’d asked her to.

That night, after Jim had operated on Mrs. Boothby, he’d sat on the ground, and put his arm around her, pointing at the stars with his free hand.  “Look straight up past those stars and then diagonally until you see the constellation that looks like a giant square with some stars in the bottom corner.  Do you see it?”  And once she said yes, he traced star to star until she thought she could make out a winged horse.

“Yes, if I squint just right I think I can see wings.”

“Well, that’s just on the outside, and when you move in you’ve got Pegasus’s body.  There’s an interesting story about Pegasus. He was born from his mother’s neck while she was having her head cut off.”

She closed her eyes to imagine the giant horse, but could only see sharp beads of light.  She touched Jim’s shoulder and felt him shaking. “Jim, what’s wrong?”

He turned away, facing the trees.  “Nothing really.  It’s just that today when I operated, it didn’t go too well.”

“What do you mean by not too well?

She wrapped her legs around him and held him so his back pressed into her chest.

“Well, it’s the oddest thing.  I don’t know what happened.  I was operating when my head starting feeling foggy.  The whole room went black, and then I didn’t know who Mrs. Boothby was or what I was doing there.  I don’t know how else to explain it, Maddie.  Something happened.”

“Had you had your lunch?  You know how sometimes when you don’t eat, you get confused.  Did you have something to eat before you operated?”

“That’s what I’m trying to tell you.  I don’t know what I did or didn’t do because I’m having a hard time remembering.  My patient was lying on the table, and the resident was there.  What was his name?  You know that young fellow who’s always helping me.”

“You mean Donald, your attending?” How could he not remember Donald’s name?  They’d worked together six years.

“Yes, that’s right, Donald.  So I was cutting, and he was holding something, but then the next thing I knew Mike Hogan was there, and I was shaking.  Mike said, “Come on, Jim, let’s go,” and he was leading me out the door, but I was trying to tell him, “I can’t leave now because my patient is still on the table.”  But Mike said, “Don’t worry about a thing.  Donald’s going to take care of her.”  And he pulled at my arm, and I thought, but he’s only the attending.  How can he close?”

“Hold on, Jim,” Maddie said.  “You’re not making any sense.  So you started the surgery, but Donald closed for you?  If Donald closed and Mike was there, then they took care of her, right?”

“Well, they must have because Mike said to stop worrying, but how could I stop worrying?”

He was trembling by then, so she rubbed his back and said over and over again, “If Mike stepped in, then I’m sure she’s fine.”

He’d stood and leaned against a tree.  “You know the strangest thing, Maddie.  For just a few seconds, when I picked up the scalpel, I didn’t know what it was.  Not just what it was called, but what it was used for.”

Maddie paddled more slowly now as Jim sat slumped in the canoe with his head down.  Two gulls, one slightly ahead of the other, skimmed across the water then rose and disappeared behind two pines. After the gulls were gone, she stared at the sky until she felt something tap her shoulder.  She turned and saw Jim reaching for her.  “I’ve got it, Maddie.” He put his hand into his pocket, and she heard something snap.

“Got what, Jim?”  She felt so tired, and there was still so much further to go.  After they reached land, she’d still have to drag the canoe, lift it onto the car, and then she’d have to drive home.  She paddled through Pickeral weed.  Lily stems and marsh grass clung to her paddles.

“My watch.  I’ve got it working.”  He held it to his ear.

“But that’s not possible, Jim.   You said that old watch has been broken for years.”

He handed it to her.  “It might have been broken before, but it’s fixed now.  Put it to your ear.  You can hear it ticking.”

Jim’s father had given him that watch when Jim was eighteen and had told him that if he cared for it, he would have it for life, and Jim had maintained it, meticulously, kept it polished and clean for all these years.  She stared at the watch face, the bold Roman numerals, the black hands circling.  The time was wrong and the second hand jerked, but she heard it ticking.

Behind her, Jim sat with his head in his hands.  He looked tired, but his blue eyes shone.  “Maddie, I know Dr. Sholl said my mind was slipping, but doctors can be wrong.  Even the jeweler said that watch was hopelessly broken, yet I fixed it.  Now, does that sound like a man who’s losing his mind?”

Ahead of her, shreds of light formed on the water, but each time she paddled closer, the reflection shattered.

“And if I can fix the watch today, tomorrow who knows?  If I eat lunch every day, and if I sleep.  You know sleep heals.”

Light from the sun reflected in his eyes, and his eager hope was so reminiscent of the old Jim.

“If I can’t work, Maddie, I know I’ll die.  I have to do something.”

Three months ago, she had let him go to work, and she now felt as if the knife had been in her hands, not Jim’s, as if she could still relive the sensation of cutting in.  Mike hadn’t called, but Maddie knew she would never let Jim work. She would never again make him lunch, iron his shirt, or leave it, hanging on the doorknob where he could get it more easily.

She handed him the watch.  He spit-shined the glass and put it back in his pocket.

A blue dragonfly hovered near her and then landed on her shirt.  She felt its wings beating.  “I think it’s time, Jim, to think about retiring.”

Jim dipped his hand into the water.  He pulled out a clump of marsh grass, ripped it apart and tossed it back into the water.  Then he trailed his hand into the black depths until he grabbed hold of a bladderwort and pulled it out of the water.

She continued paddling through a cluster of beautiful pink water lilies.  “Tell me again,” she said, “about the bubbles on the bladderwort and what they do.”

He draped the wilted plant on his lap.  “They buoy the plant and bring it to the surface for sun.  Without the bubbles, it would sink to the bottom and die.”

She paddled past dwarf trees and the lone stripped pine, and just when she wasn’t sure she could paddle any further, she rounded the rocky crag and saw the steep muddy hill before her.  Beyond the hill was their car, and then she could go home.

He slipped the plant back into the marsh, wet his hands and rubbed them together as a cold wind picked up and nudged the canoe further along.

“I’ve never been so scared in all my life,” he whispered.

She put down her paddle and reached for his hand and together they sat, shivering while the sky grew dark, and it started to rain.  “I’m scared too,” she said.  She felt the wind inch them ever so slowly.  Wildlife and marsh plants were all around her, but she couldn’t find peace in them anymore.  All she could see were black water, darkening skies, and ever narrowing passages.

Join the conversation