When the Spring Dies – Nathaniel Tower
The smell of purple lilacs drifted through the air leaving a fresh sweet scent upon the sloping countryside. The Bradford pears, bursting with white buds, were snowy mountain peaks towering above the rolling grassy meadows. The rosebushes were on fire with sporadically popping buds that opened fully to the golden sun. The crisp air had lost the chill of winter but had not yet exhibited the extreme heat of the summer months. The days were growing longer. The sun, when not hidden by the clouds that brought the gentle April showers, was shining brightly upon all the land, scarcely a shadow cast. Green grass sparkled with dew in the morning and stood up tall by afternoon. Birds chirped constantly in the sunlit hours, each choosing a home in one of the vibrantly reborn trees. Night brought the gentle sounds of crickets, grasshoppers, and the occasional not-so-gentle sound of the buzzing cicada. Everything was either bursting with life or about to be.
T.S. had said that April was the cruelest month. J.B. Miter had always remembered that line, although with all that birthed itself during those thirty days, he had hardly understood why. But now, he thought, he was beginning to understand.
J.B. stood on top of the hill. From here, if he looked, he could see it all. The lilacs. The Bradford pears. The rosebushes. Even the birds nesting in the trees. He could see the vast array of farms and gardens suddenly filling with what earth had swallowed up months ago. At least he could if he looked. But he didn’t. All eyes were focused intently on the seven foot by three foot rectangle of recently piled dirt in front of him. It seemed the only thing in the country that wasn’t teeming with life. He knew it would be soon. He understood as he stared at the uneven lumps of soil and clay that soon they would give way to lush grass just like all the other seven by three dirt rectangles in the world had. After all, spring was here, and he had always known that spring was equated with rebirth. Everything came back anew. At least that was what he had always learned.
Damn if they knew. Damn if the Bible could tell him that Jesus burst from that tomb, escaped from behind a giant boulder that sealed him shut, in just three days. Damn if the lilacs and the roses and everything else that had been dead now smelled like life and had just begun to burst with all there was to burst with. While he was at it, damn the birds and the bugs and the sun and the farms and everything else there was to damn.
Damn everything there was except that seven by three rectangle in front of his lowered eyes. It was the only thing that didn’t have the audacity to taunt him and lie to him. It was the only thing that told him the sorrowful truth of the world.
On April 14th, the exact day that Dr. Bennington had predicted, Katherine had given birth to the twin girls, which the good doctor had not predicted. “It’s a boy,” he had told them confidently and proudly back in December when the snow covered all of the dried and rotting branches. “You’ll meet him on April 14th.”
But come April 14th, J.B. met no boy, nor did he really meet any girls either. The first one came out a grayish blue lump, at least that’s what they told him. When they came out of that scream-filled room to tell him, he decided he couldn’t take it anymore. He had to be with Katherine, at her side, squeezing her soft delicate hand, watching life come out of her just as it came out of the soil. When he entered, he saw it. It because he couldn’t call it a her. Twenty-inches of motionless gray human flesh wrapped in a soft cotton sheet. He couldn’t see any blue. The corpse was just gray, and he wondered if the thing had ever been alive. If it hadn’t, was it even technically a corpse?
But he didn’t cry and he didn’t think about how unfair it was that everything outside was alive and growing while his first little baby, the baby they had waited nine months for and over ten years before that, was now dead. He didn’t think about any of that because they told him another one was on the way. But there was a catch. What they said next stunned him more than the sight of that still, gray figure. “Should we save her or the baby?”
J.B. wasn’t sure if they were asking him or each other. How was he supposed to choose? Save his wife of over ten years, the only woman he had ever loved, or save the precious new life that was about to emerge, the life they had prayed for every day for ten years through ten seasons of blooming and dying lilacs. Lilacs he had planted himself.
“Your wife or the baby?” they asked again with urgency, this time wording the question so it was obvious to whom it was directed.
“Save Katherine.” The decision really wasn’t that hard. He couldn’t live without her, and they could always have another baby. He knew he could never have another wife. What would be the point? It would be like if the spring came and the lilac bushes suddenly bloomed with dandelions.
“I’m sorry. We tried everything we could,” were the next words he heard. The words were accompanied by another gray body, this one a little longer, and by the sudden silence of what had been his wife just moments ago. It was amazing how quickly the perspiration had ceased. After just moments she looked pale and stiff. He wasn’t really sure what he was looking at, but the figure in the bed before him certainly wasn’t the beautiful wife that he had loved adoringly.
He didn’t hear another word until the funeral. Plenty were said, but none of them entered his ears. All five of his senses had immediately gone dead to the world. He couldn’t smell the lilacs. Couldn’t taste the fresh fruits. Couldn’t hear the chirping of the birds. Couldn’t see the sunrise. He couldn’t do any of it if he couldn’t feel the glowing warmth of his wife. He had always thought that her touch offered ten thousand times the warmth and brightness of all the sun’s rays combined.
So he silently damned everything, God included, as he stared at that rectangle of dirt in front of him. He couldn’t bear to look at the two small squares beside it, the tiny graves where the two dead girls had been placed at their mother’s side. He wasn’t sure yet if he blamed the girls, but he couldn’t look at them. Had nature been so envious of Katherine’s beauty that it had to take her? Or was Katherine’s life the price that had to be paid for all those beautifully blooming flowers and ripening fruits? The latter was certainly no explanation. One lock of Katherine’s sunflower golden hair was more beautiful than every piece of life that nature had revealed so far this spring.
This was winter in spring. This was death in life. J.B. felt nothing but empty coldness inside as the sun beat upon his reddening neck and the warm breeze surrounded his body with a terrible warmth that if he had felt he would have sworn was the fires of hell.
The day was April 30th. The last day of the cruelest of months. But tomorrow’s May first wouldn’t change anything. All of the cruelty would still be there. The growing life around him would continue to taunt his empty life.
Part of the reason he visited that hilltop grave was to mourn, part of it was to damn the world around him, and part of it was to remove any weed or blade of grass that dared merge its head through those piles of dirt. Every morning and afternoon he would place himself on his knees and tear out with his bare hands any sign of growth. He wasn’t about to let any life come through and cover his wife or daughters. He had named one Spring and one Easter. He wasn’t sure why. Maybe for the sake of irony. Maybe so he would remember how cruel the world was. He wasn’t even sure which was which. Didn’t really matter. Neither had really been anyway.
For two weeks his life had consisted of hours spent staring at the dirt on top of the hill. The rest of the day he spent inside his home, the home he had built for them, sitting motionlessly in the rocking chair as he stared out the window at the top of that hill. He slept in that chair, if one could call it sleeping. Occasionally he would doze off and the chair would inadvertently rock back and forth and he would instantly awake. Perhaps the chair rocked of its own accord to keep him from sleeping.
He ate in that chair, if one could call it eating. A few crumbs of bread accompanied by a couple slurps of soup and a gulp of milk, all of which nauseated him.
He went to the bathroom in the chair once. Not on purpose. It just hadn’t been worth getting up. What was there to get up for really? He would have continued to do it but the stench was a bit overwhelming.
He did it all in the chair that he had bought for his wife to nurse their son, their son that ended up being the two dead girls that killed his wife. He didn’t resent the girls. Didn’t resent the doctor either. Resentment wasn’t going to solve much. Neither was the perpetual damnation that he swore upon everything he saw or thought, but that didn’t stop him from doing it.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a bluebird landing in a tree adjacent to the trio of graves. “Damn you bird,” he swore as he watched it feed insects to the babies that chirped incessantly. He couldn’t take the chirping, so he walked down the hill to his home. He didn’t bother noticing the unweeded garden or the untilled soil or the already withering and thirsty crops that surrounded the white one-story house. J.B. just walked straight into his home, offering damnation to the lilac bush at the door as he entered, and returned to his rocking chair where he sat without rocking until April ended.
When he awoke from an unrefreshing doze of sleep and saw the sunlight beam into his window, he felt no different than he had the last two weeks. May had brought nothing comforting to him. If anything, May was worse. It just indicated that time moved on without Katherine. He wanted everything to stop. He wanted to watch the flowers wilt, to see the birds drop from an angry sky, to watch the fiery sun transform into a ball of ice and crash to the ground right on top of any breathing form of life. But none of that happened. Things just kept growing, the sun kept setting at night and rising again in the morning. Emerson was right, too. The sun did also rise tomorrow.
J.B. skipped his meager bites of breakfast that morning. The promise of the new month left him more hopeless than ever. What could that new month possibly bring him? He could think of nothing to look forward to. He didn’t even look forward to his daily trip to the top of the hill. He didn’t make the journey because it brought him comfort or made him feel more connected to what he had lost. He could feel just as much connection in the rocking chair. He never even attempted to communicate when he stood before the graves. He just stood there and stared and damned anything that he happened to see on the way.
Occasionally people stopped by. J.B. was always on the hill when they did. Most would just leave a basket on his doorstep to show they cared and were supporting him in his time of need. He never made any effort to thank them. Most of the time he never bothered to see who the basket was from. He never used anything from any of the baskets anyway.
But every once in awhile, one of them would come up that hill and stand beside him, sometimes placing a comforting hand on his shoulder, sometimes offering a word or two, sometimes offering nothing but company. J.B. wasn’t grateful for any of this. He wanted to damn them, too. What business did they have offering him their sympathies? “I’m sorry” didn’t help. Neither did “she was a wonderful woman.” J.B. already knew that. There was no need for the reminder.
On May 1st, something different did happen. When J.B. got to the top of the hill, someone else was already there. It was a bearded man that J.B. had never recalled seeing before. The man looked ancient, his wrinkly skin sagging so low that his eyes looked shut and his face seemed ready to drop to the grass below, his white beard so long and full that it seemed to swallow up his body, his back so bent that his head was closer to the earth than it was to the lowest branch of the nearby Bradford pear. Yet the man moved with no cane and walked with the smooth agility of a tightrope walker.
When J.B. saw that man pacing back and forth at the top of the hill, he contemplated returning to the rocking chair, but the man waved a bony hand beckoning for J.B. to come.
“Good morning,” the man rasped through the beard and wrinkles.
J.B. nodded but said nothing in return.
“You think no one else knows what it’s like,” the man said matter-of-factly while staring at the same clump of dirt that captured J.B.’s eyes. J.B. shrugged.
“You think there’s no point in moving on and you hate the world and all that pops up around you.”
J.B. didn’t offer any sign of verbal agreement, but he did wonder secretly how the man knew all this.
“It’s just life. Don’t take it so seriously.”
J.B. looked up. The man’s words confused him. When he looked, he saw the man had eyes as blue as the nearby lake that sparkled a rich dark blue in the sunlight. Katherine’s eyes had been the same color. Oftentimes he had wanted to go swimming in those eyes. As ancient as this man looked, his eyes appeared new, just as the waters of the lake always did. No matter how many years passed, the lake never seemed to age.
The man could tell J.B. was confused. He spoke again. “It’s life, son.” The rasp was gone now, replaced by gentle soothing tones. “You grow old and you die. Some die without growing old. Some grow old before they really are old. Some seem to never die, but they all do. And no matter when we die, we leave some seemingly insignificant mark on a world that just seems to keep changing and renewing itself without caring what we do.”
J.B. nodded. The man continued.
“You planted those lilacs, right?” He pointed to the house as he spoke, but he didn’t wait for an affirmative from J.B. “You know if you hadn’t planted them then they would have gotten planted somewhere else.” J.B. stared at the man’s water eyes. “What if no one else had planted them?”
“Trust me, they’d grow somewhere.”
“But I bought the seed. What if no one had bought the seed?” This was the first conversation J.B. had had since the funeral and it was completely absurd. It made him glad that he had not attempted to connect back to society.
“They still would’ve grown somewhere. Maybe even right there.” He pointed to the grave. J.B. said nothing.
“You know if I pull all those flowers off that Bradford over there that it wouldn’t die and would still be green as the grass you’re standing on within a week, just like it will be if I leave all those flowers on.” J.B. couldn’t tell if it was a question or a statement. He didn’t care to wonder, although the man did intrigue him some. “And you know if grass grows on this dirt that your wife’s still buried beneath.”
“But that’s not where your wife is right now?”
Again confusion settled upon J.B.’s face. “What do you mean?”
“Well, people have this way of thinking that it’s just what they do that controls how things are. You think if you water those plants that they’ll live. You think if you feed those hens they’ll give you good eggs. You think if you don’t build that house then it won’t get built somewhere else.”
J.B. furrowed his thick brow. The man was staring at the empty bluebird nest in the Bradford pear tree. Somehow he sensed J.B.’s confusion without looking.
“Truth is that there is nothing you could do to guarantee those plants will live, and there is no way to be sure if you’re going to get eggs, and if you don’t build that house, well that don’t necessarily mean that the exact same one won’t be built somewhere else with the exact same materials.” The man’s eyes remained fixed to the nest as if he were watching for something that he expected to happen at any moment.
“What’s all that have to do with where my wife is?”
“Well, you put her in the ground right?”
J.B. stared at the man. He looked odd with his torso nearly parallel to the ground and his head tilted up staring at that trees and his beard hanging so low that the man’s knees weren’t visible. It was such a comical sight that J.B. almost laughed and thought he had to be dreaming. J.B. was so captivated by the man’s appearance that he hadn’t bothered to answer the question. But the man didn’t need him to.
“So you think that because you buried her that she’s right there and that’s where she’ll always be.”
“I guess she’s in heaven,” J.B. finally managed to say, not sure if he believed his words or not. The woman certainly deserved it, if there was one. J.B. just wasn’t convinced that it existed.
“Did she put herself there?” The man turned from next and stared at the ground at J.B.’s feet. Immediately a bluebird flew to the nest, a worm dangling from its mouth, a confused look plastered across its face as it wondered where its babies were.
“I guess she put herself there by how she acted on Earth and went to church and prayed.” J.B. sounded unsure as he watched the bluebird move its head quickly in circles. He wondered if the bird had enough sense to know what had happened to the babies.
“She didn’t put herself there.”
“How do you know?”
“Well, God decides who goes to heaven, assuming you believe in that sort of thing. He had the right to accept anyone he wants and refuse anyone he wants. If you think your wife’s there just because she went to church or because she died in such a way, then you’re wrong. God’s decision might be based on what she did, but she didn’t put herself there.”
“What’s the point of all this? Why are you telling me this? I don’t want to think about how my wife might not be in heaven.” J.B.’s face reddened and his loud voice finally frightened the lonely bird away.
“What do you want to think about?” The man remained calm.
J.B. didn’t answer.
“Do you want to spend the rest of your life thinking about how unfair everything is? Do you want to spend the rest of your life damning everything? You know that bluebird you just saw? It’s already eaten that worm and set out to find a new mate. It’s not wondering what it could have done differently and where its babies are. It’s just continuing on with whatever’s left of its life.”
“So I’m supposed to just forget about Katherine and go find another woman?”
“No of course not. You’re not an animal. That would be ridiculous.”
“Then what are you saying?” J.B. was becoming impatient with this shriveling man. The man seemed to age right before his eyes. But when the man looked up, his blue water eyes still seemed indefinitely young. Somehow they now looked infinitely old as well.
“There’s some things we can control and some we can’t.”
“What kind of answer if that? Everyone knows that.” The unusual man J.B. thought was going to deliver comforting wisdom now seemed a common fool.
“If everybody knows it, then how come so few live by it? You’ve got to find the balance between the two. You’ve got to know what you can and can’t control. Sometimes you try to control something you can’t. Sometimes you make no effort to control something you easily could. And sometimes without knowing it you control something that you’re not supposed to.” The man started to walk away down the other side of the hill.
“Wait. What am I doing wrong?” There was a sudden desperation in J.B.’s voice.
“If you think about it, you’ll know.” Those were the last words that J.B. ever heard the man speak.
That night was yet another restless one on the rocking chair, one that seemed longer than any night before. The moon shone fully into the naked window onto J.B.’s wide open eyes. He tried to think of his conversation with the man, but he didn’t have any explanation behind what the man had told him or even who the man was. Suddenly he wished he could talk to him again. He hoped the man would be at the grave again in the morning.
When the sun rose over the hill and shone upon J.B., he opened his sleepless eyes and glanced at the top. The man was not there. Without eating, he rushed outside. Upon exiting, he noticed out of the corner of his eyes that the lilac bush he had planted so many years ago was gone. He glanced to the other side thinking he was just mistaken about its location, but it was not there either. He inhaled deeply through his nose. The sweet scent that had been so overwhelming the day before was now nowhere to be found.
He sprinted to the top of the hill, his robe fluttering open in the breeze. At the top, he noticed all the flowers had vanished from the Bradford pear. Small green buds were beginning to show the first signs of leaves already.
Even more astonishingly, the piles of dirt were now covered with fresh grass. The scent of the grass was nearly intoxicating. From the hilltop, he looked around for the old man, but he saw no one. Instantly, he dropped to his knees and started tearing the grass out of the ground in clumps as large as his fist. He tossed the handfuls aside until half the grass had been removed from atop his wife and the dirt was once again plainly visible. It was then that he noticed tiny white lilies in the center of each of the graves of Spring and Easter. The tiny flowers had begun to unfurl their six petals into a star shape. He released the blades of grass in his hands and stared at those flowers. He thought about yanking them and tossing them in the pile of dead grass and stomping on them until their powerful scent faded, but then he noticed that there was also a green stem by his wife’s grave marker. The bud on that stem remained unopened with its three tips gently resting in a triangle that pointed directly at J.B.’s watering and quivering eyes. Slowly, he retrieved the clumps of grass and began patting them gently over the dirt he had just uncovered until no dirt was visible on Katherine’s grave. Finally, after staring at all of those flowers and watching each open a little bit at a time, he whispered, “Goodbye girls. I love you,” and kissed the grave markers that rested at the head of each. He rose to his feet and glanced at the Bradford just as two majestic ravens, one plump in the belly, landed in the bluebird’s vacated nest.