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Steps

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There are 527 steps from our door to your grave. My sister wears a Fitbit and posts on Facebook that she has walked enough steps to get to India (1,997 miles). All I do is walk up the hill to Cook's Cemetery and back again: 1,054 steps.

Sometimes I count my steps. Sometimes I recite the Stephen Crane poem I was always haunted by. You didn't like it, remember?

In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, "Is it good, friend?"
"It is bitter—bitter," he answered;

"But I like it
"Because it is bitter,
"And because it is my heart."

My heart. The one you broke. As I walk I count the ways I am mad at you. I am mad at you for going first, for leaving me with this mess of a house too big, for the years when you were barely home, barely present when you were home. I am mad at you for your work life, for every project that enhanced your reputation, every award you won. More than that, I am mad at you for your work wife, the woman you confided in, the one you supported through her divorce and hard times. I am mad at you for how lonely I was, and how untethered I am by love or work or need, now that the kids are grown.

Counting. It's a habit I've had for a while. Thirteen steps down the stairs from our bedroom. Forty-two years of marriage, two children, five grands. Seven pills counted out for you each morning and placed on your bedside, five each night. Eighteen months you were given to live, seven months you were cheated out of, three weeks in the hospital, two days on life support.

My sister thinks all her steps will let her live forever. She is wrong. We never know which step will be our last. You thought you had thousands of steps to go; enough to get us into our retirement years, our travel years, our Spain and Italy and Mexico years.

You always were the optimist in our relationship. You told me to count the eggs that were laid and the omelets we'd make. You said, Look how many gallons of maple syrup we boiled; Check out the circumference of the apple trees we planted; Look at the height of the blueberry bushes, the number of grandchildren. Instead I counted the chickens that came home to roost, by which I mean, the number of leaks in the roof, the years left on the mortgage, the misplaced friends.

These days I count my steps and then sit on a bench across from your grave and I tell you things. When I first started visiting, I told you only the most ordinary things, the stuff of our lives: how many bills I had left to pay, how many dollars were left in our savings account, who called to offer sympathy.

Lately, I have been recounting our days. I started with the first time I saw you: at a party, across the room. The air was thick with smoke and there were girls hanging all over you. That's what I remember. How many girls I saw you talking to that evening. How tall I thought you were—too tall for me I thought, too much of a show-off. Too much.

I can count the number of times you stopped by the bakery to see me, the number of times you just happened to be walking by when my shift ended. Every day I replay a scene in my head and remind you of it. The time we went camping, set our tent up in the dark, and woke the next day only to find we were ankle deep in poison ivy. The time we drove to Maine in a snowstorm and didn't realize we were off the road and driving through a field until there was a big barn right in front of us. You laughed, but I was scared. For every concrete memory, I have left a stone, a piece of glacial moraine, marriage moraine.

So many stories to tell, so many years. The trips we planned and took. The trips we never took. Not to India or Belize, not to British Columbia or Iceland. But we did walk the Long Trail one summer, we did walk along the beach in Florida and Maine. We did search for wildflowers in the woods every Mother's Day, we did walk for miles in Montreal and New York City, predictable escapes from the narrow confines of Vermont.

The moving in and moving out of the houses, from a cabin in the woods to a house in town to the old farmhouse where we raised our children. The marriage, the babies. We did enjoy the babies. I was perfectly content to melt into that life. Did I disappear then? Of course, I did. That, I think, is the essence of motherhood, the total annihilation of the woman who was, the emergence of the Mother. Mother with a capital M, lioness, giver. I did expect that you would mold yourself around this new person I was becoming. But you didn't, did you? You dove headfirst into work and left me behind with this new sense of myself.

Before my daily walk, I pass through the yard to pick up a pebble to leave on your grave. Under the lilacs, beneath the apple tree, on the river bank, I pick up granite, feldspar, slate. Leaving a stone at each grave you visit is an old Jewish custom, possibly to mark it before headstones were common, or possibly to tether the soul to the ground. You figure out what the stones mean. As I walk, I worry the pebble in my hand, tumbling it over and over again. Iberville shale. How did it get from the valley to this mountain village? Maybe one of the kids picked it up when we were swimming in the lake, then left it under the crabapple. Do you remember all the wheelbarrow loads of stone we carted to the river bank after Sparks Brook washed through the garden in '98?

I have been coming to your grave for 147 days now. We buried you in the spring and now the leaves have turned. Soon snow will cover your spot. In April the boys will return with their wives, and we will commemorate the date and admire the headstone. The granite gravestone will be a double one, with your birth and death dates, and just my birthdate. I've already ordered it and paid for it.

The stones I have been placing? They have weight, three ounces, four. In time, there will be enough weight to cleave your soul to mine and to bind your soul to this piece of land that holds your bones, your beautiful bones.

First appeared in ZigZag Lit Mag, Fall 2018
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