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Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Fiction #66: Amanda Kavanagh

Woodland Mystery

“How do you like the rooms?”

“They’re nice, good neutral colours.” She went back and forth from her office to the living room, silently taking in the soft greys and greens Bernard had chosen. “They’re supposed to be calming?”

“The therapist said to pick colours that represented nature. She said you would find them relaxing and I hoped that you might start to forget your worries.” Bernard looked around the room, at the reading chair and loveseat, at the T.V. in the corner, the sun reflecting off the screen turning it into a mirror. With his shoulders slumped he put a hand on Febe’s waist and gave it a comforting squeeze. “I thought the colours went well with the furniture, and look how light it is with the sunlight through the window.”

“I do like how the light seems softer now. What are they called?” Febe didn’t really care about the names of the paint colours, but she didn’t want to disappoint him. Not again, not after he spent so much time painting this past weekend while she had been at her mother’s.

“Well, this room is ‘Gray timber wolf’ and ‘Winter Lake’ while your office has ‘Backwoods’ and ‘Woodland Mystery.’” He said. Now his shoulders were square, his back straight with his hand still resting on her shoulder. “I was hoping it would bring the tranquility of the country life to the place, like you’re on vacation from the city – a haven of sorts.” She was so hard to read. He used to say and do the right things, but not anymore. He didn’t know how much longer he could deal with her; even after all of the years they had spent together. This time she was too different and it had been going on for so long.

Febe stepped away and walked to her office. She noticed Bernard had even tidied her desk and arranged her books as she sat down in her timeworn leather chair. A quick moment of panic traveled through her body, warning her that he may have looked through her things. But it was fleeting. She leaned back with a sigh and thought about the names, Backwoods and Woodland Mystery, what a joke. I’m trapped in this city and no paint job is going to make it better.

“You don’t like it.” She hadn’t noticed Bernard in the doorway, watching her.

“Yes I do. I love it,” she responded immediately. “Thank you. Thank you for making such an effort to help me.” She said while looking at him, hoping he could hear the earnestness in her voice. But he didn’t.

“Christ, Febe. What is it you want? What can I do? I’ve tried to be patient and understanding, I’ve tried my best. Do I stop you from going to your mother’s every weekend? Have I complained that you are never here, that you never seem to be here even when you are? I’ve gone to therapy for you. I’ve just painted the god damn apartment for you. What else can I do?” Bernard said standing completely still in the doorway. But now he walked to the window and looked out, without facing her.

“Bernard, I know you’re trying. I can see your effort. I was being earnest but I understand if it didn’t sound like that.” She got up and tried to circle her arms around his waist, wanting to lay her head between his shoulder blades, but he shrugged her off and walked out of the room.

“Wait. I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be difficult. But this is going to take time. I’m trying my best too. We just need to work together, be patient together. Things will turn around. I promise. I just need time, the city is suffocating me.” Febe knew her words would not calm him, not yet. She would have to give him space, time to cool down. No matter how much her depression made her life difficult, she knew it was even harder on him. And still, she missed the patient and understanding husband he used to be. Sure he did things for her, but that wasn’t the kind of love or support she needed from him.

“I’m going out for a bit, I’ll bring home supper,” Bernard said while putting on his coat. He grabbed his keys and walked out the door without looking back at her.

Well that was a disaster, thought Febe as she hurried back into her office, her heart racing. She found her journal in the top drawer of her desk and sat down to write out what had just happened. Her therapist told her it was a good idea to write her thoughts down before they could spiral out of control. It was supposed to help her overcome her feelings of shame and guilt and to get her to stop her negative thought cycle. Fucked up again, she wrote. I must find a way to sound sincere and to take an interest in what B. does for me. I am such a hard person to love, I don’t deserve him. I have to get better or he’ll leave me. It’s my fault he’s so short with me.

As she wrote, she knew she was getting sucked into feeling sorry for herself. She was supposed to focus on what she could change in the future, not put herself down. But this was how it was for her most days. She felt abandoned when Bernard left when he was angry and she could only blame herself. She put the journal away, her hand feeling too heavy and clumsy to write. She leaned back and listened to the sounds of the street. It was rush hour outside, people coming home from their day at work, maybe from the market with food for supper. The sounds of horns and squealing brakes in the distance broke into her thoughts, causing her to picture crowded sidewalks and cars lined up front to back, inching their way down the street. One person to a car, impatient to make it through the light cycle before it turned red. Pedestrians and cyclists waiting for their chance to cross the street bunched up and crowded on the corners. People smoking and exhaust spewing from cars, dust spiralling in mini tornadoes on the sidewalk and flying grit getting into peoples’ eyes. She got up and shut the curtains.

Remember to breathe, focus on the breath coming into your nose, down into your lungs. Hold it. Let it out through your nose, slowly. Think of nothing. Blackness, be blank. With her eyes closed, Febe concentrated on her breathing. After a few minutes, she began to relax and breathe more naturally, her shoulders lost their tension and she allowed her mind to wander. A soft sound came to her attention, one that reminded her of wind through trees. She didn’t open her eyes and tried to focus on the sound. Birds? Could she really hear birds? And leaves rustling? She took a deep breath and even thought she could smell the musty scent of the forest floor, a rich, damp odour. She thought again of the names of the paint colour and laughed to herself.

That night, Bernard and Febe ate in silence in front of the T.V. He brought back food from one of her favorite places, a little Sri Lankan restaurant a few blocks from their apartment. Just one more example of how he was trying. He was always trying. After they ate, Febe sat with her legs across his lap looking at real estate listings. Every now and then she would find a property in the farmland surrounding the city. She would point it out to Bernard and he would give a quick look and nod, and then look back at the T.V.

“Wouldn’t it be so nice to live in the country?” She had said it so many times before and he knew where this conversation was headed. “I could work from home, you know I could. I could even take up a hobby and start an online store.”

“Febe, you know I want to move but it’s going to take time. We can’t afford it yet. Soon though, maybe in a few years you can quit your job and work from home. It probably doesn’t help to keep looking at houses we can’t afford.” Bernard wanted the conversation to end there; he wanted to avoid any topics that might cause her to get upset

“Fine. I know you don’t want to leave the city. You’re just humouring me.” She drew her legs back and sat up and closed her laptop. “I’m going to my office. Don’t wait up for me.”

“It’s still early. You’re not going to be in there all night are you?” Bernard started to follow her, but he heard the office door shut in response. He sat back down and held his head in his hands. He couldn’t get through to her these days, with her outbursts and silent stretches, he never knew what to expect. At least there were no tears tonight. He took that as a positive sign.

Alone again, Febe closed her eyes and started her breathing exercises. She wanted to escape her life, to feel calm and at peace. Soon she could hear the faint sound of the wind. It was louder this time, and she could feel it. A soft breeze moved across her bare arms, making the hair stand up. The fresh scent of trees and foliage once again filled the room, stronger now, as if she really was standing in the middle of a grove of trees. As she sat there, the bubbling sound of a brook filled her ears, it was unmistakeable.

This is unreal, what is happening? She opened her eyes and her breath came up short. She was no longer in her small office, surrounded by four walls, a desk, books, the city. Febe realized she was sitting on the mossy floor of a forest. She pressed her hands into the earth and grabbed a handful of the spongy green moss. This is real alright, but how? She pushed herself up, wiping her hands on her pants while walking forward. The trees were large and tall, but the moon shone through illuminating her way. She walked for what seemed like a long while, touching the plants as she went, pausing every once in a while to listen to the sounds of night creatures. She thought an owl was following her, the hollow sound of its call, keeping her company. When she reached the brook she lay down along the edge and let her hand fall into the fast flowing water. It was cold but at the same time, comforting. She pictured herself lying in the brook, with the water flowing over her body, enveloping her in cold, calm waves.

She opened her eyes with a start at the sound of a clicking doorknob. “Febe? Come to bed, it’s close to three in the morning.” Bernard was beside her, helping her to her feet.
“Sorry, I must have fallen asleep. I was dreaming.” But as she said this, she didn’t believe it. She brought her hand up to her face and looked at it. The skin was all puckered and white, like when she sat in the bath for too long.

Febe spent more and more time in her office, hoping to escape to her woodland mystery world. Most days she could only hear the slightest sounds or smells, but sometimes, when she spent the night in there, she would open her eyes to the trees and earthen floor of her forest. She spent time by the brook, looking into the water, at the way it flowed over the rocky bottom without a care, limitless, with nothing to stop it. She would work up her courage and step in, her feet sliding over the rocks and sandy bed. This was the only place she felt safe and at peace, like she could finally relax and forget her failure of a life. She knew Bernard was increasingly worried about her, but she was feeling better, rejuvenated even. If she spent her time alone, it was not that she loved Bernard less, she would often explain to herself, it was that she was saving him from herself. He didn’t deserve to live with someone like her, someone who was irrational and unstable. She was doing him a favour, and once she was well, they would be happy again.

When she wasn’t locked in her office, Febe was in the bathtub. She took baths constantly, trying to recreate the feeling of when she was in the brook. Bernard often left her alone, his patience running out. He approached her one evening when she was about to get in the tub.

“Having a bath again?” he asked. “I feel like I never see you anymore. Could we spend some time together this evening, maybe go for a walk? Or even a movie?” He watched her slide into the water.

“At least I’m not going to my mother’s every weekend. I think I deserve some credit. I like having baths, they relax me.” She moved down into the water so only her face was left out. The water muffled the sound of his voice, cutting out the harshness.

“Right, I should give you credit for staying in your own home. It’s not as simple as taking a bath. You’re in there for hours, and then you go into your office and spend the night there. I would almost prefer you left the apartment, that way I wouldn’t feel like you were ignoring me.” He leaned against the wall and looked down at her, “Your therapist called. She said you haven’t been in to see her for a month, which means you haven’t been taking your prescription,” He let his words trail off. Not ready to accuse her of anything.

Febe slid even lower, and put her head under the water. “Febe, I’m serious. I’m worried about you. You’re not well. You’re acting like you did last time.”

At that, she thrust her torso out of the water, “Oh, wow. You promised you wouldn’t bring that up. I don’t want to talk about it. I’m going to have my bath. Please, leave me alone.”

“Fine. I’ll go out for a few hours, but only because it’s what you want me to do. I’m here for you.” Bernard didn’t know what else to say. Giving up, he gave her a long, searching look before finally backing out of the bathroom and closing the door behind him. She listened as he rummaged about, getting his keys, his jacket, putting on his shoes, and finally, walking out of the apartment.

Febe was flooded with relief as she leaned back into the water, once again able to relax. She knew he meant well, but she really was too much for him to handle. Trying to rationalize her behaviour to herself she thought it wasn’t fair to subject him to her insecurities any longer. She tried to picture Bernard as he would be if they had never met. He would probably be living in some high-rise condo, with a competent woman who most definitely had a successful career. They would probably have children. He wouldn’t have to take care of an invalid wife who was anxious about the city and her job. Who slept too much and cried over the smallest upsets.

Just breathe. Count to eight while inhaling slowly. Good. Let it out, count to eight. Start again. Febe did this for a few minutes until her heart beats slowed down and the thudding in her ears faded away. She let herself slip lower and lower into the water, savouring the sensation that she was weightless, that her body didn’t exist. She could hear the brook, and smell the decaying foliage on the banks. Opening her eyes, Febe realized she was no longer in her tub, but lying in the brook. She could feel the grainy bottom underneath her and the water flowing fast over her body. She let herself be pushed along with the weak current, every now and then grabbing at tall blades of grass as she passed, the edges scraping against her skin

Finally, she came to rest in a small pool, and holding onto some rocks, she was able to stay still. Febe couldn’t remember a time when she felt more at peace, more at ease with herself. A sense of euphoria overcame her as the cool liquid enveloped her body. Letting her head go below the surface, she noticed the water had turned red, a deep scarlet red that brought her comfort.


Amanda Kavanagh grew up in Ottawa, Ontario where she would eventually work as a secondary school teacher. She left that career to take a writing course at Algonquin College. In a totally unrelated move, she is now working on an organic farm. She spends most of the day with two Jersey cows, chickens, and some very pushy pigs. She wouldn’t have it any other way. She and her husband live in a small village outside of the City of Ottawa. 

Photo credit: Matthew Liteplo

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