I used to walk through the house. So many rooms, I realize now. Even then, though, I was not naïve. I did not believe it permanent. From time to time, the wooden sturdiness of that cabin on the banks of Lake George would catch me off-guard, freezing me to the spot. In those gaping moments, the scent of sweet oat bread baking in the oven brushed open my lips. Low light washed in through the wall of glass, from beyond the porch and unruly lilac bushes and the open waters and the violet Adirondack sky. My child roamed the unknown terrain in his slumber and my husband was just a short walk over the bridge at his work.
I would stand in that frame of light, and marvel. This? The beautiful terror. This is my home? My family? The thrill of its truth would split my chest. The walls, scarred as they were, would upend me just before catching my shifting weight. I could not fathom that our home might be real, even as it held me to the firm on planks of the floor.
Belief was irrelevant. I still treated that house as the one that would carry us through. I stocked its larder with rice and fruit, tidied its collection of closets. I adorned its walls with sunflowers, sewed ribbons of aquamarine into the linen grazing our windows. The man who loved to camp and play helped fill our den with a library of games and words and music and friends. My boys tromped their muddy boots in from the wild woods and I knitted the woolen caps and scarves they hung, dripping, by the door.
Every so often, when silence was my only company, I stretched out in the delicious embrace of that sanctuary and surrendered to the staggering improbability of such abundance.
Nothing is fixed. Nothing at all.
Even if I had known what was coming, would I have treated it differently? Would I have decided not to nestle the snowdrops and Sweet William into the rock-ringed patch where we turned the earth to the northern sun? Maybe a realist would have left the dust in the corners, left the oven cold. It can seem a waste of time to trust in what is in our grasp when we sense it slipping. If I could have seen then the figure of the shaken-down woman standing here now, would I have warmed that home with the bellows of my faith?
Now, I sit with a man at the end of the world, amidst the rubble and debris. The apocalypse has left us this one table, standing on its bare legs with a single candle in a stained mason jar, flame guttering but still alive. He is new, but only to me. We pull our chairs to the same side. Grazing knees and upturned cheeks, we listen, we speak.
Behind my throat, an iced vein. It runs deep, biting along my spine, chilling me awake. No, no. Don’t partake. The soporific promise in that low light, the smell of him near. Stay alert, silly child.
To know how terrible we might become, how hollow the gaze, how peppered with acid the selfsame tongue we use now to lap at the rime edging the crag between us. To know we could turn so sour. And yet, to go on.
That current in its toothed chill is a living thing. It may spill over its banks, it might even roar so powerfully as to knock the rickety legs out from under us. But also, this: the frozen creek still courses below the solid frost. It still carries brook trout to their breeding ground.
How do I lift my eyes to the man here? Can I live inside a fleeting moment the way I lived in that house on the lake? Can I treat this tenderly, nourish it, lay the bulb in the furrow of earth while defeat’s crowbar snickers at my neck? The wide-awake vein carries its keening fear down along the axis of me, bright and searing. I want to draw my hands back from the table’s smooth wood, grab tight to my own chair, stiffen in anticipation of the quake, the flood.
I know now more than I did then, framed in the imperfect light of the cabin window. I know how mighty the wrecking ball of loss when it finally connects, yes. But also, I am still upright. Also, the root holds.
Does the wide-awake chill of knowing actually breed wisdom? The question is this: what do I choose to do with what I know? We may crash hard if we fall away from each other. We also may find our feet if we do. We can endure far more than we imagine.
It would be a terrible thing to leave the table bare while the scent of the bread in the oven grows so warm, so near. Now we are here, leaning in, lips parted. Tasting what is in the air.