Short Stories

Till Death Do Us Part

We promised each other in front of God

It was the second week of summer. The long days and short nights made my days less miserable than in the cold, dark winter days. Melbourne’s cold weather started a couple of months before winter arrived. You wouldn’t get much warmth till the summer sun shone again.

I sat in the sheltered barbeque area in the park and watched the birds jumping around on the grass, searching for worms. My body was enjoying the warmth from the sun. My mind was far away in the clouds.

“Doesn’t seem as if the early birds finished all the worms.”

A man’s voice brought me back to reality.

“Some worms are late risers.”

“You’re probably right.”

He was a clean shaven, respectably dressed man. Tall with good hair. Maybe a little pale but he had a wise and well informed look on his face. He didn’t look like a man who came from that particular area. Most of the men around that area were much more the laid back and happy go lucky type. No one would put on a pair of leather shoes to walk in the park. They either wore thongs or runners.

“How do you find this place after five months?” he asked.

I was taken aback. Who was this man? How did he know that I had only been there for the past five months? Maybe he also knew that I had been staying in my brother-in-law’s place since Felicia and I began our trial separation.

He must have guessed what I was thinking. He extended his hand and introduced himself.

“I’m Canyon. My parents were great travellers. They decided to have a child while they were travelling in Kings Canyon. Although I was born three years later, they named me Canyon anyway.”

“Barrett. Named after my grandfather. He was born in England.”

We shook hands.

“Well,” I answered his question, “this is a quiet, clean and nice place. How long have you been living here?”

“I arrived here a few months before you did. Can’t make up my mind whether to stay or to move on to another suburb. Are you retired?”

“Yep, it was the worst thing that ever happened to me.”

Canyon laughed. “I can give you lots of examples that would show you that retiring from work is not a bad thing at all. Retiring from life is another matter.”

I liked the positive thinking man. I guessed that Canyon used to work in the law because he had a lawyer’s confidence and distinguished manner.

“You are in good spirits.”

“I hope so. Every time I wake up in the morning, I experience a rebirth and venture forward into a new start.”

“A good state of mind to be in.”

“There’s no worse enemy than silence, that’s when discontent sets in. Mate, do something to make yourself happy. If you do, you’ll have a generally uplifting experience and it will greatly enhance your days.”

That was how Canyon and I met. I didn’t mind Canyon, although his philosophy didn’t change the way I was. It did influence my everyday life though – that is, I didn’t feel as lonely as I had for the past five months. I really looked forward to seeing him every afternoon in the park.

He was a man with a great sense of humour and an incredible memory. He remembered the details of every place that he had travelled to.

“Have you seen the spectacular Stony Creek trestle bridge six kilometres west of Nowa Nowa in East Gippsland?”

“No, I don’t think I have.”

“Worth paying a visit. The bridge was regarded as the longest trestle bridge in the Southern Hemisphere. It was certainly one of the longest built by the Victorian Railways at around 276 metres long and 19 metres high. It’s still reckoned to be the largest wooden bridge still standing in Australia.”

“Still in use?”

“The last train crossed the bridge in 1988, when the Bairnsdale to Orbost line was closed. Go and check it out while it’s still there.”

“Yeah, I should! Lots of places in Australia I would like to see. One day, when I get organised.”

“Have you ever been to Kings Canyon?”

“Not yet.”

“A must see place, only a few hours drive from Alice Spring, towards the southwest, about 330 kilometres. The walls of Kings Canyon are over 100 metres high, with King’s Creek at the bottom. Part of the gorge is a sacred Aboriginal site. Aborigines discourage visitors from going off the walking tracks but some people take no notice. Hardly a surprise. If there are rules or limitations, it’s guaranteed some people are going to challenge them.”

We started to talk about people’s attitudes and how attitudes influence our beliefs as well as our behaviours. We talked about rational and irrational attitudes, individual and social attitudes.

Exchanging thoughts with Canyon made the afternoons so enjoyable.

*        *        *

Canyon had an unusual family. His half brother was named River and lived with an Aboriginal community in the Northern Territory.

“I have not seen River for thirty years. I just can’t get myself organised to walk into that suffocating, dry heat. Any place other than where he lives is a mad world to him so the chance of having him come to where I am is zero. I would love to put my arm around his shoulder again though, if he is still alive and kicking.”

“Don’t you believe in writing?”

“River lost his eyesight when he was a boy. His life is sitting in the shade, drinking beer. Writing and reading aren’t part of his daily routine.

We were so close, that was before he lost his eyesight. We went bike riding, fishing in the river, playing basketball in the backyard, swimming in the sea, mucking around doing nothing…we had so many good times together.

His blindness tore us apart. Mum sent him away to the blind institute. She said they would teach him how to handle his condition. I only saw him when he came home during the school holidays but he was never again the same brother that I remembered. We grew apart. He didn’t even come to my wedding. Mum said he couldn’t get over the accident. It destroyed his mind.

The accident took the life of his father, who was my stepfather, and his eyesight. Poor River was eleven at the time. A few minutes before the accident, I had been sitting right next to him at the camp fire. If not for mum calling me away, I could have ended up like River or dead like my stepfather.

One of these days, I might go up to the North, to pay him a visit. Sophie is not here to stop me. I have no excuse not to make the trip.”

*        *        *

Canyon was a well-informed man. We talked about things from the East to the West, black and white, from the land to the seas, make believe and fact.

After a while I found out that he had a PhD in psychology and a Master’s degree in philosophy.

I was really impressed! He was indeed a learned man. Spending time with him became the highlight of my day. I was more interested in what he thought than what was going on in the world. His opinion meant so much more to me than anyone else’s I knew at that time. His wise expression and prudent thinking earned my total respect.

We saw each other most days throughout the rest of the summer. If the weather was above thirty degrees, we could always find each other in the nearby pub.

Canyon was pretty much like me; neither of us could claim to be a drinker. A glass of beer would go a long way. Two or three was our limit.

Often when we had had enough to drink, we went home when the pub started to fill with the after work or evening crowd.

We didn’t really spend a lot of time in the pub but Canyon seemed to get noticed by people in the pub. Well, that was Canyon; he was not an average, everyday guy.

A lady named Toni was a regular at the pub. She took a fancy to Canyon. Unfortunately Canyon did not return the feeling. Whenever she was present, he would greet her politely and then make an excuse and leave. Somehow Toni never got the hint. Her persistence put Canyon right off.

“I am sure Toni is a very nice lady but I have no interest in her whatsoever. Sophie spoiled my taste in women.”

“You are a lucky man. Not many of us could say what you just said. Most of the men I know would gladly take Toni out. Your wife must have been very special.”

“She was a real woman! I am not saying that she looked like Miss Universe but she was attractive enough to make me hold my breath when I first laid eyes on her. When I watched her speak, I wasn’t listening to what she was saying, I was captivated by her looks and the way she spoke. She fascinated me.

I had a powerful desire to catch her charm. It was so irresistible that nothing and no-one could deter me from the path that I had chosen to explore.”

“That must be how love at first sight feels.”

“You are right, I guess! The feeling of love provided a warm and benevolent influence on my behaviour.

She had the ability to read complicated situations quickly in a controlled manner. I was totally at her mercy.

Her unapproachable and distant attitude caused me pain since I was at the receiving end. The fear of rejection left my heart in the wrong place. I was filled with paranoia about what seemed to be happening. Things can be perceived in different ways and signals can be misleading. I prayed that the innocent encounters would be transformed into passion. My body and mind responded to the wonders of unknown forces.

I was bewitched by this alcoholic creature who stood in front of twenty or thirty members of ‘Alcoholics Anonymous’ and talked about her addition.

Did you know I was an alcoholic by the age of nineteen? My mum threatened to cut me out of her will unless I joined AA and stayed sober.

That year I was 23, still studying social science at university. Had never worked a day in my life. I didn’t have to, my mum had enough money to keep me living a comfortable lifestyle.

Sophie was 29, a well experienced lady.

During the discussion, she pointed her finger at me and said:

“Hey! You in that corner, I could see the expression on your face. You think you are better than me, don’t you? Ha! If that’s so, why are you here? We are all in the same boat, like it or not. We are all losers. We’ve lost our self-respect, no matter whether it was our own fault or not. We are all unfit to take part in society, that’s why we use alcohol to wash away our problems. The problems that others can handle, we can’t.”

She disliked me from the first moment she saw me. Maybe that was what attracted me or maybe that was the way she got me hooked on her.

What a devil of a woman she was. I did not know what she did to me. All I knew was that after being with her, I realised that my life before her was a total waste of time. I had not been living, I had only been surviving.

She made me active in mind and rich in energy. My energy was directing me into new channels and unknown by-ways of intellectual achievement. I was in tune with the best of life. I knew the joy of being with Sophie, day by day. Chains had tied me to her.

My mother was grateful that I was free from alcohol. She opened her arms to Sophie. Even bought us a house as a wedding gift.”

“She sounded like a special lady.”

I could understand why Canyon had no interest in Toni. She was too forceful, too desperate, didn’t have the ‘hard to get’ quality that a lady should have. Lots of men would lose interest, that’s for sure.

*        *        *

After two weeks of consecutive thirty degree temperatures during the day, the comfortable night temperature in the low twenties couldn’t cool the house down without some help from a breeze. What happened to the wind that usually always blew in Melbourne? The heat built up inside the house. Sleeping in the oven-like room was not easy.

One night, after tossing and turning for a while, having moved from bed to couch then couch to tiled kitchen floor, I started to miss my air conditioned home. The thought of home woke me completely. No, I wasn’t going to be weakened by the heat. The heat would pass, I just had to hang in there. Two years was not that long. I could do it. For the rest of my life, I had to do it.

Felicia was a pain to be with. She had a habit of washing bed linen every Saturday morning, even if it was pouring cats and dogs. It didn’t make any sense. We had at least five other sets of bed linen we could use. There was no need to put out the clothes horse to hang the wet linen in every room of the house. The lounge is a room for sitting, not a laundry. When I went into the family room to watch television, I didn’t like to walk around the clothes horse and touch the damp linen.

She had hundreds of little habits like that which bothered me. I could cope while I had a job which took me away from her during most of my waking hours. Being with her 24/7 in the same house drove me mad.

I found it most annoying that Felicia constantly talked on the phone. If she was not on the phone, she would have her friends over to our house. Their loud voices and irritating giggles got on my nerves. They could really gossip. I didn’t want to hear who was betraying who or who had finally come out of the closet. Who cared if someone spent $5000 just to buy a coat? I didn’t like to hear any of that trivial trash. All I wanted was peace and quiet in my own home.

Felicia said I was rude when I walked through the group of them without saying hello. Who could fit a word in when they all talked at the same time? She thought I was unreasonable when I had my lunch at my desk. To eat with people who mixed chewing and talking was not my cup of tea. The rude ones were them, not me!

I loved living alone, without Felicia and the noise that she created. I could drink milk straight from the carton, eat chorizo sausages with my fingers and have cheese and crackers for dinner. I could do whatever I wanted to do. It’s my body. I feed it what I like to eat. If eating salad would prolong my life with Felicia, I would rather live a shorter life without her.

I was so sure that the separation was the best thing for us. I would not be the one guilty of procrastination. I dared to do the right thing, without hesitation. I had the strength.

Two years of separation was what I needed to file for divorce. All I needed to do was stick to it. I’d be a free man once the two years were up.

To calm my mind and cool my body, the best possible way was to get out of the house.

Walking in the street, the cool air soothed my distressed heart and restless mind. I kept walking, with no destination in mind. Every step took a bit of irritation away from me. By the time I reached the familiar park, I was serene and composed.

The stars in the sky sparkled. They all happily let the moon take centre stage. The bright full moon kindly showered all of us with its silver light. There was a person sitting on the bench. It was no surprise to me that it was Canyon. It was the very first time and the only time I had come face to face with him in the park at night.

“What a beautiful night!”

“The bench is saturated with the heat. Soon it’ll barbeque me medium rare.”

“As long as you’re not well done, Toni would still take a bite of you.”

“God help me!”

“I’m afraid that’s out of God’s hand. This is a battle in which no one can help you.”

“Boy, I miss Sophie.” Canyon’s voice was sorrowful. “If Sophie was still around, she would show Toni where to go without hesitation. Toni would never be able to forget the discouragement that she received from Sophie.

It would be nice to have a really close relationship with another human being, to provide that sense of belonging, of meaning and fulfilment.

Casual feelings and relationships void of real feeling are not for me. What I want is some passion in my life, along with peace and harmony.

A woman who can keep my emotions well away from problems that require figuring out and thought. Who draws strength from my common sense.”

Canyon lifted up his head from his palms and stared into the distance. I saw his pain. I thought, how ironic. Was it that the good women were taken by God too soon? Or that their shorter life made them look better?

“At least you had a good woman in your life once, that’s more than lots of us.”

He turned around and gave me a strange look, “What good woman?”

“Your wife, Sophie!”

“I would never use that phrase about her, not my Sophie. She was lots of things, but ‘Good woman’ was not one of them.

She brought excitement into my life. Some I loved, some I could do without. Nevertheless, my life with her was exciting. I never knew what would happen next.

One day she put me on the top of a pedestal, the next she pushed me into hell. I could not live with her but without her I was better off dead.

We never had any honest and open discussions. I was often in a confused state of mind when I was with Sophie. Things became clearer when I wasn’t with her.

She knew how to manipulate me; she knew how to manipulate everyone around her. She was the most manipulative person I have ever known. I never knew what was coming next.

She told me what to do and what to say but not as a direct order. She was sweet and loving one minute, cold and harsh the next. Like she would kiss me and slap me at the same time.

Our relationship perpetuated my lack of identity and self-worth. I was weak, totally under her spell. She was a witch, a true witch from hell.”

Suddenly I was lost for words. I had had the impression that he loved his wife very much. I didn’t move or say anything. For a while there was silence between us. Then Canyon started to talk about the feeling he had after he lost Sophie.

“That was a very nasty, painful time that really took an emotional toll on me. At the height of the grieving period, all my nurturing had gone. The enormous grief that I went through made me feel that I was a tiny, little vulnerable being.

Besides the disbelief, there were intense feelings of loss and sadness, a real sense of emptiness and absence.

I needed Sophie to be with me, to make shameful secrets less shameful, upsets less upsetting and the dark thoughts I could confess only to her less dark.

It took me a long time to face the fact that she was gone. Finally I pushed myself to move in accordance with the newness of my mental freedom. It also helped to put my body at ease.

When I broadened my horizon by seeking knowledge, I found the enthusiasm of an awakening consciousness. I attuned my mind to nature’s perfect functioning.

The rich elements of the Earth and the force of the freedom of my mind inspired me. I am at last at peace with the universe.”

What a brilliant mind he had. I didn’t understand his way of thinking. Without the knowledge and training, I didn’t expect myself to understand it anyway.

*        *        *

Somehow Canyon opened up my mind.

For the first time, I was not sure I should put all the blame on Felicia.

She was always very supportive, didn’t interfere with my work. She certainly didn’t try to control me, nor boss me around, definitely never manipulated me.

A wise man like Canyon not only coped with Sophie’s manipulation but loved her till she died. I had so much to learn from that unusual man.

The more I knew Canyon, the more extraordinary he showed himself to be and the more complex he became.

At first when I knew him, I thought he was an easy going, carefree, light-hearted man. The more I knew him, the more I realised that he was anything but untroubled.

One day shortly after Good Friday, it was a wet and cold day. It started with a patchy morning fog and then became partly cloudy with isolated showers. I drove past the park on my way to the supermarket. I saw Canyon sitting on the bench under cover, right next to the barbeque.

I parked the car and walked towards him. He was gazing into the distance. He didn’t even notice when I approached him.

He looked miserable.

Without a word, I put my hand on his shoulder.

“Today is Sophie’s birthday. If she was still alive, she would be sixty. The big six.”

Tears covered Canyon’s face.

I didn’t know how to comfort him.

“Talk to me Canyon. Tell me about Sophie, if that would help.”

I sat down beside him, feeling helpless.

After a little cry, he began to talk about his beloved wife Sophie.

“Before Sophie agreed to marry me, she said to me that no matter what, once we married, only death do us part. We went to the church, promised each other in front of God.

She even made me say it out loud with her together while we were kneeling – till death do us part!

Sophie took hold of my vulnerable feelings towards her. She did whatever she liked, regardless of my dignity. Before long even my mother knew that she was spreading herself around.

After my mother died, Sophie went back to drinking. Soon I followed her.

In that period of time, my heart was filled with malice and bitterness. Malice ate its way into my mind and body and bitterness bred discontent and mental unbalance. They were the most destructive forces to attack my physical being and destroy my poise.

I could not sustain any more manipulation. I could not face the life I had with constant confusion. I allowed anger and jealousy to force their way into my mind. I lost the ability to face the truth.

I totally lost my will and courage to do the right thing. Instead my soul was being eaten away with meanness, like I was feeding my body with poisonous foods.

The invisible force was like a sickness permeating every cell of my body. It held onto the darkness; my mind thrilled with no understanding of fear.

One night, I was tired, very tired. My eyelids were so heavy, like they were remote controlled doors and someone had pushed the close button. I struggled to keep them open.

My brain lost thinking power, as though I were a zombie. I could hear Sophie’s voice but I could not hear what she was saying.

Below my neck, I felt like a fully pumped balloon. If the pumping action kept going, I would burst any second.

I could smell the alcohol on Sophie’s breath. I knew there was alcohol somewhere in the house. I had to find it but where? I could not take that kind of torture anymore.

I went into the kitchen. My tired brain would not work. My almost closed eyes could only spot the knife block on the bench.

Only God knows what happened then.

One minute I had Sophie by my side, nagging and laughing; the next minute, I was alone in jail, feeling cold and worried.

I asked the guard to call Sophie. I knew that once she came, I would be alright. Sophie always sorted everything out her way, almost always the best way.

Then I had had been told that ‘I took Sophie’s life with the kitchen knife’.

If I hadn’t killed her, today we would be celebrating her sixtieth birthday.”

I was shocked, couldn’t say a word.

Canyon finally got up and walked away in silence.

That was the last time I saw Canyon. He never came back to the park or the pub. No one has seen him since.

*        *        *

All I had in hand to remember him by was a poem he had copied down on a piece of paper from a book.

As the mind demands one thing

The heart revolts with a different thing

I’m caught in the middle

Not able to solve a living riddle

Force my emotions into submission

Push my sentiment into admission

So I can think rationally

Stop myself acting irrationally

Would I find the answer?

Was there any answer?

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