Nov/Dec 1999  •   Fiction

The Awful Daring of a Moment's Surrender

by Jim Wright

Night falls, tripping over the moon, and I'm not going to be the one to pick the addled, starry-eyed old fool back up. Let him lie there, silent and still, until he stumbles off at dawn on the wings of his dark children, the bats.

I'm profoundly pissed. Pissed in the American sense of wanting to carry a grudge. Pissed in the English sense of having single-handedly destroyed a bottle of $8 red wine and now being halfway through a second, even cheaper vintage.

A woman has gotten me in this state. The woman who loves and adores me sits a few feet away, cross-legged by the campfire. She is dark and beautiful and idly tosses twigs and small branches into the flames. For now I call her "Builds-the-Fire" because she won't answer when I call her by her name. She won't talk to me at all, actually. The woman I love and adore will not talk to me and she will not listen to me talk to her but she expects me to understand what she is thinking. She expects me to give the right answer to each of her questions, even when she does not ask the question. Especially when she does not ask the question. She believes this is not only reasonable but crucial.

"Do you still love me?" I ask, and I wash the question out of my mouth with another healthy sip of wine.

"Of course I do." I have to provide her answers.

"Do you like it when I call you Builds-the-Fire?"

"Yes, darling."

"I got it from a book. It's a character in a book by Sherman Alexie. The character tells strange stories and everyone thinks he's crazy. Maybe he is a little crazy. Does it bother you that I gave you the name of a person who might be crazy?"

"It's beautiful. I love it. You're so thoughtful."

I suspect one of us is sane and the other isn't. The problem is, I don't know who is which. If she knows she won't tell me. This is something I ought to know. It would be helpful.

Insanity isn't the opposite of sanity. It lives next door, a close neighbor, no more than a house or two away. From your bedroom you can hear its dog barking in the wee hours of the night.

Better, maybe, to think of sanity as the bank of a wilderness stream, solid and secure. Insanity is the river that flows between those banks. And what does it say about me that I've always found more joy and pleasure, more beauty and fulfillment, in the rapids of the river than on the terra firma of its banks?

Am I the river or the bank? Is she the barking dog or the sleepless neighbor? Am I going to have to complete the dialogue between us for the rest of this camping trip? That would be crazy.

She is looking at me. I know it even though I'm not looking back. I can feel her eyes resting on me, exploring me. She is wondering about something. I can sense her curiosity. She is waiting for me to read her mind but she's blocking me somehow and probably doesn't even know it and I can't pick up a hint of what she is thinking. This doesn't make her angry but it does make her sad. When she gets sad like that she reaches conclusions about me that aren't very often right. Even when she is right I have to tell her she's wrong. That makes her doubt her powers a little bit, and even though I don't want her to do that I'd rather have her ask me a question than to pick through my brain.

I know it's rude of me, if not a little cruel, to make her question her psychic abilities. I shouldn't do it but I can't help myself, no more than I can help myself from taking another long drink of this cheap red wine.

"Don't take offense at this," I say, "but you remind me of the raven."

"That's sweet," I say for her.

"I should probably think of a more beautiful bird but the raven has dark glistening feathers, the same color as your hair, and that reminds me of you. The raven is smart and tricky and even when he's being social he's being alone, and that reminds me of you."

"How very kind of you."

"Thank you. I was hoping you'd understand."

I'm not sure how but now I know she wants to dance. Right now she wants me to dance with her to music she can plainly hear. She wants me to hear it and dance with her but I'm partly deaf so all I can pick up is a slightly wavering, almost steady tone. The rhythm escapes me and I can't even begin to hear the melody. Sometimes I can hear it, although it's too often country-western music and I really dread that shit. But now I can't hear it and if I tried to fake it and dance with her anyway she'd be offended so I choose to sadden her instead by pretending I don't know she wants to dance. I don't really want to offend or make her sad though. I do want to dance with her.

I am making our relationship sound stranger than it really is, but we choose to do it this way. We do a lot of choosing, she and I, but mostly we do it together so it's at least vaguely democratic. If she chooses not to talk to me she knows I will choose to talk to her so neither of us has any room or excuse for anger or frustration. She knows I know she wants to dance but because I didn't dance with her she knows I couldn't hear the music. Sometimes we forget these things for a few minutes but eventually, always eventually, we remember.

Later, perhaps, she will tell me that it was thoughtful of me to call her the name of a person who might be crazy. Or rather, I will say that for her. Later I will tell her what a fine time we had dancing, beside a flickering campfire, listening to music only the two of us could hear. She will nod her head and smile and say, "Yes."

She will say at least that much.