He had been dreaming of feeding a lamb down by the stream with his father and the sky was orange and red and the earth was wet beneath his small feet and the air was fresh and deep in his lungs. But when he awoke his breathing was not so good and he was in bed and there was no lamb and his father had been gone for many years.
He had been coughing in his sleep. His chest was sore and he was tired and tasted blood in his mouth and could not hear the stream but only the sound of the wind and sea turn outside.
He looked at the curtains milling about the window frame and the grey sky and he thought about his dream of the lamb which was so soft to touch and the suntanned face of his father and the deep lines he wore around his eyes and mouth from years on the sea.
He thought about his father until the dream faded from his mind, then he thought about heading back to sleep, but he knew that if he did not rise today, he might not rise again, and so his will to live brought him upright and he pulled the blankets away.
He moved slowly down the hallway with one arm outstretched for balance against the wall. The wall was bowed and stained from a leaking pipe and as he felt it he thought for a moment that it was moving.
It was hard to move now. It was hard like all things were hard now.
His breathing was worse standing and he turned into the bathroom and steadied himself on the sink and coughed into it and there was blood in the sink. He looked at the blood and he coughed some more and felt sad and weak and told himself he was a fool and that he should have stayed in bed and gone back to sleep.
He took a facecloth and held it to his mouth when he coughed. He tried a deep breath but when he did it stung and it was awhile before he worked out the measure of his breath.
The illness had broken him in the last month. It had taken many things from him. It had started with his will to work and then his will to eat and now it was finally taking his breath away from him and soon it would take his mind too. He tried to concentrate on his breathing.
Outside he could hear the tin cans tied over his porch move in the wind. The sound came in through the bathroom window. He felt like those tin cans. He felt like something floating in the wind. They rang in the wind and moved and so did he but they had no life and he felt as if he had no life as well.
He looked at his reflection in the mirror.
I wonder what will become of me, he asked.
Nothing, he answered. Before you were born there was nothing, and when you cease to be, there will be nothing again.
I will be nothing, he said.
He coughed and coughed until he thought he would fall down and not wake again and then he moved weakly from the bathroom and towards the kitchen.
His work clothes hung over the side of the kitchen table and he tried to dress himself, but he only managed his pants and a jacket and his woollen hat before he tired, and then he sat and listened to the tin cans move outside.
His father had tied them on the railing of the porch when he was young. His father told him that the sound was the music of a man at sea and that it was a good sound to work by. They had sat together for many hours making things together out of wood and paper and his father had told him the legends of the sea.
He reached up for his coffee can which had rested above the stove for many years and was covered in grease. It was full of photographs and old letters. He looked through the letters and found the one that his wife had written to him when they had first fallen in love. He tried to read the letter but his ability to understand words had left him and soon he stopped reading and became angry.
Nothing can be done now, he told himself. I should have read the letter a month ago when my mind still knew words.
He coughed and wiped his mouth with his sleeve and sat awhile and concentrated on his breathing until his anger started to leave him.
He looked at a photo of his father on the deck of his fishing boat with the crew in the background rolling up netting. The boat was called Linda’s Rose.
All things on the sea needed a name his father had told him; and there was no better name than that of a woman you had given your heart to.
He remembered long ago the paper boats he and his father used to make and sail down the stream. They would follow the boats down to the sea. They had dropped hundreds of paper boats into the stream, but only one had made it from their farm and past the waves. It was the one his mother had made.
“If you fold your boat small,” his mother had said; “it will have a better chance against the waves.”
He looked at a photo of his mother standing against the side of a car. She had her arms around him. He was small. He remembered they had driven all day in the hot sun and then they had stopped by a small river and walked along its edge until they came to a path that led to the frame of a house overgrown in greenery. It was the house where his mother had grown up. Behind the house was a flowered clearing and a leaning oak that shaded a dry pond bed surrounded by boulders and long grass.
His mother told him that long ago the clearing was closed off from the wind and had once been a butterfly garden.
Ten years later when his mother passed away he had returned to the clearing and built a high fence to protect it from the wind. He had turned the ground and planted flowers and spread gravel and planted a wall of hedging and a drain to feed the pond from the river. He had drunk lemonade in the hot sun and under starlight on the bonnet of his car and he had thought about his mother.
Many years passed before he saw the garden again.
He had been to war and had made it home alive. He had thought about the garden in the war and when he was shipped home he drove all day in the hot sun to find it.
The garden was wild and overgrown and full of milling flowers when he found it and there were many butterflies and the pond was full of green water and life. But in one corner of the garden there was a woman sitting on a makeshift bench in the shade of a hedge. She had looked at him and he had offered her a lemonade and a sandwich and they had eaten and watched the butterflies mill about the flower tops.
He looked through the photographs in the coffee can some more but soon he became tired and he wondered if he should go back to sleep.
He would be a boy if he slept.
He would have good lungs in his dreams. He would run the valley and the stream and he would visit the sea. He would watch it turn and it would be a clear day. He might even be able to sit with his wife awhile.
He put the coffee can away above the stove again, and he knew he would not look at it again.
He walked to his porch and the wind almost pushed him over, but he held strong with a hand against the house, and when it pushed at him again he was ready.
He flexed his hands to wring the cold from them and steadied himself and stepped down using the railing where the tin cans flew in the wind, and he looked for the sun, but the sky was grey and the clouds were moving fast and he could not see it.
There is a storm coming he thought;
Or maybe a storm leaving . . .
He tried to remember if there was a storm last night. But he could not remember.
The nest of branches he had brought up last winter from the beach were still resting against the side of the porch and he sat on the step and slowly searched through them until he found what felt like a good length to lean on, and then he used it to stand.
It had a fork at one end and he put his arm over it and lent on it and tested his weight.
Beyond was the bluff where the sea stretched forever.
He did not walk to the bluff. He knew the wind was too strong there. He just stood at the rail and looked out at the sea.
He told himself that he had done what he wanted and that he should now go inside. But he did not go. He stood and looked out at the sea and he listened.
He told himself that now that he was outside he should look in on the boat he had been building in his work shed. He had not seen it in a long time and he wanted to look at it.
He lent on his crutch and fumbled with the buttons on his jacket and he felt cold.
He slowly started to move and the wind pushed at him from behind, and as he got to the door of his work shed he fumbled with the lock and tried to remember the combination. But he could not remember, and soon he became angry at himself and he swore and coughed and told himself what a fool he had been and how now he would never see his boat.
He looked at the tin cans move and rattle against the railing. He looked down the hill and at the grass which moved in a wave, and his anger left him a little.
He should have gone to see his boat a month ago. He would have remembered the combination a month ago.
He lent on his crutch and looked out across the valley and down at the stream which lay at the base of the hill. There was something moving down by the stream. He could see its white body between the long grass.
If it was a sheep, it must have come up the beach and then followed the stream to his farm. It could not have come over the hill because of the cliff. The nearest farm was twenty miles away.
If he went down he knew he may not be able to make it back up.
Maybe if he rested.
He could make it back if he rested.
He would just take it slow.
A man could rebuild the world if he took it slow.
He pushed on his crutch and watched the white shape move by the creek.
He told himself he was a fool if he went down there. He told himself this but he did not listen. Instead he moved through the long grass and then over the thin dirt road and eased himself down the steep hill.
The grass was high and thick and hard to move through but he reached the bottom of the hill and edged himself into the shallow stream. He fell down on one knee. He breathed shallow and held onto the crutch. He felt the small pebbles in his hand. The cold water ran into his boots and around his leg.
It started to rain. He adjusted the crutch under him and with all his strength he pulled himself up and then forward. He walked the edge of the bank looking for the sheep and wondered if he had really seen it.
Last month he had thought he had seen a seagull land on his roof. But there was no seagull on the roof ― it was only the shape of his roof against the grey sky.
He stood in the rain and looked at the ripples in the water.
He would not see a sheep today.
He stood for awhile and he was angry, but then he decided he was too tired to be angry and told himself not to worry and that he did not need to see a sheep.
His jacket was damp and the cold was in his bones and he started to shiver. There was a sharp pain in his chest where he had fallen and he rubbed at it.
His house at the top of the hill looked far away now; the rain was on him and he was tired and needed to rest.
He saw a tree a little way down the stream. He moved through the grass and his breathing was bad but he told himself that it would get better when he got to the tree, and when he came to the tree he sat under it and looked in the water. It was deeper here in the bend. They had launched their paper boats from here.
He looked at the high branches above. They blocked out the grey clouds and the rain.
He had sat underneath this tree with his wife. They had sat with their feet in the grass listening to the radio and they had talked on things.
“I wish we could sit right here forever,” she whispered.
“Me too,” he said.
“I love you,” she said. “Do you love me?”
He watched the water and rested.
He lent his crutch against the tree. He shivered and his breathing stung when he breathed shallow.
He looked at his house at the top of the hill.
He tried to clear his lungs. But he knew he could not clear them. He had to make do with what his lungs gave him.
Maybe they would let him go home. He would like that.
He thought about what it would be like to rest in his bed but then the coughing stopped him from thinking and he looked at the hill and at his house.
He clenched his fists and tried to wring the cold from them, but the cold would not go.
The cold was inside him now.
He watched the water run and he thought on things.
It would be good if he was home. Then he would be warm at least. He could watch the storm from his bed.
He put his hand in his pocket and found a small notepad and pencil. It had a list of measurements pencilled on it. He had forgotten what they were for.
He pulled a page free and let the wind catch it and take it away. He watched it until his eyes could no longer make it out from the grass.
He tore another page and folded it weakly into a plane and dropped it in his lap and coughed some more. The wind took it and it bent and fluttered in the grass and then was taken down the bank and into the stream.
He made another plane. This time he bent the nose like his father had shown him. He coughed and there were splatters of blood on the wings.
The wind was around him and he threw it and it flew and turned and then landed in the currents and was taken down the stream. It turned in the ripples from the rain.
Thunder rolled overhead.
He better start on his way home.
He had rested; now he should go home.
But he didn’t move. He sat and waited and watched the stream some more. He hoped to see a fish.
He tore another page and folded a simple boat. He wrote on the side of it with his pencil. He did not know if the words had come out right.
He opened his hand and it blew away in the wind. It landed in the long grass on the crest of the stream and fluttered between the blades.
The rain had worked the branches above and now small pellets of water fell and he put his hand out for one and it washed the blood from his fingers.
He looked at the stream. He could hear the sea in the background.
If he had followed the stream further he could have reached the beach. He hadn’t been to the beach in a long while. He should have gone two months ago when he had the legs and lungs to do so.
He watched the grass on the hills. The rain fell and his legs became wet and his shoulders became damp and the rain wet his woolen hat and sprinkled around his eyes.
He breathed hard.
Many parts of him were broken but he was still here. He was still thinking and seeing the world.
He was alive.
He could sleep out here if he wanted.
Maybe he would wake tomorrow.
He heard a rustling beside him and he turned.
At first he could not see anything. But then two white shapes came into view:
A lamb and its mother.
They stood beside him and he felt tears well in his eyes and he wanted to cry, but he held the tears back because he didn’t want to scare the lamb and its mother away.
It is dry under the tree, he said softly. It is dry near me.
It was hot in his mouth and his heart felt warm and he felt that there was something greater behind this.
He held his tears.
It is dry under the tree, he said softly. It is dry near me.
They were close to him now.
Then two more sheep came from behind him and another small lamb and they walked to him and the small lamb licked his hand and he could hold his tears back no longer and he cried for a long time.
And as he sat there the flock stayed close as if they could feel his sorrow, one being to another, and he watched the day move and the clouds race and the rain fall around him, but it was not so cold, and when the sunset came he closed his eyes and he was still.
But the flock stayed and were warm in the light.
And the orange and gold sun fell over the ocean and the small boat sailed onwards and headed out into the infinite and distant door of the wide horizon.