I dream I am an ancient cedar, following the light up, up, up. Taking what she needs from the soil, sipping sunlight from the salted air. Resilient, she rises above fire, drought, and fungus until, one day, she is chosen. Branches are trimmed away from her steady time-worn trunk. To create something new, a wedge must be driven through her twisted knots, forcing space between the tree’s heart center and her outer skin.
I wake to the sound of fir branches whispering secrets against the glass of the open window. A crow calls and I roll over in the twin bed that is mine for the week. I’ve come to Cortes Island to write, to rest, to recharge. Home is a different place, different people.
Sea salt on the breeze mixes with the sharp tang of pine sap and musky soil. It smells like sex, like the tree was up all night fucking in the sweet leaf decay beneath my window.
Half-awake, I am pulled into another dream by the lap lap lap of waves easing onto the shoreline below. The faces of my babies appear, long-limbed summer children with permanent tan lines. Tumbles of white- and grey-speckled granite clatter under their island-steady feet. Soon they’re splashing in the bay, clothes discarded on the rocks to keep dry in the sun. Like snapshots: sand on pink cheeks, honey on salty lips, pine needles in wind-tangled hair.
I am here to write, but the words don’t want to come. All I can think about is the woman I met the night before.
Before I left home, my wife told me that physical intimacy was not a priority for her. It’s been months, maybe years, since we’ve really had sex—if you don’t count our occasional, hurried coupling against the closed bathroom door. When I’m already slick and swollen with loneliness. When I push her hand down the front of my sweatpants and imagine that she wants me, that she’s just pushed me up against the wall, hands on either side of my face, telling me I want you. I want you more than anything, even after all these years.
Afterward, she washes my salt from her fingers at the sink in our master bathroom as she tells me about her work calendar. The dog is asleep outside the door and our kids are fighting over the iPad downstairs. It’s everything I ever wanted, and yet.
After lunch I take my notebook down to the beach. There’s a group of women clustered together like stones, chatting and laughing in the sun. I keep to myself and find a sun-baked log to sit on. The woman is also there, nestled in the sand with her back against a driftwood log. I pretend to write as I watch her read. My fingers trace a hot crack in the wood and I will her to look my way, to notice my limbs draped just so, to come to me without being asked.
Behind me, a deer stands on her back legs and pulls fruit from one of the old apple trees, lips searching, grabbing, chewing. Her two fawns stand around nibbling sweet grass and bits of fallen fruit. I watch as a lone swimmer paddles around an anchored sailboat, limbs slicing through the grey seawater. The tide inches hungrily toward the shore, throbs toward sun-warmed stones, forgotten apples rotting in the long grass at the edge of the beach.
I return to my journal. I write how at home, the air smells like pancakes and wet dog. Somehow the days have started to run together, a blur of dishes, laundry, interrupted sleep. We’ve stopped really seeing each other and instead tend to our own work, the children, our parents, everyone but each other.
I glance down the beach and take in the details of her body: the curve of her neck, her fingers cradling the book, her legs extended in the sand. I’m drawn to her laughing eyes, lines unfolding like a map that leads to a different life. At last, she looks up and waves. There’s a crackle of energy in my chest, a softening in the knot of my pelvis.
Back home I walk the dog toward the river each morning, eyes scanning the craggy treetops for a familiar silhouette. There’s a pair of bald eagles that return to the river’s edge each year. Eagles mate for life and maintain their bond through something called nest site fidelity. Together they add branches and twigs to last year’s nest, tuck feathers plucked from their bellies into the cracks. They hunt in the fields and then at the river. One day I saw the pair patrolling a length of long dark river, black wings outstretched, white heads turning side to side. Suddenly, one plunged toward the water, talons extended, and in a split second she rose again, triumphant. She landed in the oak tree above me, the fish still wriggling, water dripping off its frantic tail.
I get dressed for dinner with the woman in mind. I want to be noticed. I want to feel her eyes on my skin. I want to be plucked from the branch and eaten whole, an overripe blackberry thick with juice.
I balance on one leg near the firepit where fresh oysters sizzle in their own juices. I slurp one down whole, tracing my lips with the empty shell, letting it sit against my bottom lip while I swallow. I rest my hand briefly on the curve of her back as we greet one another. The heat from her skin is as warm as hollyhock petals. Seagulls loop overhead waiting for cast off oysters. A crow cackles from the apple tree; his chatter feels like commentary. Is it a warning or an invitation?
When my wife and I first lived together, I had an affair with a man. A boy, really. We were all still so young. Do you want to start something? He asked me one morning as we drove to class.
Things my hands have done once or a thousand times that have become a memory inside my body:
Reaching over to rest a hand on her denim leg as she drives
Stroking sweat-soaked hair from a feverish forehead
Swaying hips from side to side, the slack weight of a sleeping baby heavy in my arms
Tracing the outline of her one knobby rib, dipping into the curve above her hip
Cupping the back of her head as we kiss, mouths open, tongues searching
Tracing the outline of her absent hand on the tabletop
Later, I wait, folded up in one of a pair of Adirondack chairs under the full August moon. When she appears, the current of electricity in my body brings a smile to my lips. I’d forgotten that feeling. The gravitational pull of the moon brought the tide to shore and brought her to me. The apple-scented air is charged with possibility. I won’t say no, but I won’t start something, either. I place my hand on her armrest, ready to be chosen.
Wind murmurs through the pine boughs overhead, stirring the bitter ferns below. I remember my dream from the night before. Slowly, the gap in the wood has grown. The wedge has cleaved an open space where once there was none. Cedar splits true, and in time a complete board drops to the ground, spores and pine needle dust clouding the air. The tree itself is undamaged. The scar will heal over, new bark sealing the wound.
Sonia Ruyts holds a BA in Theatre from the College of Idaho and is a professionally trained pastry chef. She explores themes of identity, loss, and transformation in her writing and is currently at work on her first collection of essays. Sonia lives with her wife and two children—and their ever-expanding collection of pets—in the Pacific Northwest.