It was a gray day when the train left the station.
He opted for roundtrip express tickets, which had two stops, as opposed to the standard journey, which stopped at a dozen other towns and added almost 3 hours of time difference. Trains were a bizarre middle-ground; any travel was, and he tried to avoid it. Its transient and unsettled nature dredged up melancholia and memories, and even though passing through the countryside or along a scenic coastline was a reprieve for the average vacationer, he saw it as torture. Having recently divorced was another reason not to have additional time to sit inside a train and think
The momentum settled as the train shifted slightly on the rails, and the gentle rocking became constant as the journey’s rhythm commenced. The cabin was warm, and he began to nod off. Before crossing over into sleep, his thoughts were at that place where strange epiphanies and questions mingled.
What tormented him about his divorce from Samantha was this nagging worry he hadn’t fulfilled his part, as if the whole thing were some of business arrangement. Rudy knew what he wanted in a relationship, in a union. He had this concept that relationships should be about equality. He understood that it takes work between the two individuals. Sometimes it’s 50/50, other times, it’s 60/40, and then it pivots, always passing through the center like a pendulum in constant, graceful motion. Looking back, it was clear that when it swung to his side, he held on slightly, demanded more, and required more. After almost a decade, the disproportionate nature of their union became glaringly evident and only worsened exponentially with each passage. Now, Rudy was plagued by chronic "what if" questions. The biggest of these being, “What if I had posed these when we were together?” Of course, this only leads to a cyclical pattern of downward spiraling nature. Regardless, the pendulum finally ceased its increasingly one-sided journey, and Samantha left. But Rudy didn’t hold on out of greed or for any toxic or demanding reason. He simply needed time to understand, process, and then release the weight of whatever burden was facing them, whether large or small. His biggest flaw, in terms of their union, was that he would get lost in his thoughts and forget to initiate a dialogue with her.
"You should go to the seaside, Rudy," Merton, Rudy’s lifelong friend, suggested.
Rudy consented. As much as he wanted to remain here and contemplate the great “what ifs?”, he knew Merton was right and that his suggestion would do him good.
Together they arranged plans for Rudy to travel to the picturesque village of Thomaston and booked a bed and breakfast. The family that ran the B&B owned and ran the small restaurant attached. It was all very idyllic.
The B&B was as charming as the photos depicted. And, like the proprietors, Mr. and Mrs. Shrewsbury, it had an endearing awkwardness that suited a small coastal town, certainly one that would have been swallowed up and pushed aside in a larger city.
After checking in and briefly chatting about the weather, which Rudy assumed was customary to welcome someone to Thomaston, Mrs. Shrewsbury showed him to his room.
Rudy sat on the bed and had this incredible desire to buy a bottle of whiskey and drink himself to sleep. The memories stirred to life on the train brought about an intense craving to crawl under the covers in this adorable little room and slip away into intoxicated oblivion. However, he knew it would be better to refrain. So, instead, he busied himself with unpacking. He didn’t have much, mainly clothing and a small paperback book of poetry his wife gave him for Christmas years ago. He hadn’t read it or even really paid much attention to it. Why had she given him poetry? He wasn’t much of a reader anyways, but poetry? The gift annoyed him. He thought of bringing something else, but in the end, he grabbed the book. “The Willow and the Thrush,” he read the title aloud and then scoffed. It sounded pretentious. He hung a few shirts and then put a couple of pairs of trousers and other garments in the drawers provided. He showered, went to the restaurant, ate a plate of roast lamb and potatoes, and returned to rest, or at least lay on his bed and stare at the ceiling.
He did, however, fall asleep. The silence woke him; the lack of sound startled him awake. He thought it odd that the lack of sound had a particular buzzing sound.
Tapping his phone screen, he saw it was almost 3 in the morning. He got up, turned on the small nightside table lamp, used the bathroom, and sat at the desk with a glass of water. The room felt stuffy. Moving aside the heavy, winter-weight curtains, he opened the window a few inches and immediately felt the chill of the air flood in. He sat back at the desk, positioning the chair facing the window to enjoy the chilly, refreshing breeze. Considering it was the middle of the night, he knew a stunning sea view, which the B&B boasted about, wouldn’t greet him at this hour. However, he wasn’t expecting to see his reflection looking back at him, appearing in a surreal sort of low relief carving as if finely chiseled within the window’s borders.
It was the first time he had looked at himself in such a way. Yes, he did so most every day when shaving, tying his tie, or in other passive, almost nonchalant ways. Sitting there in the early hours, staring at his ghostly, semi-transparent figure, made him wonder how many times he had seen himself.
Setting the water glass down on the desk, he pulled the chair to the window, drawing himself closer to himself. This forced his reflection into a more solid form as if the window were not a window, not even a mirror, and, since he so seldom looked at himself, more like another person. Reaching up, he began to touch his face gently. He felt along his cheekbones, the bridge of his nose, his lips. Who was this person in front of him? It was at that moment that he thought of his ex-wife, Samantha. She had seen him every day, multiple times a day. What did she think when she looked at this man? When she kissed these lips and touched these cheeks. He ran his hands through his ever-thinning hair; what did she feel when she did this? The questions frightened him and unearthed a longing he hadn’t experienced before, a deep yearning to reach out to her. But what would he ask? What would he say?
He glanced over at his phone as if willing it to ring, as though having these thoughts at 3 in the morning would relay some cosmic message to her, and she’d ring him up.
Turning his attention to the window, it was with unnerving certainty that he realized his reflection had remained unwavering and was staring directly ahead, eyes boring back into his. He stood up quickly, strode to the window, and sealed the curtains with one fluid motion. After finishing his glass of water, he returned to bed. Exhaustion crashed upon him like a wave.
In a dream, he was again seated in front of the window. Nothing else was around, and the area was dark. It felt like a play; he sat on the desk chair under some spotlight, and the window was in front of him as it had been when he was awake. In the blink of an eye, Samantha appeared as quickly as if someone had flipped a light switch.
“Rudy, there you are. I was looking for you.”
“You were?” Rudy asked. “What for?” Her reflection was so clear. Again, it felt like a theater piece, and the window was merely a prop, an empty frame; two actors sat across from one another.
“Now, that’s odd,” she continued, “I can’t remember.”
Then blackness engulfed everything before, once again, a light radiated, a switch flipped, and another image presented itself. This time he was looking on as he and Samantha stood together as a younger couple. They spoke, their mouths moved, but he couldn’t hear the words. He yelled, “What?” But he also had no voice. The switch flipped again, and he shot up in bed, gasping for air. this time.
It was 7 in the morning.
“Good morning, Mr. Steiner,” said Mrs. Shrewsbury as he entered the restaurant connected to the B&B through a vestibule a few hours later. “How did you sleep? I’m sure the quietness of Thomaston was enjoyable, coming from the city and all. That’s why Matthew and I moved up here.”
Rudy could tell that, given the chance, Mrs. Shrewsbury would talk all day.
“Very well, thank you,” he replied with a smile he hoped would relay his sincerity.
“Well, now, that has made my heart happy. Would you like coffee or tea? Can I fix you some eggs with sausage?”
“Coffee would be wonderful, as well as the eggs and sausage; thank you, Mrs. Shrewsbury.”
“Please, call me Janice,” she said with a warm smile, “have a seat by the fire.”
The fire was small but welcoming. He took out his phone and the book of poetry Samantha had given him. The phone was still in flight mode; he was carrying it more out of habit. He grabbed the book of poems on his way out the door. He was not sure why.
Mrs. Shrewsbury came over and placed a cup of coffee on a saucer before him. She set down a tiny spouted milk container and sugar in a bowl with a small spoon on another smaller plate.
“The milk here is divine. It’s the grass, the salty sea air mixed with the mist and rain in the mountain pastures where they graze. The combination creates a savory treat for the cows, and we get to enjoy their milk and cheese. It is truly something out of this world,” exclaimed Mrs. Shrewsbury.
Rudy didn’t know how to reply to such a descriptive and informative explanation, so he smiled and nodded.
“Well,” said Mrs. Shrewsbury, as if catching herself in the midst of revealing some personal anecdote, “breakfast will be out in just a moment.” She gave him a warm smile, then disappeared into the back of the restaurant, presumably to the kitchen.
There was something very kind and maternal about her. He would see her actions in the city as fake or put-on, as a means to sell an image, but here, in this place, in this town and restaurant attached to the B&B, she seemed genuine and honest. He wondered how long She and Mr. Shrewsbury had lived here, when did they leave the city, and what city did they leave. He was always curious about what made people take such leaps of faith. More so, he wanted to know when things began to shift, which was long before someone packed it in and moved to a small coastal town to run a B&B. That place intrigued him, that exact moment when something metamorphosized.
A few minutes later, she returned with a large plater with two plates. One held scrambled eggs, sausages, and rye toast. The other had butter and jam.
“Enjoy your breakfast!” she said, beaming as if she had presented him with a rare treasure.
“This looks lovely, Janice,” Rudy said, looking at the plates and then up at her.
She clasped her hands together over her chest like an excited child. “Let me know if you need anything,” she said, all smiles. With that, she left him to his breakfast.
The restaurant and B&B were Mrs. Shrewsbury's pride and joy. Feeding people, nourishing them, and making them feel content with full bellies was her way of welcoming them. Naturally, the B&B was the Shrewsbury’s, but the restaurant was what gave her joy. Rudy imagined Mr. Shrewsbury working with his hands, maintaining the actual structure of the establishment. Whereas Mr. Shewsbury would find joy in rolling up his sleeves to fix a pipe or renovate a bathroom, Mrs. Shrewsbury would seek out recipes or source local food for her guests.
As he buttered his toast, Rudy’s eyes kept returning to the book of poetry. He took a bite, paused to marvel at how delicious the toast was, wiped his hands with the cloth napkin provided, placed it on his lap, and reached for the book.
Quietly, he reread the title, “The Willow and the Thrush.” These were the only words on the book jacket. It was plain and nondescript, simple and elegant. While looking at the cover, he realized he had never opened the book. He remembered when Samantha gave it to him, how he feigned interest and excitement, how he thanked her and said he couldn’t wait to read it. But he hadn’t read it. He hadn’t even opened it. He felt annoyed with himself. He opened the cover and pressed it hard onto the tabletop with an irritation that surprised him. His left hand held the book cover down while his right hovered over the title page. It began to shake. It read “Collected Poems by Samantha Steiner. To my loving husband, Rudolf Steiner, thank you for your encouragement and commitment.” Rudy stared at the page for a long time. His mind began racing, trying to understand what he was seeing.
He flipped through the book, not reading it, just going through page by page as if something would jump out, like a kid's pop-up book. The book was 79 pages; when he arrived at the end, he worked his way back to the beginning.
Although he wanted to begin reading, he was frightened of what he might find and worried about what he might read. What if, within those pages, there are hints, secrets, and revelations about her, about the Samantha he never saw or fully got to know? What if, tucked neatly into the words and wrapped around the metaphors, was the woman he lost?
He shut the cover and stared at the title. Slowly and methodically, he ate his breakfast. Afterward, he sat staring into the small fire, sipping coffee. The toast no longer held any flavor; it was bland. He ate it because his stomach was aching. He felt like he could be sick but knew having something solid in his gut would help.
“Someone’s lost in thought,” Mrs. Shrewsbury said. He hadn’t noticed her return to the table. She had her usual warm smile, but her eyes also had a melancholy look, as if it was rare for a guest to be seated and simply gazing into the fire.
“I guess I was,” said Rudy with an awkward laugh, trying to keep his mind focused. “Fires are always so mesmerizing,” he said, thankful he could think of something on the spot that sounded reasonable. “This breakfast is the culprit was truly delicious,” he continued.
She placed a hand on his shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze. The gesture was comforting and maternal in a way he hadn’t expected. He wanted to burst into tears.
“I’m happy to hear that, Mr. Steiner.”
“Please, call me Rudy,” he said, hoping his voice sounded steady.
Rudy returned to his room and sat on his bed. The book, he realized, was rolled up and clutched so tightly that his knuckles were white from gripping it so hard.
He set it down on the small nightside stand and sat on the chair that remained in the same place as the night before, still facing the window. Just as described, the sea view was quite spectacular, and Rudy would have enjoyed it more had he not felt utterly dreadful. The book of poems was slowly uncurling itself on the nightstand.
He took out his phone and switched off airplane mode. There were several voice messages of no fundamental importance and a few texts of equal value. Merton sent a brief text wishing Rudy an enjoyable time and to call when he returned. Rudy wanted to reply and ask about the book, to inquire if Merton knew Samantha had written a book of poetry and why he hadn’t said anything. He wrote a draft, changed the wording several times, then told Merton that Thomaston was very charming and appreciated his help arranging his visit.
He stood abruptly, grabbed his scarf and a light jacket, doubled checked to be sure he had his wallet and phone, put the book in the jacket’s inner pocket, and left the B&B.
Thomaston was indeed quaint; it was also tranquil, very much so. Most restaurants were closed for the offseason, as was most everything along the beaches. It was partly cloudy and balmy. Rudy wanted to walk but only rambled along for a few hundred paces before he sat on a bench positioned along the promenade facing the ocean and opened the book.
The poem held the book's title, The Willow and the Thrush. He cleared his throat as if he meant to read it aloud.
the mornings of our years
are still early,
however, we are not young.
we remain innocent,
passing warm breath upon naked skin.
with those green eyes
what your sweet mouth will not.
in a language of your own.
the thrush gently pulls
the fine willow strands,
selecting the filaments
that is composed of you.
her delicate wings will tangle
in the branches of the tree;
and the woven home
she’s tried to build
weakened by the absence of the words
your sweet mouth will not speak.
Rudy read the poem and reread it a few times over. The potency of the words struck him hard. Knowing his wife had crafted this work, that she had built this, constructed such a thing, made him feel almost lightheaded; the sheer emotional weight and direct humanness seemed to cut into him.
Samantha’s need and desire for him to communicate and share lessened the poem’s impact in a literary sense. The imagery and metaphor were undeniably compelling, but he could not escape the brutal ache he felt knowing she was there, within arms reach, longing for him to communicate.
Rudy stood and swayed a little. He turned around a few times as though unsure of his whereabouts, then sat heavily on the bench again.
He watched the ocean for some time, studying as the tides changed and the day shifted; the only indication was the paling sky.
He took out his phone, scrolled through his contacts, and selected Merton’s name. He desperately wanted to call him and ask about Samantha and the book of poems. But what would he learn that the divorce, and now the poem, didn’t already tell him? He scrolled down and came to Samantha’s name and contact information. The divorce had been amicable, each person deciding it was for the best. But, as with most things in Rudy’s life, he believed that a path of least resistance is best. He wasn’t entirely sure when this disposition took over or came into being, undoubtedly when he was a child, and, acting as the diplomat within a family going through various struggles; he sought to appease all parties. He began falling into a whirlwind of memories and thoughts and shook them away before being dragged off in the undertow. He pressed her number.
“Rudy?” She asked in a surprised voice.
“Hi, Samantha,” he stammered, realizing they hadn’t spoken since they hugged and said they’d meet soon to arrange a few things. How long ago had that been? It wasn’t that long, but it felt like years. Now, hearing her voice, he wasn’t sure where to begin. “Samantha,” he said again.
“Rudy, are you Ok?”
“Yes, I’m out of town - up north. It’s just,” again, he faltered. “Samantha, I am the willow tree,” he finally said with conviction.
The pause was so long that he had to check to see if the line was still engaged.
“I,” he began, not wanting her to feel obligated to pick up the conversation after that statement. “I …” He paused, biting his lip. he wanted to say “should”; to say I should have done this or said that. He wanted to say so much here, to fill in the space with so many things. But he didn’t trust their communication; he didn’t trust where it had led in the past. A willow tree still has deep roots, is a pillar, and stands firm and tall, does it not? He wanted to ask this, to demand an answer.
In the reverberating space between two cellular lines, the strange echo often present, he heard a man’s voice ask, “Who is it, honey?” In that same place, through the tinny cellular-phone speaker, he heard Samantha take a quick inhalation. It wasn’t a gasp; she wasn’t shocked or caught off guard, not in life nor this conversation, simply that she wanted five more seconds. There was a shift on her end of the line, a muffled sound, rustling, perhaps swift movement to signal she needed silence. Then there was stillness. Someone was telling someone, and someone was asking someone for five more seconds.
Rudy didn’t breathe. What did five seconds mean to him now? He didn’t need it; he felt relief.
Neither one said anything.
Finally, Rudy spoke, “I just wanted to tell you that, Samantha.”
“Rudy,” Samantha finally said, “can we talk another time?”
“Of course,” he replied.
Rudy knew he wouldn’t speak to her again, at least not regarding this, about them, their marriage, or anything else for that matter.
Rudy scrolled up again to Merton’s contact info. But he couldn’t bring himself to call. He felt emotionally exhausted. Tucking the book back into the jacket’s inner pocket, he stood and began walking. The streets were eerily quiet. Rounding a corner, Rudy saw a pub across the street. Upon entering, the sounds of music and conversation greeted him. He decided to get a pint.
Rudy sat at the bar and asked for a larger, “Anything on draught is fine,” he said.
“What brings you to lovely Thomaston this time of year?” as the keep, with a hint of sarcasm in his voice. Though to Rudy, it was an enchanting village, he could imagine the locals thought it was slightly drab the off-season. It became clear to Rudy That the bartender was genuinely asking and was not, as is often the case, making conversation while the beer pours.
“I needed a getaway, a little vacation, and my friend recommended this town. I recently retired and have too much time to sit and think.”
“Well, a vacation is nice,” said the bartender, placing a coaster in front of Rudy and the beer on top of that. “Can I get you anything to eat with the beer?”
“At the moment, I’ll sip on this. After two or three more, you should ask again.
The bartender chuckled. Cheers to that, he said.
Rudy sipped the beer and was tempted to take out the book of poetry but decided to enjoy the pub and the beer and leave it be for the evening. From the back of the bar, which Rudy assumed was the kitchen, came a loud clanging sound, and out stormed a young man followed by an older man.
“Ethan, look, I told you before not to show up here after having too much to drink. For fucks sake, this is the last straw.”
The man, presumably Ethan, looked at the older man and then at the bartender; his eyes were bleary. “Fuck the lot of you,” he said. With that, he bristled and gave a sort of sneer before staggering out.
“Jesus, Dad, we need him to wash up tonight; it’s fucking Friday.”
“Son, he’s drunk and can barely stand at the sinks.”
The two turned to Rudy as if now remembering they had a guest present and the scene that had unfolded in front of a newcomer to the town might now be the best reputation, let alone business.
“Sorry,” the older man said to Rudy, “he’s been trouble since day one and…” but he couldn’t find the words to excuse himself.
“No problem, really. He was your dishwasher?” Rudy asked.
The two exchanged looks and studied Rudy as if it was strange for a vacationer to ask about such things.
“Yes,” sighed the older man, “we’ll make do tonight.” With a teasing jab to his son’s shoulder, he said, “This young one can pull some extra weight, can’t ya?” The two chuckled good-heartedly, making the most of the situation.
“Look,” said Rudy, sliding his half-finished beer away, “how ‘bout I cover his shift tonight in exchange for a meal and two of these lagers? That is, two of these after my shift.” He pushed the beer further away and laughed a little, “I don’t want you to think I’d be working under the influence like Ethan there.”
The father and son studied him like he’d crawled out from the sea with three eyes and four arms. Rudy held their gazes to indicate the sincerity of his proposal.
Rudy stood, removed his jacket from the back of the chair where he had placed it before sitting down, and pointed in the direction Ethan had already rampaged from.
“Well?” He asked.
When the last patron had left that evening, the kitchen staff sat and enjoyed their typical shift drink together. The chef brought Rudy an assortment of roasted root vegetables with a gravy sauce, hearty beef stew with thick rye bread, and, as requested, his first pint of lager.
“Everyone,” Said Jacob, the older man, and proprietor, calling everyone’s attention; let’s thank Rudy for his help tonight. To put it as politely as I can, even though it is the slower season, it is still Friday, and without his help, we would’ve been downright fucked.”
There was laughter, and everyone raised their glasses. “To Rudy,” they said in unison.
While the others began their conversations, Rudy, Jacob, and William, Jacob’s son, seated further down the table, began to talk about the establishment, their lives, Thomaston, and so on. They were delighted to hear he was staying with the Shrewsbury’s. Rudy realized how communal Thomaston was. Both establishments were family owned and had been for at least three generations. In Thomaston, everyone helped their neighbors. “We understand the need for community. It seems each of us, most of us anyways, goes away, explores, works, or studies, and returns to Thomaston. It calls us back. There is an honesty here that doesn’t exist elsewhere. More so, we’re like a big family,” Jacob said.
“Yeah, but without the incest you’ll find farther up north,” said William with a bellowing laugh.
“Ah, son, stop with you now,” retorted Jacob with an exaggerated roll of his eyes.
Rudy talked about his retirement as a financial advisor and how all he remembers from the last twenty-five years was numbers; nothing about those decades was moving enough to stand out in his mind. So when a more prominent firm put in a bid to buy and merge with his, he decided it was a good time to call it quits and retire. He spoke about his recent divorce and the request made by his friend to take a little break, a reprieve from the city, from his thoughts. Jacob and his son listened intently and showed sincere interest.
It was past two in the morning when Rudy returned to the Shrewsbury’s B&B. His mind was whirling from the day’s events, and even though he was exhausted emotionally and physically, too, as he was unaccustomed to such labor, he never felt so content. He sat for some time on the side of the bed and studied his hands which were wrinkled and prune-like from washing dishes for the last several hours. The joy he received from that work and the payment of delicious food, drink, and good company afterward was so gratifying. He chuckled to himself and the empty room, then straightened and became entirely serious as the thought solidified. He said it quietly, to hear himself, to agree with himself, “I think I’ll stay here for a bit and wash some dishes.”
“Rudy…” Samantha’s voice pulled him from one dream state into another.
They were not seated across from one another as they had been in the previous night’s dream. In this lucid place, they sat side-by-side on the bench facing the sea. It was a similar setting that Rudy had just occupied the day before. However, the daylight was rich, vibrant, and saturated, not the subdued colors it had been during waking life.
“I was here earlier,” Rudy said, looking around. “We should have come to Thomaston together, Sam.”
“Should is a dangerous word, Rudy,” She replied.
“I know,” he said, with an edge of bitterness and exasperation. Samantha had said so often when they were married. He hated it because it was unproductive, stunted a conversation, and never allowed a couple to learn or grow. He wouldn’t say this to her, he didn’t see the point, and he didn’t want to engage in this futile manner of such an exchange.
“Is it as dangerous as saying it is so?” It was the first time he had posed such a question and offered up an argument. He wondered where and when communication stopped and when people began to break down because of this. He didn’t want to blame her; as with any relationship, everything was equal parts. But he could trace the lineage of their communication and how it went from free and open to being curtailed and hindered.
The dreamscape’s sky was luscious, like a Van Gogh painting with varying shades of blue, swirling and dancing with specks of clouds folding into the atmosphere. Desirable as it was, He could feel his mind and heart shifting elsewhere, moving beyond this place. His waking life was more appealing now.
“I am the willow,” He said, keeping his eyes fixed on the sea, “and your nest wasn’t meant to be held by my branches.”