Ash Garden by Dennis BockNotable passages from
The Ash Garden by Dennis Bock

Knopf, New York, 2001

That night there commenced a gradual fading, and when she awoke she knew immediately what this was. She was filled with an amazed and bewildered calm as she watched it rise within her and remembered the warm winds and deep hollow sounds that echoed up from the ship's hold as she waited there, alone in her single bed, in the Havana harbour. That was where her life had veered off track, she thought. Yes. Maybe a life can be reduced down to its first mistake, an initial weakness, not the cause but the point at which matters of death were made real and inevitable. Her own death was at hand, and it was not as she had expected. That distant memory of frostbite in the Caribbean came back and seized her as the coma crept forward, sending through her body a chill that reached deep within her kidneys. It was not the sensation of comfort she had always hoped for, but instead a deep, freezing ache that unsettled her soul. It was physical, and so much more. In the panic as she slipped wordlessly closer, deeper and deeper, she endured the terrifying thought that, yes, this was it, and that whatever work in this life was as yet unfinished would always remain half formed. Nothing would follow her but the cold feet of her own death, a mourning husband, a stand of weeds, a patch of disturbed earth. Isn't that something, she thought. All those years, pointing to now. Nothing.
   She remembered her father's quiet patience, the sound of his working tools and the thick old earth-wood smells she had loved as a child, sitting in the square of light that entered through the window above the shop door. Watching the women haul their carts up the street to market, babies in strollers, old men with hands folded behind curving backs. Occasionally at lunchtime the three of them would climb the five flights of stairs to the top of the building—up past Feldman's Insurance Agents and Reinholt's Printers & Co. and the two other small businesses housed there—and make a picnic on the gently sloping roof. From here the view to the Danube was unobstructed. In the distance beyond, mountains rose to the summer-blue skies. As a girl Sophie would imagine the foreign lands across those mountains, all the wonderful secrets to be discovered when, one day, she became old enough to strike out on her own. And she remembered all the things she would never return to, despite the man she had loved once, Stefano Danella, who'd offered her the chance to return with him and seek out their families. This view of the mountains and the uncertain fates of her parents she now saw in her mind's eye. He had offered this to her; but she had been afraid of the burnt heart of Europe. The likelihood of what awaited her had terrified her. She would go later, she'd always told herself. Not with this beautiful young man. She would find the right time to leave.
   But that moment never came.
   Now she gestured for her husband. She touched his shoulder and he awoke, at once alert. She was staring at him, her eyes wide, wild. She grimaced, a little smile stretched to distortion. A slight moan split her throat. With what strength she had left she threw her arm towards him and he sat up immediately. But he would not help. This was not her asking, Please, Anton, please bring me back. She wanted him awake and to be with her. Only that. He would be her last person in this life. As she had wanted, as she had expected, as she had explained.
   He touched her sweating forehead. Her breathing now was troubled, erratic. He knew this was a conversation with death. No, you will not. Yes, please come. A dance he knew she had prepared for. He knew, too, that he should not interfere, should not do as he'd done on previous occasions, which was to rush to make the phone call that would bring an ambulance to deliver her from this death watch. This was his last duty to her. The final promise he had made to her.
   He sat forward, his mind running white. He touched her cheek with his lips and held his mouth close, waiting for her to leave him. Eyes closed, unable to look now. He cried into her skin and into the darkness that was quickly replacing the fading light that been her face and suddenly, like the escape of some binding secret held within us the entire length of our lives, he felt a slight, then brutal, shift. A change in the air. And slowly it became known to him that he was alone in this room. This empty house. He peered into the absence that had established itself before him. Suffocating in this absolute solitude, this fearful silence. He removed his mouth from her face wet, where his tears had run, and picked up her left hand and cupped it, cooling, between his. The delicate fingers possessed the strangeness of an artifact just dug from some stone field, so dead was it. The impossibility of this being his wife rose up in him, a defiant howl of ignorance, of mistaken fates. This was not the end of their life together. He waited beside her, sitting as the warmth drained from her fingertips, until the last touch of light stored deep within her was gone.

— Dennis Bock, The Ash Garden