She was a ghost, and he loved her. She shimmered in the moonlight like dust and smoke caught in a sunbeam. As clouds passed by the moon above, she would waver and fade, like light reflected off of a lake. Her presence was the light; in her death, she lived in that light, and she would wax and wane with the phases. Every moon was a new life. She would be born, dimly, with the thin sliver of a new moon, and she would grow, night after night, blooming into a full apparition and then, slowly fading, until she was gone. She was reborn, again and again, since the night she had passed, and would continue far after he was gone.
She loved him, though she didn’t know why. It was a feeling, a nagging down in her heart, or what might have been her heart. It was a heart still, but nothing made of meat and sinew; it was intangible, and ethereal. He was imprinted upon her. When she woke every evening on a new moon, pale and weak and confused, she knew nothing, but she knew him, and she knew she loved him.
“Hello.” He would say, and hold out his hand, “I am Max, and you are Linda, and I love you.” By “you are” he of course meant “you were” but they were words he could not admit to himself, or frighten her with. All she knew is that she woke, he was there, and he would be there every night until she was gone.
He would greet her at night, as she emerged from the pond. She came from it as if she had been bathing, and he would sit with her, and describe tastes, and smells, and other sensations that she had lost. They would sit in the grove where he had taken her before. There were trees, tall and green casting long shadows. The pond rippled with the wind and whatever creatures lurked beneath the waters. A boat, small and wooden, was tied to the shore, and rocked with the waves. They would sit in that boat, once, on nights like this, and enjoy the stars. One of their children was conceived in that boat, and he told her this, and she put the wisps of her fingers to her mouth and giggled. If she could have blushed, she would have.
The first few nights were always the same. He would tell her about him, and herself, and their children. They would be long conversations, friendly and familiar until morning. As the moon sunk below the horizon, and he would kiss her cheek, and inhale something that smelled like lilacs and orchids. She would then walk back into the pond. The water did not ripple with her movements. He would watch her till she was gone.
He adjusted his entire life to stay with her. He slept through the day and ate as the sun went down. Then he would dress, always in his finest clothes. She had given him a tie for his birthday, somewhere in his thirties. It was a lush red, and made of a fabric that reflected light in odd angles. No matter how he dressed, he tied on that tie with delicate, old fingers into a perfect square knot. He would inspect himself in the mirror, set his hair (what he had left) right, and stroll, picnic basket in hand, out past his back gate, through a wooded thatch. It was a path that had been there for as long as he could remember. It twisted and turned, and dipped. The further he walked into it, the darker it became, even with the moonlight. As he reached the bottom he was blind, but it did not matter; he knew this path like the back of his hand, or like the curve of her face and hips. Finally, he stepped into a clearing with the trees and the lake and the boat.
And a bench. Their bench.
It was a black iron frame with wooden slats, rusted and weathered with water and age. The armrests were like twisted vines, with delicate bronze leaves blooming from small iron splinters. One or two slats had needed to be replaced over the years, but it was mostly intact, and older than they ever could be.
They had found this place in the beginning, when they were young and new. They married and found this house (that they never left), upon inspecting the back yard, found this trail. They had explored the trail together, hand in hand. The deeper they went, the harder she held him. When they found the pond, and the bench, and the boat, they claimed it as their own.
It was hidden, surrounded by thick forests on all sides. It seemed a world unto itself; though they walked the path downward, as if they were descending a hill, they saw no rise above them, nor their house perched high behind them. It seemed a snow globe, in a glass bobble where it never rained, nor snowed. The glow bugs were brightest on summer nights, and she had once sworn that she saw legs and arms and a tiny head with flowing blonde hair. He had laughed her off and given her more wine.
They had children, three of them. Two boys and a girl. They brought them here, swam and picnicked. The children grew and lost interest in many of the things they loved, but they never lost interest in the grove at the bottom of the hill. They felt its magic, just as their parents had, and it had them. They caught their oldest in the grove on the bench, getting fresh with his high school sweetie. They chastised them and chased them away, up the hill, scolding all the way. Later, behind the closed door of their bedroom, they laughed and laughed, and then did their own heavy petting.
He thought of that sometimes. And he missed her.
He would sit on the bench and unpack his basket. He brought wine and two stemmed glasses, apples and bread. He would pour himself a glass, dark and red (her favorite), and then fill the second glass and place it upon the armrest opposite him, and he would wait.
The fuller the moon became, the more beautiful and real she appeared. At its fullest she was as she was before her sickness. She would sit beside him. She would not touch her wine, but he would always offer. She was smoke and apparition, but he could see shadows of her auburn hair, cascading over her shoulders, the contours of her face, her eyes. She wore a white dress of mist. He swore sometimes he could touch her, feel her. He swore, once, that he actually did.
He would taste the apples, or whatever fruit he chose that night, and he would describe it to her. He would waft the wine above his nose and breathe in, and tell in intricate details the hints of grape, herbs and earth. They would drink, and talk of their life, and be happy.
In her life, she died slowly, in phases. The sickness took her a little bit at a time. She would appeared one way, and then another. He made her dinner once, and she sat in their kitchen, delicately sipping soup, and he studied the lines in her face, her thinning hair. He turned his back, only for a moment, and when turned back to her, it seemed her eyes had sunken into her skull, and her fingers became bone thin. In the end, she was a thinly skinned skeleton, unable to move from their bed, unable to speak, only mumble and cry small streams of tears. He helped her until the end. What else could he do? He loved her, and you care for people you love. He was offered hospice, but he declined; she was his wife, and he would make her comfortable.
As the moon waned, she would dissipate, a little bit at a time. She would become thinner, less actual. As the moon thinned into a silver crescent, it seemed that her face and hair thinned, and she appeared tired and unable to speak. In these cases he would simply sit, drink his wine, and place his hand on the bench, over and through her own.
Then she vanished, and days later was reborn.
He watched her live and die, time and again. With every new moon she would be reborn from the waters, without memory but knowing the man before her, who became older and older, loved her, and she loved him.
This grove was their place, and it was magical.
Moons came and went until one night, the man hobbled down the trail. He knew it, like the back of his hand, or the curve of her cheek, but he was old and his legs ached. Still, he went down the hill, placing his hands on the trees around him for support, until he reached the bottom. He sat, and sighed a breath of relief, and wondered how he would ever get back up. It would be work, and hard work at that. But that would be hours from now. Now, he would wait for her. It was a full moon, and she was at her most beautiful, the memory of her he loved most, in white gown at the top of the stairs, some evening after the children had gone to bed.
She was a beautiful woman. And he was a lucky man.
She emerged from the lake and sat with him. She studied him and cocked her head. “What is it, dear, you look different tonight?” she asked. Her voice was a whisper, not a sound all but a voice in his head.
“That hill, down the path. It beat me, darling. I’m not as spry as I used to be.”
“But you made it, and now you’re here, with me.” She whispered and touched his cheek. He felt cool mist. He smelled lilacs and orchids.
Once more he bit into apples and described the crunch and sweetness. He sipped his wine and told her it’s aroma and tones. He talked about their children, full grown and successful. They talked about favorite memories, birthdays and Christmases. They talked about the secret things they did, away from their children, and, as always, she would cover her face with wisps of fingers and giggle.
Too soon, the moon began to dip down into the horizon. He was sad she would have to go, and worried he wouldn’t be able to climb the hill. “It’s time, dear.” He said, and leaned into her. She went to kiss his cheek, he closed his eyes and waited for that cool mist, the scent of flowers, and was surprised to feel two soft lips caress his skin and leave a cool, wet kiss. He reached up and touched her cheek and felt flesh, warm and inviting. She placed her hand over his, pressed his hand to her cheek, and looked at him knowingly.
She pulled away then, but did not release his hand. “I’m sorry, dear, but it’s time.” She said. There was sadness in her words, but also resolution. It would be okay. It would always be okay. His old bones would never have to climb that hill again.
They walked, hand in hand, to the bank of the pond, and into the pond, step by step, until the moon was gone, and the water was still.