"Let Agnes go," says Dr. Michael. "She's been dead a year. You have to move on."
I look at him, seated in his ochre armchair. "How can you expect me to let go of someone who joined her life to mine for forty years?" I ask. The tears come again, filling my eyes, coursing my cheeks. I sit back in my chair, daring him to respond.
Agnes, I still feel the brush of your fingertips, smell the scent of your herbal shampoo. It has only been a year since you . . . left me. But this -- this smooth-faced doctor my children hired to "heal" me -- how can he help? He hasn't lived. Hasn't watched death slip past his guard and take away his love. I look away from him, firming my jaw, wiping the tears. I don't have to do anything he suggests. But I would like to stop crying.
Dr. Michael leans forward in his chair, his voice smooth as his skin, honeyed as if he were cajoling a cat. He smiles with sharp teeth. "Will you work with me, Richard? I've got something I'd like you to try. Something to get you living again." His furtive hazel eyes flick across my face.
I won't fall for his tricks.
But I nod, not meeting his gaze, and fight to breathe. "What is it this time? Another hypnosis session? More chat therapy? I've been through it all with the other therapists."
Dr. Michael sits back in his chair. The autumn sunlight beyond the window pushes through the closed blinds in long bands of light. His florid aftershave scents the room. "It's simple, really. You said you go for a walk every day?"
I nod again, resentful.
"Then each time you go, I want you to think about one of the difficult feelings you have about Agnes. The painful things that make you not want to get up in the morning. I want you to carry that feeling with you and imagine it's something concrete, something you can see. Take it with you into the woods and leave it there. Focus on the feelings being left behind. If the same feeling comes back later, take it back out to the trails and leave it there again. Can you do that?"
I nod again, amazed at myself for doing so. How can I take the advice of someone who has lived so little? My hands carry the marks of years, while his carry the smooth color of his voice. "For all the good it will do," I grumble.
Dr. Michael ignores my petty resistance. "Good, then. Do it over the next week and we'll see how it's going next session." He stands. I shake his hand, wipe my tears, and leave.
But I do as he asks. Agnes stands by as I decide to start with the haunted feeling -- the sense that she waits in each room of the house. I take that feeling with me on my walk, like a pet on a string, and leave it in the forest.
It almost works.
But when I get home and unlock the door, the feeling has beaten me back to the house. Perhaps it entered through the cat door, but as I move around the house I know Agnes waits in the kitchen. In the living room. In the bedroom. I will take her back to the woods tomorrow.
And I do. And this time I take string -- a bit of Agnes's coloured yarn -- and tie it to a tree to hold the memory there. And it works.
Dr. Michael praises me for my work. I resent his congratulations, but the tears come a little less.
Agnes favored the fall. We'd go for long walks on the trails, long walks amid the discarded cottonwood and aspen leaves, and laugh at the rustling sounds they made. "Their voices," she would say. "Hear them whisper?" She'd stop and so would I. A soft voice on the breeze would say, "I love you, Richard."
I'd laugh and hug her to me. Her grey hair tossed around her blue eyes. "Whispering woman! I love you, too." That was then.
Now Agnes fills the woods. Bits of my memories I've left behind as Dr. Michael encouraged. Bits of my life tied to branches in bright yarn, to empty out my house, my mind. I breathe deeper now, my children say. I'm "more present," they tell me. More centered, Dr. Michael says.
"Centered," I huff to myself in the November wind. I may cry less. But my walks take me further into the forest, into memories of Agnes, and my left hand fills my pocket, fingering Agnes's glove -- the one I always carry. The cool air smells of snow. I walk the trails, listening to the leaves underfoot, to the wind in the stripped branches, to the rough cries of crows that watch me pass. They call warnings to something of my approach, just as they call warnings of the coyote to the small things of the brush.
The coyote moved in this fall. The neighbors tell me they have seen him. They whisper of old legends -- warn of coyote as messenger and trickster. With his coming, small pets go missing. Both of Agnes's cats disappeared last week. At first I thought they had simply tired of me, of my sadness. But the cat door no longer clatters in the night. Their warm bodies no longer dent the bed beside me. Their food remains untouched. It is an absence I don't care for -- almost a betrayal of Agnes. I know the coyote preys on the small loved ones of the area, so I look for him on the trails. I never see him.
But small movements in the underbrush catch my eye: the quick tremble of a leaf, a shadow that shifts swiftly, a hurried movement across the trail. Though squirrels and birds elude me, I see the movements. I see them more now than I ever used to when Agnes walked with me. The woods ripple with them.
Sometimes I even see them at home. As I read on the couch, something scuttles across the floor and I look up from the pages. A spider? But nothing stirs. The room stays still except for my breathing. Until I look back to the words. Then the movements begin again. Perhaps mice or some other small creatures have moved in, in the absence of cats. I will nail shut the cat door. That will keep me busy for a while.
It might stop me from being haunted by the memories of Agnes I don't want to lose. Dr. Michael says to heal I must let go of many more things. He says he has techniques that will work -- even on me -- and I believe him.
I have walked all winter, leaving my bits of memories as gifts to the barren branches. Agnes waited for me on the trails. Her two cats waited with her. They left delicate paw prints in the snow. And the unseen denizens of the woods scurried after as I followed the trail of my previous days' footprints. The winds chilled my cheeks and earlobes; the snowflakes caught in my hair.
Agnes, I thought each time, you would laugh at my salt-and-pepper mane. You would stroke the flakes from my face and eyelashes. You would kiss my cheek and make me warm.
I left the house often this winter and spent my time wandering.
And I stripped the house, until it no longer rang with memories or Agnes's laughter. "It's over," Dr. Michael told me at our last session. "You've done well, moved on, forward." He smiled his cajoling smile as I shivered in my chair.
I know I have quit crying. I know my children are pleased. I know Dr. Michael wears a satisfied expression. But I hate the house now that I have done what they asked.
Today I take my last walk for Dr. Michael in the snow. My bit of yarn will tether my fears of being alone. I say a prayer to Agnes-of-the-woods and seek a likely branch for the bit of red wool I will use.
There. A willow branch swells towards spring. I remove my mitten and tie the wool in a neat bow and step back to admire it. Agnes, I think. The breeze whispers in the pines. My breath steams in the air. I smile. Agnes smiles with me.
Afterwards I hike the hill to Thurman Ridge, where I can look out over the valley and the housing development that encroaches closer to the old house and woods where I live; the places Agnes also lived. The birch and poplar gleam blue-white in the afternoon sun. The cedar and pine wear skirts of shadow beneath the loads of snow in their branches. The air parts around me. From the corner of my eye I catch something moving across the trail.
When I look straight on, it is gone. No footprints mark the snow where it passed. The wind stills. I breathe in and out and look around. There's a sudden movement of leaves cascading from the crutch of branches where they were caught. They loosen from the hollows of trees. I hear scuttling and I twirl around. Nothing. Just a slight movement amid the lichen. The sunlight glitters on the marred snow of the trail. Shadows pool in my empty footprints that lead back down the slope.
I shake my head and laugh, then move up the hill. It is only Agnes. My love, my imagination. The muscles ping in the tops of my thighs. I sweat in the warmth of the wool cardigan Agnes knitted three years ago. And around me the woods still rustle. I catch small movements from the corner of my eye; see a great black-tailed squirrel dive for cover and tell myself it is only him and his brethren that cause the movements. But the cold suddenly chills me. There are not that many squirrels. Something else stirs among the leaves.
At the top of the hill I turn around like a lighthouse, surveying the changes the new snow brings to the landscape: a downed tree, a newness, a wound, a healing. Through the branches I catch glimpses of bright red -- yarn I tied hither and yon to hold memories of Agnes in the forest. I sense movement in the way the leaves settle too smoothly in place when I look at them. The sun-glare on the snow hides all footprints.
The coyote interrupts my study. He approaches directly through a copse of aspen, shivering the saplings. At the top of the hill he circles me, his gray fur rough around his shoulders and hips. His sharp face holds hazel eyes that cast furtive glances at me. He has only mangy fur on his back and tail. A poor excuse for a coyote, I think. Something ill. No wonder it preys on the neighbors' pets. It still circles and I turn with it. Then it sits down and stares.
"What do you want? I've no food for you, I'm afraid." I think of Agnes. If she were here she'd want me to try to bring it home. She'd want to set out food for it. "Poor thing," she would say. "See how its ribs stick out?"
She would be right. The coyote looks poorly fed. It stands up and approaches. "Get on with you." I shoo it away with a sweep of my hand. "Go chase something small. Go trick someone else."
It stops and studies me again. Its dark eyes shift over me. I shiver as the wind picks up. As its eyes meet mine. Things move in the brush and then go still. The coyote starts moving again. I don't want a sick animal near me. I stomp my foot at it. The coyote jumps back. "Go on. Get away," I yell.
The coyote stops again.
And then it leaps forward. It comes at me from the side, its tongue still lolling from its mouth, its teeth bared. Its body crashes into my shins and I stumble. Almost fall. "Get away!" I yell and stagger a step. I kick at the coyote and it jumps back. It leaps again, sideways. Leaps again and hits the backs of my knees. I fall, oh-my-God, I fall. I hit the snow face-first. "Get away!" I moan as I scrabble in the snow for a stone, a stick, anything to defend myself. I wait for its weight on my back. Wait for teeth. Nothing.
I roll over and the coyote is nowhere to be seen. The underbrush trembles with unseen movements. Shivering, I fall back onto the snow. My head rests in one of the empty spots created by my footprints. What happened? I didn't know coyotes did such things -- were dangerous. When I reach into my pocket, Agnes's glove is gone. Stolen.
"Give it back," I yell into the still air. My words die, useless. I get up and stumble down the trail towards home. The woods rustle, whisper, quiver around me. Unseen beings hover. Fear -- fear of the coyote -- rides me. When I get home the house sits empty. Oh God, it is so empty. Except for my newfound fear.
Spring, and Agnes's cats still have not come home. Small heaps of yellowed bone in the coyote den, I suppose.
The trails, though, have filled with birdsong. The robins returned last week and the song sparrows. I know because I stood at the edge of the woods and listened. But I did not enter. Only once have I entered since coyote came to me and then I saw his flickering shape amongst the trees, watching. Waiting. Keeping me from Agnes just as Dr. Michael has done.
In the woods the branches fill with the blush of intended leaves. Once they fluttered with their load of yarn, but -- well, I cut the strings from the branches on my last furtive foray into the trees. I left them to litter the forest floor; the birds would take them, I thought. Agnes would be pleased. But I could not leave those memories tethered as small offerings to the coyote that wanders those ways. Not when he has banished me from the forest. From Agnes.
So I no longer walk to Thurman Ridge. In fact I stay home much more. When I do walk -- even just down the lane -- I carry a walking stick. I tell my children my age affects me, I tell people the stick helps on the hills, but really I intend it for the coyote -- to save myself. And when I walk the road, the woods that border it are full of whispers, full of half-seen movement. Agnes's doing, I know. She walks in the forest, tethered away from me, as Dr. Michael wanted.
I could live in the forest, if it were not for the coyote. But the beast has confined me to the garden.
I sit back on my haunches and study my handiwork. The cat door gleams, oiled and ready. I pulled the nails this morning, then tidied and painted the small opening. It looks welcoming to all.
That done, I turn back to Agnes's garden, which glimmers with crocus, primula, and the phallic swell of hyacinth buds that rise through last year's dead foliage. Leaves rattle under the cedar hedge, the sound I've known in the forest. I smile. A wood-wren tsk-tsks me. A flock of titmice twitter in the hedge, in the hoary apple tree covered in lichen and old moss. The sword fern in the corner quivers as if something waits there. The rhododendron's dark leaves cup the offering of early flowers. The garden lives, knows. I smile more broadly and sit cross-legged on the still-cold ground.
The earth rises away from the garden towards Thurman Ridge, where coyote lurks. Lower down the trees cover the hillsides and shelter the memories I abandoned there. The memories I ripped from the house behind me. The memories I visited on all those long walks -- until coyote.
I lay my hands on my thighs, palms upwards, pleading. "Agnes," I whisper. "It's okay now. Dr. Michael and the children are gone. We can do as we please. We can repay their trickery." I close my eyes and the spring sunlight warms my face. The breeze wipes at my skin in a familiar touch. I hear the foliage shift.
"Yes," I whisper. Agnes returns on creature-feet, unseen in the underbrush. I open my eyes and the small things crawl toward me, brown and beautiful with bits of colored wool in their wild-lichen hair. "Come," I say, and point towards the cat door. "You can come and go as you please. It's safe. There are no coyotes, no Dr. Michaels here." I blink and the beings are gone. The cat door swings, beating in the sun. I hear Agnes's laughter from the kitchen. I climb to my feet and enter, calling to the denizens of my unempty house. Perhaps I will get a cat and call it Agnes, so people will not think me strange.
Copyright © 2002 Karen L. Abrahamson
Karen's stories and poetry have previously appeared in Canadian literary magazines. This is her first SF sale. She lives in Langley, British Columbia, and is currently working on both fantasy and mainstream novels. She says "The fantastic is all around us. We just have to be willing to see."