Mid October was cold enough to warrant winter coats, and though we had resisted for weeks, that evening, Dale and I unfolded musty wools and heavy jackets from next to the tangled bunches of herbs. Are you sure you want to help, he asked, and I shook my head. I’m fine. I can do it, he said, his tone gentle, his eyes reflecting light like a candle flame. Her box is still down there…he trailed off. My stomach dropped but I shook my head. No. It’s tradition.
We made our way to the basement. Light filtered through the cracked glass and illuminated dust floating like feathers, the dainty cobwebs with more detail than the lace on my mother’s wedding dress clutching the ceiling. We ignored the box in the corner and made our way quietly to the boxes near the egress window. I choked on the darkness, so thick and sweet that settled in my lungs like sediment. We did not speak of it, but I knew he felt the missing as heavy as a stone, wondered if he was resisting the need to scream and weep, to tear out his clothes, to run until his feet gave out. I shook my head. Returned to task.
We had a habit of storing the winter clothes alongside the leftover dried herbs in the basement, and each year we wondered what our coats would smell like when it came time to pull them out. It was a ritual we looked forward to, even in or perhaps because of its smallness. The wondering and musing throughout the hot months became a tether to our relationship, our lives. We would still be together come winter. This existed as an unconscious promise, a determination to make it until we could pull out old muffs and heavy scarves and say, it’s cloves this year! Or, we’ll smell like rosemary this winter. We would last until the leaves turned and by that time, we would be smelling like herbs, like sweet greens, like spicy cinnamon. Then there were the apple blossoms to wait for, but we had soldiered through the sticky months when arguments sprouted like dandelions, over what? The wrong kind of way to clean a fish. Arriving late. Being too harsh, too lax parenting Bram. Small things. We brushed dust from the outside of our coats and shook off the disagreements we had carried with us. They did not matter, not now that it was time to pull on mustard and root colored coats smelling of parsley, sage, cinnamon.
Dale stuck his head into the inside of his long overcoat. What does it smell like, I asked. His face was a grin. Your favorite, he answered, and held it out to me. I inhaled the musty scent and smelled a sweetness, soft and subtle. Lavender. His smile at my pleasure was food, rich bread I swallowed in whole handfuls.
Dale, I’m happy, I said at an impulse, and he turned from the coats he was unfolding to fold me in his arms. He kissed my hair. Swallow, swallow. I rested my head on his chest and breathed in the scent of him, like I could keep him, like we could weather all that came. I was not prone towards fits of enthusiasm, my happiness came guarded and snarling, a cautious animal ill-fed in infancy and so, now reluctant in accepting any morsel of joy that came my way. This misgiving, I held against not my mother, who was unsuited to love a child when she could not love herself, but myself. There must be something fundamentally wrong with me, that I could not take hold of life with gusto, unadulterated joy. Dale was a magnet for good things, his constant enthusiasm and unbridled eagerness like phloem running through his veins, pulsing a life that reached towards light as a natural response. But I retreated, I withered into myself and pressed my face to the glass, convinced of a rain that would undoubtedly come.
Behind Dale’s shoulder, the box sat squarely in my view. Innocent, unadorned, unopened. My happiness, so surprising, vanished with the suddenness sunlight cast on the grass disappears under ever shifting clouds. A cry stiffened in my throat. My whole body turned to wood, decaying, petrifying, hardening. My lungs hollowed. I think I hear Bram, I said, detaching myself from Dale’s embrace. I ran up the stairs and swallowed the panic erupting in my throat. Nevie, he called, and I hurried into my baby’s room, my hands shaking worse than apple trees in the October gusts.
In his crib, my baby slept, his sweet nose red and face flushed. His blonde hair curled around his ears. I picked him up and pressed my face into the hollow between his shoulder and neck and breathed in the baby, earthy smell of my boy. Tarragon and dirt. Softness and sky. I inhaled, again and again, to be sure of him. Hello lovey, I whispered, rocking my sleeping boy in my arms. My tremors lessened. I heard Dale come upstairs, his footsteps slow and steady on the narrow staircase. Bram reached out for me and I closed my eyes, thinking of apples in the summer, thinking of cinnamon, thinking of running in fields of lavender. I don’t know how long I stood there, when Dale came in. When I opened my eyes, he carried the box with the small pink and white shirts and dresses and mittens, never taken out. His eyes were wet. I did not have to ask to know they smelled like lavender.