That Dark, Sweet Magic

That Dark Sweet Magic by Travis BurnhamRolling north along I-5, we’re an unlikely set of mourners: a tax accountant for Trinity Bank, a sentient apple tree, and a shoe golem. The box of my wife’s ashes is riding shotgun. I try and fail to avoid glancing at the passenger seat, expecting Aine, but only ever see the small, mahogany box I made to carry her on this last trip. Every time I think of the box my throat constricts, and I drift between highway lanes, lost in memories.

In the backseat, the apple tree, Honeycrisp, and the golem, Chaussure, are arguing over who received more magic from my wife.

Aine loved shoes. Not in a materialistic way, but more the way that people collect mementos. Every pair of her shoes had a story. And god but I loved those stories. I notice Chaussure in the rear view mirror, a panoply of my wife’s memories. At his right shoulder are the ballet slippers from when she was twelve and played a snowflake in the Nutcracker Suite, while his left arm is the battered boots she’d worn to hike the Pacific Crest Trail in her early twenties.

The right half of Chaussure’s head is comprised of the matte black, faded floral print Danskos she’d worn when the stroke took her life.

When Aine died the magic spilled out of her like red wine from a cracked Bordeaux glass, then flowed into the things she loved … primarily our wee apple orchard in the backyard, and to her walk-in closet in our master bedroom. But droplets of her magic splashed to other parts of the house, and life was chaotic for a bit. But after a few days the salt shaker stopped singing Jimmy Buffet, and the playing cards stopped dealing out bridge hands to the four empty chairs at the dining room table.

I want to scream at the two in back to shut up, that their argument means nothing, that Aine is gone and none of it matters. Instead, I turn up the radio, not for the music, but for the noise. Aine’s death has hollowed me out, sucked me dry.

Finally, I flick off the tunes and shout. “It doesn’t matter!”

They’re quiet for some minutes, looking out opposite sides of the car.

The silence is worse.

As if she’s read my thoughts, Honeycrisp whispers to Chaussure just loudly enough for me to hear: “It’s definitely me.” There’s a muttered reply, then a reply to that, and they’re back to the argument.

My grip on the steering wheel is so hard my fingers tingle, numbness spreading.

I just want Aine back.

I realize these two are all I have left of her and I sag, the strength draining from me. I try to be thankful that at least I have them, but can’t muster any optimism.

In full bloom, Honeycrisp’s pale pink flowers flutter in the wind as scores of them billow out of the car windows. Her voice of rustling leaves rises over the howling of the highway wind to punctuate her point, that she has more magic. She raises her branches and says, “Look at how magnificent these blossoms are.” She’s Aine at her most flamboyant, her most extravagant. I love the tree for it, but she’s not Aine.

The wind carries away Chaussure’s muttered retort. Chaussure mostly reflects Aine’s serious side, the sorrow when Aine and I finally gave up on having children.

“Who got the most magic, John?” Honeycrisp asks, but I don’t have an answer.

Not for the first time I wonder what Aine’s magic would have done to me. Would I have become a talking math book? A possessed laptop that could only communicate through Excel formulae? It should have been me that died. She’d been so vital, passionate. When we first met in our early twenties, I was shy, awkward, boring. I never understood what she’d seen in me, but I was grateful every day that she’d chosen me. That choice defined my life, and now that life was over.

I don’t remember leaving I-5, but the sign for CA-3 and Shasta-Trinity National Forest appears out of a daze of thoughts. Blue Wren Lake was Aine’s favorite place to visit, with its silver water and rocky shore.

I park. We exit. A slight breeze stokes small ripples along the edge of the lake.

From his abdomen, Chaussure yanks the pair of red Crocs that Aine had always worn in the garden and places them near the shore. Honeycrisp fills the shoes with blush and pearl apple blossoms. Both of my friends are silent.

“You were the best me,” I say to Aine’s ashes.

I open the box and scatter my wife over the blossoms and the shoe and the lake water. The place she loved best.

The setting sun splashes golden on the surface of the lake, limns the far mountains afire and falls on the ashes of my former life. I glimpse the magic of the moment, but it’s only the splendor of nature. Not true magic.

“It’s beautiful,” I say, wanting to share the moment with Honeycrisp and Chaussure, but when I turn I see only a young apple tree with gnarled roots gripping the lakeshore, shading an amorphous pile of Aine’s clogs and pumps, sandals and slippers.

Suddenly I understand. I know the answer to the argument between Honeycrisp and Chaussure.

Every time Aine flashed that riotous belly laugh, every time I felt the marvelous expanse of her skin pressed along the length of my body, every time she told me she loved me. She was the one who taught me to live in the moment. To find beauty in the small things.

And then I know who got the most of Aine’s magic.