She walks beside the river, past rows of clean, white apartments with their small docks and matching yachts, past trees filled with bats, and past groups of tourists fishing from the public pier. Sometimes mirrors in the apartments wink back at her through oversized windows, reflecting sky. Sometimes, when she feels more daring, she watches the open sky directly. Other times she watches nothing much at all, but she’s always walking and she’ll keep on walking until she sees a sick old man.
It is the same every time, though it is not always the same location, or the same man, or the same sickness. Sometimes the man has limp hair and spindly legs. Other times the man is a strange colour. Or he is merely a man who looks older than his years – and she knows he’s older than his years because she can see youth behind the sallow, saggy skin, like the light of a lamp that’s been muffled with crêpe paper for a party.
When she spies the sick old man she won’t react outwardly, though she will be overwhelmed: first with sadness, because the man is sick, yes; and then joy, because he is alive and moving, breathing; and finally nostalgia, because the man is, to her, like her father.
Her father was sick long before she knew it, and by the time she did know it he was in too deep for anyone to reach him. Once, she thought if she’d been older when it started, she might have stopped it. Now she understands she never could have stopped it, in the same way she could never stop a runaway train with just her body.
She believes there are two kinds of sickness: the kind inexplicably thrust upon people, and the kind that is chosen. But what part of her father’s sickness corresponded to choice? Some days, in anger, she thinks all of it – fate is up to character. Other days she believes there’s no choice in anything we do and what does it matter. Except it does matter, because when blood courses through your body something always matters. So she continues walking the length of the river, looking sadly at sick, solitary men and considering what matters to her. In the end, she decides this is simply a question: will she get sick, too?
It had started with the open door letting in blustery winter air. Her father needed the door open to clear his head, so he said, and at first nobody thought much of this. Soon the door was kept open all night, and though everyone grabbed extra blankets they still grew icy, and her mother became angry because there were no blankets to spare if they should have guests (though they never had guests so this concern was puzzling).
One night, when the cold had sunk through her blankets and into her toes – when it got your feet, that was it for sleeping – she dressed and followed the footprints in the snow. She found her father in the front yard, his gaze skyward, unblinking, even as snowflakes settled on his eyes. He asked her, without moving, if she thought the sky was bottomless or topless. She said topless of course, because they were looking up. Her father had said she was wrong – they were already at the top, it would not get any better than this; they only had to look at the sky to see how much further there was to fall.
She hadn’t understood what he was saying and she understood even less as he was taken from her. When he was gone, she would look up at the sky and wonder if he’d fallen in. For weeks she thought he’d fall out again, that she would be walking down the street one day and he would appear like Mary Poppins. She suffered with vertigo until her mother accused her of seeking attention, whereafter she continued to spin and sway, but only on the inside.
Despite the passage of so many years, she still, out of the blue, gets a jolt. It’s as if she’s falling from the crest of a tall wave – her hands flutter to her chest; two birds caught in the gale – and as the tide recedes, she finds that question floating to the surface with the weeds: Will she get sick, too? But she cannot answer this, and as long as nobody can answer this she’ll choose to take long walks by the river, avoiding the sky, the water, the windows – so afraid they’ll swirl together, that she’ll see the figure she longs to shatter.
She pictures him, as she walks alone in the icy wind: a man who looked so much older than his years; a woman who looks so much older than her own.