And then I feel the sun itself
as it blazes over the hills,
like a million flowers on fire —
clearly I’m not needed,
yet I feel myself turning
into something of inexplicable value.
— Mary Oliver, “The Buddha’s Last Instruction”
He finds her sitting on the porch, leaning against one of the chipped white pillars, gazing with slightly unfocused eyes into the oncoming twilight.
This part of the house has a western exposure, and the setting sun falls across her and gilds her pale cardigan, casts her hair and skin in bronze. The sky is an almost exact match for the color splashed across the trees all densely arranged on the outskirts of the cemetery, and while all the hues are warm, he looks past her at it and feels a faint chill.
Autumn is settling in, coming ahead of winter to prepare the cold. That part is still a ways off, but it's approaching.
They've been here for well over a year.
And what a year it's been.
He remains where he is for a moment or two, merely watching her. Soaking in the sight of her like she's basking in the last of the sun. Her knees are drawn up, but her arms aren't wrapped around them the way they once would have been. It's difficult for her to do that now.
Her belly is so large.
He doesn't make a sound, but she must sense him anyway, because suddenly and smoothly she glances over her shoulder, the curve of her smile showing in profile. Her hair is gathered back from her face, but only loosely, and as always, much of it has slipped free. Somehow, the gossamer-fine shadows of the strands on her face make her appear older, and tired, and both of those in the loveliest possible way.
They're both tired, and frequently. There's a lot of work to be done around here, to keep it safe and make it a home. But it's a good kind of tired, the kind that generates deep and peaceful sleep, and nearly always good dreams.
Or that might just be her influence. It wouldn't shock him.
She pats the step beside her, and he unhesitatingly obeys, creaking across the old wood to her and lowering himself down. Another brief moment, and he's lifting his arm to curl it around her shoulders, but she gets there first: she leans against his side, snuggles a little, and he turns to press a lingering kiss to the crown of her head.
So easy to touch her now. Easiest thing in the world.
Something stirs behind the treeline, startles a flock of starlings. In a great dark burst they take to the air, wheeling and diving in a perfectly cohesive plume until they find a suitable replacement set of branches to roost in. It holds his attention even after they've landed, and he finds himself running over the group names for birds that he can recall. And he can recall a number sufficient to surprise him. God knows where he even learned them from, being no great student of natural history. Yet they're there on his mental shelf, ready for retrieval.
A murder of crows. A parliament of rooks. A bevy of doves. A watch of nightingales. A host of sparrows. An unkindness of ravens. A trembling of finches.
A shimmer of hummingbirds. A radiance of cardinals. An exaltation of larks.
She tilts her head up to his. “Hm?”
Did he say it aloud? It's a good word. It feels good, unsaid, on his tongue. But abruptly he feels self-conscious, unaccountably shy—which he seldom feels now, with her—and he isn't sure how to explain to her the off-beat paths down which his mind was wandering.
So he shrugs, and she, in her wisdom and kindness, doesn't prod further.
“You feelin’ alright?” Not that he's worried; she would tell him if she didn't. But he likes to ask, to confirm. She hasn't let her pregnancy slow her down, does all the chores she used to do—as if making up in advance for the extra load he’ll have to shoulder after the baby comes. Which he'll be more than happy to do—hell, is looking forward to it—but Beth Greene is Beth Greene and he'd never try to make her be anyone else.
Even if he wanted to, he knows better.
She nods, sighs, and lays a hand on her belly. “She's kickin’ a lot today. Guess she's bored.” She pauses and then twitches and exhales a laugh, reaches over and takes his free hand just as he's reaching, and guides it. “There she goes. Feel.”
He feels, the soft, dull impact under his palm unlike anything else he ever felt before the tiny life inside her began to quicken, and as he does his hand trembles and his chest hitches and his throat closes into a bittersweet knot. Sweet because what else could it be, but bitter because he has no illusions. This world is still dangerous, and unfriendly to children no matter how dearly they're loved.
And although he thinks about it as little as possible, he hasn't forgotten what happened to Lori.
But it's deeper than that. It's about that beautifully dying light. He rarely feels the two decades he has on her, but he's well aware of their presence. If they live, if they're spared, he’ll be an aging man when his child is still young, and there's no way in hell he’ll ever live long enough to meet a grandchild. He’ll leave them both, sooner or later, and while he doesn't fear that day… He knows it's coming. Like the winter. Distant, but inevitable.
He remembers Hershel.
But what he has is now, and in that astonishing, wonderful present he has this. He feels their baby moving inside her, and he closes his eyes and breathes.
“She's strong,” Beth whispers. He has no idea how she knows it's a girl, because the ways of a pregnant woman are mysterious to him—and more than a bit mystical. So he respects them, and he believes her without question.
“Yeah,” he says, just as hushed, and he has nothing else to say.
His daughter stills again. Quiets.
She's strong. He can already see her. A little girl, with her mother’s solemn, laughing eyes, and strong enough to live in this world. Live beyond him. When he's gone, she’ll be here.
That's all he could ever ask for. That's more than he could ever have conceived, in his wildest and strangest dreams, that he would have.
“I love you,” Beth murmurs.
He answers her with his lips on hers, light and so careful, and rests his brow against hers.
“We should go inside.”
They do. And he's less careful with her in bed, because she neither needs nor wants him to be. But he's slow, her back pressed against his chest and his arms around her as he pushes into her with steady, even thrusts, and he holds onto her so tight as she shudders and cries his name.
Their first night here, he dozed in a coffin while she sang to him, and it felt right. This feels right too, dozing all tangled up in her as night falls outside. She's asleep in minutes after she comes, but he lies awake and watches through the window as the stars emerge one by one.
Someone might call this May-December, but that's not it. This is about sunrises and sunsets, he thinks as he starts to drift. She's the flush at the crest of dawn, swelling into a bright, warm morning. He's fading, his colors deepening into the dark—but the colors themselves don't fade. Blackness is every color at once. Rich. Abundant.
That doesn't sound so bad.
We are a day, is his last thought before he joins her. And he could never figure out how to tell her what that means.
But she would already know.