Ruth rolled over in bed, dreaming about sheep. Sunlight in thin fractures streamed through cheap blinds leftover from a former tenant, probably another grad student. Her hair was matted in clumps, long and black on an oatmeal-colored quilt, evidence of her nighttime duvet bondage. Melatonin did the trick. Her mouth was dry, caked with sleep. She groaned, rolled toward the right side of the bed, and, blind without her glasses, patted the lumpy quilt before a dull ache in her abdomen returned. Lang was gone.
Fucking sheep. She had never given them a second thought before, but for days, they’d been running amok in her dreams, taunting her with fluffy cotton heads and pink gumball butts. They were moving in sync, chasing her, closing in on her, one particularly brazen fellow ramming her stomach in a tender place. A flock! Herd! Whatever you want to call a group of two dozen menacing ovines—that’s right, lose the b—chasing her through tall wheatgrass careening towards a cliff’s edge.
Lang would have laughed at her, his left eye crinkling with mirth. Aren’t sheep peaceful creatures? he would have teased. Demon sheep! she’d say.
In the kitchen, she poured day-old coffee into an oversized mug and wished they could be arguing about possessed sheep or whose turn it was to unload the dishwasher. Now she let the dirty dishes stack up in a lopsided tower, ignored the foul odor from the compost bin. In the last two months, her appetite had shrunk, a linen skirt draped loosely on her hips, its elastic past its prime.
Their last night together Lang had cooked her favorite, roast chicken with candied beets. Afterwards, she graded papers on the couch, her legs draped over his lap. Sometime during their twenty-two years together, they had gravitated to default poses. Her student Tony had turned in a Francophile story with a pen name Antoine de Blanc.
He’s the only one who won’t turn his camera on for class, she said.
What a pretentious prick! Lang said.
Bien sur! they said together, laughing in perfect sync. Their mirrored delight, remembering a phrase from their Paris honeymoon.
Lang had gone for a jog the next morning near the ravine and never returned. When a group of teenagers found his body days later, no one knew what had gone wrong. He might have stumbled down a wayward trail, collapsed from heatstroke, or an asthma attack. At least he didn’t suffer, his sister Mimi said to her after his service. How do you fucking know? Ruth spat, and stumbled out of the funeral home, which reeked of dying roses. Her lungs prickled with their pity.
Sitting on the couch in her usual spot next to Lang’s, Ruth watched the orange flames on the television raging dangerously close to cabins near Lake Tahoe. She watched firefighters talking about tiring nights and unpredictable embers. She listened as evacuees cried about what they grabbed, what they left behind. She did not feel even a twinge of sadness.
A chill set into the living room. She tugged a knit blanket around her knees and clutched the whiskey bottle by the neck. Penny jumped on her, scratched at the unraveling threads and purred; the damn cat still demanded her attention. In the early months, her phone was full of voicemails and texts from her mother, friends, coworkers. We’re so worried about you. Let us know how we can help. Made you a bean casserole. Her freezer was hemorrhaging uneaten trays. Now no one bothered her. They expected her to move on, pull it together, find a silver lining. Shove your casseroles, screw your silver linings.
Ruth scratched Penny’s ears, and the cat arched her back in appreciation. She flicked the channel and set the remote next to a yellowing fern. A fight was in progress. Two figures were face to face, a woman in a blue dress and a man wearing a tweed vest. They were hidden by shadows, their faces blurred by a bad connection.
— How could you leave me—she screeched, hands waving wildly—in the middle of a pandemic no less?
— I didn’t leave you.
— You promised me a lifetime. We haven’t gone back to Paris. Or…visited the Galapagos, we were going to see those damn giant turtles.
— Tortoises, yes, that would have been quite a sight, dear.
— Don’t change the subject. Turtles, tortoises, I don’t care!
— You seem angry, darling.
— Darling? Angry? I’m furious! I’m absolutely livid! I’m—I’m…
— Shhhh, shhhh.
He hugs her. She pounds his chest with her fists, an attempt to aerate his doughy flesh.
— I’m right here.
She looks him in the eye.
— You’re dead. And…I’m—not.
He vanishes, as he blows her a kiss.
On the television, the woman in the blue dress collapsed onto her knees. Her bleats took on a high tone, rocking back and forth erratically. Ruth saw the woman’s face come into view. Her mouth dropped open, a copper ring of disbelief.
It was her. She looked like she had aged ten years, her hair more gray than black, but there was no doubt they were the same.
Ruth squeezed Penny so tight the cat let out a furious shriek before vaulting off the couch, knocking over the empty whisky bottle. Ruth turned back to the screen. The image of the couple had faded, leaving only a grinning, toupeed announcer with a Southern lilt warning of side effects for a hemorrhoid cream—denial, anger, bargaining, depression.
That night, as moonlight fell in her bedroom, Ruth was dancing with a sheep balancing on his hind legs. They fell into a natural, bouncing rhythm, shoulder to shoulder. She was dancing with Lang. Was he a sheep now? She laughed, tears like rain on her cheeks, not caring if he was real, if she was real. She could feel the rupturing pulse of her heart, her quivering throat, her fingertips ignited, wholly alive.
The daughter of Chinese immigrants, Jen Soong (https://www.jensoong.com/) grew up in New Jersey. Her writing has appeared in Washington Post, The Audacity, and Waxwing. An alum of Tin House and VONA, she received her MFA in Creative Writing from UC Davis. Her memoir-in-progress is a reckoning of myth and memory.