The following short story and interview contain mentions of suicide. If you or a loved one is struggling with suicidal ideation, know there are resources out there. For the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, call 988.
Roger loved Beth, of course, but he had hoped age would slow her down. She had never lost her frenzy for what she believed was her life’s central mystery.
In the meantime, grandkids banged on pots and pans at all hours. AM radio was always on full blast with talk about opera and the end of the world. A clipping of wisteria she’d taken from a friend had turned into a full invasion of the trees in their backyard. Butterfly stickers were plastered all over the window that looked out over his vegetable garden.
“I’d rather see real butterflies in my garden,” he told her.
“They hardly ever come around, and I want to see them all the time.”
She paid no attention to his grumbling, and of course, he felt guiltier about criticizing her when they found out she was dying.
“Death is inevitable,” he reassured her on the way back from the cardiologist.
“You wouldn’t say that if it was happening to you.”
“It is happening to me! My heart’s just as bad. I’ll probably die before you.”
“No such luck,” she said with a little laugh, and he didn’t know if she meant her luck or his.
He stopped at their favorite fast food spot and bought her a hot dog and an ice cream sundae, and he got a basket of chili fries, and they sat on one of the picnic tables overlooking the baseball field where the high school kids were practicing.
“They don’t have a care in the world. They’re not thinking about what it all means. Or else, they’re thinking about batting averages. It’s the only thing they have to prove,” she said.
Her eyes were a little red, but she wouldn’t let a tear fall. He hadn’t seen her cry for decades, not since their youngest’s body was found in the woods. Their only little girl. After that, Beth had wanted to talk about it all the time, like that would bring her back. He’d asked her to think of his feelings, and she hadn’t liked that. But what was there to do about it? Bad things happened. Death was really and truly inevitable.
“What do you think it all means? ” he asked, deciding to humor her.
She brightened like he’d given her a compliment, and she put her burger down so she could concentrate on her explanation.
“Life is about understanding the people you love. Once you understand them, you can let them go.”
“You don’t understand me,” Roger said.
“Oh, please. I understood you after our first date.”
He savored his fries and waited for her to resume her theorizing. He didn’t think he was so easy to figure out.
“I’m happy with the life we’ve lived in every way but one. I really am.”
“I believe you. But I’ve been telling you for years, we should leave that house. It brings back bad memories sometimes. We could make a fresh start even if we only have a few months. Why not? We could move to assisted living. It might be nice.”
“I can’t, Roger. She might speak to me again and finally tell me what happened. She’s still there.”
He could feel his ire rising, but he tried to tamp it down. Getting angry wouldn’t do anyone any good. It was hard to be the hard one all the time.
“She’s not there. She’s moved on, Darling. I’m sure of it. She’s not haunting us.”
Beth gave him the most furious expression she could make, her eyebrows arching lower than they used to. “But I will. I will haunt you for the rest of your life if you don’t try to help me make my peace before I die.”
“You know I’ll do anything I can!” he started, intending to defend himself against the implied accusation that he was too lazy to help his dying wife. It was hard to think of Beth’s absence, and it scared him to think of how much he’d miss her, but he didn’t want her to haunt him. She’d do it, too. If there were any way to do it, Beth would find it. He’d never get a good night’s rest again.
“I’m only asking this one thing,” she said, interrupting his defending. “I still don’t know what happened to Sweet Wendy. I don’t know why she went into the woods that day. I don’t know who hurt her. I don’t know what she was thinking.”
“She was sad, Beth. The police found her diary, and she said she was depressed. It was a tragedy—the greatest tragedy of our lives. But we already know why it happened.”
“But why? She never told me she was depressed. I don’t believe it, Roger. I’ll go to my grave not believing it.”
They’d been over the story thousands of times. Beth had the same questions, and he gave the same answers. At first, they’d both demanded answers and investigations and had called in detectives and pastors and priests and rabbis and psychics and anyone else who had any chance of helping. After a couple of years, Roger had faced the facts. Their daughter had been depressed. It didn’t make sense to him either—she hadn’t seemed sad. She was only sixteen, rather young to give up on life. But that’s what the evidence said. Beth had even called in a guy from the university who made podcast shows to investigate Wendy’s death, but he couldn’t get up enough mystery content for a single show. He said he was sorry, and then he left without giving them any more answers than they’d had before. Humiliation after humiliation! Everyone in town knew them as the poor couple who had lost their daughter in their own back woods. Everyone was sorry, but they were all alone in the depth of their sorrow. Not even their sons, Wendy’s two older brothers, had understood, though they had pain of their own.
He was ruminating on the injustices they had suffered as he drove home, and Beth made the same case she’d made for years. Wendy was always one who followed the rules. She had just won that dance competition, and she had another coming up that she was practicing for (and yet she wasn’t going overboard or stressing out too much). She wanted to be a vet, and she was volunteering at the animal shelter. She loved her family. Even that diary (which Beth had always suspected was a plant) had made that much clear. She wouldn’t have wanted to hurt her parents or her brothers. If she really felt she had to die, she would have explained it better.
When they got home, she was still ranting away as she followed him into the kitchen where he was going to get a glass of water, and she pointed to one butterfly sticker that had fallen to the floor beside the picture window.
“It’s Wendy! That sticker is a sign!”
“Damn it, Beth, that sticker just fell down. It’s nothing supernatural.” He was glad to have one less sticker to look at. It was the weird glittery-purple one, too, the one that didn’t look like any kind of butterfly he had ever seen in real life.
“These stickers don’t just fall off. Try getting another one off.”
He’d never attempted it, knowing he wouldn’t hear the end of it if he displaced one of her precious butterflies. When he tried scratching at a pink butterfly with his fingernail, it wouldn’t budge.
“You’d have to get a scraping knife to take these off,” she said.
He groaned. Maybe it would be a project for their sons when they were both dead.
“That’s her talking to me, Roger. She hasn’t left me a sign in a long time. I think it’s finally happening again because you’re finally listening again. On account of my dying. Not a second too soon, either.”
He examined the fallen butterfly. It wasn’t anything like a real butterfly, but he already sort of missed it. He was used to seeing it there on the window. Was it really Wendy speaking to them after so long? Hadn’t she moved on to heaven yet?
“Promise me you’ll keep listening, and that you’ll believe. For my sake, the last wish of a dying woman.”
“I’ll listen!” he called out, raising his hands in the air as if he were a holy roller. “I believe! I’ll listen! I believe!”
“Now, you keep paying attention, and I will too. She’s sure to spark up again soon.”
While they were watching television later that evening, they heard a light commotion outside. Animal sounds. When they went to investigate, they looked through the picture window and found a striped cat sitting at a distance from the house and staring at them.
“That’s her,” Beth said.
“Our daughter is not a cat,” Roger said. The cat was cute, though. It looked at them with a sense of purpose, swinging its tail from side to side as if to get their attention.
“Remember when she was little and she wanted to be in school plays, but she was so shy? You used to tell her to pretend like she was a cat. Cats think they’re the best, and that other people are lucky to be around them.”
“I forgot that. It sounds like so-so advice. It wouldn’t help if you were really and truly scared. You can’t just become a cat.” He wasn’t sure if he had ever given Wendy good advice. Maybe that was why she didn’t come to him before the end.
“Unless you’re a ghost,” Beth whispered. “Let’s follow the cat. The cat wants us to. Can’t you tell?”
He had promised to believe, after all, which meant he had to try.
They rarely went out at night anymore. It was early spring, and some crickets were waking up. There was a chill to the air, so Beth ran in to grab jackets for them, though he didn’t see the point since he didn’t think the cat was really going to lead them anywhere.
But the cat did lead them into the woods. Roger had only been in the woods a few times since the tragedy. A couple of times he’d gone out looking for the boys’ dog, and another time he had to help one of them find different kinds of leaves for a school project.
“You promised,” Beth said, so he followed the cat even though he felt angry about it.
He hadn’t done anything wrong, so why should he always be punished? They should have left a long time before. As soon as he could, he was going to move them into a retirement community. Then whichever one of them died last would have company while they waited. There were people playing cards and checkers and chess, and they had good hot meals. There was even a duck pond.
By grumbling to himself, he was able to ignore the thorns and creepiness of their journey into the woods. They walked slowly, and the cat would stop and wait for them sometimes. It really did seem to be leading them somewhere in particular. Finally, they found themselves in a clearing near a small creek, and they recognized the spot. This was where it had happened. There was that log that had fallen halfway in the water, still rotting slowly.
“I used to come here every day to leave flowers or little trinkets that made me think of her. But I stopped a long time ago, because it was too sad.” Beth was about to cry, and Roger felt responsible. He shouldn’t have let them get carried away.
“You did the best you could, Beth. You did a great job as a mom.”
She shook her head. His eyes had adjusted to the low light from the half-moon above, and he could see her and the cat clearly. The cat jumped up to sit on the dry portion of the log, twitching its tail as an invitation.
They had no choice, they felt, but to sit on the log where the cat wanted them to. They had come so far, and they had to finish their task.
“Look at that,” he said as he looked up.
The stars were so cold and distant, it scared him at first. It had been years since he had really looked at them. The bigger the town got, the harder it was to see them, and there was something comforting about that. The restaurants and the baseball games and the backyard parties were so bright and loud, no one had to see the stars and feel creepy about them. There was a time when people found pictures and stories up there, but the maddening silence must have made them dreamy. He couldn’t see any patterns up there. It was just a wild scatter of dots, like the holes in one of those posters they have at shooting ranges. Maybe God was up there shooting at them and kept missing.
“Beautiful,” Beth said. “This was the last thing she saw.”
That made his eyes sting. The last thing their sweet daughter knew was that cold, comfortless sky? He hoped she had closed her eyes and thought of something cozy. But then, why had she gone all the way out there if not to see that sky in the end?
“Someone told her to do it,” Beth said. “Maybe she did it herself, but someone told her to.”
“Who? Who would do something like that?”
Soon Beth was crying like a child, and Roger was, too. Who would do something like that?
“Maybe you’re right. That morning, she told me she’d go fishing with me that weekend,” Roger said. “She never lied. She always did what she said.”
“This was an exception, because something happened. Maybe she wasn’t murdered exactly. Maybe there won’t be any justice. Maybe not in this life, maybe not ever. I get the feeling…I get the feeling she wants us to forgive, to forgive her and whoever hurt her.”
Roger felt a foreign softness against his hand, and he shouted and jumped up. It was the cat coming up to them.
“Kitty?” he said, trying to sound brave.
“Wendy,” Beth said. “I know why you brought us out here. You wanted us to know what you were feeling. You felt like things were too big for you. You were sensitive, and someone was rooting against you. Maybe more than one person.”
The cat looked up. What was up there? The sky. The more he looked at it, the less alien it seemed. It was just a sky seen from a planet. The stars were fireballs. It was incredible. A cloud crept across the half-moon, and it looked like a fairy gown lit up by magic, like one of those princess things Wendy had liked to wear when she was little.
“This was what she saw before she died. And it was good,” Beth said.
He didn’t know what to say. It must have been so.
Wisteria hung from the branches above. When he was focused on the stars, he hadn’t noticed the blossoms, but now he saw.
“Was this wisteria there when she died?” he said. “I can’t remember when you set it down back here and it caught on.”
“No, it wasn’t here then. She loved purple flowers. Remember?”
“I don’t.” His voice was hoarse.
“I guess I planted it for her. And when she looks up now, she can see it there.”
When they looked down again, the cat was gone. It had done its job. They went back to the house in a kind of holy silence, holding hands. It had hurt to be so close to the sky. He was glad to be back inside. It was too hard to discuss at first. She went to bed, and he stayed up another hour to watch TV, though he wasn’t really paying attention. He was basking in the warm colors and thinking about old times.
They were able to speak at breakfast, and they agreed it had been a sign.
“I’m almost at peace,” Beth said, and he couldn’t help but laugh.
“What more could you want? She came back for us, didn’t she?”
“There’s one more thing I have to understand. Is she still sad about it? Wherever she is, whatever her spirit does…is it sad, or is it at peace?”
He nodded. It seemed like it would be a good thing to know.
“If you have something else to tell us, Wendy, we’re listening,” he said. This time, he meant it.
That evening, they didn’t turn on the television. Beth suggested they read, and he knew it was so they could hear better in case Wendy came to call again.
Again, they heard tapping at the window, but this time it was insistent and gentle as rain. They ran into the kitchen, but nothing was out there. No cat this time. It wasn’t until Beth turned on the outdoor lights that they could see a swarm of bugs infesting their backyard.
“Probably those damn mosquitos,” Roger said, but it was too early for them.
When they stepped outside, they saw wings fluttering all around their garden. As they got closer, they could it was a swarm of butterflies.
“At night, Roger! At night! Not moths, but butterflies.”
There were at least a dozen of them, and they were the most vivid colors. No pale ones. Just electric blues and oranges and purples.
“Even at night. Wendy is like this even at night. Is this what death is, Roger?”
He could see it clearly now in the porchlight. He didn’t have to strain his eyes. He was going to lose his wife. It took his breath away. It was inevitable, and it happened to everyone. It had happened to their daughter before them. But now it was happening to them. It wasn’t fair. It didn’t matter if they all became butterfly spirits, happy as could be. It wasn’t fair to live so close to someone and then lose them. It wasn’t fair to get so old and lose everything. Hadn’t they done
the best they could? They had done what they were supposed to do.
“It’s all right to die, then, Roger. It really is.”
Beth was happy, but he couldn’t be.
“I want to die first,” he said. “Sometimes I wish I had died suddenly a long time ago, so I wouldn’t have to think about these things.”
He sat down in the garden, and the butterflies whizzed around his head. By instinct, he almost swatted one.
“It doesn’t matter who dies first,” she said. She sat down in the grass beside him. He couldn’t think of the last time they’d sat on the ground like that, and he wasn’t sure if they’d be able to get up again. “Whoever goes will make a way. The other will follow. When moment doesn’t follow moment…you see, all the moments are there.”
He didn’t see. It didn’t make sense. But Wendy was there, at least. She was dancing again in the forms of a bunch of night-drunk butterflies. She had loved the night. Where was she? They were closing in on her territory, wherever she was.
They kept their holy silence all night. The next day, they sat for hours by the picture window. Once or twice, one of them spotted a butterfly. They had seemed so rare before, like creatures that only came out for photographers. But they were everywhere.
That night, they talked about Wendy. They didn’t talk about the end, but they talked about the different moments along the way. It hadn’t always been clear who she was. They had known she was kind (most of the time), but they hadn’t realized before what a great guide she was. They had to piece her together from all those scattered moments after she was gone.
“It is a great gift that you and I have lived together so long and know each other so well,” Beth said.
“Maybe it’s a gift that I’m not a mystery. I’m a simple person,” Roger said.
Months later, when Beth died in her bed at home, she knew she was going. The kids and grandkids went to see her one last time, and she gave everyone strange tokens, from sheets of stickers to stones she liked to little sketches she’d made of the house and backyard. Roger was alone with her that evening when she passed over.
“I know you helped me solve the mystery like you promised, but I’ll haunt you anyway. It would be my pleasure to haunt you.” That was one of the last things she said.
“Go right ahead.”
After the funeral and the lunch at their oldest son’s house, Roger drove himself home. Everyone said he should stay over at his son’s, but he wanted to go back to see if Beth had left him a sign.
It was late spring, and he was shocked to see that wisteria had spread into the front yard. Had it been that way the night before? He hadn’t noticed it. It must have spread from the back to the front overnight. It was invasive and brilliant, the most beautiful flower.
After he sold the house, he took a cutting of it with him to plant outside his window at the assisted living place. Whether he liked it or not, life was without end. Before he died, the wisteria would spread even farther.
Ivy Grimes lives in Virginia. Her work has appeared in Potomac Review, Pithead Chapel, Salt Hill, Vastarien, Shirley Magazine, and elsewhere. To learn more about her, visit her website.
We are also pleased to present an interview with Ivy Grimes about “Picture Window,” conducted by Superstition Review’s fiction editor, Margaret LaCorte. Read it below.
Margaret LaCorte: The perspectives you chose to write about in Picture Window are from that of an older couple, Roger and Beth, struggling to cope with the loss of their child several years down the road. What made you want to write the story from this perspective?
Ivy Grimes: I grew up in a smallish town, and most of my family was a ten-minute drive away, so I spent a lot of time with my grandparents and great-aunts and other elders. The process of aging and coming to terms with dying is fascinating and horrible and beautiful. In some ways, people who live to old age are very lucky to experience so much life, but they also grapple with so much suffering and loss. They have more time to puzzle over existential problems for which there are no obvious answers.
I also think that most of us expect others to pass through grief quickly, when really the loss never ends. It’s hard to truly enter into someone else’s pain, and I wanted to explore the perspective of people who were happy in many ways and yet dealt with extraordinary grief over a long period of time.
ML: Death is a central focus of this piece. How have your own experiences with death shaped the manner in which you wrote “Picture Window”?
IG: I was raised as a Christian in the South, and while I have problems with much of the orthodoxy now, I still believe in the life of the spirit. I believe in the peace that sustains us all. I don’t necessarily want to believe this, and I know it doesn’t make sense to believe it given the suffering that exists, but I can’t help it. Struggling with my faith and trying to make sense of the world we live in has led me to write some depressing stories, and yet for me, there’s something inexpressibly comforting behind it all.
I’ve experienced death and grief, but not in the same way the characters in the story have—not with the same intensity. They feel responsible for their daughter, and to lose someone so close and so young is a different kind of grief. Plus, they wonder what they could have done. There’s something especially shocking about suicide, and often there’s no sense of why and whether the person found peace. Suicide rips a hole in the fabric of a community. People often blame themselves when they weren’t to blame as individuals, but we are responsible as a community. We have to continually think of how to create communities where we notice and address suffering.
ML: Roger and Beth struggle in understanding what really was the cause of their daughter’s death. What made you decide to incorporate this level of uncertainty into the story?
IG: I think it’s common not to know why people commit suicide, even if the person leaves behind an explanation. In many cases, there’s been no direct communication about thoughts of suicide (which is why it’s so important to share these thoughts when they arise and to seek help). I wanted to show how this confusion might affect those left behind, and how they might grapple with those feelings. Whenever anyone dies, or when they leave us behind, we’re generally left with anger and grief, and we want to know why…in a larger sense, why does life have to be this way? And I’d like to think that if you remain open, you might not find clear answers, but you might find signs and some sense of peace.
ML: Setting plays a big role in Wendy’s death, as well as her parents’ acceptance of it. Can you speak to the significance of placing the setting of her death within the woods behind Roger and Wendy’s home?
IG: Many tragedies in our lives happen in our homes or right outside our doors, and so a place associated with wonderful memories can also be associated with deep sadness. I’ve especially seen older people cope with this, and it’s mind-boggling to me. I hate the idea of living in a house for fifty years and letting the place be a repository for all my ghosts and memories.
For most people, the woods are lovely, but with a hint of danger. For Roger, the woods outside his house became a place he couldn’t go, because he couldn’t bear thinking about what had happened there. By confronting the place and his daughter’s perspective, he was able to see that the woods might have looked different to his daughter. They might have become a place of peace instead of simply a place of suffering.
ML: I found it interesting that Beth’s character is dying through the events of the story, motivating the couple to finally come to terms with their daughter’s death. During the process of writing this, what was the most difficult part of capturing this perspective?
IG: Roger wants to leave the house, and Beth wants to stay close to her daughter’s memory and spirit. I’d want to leave, personally, which is probably why I chose to focus more on Roger’s perspective. I have a hard time sitting with grief for very long, and my response to problems is often to search for a logical explanation, and if I don’t find one, to forget about it as best I can. Roger realizes that his wife has stuck around to find her daughter or some hint of an explanation, and he wants to help. Sometimes when people in our lives believe in something we don’t believe in, we can be harsh. But there’s something healing about taking people seriously, even when we feel like they’re being dramatic or fantastical. So entering into Roger’s perspective wasn’t very hard for me. By the end, he has gained some kind of inexpressible insight, which is something I’ve felt at times. I had a harder time understanding Beth, who keeps striving and mourning and searching her whole life. Fortunately, I was approaching her from the outside.
ML: Your use of symbolism through the recurring use of the wisteria flower was one of my favorite parts of the piece. During the process of writing this story, what other options did you consider using to symbolize the everlasting nature of life?
IG: I considered no other options! Wisteria was the impetus for writing the story. I always enjoyed writing, and my Grandmother Grimes would sometimes come up with subjects for me to write about. She was a natural storyteller, and she loved to tell odd tales to children about creatures in the woods, and she loved talking to adults about what the family and the neighbors and the women in her Garden Club were doing.
So anyway, one day, she told me I should write a story about a man who comes home after his wife’s funeral and sees that the wisteria she once planted (not realizing it was invasive) was everywhere. Everywhere. In truth, my grandmother had planted some wisteria that invaded her trees, and I think she admired it but was also alarmed by its persistence. I don’t know how my grandfather felt about it, but maybe he felt the same. I thought it was a great idea for a story, but I couldn’t think of how to do it justice. I probably still haven’t! But I did the best I could at present. So thank you to my grandmother for that idea and many others!