The Water Wheel: A Short Story
I promised myself I’d write ONE thing during this year’s 2019 NaNoWriMo, and today I hunkered down and did it. It’s not a novel or the 50,000 words required to “win” at NaNoWriMo, or even the 43,000 words of Little Milestones I wrote during last year’s NaNoWriMo. It’s just a short story about grief with a little bit of a twist. I’m not sure what, if anything, I will do with this piece of writing, but for some reason, I needed to write it.
Today was the day, and here is the story.
The Water Wheel
by Stephanie Verni
There were many ways he could show his appreciation for her. This he knew. He knew what Sidney liked (Sid for short, for it was the nickname he called her); he knew what made her heartstrings melt, like the puppy he got her for her birthday; and he knew what caused her to melt down and wind herself up into a tizzy (like when she had that falling out with one of her best friends). He still felt like he knew her better than she knew herself. He could anticipate what would come out of her mouth, right down to the last syllable, before she even spoke a word. Even so, he’d continued studying her. Watching her. He’d taken copious mental notes all along the way because he never tired of getting to know her better. Of course, she may have been unaware that he did this and she may not have known the extent of it, but when she would look around and would find no one, he seemed to feel her acceptance of happenstances that were nonsensical and inexplicable.
She had a fascination with the large, wooden water wheel that was attached to the local mill where craftspeople worked in their studios. Tall trees full of autumn’s colors, bountiful shrubbery and fire bushes dressed the small river, narrow in parts, that housed the large brick and wood structure to which the wheel was attached. The mechanics of it encouraged the water to move along that part of the river to provide energy and power. The sound of the wheel slushing and propelling the water soothed his nerves, and he readily admitted that he’d rank that sound—similar to that of a natural waterfall—as one of his all-time favorites, next to hearing Sid sing, making up her own silly and sexy lyrics to some of her favorite songs.
Sometimes, when she would visit her friend, Nick, an artisan who carved wood, she would sit on the bench outside the studio facing the river and watch the water wheel go around and around. Her ability to remain transfixed for hours, a book or journal in hand as she waited for Nick to clock out and meet her, always seemed to shock him. He wasn’t sure he’d seen such devotion in, well, a very long time.
He watched her write in her journal on that sunny afternoon, the falling leaves from the large oak tree cascading over her paper, seemingly dancing in the wind. She picked up a large burnt orange leaf and held it in her hand. She placed the leaf on the blank page inside her journal, flattening the pages so she could trace the leaf properly. When she was finished, she removed the leaf, and on the facing page, she traced her own hand, which almost fit on the page but for her middle finger, which hung slightly over it. She outlined her hand gingerly, and looked down at both etchings, studying them intently.
A fallen leaf.
A woman’s hand.
She glanced over at the mill, and then at her watch. She was used to waiting. It felt interminable to her, and often she felt similar to that very wheel…continuously moving in circles, but going nowhere.
He spotted Nick exiting the mill, pulling his taupe knit hat tightly over his head, his jacket open slightly, as it was not freezing out, but only a tad chilly. Sid was wearing her maroon coat—the one she’d worn when they’d skated on the frozen lake on their second date. He took it as a sign that perhaps something was going to happen, something he wasn’t ready to see.
Nick approached her with a smile. Sid stood to hug him, and then they both sat down.
“You been waiting long?” Nick asked.
“Not too terribly long,” she said, placing the journal on her lap, a barrier now between them.
“So, what’s up? I wish I could have come out sooner, but I had to finish—”
“It’s okay. This won’t take long, and I didn’t mind waiting. It’s just, I need to say this now before I lose my nerve.”
Nick looked at her and shoved his hands into his pockets. A stiff wind blew. “Okay,” he said. He took a deep breath.
“I like you, I do, Nick, and maybe what I’m about to do is all wrong, but something inside me believes it’s all right. I’m afraid I can’t move forward with our relationship. I’m just not—”
“…vested,” Nick said, finishing her sentence.
“Not fully,” Sid said, swallowing hard. Nick took one hand out of his pocket and patted her hand with it.
“I know, Sidney. I’ve known it for weeks. I’ve known it ever since you told me the story. I’ve known it all along. I guess I was just hoping you’d maybe…I don’t know…feel something.”
“I wish I could feel something,” she said. “Believe me.”
They sat there next to each other and watched the water wheel churn. The sound of its motion filled the silence between them, neither one of them knowing just how to walk away.
Then Nick leaned close to her, and began to talk. “Someday, you may recover. Someday. I don’t blame you, nor am I mad at you. You’re just being honest. Vinny was the most important person in your life. It could take years for you to recover from his death.”
“It has been years,” she said, almost in a whimper.
Nick put his arms around her, as Sid put the journal on the other side of her. Nick gave her a good, solid squeeze. “You’re going to be okay,” he said. “Even without him.”
She let him hold her for a moment, the scent of cinnamon wafting in the air. “Thanks, Nick. Thank you for understanding and not forcing me to move forward when I’m not ready.”
“Be well,” he said, standing to leave. “Be patient with yourself, but don’t let grief swallow you whole. You still have so much life left in you yet.”
Nick bent down toward her and kissed the top of her forehead. “I’ll see you, Sid,” he said.
She remained on the bench, watching him walk away on the path—then he turned briefly and waved, and she waved back. He turned and continued on his way, Sid watching intently as his silhouette became smaller and smaller as he faded into the distance. She inhaled the fall air, and then, just ask the sun began to lower in the autumn sky, she picked up her journal and began to write while there was still a little light remaining:
I know you’re here, Vinny. I can feel you around me, watching over me. Sometimes I even think I can smell you and that stupid, cheap aftershave you insisted on wearing despite that I bought you the expensive designer brand for Christmas. It was always so like you to prefer something simple over something fancy.
He finishes my sentences, Vinny. I know you heard that, just as you used to do when we were together. And yet, I let him walk away.
You’ve been gone for three years, gallivanting in the heavens, I suppose. You’re probably up there in the big sky busily making the cloud shapes these days instead of watching them as we did from Granddad’s fields, trying to distinguish which cloud formed a three-headed clown and which one was an upside-down giraffe.
Nick was so right. I’m allowing grief to swallow me whole.
I miss you. Immensely.
Vinny watched her write those words on the page of her journal, then he watched her turn the page and look at her etchings again.
A fallen leaf.
A woman’s hand.
One’s time has ended.
The other one, very much alive.
Sid closed the journal and stared at the water wheel again. It had been there, just to the left of it, that he had kissed her for the last time. Right there, on the bridge. Who could have predicted the accident? That he would never hold her again after that moment?
If only he’d…if only he could still…
He knew he’d been holding on far longer than…
He couldn’t bring himself, but he knew…
It was time for him to finally let go, so that she could…finally…