The Dark Room
by Ute Carson
Longshot Island Magazine, February 2017

Four steps down from the buckling floorboards of the living area and I was engulfed in darkness. Here the room had no window, no door to the outside. It was unusual for a Florida cottage to have a space on a lower level from the main building. Like a mole I adjusted my eyes, groped for a dangling string and switched on a dim lightbulb. A mattress heaved up on its side on an iron bedframe revealed what looked like blood spots. The accordion-like partition to a tiny wardrobe gaped open and drawers were pulled from a bureau and stacked next to it. A shower stall was visible at the far end of the wall where a floral curtain dangled to the floor as if someone had grabbed it while steadying herself. The place smelled damp and desolate. Here my friend Rose had moaned through agonies of her late-stage stomach cancer before the hospice staff intervened and transferred her to a nearby hospital.

Rose was a Christian Scientist who believed that the body would heal itself. When it didn't, she clung to the idea that she was merely an earthen vessel for her eternal soul and that she would pass from this world with ease. At first she refused most standard medical treatments and even shipped back the soothing coca tea I had sent her from Peru. She meditated on devotional texts and read selections from Mary Baker Eddy's Science and Health. Only when she no longer could stand the pain did she allow the hospice nurse to give her morphine injections.

I wanted to rush to her side when the cancer became unbearable but was rudely rebuffed. "I want to do this my way. Alone." "And, if you can't do it alone?" I queried. "Then I will ask help from strangers, not friends." She had an exaggerated fear of imposing on others. She was generous to a fault but resisted accepting even a morsel of kindness from others.

Rose and I met in Montana at a training center for seeing-eye dogs, and I had often visited her and her dogs in Florida. There I observed her rich community work in a small impoverished section of St. Petersburg where she lived among mainly retired people. She was their go-between with doctors and chauffeured them to various activities. She was the hub in their wheel and much loved. Neighbors told me how they enjoyed watching her run by with a dog or two down to the nearby beach. Rose also had a job as an accountant at a local college.

When I emerged from the starless night and climbed the few steps back up to daylight I was stalked by despair. Most of Rose's furnishings were gone. When her illness was diagnosed she had invited her neighbors to take whatever they liked from her material possessions. Reluctantly at first, a few items were accepted. When Rose became bedfast people helped themselves more freely. What remained of her possessions? The couch, chairs and bookshelves were gone, even the table where we had enjoyed having coffee together. The floor was barren of all the throw rugs, the heavy brown drapes taken down. Incongruously, white enamel stove covers sat undisturbed over the burners in a kitchen bereft of cook wear and dishes. And a few photographs still hung next to smudged rims where her colorful paintings of roses had once decorated the walls. There was a favorite of mine, the picture of an old man leading a horse to a water trough, another one of dogs pulling sleighs through snowdrifts.

Suddenly a flash of sunlight washed over me and my gaze rested on the black upright piano. It had not been moved and stood erect in the corner next to the window. I approached. Mouse droppings littered the top and the keys were gnawed at the edges. Rats, maybe? When I pressed a key an eerily dissonant sound escaped. The piano stool swiveled round and round as before but one leg had sunken into the rotting floorboards. There was no air-conditioning in the cottage and a mossy green fungus was crawling up the piano legs. Then from far away, flooding through my memory, I heard Rose playing and singing "I feel the earth move under my feet." I saw her jump up, rouse one of her sleeping pets and swing it around and around in a joyful dance.

The house had stood deserted for over a year. Rose had willed it to the guide-dog society but her estranged sister was contesting the will. A NO ENTRY sign dangled from the chain-link fence surrounding the property. The rusty gate creaked when I trespassed into the overgrown garden from where I entered the cottage through the unlocked back door. Now I retraced my steps and sat down on the stoop. The sky was overcast, rain was in the air. Here Rose had rested when she was still able to move about and had written short notes in reply to my pleas to come and lend her a hand. "No thanks, just tell me about the birds," was her reply. "They are singing and I close my eyes and listen to their wondrous morning duets."

I complied with her wish and sent books and tapes about birds, mainly of the Florida variety- egrets and pelicans and herons, but also finches and sparrows, even mockingbirds.

Under heavy foliage of unpruned bushes I spied the burial site of Rose's ashes and the ones of her beloved last canine companion, Buddy. On the small gravestone for her dog was chiseled: "To Buddy, my beloved friend. " Rose's stone was even smaller, the size of the palm of my hand and inscribed with only her name, not even a date. She had planted her favorite roses in a circle around the tiny plot. Farther away at the periphery of the garden swung a clothesline, a pair of torn jeans clipped onto it blowing in the breeze.

And then it happened. I was still haunted by the gloom of her bedroom, the deserted living area, her lonely dying, unwavering in her refusal of friendly help when through the sinister clouds a picture revealed itself in sudden bright sunshine. I was struck with wonder. Three seagulls landed on a branch of a live oak tree, swaying as if on a high wire and making cooing, whirring noises. Rose loved seagulls. During walks on the beach her dogs had chased them, coming within snapping distance of their tempting feathers. We would laugh at their hapless pursuits and often run along with them. It was as if these birds had come now to comfort me. I had once asked Rose why she favored these birds above all and she had answered, "Seagulls are known for their independence, their free spirit." Maybe Rose was now among them, twirling, pirouetting, and flying free.

- ~ -