He was on his way to leap from Elderberry Cliff.
Elderberry Cliff, a rocky outcrop resembling a flat-backed gargoyle peering out over the Atlantic below, is showcased by a park of the same name. The property, once an apple orchard, was donated to the city when its owner vowed to never lay eyes on it again. His teenage son, his only heir, died falling or perhaps diving from the cliff. The park is at the sixth stop on the city’s bus route. And Ray Stern was sitting on a bus, heading to that sixth stop.
Ray found the odor of bus exhaust strangely comforting. He wondered if it was because it reminded him that he was initiating some action, something he hadn’t done in quite some time, or perhaps it was an affirmation he was on his way to relief. The bus’s old suspension was no match for the army of potholes along the bus route, and the resulting vibration was an irritant, like everything now seemed to be. His jaw tightened as one of the recurring images, his parents riding in their RV, flashed. The leading edge of darkness touched him when he lost them.
When blackness gnawed, it was largely bridled by Amy. She was his fighting light keeper. She led him through the dark toward the everyday gifts of life. But now she couldn’t help him. When she left, the shadow of the unthinkable first beckoned.
Ray had sought refuge in his work. With an assignment from his primary client, a birding periodical, to take some photos of birds of prey, he and his long lens sat in silence for hours in camouflaged blinds waiting for nature to come his way. But he found little solace in the solitude.
As the bus stopped he heard the sound of hardwood against baseball, followed by cheers. Some youngster must have gotten a hit at the city ball fields, the fifth stop.
Ray recalled that gray morning when he couldn’t focus his camera by sharpening the image in the viewfinder. Although the camera could focus automatically, he always preferred the old-fashioned way, the way his father had taught him, a gentle but firm turn of the lens. This time he had to allow the camera to make the adjustment. It was of no concern until it happened again. And then light and sight diminished as though a malevolent hand were dimming his world’s light with a rheostat.
The visit with the ophthalmologist resulted in a prognosis that he was indeed losing his sight, but that there was the option of surgery. He was advised that the procedure “had a good chance of success.” Those who regained sight normally did so within about four weeks. During the fifth and sixth weeks post-surgery, Ray began his final descent.
His shadow-world incubated a sickness of hopelessness that would not pass. Mental pain, he discovered, was worse than any physical pain he had ever experienced. While every part of his body seemed to succumb to the black infection, its main residence was his skull, which had constant pressure. This was not a physical pain, but an unrelenting and unnerving feeling of disquiet that drained all energy from every cell in his body. No attempted change in attitude, encouragement from friends, or even therapy did any good. There was no way to expel or excise it. He felt it could only be purged with a total body sacrifice. Elderberry Cliff was his only escape.
The bus slowed. A woman’s voice urged her children to gather their things and get ready to exit the bus. She seemed rushed, but adept at shepherding her kids. The driver’s deep voice announced, “Elderberry Cliff.” Ray grabbed the tops of seats as he headed to the front of the bus. He smelled a hint of jasmine. He imagined it was perfume that had been splashed on by a pretty young woman that morning.
As Ray exited the driver cautioned, “Watch your step; don’t fall.” Ray scoffed to himself. First, I can’t watch my step. And it’s my plan to fall.
He knew the layout of the park from having photographed it. A dirt path led across a grass field to the cliff. To the right was a stand of apple trees, remnants of the old orchard. The surviving trees stood in rows like old soldiers who had lost their will to fight. The volunteer apples, the product of neglected trees, were sour. Now they were harvested one apple at a time by visitors curious enough to sample the fruit. Ray’s mouth puckered as he thought about the time he bit into one of those apples.
He felt the soft dirt with his cane as he stepped onto the path. The park was quiet and he sensed there were few people there. This was good, he thought. I don’t need an audience. He was unaware the grass field was covered with dandelions past bloom with their puffy, white, globular seed heads. A soft wind scattered dandelion seeds with their attached parachutes, and they glided in whirlpools around his feet. Every so often a renegade seed would lift from the swirl and drift upward. One brushed his nose and he instinctively swatted at it, thinking it was a gnat.
A few more steps brought the smell of salt air from a humid ocean breeze. He heard the surf rushing against the rocks below Elderberry Cliff. His cane clicked against the split-rail fence that separated visitors from the edge of danger. Ray dropped the cane, grabbed the top of the fence with both hands, and climbed over it.
He had the strong sense that someone would call out to him to stop. But no one did. Did he want to be stopped? No, this had to be done. He took several steps on the flat rock that jutted out over the water. Ray knew he was on the very edge of the cliff when the upward draft of wind rustled his pants legs.
There he stood. On the edge. One step away. With one step or a small leap, he’d be free from the torment of his incessant stream of hollow consciousness; free from the grief that led him there; and free from the manacles imposed by the blindness. But it also meant a departure from all life’s offerings, the good along with the bad. Was he ready for that? The inner voice of survival begged him to abandon this foolish course.
He inhaled deeply, filling his lungs with cool, damp air. He thought of Amy—how she gave him the warmest smile he had ever seen when they first met, and how she smiled the same way on their wedding day. He thought of his mom and dad and how close he was to them. He wished he could return to the time when he was happy, before the RV crash took his parents and sickness took Amy. He thought of the endless darkness. And jumped.
He felt buoyant, suspended on air. All was silent and without movement. Time and space were nonexistent. A quiet peace settled upon him. This was what he had longed for.
This respite was interrupted by a growing sense of downward movement. Pressure built on his chest, as the air resistance pushed rudely against him. His stomach seemed to be pressing on his throat. The airstream whistled in his ears. The din of surging water grew even louder. His body was accelerating. Ray was overwhelmed and disoriented.
But he gathered his senses for a last bit of conscious thought and noticed his teeth were clenched and his eyes squinted shut. One final moment of life, he thought. He threw his arms straight out to the world, parted his lips to force a smile, and opened his eyes wide to the wind.
From somewhere in the deepest recess of his being, in a place hidden from the depression, something sparked a synapse and emitted a ray of regret. The voice of survival pounced on that doubt, amplified it, and used it to chastise him with barks of primordial profanities.
As his body did a slow tumble, he had the impression that he could see the white surf rushing toward him at blinding speed. The inner voice screamed in panic.
* * *
Unconsciousness camouflages the passage of time, as when we fall asleep at night and then awake in the morning, as though only an instant has passed. Such is the way Ray felt when he awoke three weeks later and saw the window light shining on the pretty young nurse. For a moment he wondered if he was in heaven, until he noticed a clock on the wall and figured they don’t keep track of time in an eternal place.
“Well, hello,” the nurse said to him. “You’ve been asleep a while.”
“Asleep?” Ray asked.
“More accurately, you’ve been in a coma.”
He now remembered and felt embarrassed. She must know what he did.
“They found you wedged between two boulders right below the diving rock on Elderberry Cliff. You must have been thrown onto the rocks by the surf. Your ribs were scraped up bad.”
“What do you mean ‘diving rock’?” Ray asked.
“You know, like the cliffs in Mexico, where the divers time the incoming surf and dive a hundred feet into the ocean. A long while back, local idiots used to try doing that from the flat rock sticking out from Elderberry Cliff.” She stopped abruptly and her face showed a red tint at the edges.
She must think I gave that a try, Ray thought, and that means she just called me an idiot.
He let her off the hook. “The truth be known, I jumped off that cliff to end it all.”
As she picked up the phone, Ray remembered where he had encountered that unique floral smell. “Do you ever take the city bus?” he asked.
“Every day. To work. The hospital is stop number seven.”
She put her hand over the speaker of the phone. “No offense, but I have to put you on suicide watch. It’s standard protocol.”
“That’s okay, but it’s not necessary anymore,” Ray said. “I made it to the seventh stop, and there is no darkness here.”
As she spoke on the phone, Ray looked around the room and appreciated everything he saw, especially his nurse’s warm smile.