Past imagination and before dreams rests a sanctuary of possible truths, each of which realized far exceeds the beauty of a sum of pure imaginings and the vividness of every dream combined. It was exactly here that he visited her - was there in the bed, warm and smelling of old spice, or seated at the desk poring over something dense and theoretical, probably some sort of formless modernist text, eyebrows furrowing with concentration and fingers drumming idly on the book's spine. Or as on this night, leading her gently along the path by the lake.
It was evening, perhaps early November, and darkness would come soon. The trees were on fire, and all the earth was dying. But only she could know the way each leaf sighed and let go and drifted into decay. Unless he, too, shared this knowing of cyclical mortality?
"I want to show you something," he said. She knew these woods far better than he, but she said nothing. Besides, everything was new because he was there, and holding her hand.
They walked in silence a few hundred feet, around a sharp bend as the shore rose higher and higher above the water. Eventually they reached a small clearing, where the edge of the earth jutted out at a sharp point over the water. Out of this point grew another of the ancient trees she loved so much. The erosion of the bank below it had caused it to slide from a normal vertical growing pattern into a more horizontal one, but the trunk was strong and healthy, branches pointing up to the fading light.
He took a step out onto the tree trunk, and she hesitated, but he did not let go of her hand.
"Don't worry, it's totally strong enough for the two of us." She took a tentative step forward, and then another. The trunk was wide, so balancing was easy, and as he had said it would, it held completely firm. They were clear of the earth, and the water was a good 10 feet below. He guided her around him so that she was in front of him, and the trunk began to grow narrow towards the tip.
They sat sat down straddling the tree, and he put his arms around her, holding her gently to him. The branches here were thin and nearly naked, casting long shadows on the water as a few of their last leaves struggled in the breeze.
"Is this what you wanted to show me?"
In front of them and to the left the autumn sun hung low on the horizon as the darkness flowed ever closer from behind, filling the gaps between the trees and overtaking the sky with a cool, thick twilight. The lake refracted with a dizzying glare, a bowl brimming with fire, so bright as to make it impossible to see the distant trees across the water bring rapidly consumed by the encroaching night. Everything was burning out - the sky, the trees, the silenced birds, the earth behind, the water beneath - the whole world a self-consuming blaze.
"Look." he said. "This is the world, and it's ours. Watch how it dies. Graceful and beautiful; it doesn't get ugly. And it's ok for us to watch it die, and to think that its dying is beautiful, and even to be a part of it." He paused. "I wonder if dying could ever be like that for us."
"The world has more faith in its rebirth than we do in ours."
"It's gotta be crazy, to just have faith like that. To just trust so much that the idea of 'if' never even occurs. "
"And yet one sunset followed by a sunrise is all the evidence we should need."
"It would be complete freedom. And that would be unbearable."
The fire was subsiding, followed by the ashen twilight and then darkness. Still he held her, and they were warm against the night, and their togetherness was not a thing of evidence or ifs or doubts or contingencies, just a realization beating with the slowness of a heart at rest.
Claire would see Paul in the morning, or perhaps in the afternoon, but he would not remember the way he had held her and shown her the world on the lake. He would be there, in his faded khaki shorts and sweatshirt, with his distant brown eyes that seemed unable to look at her for very long and the soft, dusty brown hair falling onto his forehead. He would take notes in Russian Literature in Translation class, with his right hand, pressing the pen a little too hard into the paper. He would tap his heel silently on the floor to a rhythm in his head, and raise his hand once or twice to contribute a comment.
When class was over, they would walk together until they awkwardly parted at the bottom of the hill by the path into the woods. They might talk about music, or what they had done last weekend, and it would be a struggle for her - their unbreakable apartness was incomprehensible and terrifying. She would never come so near to him as she had been that night.