To this day, I’ve always kept Daniel’s darkest secret. No hidden corner of his life exists that would ever transform my trust in him, or see him in a different light, or break the openness we discovered in our first forty-eight hours together. Add to that, I know exponentially more about him now than I did then, and still, for all of the ugliness of our underbellies, I am his Gibraltar and he, my Great Wall. Not that we’ve ever travelled much farther than the distance from our house to the cabin in the Big Horn Mountains, but this entire world can rest assured of this one truth: we don’t keep secrets from one another.
The chatty minority in this small plot of planet around us gossips their own imagined truths about him. Although now that we are married, the more judgmental people speak to me less (and perhaps they even spread untruths about me, too) then when I first lived as a stranger in their midst. Of course, it could be my imagination. I can no longer attest of what their stretched tales and silent judgments accuse him. I’d rather not know, though, because it doesn’t matter. Now that I’m settled in the Sheridan community, I adore the majority of people around me who choose to keep to themselves, practicing the Wyoming way of minding one’s own affairs. A true native doesn’t talk about others, when they talk at all, and that’s how secrets are kept.
Besides, I know the truth. I expect if others in that clique of condescension did, they would just find new ways to judge from a distance. Daniel confided in me, and I in him and that was enough because we withheld nothing, or practically nothing, from one another. Correct me if I’m wrong.
Just two and a half years on, our lives are richly tangled. I think of that old cattle fence in the Bighorn National Forest, farther into the wilderness, with a nearly dead vine weaving through it. Despite the harsh winters and the violent winds, the growth remains wrapped around the woodwork, clinging to it as if it still vibrant and pliable. There is life at the base of the plant, if you trace the dried whips back to their origination, but its forward advance each summer is erased each opposing season, save the tight twists around the corral-styled beams. This is us, in a sense, hanging on to our core and finding new ways to stay alive despite all that attempted to break us before we discovered each other.
Tonight, those howling winds and destructive forces of my past resurface attempting to rip the tangled vine back to its roots, and possibly out of the soil entirely. Sleep brings back the worst memories.
As I wake, the images from which I just pulled myself away leave my arm dangling lifeless, as if fractured, numb and tingling. As I inch my way back to consciousness, the images rapidly dissipate, yet my pulse betrays the lifelessness of my body, and the lack of blood flow through my right arm contrasts the rapid thumping I feel in my torso. I lie motionless, as my eyes open to reveal the stillness of our bedroom, nullifying the visions and screams I just departed.
Jason was dragging me by my arm, my shoulder limp, dislocated from my body, and despite my desire to scream from the pain or in an effort to summon help, my throat produced no sounds. Yet he yelled, berating me, beating me, breaking me, the way he did years ago when I could not imagine an alternative to his terror and torture. Dreams like this tapered in the years since I met Daniel, since my Lumberjack became my lover, yet on the rare occasions when my demons overtake my sleep, I am reminded of the horrible life I escaped.
Glancing around as much of the dark room as I can see from my side of the bed, I know I am safe. For a few hours on this one night, I am tormented by a handful of lingering memories that cannot hurt me, which should remind me of the complete transformation of my life in this house, this room, with this man. Caught beneath me as I slept, my arm was simply responding to the lack of blood flow. It just happens to coincide with the latest version of a nightmare that resurfaces from time to time.
Unsure of how long I’d been asleep, how far into the night we have rested, I attempt to grab my phone from the nightstand. Unable to lift myself using the arm that serves as the physical point of contact between the ghost of boyfriends past and my current alertness, I contort much of myself and Daniel begins to move on his side of the bed, disturbed by my ruckus.
I stop moving, hoping to allow him to return to his restful slumber, obviously more restful than mine. When I feel certain he dozes back into the night’s silence, I exert only enough effort to lift myself into a position that allows blood to continue to trickle into my fingers and back to my heart. Out of the corner of my eye I glimpse that only two or three coals in our fireplace retain the oranges of their earlier glow.
When I finally extend my fingers from thumb to pinkie and back without pangs and pinches reminding me that I chose an unfortunate prone position to accompany my nightmare, I reach for my phone to discover it isn’t even midnight yet.
“A nightmare?” he inquires proving yet again his remarkable ability to surprise and delight me in simple ways. I welcome his company to clear the oppressive images from the recent scene, but I feel guilty for waking him.
“Sorry I woke you,” my apology begins, “but I forced myself awake.”
“Hmmm,” he mutters, sounding not fully awake himself.
“You should go back to sleep.”
He doesn’t respond, but he starts moving, which makes me think I did not try hard enough not to disturb him.
“Was it the same as last time?”
He knows, much as I do, that when we wake from nightmares, it typically involves those memories we always hope we have put behind us completely, yet never leave us fully. I can’t shake the brutal dreams of Jason overpowering me any more than he can erase the images of combat.
“Kind of, just different scenery,” I wait to see if he is really waking up to talk about it, or if he might doze back to his tranquil night. He rearranges his pillow still facing away from me. We are both awake now.
“I was being dragged by my arm through my office. It didn’t look anything like my office, but I knew that’s where we were. The people working there were from the school – not any of my current friends.”
In the almost three years since I started with the Forest Service, most of my co-workers transitioned to friends, and many of them welcome Daniel into their fold as a trusted set of eyes in the Bighorns.
As usual, Daniel doesn’t comment. He allows me to share as much or as little as I want. I want to share plenty, but often I share little or none. It’s not that I’m withholding information, it just doesn’t benefit either of us to rehash the ugly.
“Does that ever happen to you? You dream about a completely different place, where you’ve never been before and people you’ve never met, and somehow you know exactly where you are and who they are?” I am babbling off topic and I know it, because I don’t want to talk about Jason. In the dream, my foe was definitely him, including the tone of his voice and the ferocity of his abuse.
“Hmm,” he mumbles again, this time closer to sleep.
He doesn’t rearrange under the covers, or open his eyes, or make any attempt to move from the same appearance he possumed when I thought he was still asleep. He doesn’t even reach for me, which I wish he would.
NEXT: No Secrets Here – Part 2
Wait! If you haven’t yet read the story of how Natalie fell in love with both Daniel and the beauty of the forest, read The Lumberjack now.