Z. So inside that seventy-foot wall of water washing over the stone footbridge, somewhere in this accidental wave, inside it, the bride disappears.
And the groom?
Later that day he walks back down the mountain path beside the perfect waterfall framed on a hundred hotel walls, and he winds around the cascade pool now strangely filled with a large boulder he doesn’t remember spotting on his way up, and he strides across the dripping stone footbridge where they were wed only hours ago, and at the path’s very bottom he finds the ring-bearer but before he can ask where she’s gone to he watches the ring-bearer pull her pearl necklace and nothing else from the streambed.
For every day after that day, they still call him The Groom. And every day after that day, someone points at the groom before telling him, “You miss her.” As if he didn’t. As if he needed to go back to that day and gauge something else he missed, like how all the bridesmaids survived, but not the one person who should have. As if that would make him feel whole again. As if feeling whole again was contingent upon revisiting previous little mistakes. As if previous little mistakes could be traced down a long string of little decisions until he reached a single little decision, which inevitably labeled someone Survivor and someone else Victim. As if after finally learning how a string of events really is a string, you can tie it in master knots or cut it into unequal lengths or let it fray with inattention—your call. It is a string, yes, but nothing he will ever disentangle so easily. Every day, he should feel more than whole because he was the one who decided to become both Survivor and Victim that day. The only decision he hadn’t prepared himself to bear was that he would have to bear anything alone.
Whenever someone tells him he misses her, he glances over his shoulder. A bird, he hopes, is perched there with something aggressive and profound to sing so that he doesn’t have to. He’s tired of missing. On his wrist, a broken watch. In his shoe, a rock forever lodged. If his ma were still here, she’d quote Tom Waits and say misery is the river of the world; if his pa were still here, he’d say someone besides Tom Flipping Waits better find us the right river. And like that rock in his shoe, every day after that day is the old touch of a ghost of an older touch. There is no river of mirth or might or might-have-beens and no bird on the groom’s shoulder, so he weighs his options. He answers the only way he knows how: What loss is suffered only once?
X. The boulder will weigh the equivalent of one schoolbus filled with schoolchildren holding schoolbags filled with schoolbooks on memorized subjects like 9.81 m/s/s, songbird mating rituals, and maps showing the Ring of Fire. The boulder lands in the upper cascade pool behind the footbridge and from there rises this tall, ash-white wave. The boulder left a hollow in the basalt wall that reaches two hundred feet up.
The boulder is strawberry-shaped, half-eaten.
V. For photos on the footbridge, the post-ceremony wedding party gathers, their backs to the second-tallest, year-round waterfall in the country. The flower girl’s basket of fire lilies has made of the blank stones a colorful carpet. Rainbows arc through the mist—briefly, brilliant—become water again.
Waiting only for the groom’s arrival, the bride removes her uncomfortable shoes: one-hundred-forty-eight-dollar, butcher’s block heels with lace corsage at the satin closed toe. “Fancy shoes for a simple dress,” she remembers the wedding planner recommending in their first meeting. “Picture your wedding night: the best kind of exhausted, heels off, You and Him finally alone, strawberries swirled down with top-shelf champagne, good pillows, great pillows, one of those white noise machines with settings like ‘Rainforest’ and ‘Rainforest Plus Crackling Fire’ and ‘Rainforest on Fire with Train Full of Wind Chimes.’ Now guide me. How will you reach this point?”
The bride did not say that when she pictured her wedding night, she saw herself at 2 a.m., all stormed out and curled up on a still-made California King, surrounded by half-eaten berries and half-full bottles, while the groom dozed on the loveseat, one wingtip hanging impossibly off his big toe, her steeling herself to share a life of his way-early-to-bed sensibility and his charming fear of heights and his infinite patience for all things except impatience, to the lightning rod goes the lightning. In this half-state she stays awake all night, because who wants to reach the end of a straight line when that string is tangled precisely in the double knots of your own making?
“I’m going barefoot for life,” the bride says to her line of bridesmaids. She chucks her pair over the railing. They all laugh and do the same. A waterfall of off-white heels goes clopping into the lower cascade pool while the reception crowd cheers. But the bride fears the shoes re-cracked her big toe bone, which she can do nothing to fix. Next week’s honeymoon to go caving at Fantastic Pit? Finito.
Only the photographer notices part of the cliffside break free: its silhouette that of a bird taking its first flight, the bird soon doubting its maiden decision.
“Shoes or no shoes,” her Maid of Honor says, “you are still picture—”
Q. Or from the Latin perficere: “to finish, or to bring to an end.”
His copy of From A to Z: The Groom’s Survival Guide is far from perfect. It makes no marital metaphor as straightforward as climbing a mountain path, like the one he’s climbing beside the waterfall right now. His watch is stuck on hours ago. No idea what time it is, and he’s fine, he’s safe, he’ll remember as long as he reaches that high vantage point of greatness the ring-bearer mentioned.
The Guide he only cracked a few times. It covers the creeping waves of doubt, how best to pacify the narrow-eyed in-laws, contingency plans like treating razor burn with mashed strawberries an hour before the ceremony. “Cold feet,” it repeatedly explains, “everyone gets them,” going so far as to say that you should worry most if you never get them. Throughout the book, matrimony is compared to blooming lilies, the infinity of a ring, even a fragile crystal forged in the holy fires of love. Atop one page in block letters large with pointlessness: The whole world will stop for Your Special Day.
Would it not be more important to cover the subject of unknowable horror? That both time and story are yours alone? At least a passage on splinting hair fractures with silverware? Or what about how you will spend most of Your Special Day feeling shaken, shot backward, you are sliding into the crystal palace of your future, but through the servants’ entrance—the point is to shatter the palace, kill the lights, storm out to song, you should leave in your wake miles of frosting and frosted glassware and the shadows of what you once were shrinking like scared birds into the corners of the sky. Your Special Day will be every day after today.
O. After the ceremony, the ring-bearer asks everyone how he could have been a better ring-bearer. Everyone just hands him half-finished drinks. He’s someone’s half-cousin’s husband’s third child from another marriage, adopted, twice. With an IQ of 146 and at the age of seventeen, he can explain string theory and name over five hundred astronauts, but he will storm off when told to go fix his bowtie.
After six Strawberry Crunch specialty drinks and a stolen lighter, he shows the flower girl how to make a fireball in her fist. He explains that because time is too fluid to hold, you must make it a series of discrete, pearlescent noticings. He cracks the empty glasses in the stream. “Gravity, density, watch. The largest shards sink. The smallest do too.” This story told to a girl who’s already gone from the banks.
M. Yet before and after today, people begin to remember less. The only seismometer in Meers, Oklahoma, keeps waiting for a reason for its installation in Meers, Oklahoma. The Pacific Plate’s convergent boundary subducts into the Aleutian Trench one-tenth of a centimeter. Heinrich von Kleist writes “The Earthquake in Chile” and four years later shoots the woman he’s always loved then himself in a suicide pact by a shady German lake. The ash cloud of ejected tephra from Eyjafjallajökull spoils second-honeymoon safari plans for which sizeable, nonrefundable deposits have already been put down. A young man leaps from a debatable 127,852 feet above sea level, comes face to face with a too-dark stratosphere while his heart beats 184 times per minute, then upon reentry he breaks the sound barrier, rotating laterally more than once per second, at times seeing the space from which he fell and at times seeing the earth from which he came and at times wondering which is which and which is where he belongs, until he lands ten minutes later in the New Mexico desert on his own two feet, all while wearing a Zenith watch he never looked at once. In museums, children watch videos accelerated to 154 frames per second, in which dead rabbits on a temperate forest floor rapidly decompose: at first the fur ripples, then the head tilts sideways and feet fall away, all before the chest cavity peels back like the petals of a fire lily to reveal the teaming theater of ant life inside, and when the meat is all but carried off at breakneck speed, the skeleton remains bare for the briefest moment before the mossbed beneath opens up in dark charm and swallows the bones down—the children have the option to press a red button and stop the flash forward, but each time they do, they regret it, they shuffle in place, they stare at the green carpet as if it will crack open blackly and draw them in, what they want most is to hit rewind, watch the skeleton rise out of darkness, the earth support it, muscle brought to it in offering by such a kind, kind ant colony, fur appearing mysteriously from air and wrapping around the body in a warm jacket, the wind whisking its long ears, all before the rabbit finally sits up, looks once at the camera, says, “I am all but saved,” then goes bounding into the understory lushness that is the never-ending temperate forest.
L. You can only love one part of a waterfall: the crashing froth at the bottom that billows out like a lifted wedding train, or the silent brink at the top where the river flatlines and everything will go over. She loves the watery crash, he loves the waterless brink, you both love waterfalls. Perficere.
J. Into the men’s room, the ring-bearer follows the groom, telling him, “—great men of history required a higher vantage point to become those great men of history.”
“They also fall from those heights.”
“Sometimes it takes that to be great.”
“You’re a little tall for a—”
“A vantage point,” the ring-bearer says. “Now, help me shiv that old man.”
“I said, ‘Give me your hand.’”
With the ring-bearer’s help, the groom undoes cufflinks, removes watch, rolls up sleeves, all to wash off the wild strawberry juice covering his hands, without staining his shirtfront. He eyes the time.
The ring-bearer lists off “Buzz Aldrin. Tenzig Norgay. Not Tom Waits. Icarus. Laika. That doomed woman who disappeared in the Pacific. Jack and—” During all this, the groom puts his watch to his ear. He winds it several times anyway. He is never late. Time is the story, and the story, a waterfall, anything on fire, or anything with wings—it goes where it pleases and it leaves an indelible mark wherever it lands.
Better be getting back, he thinks, but after realizing the ring-bearer has not stopped listing, he says, “Wait.” He tightens the shoelace knot in the ring-bearer’s bowtie. “What’s this great man stuff?”
“Perfection requires imperfection. Sacrifice. Here, it’s easy.” He lifts the watch. Pearl inlays, pure silver hands. “Expensive-looking.” Then he slaps it down on the sink counter. He does this several times. The glass does not shatter. The band does not break. The men’s room sings with its beaten life.
The ring-bearer hands it back. “Now it’s priceless-looking.”
Up to his own ear again, no ticking whatsoever. “It’s broken.”
“That’s your problem.”
“You lost me.”
“Your face,” the ring-bearer points. “You’re thinking about every moment except this one. You’ll never remember a thing that way. The story is always the same. Or it isn’t. What’s more, you’ll never be happier than right now, which, looking at you, does not look very happy or great or even you.”
“All grooms look this way on their special day.”
“Like they know they’re about to be set on fire before a loving crowd of hundreds?”
The groom avoids the mirror and the ring-bearer. The unknowable horror. It feels like the river of happiness that’s been carrying him all day is suddenly not without its stones: his wife the night owl, his wife the caving fanatic, his wife the quilled perfectionist, the veiled bargainer, the wild child of lassitude. Little stones, yes, but still enough to break a big toe.
The Bride: not so simple as the love of his life but rather the life of his love.
Elsewhere in the men’s room—trickling faucet, fire lily painted on the wall, the one strawberry in the one urinal—after today, you’ll never love anything the same way again. No loss is suffered once; where he’d heard this, who knows, but great truth sets off greater waves. He puts on the watch. It feels strangely the same. “You know you could’ve just taken out the battery?”
G. “And those shoulders of his,” the bride’s mother says to the bride while forcing on her too-small block heels in the minivan’s hatchback. “They could lift a schoolbus, in case, somehow, you ended up under a schoolbus, you needed him, he was already at the scene, knew his own strength, just a mom thought, don’t worry, it’s Your Special Day, be over before you know it.”
“Then what?” asks the bride—as if saying “I do” was another way of saying “I’m done.”
Six months before, it was rappelling that almost did her in. The easiest part of caving. Let gravity do the work. Ropes good, harness snug, stays strong. But her belay. She fastened it too loosely, and while she dropped so fast down the country’s fourth-deepest cave hole, her first and last urge wasn’t to fix the belay or to slow herself down against the sheer rock wall or even to send her fiancé a final blessing through the earth in hopes that the glass of water by their bed would ripple like crystal with her song. No, she wanted to eat the Strawberry Crunch Cliff Bar in her pocket. Falling, the line zinging, falling, the wrapper crackling, the wall whipping past her, falling, falling, the darkness zooming up at her, until she pulled the snack from her pocket and held it out, Here, yes, I am finally happy, happy, here, love, I love you, I do love you, Strawberry Crunch Cliff Bar, I do, I do, I am— The rope stopped cold. Her foot struck the wall, there went a bone. Her hand let go of the Strawberry Crunch Cliff Bar. To this day, she can still see it disappearing into the cave pool below.
“Sit still,” the bride’s mother says in the minivan. “You ordered these shoes in size: Deathtrap.”
“I said, don’t make a scene.”
“Scene?” she asks. “Your heels are a scene. Strawberry Crunch specialty drinks are a scene. That bridge is a scene waiting to happen.”
“I meant the ceremony. No losing it, no waterworks. Hear me?”
“I won’t if you won’t.”
“Cross my heart and hope to die.”
“When you do,” the bride’s mother makes the cross herself, “please watch those pearls.”
F. Waiting for things to get rolling, the groom catches a breather by the visitor center’s strawberry patch. He picks off bunches. He crams fistfuls in his mouth. He lies down in the shade to digest. Whenever overwhelmed by the prospects of his own enduring happiness—so afraid he will lose it, he runs in the opposite direction—he copes by picturing a bird family in a birdhouse of his own devising.
“Have you enough seed?” he asks birdfather, birdmother, and birdchicklings.
“We swim in seed,” birdmother says with the soaring voice of his fiancé.
“Then I’ve done my job.”
“What we really need,” she says, “is veal. Veal cutlets. With Cajun grilling spices.”
He soon returns to the birdhouse of his own devising. He shoves veal slices through the hole. He dumps in packets of Cajun grilling spices. “Where is birdfather? Birdchicklings?”
“He flew away. They fell out. No one eats veal with spices. Just me.”
“Then I’ve not done my job.” The groom shrinks himself down, climbs inside the birdhouse of his own devising, and couples with birdmother. Afterward, looking all around: old seed, thorny vines, lily petals, veal slices, grilling spices all knotted together inside the tiniest birdhouse. Why did he not build it bigger? Why did he not install safety netting? Why did he not invent a miniature tracking device? What could he not love enough?
He throws out seed, slices, spices, even the strawberry-red ribbon he collected for her because it matched her underfeathers. All that’s left is a bed of velvet ash and pages torn from a survival guide.
“You will disappear now,” birdmother says. She lifts a wing and rests it on his forehead. She curls her clawfeet around his. She rests her cool beak in the crook of his elbow.
“No, never. We were two rivers. Now we are the same river. That river is flowing in one direction.”
He, once she is asleep, slips out through the hole, and because he is still a river, and the story is time, and somewhere your wings are on fire, the groom devises a hundred identical birdhouses so that he no longer knows which is which and which is the one with birdmother, and he devises one more birdhouse, a bigger birdhouse, a birdhouse as big as a schoolbus, and with this bigger birdhouse of his own devising he proceeds to destructify the one hundred and one birdhouses of his own devising, destructifies them soundly, will destructify them in such a manner that you are asked to fashion a new word to accurately tell of this destructification, doing so until the river inside him is singing itself awake.
C. “This is not a disentanglement from, but a progressive knotting into—”
A. But the night before the wedding: the groom sneaks into her room in the hotel attached to the
visitor center. “I’ve waited long enough. I cannot wait one more half-day,” he says. “I’m afraid nothing lasts forever. I’m terribly fond of you. There’s a rock in my shoe.”
“There’s always a rock in your shoe,” she says. “It’s why I love you.”
Together, the last decision they make: group pictures, pre- or post-ceremony?
“After,” she says. “They take forever.”
He says he was thinking the exact same.
She lifts up her heirloom necklace with one finger before letting it fall to her breast in tiny
clatter. “We are perfect for each other, aren’t we?”
“Perfectly,” he says.
She rocks gently against him. “We’re getting married tomorrow.” She pinches his big toe until it
hurts and he squirms away. “You’ve done your job. I’m happy, here with you, happy.” She slips her feet in between his. “Yes, pictures after. We’ll have all the time in the world.” She entangles her pearls into a loose knot around both their hands. “Tell me you’re happy, too.”
He waits for a good reason to have waited longer. “I do.”
After removing her necklace, she lies down, nestles into the crook of his elbow, closes her eyes.
She says, “Tell me again how fond you are.”
He says, “Earthshatteringly fond.”
“You’re a great man,” she says. “Buy me a bird.”
“I’ve never had one,” she says. “I’ll let it go, if that’s what you want. That’s not so much to ask, is it? Not on the night before Our Special Day.”
“Okay,” he says. “But only if you promise to read me Gravity’s Rainbow every night.”
“Promise,” she says. “But just the first page.”
He ignores his own impulse to get the photos over with pre-ceremony. He wants to cup his fiancée like a small bird, start their union off on the right foot, throw a fire lily every day on his parents’ graves. He watches her click off the bedside lamp with one hand the way he will for the rest of his life. He sifts through his bag: The Survival Guide, Pynchon, a birdwatcher’s manual to the American Southeast. He doesn’t feel like reading. He can feel tomorrow coming on like a fantastic measured swell. He finds himself wishing he had one more day to relish it. He colors on the dark hotel wall his own distant memories of the future: first froth white; now wet pearlescence; now the fading fire of petals; now strawberry; now a candled egg; now a bluebird’s wings; now shaded moss; now twilight violets; now last cave grays; now moonless space; now a shard of glass; now a cutout hole in this temporal swatch. A great man survives his refusal to believe that nothing will last. He, you, The Groom will not yield.
He crushes his worries into a small, luminous stone. He fills a glass with water, water drawn from the river, the river he can at one point hear distantly crashing out the bathroom window. He swallows down the stone: taste of ash, feathers.