The Northville Review
an online literary journal
Just Another Stranger

Douglas Campbell

When she rises from her broken sleep these midwinter mornings, alone, with dawn bleeding in around the borders of the drawn curtains, what comfort does she find? Perhaps she moves a curtain edge aside, just a sliver, only enough for her eyes. She might look and listen, but her lawn will remain empty and silent. Again and again she refused to feed the birds, despite my urging and suggestions, my offers of help.

“Too much mess and bother,” she said.

Perhaps she goes to her books, her library without poets. I brought them to her, garrulous Whitman and Ginsberg, sparse Dickinson and Cummings. But she’d entertain none of them.

“I never understand poetry,” she said, handing the poets back to me.

“Poetry’s not a textbook,” I said.


“Ride the flow of thought and feeling. Drift in the music.”

“When I want music,” she said, “I choose Bach.”

So she buries herself in the books of law, religion and geometry that bend the shelves in her library, combing that arcana for the certainty she never found in me. A sober crowd, those companions she auditions now, well-versed in regulations, ethical prescriptions, infallible theorems.

“What about people?” I asked her one day. “Real, living people?”

“Real people are capricious.”

“But look what they do for us,” I said, pointing to the loamy patch of ground behind her house, sturdily fenced and lovingly enriched by those who came before, fertile ground, waiting.

“Gardens are all bugs and blights,” she said, “and tomatoes are cheap.”

Those conversations bewilder me when I remember how I first loved her, so many years ago, for her brave vulnerability, for the fragile hopes she dared to voice, if only in a whisper. Hearing the wind twisting through the trees tonight, I can imagine how uneasy she must be. I know how she hates the wind, recall the hours I spent scaling her house on a ladder, with hammer and nails, screws and drill, securing gutters and siding, any shingle that threatened to flap loose and fly away.

She hates the wind and cold, but she recoils from heat now too, from the ecstasy and wretchedness of passion. Talking in the dark one night, in bed together, I told her how the seemingly solid earth, far beneath the ice and weeds, tumbles molten at its fiery core.

“That thought makes me shiver,” she said.

I thought she might turn to me then, press close for warmth. But she kept to herself, lying on her back. She pulled the blankets up to her neck and fell asleep that way.

Our dried bouquet from last fall stands in the window light where I take my toast and coffee each morning. I love the way it hints at struggle and growth, time and memory, all in subtle spectrums of ocher and russet, colors no human dream could ever replicate. I loved the hours we spent straying through autumn fields as we gathered it, happy to think she’d have it in one of her rooms to draw and gladden her eye during winter’s pale afternoons.

“No, no,” she said. “Seeds, fluff, chaff, leaves. That stuff winds up all over the house. You take it.”

What is it, this caution that gathers, that rises over time from a whisper to a scream?

I question myself, too. What mission was I on, stepping into the path of her life, pressing my love on her like the evangelicals who block sidewalks downtown, thrusting New Testaments into the hands of passers-by? Why did I want more for her than she wanted for herself?

Sometimes I feel easy about it, when I can believe it was simple and honest, that I was only trying to measure the depth and touch the warmth of life, and to share it with her, to feel for once like more than just another stranger mumbling my way through a world of strangers. But I’m less comfortable when I wonder if perhaps it was power, not love, I longed for, if what I truly wanted was to step like a god into her life, to sweep her into a salvation I imagined she needed. I don’t know. Sometimes, I swear, I wonder if I’d recognize my own face in a crowd.

Last Saturday afternoon it was blowing harder than it is tonight, and I took a walk along the dirt road that skirts the meadow behind her house. I was surprised to see her standing outside by the garden fence, but she was looking back at the house, not in my direction. I couldn’t tell what she was doing out there, her coat and hair lifting in the wind. Thinking about her lawn where no birds sing? Her library where no poets live, her garden where nothing grows?

That road’s a long way from the house, and she looked heartbreakingly small. A powerful gust, it seemed, might have swept her away in an instant. But there she stood, the person who touched me as no other ever has, and I wanted to stand near her again, talk with her again. I called her name, but the wind streaming into my face blew my voice back at me. It never reached her. I tried twice more, then turned toward home.

As I walked away she was still standing there. She looked as if she didn’t live in that house, as if she too were just another stranger passing through on her own windy road, pausing for a moment to take in the landscape on her journey to some far off place where the world finally ends.

About the author

Douglas Campbell's fiction and poetry have appeared online and in print, in publications such as Many Mountains Moving, Slow Trains Literary Journal, Litsnack, and Jabberwocky. Douglas grew up not too far from Northville, but now lives and writes in southwestern Pennsylvania.