Down by the River by Don Herald

Will squints over the top of the Sunday paper. 

He just finished reading aloud a short piece about a recent ‘reveal all’ book in the UK. It was a collection of actual love letters, written by politicians, celebrities and theatre people. Reuben St. Clair had persuaded each of them and their lovers to let some of their intimate, but up to now private letters, be shared with the public.

The story finished, Will launches into a rant about how intimate thoughts should never be shared in such an exploitive and voyeuristic manner. 

“Besides,” he concludes, “How on earth does a guy ever think up all that stuff they write to their lovers?”

Throughout Will’s entire reading and rant, Esther offers up the obligatory ‘uh huh,’ ‘oh dear’ and ‘oh my god, she wrote that?’ 

That’s when she realizes that if there is ever going to be the right time to tell Will, it’s now. The UK story is an unexpected gift from the gods. 

Esther places her reading glasses onto the side table between them. Standing, she slowly makes her way toward the front hall.

“Where you heading?” Will asks.

“Upstairs. Back in a minute.”

For months Esther has been stressing about a coffee-stained, slightly ripped brown paper bag she’s kept hidden in her bedroom dresser. Second drawer from the top, the one that mostly holds lingerie. Because of the bras and panties, she was pretty sure it’s a place her husband would never look. 

Now in her hands, Esther holds the bag tenderly as if it were a chick fallen from the nest. She pauses at the top of the stairs. Doubt clutches at her resolve, filling her with misgivings about the rightness of what she is about to do. Several deep, calming breaths. Then slowly down into the hall, through the open kitchen and into the back sunroom where Esther and Will have their Sunday reading chairs. 

“I’m back.” 

It’s a whisper, but Will hears her words.

He lowers the paper onto his lap, picks up the coffee mug and lifts it to his lips. Esther’s tone is unexpected. Something is bothering her. He searches her face. Esther’s expression gives him nothing. Searching for a clue, his eyes drift downward, coming to rest on a brown bag in her hands. 

Will’s eyebrows arch up in his familiar ‘what’s up?’ look. In all their years together, Esther has come to love his predictable little gestures.

She has rehearsed many times how she will begin this conversation. Now those words fail her. 

So this time, she’ll let her heart find the right words. Not her head, as she usually does. She takes a deep breath. Then plunges into it.

“It’s something important. Something I’ve wanted to tell you for a very long time.” 

Esther pauses, carefully choosing her next words.  

“You remember, many years ago, we vowed not to keep secrets from each other.” 

Will looks confused, not yet sure where this is going.

Esther nods toward the bag resting between open palms in her lap. 

“At first, I just told myself that keeping this from you would be ok. No harm done, I thought. After all, it’s about us.”

Esther lifts the beat-up paper bag, offering it to Will. 

Taking it, Will tries to judge its weight by shifting it slowly back and forth in his hands. She knows he’s curious about the bag. 

“Do I get a chance to guess what’s inside?” Esther expected this.

For as long as she’s known him, Will always likes to guess the contents of a birthday present or Christmas gift. Once that was done, he’d eagerly rip it open. Guessing the contents of wrapped packages is just one of many things she has come to love about him. Even more remarkable to Esther, his track record for right guesses is probably running close to ninety percent. In many ways, he’s still just a little kid wrapped up in the body of a man.

“Sure,” she says with a faint smile. “Be my guest.” 

In his child-like excitement, Will doesn’t notice the tight anxiety lines at the corners of her mouth.

“By the look of the beat up bag and the weight of it” – a dramatic pause – “I’d guess this is an old lunch bag with two, maybe more, fossilized bologna and mustard sandwiches. Most probably from when we were kids.” 

With a theatrical flourish, Will holds the bag to his nose and loudly sniffs for several seconds. 

“No. Change that. Not bologna. Definitely rancid peanut butter.” His eyes sparkle with excitement.

He pauses again. 

“Dried up strawberry jam too. And yes, my good lady, that’s my final answer.” 

Will grins at his wit. Until he notices Esther isn’t laughing. 

Nodding toward the bag in his hands, she says, “Nope. Wrong guess. Go ahead. Open it. See for yourself.” Robotic. Flat. No emotion.

Esther’s tone unsettles him. 

Will fumbles with the folded opening of the bag. It makes stiff, crinkling sounds as he shakes it open. Not really knowing what to expect, he reaches inside.

A large bundle of papers. Yes, he can see it now. Yellowed envelopes along with some loose pages. All bundled together with a crisscross of red string made of rough, raw wool. The string looks vaguely familiar, but he’s unable to pull it from memory. Will looks up at Esther, silently asking permission to untie the string, freeing the pages and envelopes. 

 She nods but again does not smile.

 The red wool string looks as old and worn as the bag itself. The rough feel on his fingers stops him for a moment. Now he knows.  

 “Is this the red string I think it is?” Will pauses. “The one I gave you senior year? I called it a promise string back then. My promise we’d marry after college? My god, Esther! You still have it after all these years? It was our….” 

He stops. 

In one hand, the red string hangs limply from between his fingers. In his other, from a side of the packet, he wriggles free an opened envelope. Scrawled across the front in an awkward adolescent hand is ‘I love you.’ 

“My love letters? You kept them?” 

Holding the envelope, Will waits. Still not quite believing this is happening, he looks at Esther.

Esther reaches across the table between them and takes the envelope. She slowly slides it across her cheek as if it is a lover’s soft caress.

“Yeah, it’s hard to believe, I know. But I saved every last one.”

She gazes at the packet of letters for a few silent moments. And then back to him.

“These are some of my most precious possessions. I want you to know I still have them.” 

Tears come now, trickling down flushed cheeks, settling one by one onto her blue denim shirt. ‘Damn it,’ she thinks, ‘I’d wanted so bad not to cry when I told him.’

Will sees her distress and feels embarrassed for her.

His voice soft, he whispers “Esther, can I have it back?” She hands it to him then wipes a sleeve along her damp cheeks. 

Lowering his eyes to the envelope, Will opens it with great care. He begins to silently read. 

Esther waits. Occasionally, she blots tears from her cheeks with the damp sleeve. 

Now finished, Will slowly folds the letter back into its envelope. It’s as if he has been given something of great value. 

He breathes into the silent space between them. 

“Esther? Why?” 

She feels her heart flutter. She begins to talk, capturing his gaze with just her words and the emotion in her voice. 

As she speaks, Esther sees tears pooling in the corners of Will’s pale grey eyes. A painful memory rushes back about the last time she’d seen him cry. It was several years ago. His parents, Terri and Gus, had died in a fiery crash on their first ever road trip to western Canada. In those weeks and months, everyone cried a lot. And Will had gradually changed, becoming distant, moody, resisting her comfort and support.

Will’s voice interrupts, snapping her back from those terrible days.

“Esther? I… I love that you kept my letters. I really do. I can’t wait to read them with you. Just like we used to. But first, I really need to understand. Why on earth did you keep it a secret all these years?” 

Without thinking, he brushes away a tear forming a shiny path down through the dark, early morning stubble on his cheek. He will wait her out. In his years with Esther, Will has learned that in such moments, it’s better just to wait. When ready, she will talk.

Will’s tears are unexpected. Since the accident, Esther has convinced herself that he’d put all those feelings in a box and locked them away somewhere deep inside. A dark place she hadn’t been able to reach. But now he’s asked ‘why.’ She needs to find the right words for him. She trusts that her heart will speak the truth of it. 

“Will, I can’t explain it really. They’re like dear friends. Over our years together, I often visit them. Somehow, they comfort me.” She pauses, then smiles. “I keep them in my lingerie drawer, tucked away at the back under the soft T’s and comfy socks.”

Another hesitation. Then, as if an afterthought, she adds, “I knew you wouldn’t dare look there.”

Will smiles. In spite of himself, he winks in his most wicked, delightful way. 

That prompts a faint smile from her. He knew it would. Esther continues slowly as if measuring the meaning and importance of each word. 

“Most times, I read them silently. Sometimes though, it just feels better to read them out loud.” She hesitates, eyes still on the bundle of letters in his lap.

“That’s when I pretend. I pretend it’s you talking to me. In that special way, you used to have.” 

She glances up at him, a bit embarrassed to share such a private thing; to finally say it out loud to him in so direct a way. 

Her eyes seem distant as if she’s not really seeing him next to her.

“Will, I miss that special way you had with words back when we were younger. I know it sounds silly, but your words on those pages remind me when you were both my best friend and my lover.”

He smiles, shifting uncomfortably at the feelings wrapped heavily around her words. She gestures toward her purse on the kitchen counter.

 “I still have your poem, you know. It’s in my wallet. Tucked behind my driver’s license and health card. Remember when you wrote me that poem? Spent all that money putting it into the Star’s Personal column? How we laughed and read it aloud to each other over and over again down at Riverside Park? You even put it into music, you remember? You’d play it on your guitar when we were alone. You remember that?”

 He nods, no longer bothering to hide the tears. She leans across the table and takes his fingers into hers.

 “And afterwards, when we made love for our first time? On the fresh cut grass down by the river? Oh, back then we were such eager, passionate young lovers.”

 She giggles shyly at the memory.

 “Will, you are my love. My husband. My oh so cool, wonderful guy who does crazy, unexpected, goofy things. Our kids adore you. I can’t imagine myself ever being with anyone else. Some of my friends still say you and me, that we’re soul mates. They’re right, you know. We truly are.”

 “I hadn’t the courage to tell you this until now. I don’t know why.”

 He opens his mouth as if to speak.

 She leans toward him, lightly putting a finger to his lips. 

 “Please. Just listen. I miss your love letters. A lot. I miss our desire for each other. I ache not having more of you. I miss how I used to feel about myself when I’m with you. When I’m feeling alone, your letters, they anchor me. They comfort me. Remind me I’m deeply loved, even though some days when our life together gnaws away at me, I wonder if I deserve your love.”

 Esther pauses, tears now flowing freely, wetting her shirt into dark, deepening patches. 

 Will has shifted forward on his chair, the packet of letters now on the small table. The red wool promise string in his hand, is winding slowly in and out between his fingers. From her own experience over the years, Esther knows he’ll find its roughness strangely comforting. 

 “Oh, Esther. I’m so sorry. I had no idea. We’ve been together since we were high school seniors. Married well over twenty-five years.”

 He stops, faking confusion. “Or maybe it’s twenty-six.” 

 As he expected, she frowns then laughs at his old joke. Just like she always does. It’s a family legend that he can never remember how many years they’ve been married.

 Will continues. As if he’s hearing each word for the first time.

 “Sometimes…a few maybe, I’ve wanted to write you a love letter like the old days. Surprise you. Leave it under your pillow like I used to when we were first married. A few times, I’ve actually written something. About my love for you.” 

 He raises her hand to his lips, tenderly kissing each finger. Just like he did down by the river so long ago.

 “But then something tells me a forty-something man shouldn’t have to write anything like that to his wife. Somehow, you’ll just know it. That there’s really no need to remind you in such a gushy, teenage kind of way. So I throw the letters away. Not in the house wastebaskets where you might find them. But out in the garage where I know you’d never look.”

Esther is deeply moved by Will’s words. She hasn’t seen or felt his desire so raw, so present for her in a very long time. It feels terrific to see it. To hear it. To feel it again.

 She looks at him. Dare she ask him?

 “Will, do you think we can read your letters out loud again? Maybe the poem, too? You read. I listen. Just like the old days?”

 He smiles, leaning toward her as if wanting to share something intimately personal.

 “On two conditions.” He pauses. “Well ok, maybe it’s three.” 

 He has her full attention. He pauses several heartbeats for the best effect. 

 “One. You rescue my poem from your wallet.” 

 “Two. I get out my guitar. And I sing my poem to you once again.” 

 “And three. We make love again.” 

 He pulls Esther into him and whispers, “Just like the old days. Down by the river.”

Don Herald writes short fiction about interesting or inspiring everyday situations and characters that tweak his curiosity and ignite his imagination. Don’s earlier careers as a social worker, organizational consultant and educator undoubtedly shape his unique interpretations of the life events he records in his stories. His work has been published online in the UK, Canada and the US. He lives in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada.  

3 thoughts on “Down by the River by Don Herald”

    1. Thank you, Elizabeth for reading my story and taking the time to post a comment. I’m delighted the situation and characters resonated with you.

  1. Isn’t this just the most wonderful story. It has craft – I like the way it starts out immediately picturing Will squinting over his Sunday paper; and Esther headed upstairs “back in a minute” before the context of her having been stressing out for months; and more. It has insight – the real reason Will didn’t like the book was clearly about ‘how does a guy even think up all that stuff’ (he knows, or at least knew, perfectly well. I feel as though I am inside his head, making up grumbles.) It includes Esther keeping not only the letters but the string. It has Will as a consistent character, joking in various situations. And, we care about both these characters. And it sounds like Don’s voice, his best voice shining through. So, Don, best one yet. Bob.

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