He holds the small weighted bags in his hands. In another room his wife undresses, and she will wait for him in bed while he practices. She will read a book or not read a book. She will leave the light on, or turn it off so he will have to enter the room in darkness. "Our lives now," he thinks, "are full of signals."
A year before the circus closed and he gave his last performance in a small Ohio town on the floor of dirt, the animals pacing in their cages as the swords he balanced in the air cut through the dust. As always there had been applause, the coming together of hands. He had remained long after the others had left and watched as men who smelled of beer and forgetfulness pulled the tents to the ground. He had seen the dust that rose into the air, and walked away.
His wife's job had kept them alive. At first he let her watch him practice, and she would applaud. Then he told her he did not want anyone to watch, and now he raises the objects into their circles of air alone.
"Why can't I watch you?" his wife asks as he lies down beside her. He does not answer but reaches over and pulls her close. He feels her body move with her breath, and it is enough for him. He cannot talk anymore. Soon she is asleep and he listens to her breath in the dark. He wonders what she is dreaming, and cups her warm head in his palm. After a time, he sleeps.
During the day his wife goes to work. He sleeps late, and when he wakes she is always gone. Today a note written with black crayon in large letters is taped to the bathroom mirror. WHY CAN'T I WATCH? I WANT TO WATCH. YOUR WIFE. The paper blocks his reflection as he shaves. He loves the simplicity of the letters and their message. "There can be no mistake what these words mean," he thinks, drying his face. He carries the note into the room where he practices and tapes it to the wall. He exercises his fingers and reads the words over and over. "Watch," he whispers, and begins.
His life has become a succession of rituals. He moves the objects through the air as though this act were a sacrifice, and recites the words of his wife's note. The simple message becomes a chant. He practices for a long time.
When his wife comes home he is outside working in the garden. She looks in his practice room and sees her note taped to the wall. That night, while he practices before coming to bed, she sits at her desk, naked, with a clean piece of paper and a black crayon. She stares at the paper a long time and then writes, NO ONE IS HERE WITHOUT ME. LET ME BE HERE. YOUR WIFE. She hides the note in her drawer and goes to bed to wait for her husband.
He finds the new note in the bathroom and thinks, "This one is even more beautiful than the first. Somehow, when we talk we never communicate this well." He tapes it to the wall next to the first and chants them both as he practices. The objects dance to the music of her words.
His wife comes home from work and they eat dinner and then sit down before the television. He turns on the set and they watch "Circus of the Stars." He watches the celebrities perform awkwardly and begins to cry, his palms heavy and empty in his lap. His wife kneels in front of him and puts her arms around his legs and sets her head on his knee. They do not move for a long time, then he reaches out and turns off the TV.
"Let's go to bed," he says. She raises her head from his knee.
"Aren't you going to practice?" she asks.
"Not tonight," he says.
Later his wife gets out of bed while he pretends to be asleep. She turns on a desk lamp and pulls out paper and a large black crayon. She sits without writing until he is ready to whisper her name, then she starts. He cannot see the words and is asleep before she returns to bed.
He stands in front of the note. ONLY AMATEURS FALL INTO NETS. THERE IS NO NET TO CATCH THE TRUE FALL. YOUR WIFE. He reads this one longer than the others. Once he saw a woman fall from the wire during a rehearsal when there was no crowd to scream. It was very quiet. She hit the net and flew back into the air over and over like a rag doll. He wondered then who held her up on the wire, who had let go. Now he thinks about the many ways there must be to lose touch with the earth. He looks down at his own feet and carries the note into his practice room, stepping carefully through the house. He does not want to fall. He is not sure of what is below him.
He can no longer tolerate the balanced motion of the practice bags. He spends his days out in the garden, smiling as he pushes his fingers into the cool soil. He spends hours loosening the black earth around the plants. He does not think of this as work, but as an act of love. Sometimes, an old woman who lives next door watches him run his hands through the soil and remembers how her husband worked in their garden for years, digging his way into the hard earth. How he would come in after working in the dirt for hours and touch her face, his hands covered with the coolness of the underworld. He would whisper to her then, as though she were one of his plants. Later, his hands would pass over her body as though she were the earth itself.
Watching her neighbor dig in his garden, she can barely stand the thought of going back inside. She wants to walk between the bushes and lie down on the dark earth in front of him and pull his hands onto her ancient body. She knows it would be beautiful. Instead she calls to her cat and goes inside to turn on her television for the evening.
When his wife comes home from work his hands are cleaned of the garden. They sit in front of the television and watch shows that make them laugh or cry. His wife goes to bed alone, and is asleep before he lies beside her body in the dark room. He is becoming less certain of everything. Some nights, during the commercials, he looks across the room and does not recognize his wife. Only by reading her notes can he still find her for certain.
When he stays up late he looks through his wife's collection of art books. One work in particular fascinates him and he spends hours each night staring at Goya's "The Fates." In his practice room, he stares at the etching, whispering the litanies of the mirror. This comforts him, for while there is no comfort in the appearance of Goya's hags, he finds hope in their balance and the fact that they are removed from the earth. The darkest Fate looks down and her face is the face of the woman he saw fall. Not her face as she fell, but later, in a performance with no net, when she stood on the almost invisible wire and he saw her look down. It is that uncertainty he sees in Goya's hag.
This morning the note seems like a threat. THERE IS AN ABSENCE IN YOUR CHEST. PLANT SOMETHING CAREFULLY IN THE RED SOIL THERE. YOUR WIFE. It is raining as he reads the note and he can hear the storm worsening. "There'll be no gardening today," he thinks, and lies on the couch and listens to the rain and sleeps.
He is not in his own garden but the plants are beautiful. The soil around their roots is clay-red and packed too tightly. He kneels beside one of the flowering bushes and breaks the red soil with his bare hands, singing the last message from his wife. He caresses the roots as though they were his wife's legs. Then he touches a hand that is digging up from the deep earth. There are two hands reaching into the air and waving like the hands of a drowning person. He grabs the wrists and pulls. It is his wife rising out of the dirt. When her head is free of the red soil she looks up and asks, "Why can't I watch?"
He wanders the empty house listening to the storm. From the window he can see his garden drowning. Birds hop in the mud, their feathers too wet for flight. He can hear the beans splitting and the artichokes drowning, their green, inhuman heartbeats going silent under the soil.
He won't go out to the garden even after the storm is through. He is not yet ready to face death on such a grand scale. He does not want to hold the silent green hearts in his hands. He turns on the TV and listens to lives falling apart as he walks through the house, pausing occasionally to touch something.
When his wife comes home he is already in bed asleep. The television is still on and she turns it off just as someone wins an all-expenses-paid trip to some foreign country. She has never won anything or gone anywhere. Her husband knows all the small towns, the dark and quiet places. She only knows she is tired. She undresses and lies down next to the body of her husband. Outside, the birds are finally flying.
His hands are covered with the wet, black earth. Almost everything is lost. The beans are scattered across the ground, the pods bursting open all around him. The artichokes slip easily from the wet soil, bruised and dripping. He holds the soggy green hearts in his hands and cries. Earlier he had found another note on the mirror. His naked body had shivered as he read it. THERE IS FAR TOO MUCH DEATH HERE NOW. PLEASE LET LIFE PULSE FROM YOUR HANDS AGAIN. YOUR WIFE.
The earth is dark and pulls at his feet as he walks through the ruins and finds, brilliant against the dark death, three miraculously unbruised tomatoes. He picks them up and holds them the way he would hold his practice bags in front of his wife before lifting the first into the air and beginning the necessary rhythm. He smiles as he throws the first plump heart into the air. "The Fates" hover above him. The darkest looks down to him and her expression has changed. She whispers in the voice of his wife. "I want to watch," she says. He laughs, his feet sinking in the mud, the ripe red hearts leaping from his open palms into a cool wind, rising.