The bicycle was a solid machine made for carrying groceries and wearing a skirt. It rattled slightly under her weight. By the time she reached the canal, twilight was rapidly becoming night and she flicked on her lights as she turned down the cobbled slope to the water.
This was her favourite part of the journey. There were no cars here. There were dogs and people, intrepid joggers refusing to wear any reflective clothing as they ran into the approaching night.
She rode slowly and carefully but otherwise could afford to let her mind wander, no fear of being hit by a car. At worst, she would end up in the canal and simply cycle home soaking wet.
Once, she was hit by a motorcycle as she was crossing the street. It slammed straight into her. She remembers the crushing impact on her right shoulder and watching stupidly as the bicycle slid out from under her, thinking: Who left their bike in the middle of the road? She was not wearing a helmet that day.
People came running to her: ‘My God! Are you hurt? It looked terrible!’ She thanked them and dusted herself off, taking special care to assure the shaken motorcycle driver that she was absolutely fine. Really.
When she called her husband to say she would be late (‘small accident, nothing to worry about’) she heard a tremor in her voice and the phone wobbled in her hands.
“Are you sure you’re alright?” he asked her. “Do you need to go to the hospital?” “No, no,” she assured him. “A little shaken, maybe. Nothing a cycle home can’t fix.”
“Are you sure?” He paused then said, “Well, at least you’ll be home for dinner tonight.”
Her husband wasn’t worried, he told her later that night. She was too hard-headed to be seriously hurt.
“You’re indestructible,” he laughed. “That’s why I married you.”
She remembers this as she eases past the place that is always packed with deliriously happy young people. In a few meters, she sees him. He is leaning against the brick wall, reading a book. She slows down to admire his broad shoulders and easy stance. When he finally looks up, a sly smile breaks across her face.
“Hello.” The one word seems long and heavy to her.
“Hello,” she responds and slips off her bike. “It’s beautiful today”. “It is,” he says looking at her. “As always.”
She blushes and does not extend her hand. She does not approach to embrace him. She measures the space between them.
“Shall we go?” He says and offers to take her bike.
She follows him up the ramp, to a nearby garden apartment where she doesn’t even bother to lock her bike before stepping inside. He doesn’t say anything but slides a hand up her skirt. She sighs with a smile, her hair falling loose around them both. He is saying something but she does not respond. She wants only to smell his skin and taste the salt of his body. She does not want to think but he is insistent. He wants to know: What is she thinking? What does she see when her eyes are closed?
“Nothing,” she says finally. “I see nothing.”
Later, when she pedals home along the canal, she thinks she can hear someone whistling across the water. Like a call for a dog. It repeats over and over in the darkness, faster and more urgent. Who is it? She refuses to look, refuses to acknowledge this insistent appeal for her attention.
It is so quiet, the only other sound she hears is the whirring of her bicycle. She mistakes the hushing sound of her tires for the panting of a giant dog. But behind her there is only darkness.
Sometimes there are other bicycles, oncoming with their blinding lights. Sometimes there are young lovers, emboldened by the night, and she can make out two figures entwined in the grass. She feels guilty for intruding. Sometimes there are couples staring into the water, the aftermath of broken love. There, she wants to reach out and tenderly touch their cheeks, but, of course, she pedals on.
Often there are foxes. They appear at the end of her journey, cat-like and unafraid. Sometimes they fight and hiss and howl like newborn babies and, for her, this is the most terrifying sound. There is one fox that likes to sit at the door of her house. It stares at her, insolent and haughty, a pointed mask of animal indifference.
She thinks of the story she read in the morning paper. A fox had grabbed hold of a baby’s arm and dragged it out into the yard. The child was saved by it’s mother. But a fox wouldn’t eat a child, would it? So, why do it?
Perhaps the wail of the newborn had attracted it. Perhaps the fox was simply misunderstood. Perhaps it was trying to ease the baby’s pain, to take it to the cool comfort of its earthen home.
As she approaches her squat little house, she sees the fox sitting by the door. It stares back at her. I understand that, she thinks to the animal. I understand how something malicious can ease that pain. The fox yawns, showing its white teeth and black gums in a dangerous smile. Then it stands up and walks away, its tail disappearing around the corner.
Now, she feels cold. She sees herself stepping through the door to hug her child in their warm kitchen. She will peel off her jacket and patiently listen to a million peppering questions that will go half-answered. She will kiss her husband, ask about his day and, perhaps, give him a playful pat to his behind.
If he has had a good day, he will laugh and wiggle his hips. If not, perhaps he will continue cleaning the dishes and he will ask in a flat, cold voice:
“Oh? Today? Today you love me?”
And she will smile like the fox outside her door: “Every day, my love. Every single day.”
Atika Shubert is a writer and journalist. She has also been a dishwasher, a notary, and a polyester plant tour guide. After 20 years of working as a journalist for CNN, she is now making her first forays into fiction writing. She has lived in Washington D.C., Jakarta, Bangkok, Boston, New York, Tokyo, Jerusalem, London and Berlin — though she speaks none of the local languages fluently. She can, however, expertly pack a weeks’ worth of clothes into a carry-on bag in under five minutes. She is currently working on a collection of short stories. More information and her blog can be found at atikashubert.com
About 1,000 words7