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The Assignment

There was a soothing warmth in the air. Bartholomew could feel its softness penetrating his skin. With delight he breathed the coming change of season into his weakened lungs, pushing its healing properties deep into his arteries and veins and the very fibre of his being.

He had buried himself and his emaciated body away in the frozen depths of winter. Hiding himself away while the disease consumed him. The screech of wind against the window panes, the grey sky, the heavy piles of snow every time he dared to venture out, the ache in his bones crushed by the weight of his winter coat were all receding with the sunshine.

Daniella had kept her word. She told him she would get him through the winter and he would heal. He would see the spring. And he would see it as he never had before. It would be beautiful, she prophesized. Much more beautiful than he could know.

And with that she would take his hand and guide him to all the doctor’s appointments where the doctors poked and prodded until he felt he had been abandoned in a medieval torture chamber. She would force him to swallow all the pills and concoctions that were meant to heal him no matter how much his body reacted to what it perceived as poison. She would feed him all the bitter tasting foods meant to strengthen him. And, as she promised, he healed.

He would lay on his bed at night wondering if he had the strength to endure. Yet the next morning Daniella would open his door. With her chubby body, tiny pug eyes and wiry hair, she restored his will to live. He wondered at the magic that had allowed him to uncover the beautiful spirit housed in that unappealing body. It had even made him grateful the illness that brought him so close to death had allowed him to discover it.

But now it was spring. It had come gradually for the cold winter was slow to leave. He had noticed it with the bursts of sun in the morning. He saw the snow retreating, leaving edges of brown grass and mud in its wake. He remembered Daniella squealing with glee at the brown muddy ground as she forced him out for a walk.

“Wow! Look at that.” She had stopped to look at a big patch oozing with muck.

“It is just mud Daniella. It makes it difficult to walk. I don’t understand why you are so excited about it.”

“It is absolutely amazing.”

“You are off your rocker. It is disgusting and my shoes will be ruined. I should have worn my boots. The sky is grey and it looks like it is going to rain. Why did you drag me out in this weather any way?”

“Because I wanted you to see it. This is the most amazing time of the year.”

He stopped and shook her hand off his arm. He was sure there was no better proof that she had lost her mind.

“What is there to see. Mud and cold rain.”

“Don’t you see it?”

“What I see is someone is very irritating.’

She laughed her highpitched laugh.

”It is spring you fool. The world coming back to life. Just as you will. The winter is retreating. We can all breath again.” She stopped to touch the first green leaves of the tulips sprouting up in his neighbour’s garden.

He had sighed and trudged on.

In that moment, though, he knew he was captivated by the creature beside him. By her uncanny ability to see beauty and hope. Where he saw mud and dreariness she would see rebirth. It was as if her undaunting spirit had been the gift in exchange for any physical appeal whatsoever. He fancied himself in love with that spirit. Certainly that was true when he was an invalid. Now as the spring restored him he wondered if he could get past his revulsion of her physicality.

Daniella had been right. After months of cold and grey in a short space of two weeks spring suddenly burst upon his tiny world. He walked on, breathing in the ozone from the rain. The neighbourhood was covered with brilliant green lawns. The brutal mash of mud and dirty melting snow simply disappeared. Colour burst everywhere with flowers in every yard. The world was no longer flat and grey. It was as if life giving blood pumped into the soft spring air just as it did into his lungs. He felt reincarnated with every step.

Tomorrow he would sit on his back deck and feel the sun on his face. He would be warmed and delighted, his will to live restored. And that was when he knew there was a problem.

Because the new revitalized Bartholomew was no longer in love with Daniella. His love had faded as surely as the winter. He no longer needed to parasitically siphon her instinctive joy into his body to go on. Courtesy demanded he at least tell her about this evolution, that he no longer needed her. He feared that conversation like a duel to the death. For he instinctively knew people like Daniella needed to be needed. That was what fed their life force.

He came to the end of his walk and began to return home. He knew she would be there waiting for him. She would tell him about some banal thing that she had seen that had rocked her world. She would emanate excitement. Her pudgy cheeks would flush as she tried to get the words out, as if she had just witnessed the rapture. She would take his hand in her sweaty palm and tug at him as she related what she had witnessed. Then she would hustle him off to the kitchen for something she had made to eat and stand over him making sure he consumed every bite. He would smell the perspiration on her body and gag at her ministrations.

He steeled himself as he turned the corner to his house, prepared for the confrontation that would come. He was surprised when he had to take his key out to unlock the door. Daniella usually left it unlocked when she was there. He walked in and took of his jacket. The folds of the material rustled loudly in the empty house. An echo resounded as he walked from the foyer to the kitchen. Daniella was nowhere to be seen.

Yet her presence was everywhere. He could smell the aromas as she stirred a big pot of the soup she made especially for him. He could see the sheen of perspiration on her forehead as she worked. He could see the swell of her cleavage as she bent over him to administer medicine and to help him change. He could hear the popular music that she insisted on playing while she tidied the house and folded the laundry.

He sat down in the kitchen chair. The silence was smothering without her incessant chatter. He was struck by how much it had always annoyed him and yet now it seemed almost a defence against the loneliness intruding in every corner of his home.

Should he call her? He would have to find the number. He had not even saved into his contacts. She had always just shown up, a reliable presence. No need to seek her out.

As he caught his breath he realized the walk had made him hungry. There was no dinner waiting. She was late making it and he would have to castigate her for it.

From his kitchen window he could see the sky light up in a brilliant pink sunset. It was far past the time when Daniella should have arrived to assist with the evening chores. He began to poke around the cupboards for something to eat. There wasn’t much. Daniella always insisted on buying the groceries almost daily so they would be fresh. She took great pleasure in selecting the potatoes and squash from which made the soup he so detested. He had often suggested they just order take out. She would not hear of it.

“Don’t you want to get well?” she would ask in that faux demanding tone of hers.

Dusk settled into the house. His hunger was not satiated by the small snack he made for himself.

He went to his room to shower and prepare to relax before bed. The laundry, usually so meticulously folded, lay in a soiled pile where he had left it. The bed usually so crisply made was a rumpled mess. She had not been here all day he realized in shock.

“How could I not have realized it?” he muttered aloud.

He began to rifle through a pile of mail on the desk. Usually Daniella opened it for him and spread the sheets neatly on the desk. There was a plain brown envelope from the ministry of health. He usually dreaded opening missives from OHIP. They usually involved his dwindling health coverage. He was relaxed about it today because he knew he could go back to work soon. A curt paragraph informed him that after an assessment by his case officer it was determined he would no longer need a PSW. A second sheet was a report from Daniella.

“The client is recovered sufficiently that services are no longer warranted.”

He sank down into the chair as he absorbed the information. All of Daniella’s joi de vivre , care and concern had been nothing more than a professional courtesy. He was just as assignment to be assessed. He stared out the window at the fading sunset. While the disease that had consumed him for months left his body the new disease of loneliness crept in.

Suzette Blom has had careers in law and academics. She lives in Toronto.

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