THE SIREN’S REFRAIN

The Siren's Refrain
Leon Riser leaned back from the eyepiece of the telescope, doing his best to avoid moving the tripod. Lifting his gaze, he squinted into the fading light of the late afternoon. It was impossible to make them out with the naked eye being that the tree line stood a good two thousand feet above the cabin’s deck. He had been scanning the slope of bare talus through the scope when he spotted the goats, a e could see Hbilly and two females. The billy’s shaggy white bulk dwarfed the two nannies loping in his wake.

 
He was quite familiar with that particular slope of jumbled stone and scree for he had once been forced to scramble down it to evade a July lightning storm. Leaning into the scope, he took another look. The two nannies appeared to be gnawing at the sparse lichen while the billy stood in what remained of the fading sunlight and stared down into the deep valley below.

 
He envied the goat. Not its diet of aspen shoots and lichen, nor the cold, harsh climate, but he did envy the billy’s vantage point. On more than one occasion, he had climbed up to timber line and watched the sunlight fade across the valley. At this time of day, the patchy snow on the valley floor would be turning an orangey crimson that would soon fade into a delicate ice blue. All of it occurring in what seemed the blink of an eye. In that moment, he found himself wondering if he would ever again see the world from that vantage point.
“No wallowing,” he muttered.

 
“Nani? What?” Fumiko said, not bothering to lift her eyes from the screen of her iPhone. Only her head and hands protruded above the water’s surface. The two of them always took a soak in the hot tub at this time of the afternoon. A silent ritual of sorts that gave Fumiko time to read her email, and Leon the time to allow his mind to wander to and fro, editing fact from fiction, and more often than not, blending them.

 
“Nothing,” he replied to her query. No wallowing, he thought again. Live in the present, asshole. Fumiko had scribbled something to that effect in her neat calligraphy at the bottom of their contract. He kept the document on his desk beneath his keyboard as a reminder. Her actual words had been, ‘Pain is certain. Suffering is optional. It is your choice of how you live.’ Her constant cue to that effect had undoubtedly helped his outlook, but even on his best days, he found her sage, unsolicited advice to be a thin coat.

 
Two weeks ago, his oncologist had pronounced him to be almost in remission. Leon took the qualifying word almost as faint recompense, and insufficient reason to entirely relinquish his well-honed pessimism. That being said, his improved prognosis seemed validated by the fact he actually did feel better. The pain in his back and hips had lessened, not to the point that it allowed a good walk, much less anything as strenuous as a hike. At least now he managed to crawl out of bed in the morning without gritting his teeth. His state of mind however remained another matter entirely. His outlook on life still seemed wholly proportionate to how often he turned on CNN, and to a greater extent, his degree of self-medication.

 
Think of your remission as an annuity had been the oncologist’s parting words. It’s good for the duration of the contract. Just realize you may not be around for the final payout, the doctor added. Leon assumed it was the doctor’s way of reminding him that remission with multiple myeloma was common, but never permanent. In other words, no one gets out alive.

 

He leaned back from the scope, settled deeper into the hot tub, and allowed his gaze to take in the entirety of the vista before him. The cabin sat situated along a creek in the deep cleft of a valley that separated Mount Elbert, the tallest peak in Colorado at 14,400 feet, and the summits of the Twin Peaks and La Plata to the south. He had first noticed the place, a split level log cabin, while on a cross country skiing trip some twenty years before. When he received a more than generous advance on his third book, Black Chrysanthemum, The Other China, he bought the cabin on a prayer and a whim.

 
Most years, he was fortunate to spend two or three months at the cabin, usually in summer and early fall. His doctor had advised against Leon’s usual winter migration to his rather remote second home in the Yucatan. So the autumn’s first snowfall found him still at the cabin. At first, the long nights had taken a toll on his spirits, but after a while, the confinement seemed to be a fitting accommodation to his disability.

 
It would be another week or so before the higher elevation snow would begin to thaw in earnest and turn the stream beside his deck into a torrent. In the meantime, he enjoyed the faint trickling sound escaping from beneath the creek’s half-frozen surface. For now, the only other sound was that of birdsong and the occasional cracking of the ice along the banks that bordered the deck. The pass leading to Aspen wouldn’t reopen until Memorial Day, and as a result, this time of year the only passersby were the occasional car and snowmobilers taking advantage of the remaining snow pack.

 
“Take a look,” he said, sliding back in the tub and nudging Fumiko’s foot with his own.
She looked up from her phone as if she were noticing him for the first time.

 
“Come on. Just be careful you don’t move the tripod or the scope.”
She laid her phone on her towel with prim precision and slid over to the scope. Raising her hands in exaggerated compliance, she peered into the eyepiece.

 
“Aree! Oh, Leon. Sugoi!” she squealed.

 
“Rocky Mountain goat. Oreamnos americanus. You don’t see them very often on this side of the mountain.”

 
“So very white. It is very difficult to see them in the snow.” She muttered something else that sounded Japanese.

 
Leon reached behind him and plucked the roach clip from the edge of a plate that held a rind of Manchego and an apple core. After groping around beneath a nearby towel, he found the lighter. He flicked it on and attempted to resuscitate the inch long stub of the joint. It took a while, but he managed one good hit before tossing the clip back onto the plate. As he exhaled, he squinted at Fumiko through the smoke.

 
“Don’t even think it,” he said in response to her all too familiar look of reproach.

 
“You know those little ends…gokiburi, a roach you call it…it has the most tar. The most carcinogens. If you must smoke you should use the vaporizer I brought you. There is no need for you…” her voice trailed off as she shrugged and leaned again into the scope.

 
“Old habits are hard to break,” he muttered, his usual refrain. “That and I need it since you’re so stingy with my hydrocodone.”

 
She clicked her tongue and peered back into the scope. She finally pulled back and looked at him. “I am sorry to reprimand you, Leon. I am not your mother. Or a wife,” she added. “But I am your nurse, and I… yūkō…enable I believe is the English word. I enable you quite enough already.”

 
Fumiko’s mask of disapproval failed to diminish the profound loveliness of her face. As a young woman in Japan, her countenance had graced many a cosmetic ad in the country’s most popular teen magazines. Everything about her face was perfect; the porcelain white teeth, the mouth and nose that seemed sculpted to fit in perfect harmony with her heart-shaped face. And then there were the almond-shaped eyes; their inky black pupils peering from behind the upturned angle of her eyelids. It was only in the flare of some emotion that one could ever fully see her pupils. Even now, at the age of thirty-four, Fumiko Sato looked at least a decade younger, an attribute that gave Leon pause when he first considered employing her as his private duty nurse. He recalled thinking that only in some ridiculous male fantasy did a nurse resemble a runway model. On the two sole occasions that he had accompanied her down to the village, he had seen the reaction on people’s faces. Add ridiculous old faun to his reputation as an eccentric hermit. In the end, he didn’t really care.

 
“It hasn’t killed me yet,” he said, running his hand over his closely shaven scalp.
“Yet,” she murmured in sullen agreement as she edged back to her side of the tub. “We should go in soon. There is still time before dinner for your infusion.”

 
“In a minute. Tell me something. Am I really such a bad patient? I’ve told you more than once that you don’t need to be out here all the time. I don’t mind if you…”

 
“Don’t be childish, Leon,” she said, cutting him off. “And I have told you more than once. What would I do the remainder of the week? I have no desire to make home visits to some old man and clean his catheters and wash his dishes.”

 
“Then I guess you should be grateful I don’t have a catheter. As far as washing the dishes, I seem to do them a lot more often than you do.”

 
She smiled and shook her head. “We are beginning to argue like some old married couple. I told you before that the problem is you pay me too well. Otherwise, I would not put up with you, old man. Now let us get out,” she said, turning to climb out of the tub.

 
“Hold up,” he said, cocking his head. “I think someone’s coming down the drive.”
He could just make out the crackling of tires on the gravel track that led to the cabin from the highway above.

 
“Are you expecting someone?” she asked, sliding back down.
“Not that I recall. It’s surely not that widow woman from down in the village. You ran her off with your listing of my many symptoms, paramount of which were flatulence and erectile dysfunction.”

 
“Why must you distort everything? I simply told her you were not feeling well. I did not mention any symptoms. Besides, all you two did that evening was quarrel about everything.”
“We weren’t quarreling. That was foreplay. I guess you cool and proper Japanese gals never engage in foreplay.”

 
“That sounds vaguely racist.”
“Why don’t you do me a favor and go see who’s at the door.”

 
“I am not your maid. If they want to see you they can come around to the back. They will find us together in your tub and the lips will wiggle.”
“Jesus, Sato. It’s tongues. Tongues will wag. Besides, what’s there to see? You’re wearing a suit.”

 
Fumiko always wore the same modest black one piece swimsuit; the kind with the little skirt that just managed to conceal her buttocks.. As for him, he always enjoyed his sauna in the buff. If she would ever happen to show up without a suit, his astonishment would surely overshadow any carnal urge. At sixty years of age, he was a long way from being dead from the waist down, in spite of his illness. His medications had indeed blunted his libido some, but still, he would have to be blind or on his death bed to fail to appreciate someone as alluring as Nurse Fumiko, as he liked to address her when feeling spiteful.

 
The chime of the doorbell gave way to loud knocking followed by a long minute of silence. Neither of them spoke in the hope the visitor had given up. It was only when Fumiko cocked her head to look past him that he realized someone had found their way to the deck. He turned to look over his shoulder at the unexpected visitor. A young woman stood at the edge of the deck. It took but a few seconds for him to recognize her.

 
“My God, do my eyes deceive me? Iris,” he exclaimed in genuine astonishment. “For a moment there, I didn’t recognize you. You know, with long hair the color of which actually resembles an earthly hue. Iris,” he said again with obvious appreciation.

 
Something approaching a smile appeared on the face of the young woman.
“Don’t you ever answer your phone, Leon?”

 
Leon looked at Fumiko and shrugged. “The last I saw the phone it was out here on the deck somewhere. That may have been last week though.”

 
The young woman stood there as if awaiting an invitation to come closer. She was tall and rangy in a way only certain women managed to carry off well. He remembered that bearing and how she walked, a dancer’s gait, an attribute that had only grown more pronounced as she had edged into her adolescence.

 
He had forgotten how much Iris resembled her mother. She had the same deep set, piercing, blue gray eyes; the same coal black hair. And the same generous mouth and high cheekbones that hinted at some aboriginal lineage. Her mother, Lou Ann, always claimed her grandfather was a full-blooded Comanche. Iris’s full mane of black hair lent credence to that claim. Even from ten feet away he could see the emerald nose stud he had given her on the occasion of her sixteenth birthday. Her bulky parka partially concealed the Zia Sun tattoo on her neck. He had paid for that also.

 
“You said you called?”

 
“More than once.”She hesitated for a moment and then made her way warily to the edge of the tub almost as if she were approaching a hazardous precipice. She stopped and turned her gaze on Fumiko before looking back down at him.

 
“It’s about Mom. I think she’s in trouble.”

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