If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.
The sisters had long ago been given that inefficacious space offered to the limited and circumscribed, who roam there freely in a twilight of swirling perfumed skirts, gazing at patterns of vines and gourds embroidered on bright specious heavens, naming constellations, sighing at the vague, whistling line of a meteor, really all the while tracing stitches on the backside of old brocade.
When the girl arrived she was proceeded by a thunderous drum roll of quiet; which remained unbroken all the years she was to spend in the great wooden house, the tainted hush-like halo, like the profound, green silence before a storm when women rush to crack windows and ease the wind’s passage across their floors; count candles; thrust large boxes of kitchen matches into apron pockets; and mothers gather children to them in the center of the room, waiting for the snap and blue explosion of electric wires in the yellow-leaved locusts: which her three aunts uneasily recognized as youth but she already knew as the ever-misnamed gift inherited with birth, extensive mantle which wrapped her in heightened visibility and drew sparks from the damp and odorous air.
They sat late that night, waiting for the telling which was they knew supposed to happen, each hesitant but thinking herself willing, hands folded in the music room where the untuned strings clamored so they’d discarded song as a path to sentiment which might be induced if it wouldn’t surface alone in the stillness. Both, as the minutes moved past toward darkness
where quarter-chimes rang in the circle of Flora’s arms, who held a gilt page stamped with the chrysalis form and the winged form of her butterfly-lover, up to the evening; bronze flowers brushed her elbow and framed the clock’s porcelain face which shone brightly as day gleam faded on her wide-set breasts and in the pleats of her hem, and shadows gathered beneath the fragile chairs where two women were seated
thinking of the letter,
written she now knew in the music room, where the other must have sat before the small escritoire, as she had so often on summer Sunday afternoons, enduring her proscribed summer’s stay (not only to visit, as they called proper, her sister, but as occupant, as affirmation of heritance and blood in the family’s voluminous marker stood on the land, 1768, silver and shutters intact, smelling of termites and lace in old cupboards, and for another reason too she understood but only later), when they had all in their various corners written letters; the visitor, bent to her work, felt elegant, ancient and proud, to sit among the three silent women—her sister, and her gift, unimportant for a moment in their presence—their neat heads bobbing lightly above the soft white pages, ink pens scratching,
before the man came,
she remembered her father’s hands, too fragile in apparent anatomy for the heavy gold ring,
and stormed (an invisible cotillion of romancers and mercenaries faithful at his back; how else, knowing the three women, obdurately kind, could he approach in his misery) the house, demure sanctuary open to him, to any who had the manners of request, for an inclination or the raised eyebrow of rebuke, though impenetrable to what they judged ill-breeding, wealth beauty dress to them the immaterials, clean hands and franchise essential, but entered ardent, racing,
locked himself in the attic until they thought it must have been the heat that finally took him, summer and nothing but cedar shingle between the bed and sky, his words or thoughts distraught, they called it, until they could no longer listen but asked—over the phone they could so little endure it—his other daughter to come back and tend the illness that they kept separate from the man, who was strong, in his prime they believed, until the actual moment of death made them reconsider, as if the words were a visitation and it was the fevered history that had to be kept down, not the pulse pitch and sweating,
she then sat to write,
apologizing for the intrusion, at such a time (the hesitant consideration of her phrase rebuke to her who, banished once, fled) “but you should know,” keeping most of it for herself, impossible after all to recount or believe—though belief hardly the question then, story told, her ears polluted with what she, young as she was, in that house called blasphemy for fear of worse, because young as she was she considered grave the flesh sins, not counting those of heart and mind: she would come to that in time, telling them over at night, feet striking the covers back. “I thought you’d want to know,” instead of fading with the man (some things came back, to her too, the sharpness of beard straining away, surprisingly three colored, from his cheeks, his skin shining in Indian-summer heat) the words louder, roaring and lulled with the blood in her ears, late crickets shrill in the grass, until she tried the exorcism of the letter—“Though I know you weren’t close”—thinking how close they might have been, “in years.” Surely she could deny it? But she would have to pen it stronger then, shape the words in her own hand and lay them under other eyes, if her sister’s, to summon denial. What woman, even believing, what daughter wouldn’t ignore them if she could, if they were only traced faint as the odor of betrayal rather than the musky vegetal smell of him in the close air under the rafters those last days.
That night, the old women hushed at the bottom of the house (when at last she descended, slowly, they brought cushions and small sweet drinks in stemmed glass, Florence playing softly the old hymns, not so much for solace as to make speech an impertinence—they never spoke but bent their heads further in natural penchant when she played, not the Lord but the knotted fingers rebuking inattention—so she sank with gratitude into not speaking) and she alone with him under the eaves, crouched at the edge of the old-fashioned bed where her sister had slept, she comprehended the leaving—the first, expulsion; which illuminated her mother’s dark eyes and silver face, waiting at the hallway’s end so many years; a lamp clicked on, a door later closing; the husband’s errant footsteps in between; glanced a moment at her mother’s fine spirit—so she first termed it—which forgave though despising the ignobility, if not the sin. So this same understanding, of the years’ long claim to higher purpose, admitted as well the weakness of that claim. Because it was the girl who left. Because it was the father who sank, huddled in the hollow of her bed, beneath the poisoned voluptuous folds of the cloak she wore as ever in that escape (a distance invisible to his mind drawn in and still, as if that could be nothing, like a mourning dove from sudden shadow), the windows open on immobile heat, brown bats marking the stars, and ivy intrusive over the sills.
Even now, seated in precisely anticipation of converse, belief and question both impossible.
A white moth beat against the glass. They looked up, startled, two pale faces turning together toward the black night and broad wings on the window’s rippled water.
Here had been a summer, before the sister’s flight or father’s death, before a pleated, familiar tongue had brushed her envy with a name, before the man in whom she glimpsed—she who planned to live the family rules—her woman’s future turned away; just at the moment when she could have hoped he would have looked more fully upon her; and perhaps he had; and she heaped on her sister’s luxuriant head responsibility for that possibility as well—
There had been a copper-mouthed summer, when oak leaves darkened overhead where they stayed, the two women, with two young men (though one more agent than actor, the second and third only spectators seeing in the lit-rush pitch of her grace their own dark house), unending nights the same, outside, beyond, as lamps shut off one by one in the house; until specific evening broke: her father’s dalliant tale retold, consuming night’s wasted hours as it once had stifled mornings when she lay, pretending sleep, listening for his cautious, slippered feet along the floorboards.
At dawn scratched and stained by tree bark, deer grass, dandelion, worm cast, pollen streaked in fingers on her face, she lay down. The sun rose. She appraised the world—slope, stream, field—from her attic room, from each sill in turn leaning out into morning, considered gravity’s pleasurable temptation; smiling slept at last.
In an evening, wearing white, she chose. Roses burning in late low sun. “Marry in haste,” her mother wrote
knowing her daughter would complete the line, that teacher and dam she need approach no nearer statement, the three words tied securely to an encyclopedia of fulfilled phrases, netted in rhymes and rhythms, hidden in the massy bouquets ordered at the bride’s birth, potent in baptismal font, crepid in the bark of logs laid by the hearth, hard, obvious, and shining as wax.
There was a game. “Every cloud,” one would offer, another responding: “Has a silver lining.” Often the answer came as duet, the winner not she who could return the necessary lines but she who could recall the first few eruptive words which enchained their proper next. The game could last the hour of dinner and on into the subdued clatter of washing from behind a closed door as they wandered to the next room, each reclaiming a book, a chair, a pose, speech more occasional but demanding as surely sequence. “If it was a snake.” “It would have bit you.” Proverb fortified with repetition and antiquity. As your grandmother used to say, as your great aunt used to say: Repent at leisure.
The longest hour struck, slow and quavering, as 20 years before it had sounded on Saturday nights—the silk-thread mechanisms always tightened Sunday mornings, early before church, when the three women, silver hair coiled on the human night smells, suits buttoned on the disorder of age, attended together the service of the keys, righting the temporal world before visiting the other. The twanging feebleness of that ring was surely a sign that not all holds had been loosed, that the old order imposed itself–though debt of the past or honor to the present she wouldn’t know until the next day (and even then she was wrong), though there were signs on the landing that birds had found the missing panes, and scrabbling in the walls let her know the plaster had been breached, though these past hours her sister had smiled, not spoken. Even in her relief she saw again a princely hem sweeping the dusty floor, presage she believed to the final glory of the disinherited, and saw her own triumph rising among the powerless ghosts, so she also believed, of their past.
They kissed each other in the music room. The dry noise of their lips, the mouths so alike, rustled in the carpetless room. A few leaves and wet grass marked thunder’s close passage, with which poor tokens of far storms, no longer suggestive of danger, they filled, embarrassed, hands and pockets and went quietly to bed.
Elisabeth Noble Cunnick lives, works and writes in New York City.
If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.