I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Mrs. Merriman sat in her front yard with a bit of embroidery work, chattering pleasantly to herself. She sat in a chair that expressed her outward personality perfectly: neat, compact, plain, and comfortable. Opposite her, placed at the angle that would allow maximum rapport with its occupant, stood the enormous Old Chair. When the Old Chair began to rock gently, though there was no breeze, Mrs. Merriman glanced up with a smile of welcome for the company due to arrive. It, in the person of Mrs. Case, was just crossing the road looking wildly to left and right for traffic that might mow her down as it had her husband on that long ago day when traffic was an actuality. (It was 40 years since an automobile had passed this way, and the one that dispatched Mr. Case was both the first and the last). The traffic at this moment was an old gaunt goose and Mrs. Merriman smiled at the way Mrs. Case waited for the waddling creature to pass before she ventured the few steps across the road. The eyes of the ladies met.
“Sh-h-h-,” whispered Mrs. Merriman to the Old Chair and it ceased rocking.
Mrs. Case entered the yard through the trim gate, looked at Mrs. Merriman’s diligent fingers and rue sat beside the apprehension upon her face.
“I forgot my sewing! But I just can’t cross that road again—I can’t face it! Have you got something for these old, lonely fingers to do? I’ll shell peas, peel potatoes—”
“Sit down, Mrs. Case. You know you never bring any work to my house.”
“Don’t I?” Puzzlement, apprehension, rue, like birds on a fence.
Mrs. Case abruptly sat on the grass.
“Not there. I brought the chair out especially for you. See the pretty little cushion I found for it? I worked that needle-point myself—oh, a hundred years ago. Just see how the colors stand! Purple, green—durable. Things were durable then. Do get up off the grass, Mrs. Case. You should feel honored—”
“Oh, I do. But I’m unworthy—”
“Fiddle. Do as I say. Please.”
“Please—” said Mrs. Case like an echo and her eyes filled with tears. “I don’t know why it is, but that chair makes me nervous. Not knowing where it came from, how old it is—Every time, after I’ve sat in it, I have the most horrible dreams at night. The last time I dreamed—oh, the carnage. You were hacked to pieces right on this very lawn by a terrible Turkish person. Your hand was by the wisteria, your foot—I think it was the right one—lay over by the well. Don’t ask me how I knew, but I did.”
“Knew what, Mrs. Case?”
“You remember. That your foot was itching, I mean. That it itched to walk over to your poor displaced hand and get itself scratched—”
“Hmmmm,” was Mrs. Merriman’s comment. As if bored, as if tired in the way Kings are tired, she gestured toward the Old Chair. Mrs. Case, sobbing, rose from the grass and with closed eyes and ragged breath, sank onto the little cushion with its design of violets and leaves. For a moment the faded sound of her weeping was the only sound in the world. No bird twittered, no branch stirred.
Mrs. Merriman looked at the embroidery work in her hands. The design was a heart, half-finished, laid onto the cloth in broad strokes of scarlet thread, broad, thick strokes resembling those of a painter who works with the palette knife. She patted the half-heart, smoothed the glossy flank of it and, leaning forward, placed the embroidery hoop in Mrs. Case’s flaccid fingers.
The hands of Mrs. Case, seemingly independent of the arms, the body, the brain, began to work the thread. Her sobs ceased and her lids opened to show serene eyes which surveyed Mrs. Merriman with a touch of benevolence, a suggestion of humorous mockery, and then the mockery—such a tiny flame—was extinguished leaving the expression that said, ‘I know you; I’ve been you for a thousand years—yes, and liked you too, in my fashion.’ What the lips said was:
“Do you remember—” and Mrs. Merriman settled back with a sigh, like a child whose favorite story is about to be repeated.
“Do you remember Mr. Case when he first came here, how funny he looked with his olive skin and his little mustache, and the pretty way he pronounced our names? Instead of Carrie, he called me Cara—”
“And me Bella instead of Belle—”
“I prefer Cara to Bella.”
“Your privilege. Continue.”
“Bella always made me think of belly. Come to think of it, so does Belle.”
“Everybody has one, even if some do truss it up and tie it in like a veal roast.”
Mrs. Case tootled satirically, like a child with a tin flute. “Belle: a terrible sound in the night—Murder! Arson! Bell is the sound a deer makes in rut.”
“It also marks the passing of time. Take heed.” Mrs. Merriman’s tone drew from Mrs. Case a series of whimpers that, written on music paper, would have required a distinctly minor key signature. Mrs. Merriman tentatively offered transition to a major theme: “Or the corolla of a flower. Admit it, now. Bell is the mouth of a pretty, harmless flower—”
Mrs. Case laughed poisonously. “Oh my, yes. Belladonna, a narcotic—”
“An anodyne.” Mrs. Merriman offered it peacefully enough but when Mrs. Case continued her arsenical laughter something in the older woman—a nerve strut—succumbed. “Carrie! A carrier of germs!”
“Now, now,” said Mrs. Case placidly enough. “Bellicose.”
“Caravansary, dear. He rested in me, after all.”
Mrs. Merriman spoke quietly, having observed its effectiveness in Mrs. Case’s case. “Here’s one, dear: Bellona. The Goddess of War. Fair warning.”
Despite her, Mrs. Case’s voice rose as though in recognition that every quarrel must maintain one shouter.
“FAIR warning? YOU? Mille grazie! Quid pro quo and en garde: observe my CARApace …” With accompanying gestures, she reached the peak of her form and the peak of her endurance for behind her next words there lay nothing but an expanse of salt water: “Bell-jar: A vessel closed at the top and wide open at the bottom!”
Mrs. Merriman, hearing the lapping of the waters, fairly whispered. “Caravel. That’s a vessel, too … with broad bows and a high poop!” Like a disembodied mosquito whine, she worried her friend’s paranoia: “Carrion … the mot parfait. Carrion …” Mrs. Case tried with the noise of her weeping to drown out the terrible sound. Struggling, she nearly managed to free herself from the arms of the Old Chair. Mrs. Merriman, sanity returning to her eyes, took her friend by the shoulders, pushing her back, speaking honeyed words to assuage the sting. “Carriage. An elegant carriage with gold wheels and pink cupids on the panels. Elegant, graceful, feminine …”
Soon Mrs. Case’s fingers resumed their work and Mrs. Merriman sat with an exhausted sigh, saying cajolingly, “When he first came here—”
“It was nightfall and Alice—whatever became of her?—Alice and I were just setting out the pans of cream.” A pause during which the nagging question was allowed full quarter—“I’ll never, never forgive that girl for going away and leaving me with all the work to do! Not a word, not so much as a ‘by your leave.’ Just up and gone. I couldn’t draw one drop of milk from the poor heifers when Alice first disappeared, and them with swollen udders, lowing about the lawn. I even tried—you know, what calves do with their mouths—” She shuddered, recalling. “Heifers are dirty, always smeared with their own dung, and their breasts covered with nasty little hairs—”
“Breasts, and you a farm woman! For God’s sake, can’t you say teats!”
“No. It sounds too close to—something else. Anyway—”
Mrs. Merriman moved impatiently, plucking at the arm of her chair, her tone of voice not too neighborly as she interrupted.
“Anyway, it was nightfall. I don’t give a hang about the heifers, teats, tits, or breasts!” Commandingly—“It was nightfall.”
Mrs. Case chose to be sullen, remote.
“You know every word. Tell it yourself.”
“Please, Carrie. Cara. Per piacere—”
Mrs. Case smiled suddenly, sweetly, the independent hands flying at the embroidery, inspired by memory.
“Yes, that’s what he said. He was standing just outside the creamery door, holding his hat in his hands—twisting it, you know—and he said that and then some other words very fast. I had the feeling that I’d gone deaf—no, because I could hear—I had the feeling that I had fallen down and hurt my head. But then Alice said something—I can’t recall what—she was stupid, you know, except for once when she said something pretty and strange … Now, what was it she said? It was just before she disappeared —”
“I don’t give a—” Mrs. Merriman raised her voice, lowered it instantly. “Oh, Carrie dear, do stay with the story!”
“I was. Alice said something and I could understand her, so I knew he was from someplace away from here. So I said ’Won’t you come in’ just as nice and soft as I could, and he came. In.”
Mrs. Merriman shivered as if December had invaded August. Her voice became hoarse with a throb.
“Nightfall and you asked a strange man into your house—”
“Into your house that had beds in it and low lights and a fire burning on the hearth and the curtains pulled—Just the two of you, two strangers, alone in that darkling house—”
“There was Alice. And naturally my house has beds in it.”
“And you got into one—with him—that very night!”
“Why do you always say that? You know he lived in the hayloft until we were married. We never spent a night together under the same roof until he gave me this ring.”
Mrs. Merriman was trembling, all alone in the world of her mind. She seemed barely contained, as though the world of her mind was not large enough to hold her.
“What did he look like? Don’t tell me I know what he looked like! I mean that night. Right then when he walked into your house with the turned-down beds and the fire—What did he have on his feet? How did he hold his hands? Did his eyes narrow down? Was his shirt open or buttoned up? Did his trousers bulge in the front”—a violent gesture—“down there when he looked at you, you silly blonde thing, fluttering around and speaking soft? Did he grab you—did he bruise your arms? Did he yawn and stretch like a damned tom-cat, slouched down in his chair in front of the fire? Tell me how it was.” She was almost weeping.
Mrs. Case looked at her with pity. She said, slowly:
“I remember the last time we talked about him. I had a feeling you were—comparing—some experience of your own with mine. That was the night I dreamed you were hacked to pieces here on this lawn—Did Mr. Merriman come to you out of the night like that? Is that what you’re recalling?” Slowly, with wonderment, “Why didn’t I ever meet your husband? I’ve lived across the road from you since—since before recorded history. Wouldn’t you think I’d have met your husband? But no—every time I came over you said he was off some place, working. Or if it was at night, that he was tired and had gone to bed. You’d say ‘Listen to him snore, the old bed-bug’ and I’d laugh and nod—but I never heard a sound. Why was that, Lily Belle? I used to get up early and peek out my window, to see if I could see him leaving the house, but I never did. Why, Lily Belle? And the house—there wasn’t any man-odor around the house—” Correcting herself partially—”But there was out here, every now and then, under this tree. I remember now—it was so powerful at times, here under this tree, that I used to put my chair in the broiling sun because to sit there was like—like sitting in a lovebed, sewing!” Blushing, she turned her head away. “Does that sound vulgar? Sometimes I think I’m an animal, my sense of smell is so sharp! But until Mr. Case came I had never—you know—smelled a man: nice clean sweat and tobacco and that sort of straw odor—Right after a bath Mr. Case used to smell the way the wind smells blowing over a field of mowed-down wheat. It was in his skin, and the sun was, too, because there was a kind of heat—not coal, or wood, but sun-heat smell—”
Hands working rapidly, Mrs. Merriman watching them.
“I don’t know what’s come over me, talking this way.”
“Don’t stop, Carrie Evelyn. And don’t ask me any questions. Not now. I’ll tell you what you want to know at the end.”
“The end of what?”
“There you go. Just the end. The end. Now go on. Per Piacere.”
The magic words that always work. Mrs. Case, smiling, rosy, continued.
“Oh yes. Well, I asked him in and he came. In.”
“Why do you always say it that way? Came. In.!”
“I don’t know. Because they’re two separate words? Because I can’t remember the door opening or closing—he was just suddenly in? I don’t know. That’s the way it affected me. He stood there in the nightfall—let’s see: He was wearing plain shoes with the toes cut out, or worn out. The shoes were dusty, but his feet were clean. He had his hat in his hands, down in front of him—there, so I couldn’t tell about the other, not that I would have known even if I’d seen. You forget he was the first man I’d ever met. I didn’t know about such things then. His shirt was open at the neck. His eyes were kind of squinched up, but that’s the way people’s eyes behave when they’re trying to see through the dark, not like animal’s eyes, wide open and starey. The thing to do is to catch what little light there is and hold it in your eyes. He did not grab me, or bruise me. He didn’t touch me at all. We went in the house and I gave him some supper and wine. I had a glass of wine too. I asked him questions about where he came from, why hadn’t I seen him before and was I—were Alice and I—the first women he’d ever met.”
“How did you know he was a man, Carrie Evelyn? If you’d never seen one before?”
“It’s the same as a sense of smell—you just know.”
“What did he do when you asked him about other women?”
“He threw his head back and laughed fit to die. Up to then I’d understood about half of what he said, but after that we didn’t have any trouble understanding each other. It was like the question was an acknowledgement of something secret we both knew—and secrets not shared are walls between people. More. You can climb over a wall but you can’t climb over a secret so easy. What I mean is, if you said something to me now—in words we both use every day, but about something I didn’t know about, you might as well be talking bird talk for all I’d understand. Yes, that’s exactly right! Here’s an example—”
“No examples, please.”
Mrs. Case looked regretful.
“You keep interrupting me. I never can keep a thought for long if you interrupt. And I was on the verge of something—something Alice said that was so strange and pretty. I would have had it after all these years of trying to remember! Oh, Lily Belle, I could just bawl.”
In her chagrin, Mrs. Case’s fingers ceased to work at the heart which was now three-quarters finished. Noting this, Mrs. Merriman leaned over and patted her friend’s hand.
“I apologize from the bottom of my heart, dear. But never mind. It’ll come back to you. You’re on the track, now. And you’re so clever nothing escapes you for long.”
The praise was sweet and Mrs. Case grew tearful in gratitude. To make amends, to reassure, the hands began their work of laying on the thread with a will, the red strings, the red heart-strings.
“It was the nicest evening I ever spent, that first one with him.” She added quickly, “Not counting all our lovely evenings together. When he asked if I was tired and I said yes, a little, he picked me up and took me to my room, didn’t even have to ask where it was, and then he—”
Mrs. Merriman sat so near the edge of her chair that she seemed in danger of toppling over. Her body was rigid from lack of breath.
“—and then he undressed me, every stitch, and looked at me for a long time. I wasn’t ashamed. After a while he put me under the covers, tucked me in, and left. Oh, no—he turned at the door and said, “We’ll be married when you’re ready.” And then he left. I heard his feet going down the stairs; there are 18 steps and I counted 12 of them; then I went to sleep. The next morning he said he’d slept in the hayloft. A week later he gave me this ring and moved into the house with me—into my room, into my body, into my life, into my heart. He’s gone from my room, gone from my body, my life—but he is still there in my heart. Locked up safe like a jewel. He is there. There.”
Mrs. Merriman’s voice, to the sensitive ear, the ear not listening to its own inner mysteries, was as dangerously fine and pale silver thin as the edge of a razor.
“How do you know he hasn’t flowed out with the blood?”
“Blood? What blood?” Mrs. Case was terrified.
“Blood goes into the heart, and blood goes out of the heart—”
“Oh—” Relief. “You mean circulation. But it’s the same blood going around and around. It doesn’t leave the body.”
“Doesn’t it? Look—there at your finger!” A drop of blood appeared on the tip of Mrs. Case’s finger as if forced out by Mrs. Merriman’s attention. Both ladies watched the drop tremble for the long moment before it fell.
“How do you know he is not in that drop, Carrie Evelyn? I think he is—yes—he is!”
The drop fell onto the embroidered heart, the two scarlets merging. Mrs. Case gave a small yelp of triumph, an altogether primitive and untypical sound:
“Out of my heart, into my heart! I still have him in my heart, Lily Belle!”
“Yours? That heart belongs to me, you silly bitch!”
Mrs. Merriman snatched for the embroidery hoop with triumph of her own. Their four hands clutched and tugged at the hoop. Mrs. Merriman was pulled from her chair by the ferocity of Mrs. Case’s attack, for Mrs. Case had gone from the defensive to the offensive in a split second and was using every weapon at her command: the small elegant feet kicked violently at Mrs. Merriman’s ankles; one claw-like hand released itself from the hoop long enough to dart rakingly at the other woman’s face; even the teeth were bared and clicked and gnashed in animal fury. In contrast to Mrs. Case, Mrs. Merriman was cold and methodical in her anger that was like black ice; her fingers and eyes sought to freeze Mrs. Case’s fingers and eyes into immobility; there was that in her that suggested places where ice grew like plants and winds gathered themselves into corners of caves like wolves. But the cold of her anger turned inward to her own brain so that she forgot and began to pull Mrs. Case from the Old Chair. Even as intelligence was returning to Mrs. Case’s eyes, and her grasp on the embroidery hoop was relaxing, a sound of ripping cloth came as a warning and Mrs. Merriman released the hoop so suddenly that Mrs. Case was thrown against the back of the Old Chair where she lay breathing heavily, her huge eyes staring up at the muttering woman half-crouched above her. Mrs. Merriman’s voice rose and fell, interchanging the words blood and remembrance until even she could not have told their difference.
Mrs. Case relaxed and her eyes became glazed with serenity, her fingers resumed their work. Mrs. Merriman sank into her own chair, breathed deeply once or twice and smiled sympathetically at her closest friend.
“You look tired, dear Evie. Would you like to take a little nap?”
“No thank you, Lil. You know what I always say about naps: they’re thieves who rob you of your sleep at night! Or was that his expression? Nowadays I can’t seem to separate one from the other: what he made me and what I was before he came.” She appealed to Mrs. Merriman: “What was I like in those days, Lil? BC?” She laughed, added in explanation: “Before Case?”
“Pretty as a buttercup and—if you’ll not get angry, dear, just about as useful! Yes, that’s a fair comparison, because you were both wild and domestic. Your instincts were to stay by the fire, your impulses were to run like a brook. Instinct, naturally, won out. You knew what you were doing …”
“What was I doing, Lil?”
“Waiting. I waited too, but—” She caught herself broke the back of danger with a gesture, a laugh. She leaned forward, warm and disarming.
“I saw so little of you after Mr. Case came—to you. I don’t know what your life was like together. And then your long mourning for him kept you from me … What did you do together that made you both forget me for so long?”
“Both forget you, Lily? He couldn’t forget you because he didn’t know you at first—”
“There you go, literal to the last. Very well, what did you do to make you forget me?”
“I don’t want to keep quibbling, Lily Belle, but I object to the word forget. I never forgot you at all. I was perfectly aware that you were here and if you called I would have come. You know that. It’s just that when a woman marries she crosses each road as she comes to it. And I never seemed to come to this road very often! You’re one to talk, aren’t you! At least you met my husband … What was our life together like? Is that what you asked?” Smiling, remembering:
“He was so funny at first. He wanted always to be rambling, never in one place for long. He would look out the window at night and see a hill—the same hill he had looked at all day—and though we were undressed and ready for bed, he would say, ‘Cara, let’s run over the fields just the way we are and climb that hill!’ and I would have to restrain him, practically, the way you’d hold back a puppy. I don’t suppose there would have been any harm in doing it—in going, you know, but he did have to get up early to get the work done and I’d remind him of that.” Slowly, in a puzzled tone, she added, “He would look hurt, at first, as if I’d taken something from him—something really important. Then I would almost change my mind and go, but there was the work—and I hated the idea of cold dew on my feet and moonlight has always scared me—”
“Ah,” said Mrs. Merriman.
“Just ‘Ah.’ Just letting you know that I understand.”
“Understand what, though? You don’t always hear—”
Mrs. Merriman broke in soothingly. “That I understand about the work coming first—before his—absurd—impulses.”
“Thank you, Lily Belle,” Mrs. Case was dubious at first but grew positive as she recalled: “In a few weeks, a month—some measure of time—he stopped suggesting such things, so I guess he understood, too. He still looked out the window at night, but the way other people—Alice and I—did. Oh, and we had lovely times, planting the crops, harvesting, tending the animals. He loved anything newborn and because of that I got so I could touch a calf while it was still wet and not get sick. And in the evenings we sat by our fire and sang old songs and drank our own wine. And because we were tired from work, good honest work, we went to bed early.”
She waited a moment before she said firmly, as if there could be no quarrel, “It was a perfect life. Ideal and perfect.”
She sighed and closed her eyes briefly, opened them to smile to Mrs. Merriman.
“Just mentioning being tired makes me tired now. I like the feeling—so languid and wanted—”
“Wanted? Isn’t that an odd way to put it?”
“I suppose it is, at that.”
A pause, during which Mrs. Case hummed a snatch of lullaby.
“But what does it mean, Carrie Evelyn? Wanted by whom—by what? You’re so provocative when you say these things. Dear.”
“I’m not sure what I meant. Oh, yes I am but it would sound so morbid to say it out loud. Oh, well, I meant wanted by Death. Now, don’t scold. You wouldn’t let me rest until I said it. I often have these thoughts. Since Mr. Case died and left me heiress to that empty bed, I’ve thought these things. About how sad and funny ’tis when a woman reaches an age when only Death wants her. I console myself by thinking that Death is a man who looks exactly like Mr. Case.” A small laugh escaped her. “He must want me very much right this minute. I can hardly keep my eyes open.”
“Then close them, Evie. I’ll wake you when it’s time.”
“Time for what? Now you’re sounding odd.”
“Is that your prerogative alone? There are times when I think you’ve forgot I’m a woman too! You expect me to be strong to cover your weakness, to be truthful when you lie—”
Mrs. Case looked at her indignantly. “Lie, Lily? When ever do I lie?”
“Constantly. Or maybe distortion is a better word. And you have the terrible gift of making others doubt the truth in themselves. Listening to you, I find myself sympathizing with you even when I know you’re warping the woof!” A laugh, half snort, came from her. “You said he asked you to marry him, when actually it was you who insisted upon it before you would allow him in your bed.”
She looked commandingly into Mrs. Case’s eyes with her ice-stare. Mrs. Case resisted her for a surprising length of time, sitting forward in the Old Chair as though she leaned into a gale.
“I don’t know if that is true or not—it is so long ago. But if it were true? Why would that be wrong, Lily Belle? A woman has to protect herself. That’s one of the things I was born knowing. And part of my protection was in believing he wanted to marry me. Why do I feel this way, Lily?, as if I couldn’t get up from this chair if I tried? Why am I afraid to try?” Her words were a cry. “Why do you say that I may open my eyes when it is time? Time for what?”
Spent, fighting done with, she leaned back in the Old Chair and closed her eyes, breathing gently, forgetting.
“Time to open them, you silly goose. When it’s time to see.”
“What time is it now, Lil?”
“Time to listen. I’m going to tell you about Mr. Merriman, darling.”
A sweet bird sang. Droplets of the song fell glittering through the air. The surf of a rose-sea broke somewhere nearby and its odor washed over the remembering woman as she sat in her chair with the breath caught in her throat and her eyes wide and shining to capture the light and hold it, for she looked through the long dark that lay between then and now as an animal does—a very young animal quivering with the revelation of all its senses. Her voice was a sense, feeling the words it uttered as fingers palpate their own wounds.
“He came to me as I sat here. I knew who he was and I called him by his real name. He was shy and confused and I laughed at him. He put his hands on my throat to feel the laughter and then imitated me. When the bird sang he trembled like a deer and I gave him the bird so that he could feel its throat, too, and sing the way it did. He smelled the flowers and took one in his hands and his body gave off its odor. In a short space of time he imitated a tree and grew terribly tall, became the grass that he stood on, felt what it was like to be a rabbit, a water-well—He could do anything, be anything. Innocence can. It made him elusive. I was afraid I might go to sleep holding him in my arms and wake up to find he had become a well of water and I drowning in him, or a rose, and I dying on his thorns. He was all mystery and wonder but I was tired from waiting and afraid of losing him. And so I chose for him what he should be. A woman is pink and a man brown, I said, so a man should not smell of roses; rather, let him smell of wheat. And he did. I said: a woman is light and a man is heavy, so let her sing high like a bird and him deep like a frog. And he did. He was the tree and I the grass. He was the wind and I the harp. He the blood and I the heart. I taught him everything I was and held back nothing, no secret area beyond his reach, no change of mood that he could not understand and follow, no movement that he could not anticipate. It seemed to me that to do so would be to give myself unfair advantage over him, for there was nothing about him that I did not know—was not, in a sense, responsible for. And I sat less and less frequently in the Old Chair, finally put it away in the attic. I had no need of the past. The present was all I wanted.”
She spoke now for her own benefit, forgetting the mesmerized woman opposite her who could hear and feel but could not see or move. Mrs. Merriman bloomed under the sun of her own words; years lifted their stones from her shoulders and the drift of their winters seemed to melt from her hair, leaving it darkly coiled about her ears. With her parted lips, their coral matching the young blood in her cheeks, she could easily have been taken for a girl of 20. Her eyes gazed down that curve of Time that was the road before her house, commanding and beseeching it to reverse itself and bring back, bring back! those events it had carried away on its bosom as a river bears away flotsam. The bird sang still and the smell of roses and wheat drifted across the lawn, entwined and complementing each other in the manner of lovers.
“Together we explored everything this side of the road. We climbed the hills, swam the rivers, collected objects for his museum: shells, birds eggs and, later, animals who had died natural deaths, which we stuffed and mounted, flowers that had withered on the stalk, which we preserved. He would not cause death, even in plants, so that we lived on nuts and fruits that fell naturally from the trees. I had grown accustomed to the taste of meat and fish and at times, while he slept, I would catch a fish and grill it, or bake a fat quail in clay. Then he caught me at it and that was the beginning of our quarrels.”
She looked back upon the truth.
“Actually, I quarrelled. He wept, for the first time. Because I was guilty I screamed at him like a fish-wife—it was a fish I had just eaten—and I told him men do not weep. He turned from me and picked up a shell and tried to catch his tears in it to preserve for his museum …
The museum was the first of his private interests, things apart from me … One day I found him with a pile of branches and twigs and a sharp stone. He would whittle a twig with the stone and with another stone would drive it through two branches, securing them together. I laughed at him for wasting time in work … but only because I wanted to ridicule him into freedom … He never again tried to build anything. When I found him planting a little garden in the most primitive way, sweating and working in the hot sun, I was annoyed and told him that he was wasting my time with such foolishness. Plants grow, I said, of their own accord. They don’t need you, I said … This time he did not turn and walk away. He grabbed me, bruised me, cursed in the language I had taught him was best for cursing, just as he made love in the language of lovers—”
She paused, murmured, “Bella—bellissima.”
Mrs. Case’s eyelids twitched but did not, could not, open. Mrs. Merriman looked as if the heart in her breast was breaking too slowly to make a sound, although she listened for it for some moments. The bird stopped singing and some of the light left her eyes with the effort to restrain tears.
“Once quarrels and hurting are begun, they are like the years: nothing can stop their accumulation. We still had hours, days, of loving, but loving made desperate by our fears … He had learned so much—he was far beyond me then and could laugh at me if he chose. And I had forgotten so much.”
She paused again and the rose-sea and the wheat-tide retreated. She looked at Mrs. Case with the great sadness, the nearly comical poignancy, of hindsight.
“I had forgotten about you. He knew everything, everything about me and our world this side of the road. In the beginning I had told him that the road was the edge of the world, and I was not lying. It was the edge of our world together. But when he had learned all there was to know of this world, he became curious about what lay beyond it. When we made love here, beneath this tree, I would feel him leave me and would open my eyes to find him staring at the road and the mist on the other side.”
She repeated tonelessly, “I had forgotten about you.”
Again Mrs. Case’s eyelids flickered, signalling frantically to Mrs. Merriman to stop, stop while there were still words unsaid, and the skin of her arms rippled as if the arms were a riverbed and the skin the water. But Mrs. Merriman did not heed her, pressed on in her voice that said she was tired of the old fever and wished to pass the crisis whatever the consequences.
“I had forgotten about you. Your peculiar way of saying half-things, of changing from laughter to tears for no reason, your helplessness about the house so that you had to have the help of that long, slinky stupid girl, your silly way of calling a spade anything but a spade. I had forgotten your mystery, Eve. The night he did not come back to me I knew where I could find him. But I did not look. I knew your vanity would make you bring him to me. And when Alice told me that together you had forced him to give you a ring and take the title of ‘husband,’ I invented Mr. Merriman in self-defense, married myself off to an essence, an odor, some scraps of memory—”
The sadness, the near-comical sorrow of her face did not change as she gently nudged Mrs. Case awake. The two women looked at each other with a long look. Mrs. Case was the first to speak, looking at the sewing in her hands that lacked one thread to completion.
“I recall what Alice said the day she disappeared. She said: “A heart is made out of threads of knowing and the last thread is death.” But there is only one thread to go and I don’t know everything.”
“What do you want to know?”
“Why he was crossing the road the day he was killed.”
“He had been crossing it, at night, for a long time. To make love to me here, under this tree …”
“Why?” A whisper.
“For two plain reasons, at least. The first is that you failed him, too. You gave him mystery without romance; I gave him romance without mystery. I wanted him wild, you wanted him domestic. Neither of us asked what he wanted of himself … The second reason is that a man always tries to find his first love again. And dies trying.”
Mrs. Case began to draw the final thread of the heart. She looked at Mrs. Merriman and whispered: “Then he died loving you, Lilith? He was yours at the end?”
The thread is secured. She leans back into the arms of the Old Chair, surrendering herself finally to its cabalistic symbols, its plumed serpent, its corridors for the procession of the equinoxes called the Zodiac, and her eyelids begin their last journey past reason. Mrs. Merriman, frightened, draws from her hair a long silver pin with a head of ruby. She places it in Mrs. Case’s dying fingers, pushing the fingers about the pin as though molding clay.
“Yes, Eve. But you have kept him locked in your heart until a moment ago. Now that he has escaped, give him back to me! Release him from that heart you’ve made for him! Only you can … Hurry. Hurry!”
Mrs. Case’s eyes glimmer. She smiles.
“Only I? Then he is still mine. To give … No, to keep. Goodbye, Lil.”
Her face is transfigured. It is sun and moon and the light on meadows as she calls, “Oh, darling, wait for me—wait for your Cara …”
Mrs. Merriman whines like an animal in pain, grabs the dead hand that holds the pin, forces it to jab the embroidered heart with the pin over and over again, then tries to turn it on herself but the ruby-headed pin is locked in the dead hand, welded to it like Excalibur to the stone, the last weapon of earth in final impotence. Friendless, loveless, deathless, Mrs. Merriman sends her cries to clang against the roof of the world, now sealed for eternity.
Coleman Dowell died in 1985. His collected stories, Houses of Children was published posthumously by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in 1987. Dalkey Press reissued Too Much Flesh and Jabez in 1988 and White on Black on White, was reissued by Serpent’s Tale last February. Excerpts of his book, A Star-Bright Lie, were published in BOMB in 1984 and 1985.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
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