This story is based on an idea I had nearly a year and a half ago, based on a writing prompt calling for a local landmark and a special (maybe magical) stone. Here’s what I came up with (it turned out to be a long short story, and so I will post it in parts here this week).
*Please note that my fictional poet of Jonathan Mason Eldridge III is based on a real poet named Frederick Goddard Tuckerman, whose sonnets appear here in the story. All other details concerning my character of Eldridge are wholly my own creation.
The tower was at the top of a forested hill that overlooked the town. Hannah hiked up the cracked pavement of the road, enjoying the spring morning. May in New England could be a glorious time, and she understood why Eldridge would have come here to write his poetry.
Boston seemed further away than the three hour train trip it was, and she was just beginning to feel giddy with freedom when the text dinged on her phone: Hey Beautiful, Mother wants to know when ur coming back, she’ll be in Italy in 2 wks, wants to tlk about the wedding. Fall will b here sooner than u think!
Leave it to Craig to ask her when she’ll be back on her first day here. Hannah slipped the phone back into her pocket without answering. She didn’t want to think about fall right now; she was absorbed in the flowering of spring all around her. The citrine light seeping through the canopy, the silence that wasn’t silent, as the maples exchanged breezy secrets with the oaks. The warm air hung heavy with earth and pine. She wanted to take out her notebook and pen a poem right now, but she was here to research Eldridge, not emulate him.
The tower loomed above, with windows cut into its brown stone, open to the wind that flapped the American flag at its top. She stopped at its base and caught her breath, looking out over the low wall in front of it at the small town of River Valley below. It had been even less developed one hundred and fifty years ago, when Eldridge left Boston for “the country”. He left his law degree behind to come here and write his poems, study botany and astronomy, and marry Annie, who gave him two children. An ideal life, though not one untouched by tragedy.
She circled the base of the tower and traced her finger along the brass plaque inscribed with the words:
Poet’s Seat Tower
Erected 1912 in honor of
Jonathan Mason Eldridge III
A Romantic poet who often came here
To write his sonnets, inspired by
The natural beauty of the area.
She entered the base and climbed the stairwell that led to succeeding levels that grew smaller the higher one went; it looked like a rook on a chess board. At the wind-whipped pinnacle, where the flag snapped on its shuddering pole, she splayed her palms on top of the scratchy stone wall, fighting vertigo. She’d never liked heights.
She remembered the time Craig convinced her to go to the top of the Prudential Building back in the city. She was of the opinion that buildings shouldn’t actually sway in the wind. Or at least, that she shouldn’t be inside said building. Craig had gotten angry when she threw up, right there in front of the tourists and other visitors.
Appearances were important to Craig. She’d written a secret poem about the experience called Not so prudent at the Prudential.
She quickly made her way back down the stair case to solid ground. The tower had been built long after Eldridge died. He likely wrote his poems somewhere nearby, leaning back against a warm rock in the sun. She wandered off on a worn path to the right that led to a rocky ledge along the ridge of the hill. She imagined Eldridge sitting here, notebook open across his dusty trousers, the collar of his shirt loosened against the summer heat.
Thin little leaves of wood fern, ribbed and toothed
Long curved sail needles of the green pitch pine,
With common sandgrass, skirt the horizon line,
And over these the incorruptible blue!
Her let me gently lie and softly view
All world asperities, lightly touched and smoothed
As by his gracious hand, the great Bestower.
What though the year be late? Some colors run
Yet through the day, some links of melody
Still let me be, by such, assuaged and soothed
And happier made, as when, our school day done,
We hunted on from flower to frosty flower,
Tattered and dim, the last red butterfly,
Or the old grasshopper, molasses-mouthed.
Hannah understood and commiserated with Eldridge’s nostalgia for the freedom and joy of his youth in nature. Lately she felt as if she were trapped in a box, miles and years away from her childhood in rural Vermont.
She sat and plucked the grass beside her, lost in thoughts of chasing butterflies and grasshoppers. She looked out to the east, where Craig waited impatiently for her to answer his text. The trees whispered behind her, and she looked over her shoulder. Just the wind, but her imaginative mind thought it had recognized words in the air. She suddenly felt the urge to leave the ridge and go into the woods, to search for the source.
She left the view and followed the trail that led deeper into the wooded hill. The brown leaves and pine needles of the past autumn crunched under her boots. Crows flapped and yelled somewhere ahead, drowning out the sweet whistle of the sparrows. The trail curved, the forest thickened with fern and laurel, and the canopy above closed against the bright spring sun. She stopped and listened. Wind like words in the gathering gloom. She stepped off the trail, waded through weeds and underbrush, found herself in a cloistered glen of cedar leaf and bark. Dim, still, silent.
Hannah stood in the center of this arboreal eye of stillness, listening to her breath. Something seemed to throb here beneath the earth, a heartbeat pulsing under her feet. She knelt and pressed her hand against the cold dirt. Nothing. Just a stone nearby, the size of golf ball, angular white quartz with veins of pink and gold. Pretty. She closed her hand around it, feeling its sharp edges. In the space of a blink, an image came unbidden to her mind–someone giving her the rock. A male hand placing it into her soft palm. Then it was gone.
Her phone rang into the silence, its vintage ring like a scream. She dropped the rock and answered it without thinking.
“Hey, you get my text?” Craig’s voice, travelling across the miles, pursuing her.
“Um, yeah, a few minutes ago. Aren’t you on rounds?” He was in the last month of his residency. They were to be married as soon as he finished, in the fall. And once she finished her thesis on Jonathan Mason Eldridge III.
“Had a minute, thought I’d check in. How’s the research going? The library there any help?”
“Haven’t been there yet. I’m at the tower, or near it, where he composed some of his sonnets.”
“Didn’t know you went there to go hiking,” he muttered. In her shocked pause, he continued, “Best get on it, love. Mother wants to go over dinner menus and the guest list.”
When she found her voice, she said, “Well, Mother is just going to have to wait.” She hung up and shut her phone off. Her hands trembled with her anger, and she rubbed them briskly against her thighs. She spied the stone she’d dropped, and picked it up. It glittered in her palm, strange and familiar at once. She slipped it into the front pocket of her jeans, where it seemed to emit a heat she couldn’t explain.
She looked around the glen, at its shadows and damp earthy corners. What am I doing here? She hurried away, scrambling through branches that whipped her as she passed, and followed the trail back to the ridge and light. She had work to do; it was time she got to it.
The River Valley Public Library was ridiculously small compared the vast caverns of the University library, but it had a section devoted to local notables, including Eldridge. Most of the books that surrounded Hannah at the table in the back didn’t tell her anything she already didn’t know: a true Romantic, his slim volume of sonnets featured nature and the individual’s subjective response to it, filtered through the lens of emotion and nostalgia. He studied law in Boston, but abandoned that vocation and his prominent family to come here to River Valley and write his poetry, build his greenhouse and raise a family with Annie, a native of the area and a merchant’s daughter. He had always been a bit of a recluse, but after Annie died giving birth to their third child, his grief drove him to further isolation. Over the years he’d had some contact with Tennyson and other notable poets of the time, who admired his work, but apart from the single volume published in 1860, his poetry never gained traction or a national audience.
Hannah hoped her thesis on the almost-famous poet would give him the attention he deserved. And open doors to a teaching career that seemed increasingly unpalatable to her.
The rock in her pocket had an almost magnetic affect on her. Her hand kept straying to it, distracting her from her reading. Every time her fingers closed on it, that familiar feeling intensified, and that flash of receiving it from that male hand blinked through her mind.
She tried to ignore it as she leafed through the old books, determined to find something new, an angle to Eldridge never considered before, another lens through which to view him.
She found a wedding photo of the poet and Annie, and peered at their serious faces. They looked as if they were embarking on a funeral procession rather than the beginning of their lives as man and wife. And yet, it was a serious business back then, matrimony and childbirth. Marriage was for life; once committed, there was no going back. And childbirth was a bloody undertaking–it could take life as well as give it, as Annie and Jonathan would find out, to their sorrow.
From what Hannah understood from the biographies, it was a love match. She focused on Annie’s face, looking for clues: did she have doubts? Was she afraid? Did she ever wish for other options? Or did her grave expression mask a sublime joy that a camera could never capture?
A bride-to-be was a skittery thing. Hannah wished she could see into Annie’s heart. Maybe it would help her discover what lived in her own.
The bed and breakfast stood at the foot of the hill where the tower was located. A refurbished Victorian building, it had small, narrow doorways, uneven floors, and charming gables. Hannah finished up a few notes on her laptop, then flopped on the bed and wondered if she should call Craig.
Checking her phone, she read the last few texts from him:
10:35-What the hell Hannah?
12:02-Are u getting cold feet? Is that it?
3:15-Look, I was tired. U know what this rotation does to me. And how Mother hounds me.
5:20-I’m sorry. I miss u. Call me.
In spite of herself, she felt a little sorry for him. She dialed his number.
Craig’s sleepy voice answered on the fourth ring. “Hey.”
“You were sleeping. Sorry, I should have known.”
“It’s okay.” He sighed. “Look, Hanny, I was a jerk. I’m sorry.”
“It’s all right.”
“It’s not all right. You have every right to be there. Your work is just important as mine.”
“Your mother doesn’t think so.”
He gave a little laugh. “Kitty thinks a wife is a diamond-studded platform for her husband to stand on.”
She smiled. For Craig, that was fairly poetic. “And what do you think a wife is?”
“A friend. A lover. A partner. Do you still want to be mine?”
“Of course I do. I love you.”
“I love you too, babe. Take as long as you need. Hike as many hills as you want. Channel Eldridge through those country air molecules, if you must. Mother can wait.”
She laughed, but there was some weird unease in it as she fingered the rock in her pocket, an unease she couldn’t explain. She promised Craig she’d call him tomorrow evening, then placed the rock on the bedside table. It gazed at her like some igneous eyeball, and it took her some time to fall asleep.
“Annie, come see what I brought you!”
“I’m working, darling.” She wished he wouldn’t shout. The children were napping, and once they awoke, she’d be called back to duty and away from the image that was just beginning to coalesce on the page. Her ink-stained fingers paused above the parchment, and she bristled a bit as her husband came bustling down the hallway. He had returned earlier than expected. She’d have to abandon the work for another day.
He peeked his head into her room and smiled that boyish grin that had so captured her heart. “It’ll take just a moment.”
She suppressed her sigh and smiled back at him, then put her finger to her lips to shush him.
He nodded and held out his hand. “Come see,” he said quietly.
She set down her pen and smoothed her skirts as she rose. He pulled her down the darkened hallway like an excited child to the sunny kitchen, where his overstuffed satchel sat on the tiled floor. He knelt and searched through it, carefully circumnavigating the stalks and sprigs of green that stuck out of it like wild hair. Specimens for the greenhouse, no doubt.
“Ah, here it is.” He stood and took her hand, and placed something hard and small into it. A white rock sparkled with veins of pink and gold in the sunlight. Not completely round, it was angular, with several sharp points.
“When I saw it, I thought of you,” he said. “Beautiful, but sharp. If you close your fist around it too tightly, it might cut you.” He met her eyes with his dark ones. “One can never fully possess such perfection.”
“Jonathan,” she murmured. He always did this to her. Any annoyance or resentment was instantly dissolved by his words, his touch, his shy smile.
He came closer, cupping her hands into his, careful not to press her skin too tightly against the stone. “Tell me our love will be as eternal as this rock.”
“I promise, love.” His lips were near, asking. She answered by pressing her own against them. Her body responded; she was nearly helpless against it. The children were still sleeping, Agnes, their housekeeper, was still at the market in town. Perhaps there was time…
His arms came up and around her as the kiss deepened. As he clutched her to him, her hands pressed against her chest. The rock, still in her palm, punctured her skin with one of its points, drawing blood.
Hannah woke with pain knifing into her hand.
Go here for Part 2 of Dark Fens of Cedar.