Go here for Part 1 of Dark Fens of Cedar.
Hannah woke with the pain knifing through her hand. She sat up in the early morning darkness of her room in the B&B, straining to see her trembling hand before her. There was no blood, no wound, but the ache of it remained.
The dream had been so vivid, so real. She remembered the poet’s lips on her own, felt the rock in her hand as it cut her flesh. Her flesh. She’d dreamed she was Annie Eldridge. She laughed shakily. She’d been working on this thesis for nearly a year now. Perhaps she was getting too involved with her subject. Her brain was mixing up the rock with her research and her new interest in Annie, along with her fear (yes, she admitted it to herself) of becoming a wife.
It was only when she was soaping up in the shower that it occurred to her: in the dream, Annie had been writing before she was interrupted by Jonathan. Writing what? She said she’d been “working”. It didn’t mean anything, of course. It was just a dream. But what if…?
None of the books she’d encountered or any online research suggested that Annie had been a writer or poet. Never a whisper of it. By all accounts, Annie had been the supporting, loving wife and muse to Jonathan Mason Eldridge III. Her death had sent him into spirals of grief, a sort of permanent mourning that caused him to withdraw from public life, which had always been tenuous, at best.
The library had nothing left to offer her. The librarian suggested there may be some source material on Eldridge at the River Valley Historical Society, just a few blocks away. Hannah walked down the residential streets that bloomed with lilac and flowering dogwood, inhaling their scent on the warm breeze and trying to understand the excitement that buzzed in her belly, that odd sense of familiarity that tapped on her shoulder as she approached the brick-red Victorian style building.
The door held a simple sign that read River Valley Historical Society. She wasn’t sure if she should knock or just open the door and go in. She shrugged and turned the knob. The heavy door opened with a slight creak, into a darkened hallway that ran straight through to the other side of the building. Doorways to other rooms ran along either side of it, spilling light into the shadowy corridor. Immediately to her right was a staircase leading to an upper level.
“Hello?” she called into the quiet.
A stirring down the hallway, and then a head emerged from one of the doorways.
“Um, yes, hello, can I help you?” A young man, with slightly disheveled dark hair and wire rim glasses, stood half-in, half-out of the room, holding rolled up scrolls that he held to his sweater-vested chest like an armful of kittens.
“I was wondering if you had any information here on an nineteenth-century local poet, Jonathan Mason Eldridge? Do you know him?”
“Oh, Eldridge, yes, of course.” He pushed his glasses up on the bridge of his nose while awkwardly holding the scrolls. “Just let me, um..”
“Let me help you.” Hannah approached him and took a few scrolls from him.
“Thank you.” He flashed her a smile that reminded her of Eldridge’s grin at Annie in the dream last night. It disoriented her a little, but then she was following him into the room whose door was labeled “Map Room”.
He emptied the scrolls onto a large mahogany desk near the window, and so she placed her few scrolls there as well. The room was filled with cabinets and chests of drawers, and a few glass cases where some very old maps were displayed.
“I was just re-cataloging and re-assigning,” he explained apologetically, as if she was about to scold him for it. “Some of these items haven’t been touched in years.”
They stood regarding each other for a few moments, and she was about to speak when he clapped his hands together.
“So, Eldridge! What kind of information are you looking for, exactly?”
“Well, I’m not sure, really. I’m writing my graduate thesis on him, and the local library doesn’t have anything new to offer. I thought you might have something a little more personal, like journals or letters?”
“Sure, we’ve got a few things like that. Let’s go to the Eldridge Room and take a look.”
“You have an Eldridge Room?”
He smiled that oddly familiar grin again. “Most famous poet in town. Have you been to the tower?” He led her out of the room and up the darkened, winding stairs to the upper rooms.
“Yes. It’s a wonderful view.”
“Especially this time of year. I go up there myself now and again, just to sit a bit and think about things.” It was too dim to see if he blushed, but he sounded embarrassed by his words. “Here we are,” he said briskly, ushering her into a smaller room just at the top of the stairs.
Its door indeed said “Eldridge Room”, and held some Victorian period chairs and tables. Some landscapes by Turner lined the walls, as well as a portrait of Eldridge himself. Some smaller, grainier photographs of the poet, Annie and their children, Robert and Elizabeth, decorated the wall near the lace curtained windows. The third child had died with Annie, and was posthumously named Sarah. A bookshelf held various editions of the poet’s work and several biographies she’d already read. A display case beneath glass chronicled the building of the stone tower in 1912, which replaced the earlier wooden structure erected in 1895 that had been destroyed by fire.
“Over here we have a few original manuscripts,” her guide said, gesturing toward another display on the other side of the room.
Hannah leaned over the glass to see some handwritten drafts of Eldridge’s poems. She’d seen a few facsimiles of his writing before, but what she was looking for now was a sample of Annie’s writing. She seemed to remember an elongated and looping script from her dream. If she could somehow match it to an actual piece of writing from Annie–well, what would that prove? It was just a dream. But she felt there was something deeper at work here. If she found a match, that meant she somehow knew what Annie’s handwriting looked like. And that Annie had been writing something more than recipes or grocery lists.
“Do you have anything of Annie’s?” she asked. “Letters, lists, anything with her writing?” Even though the dream was blurry, and she couldn’t remember any specific words, Hannah felt sure she would recognize the writing itself.
“The wife? I think so.” He wandered over to the bookshelf. “There are no surviving letters or such that I know about, but she wrote something in one of her husband’s books. A personal note or dedication, I think.” He pulled a big, leather-bound book off the shelf and brought it over to a small writing table near the window. Flora and Fauna of Northeast America, second edition, 1850. He opened the book carefully, and pointed to an inscription on the inside cover:
To my dearest Jonathan–so you may name the birds and beasts of your beloved home. May your rustic wanderings bear fruit in the knowing. Your Annie.
Hannah peered closely at the writing. She couldn’t be sure, of course. This was all based on a dream. But she thought–perhaps somehow she even knew–this was the writing she’d seen in the dream.
“Does that help you at all?” The young man’s voice pulled her out of her reverie.
“Yes, thank you.” She leafed distractedly through the book. Beautiful color illustrations of native birds, trees, flowers, bugs, reptiles and small mammals of New England popped out from the delicate pages.
“I understand he cherished this book,” her guide said.
“Hmmm,” she replied, closing the book. “Nothing else of Annie’s?”
“Not that I know of. Is your thesis on Annie, rather than the poet?”
“Both, really,” she said, and with the words, knew it was now true. Wherever her thesis had been going before, it was going in a different direction now. Annie had to be a part of it, although in what capacity, she wasn’t sure yet. She was operating on a hunch, a feeling. A dream.
“Well, I’ll leave you to it. If there’s anything I can help you with, I’ll be downstairs in the Map Room. Re-cataloging.”
“And re-assigning.” She smiled at him as he blushed. “My name is Hannah, by the way.” She held out her hand.
“Thank you, Jack.” She noticed incongruent half-circles of dirt underneath his fingernails as he shook her hand.
When he left, she puttered around the room, read the displays, flipped through the books on the shelf. There was really nothing here that could be of use to her. She looked again at the inscription in the leather-bound book, willing words to form themselves in her mind, words written by Annie in her dream, in this handwriting. She had known them in her dream–a captured image–she had been Annie, after all–but they had slipped away upon waking.
She stood in front of the wall of photographs, studying the faces of the Eldridge family. The boy, Robert, looked to be about three years old, and the girl, Elizabeth, was barely out of infancy. Annie had died giving birth to Sarah in 1857; the photo was dated in the same year. The child was inside her when the photo was taken.
Hannah tried to picture herself in a similar family photo with Craig, with more color and smiles. She tried to picture herself as a mother, wiping runny noses, calming screaming babies, changing diapers, of incubating a human being inside her own body. She and Craig had talked about having children. Or rather, Craig had talked enthusiastically about it, as if it were a foregone conclusion, and she had nodded, and said, yes, when we’re done with school, when we’re settled in our careers, when we have a house in a nice suburb. After her first book of poems was published…always after some milestone was met, some future date when everything was perfect and the time was right. Inevitably, a deep maternal need would wash over her, and the yearning to be a mother would override anything else in her life. Wouldn’t it?
Of course it would. She and Craig would be happy and successful, she’d be the mother of his children and they’d live in a big, beautiful home.
A thought occurred to her, and she sought Jack in the Map Room. She found stacks of folders and a few open drawers, but he wasn’t there. She poked her head into every room along the corridor, but couldn’t find him. She was about to check the other rooms upstairs when a rustling outside, beyond an open window in the nearest room, caught her attention.
She followed the sound out the front door, around a corner of the building, to find Jack on his knees near a bed of tulips. He was pulling weeds, and watering the blooms with a green watering can. The sun glinted off the drops as they fell upon the bright petals.
He glanced up as she approached and set the watering can on the soft grass. As he stood, he brushed his pants self-consciously.
“Oh, um, hello again, can I help you?”
His awkwardness was endearing; she was used to Craig’s confidence and bold manner. “Are you the gardener, too?”
His cheeks pinked in another blush. “I like to tinker around in the garden.”
“They’re beautiful.” Tulips always reminded her of some lollipop garden in a Willy Wonka fantasyland. She knew nothing of plants or gardens. She and Craig would have to hire a gardener for that big lovely house they were going to live in.
Which reminded her of her question. “Do you happen to know where Eldridge and his family lived here in town? Is their house still standing?”
“Yeah, I mean, the house is long gone, but I know where it used to be. I could show you. If you want.”
“Is it very far? I’m on foot, unless you have a car.” She’d taken the train in from Boston, on a newly open line that went straight through River Valley.
“It’s only about a fifteen minute walk from here. I can show you, if you want,” he said again.
“Okay, that’d be great.”
“Just let me lock up.” He went around to the front door and locked it from the inside, then pulled out a sign that read “Back at” with a picture of a clock and moving red hands. He moved the hands until they read 12:30, and looped the sign around the door knob.
“I’ll just take my lunch break early.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, I don’t want to take up your break time–”
“No, it’s fine. I usually just take a walk anyway, buy a sandwich at the Korner Kitchenette.”
“If you’re sure.”
“Absolutely. I haven’t been up that way for a while. It’ll be nice.” Despite his words, his smile seemed forced. She followed him out onto the sidewalk.
He led her along a few quiet residential streets, until they came to the town’s Main Street, which was beginning to buzz with lunchtime traffic.
“How long have you lived in River Valley?” she asked, trying to make polite conversation.
“Born and raised,” he replied, not quite making eye contact, as if he was embarrassed at his answer.
“It’s a nice little town,” she said, attempting to put him at ease for some reason. It reminded her of her hometown in Vermont, though River Valley was a bit bigger, busier. She couldn’t imagine having never left it. She had counted down the days to her high school graduation, and left for Boston practically the next day for a summer job on campus.
“It’s actually considered a city now,” Jack said. “The charter was changed a few years ago.”
“City, huh? Eldridge would turn over in his grave at the idea.”
“I suppose he would.”
They climbed a hill leading away from the center of town, to a road that led to the tower. Her B&B was just down a side road from where they were. They passed the tower road, crested the hill, and walked down a wooded, dead-end gravel lane that held several upscale homes that looked out over River Valley. The lane terminated in a loop that sent the traveler back from where they came. Beyond the loop stood a small, empty field that also looked out over the town. Or city, rather, with its small conglomeration of schools, hospital, steepled churches, and businesses. Past the town were squares of fields and farms.
“Well, here it is,” Jack announced, stopping and surveying the plot and its view, shading his eyes against the midday glare.
Hannah took a few steps forward, taking it all in. Here, Jonathan and Annie had lived and loved and died; children had been birthed and poetry had been written. Now, there was nothing but the wind through the sparse trees where birds sang and crickets chirped. Perhaps Eldridge would have liked it that way.
“What happened to the house?” She could just make out the buried foundation stones beneath the wind-blown grass.
“Fire, long after Eldridge died. The house was empty, the children had gone to live with family in Boston by then.”
“Who owns the property now?”
“A charitable trust, I think. Eldridge’s family had no use or interest in it. It’s remained empty ever since.”
Hannah walked in further, and after a few moments, Jack followed her. Besides the weedy suggestion of the foundation, no trace of the house remained. A sadness overcame her, at the impermanence of things, of lives reduced to history lessons, of foundations buried in the dirt. She wasn’t sure where this melancholy came from, or the sudden tears that welled in her eyes.
“Are you okay?” Jack asked beside her, a hand reaching out, not quite touching her.
She hastily wiped the tears away, embarrassed, surprised, and not a little confused. “God, I’m sorry, I don’t know where that came from.” She laughed, but it sounded forced even in her own ears. “I guess I’m a little sentimental about my subject.”
“No, I totally get it. I mean, sometimes when I come up here, I feel it, too.” He looked around, at the whispering trees, the weedy grass, the clouds scudding across the blue expanse of sky. “Kind of like…not ghosts, exactly…like the presence of memories I can’t remember.”
She felt the truth of his words, and wondered at it.
He tore his eyes away from the horizon and found hers. A question formed in his countenance, and then he shook his head, as if to clear it. He shrugged in his sheepish way. “Do you want to get a coffee or something?”
Go here for Part 3 of Dark Fens of Cedar.