Go here for Part 2 of Dark Fens of Cedar.
“Do you want to get a coffee or something?”
The Korner Kitchenette was on the town’s Main Street, with vinyl-covered booths and a few round stools surrounding a curved counter. Old-fashioned signs hung on the walls, advertising hamburgers for ten cents, and hot fudge sundaes for twenty-five cents. Vintage signs for Moxie soda and Hershey’s syrup rounded out the decor; the actual kitchen was not a separate room, but a grill and other equipment squeezed into a corner, where the customers could see their food being prepared.
Hannah and Jack sat at the curved counter on their stools amid the lunchtime chatter and the sizzle of burgers spattering on the grill. Hannah stirred cream into her coffee while Jack bit into his Reuben sandwich. She’d ordered a grilled blueberry muffin, but didn’t have much of an appetite just now.
Part of her wanted to talk about that weird, shared moment at the property. Instead, she asked him, “Haven’t you ever wanted to leave River Valley, see other places?”
He finished chewing and put down his sandwich. Wiping grease from his fingers on a napkin, he said, “I went to UMass and got my degree in botany. I planned on getting my graduate degree at Oregon State, maybe go into research or teaching.” He fingered the stale chips on his plate. “My mom got sick, so I stayed here to help my dad. He’s a history teacher at the community college, and runs the Historical Society on the side. He’s been so busy with Mom’s chemo appointments, I’ve pretty much taken it over for him.”
“I’m so sorry.” She felt like a jerk. “I didn’t mean to imply…”She trailed off.
He stirred the ice in his water glass with his straw. “It’s okay. The longer I stay here, the more I like it. You know how when you’re a teenager, you’re just burning to get away? Anywhere, so long as you don’t become your parents? Settled and boring, the same thing everyday, walking through their lives as if they’re already dead?”
She nodded, remembering her own urgent need to leave her hometown. Her father coming home tired and dusty from the shop, her mother weary and redolent of the various aromas of the school cafeteria, her hairnet holding back premature gray hair. She wasn’t going to end up like them, or the other girls from her high school who got pregnant to try to hold onto their moron boyfriends.
Jack went on. “And then for one reason or another, you end up staying, and after a while it doesn’t seem so bad, and you just wish your mother would stay alive, you know, just for a little while longer.” He took another bite of his sandwich.
She didn’t know what to say, so she just sipped her coffee, and watched the people of River Valley walk by the large glass window in the sunlight, intent on their lunchtime errands.
“What about you?” he asked. “Where are you studying?”
“Amazing city. Good hospitals. We brought Mom to Dana-Farber a few months ago.”
“My fiance is a doctor at Mass General.”
“Really? That’s great.”
“We’re supposed to get married in the fall. After his residency.” She wasn’t sure why she was telling him these things. Maybe it was because he had shared the personal information about his mother. She didn’t know, but the words came of their own accord.
“Oh, wow,” he said. “Fall is a beautiful time to get married. Unless it rains. But I suppose rain would ruin any wedding, at any time of year.”
“I don’t want to marry him.” The words fell from her lips, the few loose stones before an avalanche.
His sandwich stopped halfway to his mouth. “Oh.”
“I can’t bear the thought of it.” And for the second time that day, tears welled in front of this kind stranger.
It was his time to be silent, as he watched her struggle to regain her composure. Her first instinct was to apologize, brush it off, and change the subject. But she didn’t. Here, in this town where no one knew her, where odd rocks called to her and gave rise to unsettling dreams, she spoke the truth.
“I thought it was what I wanted,” she said, sniffling and stirring her coffee, round and round. “To break free of where I came from and rise above it. To be a teacher, a doctor’s wife, to raise kids in that big, beautiful house in the suburbs. I thought that’s what I wanted to be. But that’s some other woman’s dream.”
Jack handed her a napkin. “What’s your dream, Hannah?”
She wiped her eyes and blew her nose before answering, then smiled at him. “Poetry.”
Jack walked her back to the B&B, and shuffled his feet at the door.
“I’m at the Historical Society most of the time during the week. If you need any more help.”
Hannah watched him from the front window, as he walked back to his cataloging with his hands in the front pockets of his jeans. Then she went to her room, got out her notebook, and wrote.
Not her thesis. She wrote some verses about a wild place haunted by memories, about burnt coffee in a retro diner, about a shy young man with dirt under his fingernails. She wrote the entire afternoon, and didn’t feel any guilt or particular urgency concerning her thesis.
When Craig called that evening, she let it ring. She would have to tell him, of course. Not now, not tonight. She rested on the bed and stared at the rock on her bedside table. She felt pleasantly drained after the afternoon’s work, satisfied and calm. She didn’t want to spoil it with a painful conversation with Craig. She closed her eyes.
The candles were lit, the children were finally sleeping, and Jonathan was working intently in his study. Annie hated to interrupt him while he was writing–she knew what that was like–but she thought it was time she showed him. In the morning, he’d be gone with the dawn, exploring and foraging, and she’d be elbow-deep in flour, baking the day’s bread with Agnes.
The child wriggled inside her as she approached the door, as if sensing her apprehension. She rubbed her swelling belly, as much to calm herself as the baby. She held the bound, loose pages under her other arm as she knocked quietly. She opened it before he answered and stood in the doorway.
“Jonathan? May I come in for a moment?”
He held up a hand as he continued to write with the other, finishing his thought before it fled like a startled bird. At any other time, he reminded her of a boy, with his shy smile, his excitement at showing her a new specimen for the greenhouse, his trembling caresses in the darkness of their bedroom. But with the pen in his hand, he was at his most solemn; his intensity frightened her sometimes. What came out of his pen could only be called sublime.
The line finished, he looked over his shoulder, as if waking from a dream.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “but I wanted to talk to you about something, something important.”
“Of course.” He took a deep breath and sat up straighter, gesturing for her to sit in the other chair next to the desk.
She lowered herself carefully, and then placed the bundled pages on the desk. “I believe it’s done.”
He raised an eyebrow. “You’re ready to show me?”
“Yes.” She’d been working on the poems since before the child took life within her. She hadn’t wanted to show him until they were done, lest she be influenced by any criticism he might mete out. His opinion was immensely important to her, and yet she knew he thought her writing as mere “womanly jottings”. Her heart beat with trepidation, and the child seemed to still with tense anxiety.
“It couldn’t wait until tomorrow?” he asked lightly, not wanting to wound, but irritated at having been interrupted for the sake of her lesser work.
“No,” she snapped, and then softening, she said, “Please, Jonathan.”
“All right,” he said, seeing her distress. He pulled the bundle closer and undid the strings of the binding.
She sat in an agony of suspense as she watched him take up the pages and read. At first his face was a mask of patronizing toleration. As his eyes moved over the lines and down the page, his expression changed to one of confusion and surprise. His brows knit together and the lines of his forehead only deepened as he continued; each page he finished was turned with an astonished impatience.
Annie perched on the edge of her chair, rubbing her belly, waiting. Finally, before he was even halfway through the bundle, he looked up at her, his eyes searching hers.
“You wrote these?”
“Of course I wrote them. You saw me writing them.”
“Annie, these are…well, they’re extraordinary. I’ve never seen anything like them.”
The tension drained from her, and she allowed herself to smile at him. But he’d already gone back to the poems. Despite his words, his countenance seemed troubled as he read them.
“I understand they don’t have any recognizable form,” she said, feeling the need to explain. “I just wanted to free myself from traditional constraints and…well, see where my mind took me.”
“Indeed.” He continued to read, his knuckles pressed to his lips.
“What’s wrong? There’s something you want to say, isn’t there? Please say it, Jonathan. I want your honesty.”
He dropped the pages to the table and turned to her. “Annie, what you have written here…it’s brilliant. There’s no other word to describe it. But…”
“Yes?” The child kicked, painfully.
“Well, besides having no form–that, in itself, is rather unheard of–the subject matter, though undeniably powerful, is quite…intimate.”
“I simply wrote from my experience as a woman. Is that no less authentic than your own?”
He leaned toward her and took her hand. “Of course, darling. I’ve already said that I think they’re brilliant. Truly. And yet–matrimony, childbirth, and–” he cleared his throat–“physical desire. These things are, as I said, quite intimate and private, and perhaps–well, perhaps not a proper subject for poetry.”
She withdrew her hand from his. “What would you have me write about? The hills and valleys I’m not allowed to roam? The trees I’m not allowed to climb? The wider world I can’t participate in? The very stars I can’t reach, nor even see for the permanent roof over my head?”
He tried to reach for her hand. “Annie…”
She pulled away from him, wrapped her arms around her burgeoning belly. The child writhed inside her, agitated, as she was. “This is my reality–within these walls, within this body. I have nothing else to give, nothing else to offer the world.”
He made an impatient gesture. “Why must you offer anything to the world? Why can’t you just be my wife?”
She could see that he regretted the words as soon as they were out of his mouth, but she was still speechless with rage. She stood and gathered the loose pages from the table, pressed the bundle to her chest and headed for the door.
“Annie, please. Wait.” He stood and reached out for her, his hand coming to clasp her arm.
She wrenched free of him with a violence she never knew she had; it had only simmered in the words she had scratched onto the pages in her arms, pages that now fell loose and fluttered to the floor in a messy heap.
“Look what you’ve done!” She knelt heavily and began picking up the pages, until a sharp pain in her belly took her breath away.
Jonathan crouched next to her. “Annie, please calm yourself. The baby.” He kept his voice steady, but there was fear in it, too.
“I’m all right,” she said, but another band of pain squeezed her abdomen, and she groaned. A warm gush between her legs signaled that she was not all right. She let the pages fall from her hands as she clutched her husband’s arm.
“Get the doctor. Oh god, hurry!”
Go here for Part 4 of Dark Fens of Cedar.