Go here for Part 4 of Dark Fens of Cedar.
She realized she was smiling. “I’m good. What else can I do for you?”
She spent the rest of the afternoon in the laundry room, washing and drying several loads, humming to herself, not minding the vomit-stained sheets and clothing. The work felt good, purposeful, grounding her in the moment.
Jack read to his mother, and when she fell asleep, he busied himself in the kitchen, making cold-meat sandwiches for them to eat on the back deck with cold glasses of Diet Coke. She talked about her favorite poets (besides Eldridge, there was Dickinson and Whitman); he pointed out and named various flowers and plants in the garden in the corner of the yard, along with their Latin names. The sun made their glasses sweat, the ice cubes melting and shifting in the bubbly liquid. She wished Jack’s mother wasn’t dying in this lush, glorious spring; she wished Annie’s life hadn’t been cut short during the act of giving birth. Death trailed life like a black dog, never letting you forget that bitter balance.
When Jack’s father came home in the twilit evening, Jack drove her back to the B&B, and her thread of unease returned.
“You’re sure you want me to stay?” he asked, when he parked in the gravel driveway.
“If you don’t want to, I understand–”
“No, I’d love to. I mean, if it will help. You’ve helped me so much today. I want to return the favor. Are you sure it’s…” He hesitated.
“Appropriate?” She waggled her left hand at him. “Don’t worry, I’m not engaged anymore.”
She got out of the car before he could ask any questions.
In her room, she pulled out the rock and put it back on the bedside table. If it was the cause of her dreaming about Annie, she might as well make sure it was front and center. It was only 7:30, and she wasn’t tired at all. Jack stood awkwardly in the middle of the room.
“Are you familiar with Eldridge’s poems?” she asked him, retrieving the small volume from her backpack.
“I’ve read a few of them, during the course of my work at the Historical Society. But I haven’t committed any to memory, or anything like that.”
She snorted. “Well, neither have I. They’re lovely, though. We could read some.”
She sat down on the floor and leaned against the bed. He sat cross-legged across from her.
Eldridge’s sonnets were lilting and lyrical, and as she read she went into a kind of trance. She’d often read them alone in her head, or sometimes out loud; but sharing them with someone else imparted a joy she rarely had a chance to experience.
Whenever she finished a poem, she’d look over at Jack, and he’d smile and say nothing. She appreciated that he didn’t feel the need to comment or analyze any of it. He simply absorbed the words and accepted them for what they were. After a while, she offered him the book, and he’d read a poem. They took turns like this, with only Eldridge’s words between them.
The last one he read was this one:
Dark fens of cedar, hemlock-branches gray
With trees and trail of mosses wringing-wet;
Beds of the black pitch-pine in dead leaves set
Whose wasted red has wasted to white away;
Remnants of rain and droppings of decay,-
Why hold ye so my heart, nor dimly let
Through your deep leaves the light of yesterday,
The faded glimmer of a sunshine set?
Is it that in your darkness, shut from strife,
The bread of tears becomes the bread of life?
Far from the roar of day, beneath your boughs
Fresh griefs beat tranquilly, and loves and vows
Grow green in your gray shadows, dearer far
Even than all lovely lights, and roses are?
When he finished, he didn’t look up. By the set of his mouth, Hannah could see he was working through his own grief. She took the book from him and closed it.
“He wrote that one after Annie died,” she said. “He didn’t write much more after that.”
He finally looked up at her. “Can’t top that, I guess.”
“He was really quite talented. It’s sad that no one knows him.”
“You’ll try to fix that with your thesis, right?”
She shrugged. “I’m not even sure if I’ll finish it now. How can I, knowing what I know about Annie, but not being able to prove it?”
“You’ll find it. Don’t give up.”
She nodded, and they were silent, lost in their own thoughts.
“I wonder what she wrote about.” He said it with the utmost conviction, never questioning her belief that Annie was a poet.
“He was of the air, and she was of the earth.”
He threw her a questioning look. “A line of Annie’s,” she said. Like a bubble suddenly surfacing. “She wrote about the only things she knew–her experience of being a woman. The messiness of it. Childbirth, blood, the body. Desire. Aspirations for more–all the things people weren’t supposed to talk about in polite society, all the things women certainly weren’t supposed to think about. She was far ahead of her time.”
After a thoughtful pause, he said, “Do you think Eldridge destroyed them? After she died?”
“The thought had crossed my mind.” It was entirely possible, in which case the world would never know about Annie’s poetry. And yet, Jonathan had been astonished at her brilliance. Could he really have destroyed his wife’s extraordinary work?
“Maybe we’ll find out,” he said. “When you go to sleep.”
“I’m a little afraid.” Her stomach roiled. “Okay, I’m a lot afraid.” Myths about dying while dreaming of death plagued her. What if she never woke up?
“I’ll be right here,” Jack said. “I’ll wake you if I think anything’s wrong. I promise.”
She couldn’t quite believe he was real. “Why don’t you think I’m crazy?”
“Because if you are, I am, too.” He couldn’t meet her eyes as he went on. “I’ve always felt weird up at the property, but with you here, it’s much stronger. I don’t understand it, I never have, but now that you’re here, I feel like I can try to make some sense of it. It’s like, I’ve been waiting for you to come here and show me.” His cheeks grew pink in that familiar way. “That sounds so stupid.” But he looked up and didn’t take his eyes off hers.
She wanted to kiss him. I have waited centuries for your touch. The words floated up from some deep churning sea within her.
There were so many prudent reasons, just now, not to kiss him. His mother was dying. She’d just broken off her engagement that very day. They’d just met two days ago. Maybe even more importantly, she knew a kiss would lead to more, and she was aware of the blood still seeping from her. She didn’t want to begin this budding thing between them with blood. She could wait a little longer.
“It’s not stupid. You’re right.” She broke their gaze and climbed up onto the bed. “I think I should go to sleep now and maybe get some answers for us.” She kicked off her shoes, and pulled the quilt at the end of the bed over herself.
“Should I shut the light off?” Jack asked.
“No, keep it on, please.”
He leaned against the side of the bed and picked up Eldridge’s book of poems. “I’ll be right here, Hannah.”
She closed her eyes, but sleep was slow in coming. She was nervous, but she was also aware of Jack’s presence, the rustling pages of the book, the rock resting on the bedside table, watching them like a glittering eye. She indulged in thoughts of plunging her hand into his thick dark hair, not far from her fingers on the mattress.
She floated up from the depths of her fever to see him kneeling beside the bed, his dark head face down in his arm at her side. She moved her fingers toward him, and it was like moving underwater. She plunged her fingers into his thick hair, and he instantly looked up with worried eyes.
“Annie!” He grasped her damp hand and brought it to his lips.
She tried to smile at him, but there was still pain; the flow of blood continued to soak the rag between her legs. But it was the absence in her belly that crushed her now. The girl she pushed out two days ago had been perfectly formed, though in miniature, blue with death. She’d insisted on holding her before the doctor wrapped her up and whisked her away. She’d been dry-eyed while Jonathan wept nearby. They’d named her Sarah. Even before the fever took hold, Annie knew she’d see her again before long.
Yesterday, she’d called for her children, though Jonathan would have shielded them from seeing her in a such a state. But she felt time slipping away from her, and she would see their sweet faces one more time.
Lizzie, barely two, wouldn’t understand and wouldn’t remember. Her strong, willful personality would probably get her into trouble someday, but she’d do all right. Annie had kissed her fat cheeks and let her go into Agnes’ arms. Silent tears fell from the housekeeper’s eyes.
Robert, at four and a half, sensitive and perceptive like his father, would remember her, just enough to be haunted by the vague nightmare of her death. He cried and clung to her, and she stroked and kissed him as her heart broke.
“You must help me now, my little man, and be strong for Papa. Can you do that for me?”
He’d sniffed and nodded, and she could see that he would live the rest of his life trying to follow that directive. A little sob escaped her as Agnes took the children from the room.
Now she looked at her disheveled husband, and she knew that her death would break him into pieces. There was only one thing she could do for him now.
“Jonathan, go fetch my poems.”
“Not now, my love. I don’t want to leave you.”
“Please.” She squeezed his hand in supplication. He capitulated and shuffled out of the room, returning a few minutes later with the stack of papers in his arms, a little haphazardly; they’d been hastily gathered and piled together after her collapse. He sat down next to her on the bed and set her work beside her.
The fireplace in the bedroom was blazing. She’d been shivering uncontrollably, despite the fever. On the bedside table beside her, the rock he had given her gleamed in the firelight.
“Shall I read them to you?” Jonathan asked, reaching for the first page in the pile.
She put her hand on his to stop him. “No. Put them in the fire.”
He stared at her, then shook his head. “No. No I will not.”
“Listen to me. I was selfish, I see that now. If anyone discovers these poems, they’ll ruin you. You know it. You must destroy them.”
He was still shaking his head, but she could see the struggle inside him. He did know. “Annie…”
“Please Jonathan, do this for me. Letting them go is the only thing I can do for you now.”
The dim light of the room shone in the tears in his eyes. “You’re not going to die.”
She managed to smile after all. “Then I’ll write them again. They’re all up here.” She pointed to her head, which seemed to be swimming in a vast ocean, deep and limitless. Her smile faded. “The world’s not ready for them, my love. I hope someday it will be. Someone else will find the words again. I’m ready to let them go.” She was nearly ready to let everything go; she just needed to see the words burn first. “Please. For me, if not for you.”
He spent several minutes wiping his eyes. Then he sighed and got to his feet heavily, pulling the stack of papers with him. He looked at her one more time, and she nodded, lifting her arm with great effort toward the fireplace.
He knelt before the flames. He sat there for a long time, and she thought maybe he wouldn’t do it. Finally, he lifted the first page, and after a brief hesitation, threw it into the fire.
She exhaled, with relief and sorrow both, and watched as he continued to thrust the papers into the hungry flames, slowly at first, and then faster and faster, wanting perhaps to get it over with quickly.
With each group of words that burned, she felt herself getting lighter and lighter, as if they’d anchored her to the earth, to life, and now she was being set free. Her husband looked very far away now, down a long corridor that lengthened and grew dim. His voice echoed as he turned and said, “It’s done.”
It was done. She was done. She could let it all go now. She wanted to tell Jonathan that everything was all right now, but the corridor was getting narrower, dimmer; he was as distant as a shining star she wanted to reach out and touch. She had to let him go, too.
She wasn’t sure if she closed her eyes, or if darkness enveloped her completely. She was afraid, but also curious to see what came next.
Hannah opened her eyes. Someone was shaking her.
“Annie! Annie, please. Please don’t leave me!”
Jack was sobbing beside her, his face contorted, his eyes seeing but not seeing her. His fingers dug painfully into her arms.
She struggled to sit up. “Jack, it’s okay. It’s me. It’s Hannah.” She cupped his face in her hands, made him look into her eyes. “I’m all right. It’s Hannah, I’m here.”
“Hannah?” Recognition dawned, and anguish faded away into confusion. “What’s happening? I don’t…I don’t understand what’s happening.”
Tears still leaked from his eyes, and she wiped them away. “Did you fall asleep?”
His hand shook as he passed it over his face. “I think so.” He looked around the room, remembering. “I read Eldridge’s poems for a while. You were asleep. I got up and sat next to you on the bed, just watching you. I must have fallen asleep, and then…then…”
“You were with me, weren’t you? In the–dream–or whatever it was.”
His head was in his hands, and he didn’t reply.
“Jack,” she said, “You were there in the room. When Annie was dying. You were Jonathan.”
He raised his head, his eyes haunted. “I knelt by the bed. I knew you were–” He corrected himself. “I knew Annie was dying. She looked like a ghost, pale and feverish. She wanted me to–to put the poems in the fire. I didn’t want to. I swear, I didn’t want to, but she–”
His face spasmed again, and Hannah gathered him in her arms, and they wept together for a while. They wept for Annie, and for Jonathan, for their children and the poems they burned. They remained like that long after their tears dried, silent and motionless, sinking into the embrace.
A dull light crept through the curtains, and a soft rain pattered against the windows. When he began to kiss her neck, she didn’t stop him; she opened herself to him completely. Neither of them cared about the bit of blood she was shedding. Blood had bound them together, and blood had torn them apart. Let it bind them together once again.
After, quietly entangled, they listened to the rain. After a while he said, “So the poems are gone. The world will never know about Annie’s work.”
Her head rested on his shoulder; she leaned up on an elbow now to look at him. “Maybe it will.”
“What do you mean?” His finger traced the line of her eyebrows.
“There are words in my head, Jack. Words that are just beginning to float up from somewhere inside me. Maybe here, in this place, they can see the light of day.”
She thought for a moment. “Annie’s or Hannah’s, it doesn’t matter. It’s their time to live.”
“So…are you saying you’ll stay here? With me?”
She answered him with a kiss. She’d come here to River Valley looking for something: a thesis, a poet, a future, an escape. What she found instead was herself, and the fulfillment of a longing she never knew she had.
The sun was brilliant, the air mild with a light wind. He found the perfection of the day outrageous, blithely ignorant of his pain. The world should have stopped, the sun dimmed, in recognition of his loss. But they hadn’t.
He trod his usual paths along the ridge, but the familiar trees, the hulking boulders like old friends, brought him no relief.
He wandered off the path into the thick underbrush, pushed past laurel and juniper, flattened the ferns that ran profligate here, into the dim, damp, interior of the forest. The canopy here was so thickly interlaced he could escape the hurtful, bright beams of the day.
He sat on a damp rotting log and listened. Past the pain, past the echoes of the howling in his heart, there were words. Her words, hot and full of passion and anger, scalding the soul, as if her pen had been on fire as she wrote them, spilling out and burning into the paper. Her rage had shocked him, and hurt him, too. But he understood it, and there had also been love, and tenderness, and a keen desire that even now brought him to his knees.
He put his head in his hands and let the storm of her words pass through him, wreck and brand him, until they passed out of him like smoke, as when they burned in the fire the day she died.
When the smoke cleared and he raised his head, he found there were still some words left: his own. He pulled his notebook out of his sack, sharpened his pencil with his whittling knife, and began. His words were as they’d always been–quiet, steady, rhythmic and intense. He spun out a song of this glade, and the grief he could covet and nurture here, never to be disturbed or evaporated by the light of the sun, but sealed and protected by the bubble of its dark isolation.
By the time he was done it had grown so dark he could barely see the words on the paper. He closed the notebook and put it away. It would be his last poem. There was nothing left.
He reached deeper into the sack and brought out the sharp, sparkling rock he’d brought her that day, when life had been full and free of this agonizing absence. He closed his fingers around it, squeezing with the herculean strength of his grief. Pain lanced through his hand in hot currents, and he held it inside himself as long as he could, wincing. When he opened his fingers, like a flower opening, blood bloomed; the rock’s shine was dimmed with it.
“Forever, my love.” He threw the rock into the gloom; he heard its thud somewhere in the shadows before him. His hand hung beside him, unheeded, as droplets of blood fell onto the damp earth.
Jack opened his eyes. It took him a moment to come out of the glade and remember where he was. Who he was.
He looked over at Hannah sleeping beside him. Her face was peaceful, her dreams now free of Annie’s life. Already she was precious to him, and he marveled. Forces he didn’t understand caused them to find one another. He supposed it worked that way all the time–it seemed a miracle that anyone found each other at all, among the multitudes, in the chaos between birth and death. It gave him hope for other miracles.
He passed a hand through her hair. She opened her eyes sleepily and smiled at him. “Everything okay?”
“Perfect.” He looked beyond her at the rock on the bedside table. “But I think there’s something we should do.”
She led him past the tower, off the path to the glade she’d found as if by accident. She held Jack’s hand and pulled him through the foliage, though he seemed to know the way already.
A dark enclosure, shielded from the sun, always damp, soaked with sorrow. They stood in the middle of it with interlaced fingers, the ground itself palpable with grief. She let go of his hand and took the rock out of her pocket. They gazed at it together for a moment, and then she held it out to him.
He took it, hefted it in his palm, and raised his arm as if to throw. She put a hand out to stop him.
“Maybe we should bury it.”
He nodded, and they both knelt on the cool ground, strewn with a carpet of brown pine needles and oak leaves. He brushed it all away as she found a stick to dig. In a few minutes they had a hole several inches deep, and he dropped the rock inside it. She pushed the dirt back over it and patted it firmly in place. They covered it again with pine needles and leaves, solemn, wordless.
It felt like a funeral, and she supposed it was. Jonathan and Annie were gone; they had been for a long time. It was time for Jack and Hannah to bury the grief once and for all, and put them to rest.
They came out of the glade together, into the sunlight.