Excerpts for Springsweet


One

That I went a little mad, I could not deny.

Those endless months in mourning clothes saved me and destroyed me; I got used to my own silence and to the delicate passing of footsteps. No one invited me to tea or to dance. They didn't even ask me to speak over cold dinners; sometimes I had the pleasure of eating alone on the sideboard.

After two months, I should have packed away my black dress, remembering death with just a dark ribbon in my hair. After six months, I should have taken callers and started at the new girls' high school. But I didn't, and I wouldn't--I remained cloaked in ebony satin, my steps slow, as if taken through an ocean of dreams.

I woke, I slept, and I waited, endlessly waited, for my Thomas Rea, who would never call on me again.

After a year, my mother decided to rip down my black crêpe by force.

"They're your friends," Mama said, brisk as always. "So I sent your card out."

I think she meant for me to argue, but what argument could I make? I was neither widow nor wife.

Freshly seventeen, I should have had roses in my cheeks and laughter in my heart. I should have savored the dawn of spring. But then, I shouldn't have known, to the drop, how much blood could spill from a boy before he turned gray and breathed no more.

Mama flipped her dough, leaning into it hard to knead it. "You'll have Mattie and Victoria, and Grace if she's over that cold of hers. Hope she doesn't drag it in, anyway. She should know better."

Winding the paring knife round and round, I bared an apple's flesh. I had no reply.

"Thought I'd like to invite some badgers, too," Mama said, turning a gray look in my direction. "Maybe we'll strip to our corsets and have a parade in the park."

When I said nothing still, Mama made an ugly sound. Flipping the dough again, she banged from one end of the counter to the other. What she meant to do I couldn't imagine. So when she snatched her pine rolling pin and pounded the table in front of me, I jumped.

The knife bit into my thumb.

"Oh, duck," Mama said, her voice strained as she wrapped her apron around my hand. "What did you do that for?"

I shook my head, watching scarlet blossom through white muslin. I had no tears for this ridiculous little wound.

"You're alive," she said, squeezing until my hand throbbed. Lifting it above my head, she tugged me to my feet. How peculiar it seemed that she didn't tower over me anymore.

"You're alive, Zora Stewart," she repeated, catching my chin with her unencumbered hand. "And you have to be alive until your time comes."

Rolling my gaze round to hers, I opened my mouth. As if the creaking of a neglected hinge, my voice came out slow and croaking. "Do you know what I dream?"

"Tell me."

" Every night, I drown in fire," I said. Numb, my lips barely shaped my words. "Endlessly, Mama. I drown in it, and the sky is as wide as the sea."

Opening the hot tap, mama rinsed blood from my fingers. "There's neither heaven nor hell on this earth, but those you make."

"I made none of this."

"And yet you succumb."

Reclaiming my hand, I sat again. "Arrange something for me, then."

"Arrange it yourself," Mama replied. She leaned on the counter, rubbing dry hands drier on her apron. "You'll take callers this week."

Drawn by habit, I touched the locket at my throat. It held my remembrance of Thomas, a single curl of his hair closed in a silver shell. I had made all my arrangements, and none of them would ever happen. "I meant a match. A marriage. Just to have it done with."

Mama touched my chin, turning my face to hers. "One cage into another is no life at all."

But I had gone mad in those months. Just the littlest bit, and madness sometimes guises itself as reason. My fingers trailed from the locket, and likewise my gaze from Mama's. I took up my paring knife and apple, and made up my unsettled mind.

I would not dance, I decided. Go calling, play snapdragon, go riding in street cars--none of it. My merry days were over, my heart too broken to beat again. It was time to put away notions and games, childhood and hopes. My decision was made: I would be married.

But first, I needed counsel.

*

I walked down Fayette Street alone. I went in black, so no one bothered me--my destination was clear.

The Westminster Burial Ground sat in a small plot, penned on every side by a city growing in desperate gasps. I opened the iron gate and streamed away from the odd fellow standing there--one of the boys who appeared with cognac and two glasses: one for them, and one for Mr. Poe. They dissipated themselves intentionally, leaning against the stone of a drunk who'd died in a gutter, in the most literal sense.

I longed to throw rocks at them, to chase them away--to dare them to grieve just once over something real and then decide if it was romantic.

They, I think, considered me kindred. This one saw me and raised his glass. As if we could be the same--those fools who suffered intentionally, and I, who longed to sink into the ground with my love and sleep forevermore.

From my cloak, I pulled a horsehair brush and skimmed it across Thomas' marker. I cleaned the soft limestone until the carved hand that held his martyr's arrow stood out in perfect relief. I brushed the stone clean, until there could be no forgetting.

Guiltily, I polished his name, because I had begun to forget. When I clutched the locket round my throat, I couldn't remember whether the lock of his hair inside was more auburn or strawberry. I had an impression of his voice that had faded, as if called down a corridor.

The wind lifted, and speckled white petals fluttered around me, the gentlest snow. I murmured, "I'm thinking of sending away to be a farmer's wife, Thomas. In the Territories."

Quiet answered, but not silence. Instead of Thomas' voice, ships in the harbor cried their comings, their goings. Men worked nearby, singing as they laid mortar, and hoofbeats argued with the disconcerting hum of the streetcars.

"There are magazines full of them--widowers wanting a wife to raise their orphaned children."

From the corner of my eye, I saw Poe's Visitor finish his cup and set it on top of the stone--no doubt to leave it there. The dead did not drink; they certainly didn't ruin their own burying yard. Living men did that--careless ones. Damping my ire, I turned my attention to Thomas again.

"Is it a bad idea? I don't think you'd mind, but I just don't know." Sinking slowly to my knees, I leaned my forehead against the limestone. How queer it felt--warm as flesh in the places it basked in the sun, and cool as water in the shadows.

Only the roughness of the stone, already weathered, answered me. A slow tide of grief filled me; I murmured, "I wish you'd say. I wish you'd haunt me, Thomas. You're so still."

Someone approached from behind; I stiffened and drank up my tears.

"Miss?"

Turning, I lifted my face to Poe's Visitor. He was carelessly handsome, his coat unbuttoned. Ink spotted his sleeves, accusing black specks on the cuffs. He reminded me overmuch of an artist, or an actor--so caught in his own head he couldn't behave, even in a graveyard.

Coolly, I asked, "Can I help you?"

He offered his hand and a concerned look. "That's what I meant to ask you."

Trying to gather myself the way my mother did, I wanted to make myself full and great, such a wall that no one would trouble me. But my mother's voice wouldn't have quavered if she'd been the one to say " Thank you, no."

Glancing at the stone, he asked, "A friend?"

"Hardly!" I bristled, then stopped short.

What could I say? I felt like a widow, but I wasn't. To call Thomas friend lied about everything we ever were. Angry tears stung my eyes again, and I ducked around this intruder. I owed him no explanation.

"You shouldn't walk home alone," Poe's Visitor called after me, but he chose not to follow.

Stealing a glance as I hurried through the gate, I saw that he'd already turned away. Hands folded, he considered the headstone instead of me, his dark hair overlong and fingered by the wind. Standing beneath a flowering pear, he cut a fine figure. Tall and straight, broad of shoulder--plainly kind.

And yet I felt nothing. No curiosity about his name or his provenance, no desire to write him into a dance card or take his hand in a darkened garden.

That had to be Thomas' answer.

If I couldn't imagine a life with anyone else, then I had to give myself to good intentions and hard work. Mothering in Kansas or the Territories or anyplace but Baltimore, Maryland, would do.

*

"It's not as though I'm complaining," Mattie complained, trying to balance her teacup and saucer on her knees, "but I thought we might catch up a bit overtea, not newspapers."

Victoria turned a page and made a funny noise. "I can read and catch up at the same time."

My gloves abandoned, I stood at the table, poring over the newspaper I'd claimed for my own. "You know my particulars--I'm the same as I ever was. How are you?"

"Distractible," Mattie said. She leaned over her cup to implore me. "My silver toilette's gone all ragged at the hems. I wanted to wear it to the Sugarcane Ball, and now I can't."

"How distressing," I said as I ran my finger along the paper. Passing inquiries for nurses and teachers and clerks, I skipped to the bottom of the page and lit up when I finally found my particular heading:

SITUATIONS OFFERED

Slowly, I sank into my seat, reading through the listings. Miners and land grabbers and cattlemen--they'd traveled west to find their fortunes but had to write back east to find their wives. So many asked for a cooing dove, a docile lamb, a darling kitten, that I wondered if I'd stumbled on inquiries for a zoo.

Mattie raised her cup. "Are you going to come?"

"To what?" I asked.

"The Sugarcane Ball," Mattie said. She gave a suffering sigh. "Are you paying attention at all?"

"I hardly am, I admit."

Victoria laughed under her breath, then closed her paper with a flourish. Propping elbows on the table, she shrugged. "It's all miners in this one."

"That won't do," I said.

"Why not?" Mattie opened her fan. She hid all but her eyes behind it, flapping it lazily. Then, with a snap, she closed it again. It was all practice for the ball, though she didn't need it. Her startling blue eyes needed no frame to improve them.

"Miners are dirty," Victoria said. She hesitated, then reached for the next paper. "And poor."

Mattie furled the fan again. "They're goldminers, realize."

"It's gambling, realize."

"If it means a lovely house with running water upstairs and down, and a water closet,and a girl to come in every day, I have no philosophical objection to gambling," Mattie replied. She moved to snap her wrist, and I caught it. The rattle of fan bones had driven me to distraction.

"Just as like to end up in a shanty," I told her. "I'm looking for someone settled."

"Find someone here, at the ball," Mattie said. She turned her eyes up at me, making no move to reclaim her hand. Distinctly doll-like, she slid to the edge of her chair to plead. "Everyone's leaving me. Can't you stay?"

A scold flew to my lips. Our dear friends hadn't left us. Thomas and Sarah weren't traveling on holiday; Amelia and Nathaniel weren't simplyaway. These separations couldn't be cured with cards and reunions--they were dead. All dead: Thomas bled and Sarah poisoned; Nathaniel burned and Amelia fevered.

It was the last that broke me irreparably. Attending funeral upon funeral, and Caleb's disappearance before trial, was more than I wanted to bear. But bear it I did, thinking Mama would soon relent and bring Amelia back home to Baltimore. Instead, a letter came to my door rather than of my dearest friend.

Three spare lines in an unfamiliar hand informed us that Amelia had taken a fever on returning to Maine and expired forthwith. Her brother sent no memento; I had nothing but memories and despair. Thus, I commended myself to madness.

Our sixteenth summer lay buried--how could Mattie be so frivolous? Honestly, how could I? The delicate bubble of my amusement burst. Folding on myself, I turned to the papers still spread on the table.

"What good is any of this, I wonder?" I asked.

Wind washed over me, cool and almost wet with its freshness. But it was no balm; I panicked when I felt it. My mother's errands hadn't lasted nearly as long as I expected.

"Hurry," I said, scrambling to hide my papers and catalogs. "Put the cups and pot back on the table!"

"God save us from sailors! The harbor's teeming with them. Can't hardly go a step without . . ." Fingers poised at her temples, smoothing back loose curls, Mama narrowed her eyes at us. "This seems too precious by half."

I lifted my teacup, sipping at cold, sugared dregs. "You sent them my card, Mama. Of course, I invited them in."

Gliding into the parlor, Mama eyed the table, then smiled at Mattie, "How do you do, dear?"

"Very well, thank you," Mattie said, folding her hands neatly as doves in her lap. "It's been a lovely tea. I've even convinced Zora to come to the Sugarcane Ball."

Through gritted teeth, I said, "We had only considered it, Mattie."

Mama ignored the tone of my voice, refusing to see how stiffly I sat and the hard cut of my eyes. She heard what she wished to hear: I'd be a good girl again, worried about dresses and dances, the darkness of last summer finally put aside.

"Oh, Zora," Mama said, engulfing me in a powdery hug,

"I couldn't be happier!"

Over Mama's shoulder, I caught a glimpse of my oldest but least dear friend. Mattie shone with a silvery, pristine smile. She'd gotten her way. I would come out of mourning at the Sugarcane Ball--that she'd forced me meant nothing.


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