Collection about surviving partner of civil union, and conflict with partner's sister
Marjorie Whittingham came slowly down stairs, running her hand unbelievingly over the smooth wood; so polished and smooth it had a quality of softness added in, somehow. But then, almost everything these days... Softening into image, disjointed, abstract —
She trailed her wrist briefly along the polished chestnut curves, rolling it over that knurl at the end. Maggie had been proudest of all of that intricacy taking shape under her patient — gods, there was that WORD again... The burl. That burl had been there from the beginning, shaped into the wood by a lifetime of growing, but also of growing around an irritant, a wrongness that the tree took into itself and slowly accomodated to, an oyster-sand grain. This banister had curves to match the tree. The great tree anchoring their woodlot border to the backyard, the tree that had wrapped itself halfway around itself in its struggle for desperate light, for breath, for light the breath of trees... She frowned, focused on details. Anything to help bring her mind out of this haze! The height; the solid bulk of trunk wavering, the roast coffee smell as Mag guided her chainsaw smoothly into the wood; Mag sanding and polishing, shaping for daylong hours away from her but solid and present in the sounds and smells, her voice thrumming old funk tunes in the cellar dim; the all things past. Her gaze froze into the mother-of-pearl spiral twisting around the grainy wood at eye level in the newel post. She pressed her teeth together, stepped down off the last riser onto green plush with dim voices from the kitchen ahead troubling her ears.
Her bare toes dug into the carpet, whimpering. Mag and Marj. The shining ones. The everlasting... She rolled her toes as she'd rolled her wrist, as the hospital blanket had rolled through her fingers, as her ankle rolled starting forward again. She could hear them clearer now, rattling dishes and pleasantries in the kitchen two hall-lengths and a bend ahead. Andrea's voice over everything, of course.1 Andrea's, and Jennifer's too. Sister, lawyer. Kin and counsel. Maggie had always held them — well, she wasn't quite sure now. As the terrible, silent gnawing shrew, name not to be named, had rolled her beloved Mags into a knotted, pilling shudder of pain, as it had gone on and on and on, those two names had not been the ones she'd cried on in the night, howled to for comfort, invoked against the darkling hurt. She had, in fact, spoken them less and less. But...had she kept them in mind enough. Marjorie winced, turned the bend.
They were all there, sitting in a half circle around the distressed fissures, the slab of found oak she'd brought in for Maggie to work. Almost her last piece, in fact. They all grouped around it, silently looking up at her, motionless, and she wondered. Jennifer, for instance. Was that almost a look of — hmmm. Why did she look away? Almost as if she couldn't bear to have her there, couldn't bear to look in her eyes. And Andrea. Surely she hadn't had that puckered smirk on her face at their civil union, when she first saw Marjorie face to face. In fact, she'd hardly looked at them at all that day.
Small echoes went curling, wisps of sonic mist floating through the carved stone of another era scarred by the chisels of this. The wheels of her luggage cart clicked along in the center of her world; a whole host of phantom travelers ducked in echo in and out of the grand, urine-stained pillars that still held up the marble shadows of the roof. Why they called it Penn Station, with a whole garden (cancer alley, transitory mask) of a state between here and the Delaware… Marjorie howled low in her throat, silently, finessed it into a growl in deference to her current surroundings and situation. Maggie should have made a will, dammit! Then she’d still be there, in her house — her house! their house! their long, slow-grown cozy shell overlooking the Delaware Water Gap, twenty minutes drive from Belvidere, not that any family was left there, for any of them. Except that Byzantine bitch Andrea. She had no doubt Andrea’d been planning this little coup ever since she and Maggie were married. And now she was dead, and…
The howl was real now, rasping from her grief-raw throat and pacing wildly behind the pillar bars, caged by stone and echoes. A few heads turned her way, briefly, Manhattan-briefly, assessing, deciding, withdrawing.
Ten hours. Ten godforsaken hours until the Montrealer pulled out, and she wasn’t even sure she’d be on it when it did. She ripped the cell phone from her pocket, dialed, waited, gasped as she heard him pick up.
“This won’t work. Why the hell am I even here, why am I on this flying train when did I get on how do I get off WHAT AM I GOING TO DO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
“It’s OK, Marj. You’ll be OK. Deep breath…”
“I don’t want some sordid knockdown dragout shredding Maggie’s…”
“You have to do this. Her sister’s the one who’s shitting on her memory. You know she never wanted her in that house. Remember how she even bought that Super 8 ten miles out of town that time Andi just had to come up Memorial Day at the last minute ‘cause she was ssssooooooooo sorry and wanted to mend the fences and couldn’t stand another minute apart from her — you know what that turned out to be all about! We’ve got to fight her!”
She sat across the table from Devon, her face gone scrimshaw in the mountain-filtered twilight, antique ivory seeping into the stillness of her gaze…sharply cut, still, enigmatic smoothness rolling sensuous curves of antiqued beige into a detached and measured, brooding carve of bone. The light trickling down the mountain had some of that ivoried hue, pooling on the glen around his house. Only the knoll itself and the lower foundations were shadowy, l’heur bleu surrounding and muffling all they stood on. She shifted, tapped the table. Stirred her tea, stirred again.
“That’s what I heard. It was her lawyer’s partner passed it on, and of course she wouldn’t go into detail over the matter. Confidentiality, propriety, that sort of thing, you know.”
She stared moodily up, stirring honey into tea as though she’d forgotten how to stop. The light shifted slowly, the ceiling shadows grew more complex.
“They say Andrea’s in quite a state.” Pause. “It’s up to you what you want to do, Marjorie.” Pause. “Marjorie?”
“What will she do? Not just about the house, but… oh gods, I don’t know!” Pause. “What will she do?!”
“Just when you thought it was done”
Today, the highway sparked a little more drumble-drone that usual, the trees muttered in the distance, the light stretched out over far too tense a spine. Marjorie drove, fast and smooth, up the unseeing pull of 79, through the anticipatory buildup, the alluvial curve of foothills shrugging up in the distance to near=popping vertebrae, flat tendons of grass and clay anchoring them on either side; along the mulberry-lit evening dips and rises, into the deep-breathed center chord of the Alleghenies. She drove (mostly) the way her thoughts went: seamless, constantly-flowing, turbid. All the while she saw behind her, hovering among the smooth-worn foothill clouds: the burning house, flaming red with Amanda's blood and hate, crumbling ashen with her own grief. “Just when you thought it was done...” She beat her hand frantically against the steering column. She'd been so close! And the strangest thing was that blood and hate. “Just when you thought it was all over and done...” She sighed, shook her head wearily. They'd been so close to putting it all to rest!, or so she'd thought. But then, she'd thought that just after she'd married Maggie, too. Amanda had come to the wedding, acted like she was finally going to accept her... “Stop. Nothing left that way.”
Four cars ahead, more or less. That's where her answers – and questions – had remained for hours now, since she'd left the Delaware Water Gap and started up this half-state-long upslope. She peered ahead now, again, into the westering sun. Amanda's car – she thought. Amanda's hair and silhouette – she thought. And that last memory, the one that didn't quite fit. Amanda lunging at her through the flames, then suddenly turning away, and – she didn't know. Her dead wife's sister. So much hate and love; and her last words through the burning that Marjorie just couldn't quite wrap her head around: “Follow me!” Then, ash and silence,
The car ahead was gone, vanished just as her reverie blinked out. She shrugged: this had happened before. She started scanning the highway signs, sudden and strange through the last gasps of sunset. Food-gas-lodging. In that order. Tomorrow she would have to come to some decision, unless she saw her again. She thought perhaps she might.
The moon was half-full, cloud-courted, resonating through the sky and washing onto stone. Up here, among the stillnesses of crevice and shadow, she breathed old alpine light sinking deep within. Her grip was a memory slowly seeping back to surface, a cry of defiance against the...
Flickering clouds slipped and wafted around the higher peaks. A stone rattled, reminded by the touch of wind that lingered in her hands'-touch of the long-ago forgotten gravity. Maggie would have reveled in this night, slipped along behind her or before her like the echo of moonbeams on snow, like the fading memory of her kiss, of that last night of love before. Up here she could begin to remember again, slowly lick the wound and find tears that filled in place of the tears that had been draining her. A few more traverses up, and then make camp. Then to bed..
There was a moonbeam there up above her hand, and a promising shadow. She let go, reached up...and then there wasn't. Clouds closed. Her grip found only empty rock, flat, smooth, unforgiving. Clutched, clawed, thought speeding up to primal pace. Ankles: lock. Then, half-lock. Center of gravity: in. Down to legs. Left hand: hold, push up. And the other reaching so blindly: slowly slowly down, go on muscle memory, back to past certainty, assured support. She clung there, breathing. Memory again, and wait for moonlight...glance over left, wait – wait – THERE. The crevice held out open stony arms, waiting for her touch. And IN, and UP, over one more rough patch past the opening out just above her entry point...and OVER. She stood on grass. This secret ledge welcomed her back, the green softness bedding her feet, then her back, as it had when she was just out of her teens and climbing here for vision quest...she smiled as she thought how pretentious she'd been back then. Of course, the Whittington name tended to do that to one. Serious as the west wind now caressing her face, soothing away grief...or smoothing it into perfection.
And the rain falls on, down past the railroad, down the flowing stone of ancient memory: I probably never should have left. Long journey's beginning, seed-capsule town by a river no one knows. The sky bubbles overhead, films the horizon with glimmering soapsheen – no. Back beyond journeys, the Cold One hunkers, staring into the smoke of earthbound fires. In some towns the ground fizzes with coal smoke: fires of a thousand years. The clan, the family carrying back as the smolder comes: I probably shouldn't have left.
The rain falls on; the earth is quenchless: water boiling off before it sinks. The houses are always moving back: I didn't leave soon enough. Dark hole where school years once stood, sinkhole crater swallows all memory whole. The town is here, the earth is burning, the fires of Ragnarok are lit. We have kindled stone; it burns before us, hanging in a void of earth and stars. Homes gone, shops gone, statues and parks and roads: I probably shouldn't have returned. Silver glimmer draws me: a hope, a fancy of fumes, a shimmering mist before the burn. There is no light; the earth burns flameless; all before is gone. Double-kindled house, where once your walls stood, a yearning gulf of tears. Silver in the middle glimmers, love dead for too many long years. Here we swam, ran, giggled, kindled to women and to our love. Smoke and tears remain now, and still I see the shining mist: the mound of stones parts for the glowworm, the light of the kindling moon. One memory remains. Your first words to me still are here; my first painting of your dear face, smoke and moonlight mingled even then...would I had not been double-sighted; would I had not sensed the burn. One scrap in my hand as I stumble over wall stones; the other is lost. Farewell then, town of earthbound loves, farewell from the daughter of your feast.
-Scrap found in the room of Marjorie Whittingham after
her disappearance into mist