1772 – Scotchtown Plantation, Virginia.
A high-pitched ring we hear from under his floorboards, and causes us to halt dead in our train of thought. Her screech, a long, shrill scream, one devoid of any hope, a sound that emptied her lungs, is chilling.
There was a full minute of silence after the shriek of Miss Sarah’s initial response had faded away. I study my mentor innocently, mentally shoving down the somber emotion breaking through. It could account for the distraught expression, the knit eyebrows and his cross-eye look of concentrating.
“If it is any comfort, I am of my own mind, the devil has not inhabited her.”
His reply is somewhat comparable to the creaking of wood, choked up with strong emotion, but nay, naught a shred of proof of remorse is in those steely, dry eyes.
“A guarded heart cannot enjoy affections,” I dispute. “Surely, shame and disgrace cancels. . . .” I stop in my train thought, unsure how I will help him feel happier. “You are a family man. I have proof of it,” I add instead.
“I am afraid,” Mister Henry says.
“Of everything,” I shrug.
“More than I wish to let on.”
“I am afraid of telling you,” he swallows, “my feelings. You are not of my family. You are not kin.”
“You are too guarded,” I say, rolling my eyes. “Money and material success impresses me not. Kindness and authenticity do.”
“If you do not smarten up, I will take those rolling eyeballs and use them as marbles,” Mister Henry growls.
“People with guarded hearts are trusting and caring, and should be treated as such,” he tuts.
Mourn not the passing of a life well lived, Mister Henry, I say quietly to myself. Death is the end of a chapter, my friend.
“What was it you said?”
Mister Henry misses nothing.
A series of wild screams, and the sounds underneath the kitchen floorboards just reminds me a soul is decaying. I put my hand in his for support. I watch his fingers jerk, but eventually they respond and curl around mine.
“Thank you,” he sniffs. “I am frightened confiding for fear my words would be used against me, even if it was on accident. You said kindness and authenticity impress you. I am showing explicable, undeniable, affection now, am I not?”
As if he needed to reconfirm his declaration, Mister Henry pulls our fist to his lips and kisses the top of his hairy knuckles with mine sandwiched in his. Mister Henry then affectionately pats it.
“My bride is unable to talk coherently to her husband. He wants to converse, seek council, hear opinions, laugh, cry, all these things I cannot do anymore. It is a harrowing, lonely, existence. It is terrible knowing I acted out of ignorance when I reveled secrets, and such, to supposed friendships and it resulted in distress. Would you do me the honor, Nehemiah?”
“I would hope you are not suggesting marriage?” I quip.
“Hardly,” he snorts. “You are a tad ugly to be delicious which a female heartily affords a feast for the male eyes.”
“So, she does,” I fidget. “A little too much information.”
“First, you said I was holding back, and now, I am being too honest. There is just no pleasing you, is there?”
“What I meant was, I want to trust you.”
“You can, you have.”
“Mehaps. I am your teacher, you are my pupil. That fact has not, and will not change until I release and return you to your parent’s establishment. I would like to think we developed some sort of a friendship as well. What I am trying to say is, can I put faith into a person whom lives in my home, and treat them with unbridled, unrestricted feelings as I did with her? I mean absolute faith. I need an individual I can confide in and a man is important, key.”
After his speech I want to tell Mister Henry I loved him. My father, I do not see much of him. I never have. I suppose Mister Henry filled that void, but now, his tenderness, I feel special. Important. But I will not tell him. It would be awkward and embarrassing if he knew the truth.
“Sir, you can trust me. Say what you wish.”
He leans forward a little, squeezes my wrist gently with his free hand, and says, “I know. The early years of our marriage were very happy. Neddy’s birth put my wife into antipathy. Sarah’s health decreased shortly after. It is all we can come up with.”
“I did not know one of your children was responsible.”
“Now, you do.”
“You showed me where the secret stairwell is located.”
“It took some courage and strength to do so.”
“I appreciate it. I keep out of range. I have not forgotten the warning.”
“For your safety.”
I mumble sadly, “I know.”
“Is she eating anything?” I ask, trying hard at keeping all of the remorse contained.
“Na—,” he coughs. Henry’s voice gave out an almost inaudible squeak.
“Am I allowed to speak about my feelings?”
“Oh,” I say glumly, dejected.
“Of course! What is it you wish to say?”
“Nothing,” I say quickly, shifting in the chair uncomfortably.
“Well, I am thinking you are a remarkable lad. Where society sees the whole family, if one is sick, the entire group will be judged with twisted preconceptions. You see beyond a shadow of a doubt because you knew my wife’s character before she fell ill. You’ve formed your own opinions without being swayed.”
“It is the truth,” I say quietly.
"I know, and it is appreciative. In a short while we will retire, Nehemiah. It is getting late, and I am extremely exhausted. There will be no time for you to continue. And I want to check on Martha and see how she fared caring for her younger siblings today.”
I open my mouth to say—
“Close your mouth. You are not a codfish. Bed.”
Mister Henry lets go of my hand, and then brings himself to his feet, stretches, and yawns.
“What about Miss Sarah?”
“She might,” he yawns, “scratch you.”
“But I want to help,” I plead.
Instead Mister Henry answers by encircling behind. He wraps his arms around me in a tight embrace.
“I earnestly wish I could let you, but I cannot,” he whispers. “Your folks would disapprove wholeheartedly if I returned their son broken in two.”
I smile weakly. “I suppose.”
“Bed,” he whispers, and then releases.
“I do not enjoy becoming too personal. Will I ever be admitted pass the Bar?” I ask.
“My, changing the subject are we?”
“You dislike your pupil,” I sulk.
“On the contrary, I dislike when he wanders off in a mental fog time and time again."
Mister Henry points to the pages scattered in disarray upon the long kitchen’s rectangle table first, and then he taps the cover of the Holy Book.
"Give it to me, Nehemiah. I shall engage with the Lord's words while you tidy and straighten the papers."
The anguish in his voice disappears. I lower my head. "Forgive me, I have let distractions grip my responsibilities."
"It cannot be emphasized too strongly that your explicit diversion will never earn a seat alongside me in a courthouse," he groans, which persuades me further avoiding eye contact.
When I finally do raise my neck, I slide the Bible across without questioning. He takes the object. Flipping through the pages, he continues tarnishing my spirit this evening. I listen obediently, and although some of the barefaced phrases Mister Henry spoke of his apprentice, I sense I was the scapegoat for a reason I could not comprehend.
"Honestly!" he shouts at the Bible’s pages instead of offering the common curiosity of at least looking at his pupil’s furrowing eyebrows. "Regardless the service spent under my watchful eye, the time involved has been less than satisfactory. I assumed a lad born into an affluent family, one whose father manages their own countinghouse, his son would have the mannerisms of a Saint. But, no, his heir has the manners of a toddler whom in my humble opinion has barely learnt the feat of walking.”
I moan. In a silent solution from his attacks, I gather all the pieces of paper, and stack them as neatly as possible. I hope if my mentor saw I listened to his instructions the insults would at least lessen.
"Oh," he interrupts, "cease on the formalities. You might as well call me by my name. You have been an apprentice in my home, how long now?"
"Quite a long while, si–, I mean, Mister Henry.”
“Patrick,” he tuts.
“I mean, sir, Mister Henry, I mean, Patrick,” I sputter.
Mister Henry reaches up, and grips his spectacles resting on top of his head. He drops them abruptly on the table.
“Spit it out. Say whatever in the Almighty’s good name is distracting you,” he encourages, all the while massaging his temples clockwise and then counterclockwise.
“Uh, you might not like it.”
“The only thing I do not like right now is your being vague.”
I swallow nervously. He is an authoritarian but Mister Henry has always been diligent with his teaching practices, either by willingly following along with an index finger while I read out loud or patiently explaining certain passages thoroughly in such a way I understood, mostly anyway. My conscious mind comprehends I am not the tidiest man to ever graced God's green Earth, but although my expression must look stoic to him, Mister Henry's attack—
"Mister Cuthbert?" There was a firm jerk to my shoulder blade.
I blink. "Huh?" I ask confusingly. I blink again, and then Mister Henry folds his hands neatly in his lap, crossing one leg over the other, glaring.
"The toll has chimed seven. What is troubling you?"
“Miss Sarah,” I blurt.
Mister Henry winces at the words.
“It seems now that life will offer me little respite from woe,” Mister Henry croaks.
“You wish I change the subject again.”
“I am allowed to speak about my feelings,” I remind him.
“Yes? We discussed that yesterday evening.”
“I can say anything? Anything at all?”
“For Heaven’s sakes, yes.”
“Tell me a little more about Miss Sarah. Please?”
“About her illness, or something else?”
“I like hearing stories about her. Anything you want to share.”
“Interesting. Why, now?”
“Never mind,” I say, embarrassed.
“As you wish.”
“No, I want to say something, sincere, like you did yesterday evening. But it is difficult, you know?”
“Yes. It is not as easy as you thought, is it?” he says wryly.
I inhale a puff of air, and exhale loudly. “A son who longs to receive attention from his father seems to always come up short, the son feels he needs to perform better to merit his father’s consideration. This performance shows itself in arenas such as setting higher standards and goals and improving physical appearance. A son can think, ‘Maybe if I look and act right, his parent will like his son more.’”
“That was a considerable amount of…,” Mister Henry swallows, “words. What am I to you then?”
Startled, I answer meekly, “My mentor, my teacher.”
“Oh? Am I only an instructor?”
“No,” I sigh. “A friend too.”
“Am I really?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean your confession just now, about your father neglecting his son; his son vainly tried to receive attention in any way possible. I am thinking I am more than a friend or why else would my pupil speak unsatisfactory about a relationship with his parent?”
I shrug. “You said you need a man to talk too. Maybe I want that as well.”
“Ask, and you shall receive.”
“Would you be my surrogate father?”
“Understood,” I say sullenly.
Miss Sarah began another round of this relentless howling, her wordless affliction all too apparent.
John and William’s vibrant youth shows when they frolic, hoot and holler. Their energy and enthusiasm for life always puts a smile on my face. In fact, once while Martha, John, William, their parents, and myself sat in the keeping room exchanging morning prayers with the mighty Lord, the third youngest, William, tugged the sleeve of my shirt, forcing me to halt. I glanced up. He grinned. Mister Henry continued muttering Psalms. His missus, Miss Sarah, never acknowledged one of her children had stopped too soon but regardless, I sat back in my seat and returned William’s enormous smile. I put a finger to my lips, cautioning him not to laugh and mouthed the words, ‘Do not move,’ because sounds might disturb two babes—Anne, and Elizabeth Henry, sleeping nearby in cribs. William ignored my request completely. He reached across the table, and slipped his tiny hand in mine. A crumbled ball of parchment was left in it.
I closed my fist with concern. I observed Mister Henry. He was still muttering. I remembered exhaling with relief and then I observed Miss Sarah. Her head also hung low with folded fists like her husband. John and Martha mimicked their parents. I smiled again and opened the paper. There was an awful crinkling. Mister Henry glanced up and frowned. I coughed, and squirmed in the chair. Through the corner of my right eye, Miss Sarah glared too. The Henry children giggled, which made the humiliation unbearable. I reacted by staring at the table blankly.
"Give it here, Nehemiah," Mister Henry said pointedly.
I flinched at the sharpness of his voice. I grabbed the piece of paper, and passed it to Miss Sarah.
"Thank you, Nehemiah," she said politely. "Children!" Miss Sarah clapped.
The boys closed their jaws. Maratha gave me a scornful glance; one of ridicule and contempt.
I watched Miss Sarah pass the paper to her husband. I momentarily glanced at William. He was still smiling as if nothing went wrong.
"Read it Papa!" William giggled.
"Shh, son," he cooed. "I am having a time deciphering a child's scribbles."
"I will tell you what it says!" William roared enthusiastically.
Mister Henry placed the paper in front of him, straightening himself. "Enlighten us then. Explain the message.”
Young Master William boldly stood up on his chair and stomped, giggling. "’Mia came to live with us. I am glad about it."
"Oh? And that is what you wrote?"
William nodded, and then sat.
Mister Henry reached across, cupped the top of his missus's knuckles and graced me with a thoughtful smile. At once my anxiety vanished. I smiled awkwardly back.
"We are delighted to have you in our home, even if it is temporary," Miss Sarah commented cheerfully.
"Yes, Nehemiah, at best, you have proved to be an apprentice any decent gentleman would willingly accept. And, I am appreciative assisting my wife with the children, and babes in arms, when I am elsewhere."
I nod earnestly. "Yes, sir, I mean, Mister Henry.”
“Patrick,” he yawns. “I foresee a lawyer within you yet. Keep to your studies, and your work ethics will reward you eventually."
"Thank you," I say simply.
"You are quite welcome. Now," he yawns again, "it is time."
A deep sigh is heard. I watch my mentor turn around and glance at the clock affixed to the wall. Another sigh comes, and then he turns to face me.
"Nehemiah, your parents entrusted me to care for you. By all accounts, Nehemiah, heir to Ezra Cuthbert, I see potential. It is why I remain rigorous with your studies.”
The compliment makes me flush. "I promise I will finish this chapter tomorrow. I will not sully my mentor’s reputation.”
He points to the Bible. "I have a copy in my quarters. Take this with you, and may the Almighty Christ visit your dreams."
"Thank you, Mister Henry. I will read some before I sleep."
“Patrick,” he yawns loudly.
Patrick leaves his spectacles behind, trudging wearily away.
I stand, grab my books, the Bible, and shove them under my right arm. Before I exit the kitchen, I push the two chairs neatly under the table so Mister Henry would not have another chore to attend too.
"Nehemiah, it is past the hour of eight o' clock," he calls anxiously. "We will continue at precisely six in the afternoon."
I whirl around. Mister Henry is watching me intently over his left shoulder. I obey and quickly catch up with him. We walk side-by-side, and then make a right-hand turn, leading to the bedrooms. Mister Henry walks to his quarters first, yawning loudly, and I follow his slow pace from behind.
In the hallway, he pinches the nape of my neck gently with a thumb and forefinger. "May the Almighty protect, and watch over a member of my family."
I lower my head sheepishly. Creaking of floorboards make me look up. Mister Henry shuffles in the direction of his room where he, sadly, shares a space with no one.
His remark causes a smile from ear to ear. I turn to my left, heading for my own space, and one I have all to myself. I hope Miss Sarah’s mind comes back and angry outbursts become less prominent.
I pull the wool blankets high above my shoulders. My last thoughts turn to Miss Sarah. I wonder, I do hope she is not too terribly chilled in the cellar. Perhaps, I should, should, spare a few blankets. Yes, she had had been kind. I swing my legs out of bed. I lit a candle resting on a bedside table and tiptoe into the hallway. I hear Mister Henry snoring. I sigh with relief. Now that he is already asleep, I can sneak down the secret stairwell.
I discover Miss Sarah hunching. She starts bleating when she spots me. There is saliva dribbling down her chin.
“Evening, Miss Sarah,” I say, smiling uneasily. “I will be slumbering here tonight.”
She tries to voice incomprehensible words, spitting afterwards. When communication failed,
Miss Sarah lunges.
I cautiously sidestep from the entrance.
She twists and yanks but the straight-dress holds firm.
Still, Miss Sarah was not shivering. I decide after a few moments to sleep in the cellar, chancing danger. He will likely be agitated in the morning, but Mister Henry did say I was akin to a family member.
Next to Miss Sarah’s bed, there was a chair where Mister Henry watches over her. I nudge it far enough with a toe so I may have more space, judging carefully an approximant width where I will be excluded if Miss Sarah should decide to spring on me like a rabid, viscous animal. After all, she was allowed enough length of her restraints for lumbering about, exploring, if she wanted. With a decision in mind, I carefully create a place on the dirt floor, folding my couple of blankets in half while balancing the chamberstick in the other hand. I did not have a third for a top layer but fortunately, warmth aplenty was in the ambient air.
I shall keep his secret. It would be a blot to my mentor’s good name if colleagues of his discovered his missus is in concealment, in the most comfort Mister Henry and Miss Sarah’s loved ones try to provide. I imagine he would be especially mortified.
I see she returned to the pallet, and is sitting up like a scarecrow stuck upon with two sticks. Miss Sarah’s expression is cold, calculating, and judging . . .
I puff the wick.
“Has he not sent me to the men which sit on the wall, that they may eat their own dung, and drink their own piss with you?” Miss Sarah asks blackness.
Perhaps, this was not such a wise idea . . .
As if a germ invaded an ear, the organism acts like a conductor directing an orchestra of gnashing teeth, the din is Miss Sarah’s song.
My eyes, too heavy to keep open, I slept with noises of grinding teeth.
“Nehemiah. Nehemiah, why in God’s splendid name are you in the cellar?” I yawn, and then sit up. He holds a chamberstick near my face. The glow of the subtle light suggests Mister Henry’s silhouette is discontentment.
Yawning deeply again, I rub the sleepiness out of my eyes. “I wanted to make sure she had enough warmth, sir.”
“It is, Patrick, not sir,” he grumbles. “You may call me Patrick in my home but in the public eye, it is Mister Henry, but never a sir.”
“Let us go upstairs and fix breakfast before the children wake.”
“What about Baby Anne and Elizabeth?”
“My daughter is tasked with them. Do not worry. Martha is more than capable.”
“You are not angry?”
“No, Nehemiah.” I watch Mister–Patrick–stretch his arms high over his head and yawns himself. “Sarah will need to be bathed today. I will do it, not you.”
“Understood.” I thought for a moment. “Patrick? Why are you not showing annoyance or exasperation? It cannot be suitable to be down here with your wife. Sleeping nearby too.”
Patrick’s fingers twitch under his shirt. “Because.”
“Yes, because. Now, get up, put some clean clothes on, and for God’s sakes lad, would it kill you to comb your hair before leaving? You seem to have a habit of not doing so.”
“But, your own shirt is untucked,” I remind him, quite pleased with my observation, if I may so myself. I beam happily for telling such a clever comment. “And you are not wearing a pair of breeches. And your side curls are sticking out annoyingly.”
“Never you mind about how I appear. And take note, my shirt falls long enough. I am covered. Now, go.”
So much for that brief boost in esteem. He has an uncanny way of crushing it, even if he is unaware. Upstairs, Mister Henry blows out the candle and sets it aside. Still, a feeling bubbles to the surface. I rush at and ensnare him. He staggers and produces an “Oomph,” sound. Mister Henry gently pushes me away after a bit of time. I grin.
“I have enough hugging at home.”
Mister Henry lifts my chin up with a thumb.
His palm ruffles my unkempt hair. “It pleases me to see another person show facilitated tenderness; unconditional love and affection towards a human whom is not related to them but he is compelled enough to show acute concern towards my bride’s situation. It is in good faith I am indebted.”
A few positive words can turn despair into goodwill.
“I entrust my friend still keeps my requested secret private regarding my wife?”
“Yes, of course I have, Mister Henry.”
“If you keep on referring to me as Mister, I will instead put the straight-dress on you.”
“Apologies,” I groan, disappointed I cannot break the habit.
I hear chuckling and not ridicule.
“Superb. Eggs and sausage or leftover salted pork and beans?”
January 30th, 1775 - Scotchtown Plantation, Virginia.
The cellar has the walls of a castle, strong grey rock that provides the house a firm foundation. Light floods into the three windows above her pallet, freshly filled today by her doting husband when he finds free time from his demanding, contrite schedule. My eyes were drawn upward toward the sunshine that crowned the room. All about it is desolation; bleak, dismal emptiness of deserted people except for Mister Henry and I. It was also the sort of place you could go to feel cradled by the earth and yet still under the sun.
“Throw another log on.”
I did as I was told and toss a cord of wood in, then walk until I am standing next to him.
Mister Henry’s perfect, straight, ramrod posture is, I see, another one. Slouching may be considered disrespectful, and allude to aloofness, but with his hands covering his face, I know better.
I rest my hand on his left shoulder and pat it. “May I sit on your leg since there is not any furniture in here?”
“No, you may not,” Mister Henry answers in a muffled tone.
I whirl around in front of him, and tear away his hands because frankly I am in no mood for rudeness right now. His wife is two ticks of the clock away from death. I see he was crying, and judging by damp cheeks, he must have stopped recently.
“You should let your children see her before she dies,” I say bluntly.
“I cannot,” Mister Henry squawks. He stands and sits at the end of her bed. “Here, you may sit in my chair if you wish it.”
I said my thanks and sat. “I did not know you would be here. Pure coincidence when I trudged down the stairs,” worrying about invading his privacy.
I incline a little, curious. What I notice is Mister Henry’s eyebrows are angled up. The corners of his lips are drawn downwards. The tops of his knuckles are beginning to turn pink.
I suppose his grip is not to be trifled with.
“Should I leave? I will if you want.”
He shakes his head, struggling to swallow down a still-beating heart. This raw emotion forces fidgeting on my behalf. Still, I tilt farther. Would it be rude if a part of me also wants to see how an older man mourns? There is a translucent-like mucus dribbling down Mister Henry’s lower lip. It is almost passed the finish line. The display peeks my interest but it is disgusting to watch. The thick liquid slurps in a thin, diagonal line, as if his mouth was a straw. I hand Mister Henry a cloth from a waistcoat pocket. He accepts and blows, and then folds the rag into a symmetrical triangle with one or two of the seamed edges unfurling, peeking out.
Mister Henry stands up and scuffs his shoes along a couple of inches and perches himself on my left knee.
“Why cannot I sit on your leg but you can on mine?” I jab, hoping he sees the teasing and will chuckle. “Sir,” I try again to at least get a rise out of him.
“I composed a letter. There are parts I would rather keep private. Personal.”
“Could you at least move to the other leg? This one is numb.”
“At least move up a little.”
He wiggles higher. “Does this suffice?”
“Some. What is the letter about?”
“It is my good-bye letter.”
“When you die, come sit with me in heaven as long as you wish.”
Mama . . .
Deaden. Deaden. Numb yourself.
“Then, there will come a time when you want to choose a new enterprise, and you will have your pick of any. Then we do it all again. It is a fine way to spend eternity, yes?”
Brother . . .
“Who made you afraid my love?”
Not who, but what.
“Grief has a way of removing someone from the world and it takes a real strength to reconnect and weave themselves anew into the fabric of living,” I say.
All this emotional recollecting is creating the eye itch.
I grasp Mister Henry’s hips and guide them to my left leg so the other can rest. There were no objections, although it took tugging to get him there. He raises an arm and wipes something off his face.
“You could say I am acquainted with death. I learned to harden its beacon, not let anger, sadness, confusion, guilt, all of it, enter in quantities, but right now, they are nudging through, piece by piece. I understand if there are passages you must keep quiet, Patrick.”
“Damn you, Nehemiah,” he chuckles softly, and then coughs afterwards.
“You love me anyway.”
“You must not repeat a syllable. Not one.”
“I said I’d listen. I am her, so to speak. I gave my word, did I not?”
“Yes, but some paragraphs are graphic.”
“And, would you have censored them from Miss Sarah?”
I see his shoulders sag. He pulls paper out of his waistcoat pocket, flips the creased pages open, and then reaches up and sets his spectacles in place.
“To my darling Sally,— Nehemiah.”
“I am allowing vulnerability. I am not sure how I will react while reading.”
“Remember my earlier philosophy regarding grief.”
“Shh!” he snaps, wincing afterwards. “Forgive me,” comes a quiet, gentler tone than before. Mister Henry coughs, straightens his slumping posture into a more ridged position.
“You will have to forgive my lack of coherency. I wanted to write such a scholarly piece, but my poor head came up with nil. I spilled out what I feel on the inside.
Upon the wood that was once the timbers of a barn, the wood that was once a part of the chattering forests of the hills, I write a letter of the kind of love that gives birth to entire worlds, of the kind of love that protects all the stronger in times of need. Sally, I love you. Three simple little words, and yet I will never love another as I love you. I will never cherish another as I cherish you. I will always love only you. I fear falling asleep and waking to find you gone, of finding myself alone. You sleep quietly in bed while I cannot sleep at all. For you I strive to be a better man; to live a better life; to know its joys and its pleasures; to never disappoint you; and never will I squander a single moment of the life that is left to me—without you.
The evening of our marriage, when the ceremony finally over, and everyone finally gone, at last you were my wife, and I, your husband. When you said once we shared a bed you could no longer sleep without me. I flatter myself because truthfully, I would not consider myself, shall we say, adorable.
Do you recall the secret sworn upon my bosom to keep?”
“Lad, as much as I am impressed you’ve remained, somehow, the next few passages are particularly descriptive. Quite honestly, to think you will know, part of me is a little embarrassed. But, Nehemiah insisted.”
“I did. At least Miss Sarah is sleeping.”
Mister Henry clears his throat.
“Dear, even considering scribbling these few sentences makes my stomach twist and flip. No, do not think I have regrets. The little book became a source of a bash, as I am abashed now. You made me promise to not say we read, Fanny Hill, and I have not, but I kept a copy hidden. Here I jotted my favorite lines because they remind me on that summer evening when all the bugs retired and went back t’where that came from, and under a thickening of grey clouds, we paid no attention, sipping our lemon water, these excerpts bring me to our happier days, and I feel connected as we once were.
‘His thighs finely fashioned, and with a florid, gloss roundness, gradually tampering away to the knees, seemed pillars worthy to support that beauteous frame; at the bottom of which I could not, without some remains of terror. Some tender emotions too—
I had it now, I felt it now, and, beginning to drive, he soon gave nature such powerful summons down to her favorite quarters that she could no longer refuse repairing thither; all my animal spirits then rushed mechanically to that center of attraction, and presently l, inly warmed, and stirred as I was beyond bearing, I lost all restraint, and yielding to force of the emotion gave down, as mere woman, those effusions of pleasure which, I’m the strictness of still faithful love, I could have wished to held up.’”
“I will cover my ears. I do not want our friendship breeched because I was . . . nosy.”
Mister Henry returns sitting at the edge of the bed. He glances up from the sheet.
“I know,” and plug them up.
Lips are moving, but I simply cannot understand a thing that is spoken.
With shaky hands wobbling the letter, it is remarkable Mister Henry could read at all.
He looks up.
“What is wrong?”
Frowning, he shrugs.
“You are reddening.”
Plugging my nose, the sound of audible, heavy breathing, creates the stench of putrid air wafting whenever Mister Henry, er, Patrick, exhales.
“Recollect, it took bravery, but I assembled enough of it to write when I tried discreetly breaking wind, there was a brown lump in the seat of my breeches instead.”
I almost choked but managed stifling a giggle.
“When the stars came out to play and the evening took on that aroma of the night, when the crickets sung for the joy of living, our bed awaited. My thoughts slowed as a beautiful sunset, each new color danced as ribbons cascading the sky. Its colors embraced those lofty heights and invited dreams that wore festive costumes and were formed of music. In my arms, you were, nuzzled under, there was scenes of jubilation all around; my heart roared like the tide going out to sea.
Till death do us part.”
I watch him recline, and as God as my witness, did he just—? Suppressing a gag reflex with one hand, and the other fans my nose because the aroma of day-old, moldy cheese, festering in the hot sun broke free from under his backside. Pages sway a little until they settle near his right foot. I expected loud, horrible-sounding screeches, and just grieving acutely. A tremor ran down him with quivering shoulder blades. Silence is an agonizing scream as tears are poignant and piercing. Soundless weeping is more of a suffering.
Through quiet cries I am fall leaves under frost. I feel the chill in my blood, coldness bringing the tendrils of my brain to a standstill. Part of it is a pain, yet one I can endure, one I can sleep through night after night without the alcohol of false hope. This is my winter; I wait for spring and the racket of birds.
“Sssstttaaah . . . ah . . . ah . . . op,” Mister Henry stutters, “plugging your nose.”
I say, “No.”
“I divulged intimate, sacred words to a ca . . . ca . . . confidant, and you decide to ba . . . ba . . . be rude. Are you indicating—”
“Yes, you stink,” I murmur.
The tops of Mister Henry’s shoulders sag. I notice him shiver too.
“How can I see dead flowers and not the seeds that promise new life, Brother?”
“Would you prefer privacy now? Shall I exit?”
He shakes his head.
A crash. Carriage flipped over. Town folk with ashen expressions. Children whine, and rushed to their parents. A sickening realization.
I take my turn and straddle his right knee.
Two well-built arms grab me quick, and then I feel a mighty embrace. There is the hug of gentle arms that still gives the space to breathe; then there is the hug of strong arms that tells everything he is— a Weeping Willow tree.
“Your hug has woven our souls in a way that is a forever bond. There is no finer praise. Love is free, and priceless.”
“Stop it. You’ll make me cry too,” I sniff. “And you will wake Miss Sarah up.”
“What sha. . . all, all . . . I da, da . . . Nehem . . . hem . . .,” he snivels. “What shall, shall, I . . . da . . . da . . . do?”
“Where is that handkerchief?”
I hear phlegm snort in, and then there is a hoarse cough.
“Ya . . . ya . . .,” he hyperventilates. Mister Henry scrunches his nose, holding its brim, so much that it becomes a pinkish-red, like a salmon’s scales.
The hug relaxes. I watch him snatch that almost perfect, wonderful, cloth triangle he created earlier, and then sets it in my lap.
When I take it, I blow. “Well, since both our mucus is on this thing, we should probably burn it, or bury it, methinks frame it. For prosperity.”
Mister Henry loops his arms around, and I find my forehead compressed into his chest, in hug number two, or is it three?
“Nehem . . ., I am so . . . ha . . . ha . . . ha . . . happy,” he wheezes.
“Shh,” I coo, like a mother does to a mewling newborn.
“. . . happy Ezra brought you,” Mister Henry finishes.
“As am I.”
The sadness filters through me rather than skating across my skin. It seeps through every pore to reach the ground.
“Fly,” Brother gagged, “fly, fool!”
“Crying too?” Mister Henry croaks.
“I was. In control now.”
“No, cra . . . cry . . . with me.”
I didn’t. I stayed put.
The blood left where it belonged in surges, beating out by a slowing heart. In a suspended moment, I was the eye of my own storm. Every quiet moment was spent watching Brother die.
Slip rocks in. Set every twig, pebble, chunks of soil, anything, in. Raise that wall. Turn it into a fortified castle.
“What if I have not the ability to quit?” My bottom lip twitches.
“Then . . .,” he says, scrunching up his nose, dabbing each eye with the sleeve of his shirt, “we will cry together. I did not,” Mister Henry sniffs, clearing his throat, “realize you were so attached to her.”
Now, I am the one slumping.
“It is not just your wife.”
“This is . . . special,” Father said.
I jerk my neck.
“Come see, Mama,” he pointed.
“I . . ., I do not want too,” I mumbled.
Mama’s arms were outstretched. I watched Father lean forward. Mama squeaked.
I sigh. “They say Patrick sadness is behind anger, yet anger never comes unless in direct self-defense, and so perhaps I can credit this natural passivity with my willingness to cry and feel pain, to let the sorrow teach me more about my true nature and how fragile we humans are.”
I lean, checking on Miss Sarah. Still sleeping, still unrestrained. On her back as flat as a plank of wood.
“Miss Sarah reminds me about bad memories because Mama died in a bed,” I croak.
I angrily shove tears brimming at the edges away with a thumb.
“Want to hear a secret?”
“She used,” he squints. “She . . .” Mister Henry writhes.
Standing, I take my mentor in my arms. He holds onto my neck. “Here for support,” I say, beginning to blubber too.
“She . . .”
“Thank,” he squeezes, “you.”
“You received . . .,” I swallow, “your wish. We are cra . . . crying na . . . na . . . now in one big, stu . . . stupid display of manliness.”
I hear a snort-giggle despite ourselves. Mister Henry steps backwards, and would have tripped if not for catching his balance in time.
“Why are you sobbing,” wiping cheeks dry.
“A thought for every happy dream,” he smiles shyly, looking down.
Reaching, I pick up the pages. “May I read the letter, Mister Henry?”
“Patrick,” he mumbles.
“Patrick, may I read them?”
“My answer has not changed.”
I reach out, grip Patrick’s wrist firmly, twist it with one hand, and then place the letter into his palm. My mentor coils the sheets into a secured mitt.
“Where are Martha and the others?”
He shrugs. “Outside, upstairs, some . . . somewhere but here.”
“You are correct; this is an awkward experience.”
“I feel no shame breaking down,” he squints, “with you.”
“It was touching to witness. I feel attached. There is something, well, more. It’s complex, confusing, I cannot explain it.”
Mister Henry winks. “I think you love me.”
I twirl my big toe upon the dirt floor. “Your feet must be truly marvelous to keep on glaring at them,” I say, flustering, unsure how to respond.
Mister Henry lifts his neck. “Knave.”
“Some afternoons a swing upside the head would do a great service to an emp . . . empty noggin.”
“Charming,” I huff.
There was a softness to his appearance, a kind of warmth married to a shyness. It was the look of an honest soul and in that moment I knew I had found a special friend.
Before Mister Henry finished his train of thought I am wound up in, yet, another hug.
“You certainly are affectionate,” I muffle.
“To a small few.”
“Every person would be embraced if I were outgoing.”
“Hmm. Do I detect a hint of sugarcoating the truth?”
“Fine. I am lonely. Happy?”
“How long am I to be in your arms?”
“Forever, and ever.”
“That is a long time. Never had I witnessed a person sob such a torrent of agony.”
“You seem unusually captivated I wept.”
“Never am I afraid showing my heart to ones I genuinely love.”
“Are you going to release?”
“When I’m good and ready. Why?”
“A little awkward, standing here.”
“All the more reason to keep you imprisoned.”
“There is not much tenderness with my father. He generally ignores his last son.”
“My older brother was killed.”
Patrick’s embrace strengthens. “I did not know. I also was unaware about your mother’s death. I only have met Ezra.”
I push him off.
He reels me in like a fish.
“Forever, and ever, Patrick?”
“Forever, and ever.”
“You will have to let go eventually.”
“When I’m good and ready,” he repeats.
“How are you feeling?”
“Lonesome, obviously. But, suffering equal pain aids consolation. Sally, my name for my wife, will die, I concede . . .”
There is a choked sob.
Gently unraveling his arms, we eventually make way, kneeling below Miss Sarah’s headboard. Mister Henry nudges my right shoulder with an elbow.
“When will her color come back?” I ask bleakly.
Mister Henry puts an arm around my shoulder.
“I want to take away the power of the painful memories of hurt.”
“I know . . . I know . . .,” he says quietly, massaging my back.
On that spot we made a great memory. Now when my brain goes back to Brother and Mama’s demise, I divert it only to this memory, the healing one. It is as if I wrote a good story over the top of a bad story, and in time the ink of the bad story fades away until only the great memory remains.
February, 1775 – Scotchtown Plantation, Virginia.
Every time your breathe caught in your throat, I rushed forward, hoping you might drink a sip of water or accept a bit of bread. But despite how weak your body became God made you hang on. I grew so aquatinted to the false alarms that when you finally did die, you laid there, peaceful in my open arms, frowning blankly at the ceiling.
Sweetie, John and William wrote letters. They said I cannot read them so I set them on your pillow. Martha said it would have made her too sad to compose a page for a most loving and excellent mother; I did not force our daughter.
A thought, a ludicrous thought came just now. Courage nudged me. Would you accept my brilliance if I lay in this space?
So, this is a might strange decision, Sally. But, God Almighty in Heaven, when was the last time the ceiling was serviced? The paint is chipped!And that was your scenery every single morning? My poor bride, I make no excuses for this neglect. How awful.
I forgot in my total fatigued mind yesterday night, instead of telling you how much I valued my wife of more than two decades before I nodded off, I am not going to grow old with you.
If you need me, I shall not be far.
The night she died Patrick began sleeping on her side, and still does in his quarters upstairs. The clock is there and although when he retires late, he always slept well. One night, however, Patrick moved back to the cellar. He imagined his childhood sweetheart’s ever-thinning body taking up less space beneath the blankets.
The chair is still positioned nearby. It was a shift of maybe two feet from the chair to the old bed, whence he attempted to lay in it. When he looked across at the empty space where he used to sit, Patrick’s sense of loss was so acutely overwhelming, he closed his eyes, but the imaginary spikes dug deeper. He remembered whether this would be the day the pain would worsen, or the latter, saw her for dead.
Like the drunk whose world spun when they shut their eyes, his despair started breaking further through the wall that kept grief at bay, which allowed him maintaining the facade of: Patrick, you are coping so well.
What happened next?
He simply moved back to the second floor and slept at Sarah’s side of the bed. Grief gone, solid walls of coping back in place.
It is with trial and error that Patrick began spending longer minutes laying in the cellar bed, like someone training for a wonderful, marvelous endeavor. Each time the darkness threatened to engulf him, he returned to safety, moving back upstairs to familiar territory.
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