Fiction

Emily

Dear friend,

You ask about the ceremony. It was last week. I wore a pretty white cotton dress – my sister’s Lavinia’s. (You understand how the mind dawdles on the path of time, how I must run to catch up with “now”.)

I woke before dawn – lazy girl, this cruel, white spring – and washed myself slowly. Then Lavinia joined me in the sitting room, along with fa Mr and Mrs E. D. As is now common here, each gave me a parting gift before I left the family.

From the stairs, Mr E. D. threw me a glove – his grandfather’s. Fine kid skin, like white trilliums. I thanked him for his “perseverance” – by which I meant his clinging to respectability. Then he went to his study.

Mrs E. D. handed me a puppet from my girlhood. Large head and eyes, larger nose. A tiny body in white. “You remember this? Lavinia envied your gifts. She cut the strings and – goodness – your tears.” Then Mrs E. D. laughed and laughed and laughed, as if silence were a sharp blade she had to blunt. I thanked mo her for her “good cheer” – by which I meant her cowardice.

And Lavinia? I hoard the sight now. She gave me her dress – white piqué, mother-of-pearl buttons, with a pocket for pencils or poesies. It’s no treasure, but it is hers. She wore it as a bride and as a widow, and I wear it now. I thanked her for her “quiet dignity” – by which I typically meant her willingness to tuck her tail as fate kicked her, but which now meant nothing more or less than what I said.

Lavinia held me until she was able to confect a smile. Then she whispered, “I cut the strings for you, sister,” and was gone.

It was a short walk to the field. Do you remember the field, as you remember me? Small and plain – but good? Thankfully, it was no longer thick with snow. Just green and brown and pink under blues. As I told you, it was always my chapel where I gave thanks to God. Now it was holy again. I was resolved to meet Him soon.

On two plain card tables shaded by cherry trees near the verge of wildflowers were slices of black cake and rye bread with butter. (No prize winners, these.) Also weak ale in cracked china mugs. Mr and Mrs E. D. had little to give – but they gave. Guests stood and ate politely.

Then, in the field’s dewy middle: a mahogany gaming table from the last century, heavy, with fine marquetry. Satin pillows, with embroidery. And sitting on these: two sabres.

Do you know sabres? I knew only what I had read on Wednesdays in Chicopee, in Mrs Phillips’ library. These were made in the French style and they were new – shining, sharp new. Each was monogrammed like the satin beneath them with initials, P & s. Phillips & Sons.

And there he was, standing and looking at me in Lavinia’s my dress – Theodore Phillips. The son! Teddy shone that morning, in his uniform.

Hold, do you know of our war? While the soul’s seas are far larger than the Atlantic, that water is still between us. I shall tell you of war, then. The nation bleeds into a pool – and the pool rises. It drowns some and raises up others. Mr E. D. lived but his law firm sank. (And so, cracked china mugs and grandfather’s gloves.) Mr Phillips was raised from village smith to union armourer, and his widow carried on his commerce.

Dear friend, this is why we make our ceremony – to share commerce, if not sentiment. To make families anew.

And so. Theodore Phillips wore fine, iris-blue pants and a muslin shirt, with black boots. His gold moustache, his golden hair – like sun through dew.

Our preacher was now a colonel in the south, so Mrs Phillips said the hallowed words. God help our souls, did we promise to give ourselves to one another? God help our souls, had we made peace with our families, old and new?

“Yes” – by which I meant such things were the Lord’s necessity – the “must be” of my chapel. I was resolved to lose myself.

“Ma’am, I do” – by which he meant he wished it soon over for me.

“Then begin.”

We took our blades and saluted one another and the small crowd. Teddy pointed his sabre’s tip at my breast.

You’ve been ill with fever – mortality is no stranger to you. Do you know that weakness that comes upon you, that waking sleep?

I couldn’t move. I was a puppet in a dress, my strings cut.

He came nearer, still pointing at my mother-of-pearl buttons. I saw myself as he saw me: a dying thing, a daffodil in frost. The bulbs – their ends and beginnings – ends and beginnings – ends and beginnings – ends and…

What infinities! The dirt and grass and cherry trees were all God’s words, and I heard His speech – felt His grace. Dear friend, it was my warm spring once again. Lazarus rose – I rose!

I raised my hand to Him, as I had read to do. And as Teddy cut I stepped away, so his blade cut only air. Then I lunged towards him with a benediction. He tried to parry, slipped on dew. My point slid off his chest and into his stomach. His mother’s blade cut the knot of him – where the cord had once joined him to her. He fell against me. Crimson on my dress.

I heard a wail – and turned from his eyes that now saw only Him – to Mrs Phillips, her face open like the cave of Lazarus.

The ceremony over, I made a curtsey to her and she made herself curtsey to me. “Mother,” I said – the word shining, sharp, new.

Mr and Mrs E. D. took their new-gained son to be buried. It was an expense, but not as expensive as a daughter and dowry. Now they have only Lavinia, who spends and says little.

Dear friend, I am content.

Do you hear me? I wear my white dress in my room, always – my lying pencil in my honest red pocket. But I am not stained!

Emily 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 6, 2021 as "Emily".

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Damon Young is a philosopher and author. His most recent book is On Getting Off (Scribe).