A September wind howled and ripped apart our aging pine trees on the night I awakened in my dead wife’s garden. Titian leaves and clumps of black earth covered my neck and hands, and as I raised myself from my recumbent position, I realized that, despite my large frame, I was miniscule, one man sandwiched between the roaring thunder of an angry, charcoal sky and dark rain falling in corrugated sheets on sparse grass. One quick eruption of light tore the clouds asunder and I saw that my cobblestone house stood behind me, completely aloof.
For some reason, that night I hadn’t dreamt of my late wife, Evelyn. Instead, I had dreamed of Marie, a young nurse at the hospital with yellow ringlets that curled for days. In an ugly and terrible dream, my head lay on her shoulder and I closed my hands around her chest. But after I had positioned myself on top of her, noting in the dream that she smelled nothing like my late wife, she had sprang out from underneath me and thrown herself onto the wooden floor, screaming like a banshee and pulling at her hair, which fell around her in golden clumps, and I had watched in horror as her nude, pink body turned grey and shriveled into a heap of ash. The pile of grey powder had solidified and crawled toward me, laid a thin hand on my thigh and pointed its small, perfect teeth in my direction. And at that point I had awakened in damp soil amidst a storm, wondering at myself.
However, I did find our cream sheets to be occupied when I crept back, sopping wet, into our bedroom. A petite figure lay curled like a full-grown foetus in our sturdy mahogany bed, and I watched it breathe in shock. Then I recollected that Marie had quickly agreed to accompany me home from the hospital, her high cheekbones reddening under her hopeful eyes, strong eyes like the sienna crags of Ireland. But for all the ambition that her wantonness implied, she couldn’t dust, scrub, or clean dishes. The needles and bandages that she sterilized always had to be sterilized again, and the veteran nurses followed after her when she cleaned the operating rooms. Nevertheless, that night marked six months exactly of leaden grief and guilt, and I had tired of sleeping in our bed alone.
I moved towards Marie and grabbed a thin shoulder, but nothing happened. I shook her but her mouth fell open and she began to snore. “Marie, get up,” I said, firmly, and her eyelids parted. She stretched and flashed me a heavy smile that I did not return.
“Good morning, Dr. Pennamon,” she yawned smugly, and she giggled. “I could call you ‘Robert’ now, right? Or maybe even ‘Robbie?’ Maybe today we—”
“What happened yesterday?”
“Nothing, sir,” she pouted, and her smile faded. “You drank a lot of port and, well, so did I, and we lay down here but then you fell asleep. I woke up some time later but you were gone.”
“I didn’t touch you?”
“No,” she said, and she looked up at me expectantly. For a moment, the room was silent except for the scraping of sharp branches against a window and the pounding of soaked birds falling on the rooftop. Evelyn’s terrier, Raven, howled from somewhere in the household, and the hollow sound reverberated as I crossed my arms.
“Gather your things. When the storm settles, I will have you driven to wherever you need to be.”
“Sir, you want me to… leave, sir?”
“Yes,” I said.
“But, sir,” Marie said, leaning forward. “It’s only a quarter past six. Surely we—”
“Gather your things and one of my stable hands will take you home in a covered carriage.” I said, but before I left I saw a dark spot on the pillowcase stitched by Evelyn for our first anniversary. I looked at Marie and imagined her poor, filthy saliva, and my throat tightened.
“But, Robbie, won’t you—”
“Get out!” I roared, and she scurried from the bed in her undergarments, wringing her podgy hands.
After she left I straightened our scattered sheets, and a choking weight released me. I washed my face with icy water from a steel pitcher and donned a heavy black suit with a stiff, white cravat—the uniform of a respected professional. In a nearby mirror I put my watch and chain into my coat pocket, and adjusted gold spectacles over my crooked nose. Through the one window in our bedroom, I could see the maples outside bending under the wrath of the sullen rain. I didn’t have to work until eight, but since I was awake I couldn’t go back to sleep. So I, Dr. Robert Pennamon, opened my leather notebook of surgeries and appointments and looked over my schedule for the day.
When I went downstairs and into the kitchen, a maid named Rebecca set me a plate of hot veal and potatoes on the table, and I nodded for her to leave. But she paused, like the servants always did, to see if I would say grace, and I thought of Evelyn bending her frail neck and folding her lovely hands.
“Go,” I said, frowning. And at the wave of my hand, she went, looking over her shoulder as she did so.
My servants hated me. Some of them were devout Catholics, and would talk of me as a tyrannous infidel, muttering insolent prayers behind me when they thought I couldn’t hear. Other servants loathed me as for my heritage, for the fact that I was wealthy in spite of my hungry past in Ireland. But their trembling supplications and curses were only like pebbles to me: useless and amusing. When a man has endured days and weeks without food, first in his own homeland and then on the way to another—when he has seen grown men shed tears and women and children alike suffer beyond reason, he is not easily offended. I was twelve when we left our blighted farm for London in 1840, and after the death of my mother and one of my sisters, I watched my solemn father and began to value his rationality. I ignored the taunts of my British peers and excelled at a charity school by chasing intellect and stability. Eventually, my hard work took me to medical school, from which I graduated despite my red hair and crooked speech. But after marrying Evelyn, I softened. However, it was her unfair death that would leave me bereaved and return me to my senses; I could not see the truth in a spirit that would take my wife away.
In an hour came a knock at the front door that would have been Dr. Williams. Sure enough, when I turned the brass knob and pulled the door open, a stench of rotten strawberries pinched my nose. I staggered back into the foyer and almost tripped on Raven, who had galloped over at the sound of the door to show me her affections.
“Well, good morning!” laughed Horace. “Come, come; why the long face? There are patients to heal, women to see; it is a new day in 1854, my man—look alive!”
Horace slapped my back, and bragged as we stepped out of the house about the appendectomy that he’d performed and the new equipment from Switzerland that he’d used to do it. We stepped into my Berlin carriage and rode off into the orange countryside, and the earth was still masked in a wet sheet of grey. Despite the cold, I would have preferred to ride bareback. But Horace had told me years ago that that was unprofessional, and many years before that I had learned that Horace knew everything. My corpulent friend had the bulbous nose and jellied chin of a wealthy Englishman—a son of a wealthy lawyer, to be exact. Yet Horace lived undaunted by his grotesque appearance, and he spent his earnings and his inheritance without reserve, knowing that he would always have plenty. Naturally, one might expect that I would resent Horace. But in the years since our meeting at London University, no pure hatred had manifested itself, so I allowed that I would foster the relationship until it came. For despite our differing backgrounds, Horace Williams and I were quite the same. We were both loners, distant from society because of our voracious appetites for success.
“…and so Lord Buckingham invited me to perform—Robert? Robert, are you listening to me?” Horace leaned over and exhaled meaty fumes as the padded seats of the black carriage squealed under his weight. “What is the matter with you?”
I felt my breakfast fall like sunken rocks to the bottom of my stomach. “I did not sleep well yesterday.”
“I walked in my sleep, again.”
Horace frowned. “But—did you not sleep with her?” I shook my head. “But I told you to— it has been six months, and I thought if you—”
“What are you so afraid of? God—”
“I’m not afraid. And I don’t believe in God.”
“So you say. But the reason for your somnambulism is stress, and as I have told you many times, God has given mankind a cure for stress that never fails. Do you know how many angry men I have ‘cured’ simply by giving them twenty shillings and sending them to a brothel?”
“I’m not angry,” I said.
“Yes you are. But like so many others, she is gone and for your own sake you need to move on and, if necessary, marry another.”
My skin prickled. How could I possibly explain myself to a man who had no shame? I had not wanted to invite the nurse home, but I also had not wanted to spend another night alone. Sleeping unaccompanied meant feverish dreams and visions that left me cold and shaking at various hours in the morning. Yet a small part of me relished those nightmares, because only through them did I still have Evelyn.
Horace paused his lecture and threw up his hands. “Robert, listen to me—for God’s sakes, my man, she was only a woman—worth nothing more than a coin!”
Suddenly my hands flew at his gelatinous neck and squeezed until pale folds of flesh poked out of my fingers. I couldn’t see Horace choking in front of me, for whatever light there was in the dim carriage had evaporated with the rise of my fury.
But then the carriage stopped, and a knock sounded from the outside. I let go of Horace and straightened my coat while he gasped for air, and the door opened. According to my driver, we had arrived at Mrs. Canterbury’s.
Mrs. Canterbury was an old widow who lived with her daughter, Keri, on a crowded plot of brambles, briar, and brush. She was known for the great murder of crows that lived among the Judas trees crouching around her home, and also for the number of Sundays that she was absent from Mass. I knew her delinquencies from service and other social functions were due to her arthritis and chronic bronchitis and not from any lingering doubts or traces of paganism, but I appreciated her mutterings nonetheless. One of the crows screeched as me and Horace, both red-faced and feeling foolish, made our way up a rocky dirt path and into her home.
Upon our entrance, the floorboards creaked and Mrs. Canterbury stilled her rocking chair.
“Hello, gentlemen,” she said, and we nodded. “What a lovely Sunday morning in September!”
“It’s Monday, mother,” whimpered a shapely, peach-skinned lady standing in the room. She adjusted the knitting in Mrs. Canterbury’s wobbling hands.
“Keri?” said Mrs. Canterbury, and she smiled into the distance.
I opened my black medical kit and set aside my various instruments on a nearby wooden table: a stethoscope and thermometer, a hypodermic syringe, and a box of surgical horsehair. I wrapped the black band of a sphygmomanometer around Mrs. Canterbury’s spotted, wrinkled arm and checked her blood pressure, while Horace stood behind me and recorded the measured values.
Keri floated to me from her mother’s side. “Is there anything I can do?” she asked. “Would you like some water? Or some tea?”
“A tipple of sherry, please,” said Horace, and he opened his medicine bag absently.
I shook my head. “No, nothing,” I said.
“How are you?” Keri asked. Her sea-green eyes were heavy on my face.
“I’m fine,” I said. I felt Mrs. Canterbury’s forehead and dictated notes for Horace to take on her appearance (she was thinner, her breath was short, her hands and wrists were bluish). Keri hovered over every move I made, gasping along with her mother’s groans of discomfort and sighing when I counted out for her some pills. Horace would always comment on Keri’s devotion as unnecessary, because we all knew that her mother was going to die.
Evelyn’s death had surprised me because I had refused to believe it was coming. When the February consumption ravaging the city streets had spread to our quiet countryside, I restricted her movements and mainly confined her to the household to prevent her from contracting the disease. Soon after March began, she complained of stabbing headaches and bothersome coughs. But I dismissed her grievances as effects of house arrest and honed in on my profession. As neighboring women forgave Evelyn her childlessness and brought dishes and mended sheets, I researched a rare disease named cancer. I prescribed aspirins and tonics for the light seeping from my wife’s eyes, so that I could make my discoveries in peace. Even as her clothes began to hang, and the maids said she wouldn’t eat, I convinced myself that there was nothing wrong. I was too selfish to believe my wife would leave me before I’d proven myself to her father.
Despite my arrogance, Evelyn had coughed and smiled and loved me still, bringing me asters and freesias and mint from her garden when she was strong enough to work outside, and listening happily to my pompous findings. I was a doctor. If I had looked after her properly, things should have been different. But early that year, a lot of people had died of tuberculosis, and at the end of March, Evelyn was one of them.
“Well then,” I said. Keri took some of the pills and administered them to Mrs. Canterbury. I stood back and watched her long fingers overlap on a glass of water that she held to her mother’s lips. Her hands looked soft, and I wanted to feel them. She should be a schoolteacher, I thought, so that she could teach younger versions of myself to become gentle.
Horace crossed his arms over his great belly and turned on his heel while saying goodbye; it was time to go. But before I could follow him out of the front door, I heard the slight whistle of Mrs. Canterbury taking a breath.
“A loss is a loss, and a treasure is a treasure,” the old woman said. And when I turned around, she had a twinkle in her eyes.
to be continued......