I brushed a small buzzing insect away from my face, waiting.
We both eyed each other.
“Who are you?” I repeated.
Her smile continued, unwavering. “I am looking for Nathaniel Brierly.”
I stood silently, weighing my answer, hoping my face did not betray the fear.
Oh, God! What did she know?
Somehow I knew this day would come. Be sure your sins will find you out…
“I am not acquainted with him.” I lied. “Does he live around here?”
Anne squealed and reached behind my shoulder for some imaginary play thing. I had turned her back to the woman as we had come up the walk. Now I shifted the weight to keep her from falling but this allowed her to grab my hair. The pain from the sudden yank stung in my eyes as I untangled her fingers and turned her around on my my hip.
“I think you are… acquainted.” She motioned to Anne as the smile faded from her face. “How old is the baby?”
“I think you need to leave.”
For a moment the veil lifted. Fear and hurt showed in her eyes. Her skirt shifted and the red silk fabric rustled like the whispering leaves overhead as she stepped forward, holding out her hand.
I stared at the slim, pale fingers. No resemblance there.
“I… I….” She stopped, pulling her hand back when I did not accept it. “My name is Mrs. Anne Brierly. He is my husband.” She appeared close to tears as she handed me a calling card printed with her name in black inked script. “Please.” She paused again, seemingly unsure of how to proceed. “I am sorry. I need to speak with you.”
I wanted to scream at her, to fly into a jealous rage. Bite. Claw. Kick. Spit. She shared his life! I only had a small part of it here in my arms.
“Why?” I whispered.
“May I come in?”
Warily, I nodded my head and motioned for her to follow me inside.
She left her bonnet on her head as I busied myself preparing tea.
“May I?” She wanted to pick up Anne.
Anne wanted to hold Anne…
I nodded but watched carefully out of the corner of my eye as I put up the newly purchased goods and the kettle heated on the stove.
She pulled the garnet earring out of her earlobe and dangled it before the giggling baby who chased it with her hands.
“She is beautiful. What is her name?”
I hesitated. “Anne.” The woman stopped playing with the earring and looked over at me, surprised. “I didn’t know it was your name.”
She nodded, silently, then went back to playing seemingly satisfied.
“You have girls, too, don’t you?”
She looked up, surprised. “Yes.”
“Yes. Well. No. Actually no….” Her voice drifted off. We both understood what that meant.
“What happened to her arm?” She asked softly.
“It is a long story… not one that I am ready to tell as yet.”
“Oh…..” She put the earring back in her ear.
I put Anne down for a nap while the tea steeped. I took my time, hoping to steel myself for whatever was to come next.
When I returned, we sat across from each other at the table in the kitchen. I poured the tea. We made eye contact over our teacups as we sipped, punctuating time with the clink of china upon china.
“Why do you have his smile?” I finally asked her.
She put her cup down delicately but a tremble in her hand made it rattle as it hit the saucer. She took a deep breath, then spoke softly.
“Nathaniel was my second cousin. I was much, much younger than he. I looked up to him. I thought he was the most gallant and handsome man I had ever met. I rarely saw him but I spent my time infatuated, thinking only of what it would be like to be loved by him.” She shrugged. “I was just a little girl.”
“One day he showed up again. He had completed his medical training and had toured in the States, talking about something or other.” She waved her hand dismissively. “I resolved to make him mine.” She steepled her fingers in front of her face and brushed her lips across the tips. “So I used everything in my power….”
She paused for a sip of tea, realized her hand still trembled too much, then quickly put it back down.
“I was soon pregnant and family pressure forced a wedding.” She paused. “I gave birth to a boy. He… the baby… was not right. Only one eye. His face was split from his lip to his nose. His belly was turned inside out.”
The hair stood out on my forearms.
Just like my little Levi.
“He died?” I asked.
“Within a few years we had two daughters. His behavior at home was erratic and I saw less and less of him as he became more well known in Edinburgh. He would stay there for months at a time.
“Finally, one day, he sent me a letter, saying that he was leaving for the Crimea. No explanation. Just leaving.” More anguish was showing on her face. “Every now and then we would get vague letters from him about the cold or the terrible food but they were rare.”
“When he finally came back, he was a shadow. A tortured soul.” Her eyes bored into me. “I didn’t know why.” Another pause. “He started to drink. Not just a little bit. No. Heavily. Drowning sorrows, he said. I thought it was because of his leg, the fact that he could not walk well any more, or because of things that he had seen…. there.” She lowered her voice to almost a whisper. “There were terrible stories, you know.” Then she laughed. “Of course you know. You were there. You were there with him, weren’t you?” Her voice cracked.
“Yes.” I breathed.
“One night, in a drunken stupor he called me by your name. He talked to me about his leg. About you. To him I did not exist as myself, I was his dear Evelyn.” She sobbed out of grief and rage. “I felt what it was like to be loved by him that night….”
There was silence for a few long minutes as we measured each other from across the table. I was unsure what to say. Finally, she spoke again.
“I decided to find out who you were.”