Chapter One Hundred Three: Leaving

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It was hours later when the last drop of red blood trickled down his ghostly hand, into the bowl and overflowed into the growing crimson lake on the floor.

His face was sallow and translucent without the pinkish hue of blood coursing through his veins. The jaundice was now left unchecked and he appeared otherworldly in the lamplight, no longer human.

The chest no longer rose and fell. 

He was still. 

Faded.

I had cried and rocked in the corner as I watched and waited, surprised yet again that I had any tears left after all of the sorrows of the years. 

I cried for myself, for innocence long gone. 

And I cried for him. He had been dead even before this. There was no cure. No treatment. He would die sooner rather than later anyway, most likely choking on his own blood and vomit, suffocated by hemorrhaging from within. At least I had spared him that indignity, hadn’t I?  

When the flow of tears and blood had stopped, I stood and packed my few belongings. 

I stood at the doorway to the bedroom for a few moments more, staring at the shell of what had been a brilliant doctor, my lover. I wanted Nathaniel to wake, to hold me, to tell me everything would be fine. He would not. I knew he would not but the heart wants what the heart wants. 

I craved his forgiveness but I could not have it. Not in this life.

Gathering up my skirts, I tiptoed through the sticky blood covered floor and kissed him once more on the cold lips. 

Kiss me back…

I touched his cheek.

There was no life there. 

I turned on the landing to look back, panic welling up as the horror of what I had just done broke through my clouded senses. A bloody trail of footprints followed behind me, fading with each step. My stomach turned.

Oh, God.

Then I ran.

Chapter One Hundred: Fluids

IMG_2141And so I went back.

I climbed each of those steps again, more slowly this time, filled with dread of a much different sort.

He was still lying in the floor, and had urinated on himself, but was coherent enough that he could assist me in getting him to bed. I helped him stand, leaving the bottle of spilled liquor in the floor.

Halfway across the room he began vomiting. 

Oh, God.

I stopped and waited for it to pass, the vomit splattering to the floor. Bits of it splashed up onto my skirt. I fought back my own urge to retch.

When the contents of his stomach had been completely evacuated, we resumed our halting progress.

His eyes held no recognition. I did not know if that was because of the alcohol, the head trauma, or something else. He groped my breast as he stumbled with me into the bedroom. I brushed his hand firmly away. 

“Stop.”

He didn’t fight me.

His eyes closed as he fell onto the bed, dust rising up from the mattress. He appeared to be unconscious, though his brow remained furrowed. 

I undressed him anyway.

His abdomen was swollen, full of fluid that shifted with every breath, every touch. His legs were doughy, my fingers left a deep imprint that lingered wherever they touched up to his thighs. I could see that he had scratched his jaundiced skin bloody in several places with long fingernails, leaving deep excoriations. The dried blood was still visible under those nails. 

His personal hygiene had been neglected for some time.

It is difficult to watch someone you love, someone you have been so intimate with, so changed. I wrestled with revulsion as I bathed his body with the water I found in the pitcher on the worn dresser. How long had it been there? At least it was cleaner than him.

I realized, as I scooped the vomit into an old dirty towel, that I still cared for him, otherwise cleaning this vomit from the floor would not have been possible.

I walked back to the bedroom and lay down on the mattress next to him and wept. All of his secrets, his pain, his mortality were all on display here in this dimly lit room. We had both suffered. My heart ached.

Chapter Ninety-Seven: The Next Chapter

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Where had she gone?

There was no doubt that she had disappeared into thin air. A magic, dark and powerful, filled with hate and anger and sadness, was involved… I had felt it throw me to the ground. It had crawl into my heart before it recoiled and fled. What did it see there?

I still felt a lingering cold and despair. Was it her despair?

Why?

She had said she no longer wanted to live in my shadow. Nathaniel did not love her as he loved me. I felt a certain pride in that fact. I had won after all, hadn’t I?

Her daughters were dead. They were the innocent casualties. I could not feel for them now, faceless as they were.

Was she dead? Or transported to another life, another time? Would she ever come back to haunt me?

Sunlight had broken over the horizon and bathed the rooftops in bright yellow. I shifted my skirts as the carriage made its way to Lauriston Street. The hem of the black mourning crepe was damp from the dew of the graveyard and black dye rubbed off onto my fingers.

No matter. It will dry.

My heart was pounding we came to a stop. A rocking signaled that the driver had stepped down. In seconds he had opened the door with a flourish and held out his hand to me. I placed my black gloved hand in his and stepped out.

The veil did not protect enough from the blinding sun glancing off of the third floor windows of the brownstone to prevent me from squinting as I looked up. It certainly looked respectable enough.

I could live here. 

I smiled to myself, relaxing somewhat, and took a step toward the front door. It was shiny and red with a large, simple brass knocker.

“No, Mrs. Brierly. Over there.” That name on his lips startled me.  I had given it to myself, to him. Still, to hear it on someone else’s lips….

He handed me the valise and pointed across the narrow street to another brownstone. The windows were dark with grime and the front steps were dirty. The door was propped open halfway, revealing stairs.

Surely not.

I checked the paper again, confused.

“Shall I wait for ye?” He stared at me kindly, expectantly.

I shook my head no silently as I pressed money into his hand.

“Are ye sure, lass?”

“Yes, sir. Thank you.”

I could barely breathe, anxiety and fear gripped my chest.

Had she given me the wrong address on purpose? Was this her revenge?

I did not want this man to serve as witness to my humiliation.

Crossing the street, I stood staring at the steps until I heard the carriage depart. Only then did I push the door open further and entered.

Chapter Sixty-One: Doubt

I waited anxiously for the days to tick by. Still I had no long term plan. I felt I could think better once I had the brooch and so I put off any serious consideration until I had my bit of Nathaniel back in my possession.

Time slowed, it seemed, almost to a standstill. My days were marked by words and meals, both of which were meager. The stories had stopped coming. There was more, much more, to say but it would not flow out of me onto the paper in any coherent fashion. As for the food, I had no appetite. Why pay for something I could not eat? And so I did not.

Sunday I decided to venture out to church, more out of boredom than piety. The streets were thick with those hurrying to seek their weekly absolution. Children, scrubbed clean, were dragged behind their mothers and fathers dressed in Sunday best. Old women walked more deliberately, likely held back by their rheumatism. Everyone was on their way to pay their respects to the almighty. Or at least they were making sure everyone else saw them doing it.

As I took the great stone steps myself, I realized that my heart felt bruised and tattered and that the holes had been filled by resentment. I was not ready to let go of all of the anger that was holding me together. Somehow, I knew that stepping across the threshold would start to chisel away at it. Once that was gone, what would I have left but grief and despair? Resentment and anger might not be the most pleasant of emotions but it was better than the alternative at this moment.

And what of remorse? I felt none for my love of Nathaniel, for my time with him, naked. Wasn’t remorse required of me prior to crossing this threshold? I searched my soul. No. No regret. I would live those moments over and over a thousand times a day if I could.

I hesitated at the heavy, ornate door, not entering. It must have been a lengthy pause. Someone behind me shifted and then coughed impatiently.

Turning, I found a young married couple waiting expectantly. The woman stared at me, clearly irritated that I was blocking their path. She did not know that I could not be hurt by her. She was too young to have been affected much by life. Soon, that would change, I felt certain. Instead, I pitied her.

“I beg your pardon,” I whispered to them as I passed. The gentleman touched his hat to me, nodding slightly. The woman glared from beneath her green velvet bonnet, her matching green eyes flashing.

Walking back down the steps, I pulled the black cloak tighter around me. Inquisitive looks from other parishioners followed as I retreated. What were they thinking about me, I wondered.

Coward. Sinner. Heathen. Damned.

It was only a few blocks to the hotel and I hurried as quickly as I could, not wanting to be out here in the open where I suddenly felt so vulnerable. Why was everyone looking at me? I touched my veil, the bonnet, smoothed my skirt…making sure nothing was out of place. It must be my imagination. I looked over my shoulder. There! A man in a black frock coat was looking back at me over their shoulder. It was real. But why? I am supposed to be an apparition, dressed in mourning. Does the magic not work on holy days, then?

Back in my rooms I sat holding the Bible I had purchased a few days previously. I did not open it.

All of my life there had been a nagging undercurrent of disbelief, that feeling that what I had been taught about God was not quite real because it did not make sense. Yes, I had read the verses. I had heard the sermons. But there was something missing. They were all leaving out the most important part but I did not know what that part was specifically. All I had was that suspicion, the doubt. It was this doubt that I now grabbed hold of with both hands.

Chapter Thirty-Seven: Pulling up Roots

My hand glided along the mahogany balustrades, the silky wood cool beneath my fingertips.  The furniture was covered with dust cloths and dotted the rooms of the house like forlorn ghosts.  The heavy drapes were drawn closed at the casements, but thin slivers of bright sunlight still managed to slip through, slicing their way across the floor.  The house would remain thus for several months before the new family would take possession, but I was moving on.

My life had been condensed into a single steamer trunk.  All other personal items had been sold, burned, or sent for safe keeping with Mr. Hedgerly. I felt light. And heavy.

“Are you ready miss?”  The coachman was standing silhouetted in the doorway, hat in his hands.

“Yes, yes…just a moment more….”

“As you wish, only…” 

“Just a moment, John.  I will be there in a moment,” I said sharply. He bowed his head and backed out of the room again.  I could hear him pacing in the hallway, cursing under his breath. 

My heart felt empty.   

One last sigh, a look around, and I walked out the front doors, closing them for the last time behind me. 

Chapter Thirty-Six: Darkness Descends

Where was God?

William Aspern was dead. 

I bathed his body and dressed him in his burial suit.  Perhaps the servants should have performed the task, but I could not bear it, his secret places open to their eyes.  He was mine. 

William’s close business friend, Jonathan Hedgerly, a tall, gangly and somber fellow, came to offer his services. His quiet way was comforting. He assisted with all of the arrangements and I was grateful. William would be buried at the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Boston, the first cemetery of its kind in the United States to combine a picturesque, rugged landscape with burial. More like a garden than a cemetery, really. Mr. Hedgerly had selected a plot on a hill overlooking the river.  It was beautiful, he said, and was exactly what William would have wanted for himself, not the rows and rows of tombstones found in the traditional graveyards.

His body was laid out in the grand parlor and close friends and family filed by to pay their respects.  I was surprised by the degree of respect he had achieved, the number of people that filled our house over the ensuing days after the funeral.  Thankfully, I was not expected to meet any of them and I remained secluded in the back rooms of the house.  Yet another wardrobe of black appeared, this time is was my turn to wear the mourning bonnet.  Its long, flowing black veil left me in a dark shadow to my ankles.  The door to our house was again covered in black crepe and tied with a white ribbon.  Funeral invitations had to be written.  And I needed to write a letter to his parents detailing his death.

I steeled myself. Two years, isolated. This was considered the proper sign of respect for the man whose name I carried, to live in perpetual companionship with my deceased husband for at least the next two years.  I knew that my grieving would last much longer than that, but the rituals themselves seemed so empty that I felt myself resenting them.  I resolved to not allow my resenting of the trappings and etiquette cause me to resent him. I owed him at least this. If I had not been faithful to him before, I should be faithful now.

The day of the funeral dawned hot and oppressive, the bright sun beating down. Beads of sweat ran down my scalp, neck, and back. I had applied lemon juice to my armpits prior and let it dry, hoping to not end up smelling like a goat by the end of the procession with all of my black layers absorbing the heat of the sun. Six pallbearers carried William’s body to the horse drawn hearse and then on to the graveside.  While William had seemed to not be aware of his impending death on the surface, he had actually prepared for it in great detail privately.  In addition to making arrangements for the sale of the factory and a trust for me, he had left instructions regarding his funeral.  He had been specific that there not be anything more than a simple graveside service and Mr. Hedgerly had been specific in carrying out the wish. 

I felt suffocated beneath the hot veil, the dust from the dyed cloth filling my lungs as I followed, alone, in the next carriage.  I now understood why women remained secluded in their homes during mourning.  If I were required to wear this miserable get-up out of doors I intended to stay locked up, too.  At the graveyard, I stood silently beside the priest as he gave the brief eulogy.  I was a black, shapeless ghost.  Acquaintances nodded as they filed past me afterward. Sometimes a woman would pause and give me a reassuring or sympathetic hand squeeze. There would be no meal.  No gathering.  Nothing more than this.  I stood there, beside William’s coffin until everyone had left aside from the priest and Mr. Hedgerly.  I did not want to leave him there. 

There was an awkward clearing of the throat. “Mrs. Aspern.” It was Mr. Hedgerly’s deep, soft voice.

I looked up at him through the black haze of the veil.  He held a small, white envelope in his hand, addressed to me.  He was almost apologetic as he held it out to me.  I started at it.

“William had this in his papers with the instruction that it was to be given to you after the funeral.  He did not say more specifically than that, so I felt it should not wait any longer than necessary.”

I stretched out a black gloved hand, noticing my fingers trembling as they touched the crisp paper. 

“Thank you, Mr. Hedgerly.”  I replied.  “I would like to read it here with him, please?”

“Certainly,” the priest said in response to Mr. Hedgerly’s quizzical look and turned away immediately, hurrying back down the path visibly relieved to not have to linger in order to console the bereaved widow.           

“I will wait for you at the carriages,” Mr. Hedgerly said softly.

“Thank you.”  I nodded and waited until he had turned to tear open the envelop. I could see the dirty, sweaty grave diggers standing in a grove of trees several paces away, hovering, hoping to pile the dirt onto the black casket as quickly as possible so that they could return home.  They were paid for the job, not by the hour.  However undignified, I sat down on the ground beside William and unfolded the letter.  In spite of the heat, I felt gooseflesh rise on my arms as if chilled.

My dearest Evelyn,

You already know that I have made arrangements through my friend, Mr. Hedgerly to sell the factory and all of my business assets and to place the proceeds into a trust for you.  I am told that it will be a substantial sum, the interest of which will enable to you live comfortably and independently for the rest of your time on this earth.  I do this for two reasons.  First, because I love you.  Above all else, I love you.  Second, because I do not desire you to be tied to this place of death.  The house will be sold in two year’s time.  You have too much to offer this world to be tied to memories that no longer exist.  Your life is yours.

I remain therefore forever in your keeping,

William Jamison Aspern

I reread the letter several times. Mr. Aspern, plain Mr. Aspern. My Mr. Aspern, with his secrets and hiding places. How much of his life was a veil which he had hidden behind?  How would I ever really know him? I was not sure whether to be angry or elated about the house being sold, but at least I had two years.  Some time to make plans.  The size of the income was a relief, as I had already spent many sleepless nights wondering what was to become of me in that respect.  I knew that I could learn to run a mill, but I had not relished the task in any way. Actual dollar amounts and business details had not been shared with me and I had been afraid to ask. In the end, William had been wise in all things.           

But one last question remained.  Where was God?  I was not entirely sure that I had any kind of faith left in me.  He had not heard my cries.  I had not felt his comforting presence at any point along this journey.  My heart was full of anger and hurt.  As I sat on the ground, alone aside from the coffin and the grave diggers, I screamed out for God to hear.  I railed against him, letting all of the hate and sadness pour from my soul and out of my mouth. I did not want to keep it with me any longer.  He could have it, have it all, if he existed. 

Mr. Hedgerly must have heard, too.  Perhaps he had stayed nearby, hidden within earshot in case he was needed. Within a minute he was kneeling beside me, hushing me.  When I would not be hushed, he stood, lifting me up by the elbows until I was standing before him.  He must have thought that I was screaming at William.

“Hush! You do not want anyone else to hear.”  He shook me gently. “Look at me, Evelyn!”

I did look at him.  And I was quiet.

“Yelling at him will do no good. He cannot hear you. Come.”  He put my black gloved hand on his arm and covered it with his own hand, clearly to prevent my escape. He led me away.

But now God knew the score.  I dared the bastard to take me next. I would not go without a fight.

Chapter Thirty-Four: Change of Heart

Mourning for Levi was six weeks as he had died an infant.  I wished it to last longer.  I needed desperately to bring attention to the fact that my baby had died.  I wanted to hear condolences given. Wearing black gave me permission to cry if I needed to cry with no judgment passed.  But unlike mourning for a spouse, to carry this out longer in the end felt disrespectful to other women who had mourned the loss of their own children.  So I carried my grief hidden inside.  William and I never spoke of it again once I had burned my mourning dresses.

We settled back into our routines with some new modifications.

While William was kind and solicitous, he never came to my bed. We attended social functions together and played our parts well but behind closed doors he seemed distant and closed off. He still told me that he loved me. He still kissed me before leaving for work and before retiring to bed.  But there was no passion from him. I wanted to feel he was pursuing me. Instead he was slipping away.

I tried harder and harder to hold on. I found places for us to go, to be together. We attended dinner parties and concerts, operas and balls. I spent quite a bit of money on new wardrobe pieces, updating everything to the latest fashions. I did my best to be charming and flirtatious, to no effect.

A cold November evening, we were sitting in a balcony at the Boston Music Hall, fittingly listening to a performance of Mozart’s Requiem.  William had been coughing for months, but it had only been a mild annoyance.  This night, however, his cough was loud, persistent, and disruptive. 

I leaned over to him and whispered, “William, please!  Can you not stop coughing?”

He held up a hand and nodded his head.  We settled back as the strains of the Sanctus continued to play.  It was not long before the coughing started anew.  People were looking up from the seats below us, glaring.  I was annoyed.  I turned and glared at William.  He looked back at me with pained eyes.  I nodded my head to the door, indicating he should excuse himself.

William stood and quickly left.  Minutes passed.  I could hear him in the hallway still coughing, unable to catch his breath.  Annoyance changed to concern.  I realized something was wrong and rose to assist him.  I found him with a uniformed elderly usher with a long bushy mustache and bare chin.  He was sipping on a glass of water, his hand shaking.  There were large spots of blood on his handkerchief and flecks on his white gloves.  He handed the glass to the usher when he saw me and quickly pulled off the gloves, shoving them and the handkerchief back into his coat pocket. 

“I am sorry, Evelyn.  I am better now.  We can go back.” He was hoarse.

“William, we need to go.”

“No.  You enjoy this sort of thing so much.”

“No.  We must go,” I said firmly. The blood worried me. We needed to leave before the end of the music, before anyone else was able to stop us and ask what was wrong. The pain was there in his face again.  The usher looked exceedingly uncomfortable. “Thank you for your help, we are fine now,” I told him.  He nodded and gratefully left with the glass of water in hand.

“You stay, I will go home, Evelyn.”

“There is no point in staying if you are not here. It is only Mozart, William.”  He started to return to our box. I grew angry. Why won’t he listen to me? “William!” I hissed.

I had to grab his shoulder to make him stay, but I pulled my hand back quickly, alarmed. I had not realized how skeletal he had become. We sat next to each other, but we did not touch. We no longer saw each other naked. It was then that I realized he was terribly ill.

He turned back to me with the intent of arguing further but paused when he saw by my face that I understood. 

Chapter Thirty-Three: Wasting

“Please, William.”

We were standing in the dark dining room.  Dim light streamed in through the windows, a full moon’s blessing.  The candelabra cast fingerlike shadows across the polished tabletop. I took his hand.

I wanted him to come to me this night. 

“No.  I am sorry.” He stiffened.  “No.”  He shook his head, never making eye contact.  His breathing was heavy, deliberate.

I needed to show him love, to say thank you. It was the only way that I knew how…physically, offering my body to him. It was the one thing I knew that he wanted the most. He had been devoted and steadfast and strong, always my constant.  Even so, I had watched as he had lost weight, seemingly eaten away from the inside as baby Levi had died, the funeral, even now months later.

Please?”  I begged quietly.

“What if it happens again, Evelyn?”

I had no answer.  I could not tell him that Levi was not his, that he could not blame himself.  That Levi was my burden of conscience.  I lacked the courage.  Everything that I had done to this point had lacked courage and this instance was no different. He was afraid to touch me.

We parted ways; he to his room and me to mine. 

Chapter Twenty-Seven: The Other Side

What to say of married life?  We settled into our new life as lord and lady of our little manor and made the requisite tour of the social circuits once I had moved into the tail end of half mourning.  The rules of etiquette governing the making and receiving of social calls during mourning were staggering and took precedence over any that governed newlyweds establishing in a community.  Furthermore, I could not figure out how long I was to actually be in mourning.  With both parents dead so close together, should my sentence be served out consecutively or concurrently?  Being a good daughter, I decided to observe one full year.  I could do no more.

Socially, we were sought after once I began to venture into public again.  My father’s fortune, the factory, social standing…all made making our acquaintance important. But it was painful. I cringed silently inside every time William made a comment that seemed out of turn. People would avert their eyes or shift uncomfortably when he would chime in to speak.  It happened frequently, or so it felt, and the shame swallowed me.

William insisted on holding my hand or touching my arm in public. I hoped that it was not merely out of sincere affection. I did not want merely affection. I wanted more. I wanted his touch to signify possession.  I wanted him to be a man that I could respect. As it was, his touch irritated me. Behind closed doors, I did not mind it as much.  In public, I felt everyone was watching.  I did not want anyone to see me returning affection to him.  Why that was exactly was difficult to say.  No one seemed to be affected but me in the end, but I felt that I was in a perpetual state of mortification, embarrassed to be seen with my own husband. 

He, meanwhile, was attentive to my every need, regularly bringing me flowers and little gifts, kissing me on the forehead each morning at the breakfast table as he left for the day.  In private I felt ashamed of my feelings.  I loved him, yes.  But what was missing?  What was wrong with me?

Over the ensuing months, we sorted through my mother’s and father’s belongings:  papers and clothing, trinkets and mementos.  I had put it off for over a year, afraid of what I might find.  My father had very little personal correspondence anywhere.  He had been careful not to keep anything incriminating around where it could be found. Or he had charged his valet to destroy it contingent upon his death. Interestingly, my mother had apparently saved all of her early correspondences with my father, the stack tied with the proverbial pink silk ribbon.  The ribbon itself had become quite frayed, clearly handled time and again.  Was it possible that she had still loved him?  Did she read and reread his letters in the dark hours of the night when she was alone?  Perhaps I held in my hand the key to their lives, somewhere on the pages of this stationary.  I considered reading them all one by one, and indeed had the first one out of the envelope, before guilt seized me by the throat. 

In the end I decided to toss the bundle onto the grate, ribbon and all…the resulting burst of flame rendered the paper quickly into sparks and ash.  It was too private, even for me.

Finally, at the end of the one year period, John helped me to build a nice bonfire out behind the house.  I piled on each and every piece of black clothing I owned and watched the material shrink and curl up on itself as it became dark gray smoke billowing to the heavens.  I felt my heart lighten and my shoulders straighten as that burden fell away.  It was considered bad luck to save mourning attire to wear again for another death.  I felt that was likely more a way for the merchants to make more money it their goods were not reusable, but for me, for this time, it felt good to be free.

William moved into my father’s chambers and I took up residence in my mother’s bedroom and sitting room.  I had not been sure at first that this was a good plan, but in the end it had felt natural.  I was closer to my mother this way and felt that if I spoke to her in the night, she could somehow hear me better this way.  She had died here.  And every night, as I lay in her bed, I told her that I was sorry. 

Chapter Twenty-Six: Death Again

My mother endured her prison, isolated for several months. She became more and more reclusive and her world gradually shrank from the entire house to only her room. I had thought that as spring started to bloom that she would start to venture out more, but the opposite was true. She grew more and more withdrawn.

The servants brought food and left it for her outside the door. I attempted several times to try to gain admittance but my rapping on the door and calling her name was met only by silence. She had barricaded the door with the bureau and only moved it when the hallway outside was empty and she wanted to exchange trays or chamber pots. I was not sure she was bathing as she did not lay out any laundry. I shuddered to think what state her personal hygiene was in. It was particularly upsetting knowing how fastidious she had been about her appearance previously.

Rumors of her seclusion were running rampant about the town. It was interpreted as a symptom of her devotion to her late husband. Only I suspected the truth….that she had looked at the empty abyss of her future freedom and realized that youth had fled, leaving her with nothing, no hope for joy.

Eventually, one day, she stopped retrieving the food trays. It went on like this for several days. She could not keep this up. She would starve. I decided to intervene.

“Mother!” I yelled outside her door. Silence.

I rapped firmly and insistently on the door. No uncomfortable shifting or rustling.

“MOTHER!” I pounded on her door. No breathing, sniffling, or coughing.

Somehow I knew that something was terribly wrong.

I ran to find John and begged him to push open her door or break it down. He was reluctant. A look of terror crossed his face as he stood outside her door.

“Are you sure you want me to do this?” he whispered.

“John, she is not going to dismiss you, if that is what you are worried about!” I sighed, exasperated.

Yes, Ma’am, that’s what I am worried about.” He whispered back.

“Just do it!” I demanded, finding myself whispering, too.

He turned the knob but it was locked.

“I will have to break down this door.”

I nodded. “Do it!” He hesitated again. “John? Do it!”

He shoved all of his tall weight against the door. With the lock and the bureau, it held fast. He tried again and again, but it didn’t budge.

Without a word, John held up a finger and ran off down the stairs, bounding three at a time.

“MOTHER! You open this door right now!” I demanded as I pounded again until my hands burned and ached.

John appeared again with a large axe in his hands. He looked at me with a raised eyebrow, silently asking permission.

I nodded assent, panic catching in my chest. I stepped back.

It took one blow to split the door and a second to tear open a hole. Splinters flew and hit the opposite wall. I ducked, covering my eyes. He reached through with both hands, pushing over the bureau. It hit the floor with such a crash that all of the household staff and William come running. John reached around through the door again to turn the lock. As the door opened I stifled a scream.

My mother’s naked body was hanging by her neck from the crossbar between the bedposts that formed the canopy. She had torn her nightgown into strips and fashioned a noose. Her eyes were bugged open, unseeing, and her face was deep purple. A puddle of urine and feces marked the floor beneath her. She must have been this way, dead, for a several days. She had not had second thoughts, no scrambling trying to save herself as the bed was neatly made, there were no scratches on the wood, and her fingernails were intact.

Her black widows weeds, the dress she wore for the funeral, was folded neatly on the chair in the corner, topped with her white widows cap and black mourning veil.

As I fell sobbing to the floor, William and John quickly cut her down, laying her on the floor and covering the body with the woven coverlet from the bed. The rest of the household stood silently outside the room staring.

No one said a word.

And then, all I felt was anger. How could she be so selfish, to leave me alone like this? How dare she! I felt an incoherent sound escape my lips and I reached over to shake her awake. Her body was limp and frighteningly cold through the coverlet. I drew my hand back rapidly. It was real. She was dead.