Mariah Wilson, Lisbon, NY
People wander in and out of the dark wood of the entryway, brushing away cake crumbs and sucking their tongues for the last tastes of expensive tea. People like lawyers, doctors, and priests. When she dies, they will memorialize her in dusty, dry pages of legal work to be lost in highly flammable legal cabinets where nervous new clerks are instructed to put the little things of little importance. I imagine the priest will try to fit her funeral in between his tea and dinner; there will not be many people there for him to sorrow with. When the doctor leaves, he briskly snaps the clasp of his black bag and whistles out the door a tune with a carnival air. They say maybe three days.
When I polish the ebony molding of the doorway, I can hear her quiet breathing from the window above the door overlooking the grey, rain glazed streets. On days when she was rather well, she would sit on the window seat, in a green silk bed jacket and watch the lighted carriages, and occasionally write something down in a small red leather book that was never very far. Inside I imagine that it is full of her words, words that she has dropped inside at odd intervals, and left there forgotten, like bent hatpins. Of a sudden there is space in the steady rhythm, seeming notes slipped from a torn piece of music. I begin a count, at ten seconds I polish faster, at twenty I am ready to leap from the stool and run inside the foyer, taking the stairs two at a time, at twenty-three I can hear her take a small shallow breath.
She has lived alone for a very long time, and I have been in the foyer, poised like a hat stand, polishing wood, washing china in the kitchen and scrubbing the stone floors of her home for a very long time. Twenty years this spring I believe. When I began I was smaller, I had a readier smile graced with whiter teeth. When I came here first there was another death in the house. But it was an old man who lay in a bed, in a dark room on south side of the brick house overlooking the gardens. Pale as the surrounding linen bedclothes he was swathed in, he looked like a crumpled linen napkin. I can remember walking into the room with my mother, her eyes set like stones and squeezing my hand. The man spoke from the folds of linen, looking at me over the top of the bindings of a book lying closed on his chest. He looked at the cheap street violets tucked behind my ear and smiled, saying that if I wished it the position was mine. I left that day and when I came back the room was empty.
There are twenty-four steps up to the landing of the second floor, and each one creaks, and must be brushed free of dust. The dust rises into the air and dances in a ribbon of sun, swirling in a mobius strip in an angular slant of a golden world. The wall against the stairs is lined with pictures of flowers; irises, the bell caps of crocus, poppies and sunflowers, a flat and scentless garden brushed by moth wings rather than butterflies. Outside she used too keep a garden of unequaled splendor, her flowers the brightly colored grosgrain pieces of her herself that she parcels out to others in place of words. I do what I can but haven't the touch that puts life into the flower beds, they seem flat and rather lack the vividness that was there when she tended them. Whatever she touched sprung up green and growing, I can only keep it free of dust.
At the top of the twenty-fourth stair I can hear her shift, the sound soft and muffled, like the beating of a moth's wing under her thick woolen blanket. She and I are the only two people in this old and empty house, though the reach of our arms and the openness of our minds have shriveled to more suit the garden shed. I stand on the stairwell, my footsteps padded on the wood by a red hooked rug, looking dreary in the ragged streams of grey light from the narrow windows. I knock very softly; "Miss Emily?" and creak open the broad door. Her room is draped in slants of white light reflected and thrown from the snowy spread of her bed, the gauzy curtains, and the dozen white dresses hanging in her open closet. She is holding another red book, turning it over and over in her hands, and stroking and turning the empty pages with an unreadable air. "Bring me some tea, please, Mary. Make sure it's hot." Her lips are swollen when she says this, as is the rest of her face and her hands and feet as well, her dark hair straggles around her sloping shoulders and brushes her cheeks, her dark eyes trained on the spine of the small book. "The rain," She says as I turn to go, "It'll do the garden good; it was too dry this autumn. Next year we must plan for dry weather." She sighs and turns towards the window, imagining spring tulips on the cobbles. "Yes, next year. There'll be a bee in every flower." I bend down next to the bed, and add "The grandest garden in New England." She smiles at this. I think, looking at her lying there about how many nights she has spent alone here, the only body warming the big lonely bed. I was married in the guest parlor here twelve years ago, and now I have two growing boys, and a small daughter curls up beside me at night, with her father's curls, soft as rose petals. I wonder what she loves besides her marvelous flowers.
Downstairs I rub dust from glass with a soft cloth, marveling at how something dingy is made vibrant again with one swipe, my hand pressed against the cool slick mirror. Hanging in the parlor is a picture of Mr. Dickinson, twenty years gone. The old man whose eyes become filled with a softer tea colored light looking at the bunch of street flowers tucked into my hair. In the picture his face is pale and has a stretched quality about it, as if he has been trying to smile for a very long time. He doesn't look like a bully, not like the grocer up the street or the barber five houses down. Their faces harshly creased and voices swollen with self-importance. But money seems to touch like a balm, or like an expensive soap, making things more seemly and kind. And, after all, all I can remember are his long fingers ribbing the book binding, and the way that he looked at flowers.
I bring her another pot of tea, the steam rising smelling of green and growing things. She is sitting up in bed writing something in her little book. I'd like to ask her what she writes about, if she writes about me, what she's writing now. There's a fly buzzing loud like a bee in the corner of the room, darting in and out of the folds of the window sash. I bustle over and quickly brandish a shoe, then there's a sound of a page turning behind me, and I can hear the flow of more words filling the leaves of the book. She says behind me, "Leave it be, it really doesn't bother me." A small pause while I let my hand drop, "Such a small thing, and such a loud noise!" She sounds fascinated rather than agitated by this sage observation. So I pour her another cup, balance two cubes of sugar on the saucer and go back downstairs.
I polish the wood of the chairs in the parlor, chairs that were once enveloped with billowing satin dresses and developed a patina from the clouds of perfume in the air. The air of grandeur about them however has faded into something that can't be gotten back with a soft cloth. The house has relinquished its days of merriment when lights filled the windows. Her father hangs in his portrait though with an expression that looks to enjoy dancing. Who might look at a whirling room of dancers with the eyes of one seeing a garden, and similarly appreciate them for their brilliant colors and dizzying perfume.
I go outside and wander the gardens at twilight, fading crests of late roses and the spice of unpicked apples scenting the air. The clouds break wide open along the lips of the horizon and all the colors of autumn are hung like a stained glass window in front of the setting sun. A world glazed in rain and set to shine silver shivers in the cold that promises winter, I love the chill, bracing and numbing both at once. A carriage a dark and gloomy color pulled by a single horse trots up the streets purposefully with a steady rhythm like the ticking of a great clock. Lanterns are being lit up and down the streets and the man with the small brown cap singing French in a soft voice pausing to look at the gardens resplendent even in their last days breathes a low whistle. This is how the people the length and breadth of the street will remember her, the woman who coaxed vines up the wrought iron fence till it seemed she had made the roses sprout from an iron stem, guarded by iron thorns. Her flowers are the things that matter to her, and I think of my growing family with a home the size of a breadbox but seeming so perfect. I know that no amount of flowers or words pressed like blossoms between pages could begin to replace them. I pass her night nurse on my way out the gate, an older woman with a very gentle manner who smiles with perfect sincerity. As I enter the rain soaked streets I hum the French melody and begin to dance in the empty streets.
Next morning I climb the stairs again, this time with a vase of flowers from my garden, wilder things that aren't tended and grow with a life and vitality all their own, climbing up the sides of my house where my children play. I think she will need the kind of strength these beautiful stubborn things have. There is radiant sunlight filling the room, and I prop the flowers on her bedside table in a vase from downstairs. She smiles in appreciation, and holds out her hand and grasps mine warmly. "Thank you, Mary. Thank you very much." I quite imagine that I glowed. Her book is open and tucked to one side of her pillow, a piece of her folded into every page. A few words trail along the top of an empty page. "Miss?" I have no notion of how to ask, to find a way to find a piece of the person that is found in the dead gardens outside and inside the pages of a half empty book. So I sit on the edge of her bed, the fullness of her soft, warm hand reminding me of the fullness of my own life, and watch as she begins to write again, while I read about how she has never seen a moor.