Mrs. Caroway had always said she wouldn’t mind dying, had always mostly hated this world and said she wouldn’t mind leaving it ahead of schedule at any given moment, and most certainly before she got so old she couldn’t do things for herself. She’d had the marriage and the children and all, way early on, and now she was alone in her middle age with her hired help in a great cavern of a place. It’d be a hard thing to call this place a house, not only for its absurd size, but for the home-less air within it. It was merely a residence, and its heartlessness echoed Mrs. Caroway’s disdain for life.
Prior to her “awakening,” her beauty had been made up, painted with pretty, warm colors that cooled on stone features and chilled to freezing in the minds of those who beheld her. She had walked the cold halls of the imposing gray stone residence, brooding, the various darknesses of her moods escaping her epicenter as dusk slides fast into night. And in the close thickness of her dark night, no good thing could breathe properly. It either left or eventually died, like her children left, never to return, like her husband died of stifled dreams and a pummeled will, a punishment that had been justly meted out, in her estimation.
The hired help turned over quickly, usually within a year’s time. The head housekeeper, Miss Lovely, could not keep anyone on longer than that. The servants’ quarters were in a house attached to the main residence by a walkway above the porte-cochere, and Miss Lovely made impressive efforts to maintain that house as a friendly, inviting home. She’d seen to it that its interior was awash in soothing oranges and yellow-green hues and cool, calming light blues and greens. Still, the time spent there was not enough to subsist unaffected by Mrs. Caroway’s uncomfortable darkness for long, and eventually the help would wilt and would have to leave to seek light, health, life.
Only Miss Lovely remained. She had looked after Mrs. Caroway since she was just a child, a carefree little girl, just Miss Birdie, and on through to when she was a more burdened Miss Bird Waltman, after her father had exerted his fiercely strong will upon her. She had been the Waltman’s housekeeper, cook, and nanny until Bird left to marry Mr. Caroway and insisted that Miss Lovely accompany her. Miss Lovely had always called Mrs. Caroway “Miss Birdie” and still did. And she was the only one who could favorably breathe Mrs. Caroway’s air. It was, to the other servants in the Caroway household, as if she had an immunity or an aqua lung.
As soon as Mrs. Caroway’s charges had left her she had withdrawn from public view, for there was no longer a need to be in it, to drop children off here and there, to attend PTA meetings, to bake cookies and cakes for fund-raisers. There was no longer a need to attend social teas, bad theatre productions, and town meetings and dinners with her husband’s tiresome clients. And there was certainly no more need to attend church services, to smile and endure doctrine that was more of the food she was already sick on, the food of life-is-hell-and-then-you-die. There was no longer a need to pretend, and so she didn’t. She had thought maybe that point in her life would be a good time to die until she’d sat down to write her final note and discovered salvation in the nature of this kind of writing, the kind it takes to get down to it, deadly poetical.
She’d found her way at last with words, a witching way with the infinite richness and deeps of language. And she had become consumed with words and nuances of words and related and contrasting words and would not rest until every corner of her mind was swept clean and explicitly put into words, such that anyone at all who ever read her words would know and feel exactly the exquisiteness of her agonies and her joys. All her hating of the very breath that forced its rude way in and out of her body against her will, all her screaming for being put here in this life without being asked prior, all of it and every thing that she’d seen with her keen eye along the sides of life’s howling, imperfect road she turned back onto itself, turned it like clay on a wheel and painted it with rich, earthy colors that glowed, glazed and hot, from the crux of humanity fresh out the kiln.
The public had not yet seen this new side of Mrs. Caroway, and even now, two years after her husband’s death, she was a near-daily topic amongst the townsfolk, mostly because she was an enigma, a puzzle to be solved, a juicy, bad-blooded bone for busy, hungry minds to chew on and chew on, for there was no fear of depletion of meat, and the meaty, fat-and-happiness repulsed and drove them all the more mad. Mrs. Rails led the pack, driven by intolerance for insurgency and by a sneaky, insatiable desire for blood-letting which ever disallowed any of anyone’s emotional wounds to scab over and heal. Mrs. Rails could be heard at the post office, in the marketplace, during fellowship after church, speaking venomously of Mrs. Caroway. Especially if Miss Lovely was anywhere around, Mrs. Rails would take a swipe at Mrs. Caroway just loudly enough to be overheard by her. “Pure evil, she is!” she’d frequently exclaim, “A person like her ought to have known better than to have married and had children!”
And Miss Lovely would always take up for Mrs. Caroway, not out of a need to be the other side of an argument, to say white when black was said, but out of a genuine love for humanity that pleaded on behalf of the misunderstood souls, souls like Mrs. Caroway’s. She’d lay her sweet smile down on Mrs. Rails and remind her, “Now, Missus Rails, you know’d she was wantin’ to go up north to college an’ become somethin’, but her daddy know’d he had an ace in th’ hole with purty Miss Birdie and done married her off to Reginald Caroway and his money!” And as often as Mrs. Rails had heard Miss Lovely say these or similar words, their import eluded her. She couldn’t conceive of anything apart from the Puritan hardness of duty and she would snap at Miss Lovely, “That’s preposterous!” and stalk off. Miss Lovely would shake her head and go back about her business and they’d do it all again the next time they met.
It was after just such an interchange that Miss Lovely had returned to the Caroway residence one exuberant spring day, and found Mrs. Caroway outside on the balcony off her writing room as still and as white as the statue she stood beside. Not wanting to bother her in the event she was deep in thought over her writing, she remained at the door to the writing room and regarded her for awhile. Mrs. Caroway was a handsome woman, as ever, but in these awakened days, her beauty emanated easily, lightly from her as action springs from purpose. Miss Lovely beheld her long and lovingly in her smiling gaze before she understood what was happening. She began to run across the writing room floor when Mrs. Caroway, who had pulled a gun from the folds of her skirt, had raised it to her mouth, stuffed it in and upward and blasted a shot straight up through her head, just as Miss Lovely had reached the balcony door.
Miss Lovely’s heart seized and broke with the blasting and she screamed at the terror, the horribleness of it, the unreal horror of sight and sound and disbelieving, and she crumpled to the cruel stone balcony floor atop Miss Birdie’s legs sprawled awkwardly under her skirts, and she clamped onto them, would not let them go. She held them down hard and piteous as Miss Birdie twitched unto death, and Miss Lovely rocked and wailed and begged to die as well, “Sweet Jesus! Sweet Jesus! Take me now, Sweet Jesus, merciful Lord!” And this is how she was found when the policemen came in response to a Caroway servant’s panicked call. The policemen let through to Miss Lovely the other of Mrs. Caroway’s faithful servants of the last two years, and they stroked and held onto her as she rocked, to give some soothing effect even if the results of it could not be seen. Soon a doctor arrived to sedate her so that she could be pried off Mrs. Caroway’s body and stabilized.
Three months passed before Miss Lovely felt emotionally stalwart enough to read the letter that Mrs. Caroway had left for her atop her great cherry wood writing desk. By now Mrs. Caroway’s assets had been amply dispersed to surviving relations and the Caroway residence and ongoing support for it and its staff, had been left to her care. And in that capacity, Miss Lovely had walked the chilly halls of the imposing gray stone residence brooding, her uneasiness as profoundly absolute as death, and all the more apparent now, as she ascended the stairs to Mrs. Caroway’s writing room for the first time since her death. Miss Lovely hesitantly, reverently entered the room and moved anxiously to the desk overlooking the fateful balcony. She sat cautiously down in the large leather chair, and adjusted her spectacles. The letter was there, face up on the blotter and she touched it. The paper had a luxurious feel. She ran her fingers over the ink and began to read.
13 April 1910
Dearest Miss Lovely,
My suspicions were recently confirmed by a visit to Dr. Baldwin. I had noticed but ignored little things in regard to my health for too long until they had gotten so out of hand that I became frightened enough to go to Dr. Baldwin. Of course, as Life would have it, by that time cancer was found to have run so rampantly throughout my body that I was told I’d be “fortunate” to live another six months.
Never did I really think, during all the time I spent despising Life and wanting so badly to die, that the final joke would be on me, that when I at last didn’t want to die—when I’d found my way with language and wanted nothing more than to use it well and cleverly, to play laughingly with it and to masterfully craft it—I would be forced to die. Forced, ever forced.
You saw my birth, and although I’m saddened that you will have to also see my death, I know you know me. I will not lie in a deathbed both dry and drooling, just waiting for Life’s last cursed laugh. I will not let it mock me as I lie helplessly the fool, drying out as you sit by my side wetting my parched lips with water and morphine, drying out as organs fail one by one, drying out completely until I am but a stiff milkweed pod left behind, crackly, devoid of seed and silky floss.
One matter remains: during the last few days I hurried to finish the last story in a collection of short stories that I had planned to submit to an agent. The manuscript is in this desk, in the lower left drawer. You have seen most all of these stories, I think, and have been my closest advisor, so I leave it to you to proceed as you will. Although I won’t be there to see my work in print, you know it has been my dream.
Good-bye, for now, dear, faithful friend!
Yours in life and death,
Miss Lovely bowed her head to her chest. Her face was pained, but no tears came. She opened the lower left drawer and the manuscript was there, was tied, held together with a thin, pink ribbon. She reached down and raised it up onto the desk. She untied it and rifled through to the bottom to find the last story and to read it, to see if it was better than the others she had read. And when she was done, she reassembled the manuscript, bound it back up and paused. Tears filled her eyes as she lifted the pink-ribboned manuscript from the desk as she stood and made her way with it to the fireplace.
Venus at the Louvre from http://www.ce.chalmers.se/~dhammika/photos/paris/DSC01794.JPG
Missalister’s “A Lovely spring morning,” copyright © 2009, was spun off the Sunday Scribblings prompt “#159 – Language.” Click here for more on prompt #159 from other Sunday Scribblings participants.