That I went a little mad, I could not deny.
Those endless months in mourning clothes saved me and destroyed me; I got used to my own silence and to the delicate passing of footsteps. No one invited me to tea or to dance. They didn’t even ask me to speak over cold dinners; sometimes I had the pleasure of eating alone on the sideboard.
After two months, I should have packed away my black dress, remembering death with just a dark ribbon in my hair. After six months, I should have taken callers and started at the new girls’ high school. But I didn’t, and I wouldn’t—I remained cloaked in ebony satin, my steps slow, as if taken through an ocean of dreams.
I woke, I slept, and I waited, endlessly waited, for my Thomas Rea, who would never call on me again.
After a year, my mother decided to rip down my black crêpe by force.
"They’re your friends," Mama said, brisk as always. "So I sent your card out."
I think she meant for me to argue, but what argument could I make? I was neither widow nor wife.
Freshly seventeen, I should have had roses in my cheeks and laughter in my heart. I should have savored the dawn of spring. But then, I shouldn’t have known, to the drop, how much blood could spill from a boy before he turned gray and breathed no more.
Mama flipped her dough, leaning into it hard to knead it. "You’ll have Mattie and Victoria, and Grace if she’s over that cold of hers. Hope she doesn’t drag it in, anyway. She should know better."
Winding the paring knife round and round, I bared an apple’s flesh. I had no reply.
"Thought I’d like to invite some badgers, too," Mama said, turning a gray look in my direction. "Maybe we’ll strip to our corsets and have a parade in the park."
When I said nothing still, Mama made an ugly sound. Flipping the dough again, she banged from one end of the counter to the other. What she meant to do I couldn’t imagine. So when she snatched her pine rolling pin and pounded the table in front of me, I jumped.
The knife bit into my thumb.
"Oh, duck," Mama said, her voice strained as she wrapped her apron around my hand. "What did you do that for?"
I shook my head, watching scarlet blossom through white muslin. I had no tears for this ridiculous little wound.
"You’re alive," she said, squeezing until my hand throbbed. Lifting it above my head, she tugged me to my feet. How peculiar it seemed that she didn’t tower over me anymore.
"You’re alive, Zora Stewart," she repeated, catching my chin with her unencumbered hand. "And you have to be alive until your time comes."
Rolling my gaze round to hers, I opened my mouth. As if the creaking of a neglected hinge, my voice came out slow and croaking. "Do you know what I dream?"
" Every night, I drown in fire," I said. Numb, my lips barely shaped my words. "Endlessly, Mama. I drown in it, and the sky is as wide as the sea."
Opening the hot tap, mama rinsed blood from my fingers. "There’s neither heaven nor hell on this earth, but those you make."
"I made none of this."
"And yet you succumb."
Reclaiming my hand, I sat again. "Arrange something for me, then."
"Arrange it yourself," Mama replied. She leaned on the counter, rubbing dry hands drier on her apron. "You’ll take callers this week."
Drawn by habit, I touched the locket at my throat. It held my remembrance of Thomas, a single curl of his hair closed in a silver shell. I had made all my arrangements, and none of them would ever happen. "I meant a match. A marriage. Just to have it done with."
Mama touched my chin, turning my face to hers. "One cage into another is no life at all."
But I had gone mad in those months. Just the littlest bit, and madness sometimes guises itself as reason. My fingers trailed from the locket, and likewise my gaze from Mama’s. I took up my paring knife and apple, and made up my unsettled mind.
I would not
dance, I decided. Go calling, play snapdragon, go riding in street cars—none of it. My merry days were over, my heart too broken to beat again. It was time to put away notions and games, childhood and hopes. My decision was made: I would be married.
But first, I needed counsel.
I walked down Fayette Street alone. I went in black, so no one bothered me—my destination was clear.
The Westminster Burial Ground sat in a small plot, penned on every side by a city growing in desperate gasps. I opened the iron gate and streamed away from the odd fellow standing there—one of the boys who appeared with cognac and two glasses: one for them, and one for Mr. Poe. They dissipated themselves intentionally, leaning against the stone of a drunk who’d died in a gutter, in the most literal sense.
I longed to throw rocks at them, to chase them away—to dare them to grieve just once over something real and then decide if it was romantic.
They, I think, considered me kindred. This one saw me and raised his glass. As if we could be the same—those fools who suffered intentionally, and I, who longed to sink into the ground with my love and sleep forevermore.
From my cloak, I pulled a horsehair brush and skimmed it across Thomas’ marker. I cleaned the soft limestone until the carved hand that held his martyr’s arrow stood out in perfect relief. I brushed the stone clean, until there could be no forgetting.
Guiltily, I polished his name, because I had
begun to forget. When I clutched the locket round my throat, I couldn’t remember whether the lock of his hair inside was more auburn or strawberry. I had an impression of his voice that had faded, as if called down a corridor.
The wind lifted, and speckled white petals fluttered around me, the gentlest snow. I murmured, "I’m thinking of sending away to be a farmer’s wife, Thomas. In the Territories."
Quiet answered, but not silence. Instead of Thomas’ voice, ships in the harbor cried their comings, their goings. Men worked nearby, singing as they laid mortar, and hoofbeats argued with the disconcerting hum of the streetcars.
"There are magazines full of them—widowers wanting a wife to raise their orphaned children."
From the corner of my eye, I saw Poe’s Visitor finish his cup and set it on top of the stone—no doubt to leave it there. The dead did not drink; they certainly didn’t ruin their own burying yard. Living men did that—careless ones. Damping my ire, I turned my attention to Thomas again.
"Is it a bad idea? I don’t think you’d mind, but I just don’t know." Sinking slowly to my knees, I leaned my forehead against the limestone. How queer it felt—warm as flesh in the places it basked in the sun, and cool as water in the shadows.
Only the roughness of the stone, already weathered, answered me. A slow tide of grief filled me; I murmured, "I wish you’d say. I wish you’d haunt me, Thomas. You’re so still."
Someone approached from behind; I stiffened and drank up my tears.
Turning, I lifted my face to Poe’s Visitor. He was carelessly handsome, his coat unbuttoned. Ink spotted his sleeves, accusing black specks on the cuffs. He reminded me overmuch of an artist, or an actor—so caught in his own head he couldn’t behave, even in a graveyard.
Coolly, I asked, "Can I help you?"
He offered his hand and a concerned look. "That’s what I