Home > Fiction > Fall
Published: Thu Jul 1 2010
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, Destruccion por un remolino del aire Xocomeel del Lago Atitlán / Destruction from a Vortex of the Xocomil Winds around Lake Atitlán (detail), 2014, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.

It had been a small burial in itself, this desolating ceremony. Doubling the blue sheet of paper once, twice, slipping one corner into the folded flap of the other, hiding away at last the dried rose that ever since those shattering days last September she’d kept pressed flat between the pages of a book, Deirdre remembered the west coast of Ireland. Almost ten years ago on holiday with her parents in Kilkee, setting out for a solitary walk one morning, Deirdre had stopped to cut a single stem blooming at the door of their rented cottage. It had been a windy day in June and she’d drawn up her collar and stood at the seawall, inhaling the sea, the crimson rose. Watching the waves run up the beach and out again, she’d noticed how each wave as it advanced almost to the wall—just at the last moment before it drew back—spread across the sand a light film of shining water that for an instant gave her the sky. Because that’s how it had been, she’d seen the sky in the mirror of the sea, in the thin glaze on the sand, had seen the sun moving behind the racing clouds, black ones and white. Standing there beguiled, she’d become aware how each time the waves ran up and fanned out over the shore the sky reflected there looked to her somewhat different from the time before, the clouds were not the ones she’d seen only seconds ago, were not the same white clouds flying across patches of blue: the baby curled tight in on itself, for instance, had become a stallion with a streaming mane. As she stood watching—thinking that’s what she’d never be able to catch with her watercolors, that irresistible push across the sky, that wind at the back of everything—she’d thought of snapping open the watch she wore around her neck to ascertain how long it was between waves, between momentary flashes of sky. To clock, as it were—here in Ireland in the year of Our Lord 1903—how quickly it all changed, because looking at things straight you could never actually catch what you wanted, you had to look and then look away to see the difference, time incarnate.

But then with her own little Mary’s fall last July it seemed as if that weren’t true anymore, it was the stupid clash between trying to see the world as it was when no one was looking—as in the glaze spread across the sand, the sudden vanishing glimpse one had—and then the event that “happened,” the something brutally shoved in your face throwing open the door on unspeakable landscapes of sorrow that all the time had been waiting within. Nor was this the first time. There had been the sunny morning when she was still at home with her parents—before the trip to Ireland that had been planned later to assuage and distract—yes, her mother peeling a yellow peach and she herself marveling at the ripe dark bruise on one side of it, when the telegram had arrived and been placed in her father’s hands, the telegram announcing her brother Rob’s death by drowning. It was as if a human being had entered, a person, and the slack-jawed presence she’d always taken care to twist her head away from had crept around on the other side of her when she wasn’t looking and was suddenly staring her full in the face, wild-eyed. So this recent July 7th was not the first occasion she’d stood appalled. But this time she’d found that along with grief—waiting there in the trees the light the shine of the floor throwing back the sun—there had been guilt, the crushing sense that if she’d been a different person, less taken by her own thoughts, more attentive to the demands of the day, then she’d have been able to keep the brigand from plundering their lives, the thief, the pillager of all their happiness.

She revisited that morning—how often, how often!—she and Willie waking and talking in the summer dawn in their apartment in the Chatsworth here on Seventy-second Street overlooking the Hudson—the river that would so early have been shrouded in mist—and then the twins stirring in a room nearby and soon after that Kate four years old wanting to haul Mary out of her crib and she herself preventing her, and then not long afterwards giving Mary into the care of Lillian who God knows for how long had been taking Mary and Grace out in their carriage: Lillian, nurse to the twins, her own right hand since their birth. But then they had a new carriage—the one purchased for Mary and Grace’s first birthday less than two months before, a bigger one by far—and what she wasn’t sure of was whether she had remembered to tell Lillian what she knew she had told her so many times before when it was a question of the old carriage, that the twins must be left at the top of the stairs until the carriage was at the bottom—there weren’t very many steps, it wouldn’t take a minute—but perhaps that had been the problem, Lillian had decided only a step or two, what can be the harm and on such a hot day and the park just across the street waiting for them all cool trees and lovely shaded walks. That’s what Lillian may have thought. But however that may have been, she could in no way imagine how it was that she, the twins’ own mother, had herself perhaps forgotten to remind Lillian—she didn’t know if in fact she had done so—but even if she had reminded her once, then she should have reminded her a second time, should never have forgotten, not ever, when Lillian went with the twins down the elevator and out, should have spoken to her, instructed her to stay with the twins at the top of the steps and ask Michael at the door to lift the carriage onto the sidewalk.

So she tried to remember if she’d said anything that morning to Lillian and went over every waking moment, recalling a little more each time, how she and Willie had woken in the dawn as they did often these mornings in July so near the solstice and talked quietly—knowing the twins would wake at any minute—spoken of how in a week’s time they would go down to the house they’d rented in Belmar on the Jersey shore, how he would come on weekends because he didn’t really like to take off more than a day or two at a time from work—not since as long as she had ever known him but now particularly when he was in this new position and in charge of the vaults and every paper in them in the bowels of the building where he worked: she of course didn’t say anything but in truth she didn’t like to think of the vaults, all shining bars and sliding doors, keys rattling and so on, no—and soon she’d heard Grace making little cooing sounds in her crib and Willie had gone back to sleep for a few moments but she’d gotten out of bed and there was Kate already up trying to pull Mary—who’d been lying there so quietly not making any sound at all—out of her crib.

Then how long after she didn’t know Willie was rushing about trying to fasten his collar pin in the mirror of the little bureau, snatching up his cuff links—how awkward he always was with these especially right after he’d first clamped on his glasses in the morning and his eyes were going from wide to narrow—and she’d helped him with one of the links slipping it through the starched holes and folded his handkerchief that he’d then hastily tucked with two fingers down into his breast pocket, she remembered that, and then he’d dashed out and for a moment she’d followed him in her thoughts disappearing in his straw boater through the mahogany doors of the new subway at the corner of Broadway with the beautiful tiles and polished brass. And then when she’d looked into the twins’ room again there was Kate trying to pull Mary out of the crib. No but that must be wrong because she’d caught Kate at the crib earlier, while Willie was still there and she’d tried to keep things quiet while he slept a few moments longer because although she knew he tried hard for her sake he flared up without meaning to. But anyway what had happened next she couldn’t remember. And now the terrible place was rushing up to meet her the junction when she might or might not have reminded Lillian about the carriage, Lillian who was already getting things together for the outing, a little early as she remembered as a way of soothing Kate who had been in a temper ever since that moment when she herself had spoken to her, probably too sharply, as she thought of it now, to her grief yes much too sharply—no she must not haul Mary out like that, she’d told Kate that before, after all she was a big girl, already four, and knew that these little sisters were delicate—and herself knowing how Kate hated all this talk about the need to be careful, this everlasting fuss around these small creatures—knew Willie hated it too but of course didn’t like to say so, their lives at first had hung by a thread—and was aware too that it was precisely because Kate felt herself so much older that she’d wanted to show herself as belonging to another order entirely, to be of some help, in her own small way.

So, seeing Kate’s outrage she had thought to herself today I’ll send Lillian on a walk with the twins alone instead of our all sailing out together, today I’ll spend the time upstairs with Kate, the two of us, will read her new book to her, I’ll draw a picture of her beautifully helping with the twins. But as they’d at last sat down together, companionably plumping the pillows behind them, there’d been a knock at the door—oh terrible! terrible!—and there stood Paul, the barber—Paul who’d cut Kate’s hair a few days before with so much ceremony, talking to her with a seriousness she knew Kate had loved, inquiring into the mirror if now she didn’t have a twin of her own, a boy, a boy named Tom, he’d said—there Paul stood telling her that Lillian was downstairs with the little girls but that one of them had taken a tumble, he was sure nothing serious but all the same perhaps she’d better come and see. And then when she’d gone down with him and Kate in the elevator knees trembling violently the ocean roaring in her ears and crossed the lobby with all the people milling about streaming this way and that, there between those panels of shimmering red brocade she’d caught sight of herself in the mirror distraught, distracted, as if she were passing—as she flew by—some self she would never see again, as if she were bidding the only self she knew goodbye.

Afterwards she and Lillian in a fright together—little Mary unable apparently to catch her breath hiccupping deep in her chest—and then the whole thing had begun the doctors and all the rest she and Lillian weeping together in the days following knowing that Lillian who had been there from the very beginning helping her through the nights with the medicine droppers and hot water bottles would have to leave. It wasn’t she who had suggested it but it was taken for granted between them—as if the presence of the other was too much, simply too much, as if they were looking into a certainty there in the face of the other they saw reflected nowhere else, not in the doctors’ faces or in Willie’s—and so Lillian had gone and afterwards alone in the apartment without the one who more than any other in the world had taken pride and pleasure in the small landmarks that had allowed them to rejoice these frail lives were at last out of danger, the daily record of weight in pounds and ounces—and she all the time thinking: but who could actually see the gains except in leaps of time, one week against the next, for example—she felt the door on the happy past slide closed like the door of one of Willie’s vaults, observed Kate standing in a corner sucking her thumb and was seized with horror that on top of everything else Kate might have things turned around and believe that her own small attempt to remove Mary from her crib that morning for which she’d been so roundly scolded had somehow caused the fall, that Kate had gotten it all mixed up in her head, how maybe she’d thought she herself had dropped Mary on the floor of the nursery and that was the cause of all the rest, oh she didn’t know anything was possible, anything at all.

So the horror grew and grew and finally Willie suggested she speak to his old friend Stuart Chambers—Stuart who before he’d become a priest or even a Catholic had traveled with Willie to Ireland, who had been, Willie said, at one time quite a favorite with the ladies, who after all had christened Mary and Grace just a block away on Seventy-first Street at the Church of the Blessed Sacrament—but now she was suddenly wondering with terror why she’d dressed Mary for the christening in Rob’s baby dress, Rob, oh my brother, what could she have been thinking knowing, but so she had, weeping a little as she carefully put the tiny arms through the sleeves and fastening the buttons and then consoling herself—as she observed Mary’s baby’s right hand tug at the left sleeve—here after all is new life and if only her mother had been here with her to see little Mary and then weeping again that she wasn’t and that this child named for her mother was quite wonderfully like her, dark of hair and brow. And thinking that here and now whatever else this little namesake was adorned in the dress her mother must have worked on so hopefully for Rob—stitch by stitch, so clever with a needle unlike herself who’d always preferred a paintbrush—she had gone smiling and weeping into the day.

But she hadn’t gone to see Stuart Chambers right away, hadn’t gone until everything was over, until after she’d purchased the rose on that final day in late September—although of course she didn’t know it as the very last until later—placed a coin in the hand of the woman standing in a black shawl on the corner of Forty-sixth Street just a few steps away from the house where Mary was being cared for, a woman who had a child with her and whom she hoped she’d be forgiven for envying. Yes, she’d envied the woman from whom she’d bought the rose for the healthy child with curly red hair and green eyes standing beside her, she couldn’t forget either of them—neither the woman with the kind smile nor the child whose green eyes had immediately reminded her of Kate’s—and followed them past their encounter on the corner into the tenement where she imagined they might live, one of those full of coughing and illness. Because she knew, she’d seen a woman like her in one of the new moving pictures, a woman carrying a sick child down into the street on a sweltering summer evening to give it some air, a sick child, a child in fact probably dying of tuberculosis and she’d pitied that woman with all her heart had thought about her for days afterwards and thought how she’d known what lay ahead, yes surely known even as she walked with the child’s head on her shoulder hoping for her little one the luxury of a breeze, a last moment of comfort—just as she who was so much more fortunate had bought the rose—both of them desperate to give a dying child something, oh anything at all that might afford the least snatch at pleasure.

Now the woman selling the rose and the woman walking the child in an alley where laundry hung from window to window far above her head, these two were all mixed up in her head—although she’d come to feel that the division between rich and poor was of less consequence than the division between women with sick children and women with well ones because what difference had it made the doctors she and Willie had been able to afford and this woman’s child who might be as old as eight stood there beside her with her red curls and pink cheeks looking oh God forgive her the picture of health—and yet wasn’t that the point after all the woman with the blooming child might very well be the same woman she’d seen in the picture what was to prevent that especially as this woman with the kind eyes was wearing a black shawl possibly in mourning and then she knew she must ask forgiveness of everyone in the universe with a suffering child for not remembering that Kate and Grace would present to any passerby a picture of privilege and health and how was it that she had become in her own eyes in no way a woman whose good fortune must be remembered every day with gratitude but instead—ever since the fall the collapse into despair—a mother bereaved, a woman whose nearest companion day and night was desolation.

Would this terrible recoil from naming her blessings she wondered have been any different if Grace had not been Mary’s twin, if as she watched the flesh fall from Mary’s bones she had not with measured eye observed Grace grow day by day in strength? There they both had been, babies with plump creased thighs at long last, chubby wrists that looked as if a string had been tied at the joint and then—as the spinning earth lurched away from that extreme point of its ellipse where it had hung during the solstice, as the leaves of the city trees acquired a film of dust—Mary before her horrified eyes became a pitiful little soul with damp hair clinging to her scalp, faint breath, little wandering sticks of legs and arms she didn’t even want to think about or find words for, eyes looking out from sockets that made her think, like it or not, of a skull. And all this while Grace, she couldn’t help noticing, flaxen-haired, rosy-cheeked, each day exerted herself more and more strenuously to stand alone, hoisting herself up on any ledge she could get hold of, crowing with delight, slapping with a flat hand the table or chair she had mastered.

Mother of both, she was deeply deeply ashamed to have had such thoughts—involuntary as she knew them to be—and would rather have died than to have whispered them to another living soul but precisely because she jealously kept this guilty watching to herself knew her fascinated scrutiny had become more intense, more absorbed, as if she couldn’t help but turn to look at a spectacle she knew she should turn away from. But no it wasn’t observing the process that was wrong because of course she was helpless not to, but the fatal meaning she gave it of an equation, a bargain, a balance struck, as if some god of destruction demanded Mary’s life if Grace were to grow into adulthood, as if she herself were being chastened for earlier thinking herself doubly blessed—even going so far as to evoke a time when these babies would have children of their own and so forth—when she should have known by her long and intimate exposure to her mother’s grief that no happiness would be permitted to last, no joy left untarnished. Yes, when she had even by some logic come to believe—without knowing it until her fallacy had been appallingly revealed—that her own children were protected by the sudden calamity of that other death, Rob’s, as if lightning would surely not strike twice, as if her mother’s overwhelming misfortune, her own terrible grief at losing the companion of her earliest days, would somehow protect her from the worst. Even so, she thought, at least her mother had been spared the torment of neat comparison, both she and Rob had been grown—he twenty-six, she twenty-four. But twins! Her own courage had failed entirely when a couple of days after Mary’s death Grace had stood alone for the first time—hoisting herself into the air, precariously to be sure, but proudly pulling herself to her feet and letting go for seconds at a time of the shelf she had always clung to—only a few hours before she and Willie had set out for the Mohawk Valley to be present, high on that hill where their own grandparents were buried, as Mary’s small white coffin was dropped by ropes into the earth that day in late September.

But that had not been all. No she’d also felt her heart wrung painfully—on Grace’s behalf—as the days passed and for instance she’d looked in at her lying alone in her crib, vaguely disquieted, turning her head from side to side, at first slowly, and then more quickly and yet more quickly until it looked at last as if she were making a frenzied gesture of “No”—or when she heard her chattering away, sending her gurgles and coos into the air like solitary balloons. And when Grace opened her mouth in a wail that opened to further and further reaches of desolation the sound struck her at the core as did no other. One afternoon—it was the middle of September she remembered and she’d been on her way down to 46th St. to be with Mary—or rather not to “be” but to pad back and forth snarling like a tiger sleepless, at large, protecting its young—she’d walked out of the Chatsworth down those terrible summer steps onto the sidewalk and had immediately looked up and for the first time it seemed really taken in the white façade of the building, the tumbling cornucopia spilling the fruits of the earth the sculpted sightless woman with that benighted look of equanimity staring out into a day she had no idea of, the cupids on either side, those fat twins, those equally thriving children, abandoning themselves to paroxysms of grief, eyes streaming. And she’d thought as she walked up the incline of Seventy-second Street to find a cab on Broadway and then as she waited there at the corner glancing up at the Ansonia—its gables and turrets, its bays and balconies, where Pons herself may well once have stood because she’d heard opera singers when performing in New York liked to stay at this hotel with its thick interior walls, its dazzling display of comfort all designed in the service of a carefree enjoyment she knew was now forever closed to her—decided that today she must snip a lock of Mary’s hair she must carry it back with her and similarly snipping a lock of Grace’s twine them together so that at least in this very small way there would be something to touch and see, some earthly evidence, some irrefutable proof that just as they had entered the world one after the other, tumbling forth as did that ripe fruit from its cone so would they she imagined someday fall together through this earthly membrane—this frail skin that kept us here rather than there—and in those vast silent spaces awaiting us all make the same slow swimming motions first performed in her own inner cavity, the two at last wordlessly reunited, buoyant, at large, released from every law of gravity, recovering—after Grace’s life had run its course—that first boundless joy.

Then one rainy afternoon in October she’d gone to see Stuart Chambers. Although of course she’d met him many times she’d never sat with him alone and she saw how it was that women liked him, his quiet attention, his air of waiting without any hurry at all for one to speak. So after a time she had told him—because like herself he hadn’t been a Catholic always and had a different manner from Willie of speaking of these things—told him that she wanted to die: that was it quite simply, she wanted to follow Mary down into the earth. Despite Grace’s early morning cries, despite Kate who appeared in the dawn like a silent apparition by the side of their bed, she couldn’t seem to wake in the mornings, she opened her eyes to Kate standing there her face level with her own, Kate whose old rages it seemed had for the moment been driven underground, looked into her small face and put out an arm to enfold her, to draw her close, but Kate wasn’t fooled and drew away. As for Grace, caring for her was a more exquisite torment, when she touched her small body she did so fearing that a terrible wave was about to break over her own head, that she would be overwhelmed and drawn with her brother Rob down into the deep. But truth be told that’s where she wanted to be, under, somewhere beneath, jostled about on the floor of the ocean or rigid under the floor of the tired and trodden earth. She supposed this was what was called the sin of despair but she couldn’t really see what to do about it. It was all very well to talk about accepting the will of God but what if it wasn’t so much rebellion you felt as simply the wish to close your eyes once and for all and let go. They’d all prayed that Mary might live, there’d been no lack of prayers, Willie had written to this one and that, she didn’t even know who they all were, but what had been the use and what kind of a God anyway would snatch one small child from death because a lot of prayers were said and condemn another because no one was thinking of her. From what she’d seen in Ireland poverty and prayer went hand in hand—and here she for whatever reason remembered that clear afternoon at Kilkee when she and her parents had sat on a rock and looked across at the Cliffs of Moher, her mother eating chocolates, her father doing nothing at all, both dedicated to silence as they brooded over the silver shining sea—and she told him she thought it must be some other kind of God entirely who could be called good not one who put prayers in a sort of bank and used them for credit when there wasn’t any other kind available. No, a God rather who looked on those who didn’t pray with particular compassion child spared or not and really she didn’t know what that meant anyway a good God she had nothing to put in that place and preferred to think of the woman she’d seen in the moving picture carrying her baby out of the tenement to allow it the luxury of some passing breeze and who was now drawing rasping painful breaths just as she was herself, tasting the salt of her own tears.

No, she probably hadn’t said all this to Stuart Chambers but what she had said had been enough because after a time he’d answered sitting there in that ugly room in the rectory with the bleeding Sacred Heart in the corner that she mustn’t be afraid of her unhappiness, mustn’t regard it as a sin, because then there would always be the temptation to find someone to blame for her misery others certainly but most of all herself. And he thought her right when she cried out against God because it was there the trouble lay and hadn’t Christ himself dying on the cross pronounced as his last words my god my god why hast thou forsaken me. No she must regard her unhappiness as she would anyone else’s—something to be honored and pitied rather than condemned—and must herself look for an opening in paying close attention to the love other people bore for her and in the ways they tried to show it however failingly. And then he told her the story of how the resurrected Christ had prepared a breakfast for Peter and the rest who’d been out fishing all night on the Sea of Tiberius without any success at all and how he’d told them to throw the nets on the right side of the boat rather than the left and they’d caught one hundred and fifty-three fish—surely they hadn’t counted!—but then when they came ashore there was Christ with a little charcoal fire going and a fish or two on the coals and a loaf of bread waiting. But the strange thing was that they hadn’t been entirely sure it was he just as Mary Magdalene in the dawn had mistaken him for the gardener but perhaps that was the point he was the gardener as he was anyone at all putting your breakfast before you and that she must look carefully for these gestures, these gifts, these ministrations, because they would restore her to faith in God’s goodness would lead her away from blame and guilt and to her own exercise of love however mingled with tears because those tears for a time were her portion, her lot, her own bitter prayer.

What she hadn’t been able to say to Stuart Chambers because she would have considered it disloyal was that Willie was drowning his own grief in more and more work, he now was gone longer hours than ever and when he arrived home at the end of his day and when they at last sat down to dinner after the little girls were asleep he tried she could see to do what he thought best for her by telling her about his own day, told her stories of this one and that thinking to distract her—the woman he’d given his seat to on the subway who had been astonished, after she’d thanked him and said to be sure how glad she was to be off her feet, when he tipped his hat and asked which town in Mayo she came from—went on and on because, she imagined, he thought her own tears morbid, exaggerated, as if she might have a flair for self-drama he hadn’t noticed before and so didn’t inquire about her own day lest the question provoke tears and so left to her own silence she sat stony-faced trying to interest herself in the stories she’d found so entertaining long ago when her own mother was grieving and she’d desperately wanted only to live! to live! yes, even if her beloved brother had drowned. But now as they sat eating their dinner in their own home she felt the gulf widen between them as the stories floated over the waters of talk and sometimes as Willie lifted his fork to his mouth she suspected that of course although he grieved, grieved terribly, still one less nuisance about the house wasn’t altogether to his disliking. But no she knew this suspicion was doing him a terrible injustice and so she ended up thinking for relief, for comfort, once again of the woman in the tenement whose arms also ached with loneliness. Or thought for consolation—but of this she had to be careful, very careful not to think too often or the effect she feared would wear off—of that final day when Mary had looked out through half closed eyes, breathing very shallowly, barely at the last able to meet her gaze and so she’d brought the rose close as she lay there and for a moment her eyes had focused on it and she had stared as if all the world was contained there in its crimson folds, had stared cannily as if she knew and then had turned her gaze from the rose to herself and oh miracle had started the beginning of a smile and looked into her eyes a last time before falling a moment later into what had turned out to be her last sleep.

Nor did she tell Stuart Chambers that on that warm day in late September on the lofty hill overlooking the Mohawk Valley with its view of shining river and of trees touched in places by sunlight or frost she couldn’t tell which—where they’d planted their own small broken seed and where she and Willie had asked that in the days following two young hemlocks be placed in the ground to mark the spot—in that high place listening to the long sorrowing whistle of a train wind toward them through the valley she’d imagined lying down beneath a tree, or perhaps she’d even done so although when she came to think of it that of course seemed unlikely but whatever the case, desire or deed, she’d carried an impression with her since that day of lying flat on the ground beneath a tree, perhaps, looking up into its low overhanging branches, into its high high heart watching the leaves lightly shift between shadow and sun, of sinking into the tall grass where she lay gazing upward, of sinking further into the place of hiding in the earth and had thought: oh a house what would it be like to live in a house with trees standing around it where she could lie down on the ground anytime she liked, get close to the earth, lie against it, in it, if she liked, the deep silent earth that now had replaced Mary’s crib as her bed.

Kathleen Hill is the author, most recently, of the novel Who Occupies This House (TriQuarterly Books, Northwestern University Press, 2010), selected as an Editors’ Choice by The New York Times. Still Waters in Niger, an earlier novel, was named a notable book by The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and The Chicago Tribune, and nominated for the Dublin IMPAC Award. The French translation, Eaux tranquilles, was shortlisted for the Prix Femina Étranger. Her stories have appeared in The Best American Short StoriesThe Pushcart Prize XXV, and The Pushcart Book of Short Stories. She teaches in the MFA program at Sarah Lawrence College. (updated 10/2012)

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