art: Linn Bankson

 

 

Was it the third or the fourth year he had asked? Poor Mouse. Elizabeth had known what to expect the moment she saw him, knew what he held behind his back as he approached. She thought him a darling boy, with a peculiar brand of stubbornness she recognized.

But have to come,” Mouse cajoled. “Never there. Never see you. Walk all the way to the painted tunnels, just to talk.” He lowered his head, appearing crestfallen. “Hard on Mouse,” he appealed, looking sideways to gauge his argument’s effect.

She heard her own laughter, breathy but dry, and splintering with age. “And did you think it would be easier for me, child?” she teased. Turning the Winterfest candle between worn fingers stained with color, she contemplated his remark. “Well, I do get around well enough, I suppose, for my years. And it’s a dear gesture. But you know I never leave my paintings.”

Mouse straightened. “New game. Picture – your picture – pin tail on Arthur. Have to see it.” Inspired, his face worked earnestly. “Have to finish what you start,” he stated, tossing to Elizabeth words she had said time and again to others.

She saw worry flash across his face, felt his assessment in the silence. “Elizabeth?” The word was gentle; the touch on her shoulder concerned. “Say something wrong?”

But something past Mouse teased her concentration. “Mmm?” she asked. “Oh!” She turned from the vision to the voice at her ear. “Oh. Oh, no, child.” She patted his cheek, and Mouse smiled. “Just evidence of my dotage, I expect. It makes no never mind,” she murmured.

Have to finish what you start.

Could she? What should she finish? It had all started so very long ago.

The beginning had also been an ending, of course. No longer a child, she had still been too sheltered from adulthood to be considered a woman on that day . . . the day the vestigial myths of innocence died.

She could still see him. The stranger stood with bowed head on their front step, his worn, loose clothing only emphasizing his leanness. Labor and hunger lightened a frame nature had intended for more robust carriage. His trouser cuffs were edged with dried mud. Surely he’d walked for hours ... no, for days. But it was the defeat in the set of his shoulders, Elizabeth decided, that hurt most of all.

She looked up at her older brother’s face, her eyes alight with urgency, slender fingers worrying the fine lace of her skirt as she awaited Albert’s verdict.

The stranger waited, too. The summer sun was at its highest, bathing them all in a blistering wave of August heat. Inside there were fans, chaises, tall glasses of cool lemonade. Outside, the visitor had no such luxuries, though - despite the dirt-tinged hems of his clothing - the threadbare spots at elbow and knee were meticulously mended. He’s trying. Heaven knows, he’s trying. She so wanted to see the face beneath the dusty bill of the tweed cap pulled low, but it shadowed his features, leaving visible only his well-shaped, unshaven chin.

Hurry, Albert. He can’t wait much longer.

Would it be the siding on the guest house? Clearing out the garage? Perhaps the overgrown brush just beyond the fragrant lavender garden? Pick the one that requires the most time, Albert, please ... pick them all ...

“We don’t,” Albert declared, “hire vagrants.”

Horrified disbelief eclipsed Elizabeth’s former worry. Surely she had not heard him correctly. Why, just yesterday, he had been complaining to Mother about how much needed to be done. About how many men they would need to engage ...

“And if I catch you on my property again,” her brother continued, “you’ll be afforded a stay at the city jail.” He cast a coldly meaningful glance at the security guard hovering with anticipation under the red oak. “Assuming I get to you first.”

The stranger turned without a word, his pace down the long walk a distance-consuming, mechanical rhythm. He plowed forward, head down, looking neither left nor right. Her young heart contracted in pain, as she recognized the march of survival, his remaining energy reserved for the possible and the necessary.

Light and rapid were her feet, pushed by pity and grief to chase after him, until the guard stepped in her path. Skittering to a halt, she turned. “It’s not fair,” she cried up at her brother.

“We have no right– “

Albert, a mere three years older, might at twenty-two have wielded a deity’s power. And like a monument to a god, he stood, unmoved, at the top of the steps. “Elizabeth.” His voice was an icy warning. “Contain yourself."

“But, Albert!”

“Inside.” Inside, where she couldn’t see. Where she didn’t have to know. Was this the reality the family had tried to shut out beyond their front door? She had known it was bad, but this ...

The whispers since The Crash, the way Mother and Albert had drawn in the circle of her young life, had tapped ominously at the back of her mind for some time. Once available for a surreptitious read, Albert’s newspapers now disappeared. She’d expected her life would expand after early graduation, but the geography of her days seemed to be shrinking, the last two years meeting with fewer trips through the city, not more, and those mostly occurring at night. Elizabeth, if possible, was meant to be seen little – and to see little. And to be heard not at all. From the back of the long car, through Albert’s hawk-eyed glare and Mother’s evening travel lecture, a yearning peek out the window was more trouble than it was worth.

Yet she wanted to please them. With effort she found little resting places in the grooming considered essential for suitable husband-getting. She managed, even, to find some joy in evaluating china patterns and silverware. True, their fine, static beauty was not nearly as moving as the changeable lines etched in new faces, or the waving colors in the garden, so difficult to replicate from her palette. But stain, shade and shape were at least within the scope of her natural language.

Conversations with fashionably bored, well-bred wedding hunters, however, tested and drove her to a state of disconsolation. Surely her incompetence within the alien realm of tea parties, lunches and private tennis matches was proof that this was not her world. Though born to it, it was ever strange to her.

There was little to assuage her loneliness. Talking with the servants, previously only a moderate offense, now met with punishing disapproval. The worst of it was when they stopped Sally from talking to her. An occasional hug when mother wasn’t looking, a maternal kiss on the head or a pat on the cheek from the old cook had been the smallest, most looked-for comfort since childhood. Never enough, and yet what would she have done without it? “Hush, chile,” Sally said once, wiping away childish tears with one corner of a butter-soft apron. “It makes no never mind. G’wine t’be all right.”

“Elizabeth!” Mother later clucked in exasperation, when Elizabeth used the phrase in company. “Such a vulgar expression! Retire it immediately.”

But Elizabeth, careful not to use it around Mother, clung to the phrase; she sheltered and watered it, until it became a part of herself. It was a seedling of rebellion, her right to ownership of something warm and humane.

Only by facing the painful truth did she realize her own resistance. When Albert shut the door on the stranger, she knew that to find anything tender, she would have to look elsewhere. She had always thought Mother’s cool disdain, Albert’s callous disregard, were because of her – that somehow, she was a poor object for their affection. Never had it occurred to her that she might not be so ill-equipped to receive love as they were to bestow it. Unable to change their characters or her own guilt, she could only try somehow to make up their deficiencies.

To sneak out and trade one of her fine linen dresses for a common cotton print had taken no small effort. A week to convince the chauffeur to take her off the grounds in exchange for little pieces of jewelry, it was another two before she could return from her daily outings without having to hide her red-rimmed eyes for hours afterwards. The want Mother had hidden in the darkness of evening became blindingly clear in the light of day, and it haunted her.

Reverend Hall’s surprise to see her was surpassed only by his greater surprise at her request. His broad, cherubic face cracked wide in a cheerful, gap-toothed smile, as if the daughter of Kensington Electric had just handed him the gift of a small miracle.

Awkward in her coarse skirt, certain of her social ineptitude, Elizabeth’s self-consciousness faded within seconds of walking into the kitchen. Her hands scrubbed clean, her apron snug, she ladled steaming soup into the bowls of grateful, silent men. There was no place for worry about herself in the face of such lives, hungry and hard. There was only shame in the humbling of those who would have undertaken any task, no matter how mean, in preference to charity. They shuffled through in a gaunt swathe and settled upon the worn grain of wooden benches, their heads low over bread and broth, as if they, too, must mete out truth in measured doses, cautious not to face more than their souls could bear.

Four days passed before she understood that he had been there, perhaps all along, staring at her. Head erect amid a sea of caps, he observed her, his eyes wide and unblinking, his soup bowl waiting. When she caught him looking at her, his hand moved swiftly to remove his cap, his eyes cast suddenly down. He took hasty interest in his meal.

A shock of dark hair. Fine dark eyes. Those were the features that lay beneath the dusty tweed bill.

While Elizabeth dreamed of escaping home, she never imagined her greatest yearning would be to stand in a soup kitchen, hopeful even for the briefest glimpse of a man to whom she had never spoken. But he was there, quiet and respectful, sliding through the line each day.

Now that she could see more of his face, however, she found herself shy. She kept her eyes bent to her task, watching the smooth agility of his hands as they grasped bowl, cup, and utensils. They appeared supple and strong, their movement its own particular kind of beauty. He must be an artisan. She had a painful need not to become obvious and addled. So with each visit, she recalled the sight of him, lean and hollow, standing on her doorstep, and then she would fill the ladle overfull, bringing his meal as close to the brim as she was able. On the first such occasion the Reverend, pouring out the cups of hot coffee beside her, stood motionless, interrupting the pace of service, and then he began to whistle a cheerful tune.

Each afternoon, her insides fluttery, she waited to see a long, lithe step come through the door, a step different from all the others. That step took the bite out of the chilled air as they moved from the heat of summer to crisp fall days.

Finally she decided she would speak to him, and she wiped her hands down her sides in preparation. What would she say? Hello? Fine day we’re having? She frowned at herself. Perhaps something about the weather. Do you like this glorious rain?

Her silent monologue went unnoticed as hands and dishes moved through the queue. She was still upbraiding herself, undecided what to say, when he arrived. Her attempted smile was watery – and wasted. He did not once look at her. Having produced a letter from inside his jacket, he was so engrossed in reading that he failed to collect any crockery. A neighbor rewarded him with a mild elbow. Hurried and incautious, he seized the closest bowl and trapped the thin onionskin sheets between vessel and fingertips.

She was not familiar with jealousy. The nettled impulse to drown the vexing letter with soup startled her. Her hands shook with distress, and then she had to protect his letter from both the broth and her shameful intentions.

All too soon it was time to close the kitchen, and her spirits sank when she saw him leave. She helped Reverend Hall clean the remaining dishes, but when she prepared to mop the floor, he told her it could wait till the next day. She wrapped herself in her coat and stepped outside.

The rain had stopped falling but gleamed in wet, shiny streaks upon the concrete. The smell of burning wood mixed with its lingering scent. The occasional car chugged by, reminding her she was still in the heart of the city, though the worst of the exhaust had been washed from the air. Across the street the newspaper boy weaved through the pedestrians and hawked his headlines in a high, clear voice. But it was the mellifluous chuckle, soft and low, that caught her ear, making her turn her head. He was there, his back and one bent leg propped against the outer wall of the kitchen, amusement lighting his face as he read. She ignored the instinct that made her want to stop and watch him from a distance. Instead, she pivoted toward home.

An autumnal gust blew against the back of her coat and sent onionskin sheets sailing past; they first whipped, then floated like fragile, mottled leaves and landed close to Elizabeth in a roadside puddle. Water saturated the papers’ edges, and the spidery black ink began to bleed. Scurrying, Elizabeth rescued the creased pages. She had already fished a soft white handkerchief from her pocketbook and was dabbing the letter dry when he came to stand over her.

Shock. A shock of dark hair. Fine, dark eyes. She reached for words, but they would not oblige her. Instead, she handed him the missive, and he took it, his gaze first uncertain, then steady.

“Thank you.” River-like, his voice. Warm, like a soft southern breeze.

She nodded and stood frozen for a moment, waiting still for speech to arrive. When it didn’t, she squeezed her purse between her hands and turned to go again.

“What – what kind of picture are you painting now?” he asked in a rush, before she had completed her first step.

Elizabeth looked up with a mixture of awe and wariness. How could he know she liked to paint?

“The stains,” he explained, gesturing in the direction of her hands. “Not black, like a writer’s. More all-over like, with lots of colors. That smudge on your ring finger – that’s ocher.”

She looked at her hands. Indeed, they were clean but discolored, bearing random tints as varied as her palette, not so pristine as her first day at the kitchen.

It could not be that he noticed such details or cared to voice them; that simply never happened. A brief but delirious joy surged through her and she forgot herself. Instead of responding to his question, she sought an answer to one of her own. She couldn’t help noticing the colors, nor stepping forward, little more than a nose length away; she craned her neck to look up into his eyes, which she examined with artistic scrutiny. “And you have amber,” she concluded aloud in surprise. “With emerald. I never saw anything like it.”

He shifted awkwardly, and off came the cap, the letter clutched against his chest. “Miss?”

“Your irises - right at the center,” she explained, cocking her head to get the best light. “I thought they were just coffee colored. But if you look closely,” she observed, and in a fruitless effort to meet his height stood on her toes, “there’s a ring of amber with flecks of emerald! Where in heaven did you get them?”

He stood very still for a moment and she noted he had bowed back the smallest bit. “Miss?” he repeated. “Pardon me, Miss, but . . . you don’t act like anyone I ever met before.”

She lowered her heels and tread backwards, tucking her chin. Arms held stiff at her sides, she wound nervous fingers in her coat. It was because she didn’t fit. She never, ever fit. He had put her at such ease that she had shown him who she was – and she was the girl who was always dancing on the perimeter. Who was never able to perceive things in the way that others did. Always out of step. Flushing crimson, she spoke her mortification to the ground. “No. Of course. I do hope your letter is all right.” And she attempted to elude him by slipping behind a dark green mailbox before she could further humiliate herself.

“They were my mother’s,” he called after her, his footsteps mirroring hers. She turned and dared to look as high as his shoulder. It was he who inclined his head to catch her gaze. His smile was soft, his eyes crinkling gently at the corners. “She had eyes just like mine. With that dusty yellow color – “

“Amber,” Elizabeth interrupted, and then blushed. She ought not to correct him. But a color that fine shouldn’t be called yellow. A honeyed russet, maybe. Tawny. But not yellow. Certainly not dusty.

He nodded. “Just like you say. Amber. And gr-“ he bit the incomplete color in half. “And emerald,” he concluded. He displaced his weight, foot to foot, as if such a word, its connotation of rich beauty, should not be applied to a man, much less one with patched trousers.

Elizabeth stood attentive but motionless, barely daring to breathe as the tantalizing possibility occurred to her. Was she looking at the promise of a friendship? A real, true friendship? After years without a companion, could amity and familiarity spring forward, fully formed, in the blink of an eye?

His expression softened further. “It’s such a long way to Tennessee, longer between letters, especially my little brother’s. I’d have managed,” he professed, glancing down at the papers in his hand, “but I thank you for this. I hope one day I’ll have good news to write back.” Determination set the chin, now, and a stubborn optimism with it. “And I will, as soon as I find a job.”

A job. That summer day came flooding back to her, and Elizabeth couldn’t hide the shame.

His voice was firm. “You’re not your brother, Miss Elizabeth.”

Miss Elizabeth? The hope that he might not have remembered her association with her family was now dashed.

“I pay attention, Lizzie.” He cleared his throat, appearing abashed by his forwardness, as if he had let slip his secret thoughts. “Pardon. Miss Elizabeth, I mean.”

The transformation from Elizabeth to Lizzie in one introductory meeting was almost more than she could absorb. Even if she had decided to be wary, her inner self would have rebelled. She soaked up the dearness of her new name and accepted it completely.

She felt him weighing possibilities, saw him nod, his decision made. “I’m Joseph,” he said, his voice direct and clear. He hesitated. “Goldberg,” he stated tersely. The fingers clutching the cap grew pale at the knuckles as if, she thought, he awaited her judgment.

She regarded the name. It didn’t sound very southern. “Goldberg,” she repeated, allowing it a slow and thoughtful glide over her tongue. “Goldberg. Well, of course.” Her eyes sparkled. “It goes perfectly with amber and emeralds.”

His eyebrows knitted in the briefest puzzlement, and for a moment she feared he might think her unbelievable, a fool. Then white teeth flashed in a beaming, relaxed grin. “Well, Miss Lizzie,” he acknowledged with a shake of his head, “I think that might be the nicest thing anyone’s ever said about my name.”

They spent the next few evenings lingering at the kitchen doorstep after hours, and then their conversation retreated into the kitchen itself. Soon the late afternoons found him there, standing close, a busboy’s apron across his hips. Lean, roped forearms carried the dishes back and forth, balanced the soup tureens without spilling, distributed bread.

She became Lizzie to all. Between herself, Joseph, and the Reverend, a new energy cut through the air of the kitchen, blunting the edges of hunger and despair, polishing to a sheen the warmth of smiles that had grown dull through disuse. As Lizzie she felt herself softer, rounder. Freer.

Then one day he did not come. Two days. Three. First disappointment, then worry, then some crusty, irritating feeling she couldn’t name gnawed in the hollow spaces between her ribs.

Day four came to an end, a weary day in the kitchen. She had long since stopped traveling with her chauffeur, as she was out of patience with his avarice – and out of jewelry. She crossed the street toward the bus stop when she heard shuffling feet behind her. “Lizzie! Lizzie, wait up.”

Joseph, breathless, smiling, balanced a basket with folded linens, bars of soap, and candles in his strong arms. The corners of his mouth fell when she turned to him. “You’re sore at me.”

She shook her head in denial, even as the newly-named feeling rose in her chest and intermingled with a bitter hurt. It was true, what he said, but she had no right to it.

He was penitent, though not deceived. “Yes, you are. You’re just not used to it is all. You’re not used to being mad at anybody.” He set the basket down in the middle of the street. After a blast from the crowing horn of a Model A, tugged at Lizzie’s coat sleeve, pulling her to the curb. The car swerved past, knocking the basket on its side, the driver glaring.

“You all right?” Joseph asked, a solicitous hand on her shoulder.

She nodded, looking at the battered basket, the bars of soap scattered, the candles rolling in the road. She moved quickly to gather them, and he did too.

“Don’t be angry, Lizzie,” Joseph entreated, and he caught her hand. “I got – “ he swallowed, then grinned, his chest swelling. “I got a job. The effort – I was tired – and, oh, Lizzie, the feel of the wood under my hands – it’s just been such a long time.”

The touch had been mesmerizing, but the words took her breath away. A job! It meant food on his table, a roof over his head, pride in his heart. And it meant grief for her, with no companion at her side. She had not known something could feel so good and so awful simultaneously, but she smiled at him all the same. “A job! Joseph, that’s wonderful!”

“I’ll still be here. Every day,” he emphasized. “Reverend Hall needs these delivered, and more. I told him I’d help him out, of an evening after work - regular. Walk with me? It’s in the direction of your house. I made sure of that. We can stop at the Boys’ Home gate – ten paces from the bus stop. You can get to your house easy from there.”

He made sure of that. Her heart pounded madly. He made sure of that.

“Surely you didn’t think I was gonna cut you loose? You have to finish what you start, Lizzie.” He looked down at his feet, and then looked up, piercingly. “And it’s not the having to that makes me want to.”

***

Reverend Hall had no shortage of souls to aid, and Lizzie and Joseph both gave their labor and good will. Each evening they paused before the creaking gate at the Boys’ Home to say their reluctant goodbyes.

The Kensington household knew little such reluctance. Christmas, destined to be spent with Albert and mother and a mere two days hence, would be lonely. The dark walk from the bus stop through the neighborhood with grand homes was dismal. Later than usual for her return, she expected to be chastised roundly. The cold outside seemed less bitter than the cold she knew she would find inside.

Less bitter, that was, until she tried the front door. It was locked. When the ring of the doorbell and repeated knocks brought no response, Elizabeth backed away from the door to look up at the windows. There, with her brother staring at her through second story glass, the yellow lamp light behind him, she understood. And then he let fall the heavy drape, and she did not see him again.

She took one stumbling step backward and started upon hearing the hiss of a newly lit match, its sulfur smell and the scent of sweet tobacco wafting closer. Round, red cigar embers glowed disembodied in the air. The security guard snorted, and she knew he had delayed his departure for the pleasure of witnessing this scene. “Not too many Goldbergs in the south, I suppose. Maybe he should have stayed there. Pleasant evening to you, Elizabeth.” He whistled a lazy tune as he walked away.

Numb, she wandered the neighborhood for a time and finally took the last bus back to the city, uncertain where she might go or what she might do on her last remaining nickel. She found herself sitting huddled by the door of the soup kitchen, her knees gathered to her chest. More in reflex than in literal response to the cold, she pulled her coat close. From a few storefronts down the block drifted the sounds of laughter and bright music from a radio, a Christmas party spilling into the city street.

The loud thud of crates dropping onto the walk startled her. Her head snapped up, her eyes big with fright.

“Lizzie!”

Joseph walked to her and peered down, his perplexity visible beneath the street lamps. “What are you doing here? I thought you went home!”

She didn’t want to tell him. Didn’t want to face the shame. “It’s late. I thought you’d be home, too.”

“Lizzie . . . “

But she volunteered nothing.

He held out his hand and pulled her to her feet. “This is a great tune,” he whispered. “Dance with me.”

“Joseph, no one else is dancing outside,” she protested.

“I know that,” he said, and placed one hand at her waist drawing her into the rhythm of the music. He hummed, a little off key, and sang the words aloud. “Gee, but I’d like to make you happy ... happy ..."

She was anything but happy, and she was little comforted by the closeness of him, as she could tell him nothing, and he could do nothing. Then the last of the numbness fell away, her feet stopped moving, and she hung her head and cried.

His response was not the one she expected. “Good,” he said when he had learned all. Sober, he faced her incredulity. “’Cause that puts me plumb out of excuses. No more worries about you being more comfortable with your family. No more fears about not having enough to offer. We can get a preacher, or we can get a rabbi, but in the end, there’s nothing for it; you’ve just got to marry me. Take all the time that you need, as long as you answer yes and answer now. Please?” His dark eyes were soft with longing. “I just don’t think I’ll be able to stand anything else.”

So they had stayed in his tiny apartment, she in his bed, Joseph on the floor with his back courteously turned, until they could get their marriage license. The apartment was chilly, but Elizabeth had never felt warmer; the walls were dingy but could not have seemed brighter; the future was uncertain but she had never felt safer. Neither she nor Joseph, however, slept very well.

Reverend Hall married them after the Christmas Eve midnight service, early Christmas morning with candles still glowing. He told them congratulations, and mazel tov, and they walked out of the church giddy and bewildered, not quite sure what to do with themselves. But by the time they pushed through the front door of their home, Joseph was already kissing her, and when he pulled back, he saw no hesitation or doubt in her eyes, for there was none, no message that told him to wait, to stop. She drew him closer, without knowledge but with conviction and urgency. They found the bed that was theirs, and they lingered there, through daylight hours and dusk, their limbs intertwined in this new body, this new life. Tenderly he pressed his lips to the tears that streamed down her cheeks; the old curtain had been ripped away, and once she beheld the brilliance of a world reformed, she could not contain her joy.

***

Giving him back to the embrace of day and of work was almost more than she could stand, his reluctance to leave her making it that much harder. But they slipped into a rhythm of days and learned to trust in the vibrance and resilience of who they were.

The years were lean and the jobs came and went. They hovered on the brink of losing their meager possessions many times. When things looked darkest, Reverend Hall would emerge with a small fund scraped from the bottom of the coffee tin in his own pantry.

They loved and comforted each other through it all. They waited and watched for a baby, and they turned to each other for solace when that dream disintegrated. And when Joseph’s family returned his letters for the last time, refusing to accept his heart’s choice, she held him through the night as he wept like an orphaned child.

Dark days were the necessary counterpoint to bright ones. There were so many, such airy and luminous days. She wondered how many heartbeats were spent waiting for the sound of that front door to open. Then she would run, breathless with delight, into the arms of the man who lifted her and kissed her, the light in his smiling eyes her sun and moon, her reason.

They would walk, of a Sunday, arm and arm through the city, stopping to chat with vendors and sometimes with children. Her differentness peeked out, always. Strangers bemused by her worldview only caused the couple to smile knowingly at each other. It no longer mattered whether others understood. Joseph did.

In evening quiet, Joseph sat and read his papers, and she sometimes painted images from them. Occasionally her painting brought in a little money, mostly when she lent a hand with the outdoor city murals. Her work was about life, and truth ... the truth Albert had always tried to hide from her.

She could face the truth of the world outside her door. The thought of what she might have missed, had Joseph not appeared on her front step that day, did not frequently occur to her. But when it did, an icy shudder ran the length of her spine. An alternate life was unimaginable.

Yet she knew her life was changing. It had been more than a year since the editorial in the Times had given credence to reports of horror in Poland. After Pearl Harbor, Joseph wore a new sadness, as if torn. She saw it immediately the night he came home, the shadow of decision heavy upon him. “Please understand,” he had begged her, his eyes moist, the set of his mouth grim.

She wanted to understand, though her heart prevented it. That same heart, however, honored who he was. “Of course. Of course, I do,” she lied. If his going proved unbearable, she told herself, she would simply find a way to go with him.

She wanted to go with him. She wasn’t sure that she had not; the train as it retreated in the distance, her husband waving at her somberly from the back, seemed to carry the better part of her with it.

The news arrived quickly. Reverend Hall, through his tears, unfolded and read aloud for her the letter from the young private, raw with pain over the loss that came too soon. He grieved for the soldier who bunked down and stared intently at the picture of his wife before the lights went out ... the soldier who had treated him like a little brother. The last shot from Joseph’s rifle, the private said, volleyed over the firing range on the training base. He would have boarded ship the next day, if only the brakes hadn’t failed. The jeep’s collision with the supply truck came as a stinging, unanticipated blow. Perhaps it was for the best that the fresh-faced recruit at the wheel never had the chance to know the fate of his fellow passenger. Shouts could be heard even from the mess hall as men jumped in alarm from the truck cab into the ditch. First cradled in their arms, Joseph lay peaceful beneath his blanket by the time the medics materialized.

She waited. Waited in the apartment while knocks at the door went unanswered. Waited while Reverend Hall guided her, that rainy day, to the place Joseph didn’t belong, but where he would remain. There they stood in the wet beneath their black umbrellas. She looked vacantly at the faces of the passersby as she tried to gather jumbled pieces of thought into some meaningful assemblage. The strange pity with which the other mourners stared at her did not touch her, and she wished they would go away. Instead, she went away, wandering off as the clods of dirt thudded soullessly atop the coffin. Reverend Hall interrupted his conversation with an air of apology and scampered after her, as she walked, walked, walked ... She told him to go away, and he did not. She ignored him, pushed at him when he would hold her back, and finally lost him, bent over as he was, hands resting on knees in exhaustion.

The water falling from the sky turned at some point to snow, a cold white blur. Numb inside, numb outside. She did not know how long she walked, nor where. Though the midnight hour found her back at her apartment, she was not quite sure why she bothered. Avoiding their bed, she lay on the couch where sleep eluded her, until it descended, finally, heavy and wooden. Perhaps it was twilight when she woke again – she didn’t know – and when the memories began to push and crowd her, she grabbed her coat and flew in terror through that door ... the door that Joseph had pushed open so many times, his eyes alight with life and love.

All gone. All gone.

She wasn’t certain when the transition occurred. There was a time when she couldn’t stop moving, and then, it seemed, she could move no more. It had seemed an inconspicuous place, a place to be forgotten, there by the massive drain in the park. The ground where she lay had been frozen and hard, just as she felt herself to be: it was the brutal companion she deserved. But now, upon slowly opening her eyes, she remembered little. She was surrounded by rough rock wall, cocooned in the warmth of old quilts, and there was a motherly touch smoothing her hair. Reverend Hall’s voice could be heard, sound carrying in soft echo behind her: “Take care of her. Take care of our Lizzie.”

He left her there with the caregivers, who called her not Lizzie, but Elizabeth. Their voices were new, and they spoke gently. They plied her with soup and tea, and she consumed it, all the while despising the part of herself that wanted to survive. The names were formal, the clothes less so, patched together things that looked regal and worn, familiar and curious.

Unable to lie swaddled in cotton forever, she began to feel the stirrings of her body, which protested being sedentary. She needed to move. So she sat up, pulling her blankets about her, and noticed tubes of paint, brushes, paper, and pencils had been gathered in the corner, as if for her. She made small forays out of the chamber and began to take notice of those who would occasionally move past her in the tunnels. They responded to her angry glares without judgment; they offered her aid when she needed it and left her alone when she refused them. Quickly they learned that they were not to broach the subject of her past. That belonged solely to her. But their failure to give her other reasons to despise them inflamed her, until she could no longer pretend that her hatred protected her, or that they had done anything wrong.

She directed her fury, then, at Joseph. Joseph who had left her, abandoned her to a world that was incomprehensible without him. She found herself raging, tearing at her clothes, at her hair, beating the rock with her delicate hands until they were bruised and bleeding. But her anger toward him was just another form of blame, just another layer of protection. The truth was she feared the gaping black hole of loss might destroy her. The grief might simply devour her.

There was no choice but to let it. So she wept and wailed and surrendered. And her heart continued to beat.

The first pulse of warmth she felt – heaven knows how long it had been – was when a little tunnel girl, with apple cheeks and dimpled fists, let go her grasp of her mother’s skirts and climbed without warning or permission into her lap. The child rested there, no glaze of politeness or self-consciousness between them. Then she placed both hands on her temples and stared directly into her eyes. It was a strange thing, this child’s gesture, but instead of hurrying to remove the little one, the mother waited and watched, watched as if something important were about to happen. Taken aback by the young one, she glanced at the parent in surprise, waiting for the harsh correction that never came and she realized that they waited, too, for her. Shakily, she answered as she knew how. She held the girl against her with one hand and reached for a pad and charcoal with the other. The resulting likeness of the child, a rough sketch only, drew a smile from the mother, her eyes shining and wet with unqualified gratitude.

She watched the forms of mother and child recede as her heart raced to life. Suddenly, she had to find it. The paint. It was a matter of urgency. Where was the blasted paint?

She did not know what poured out of her so desperately, but she knew it came from a place that had no words. Like the handprints on the cave walls at Pech Merle, her first furious efforts were primitive and powerful. I am here, they said. I create. I live. I live.

She did live, and for a time lived in a painting frenzy. She became a chronicler of events, there within the tunnels. Content to remain on the outskirts of everything, she felt herself to be on the inside of much, as she painted stories, old and new. She heard of goings on where the others congregated ... of greater organization within the community. Eventually, she heard tales of the end of the war.

Time brought with it other stories, too, mostly of the Tunnels: There were whispers of the man who they had begun to call Father ... and of the special boy who grew to be such an extraordinary man. Occasionally, she would wander topside, to keep abreast of life there, but the visits became less frequent. She found her interest in the world Above diminishing, except as a story, a painting, a memory and hope of those things that ultimately connected people. The community Below made sense. She knew now why Reverend Hall had brought her here. A place that would nurture her back to health, it was also a place where she could give. Here, she did not have to strive against a world that would close its ranks and hold her at arms’ length.

Her last trip Above, fittingly, was to say goodbye to the Reverend. Older now, her hair more grey than brown, she moved with delicate care amid the stones as she sought her friend. Though others no doubt found it unfathomable, she stopped short at the sight of his simple marker and smiled through tears. There, strewn like memories between the flowers upon his grave, rested loaves of bread. Surely no eulogy, no monument could say more.

She returned Below, forever to be Elizabeth of the Painted Tunnels. Mouse in particular accepted her, as did Vincent. But here, she was the one who kept her distance. She remained isolated, knowing her separateness allowed her an edge and a stubbornness that might not otherwise be looked upon with kindness. She could even be crusty at times, beneath the mantle of her eccentricity. It came in handy when people suggested anything that might interfere with her true source of remaining joy: her painting. The tunnel dwellers spoke of her with indulgent solicitude; she in turn accepted their judgment, however benign, and bore it with equal and mostly affectionate tolerance. “It makes no never mind,” she murmured to herself.

***

She looked about and sighed, unsure when during her mental travels Mouse had scrambled away, or whether she had said goodbye. She walked back to her chamber, cautious of her step. Halting at the doorway, she considered the smallness of her room. They had offered her a larger space, but she had declined. There was room for a twin size bed, and the few belongings she had gathered over the many years. The nesters Below seemed concerned at first that she wanted so little. But there was comfort in the closeness, and there was justice in it. Not too much. Not more than she needed. Not more than she deserved.

There was still, of course, her problem. She had to finish what she started.

Sitting on her bed, she twirled the Winterfest candle once more between her fingers. Perhaps it was time to embrace the world that had embraced her. Surely a brief visit, at least once, would do it. Five minutes, ten. A small celebration to look into the faces of the people she had come to know and love over the years would hurt no one. And it might be a little memory that the dear boy, Mouse, could pull out of his pocket every now and again. It would be a very long walk. But she could make that long walk, one time.

She turned slightly to gaze at the wall, as if to consult. “Would that do? Would that do, do you think?”

Fine, dark eyes. A shock of sable-soft dark hair. It was her truest portrait, the one seen only by herself, the externalization of her sweetest, invisible life.

There were moments when he seemed too far away, when she couldn’t reach him. And then there were moments when she felt the fullness of his presence, the warmth of him beside her, his breath stirring the wisps of her hair. He was here now, and she closed her eyes to feel his gentleness, to feel his soul washing through her own, the sunlight of him chasing through her darker corners, brightening and softening all her angles.

He faded too quickly, as he always did, but she opened her eyes, questions satisfied. She gazed again at his portrait, grateful for him, grateful for them all, and for this life.

Then she smiled, preparing for the long walk. It was time to greet her family.