Letter 2 – Part 1
No doubt due to my brother’s sudden return to our lives, I find myself more and more borne back to the days of childhood, to a time before my father’s passing. One would think it a halcyon period, especially in comparison to the period after Papa’s death—but the utter chaos of that time seems largely expunged from my memory. I was a girl; then Father became ill with pneumonia after being caught in the terrible storm returning from Hampstead; then there was his funeral (nothing remains but impressions of blackness); then there is the period which is all but disappeared—when we were uprooted, like weeds from the garden, and relocated to become Uncle’s dependents, phantasmal years, banked in fog.
It is the years before all of that which have been returning to me so vividly. The years when Robin was at my heel more often than not, like a devoted terrier, ready to engage in whatever game was my wish of the moment. We would fashion a corner of the arcade into a cottage of my own, the parameters established via well-positioned chairs and a blanket hung from the hooks normally used for baskets of flowers and herbs; there, I would play at being mistress, and my solitary guest for tea would be Robin—for tea, for cribbage, for the cutting of paper ornaments . . . for whatever suited me. My minion, two years my junior, was game for whatever amusement I chose. One day, it was late autumn and the weather was near to giving up its ghost to winter. A cold slashing wind made us abandon my ‘cottage’; it upended a chair and blew from the table where I held court the playing cards I was using to tell our fortunes. Unpracticed gypsy that I was, I had no foretelling of this being our final such party. He would turn to more boyish pursuits, often more solitary pursuits—which held no room for his elder sister. Such would be my pattern on that icy autumn day, as rain blew inward the soaked blanket which was supposed to shield us from cold calamity; I would not recognize a loss upon its earliest introduction, but only in retrospection could I make out the figure of Finality, the figure of Parting, as if he stood by, obscured in a grey gloom.
Robin was loathe to return indoors. He seemed to be enthralled by the whipping wind and frigid pricks of rain. Could the seed have been sown that day? The kernel which grew into his obsession with the northern pole? I can only, now, wonder. I took him by the arm to urge him from the porch, and his skin was as cold as the pump-handle in winter, and slick with water too. I had the oddest notion—why I should recall it all these years hence?—that my fingers may freeze to my brother’s ice-cold arm. The irony is that that day seemed, looking back, to mark a kind of separation between us. By the following spring, Robin had become more independent in his occupations, no longer content to be my devoted playmate. One of the telltale signs was that his name for me changed too. I had time in memoriam been ‘Magpie’ on his childish lips; sometime that winter I became merely ‘Margaret’—the name by which everyone called me. Robin and I had lost our avian kinship. He, meanwhile, began encouraging the use of his true Christian name. I was alone in my recalcitrance, clinging to the familiar name of his childhood. As I obviously do still.
Listen to me! Waxing with these long-ago memories. Robin’s return has indeed broke loose a torrent of recollections, enbrined with all manner of conjured meanings and emotions; and it seems my only egress for them lies in inditement: I am compelled to pay them out across the page in a tangled line of script.
Thank you for indulging me, my dear.
(Later.) It is still a goodly amount of time before dawn. I feel wasteful of the candle, but there is no returning to sleep and I experience a nervousness which prevents me from ever resting quietly until sunrise. I woke in the night and was of a mind to look in on the children when I heard footsteps in the hall; I glanced toward my bedchamber door just as a light retreated beneath it. I imagined it was Robin. After a moment I rose and donned my robe; I didn’t bother with a light of my own. As I entered the hall I heard the front door shut. As soon as I reached the bottom step of the stair I detected the scent of a snuffed flame. The candle in its holder was on the foyer table, and Robin was not about. He must have needed the night air, I told myself at first, still thinking of him in the terms of a boy—but I instantly amended myself. Robin is a grown man, a seasoned sailor in fact. Pardon my coarseness, my dear, but I could imagine that Robin felt the need for something more than night air. He would not need to travel far afield. Our section of the city, like every other perhaps, is teeming with such . . . attractions.
I find I cannot fault him, for loneliness is a hard master, inflicting his lashes most vigorously during the quietest moments. Yet there will also be a sting, sharp and sudden, amid the most frenetic commotion. There was an instance of loneliness’s surprising strike on the morning of Robin’s arrival. Mrs O and I were busy at boiling the currant berries—she had been instructing me how best to detect when the berries are just the proper texture, and the children were having an animated disagreement in regards to the constructions of the Great Pyramids (their history lesson on that morning)—when, rather like a spasm of electricity, I felt the kiss of loneliness’s lash upon my soul. Then, for a moment, it was as if I were under water, and all the sounds of the kitchen—the hissing water of the boiling pot, the stove-door’s whining hinge as Mrs O stirred the fire, the children’s pitching voices—they were all muted and far away. I could only clutch at the knots of my apron and wait for the despairing pang to wash over me and, then, recede. It wasn’t long after that Robin arrived.
I hope, my darling, that you are not so plagued with loneliness, and that you have amiable companions at your lodging and among your business acquaintances. Perhaps you would assure me of their comforts when you write, so that I may be certain you are not besieged with such cares.
Ted Morrissey is the author of four books of fiction as well as two books of scholarship. His works of fiction include the novels An Untimely Frost and Men of Winter, and the novella Weeping with an Ancient God, which was named a Best Book of 2015 by Chicago Book Review. His stories, essays and reviews have appeared in more than forty publications. He teaches in the MFA in Writing program at Lindenwood University. He lives near Springfield, Illinois, where he and his wife Melissa, an educator and children’s author, direct Twelve Winters