With thanks to Darwin, who wanted to read it more than I wanted to write it sometimes, and to Nicole and Brandon for sharing their writing as well, so I didn't think I was the only crazy one.
Dedicated to Blanche Hodge and Elsie Bennett.
The haze of the last week was beginning to clear as I journeyed home through the quiet morning streets, and so was the mental fog that had enveloped me since Emma’s death, or before. As I drove I whispered the story to myself, adding details and spinning words so that the threads became woven into a tapestry of experience, and the isolated events that had buffeted me over the past weeks were revealed as mere slubs in the texture of the fabric. Even Emma’s death seemed to trace out, however tortuously, from the tangled cords of her sickness. Only Martin stood out, a strange golden string knotted ostentatiously into the front of the tapestry and weaving a shining, incongruous, gorgeous line across the whole.
I arrived home, unremarked, and sat on the edge of my bed. It was 8:00 -- I didn’t need breakfast, it was too early to call my parents, and I didn’t have the serenity to fall back asleep. I showered, got dressed, and went to Emma’s room. Jane Eyre was sitting on her bedside table. I dropped into her cozy chair and snuggled under the quilt that had been laying over the arm, and took up the book. At first I was conscious of the still house and the faint sounds of the neighborhood coming to life, but soon I was reading as I used to do before grades, before professors and classes and cold analysis; I was reading for the sheer joy of reading, pressing along too fast, skimming passages and having to go back; reading favorite bits aloud; absent-mindedly answering the anxious calls of my parents and oblivious to their presence once they arrived; skipping meals and mechanically gnawing the sandwich from the plate my exasperated mother banged down on the table next to me. I read until I finished, and when I finished I stretched my cramped limbs and looked with red and bleary eyes at the clock to discover that it was 3 AM. I staggered to my room and fell into bed with the weary satisfaction of one who has done a good day’s work.
The next day, after Mass, my mother was firm. “You’ve had your day of rest,” she proclaimed, “so don’t even look at that book today. You can go through Emma’s closet for me and start sorting out what needs to be donated and what should be kept.” She parked a complex organizational system of boxes in the doorway to keep me from wandering out of the room.
I sorted diligently for a time, checking the pockets of pants and dresses for hidden items and winnowing out the clothes that were too worn to give away. I inspected shoes. Half the morning and half the closet were gone before I decided to reward myself with a break from clothing to take down some of the boxes at the top of the closet.
The first box held mementos: souvenirs, papers, lacy handkerchiefs, old birthday cards and address books and photos, and beneath them lay a vintage Girl Scout sash covered with round badges. The next box contained photos and letters, but I didn’t recognize any of the faces or names. I dug through the contents, looking for letters from Howard, but perhaps she had stored them somewhere else, or thrown them away. Then, as I fished around in the sea of envelopes and snapshots, my hand closed on a little box, and I drew it out.
It was a small cardboard box of the sort that that held jewelry. I lifted off the lid to reveal two pads of cotton wool, between which were sandwiched two rings. With care I laid the woman’s ring upon my palm and held it under the lamp to inspect the glittering channel of diamonds set across it. As it caught the light, I realized that the inside of band was engraved in a tiny, flowing script: As long as we both shall live.
The man’s thicker ring echoed the details of the woman’s, and when I placed it next to its more delicate counterpart the two rows of diamonds flashed at one another. This ring also had an inscription: I, Howard, take thee, Emma.
A note, much folded, was hidden underneath the bottom pad of cotton wool. I opened it carefully and read: “He didn’t say much at the end, but he did tell me he wanted you to have this, since you always seemed to honor the ring and the vow more than he did.” It was signed “Barbara”. I hunted through the letters but could find no indication of who Barbara might be. Sitting back on my heels, I puzzled over the two circles of gold in my hand. Who was Barbara to Howard? Was she the other woman?Why had Howard kept his ring so long? Why had Emma kept hers? The kind of sentimental impulse that would lead one to keep hold on to the keepsakes of a broken marriage seemed alien to Emma’s character. I stood up and navigated my way past the boxes to get to my bedroom, where I carefully tucked the box in the back of my drawer. There was something private and sad about the pair of rings nestled under their woolen blanket, and I wasn’t ready to expose them to speculation and shame.
Dad had worked himself up to the conviction that we were sitting on a gold mine with the library, and would not hear my demurring. “I’ve called in an appraiser,” he announced as we gathered for dinner. She’ll be coming tomorrow morning.”
“I thought you were talking to the lawyer tomorrow morning,” my mother objected.
“Emma could handle it,” Dad averred. “She knows the books better than anyone else in the family.”
“Dad,” I protested, “I don’t think the books are going to be worth as much as you think.”
He made the excuse that he needed an appraisal for tax purposes anyway, but his eye gleamed with an avaricious light.
The next morning, I opened the door to a short brisk woman in low heels and a big necklace. Her earrings bobbed as she grasped my hand and pumped it once.
“I’m Carolyn Ferrer,” she said in a tone that brooked no doubt. “I spoke to a Mark Trapnel about appraising his aunt’s book collection at this address at 10:30.”
“This is the house,” I confirmed, “and that is the time. My name is Emma Trapnel. Let me show you to the library.”
She stepped in and cast a practiced eye over the shelves. “About 2000 books,” she stated, setting her bag on the table. “Now. I charge by the hour, so I don’t like to waste your time. It helps me sometimes if there’s a list or catalog to go by. Did your aunt keep records of her acquisitions?”
“She didn’t, but I did.”
I brought my notebook to her, and she paged through it. “These are detailed notes,” she complimented, stopping here and there and asking to see the particular book described. “You have a good eye.”
“Thank you. My father is convinced that the library will make us rich, but I doubt it. Almost all the books have literary value and are well-preserved, but they don’t seem to be extremely uncommon editions or to have many distinguishing features.”
We assembled a stack of the volumes that interested her most, and she examined the title pages, gently flipped through the books to ascertain the condition, and checked the bindings.
“Your instincts were right,” she said, laying aside one book and sizing up the rest. “This is a fine collection for reading, but it’s not going to make your family a fortune. Most of the books are under $100, so for those I can offer you an appraisal as a lot.”
“That doesn’t surprise me.”
“I bet it doesn’t.” She regarded me with a keen eye. “Have you done this kind of work before?”
“No,” I answered slowly. “I graduated last year, and for the past six months I stayed here at the house caring for my aunt, who had Alzheimer’s. She died last week.”
“You compiled this list while you were watching someone with Alzheimer’s full-time?” She seemed almost impressed.
“It wasn’t difficult. I’ve always liked to read.”
“Hmm.” She had been packing her bag, but now she asked me, “Are there any other books in the house I should look at before I finish up?”
“She kept a few things in her room.”
We marched down the hall, but she shook her head at the books in the room. “Sorry, same story.” I turned to go out, but instead of following she crossed to Emma’s bedside table and picked up Jane Eyre.
“Is this one of hers?”
“It was. She gave it to me when I was 14. Her ex-husband gave it to her about fifty years ago.”
She examined the title page. “Did this book come with a slipcase?”
“Yes, I still have it in my room.”
“What kind of shape is it in?”
“I’ve kept it safe, so it’s held together well. Of course it’s old, so it has a few dents and scratches.”
“Can I see it?”
I brought it from my room. She slid the book and admired the effect, then gently removed it.
“Look,” she said, almost mildly, showing me the title page. “This is a numbered copy from a limited run by a French publisher, in 1923. It has the Gabain lithographs. It’s been kept in very good condition, almost like new. The slipcase is as good as can be expected.”
“It’s been inscribed,” I said doubtfully.
“Well, yes, that does reduce the value,” she conceded. “But Jane Eyre is a popular book and there are people who wouldn’t mind the inscription if they could lay their hands on a clean copy like this. It should fetch close to $1000.”
“I can give you the names of some reputable book sellers who would be happy to make you an offer on this,” she said, handing it tenderly back to me. “As for your aunt’s collection, I’ll write up a formal appraisal for your father, but it would probably bring in $5000, $6000, not more than that.” She strode back to the library for her bag.
“Was this volume valuable fifty years ago?” I asked as I trailed her.
“Oh, I’d have to look up the prices, but very likely, especially if it were still uninscribed then.”
“Well, whoever bought it must have thought a lot of the recipient to write in such an expensive gift.” We stepped to the door, and she gave my hand another brief shake. “I’m sorry about your aunt’s death.”
“Here’s my card,” she said, presenting me with that item. “When you’re free after you wind up your aunt’s affairs, call me and I might know of a few opportunities in the book and appraising line, if that sort of thing interests you.”
I sat in the living room, reverently handling my Jane Eyre. Had Emma known how much it was worth when she’d given it to me? Had she trusted me that much to watch over her beautiful book, or did getting rid of the memory of Howard take precedence over mere financial concerns? Howard himself must have known what it was worth, yet the black scrawl of the inscription betrayed no hesitation in marking up a book of such value. It seemed a waste that this doomed relationship had not only affected the lives of Emma and Howard, but had devalued the book as well. Why couldn’t he have left it blank? Maybe then she wouldn’t have felt compelled to get rid of it.
“I wouldn’t get rid of you,” I whispered to the book. It rested warmly in my lap, and its very presence helped me ignore the fuss in the kitchen. The low appraisal value of the books had caught Dad in an already bad mood, and he was complaining in the kitchen about the legal travails of the day.
“The line at the county clerk’s was out the door,” he growled, pulling a can of Bud Light out of the fridge and popping the top. “It was as if everyone in the county suddenly had to go clerking.”
“Why were you at the county clerk’s?” asked Mom, who’d spent all day in the garage with her laptop, listing items on online auction sites.
“You won’t believe this,” said Dad, flinging himself into one of the chairs at the table. “As we’re going through the documentation and paperwork and whatever at the lawyer’s office, it turns out that he doesn’t have a copy of Emma’s divorce decree. He doesn’t even think she was ever divorced.”
I snapped to attention on the couch.
“What?” asked Mom. “Didn’t she tell you she was divorced?”
“Well, no,” Dad admitted. “Howard just left, a long time ago, and she never said anything about it, and we all assumed... But just in case, I had to check to see if the record was on file at the county clerk’s, and it wasn’t. Now we might have to file for his death certificate just to cover all our bases.”
I found my feet and my voice, and lurched to the doorway, abandoning Jane Eyre on the cushion.
“Are you saying,” I demanded breathily, “that Emma never divorced Howard?”
“Why would she have stayed married to him when they were separated for all those years?” Mom asked incredulously.
“I don’t know,” Dad grumbled. “Why did Emma do anything? Probably only to give us trouble after she was dead.”
“Couldn’t he have divorced her?” wondered Mom.
“I don’t take it that Howard cared much whether he were married or divorced,” said Dad. “Why should he go to the bother if she didn’t?”
“That’s no answer,” I said shrilly.
“That’s all the answer I have,” snapped Dad. “I don’t have my crystal ball. I can’t see back in time. Nothing about it makes sense. All I can tell you is that she never got divorced.”
In a daze I picked up my book and shut myself in my room. I set the book on top of the dresser, and I pulled out the box of rings and laid them softly on top of the book, and I sat and contemplated them: Howard’s extravagant gift and the round symbols of fidelity. Then I did the only thing that made sense. I called Martin.
“I can’t hear a word you’re saying,” he bellowed. “Sorry, I’m stuck at this birthday party with Grace and kids are literally bouncing off the walls.”
“I have something to tell you,” I shouted as best as I could without being overheard in the kitchen.
“Come do it in person, then,” he roared. “I’ll text directions.”
So I dashed out the door clutching the rings and the book, calling vague excuses to my startled parents, and found myself at a birthday party at which fifteen four-year-olds (and one newly minted five year old) were hurling themselves around a big indoor playground. The echoes were deafening.
“You see the problem,” he said as I stood by him in mild shock. “But you were saying...?”
“You must know I can’t tell you anything in here,” I accused. “Why did you tell me to come?”
“Because I wanted to see you,” he said. “Look, it’s cake time, and that’s always the last step. Come on.”
We watched as the youngsters scarfed, smeared, and picked their way through garishly frosted cake.
“I don’t know that I’m cut out to be a parent, if I have to love this kind of thing.”
“Oh, everyone parent hates this kind of thing.”
Grace didn’t seem surprised that I should show up unannounced to such an odd occasion. “Are you going to our house?” she asked as we stood outside the party and Martin and I waited for our ears to stop ringing.
“Yes,” I said. “Your dad owes me dinner, at least.”
“Daddy, are we still getting pizza?” she begged.
He raised an interrogative eyebrow at me.
“I love pizza,” I said. “But not with anchovies.”
“Eww!” she shrieked in delight. “Are you going in our car?”
“Nope, I brought my own. But I’ll meet you at your house.”
Dinner was a more festive affair than last time. Grace was somber for a moment on hearing that the old lady from last time had gone to heaven, but sorrow did not linger naturally on her small face. She told me everything she knew, and then some, over dinner. She showed me her room and all of her toys and games and books, until Martin hovered uneasily and made threatening noises about bed time. She moped and fussed a bit, and brushed her teeth and showed me her pajamas. Martin read to her, I read to her, and finally he had to hold the doorknob while she kicked and raged.
“Is it like this often?” I asked him over the doorknob.
“She’s wound up tonight from the party and the company,” he said. “Most nights she goes down easily.”
“I’m sorry to throw off your schedule.”
“If you were here more often, you could become part of the schedule,” he suggested.
“If I were here more often, I wouldn’t have to wait all night to tell you something.”
“You might,” he said, and he slumped so wearily against the doorframe that all my sarcasm melted away.
“Here, come see what I brought,” I urged, peeling his fingers off the doorknob. He treaded downstairs slowly while I ran out to the car and brought in my treasures in to display on the coffee table.
“Sit down, and I’ll tell you a story.” I recounted the events of the day: the value of Jane Eyre, the finding of the rings, the ambiguous note, the discovery of the un-divorce. He listened attentively and with rising excitement, and once I’d finished he took the last point first.
“She was never divorced?”
“Looks that way.”
“She stayed married.”
“Yes, but why?”
“Because she understood!” he exclaimed, suddenly animated. “She wouldn’t break her vows. That’s the key thing.”
“But why?” I cried. “There’s so much of the story we don’t know yet.”
“I don’t care,” he declared. “I don’t have to know the whole story to know that this is the part that matters most. She said, ‘‘Til death do us part’, and she meant it. Oh, I admire that woman, Emma.”
I pondered. “She didn’t want his book around, though. She gave it to me.”
“She gave it to you because she thought you deserved it. And she was right. Look at the care you’ve taken of it. What are your plans for it? A thousand dollars is a pretty chunk of cash.”
I looked at him, with his greenish-gray eyes warm behind his glasses, and that one lock of hair falling over his forehead again. He had picked up the book and was holding it respectfully, letting the pages slip through his fingers as he studied the lithographs. Closing the book, he stroked fine leather of the cover and spine with gentle fingers. Then he glanced up and met my eyes, and I was caught and tangled in his gaze.
He broke away first, and dropped his eyes to the book. “Are you going to sell it or keep it?” he asked, a bit huskily, but I couldn’t reply until my whirling thoughts had crystallized.
“Neither, I think,” I replied slowly, with a hot flush rising in my cheeks.
He looked, not at my eyes, but at my hands. “And how does that work out?”
“I’ll show you.” Kneeling beside the coffee table, I pulled my fountain pen out of my purse and opened to the flyleaf of the book, and before either of us could stop me, I placed the pen under Howard’s inscription and wrote: “To Martin, with love from Emma.”
“Emma!” he cried, snatching the pen from my hand, “That’s a thousand-dollar book!”
“Not anymore,” I said shakily, with a little despairing gesture. “I’ve just decreased the value for everyone but you.”
He took up the volume and stared at it, and his hands too were shaking slightly. “But this was a gift from Aunt Emma.”
“I hope,” I said awkwardly, capping my pen and twisting it with warm and nervous motions, “I hope I might be keeping it in the family.”
He closed the book and put it on the table. He took the pen from my hand and put it beside the book, and then, sliding off the couch to kneel beside me on the floor, he combed my hair out of my face with his fingers, and kissed me long and deep.
I still have the book. I still have the rings. I still have the mystery of Emma and Howard’s marriage, but Martin was right: the marriage matters, in the end, more than the mystery. And Emma was right too: there’s always another woman, and I often wake to find her in my bed, red curls dangling in my face, begging me to get up and make breakfast for her in Martin’s kitchen.