Rich Elliott is a writer from Valparaiso, Indiana. He is the author of two works of sports nonfiction: The Competitive Edge: Mental Preparation for Distance Running; and Runners on Running: The Best Nonfiction of Distance Running. You may visit his website at: www.richelliottproductions.com
Vinnie had started to burn her sister. In the middle of the room the woman sat, a dark muslin block against the gray walls. Charred remnants of Emily’s paper-thin identity lay scattered in the fireplace. But now, there’d been a twist, and Vinnie fretted about the promise she had given.
As always, it was impossible to fathom the Impossible One’s wishes. Sister Emily, while she lived, had confounded Vinnie as well as everyone else, and now that she was gone, she vexed her sister just as much.
“By God, I’ll be the next to go mad!” Vinnie mumbled to herself, not the first time she had uttered this warning.
Several days prior, her dear sister had breathed her last. She died as she had lived, with eerie passivity. Brother Austin, his wife Susan, and Vinnie stood at bedside as Emily, dressed in her uniform of white cotton, lay dying. She’d spoken nothing for days, as if she’d already flown up and merely forgotten to tell her body. One minute, she breathed ever so lightly. Then there was the slightest flutter in her eyelids, and the next minute she was gone. When they lifted Emily off the bed to ready her for burial, she seemed lighter and more delicate than a wren in winter.
A brief service was held in the family home. Emily lay in a white coffin. A Bible verse was read, the one in Corinthians about “the splendor of the heavenly bodies,” and the Colonel read a Bronté poem. Vinnie gave her dead sister two heliotropes to hold.
A surprising number of people appeared for the burial at the West Street Cemetery. Surprising, yes, because they hadn’t seen her in years. Some people came to pay their respects—perhaps they remembered Emily in her youth as the keenest student at the Academy. Perhaps they’d been struck by her intensity. Others came out of respect for Austin, the prominent lawyer, or for his late father, the Congressman.
But if one must be brutally honest (as one must), then it should be said that many visitors came out of morbid fascination. They came to rehash Emily stories. How, if you greeted her on the street, you’d get nothing in reply. She seemed to be listening to the hum of a distant beehive. Or how she locked herself away some twenty years ago. Only spoke to visitors from inside the door of her room. The children in town made up stories about sightings of the Crazy Lady. The adults referred to her as the Myth.
The day after the funeral, Austin asked Vinnie to deal with Emily’s room. “The room must be put straight,” he said. “We may want to let it out to a student.” He needn’t have told Vinnie this. The sister knew what to do, but big brothers must act accordingly.
Now Vinnie stood in the austere box that was Emily’s room. She shuddered at the smell of dead flowers. But she was nothing if not a practical New England woman, and so after pulling back the window curtains to let in the sun, she got down to the business at hand.
She moved to the pine desk at the window overlooking the garden. Despite the desk’s smallness, it commanded the room. She ran her hand over the desktop. It was as severe as a farm field after harvest. Vinnie settled into the chair and opened the middle drawer. She pulled out a perfectly aligned stack of letters tied with a silver ribbon. She untied the ribbon. She thumbed through the collection of letters, noting the names on the envelopes. Most were addressed to Emily, but more than a few were addressed to others, and the sister understood these had never been sent or had been copied before being sent.
Vinnie built a fire in the fireplace and without sentiment began burning the letters. But then curiosity intruded. Or an impulse to understand. Surely, it wouldn’t hurt to stay her mission a little.
Vinnie spent the morning reading each letter before placing it on the fire. The ones that attracted her were those written by her sister. Vinnie recognized the familiar chicken-scratch of the handwriting. The missing punctuation. The perverse misspellings. The capitalization of nouns. Was that an affectation, or did Sister think she was German?
The two sisters had passed notes for years, so Vinnie could make out the words. She needed no Rosetta Stone, as others might. But the meaning of the words and what they added up to? What do you get from lines like “My business is circumference?” God only knows!
Vinnie shook her head, as the people had at the cemetery. “Poor Sister, whatever can we make of you?”
At length Vinnie tossed the remaining unread letters onto the fire, and the flames did their happy work. The sister felt a tinge of embarrassment because she had so little sorrow. No sorrow in fact, just a growing lightness, as if the spring mud on her garden boots had suddenly fallen away.
Vinnie decided not to waste the mood. She left her sister’s room and crossed the yard to her brother’s home. She would look for her niece Mattie. Perhaps she needed cheering up. Perhaps she could get her to play the piano.
The following morning Vinnie returned to Emily’s room to finish the clearing out. There was not much to do really. How Sister got by on so few worldly things, was anyone’s guess. Hanging in the closet, a gray winter frock and two identical white cotton dresses. In the bureau, half-full drawers held a few undergarments, a sweater, a worsted shawl, and a bonnet. Emily’s favorite tippet was there and also a bright yellow sash her sister had worn just once. Vinnie placed all in a large wicker basket. She would decide later where they should go. Perhaps the First Church would take them.
She moved on to the small, unadorned hope chest at the foot of the bed. A fortnight ago, Emily had pressed into Vinnie’s hand a key, and she used it now to open the chest. Quietly she examined the items in the box: on top, a lacey silk tulle, a veil for the wedding that never came; her mother’s satin wedding dress, very fine but very of a period; a simple, white cotton nightgown; and then a quilt, in the medallion style. Vinnie looked forward to studying it more closely.
This thought fled like a startled bird when Vinnie lifted the quilt from the chest and found the booklets. Stunned, she brought them over to the desk. She had no knowledge of their existence. Why, there must be at least forty of them, each thick with pages that were carefully bound in with string.
She opened the booklet on top, turned a few pages, and let out a barely audible gasp. She rifled through several of the other booklets.
Of course, Vinnie had long known of her sister’s proclivity for verse, her amateur attempts. Her little poems to family members and the few published locally, for which, Vinnie thought, the family went overboard in praising.
But, my God, all these notebooks, all this scribbling!
“So Emily!” the sister thought peevishly. “I tell my sister everything, everything my heart contains. She gives me a few crumbs and smiles her all-knowing smile and keeps bundles of secrets.”
Vinnie pursed her lips. She read a poem from one of the booklets.
“I’m nobody! Who are you? Are you nobody, too?”
“Oh, some nobody!” thought the sister. Why, Emily had everyone in the family wrapped around her finger. She was the queen of addition by subtraction.
“Vinnie, go see what Emily is doing.”
“Vinnie, Emily looks pale. See if she’s getting sick.”
“See if she needs anything.”
“Why does she act so?”
“Why is she sad?”
“What can we do for her?”
Age-old resentments shouldered their way into the small room, and Vinnie welcomed them in.
How Sister did hang on me! We’d be out in society, at some gathering, and she’d be standing right off my shoulder like a conjoined twin. She’d barely say a word. I’d make excuses to my friends. “Em feels under the weather today.”
Despite my shadow, I did meet young men. I had my suitors. I had my Joe. But marriage? Well, think of it. Who would have cared for Mother and Father? Emily? Why, the house would have fallen down on their heads while she sat in her room looking at the peonies in the yard.
So I was the one who had to hold firm. I kept the house. I made sure the family was fed. Though, yes, my sister was quite the baker (and was amply praised for it.) Without me, the dust in the house would have been an inch thick. There would’ve been no canning because fruit had not been picked. Even her beloved garden fell more and more on me. And on and on!
I had to keep both feet planted in the mud, so the Delicate One could wander in the clouds with one foot in heaven.
Vinnie read another poem from the booklet.
And if, indeed, I fail,
At least to know the worst is sweet.
Defeat means nothing but defeat,
No drearier can prevail!
Oh, yes—the many attempts to cheer herself. She was one who needed constant shoring up. I tried, Mother and Father tried, Brother tried. It was as if she needed our reassurance to get out of bed in the morning. How tiresome!
But then she would rebound and she would be clever and sweet and be our Emily and we would love her.
Vinnie picked up another booklet and read a stanza.
If anybody’s friend be dead,
It’s the sharpest of the theme
The thinking how they walked alive,
At such and such a time.
Now here is more paydirt. God in heaven, how sister would go on about her losses. How death consumed her! As if she were the only one to ever lose a loved one. But what about my losses? What about my pain? No, I had to soldier on. I had to make arrangements for Mother. And for Father. I could not sit in my room!
Vinnie continued to read. She shifted on the hard chair. She scratched her head. What to make of all these scribblings? Were they even poems? Why, the rhymes are off. “Theme” and “time?” “Queen” and “afternoon?” These verses seemed like unfinished works, like Sister’s own life.
And the sentiments in the poems? What to make of them? They were even more obtuse than her public words.
Vinnie rebuilt a fire in the fireplace. The dry tinder was soon crackling. She added more kindling, stoked the fire.
The notebooks must go. She had given her promise. “Burn my letters,” Emily had said, and Vinnie had agreed.
If Sister wanted the poems kept, she would have said something. They were not meant to be seen.
Surely, people should not see these poems. They already thought Emily strange. They would gossip even more, laugh even more.
Vinnie held the notebooks in her lap and stared into the fire. She began to place the first notebook onto the flames when something caught her eye. A flash of yellow past the window. Vinnie stood up, moved to the windowsill, looked out. Was it a goldfinch? A vireo? Some kind of warbler? Emily would know. She knew all the names.
Vinnie traveled back to her childhood rambles with her sister. She and Emily spent hours in the woods together, exploring. Emily noticed everything. She looked up the word for everything she saw. Should that color be called “primrose” or “mustard” or “fulvous?” She needed to know. She turned it into a game. Who could come up with the right word? Emily always won.
The two girls learned all the names of the flowers and the trees. They learned all the tracks of their four-legged friends too. The very best was the track of the deermouse. In the snow it left a beautiful little trail, a lacey pattern, like two-petal leaves on a vine. Only once did they see the maker of this wonder when Emily spied two little white paws inside a hollow in a tree.
Vinnie turned away from the window and back towards the fire.
“Burn my letters.” That is what her sister had said. Emily was too precise with words, too observant, to mean anything other than letters. Emily knew what she meant. She meant letters. Not poems.
Vinnie understood what must be done. She would keep the poems. The poems were her sister’s sign, her tracks in the snow. Her sign that she’d been here after all.
If the tracks were beautiful or not, that was for the beholder to decide. Some will see gibberish. Perhaps a few will see a kindred spirit. They may even discover a faint trail leading to heaven.