A Confederate soldier’s widow purchases a damaged bed, intending to restore it. Instead, she summons an erotic creature who restores passion to her soul.
Published in PRISONERS OF THE NIGHT magazine
Issue #11, August 1999
The Woodwright's Wife
© Copyright 1999 - All Rights Reserved
“This town’s full of widows, and she acts like she’s the only one.”
Ruth Andersen and Deborah Lee Franck stand across the street, but the wind in Southport carries conversations. The words encrust you along with the sand and salt from the riverbanks, and you can never rid your skin of them.
I am not the only widow. I am the only walking corpse. My dear John, curse him, curse him, my love, made me love him more than anyone should make another love. Hence when he fell at Fort Fisher last January under the gallant command of Major James Reilly in this interminable war between our own states, he had my soul in his hands. Now heaven is barred to me, because John took my soul with him and left whatever I am now in this blasted husk of a body that refuses to die.
It is a balmy day for late winter, so Mr. Miller has propped open the door to his store with a burlap bag of grain. Miss Margaret – we call her such because she is the oldest widow - sits on the bag and pleads with him.
“I am asking you to pay just a sack of flour for it, Mr. Miller. That will hold me until my daughter brings me some supplies.”
“Miss Margaret,” Mr. Miller crosses his arms and gives me a slight nod, “Why aren’t you livin’ with her in Wilmington to begin with? Jed wouldn’t have wanted you to try and run that farm yourself. You already owe me more than you can pay with one small crop of corn. And this thing here is in such bad shape it isn’t worth my time of day, let alone a sack of flour.”
He jerks his chin at a headboard leaning up against the counter. At a glance, I see that at one time it was part of a fine pine bed, but the veneer is blistered with water damage. A deep crack runs horizontally below a carved wooden garden of graceful leafy vines and gardenias that blanket the top scalloping. A labor of love, the type of thing my John liked to make when he wasn’t working on the practical things and repairs people needed.
“I will buy the bed, Margaret.” I start at the sound of my voice. I barely speak anymore, and my voice tends to surprise me when I hear it.
Margaret turns her eyes on me. I am struck by how far they recede into her skull, as if they examine me from the deepest part of her mind.
“Mrs. Vernon, are you sure?” Mr. Miller glances dubiously at the bed. “Wood’s probably rotted.”
“Nevertheless, I want it, Mr. Miller.” I turn and hand Miss Margaret two dollars from my reticule. “Next time you need food, Miss Margaret, or any help with your crops, come to me.” Why don’t these men understand? Our hearts are like seeds, and we plant them in the homes they build for us. We cannot leave them.
Mr. Miller shakes his head and goes to help Mr. Wilkins, who came in while we were speaking. I go to the bed and reach out to touch it.
Margaret’s gnarled fingers descend on my wrist and draw my hand from the bloated wood to her breast. “Bless you, Mavis,” she says, but she says it with the strength of a brave soldier rescued from a bayonet, not the mewlish simpering of a rescued kitten. Those strange eyes burn into mine, and I know she has the light to see the empty space in my body where the soul used to be. I pull away.
“You need this bed,” she rasps. “And it needs you.”
“Mrs. Vernon, shall I have Clarence here drop off that headboard on his way back to his farm?”
“Yes, that would be very nice, Mr. Wilkins.” I nod stiffly at the two men. “If I am not in the yard, just leave it against the barn.”
When I get home, I set out a pie on the porch for Mr. Wilkins’ kindness and for the first time give some thought to my impetuous purchase. What am I going to do with it? What does a woman who has died inside do with a bed injured by flood? I go to John’s workshop.
Everything is where it was left. The two windows are coated with dust, and the filtered light merely shadows the corners and grazes the texture of the unfinished chairs, wagon wheels, baskets, dough bowls, shovels, and other things he repaired and made for the people of our town. They are propped against the shed walls and support beams, stacked on the split log benches and drawbeak or hung on the walls to keep them out of the way when he moved around his current task. His tools are still neatly lined on the wall, but the chisels and hatchets, saws, gouges and awls and other tools whose names I can never remember are covered with a sad layer of cobwebs. The constant wind blows in through a broken pane of the window and their metal parts clink against one another. I inhale the smells that clung to his body and fingers, the smells that were still with his body when I dressed it to be fitting for burial and his walk to the Good Lord above, who apparently cares as much for the feelings of women as Mr. Miller. Perhaps it is my hate that keeps me separated from my soul, from my John. Perhaps the Lord is afraid I will poison all of heaven with my woman’s venom.
John said that every piece of wood had to be made into something beautiful, because dying and being carved into something different from what the Lord intended was an awful shock. Making it into something beautiful would let it be reunited with its tree spirit again, and then the wood could be at peace with itself and spread that peace to the person to whom it belonged. I would sit in the wood rocker he made me and mend while he talked that nonsense. I watched his hands move over the furniture the same way they moved over me at night; with respect for the creation, awe for the Creator.
There is not a home in the area without his work in it, and all of it has been done under my eyes. I can restore the bed.
I jump at a light thump against the barn wall. The sun is at the base of the west window. They say it is the nights that are hard. It is all hard. Day is hard because I used to be the left hand and he was the right when we did our chores, so now every task is a reminder of the missing appendage. Night is impossible. I do the things at night I used to do during the day – tend the garden, feed the stock, bake bread, do the sewing and bookkeeping I am taking in. Doing them at night makes them different, so that they are not the same tasks and do not remind me so much. I doze during the days and my mind rambles like this, losing itself in a thought and surfacing hours later.
I emerge from the barn and Mr. Wilkins and my pie recede into the setting sun, his back hunched over his reins. The bed leans against the barn wall.
The first step is preparing the surface. I put one of John’s shirts on and leave it loose over my skirts. I strip off my underclothes to give me more mobility to work and to save the white garments from the dust I will create. I move the bed into the shed, and take up the smallest wood chisel. I carved my initials in that sweat-stained handle one day. At first John was angry because of his way about his tools, but I confessed I wanted some part of me to be held like he held that handle. His eyes got all different then, and he called me a wanton woman, but he did no more woodwork that night.
Because of the crack, I have laid the headboard flat on the floor to work on it. I get on my hands and knees beside the bed. I must remove those flower and vine carvings from the top of the headboard, but I want to see the condition of the wood first. The veneer is easy to remove from a flat place and I lay aside the chisel to rub my hand over the first clear spot of golden pine. “You clean the surface so the pores of the wood can open and breathe,” John said. “Once you sand it, it will be ready for the glue for the veneer.” Perhaps I will not try to put a veneer on this bed. Perhaps I want it to breathe. Perhaps it will warp and be adversely affected by the seasons and the constant humidity of my southern corner of the world, but I think of Miss Margaret, gnarled and bent from a lifetime of loving, and I think this is not such a bad thing.
I lay my head down on the clear spot and stretch my hand out to rest it on the curve of a wooden rose. My fingers fit in the grooves between the stems and flowers, and it is as if I clasp the flower in my hand. I rub my fingers over the design, over and over, imagining the satin finish it once had before the forces of Nature intervened.
It is time to get up, make supper, but I will do it later. My eyes are heavy. A full moon will rise tonight and I must prepare for another sleepless night. My hand strokes, my cheek presses into the slightly bristling wood that feels almost like John’s jaw in the morning; lightly prickled with hair and smelling like trees…
His breath stirs my brow, once, twice and I root closer, burrowing myself in his presence. His arm curls around me and there is a difference to it. John is a strong man, but this clasp is so strong it feels hesitant, as if the arm’s owner is afraid of crushing me.
I lift my head and meet the eyes of a stranger. They are dark eyes, so dark they have no well, no soul at their end, and so I have a kinship with this person and am not afraid.
I raise up on one arm to look at him, and he raises up on his elbows to watch me. His hair’s darkness matches his eyes, and falls down his back like an Indian’s, but his pale skin denies that heritage. His hooked nose and thin lips hint at a faint cruelty, but whether it his personality or simply born in his expression I cannot tell. His body is slender and does not have the muscular build of my John, but I feel this being’s strength such that, when he bends over me, I fall back against the headboard, based on the strength of his movement alone.
My world darkens to his face as a curtain of dark hair falls around me and mingles with my own hair. His lips hover above mine and, while I should not want to, I want them closer. He waits, his hot breath just barely caressing my lips, and I suddenly seize his neck and close that gap of decision. His hair is soft, softer than any man, woman or animal’s I have ever touched. He smells like earth and blood. It is the smell that clung to John’s lifeless body under the smell of wood.
The man slips his arms under me and holds me in a tight embrace, pressing me close to his body. John and I lay in bed one summer night and listened to the Indians hold a harvest ceremony, and the noise of their drumming got louder and louder, until I was sure something monumental was about to happen. I was driven to the edge of madness and back, hearing it climb. It seemed to me it stopped before I could reach a crescendo with it, and go over that pinnacle to see what was created by those drums. It was the sound of building, creation, and my heart pounds out that same tempo now.
The stranger strokes me through John’s shirt, and then opens it. His lovely hair slips over my breasts as he rubs lips and tongue over me. His mouth clasps me lower and my fingers tighten on the headboard as spirals of feeling twist in my belly. They awake something, and for the first time I am frightened. I drop my hands, grip his hair and try to pull him away from that center. His hands rise, caress my wrists, then manacle them to the sides of my hips and he does as he wishes with his mouth between my thighs. He has not raised my skirt, so it is all the movement of fabric forced by his lips and tongue, hot breath, and the mingled moisture from within me and his mouth.
“No,” I plead. The drums are climbing but I can not survive being flung over that precipice, I know that now. This is not a place I can go anymore. My soulless body will shatter on the rocks like hollow porcelain. I buck against him, but he is too strong. I scream at him again and again, even as I writhe and moan. I beat my head against the headboard, striving for unconsciousness.
He slides up my body, bringing my skirt up to my hips with the friction. He grasps my hair beneath my head, denying me insensibility. “I will not!” I scream at him through tears. My face feels hot and there is sweat running down my sides, but everywhere he touches is coolness. There is no change in his expression, that faintly cruel, timeless face. He stares into my eyes and sheathes himself in my body.
My insides shatter. My arms are free but now they cling to his back, his body, to something solid. Now he is my only hope in the flood he creates within me.
He moves, and though it is supposed to be a motion like a tide, forward and ebb, it feels circular, like the large wheel of the lathe in the rafters above me, which now begins to turn before my glazed eyes. The earth is rumbling, and I jerk my face to the right and see the grinder begin to likewise spin, though no foot presses its pedal. When John bent over it, and sharpened his tools, droplets of water would spit off it and catch the light of his lantern, making them look like sparks. It is I that spark now, arching beneath a stranger, giving him my body as John’s tools of creation come to life around me.
My sweaty palms slip down his back and clutch his hips. My head arches back, presenting my throat. The stranger’s mouth slides down over my jugular and I feel sharpness. His fingers clutch my hair and pull my head back farther, so my body is a bow arched taut and suspended from the waist up off the floor. All of my body below my waist is impaled and stoked by the will of his.
My arms fall to either side of me, my gesture of utter surrender, and I am filled with softness by the change in his dark eyes. His fangs sink into my neck and I cry out. Lightning erupts from the fusion of my woman’s place with him. The world around me sings with the thunder of John’s tools and I howl like a wolf with the wildness of it, growl like a she-bear as his arms clutch my shoulders and he bites harder. Finally, it is the soft, wistful cry of a mourning dove that comes from me as I settle back to earth, compliant and spent as he continues to drink. I curl my arms around his shoulders. He suckles my neck like a baby, while my heartbeat slows and the wheels trundle to stillness once more.
After a long while, he lifts his head. A drop of my blood is on his lips, and I rub my fingertips over it to remove it. He kisses my fingers, and I feel the sleek edge of one sharp tooth. Then he sits back on his heels, and gazes long at my face. He cups his hands against his breast and rotates them outward gracefully. A dove springs from his palms and flies at me. I catch the soft body awkwardly against my breast, my cheeks stroked by the silken softness of its feathers, but when I look down, my hands are empty except for a single feather. The stranger is gone. I feel something within me, a spirit spreading, filling me, opening me.
The return of my soul brings me the full loss of John, and something breaks within me. I cry and cry and cry against the headboard, until I know exactly how the bed came to its state. I have no more desire to repair it. It is a monument to life, with its blistered and cracked but overall still beautiful appearance. I have given something soul-less life for another day, and he has thanked me, by giving me solace.
Spring greets me at the door this morning, though it is barely March. A sprig of tiny yellow buttercups grows next to the door, and I bend down and pull them and put them in my unbound hair. I see Miss Margaret making her way down my road. I make her tea in the shop, where I now spend most of my time. I have taken up John’s work and have already made Mr. Miller new wooden shovels for his grain bins and mended a wagon wheel for Deborah Lee Franck.
Miss Margaret and I talk of womanly things, but I see her gaze return again and again to the bed, which I have propped in a corner where I can look up and see it whenever I wish. I have made rails for it and am working on a footboard. When I am done, it will be my bed. I have done nothing to the headboard. I let it be as John used to say, “A part of a tree that does not need my touch, because its voice is already so strong.”
At length, Miss Margaret rises, and goes to it. She touches the curve of the scallop closest to her. “You are well, then, Mavis?”
“I am, Miss Margaret. I truly am.”
She crosses the room to me and her old fingers slide inside the collar of John’s flannel shirt. They rest on the scars I know are still there. I am taller than she, and can see hers well enough.
“Well then,” she says at last. “Well then.” She sits back down on her chair and takes several more sips of tea. “Will you marry again, Mavis?”
I think about it, then shake my head. “I do not think so.”
She nods. “Sometimes one love is enough for a lifetime.” She looks toward the bed again. “I think all three of us know that.”
I smile, and take up my wood chisel to sharpen it for today’s work. She settles in with her tea, and watches the drops sparkle off the grinding wheel as it goes round and round.