The past lingers all around us, a clear winter’s light, and a shroud.
Five nights before Christmas, a stranger came to my door. She was dressed in widow’s black, pale and gaunt, and appeared to be half-frozen by the icy rain. The night behind her was starless, and the moon refused to shine. It was a pretty face, in some way, despite an overwhelming sorrow in her eyes. She said nothing. She stayed in the doorway, a granite angel, a cemetery decoration.
I stood transfixed, for a second. I’d been asleep on the sofa and my mind was clouded. I was still dressed: flannel shirt, gray sweater, black jeans, construction boots. Then I remembered my manners. “Please come in,” I said. “You must be cold.”
“I’m not,” she said, stone still.
Her voice was melodic, a surprise. It didn’t remotely match her face, or her clothes—or her spirit.
“Do you know me?” she said.
I blinked. “I—I’m sorry,” I stammered. “I don’t. Should I?”
She held out her hand, and in it there was a golden ring, a wedding band.
“It’s me, Fever,” she said, her eyes rimmed in red. “It’s your Issie. Your wife.”
I don’t know how long I stared at her, hand on the doorknob, before I stepped aside.
“Please come in,” I said as gently as I could.
She drew in a breath, nearly a sob, and crossed over the threshold into my home. She didn’t look right or left. She took three strides and stopped, eyes closed.
“It smells like home,” she said.
True enough. A warm fire in the stove at the hearth, a hint of cloves from dinner’s steamed pumpkin, and the bold, dry evidence of rosemary and lavender hanging in the rafters in the living room all combined to sanctify the air.
“Why don’t you sit down by the fire?” I asked her.
She acquiesced without a word.
It’s difficult to recall my exact emotions at that moment. I may have thought I was dreaming, or misunderstanding what she was saying, or even that some lonesome winter’s ghost had wandered my way. I was trying to wake up, but my stupor had been complete, and even my own living room seemed strange, somehow different, as if I might have been transported to another reality—a reality in which some other version of myself was married to the cemetery angel.
She sat on the sofa close to the fire but didn’t look at the hearth. Her eyes wandered. She seemed to devour the contours of the room, the sofa, the rugs, the large picture window. Her eyes paused at one of the older quilts hanging on the wall, then she stared out the window with something akin to longing, as if being indoors was difficult for her, as if she were an elemental wraith, and not a human being at all. I followed her gaze. The icy rain was turning to snow and beginning to collect on the porch.
“Snow,” she said softly, and again the melody of her voice, a single perfect velvet note, surprised me.
I did not sit down. “Would you like some coffee or some tea? To warm you up?”
She shook her head.
“Well,” I told her, “I think I’ll have something.”
I turned toward the kitchen. The pots from dinner were still on the stove. The dishes were in the sink. I turned on the light.
“Oh!” she said, alarmed.
I turned back to see her, and she was squinting and turning away from the harsh light of the kitchen. The glare from the overhead fixture seemed to be hurting her. I switched off the light instantly, and she sighed.
“Sorry,” I said, watching her.
She did not respond, except to wander into my kitchen.
I moved to the espresso machine, but I was suddenly afraid that its loud grinding would frighten her. It was becoming clear to me, as I began to wake up more fully, that it would be best to keep her calm. So I took out the kettle and found a bit of tea in the same cabinet where I kept the coffee. Tea was pushed to the back, a second-class stimulant.
In short order, however, the kettle was on the stove and two cups were on the kitchen table, each with its bag of pomegranate black tea: a blend of tea leaves, calendula flowers, and pomegranate. That tea was a gift from my fiancée, Lucinda, who was, at that precise moment in her own home not far away, finalizing plans for our spring wedding.
Exploring that thought for only a moment proved as effective as caffeine, and I was much more awake.
“What did you say your name was?” I called to my fragile visitor.
“I don’t wonder that you’re angry with me,” she answered softly. “But you know my name. You know my name full well.”
“Essie?” I repeated.
“No.” Her voice grew hard, though it managed to remain melodic. “Issie is a diminutive, to be certain, and one not used all that often, but how else does a husband refer to a wife?”
I could feel that I might be about to say or do something confrontational and, ultimately, rude, even though I realized it would be the wrong thing to do with someone so delicate, so obviously troubled. There was no telling how she might react to being told that she was out of her mind. Still, confusion was turning to irritation fairly quickly. I wanted to say, “I have to tell you that I don’t know you, and I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Here’s what I did say: “How did you get here? I didn’t hear a car. Did you come by yourself? Is there someone with you?”
She looked away. “I thought you might ask about that.”
The whistle from the kettle startled us both. I turned around quickly to take it off the heat and switch off the gas flame. When I turned back around, she was standing.
“Please don’t be angry,” she said, almost whispering. “Any more angry than you already are.”
“I’m not angry,” I began.
“I know that you are, and you have every right to be,” she interrupted me. “But let me tell you this news and then everything will be out in the open. Then we can say whatever else there needs to be said. Please?”
“News?” I asked, completely at sea.
“I’m here to tell you,” she said, but then she stopped and seemed to have lost her train of thought. “I think I would like some tea after all.”
“Yes,” I said quickly. “Absolutely. I have your cup right here.”
As quickly as I could, I poured the hot water into the nice white cups. Scented steam rose up.
“I smell pomegranate?” she asked.
“Right,” I assured her. “Good guess.”
She took up her cup and saucer. “Shall we go back in by the fire?”
She returned to the living room and I followed. She sat on the sofa. I sat in one of the chairs across from her, back to the window and front door, facing the sofa and the stairway to the bedrooms—not my usual seat. I was uncomfortable with my back to the door. I worried that someone would barge in without my seeing them coming. I tried to reassure myself that innate paranoia and the strangeness of the situation were mostly to blame for that fear.
“All right,” I said, trying to settle into my seat, turning a little so that I might see the front door out of the corner of my eye. “What news is this you have for me?”
She opened her mouth, and then closed it. She cast her eyes down. She licked her lips once. She took a sip of her tea, and then set the cup and saucer down on the table between us.
“I don’t know how to say this,” she finally said.
“Best to just blurt it out,” I encouraged her. “Then we can examine it however you like.”
I had no idea what I was talking about.
“Well, then,” she said.
She placed her hands in her lap. She took a deep breath. Her eyes rose to meet mine, and they were filled with anguish.
“Here is my news, Fever,” she said, wincing. “There is a child.”
Copyright © 2013 by Phillip DePoy
PHILLIP DePOY is the award-winning author of many novels and plays as well the director of the theatre program at Clayton State University. He lives in Decatur, Georgia.