Two Sides of a Triangle
by Sherri Cook Woosley
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
Myrtle moved into her kitchen to throw away trash. She emptied the bowl into the sink and scrubbed it clean, setting it on the rack to dry, but felt distracted. Various insects threw themselves against the screen, buzzing, prompted to seek the kitchen light by some unknown impulse. Seeking, it seemed, a short life of hot passion to a more measured life out in the grass.
“No time like the present.” Myrtle walked back to the chair with the box underneath and the bag above. “Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today.” Clutching both, she stepped outside onto the porch. “Virtue is its own reward.” The proverbs came easily, memorized in childhood.
Crickets had already begun their nightly chorus, but this shouldn’t take long. There was only one place that Joe could have meant. She took the forest path toward Cabbage Run Hollow. Immediately Myrtle became aware of the lack of light; darkness as complete as the hush before the Baptist preacher starts his sermon. She thought about going back, but caught sight of the crescent moon beyond the tops of oaks, pines, and hickory. She forged on. Branches caught at her dress, fingers from beyond the grave. Wind rattled the dry leaves still on trees preparing for winter.
Myrtle stood at the top of the slope looking down at a stream running through the hollow. This was Joe’s special place, where he would want his wedding ring thrown in. They had no children to pass it to, no one to follow. Thunder rumbled in the distance; fat droplets of rain began to fall.
Normally babbling, the water seemed a different creature by moonlight. The exposed roots from past floodings were an ominous filigree while the rocks, usually stepping stones, now jutted out of the water creating mysterious eddies and miniature whirlpools, entrances to a pagan otherworld.
Holding on to trees, Myrtle descended the slope to the hollow situated part-way down the mountain. Ear-splitting thunder, the kind that reverberates in the mountains, was followed by blinding lightning. In the aftermath, when eyes are stunned, the previous image remained written on Myrtle’s retinas. Dressed in black, another woman stood on the opposite side of the hollow, a rose pinned over her heart. She, too, held something in her hands.
Myrtle shivered and held the box of her husband’s ashes tighter. Goosebumps rose on her skin as the raindrops began to penetrate her dress and the wind continued the eerie percussion of dead leaves, bare branches, and water over rocks. Fermenting smells beaten out of the ground by the raindrops made the hollow fitting for Joe’s last resting place, but SHE was here. SHE was profaning Joe’s last request.
“How dare you come here!” Myrtle cried. “Haven’t you done enough?”
Rosie moved, rain glancing off her taffeta dress and glistening in the webbing of the black veil pulled up over her hair. “I’m here to fulfill Joe’s dying wish. I can give him that.”
“No.” Myrtle struggled with the small clasp that would free her husband’s earthly remains and release his last hold on her. She couldn’t get it and set the box down to concentrate on the small bag. “That’s why I’m here. His wedding ring, his dearest possession, is going in Cabbage Run, his favorite place, because we didn’t have any children to keep the rings in the family after our deaths.”
The circular band rested in her palm. This was his duty to her. His dearest possession. It meant he was sorry. Sorry their marriage was talk about whether the chickens were laying and if the price of corn was going up. It was sorry for the nights he’d say he was going down to town for a drink and would walk past the bar. This ring was him saying that Myrtle had been better than that other woman. She’d been above reproach and Joe, at the end of his life, recognized how badly he’d treated her.
Myrtle stepped to the edge and threw the gold ring into the frothing water, a maul with rocky teeth.
Rosie, mirror-image, stepped forward on her side. The rain was falling harder now and Myrtle had to take off her glasses to clear her vision, but there was nothing dry to wipe them on and she had to settle for smearing the drops. It was enough, however, to let her see what Rosie was holding. And it made Myrtle feel faint. Her anger, her self-righteous claim to being a beloved wife, it all became nothing in the shadow of hurt that swept through.
A pocketwatch. Oh, that SHE had the watch. That HE had given it to her. The watch from Joe’s grandfather to Joe’s father to Joe. It was, unarguably, his most prized possession.
Myrtle’s hand came up to cover her heart, her broken heart. From beyond the grave Joe had wounded her again and this time she couldn’t bear it.
There were splashing sounds, but the thumming in Myrtle’s ears was too loud. She couldn’t feel the rain, couldn’t feel the cold. Her arm was numb. Numb like her feelings for Joe. Except, if she really hadn’t cared at all, it wouldn’t have hurt so much. And it did. Her cheek was right up against the wet leaves. It seemed a fine idea to lie here, in the embrace of decomposing vegetation and seep into the soil, not to fight.
Rough hands pulled at her as wet cloth slapped her in the face. Rosie. Dress wet from crossing Cabbage Run. “Here we go, let’s get you home.”
“I’m not leaving.”
“You’re a stubborn old woman, aren’t you?” Rosie pulled at Myrtle again. “Well, so am I.”
“Why would you help me? For years I’ve blamed you.” Myrtle looked up into Rosie’s eyes. “Did you know he was married?”
Rosie looked away. “I didn’t know, not at first.”
Myrtle pressed. “And then?”
“And then we just didn’t think about you,” Rosie said simply. “Sometimes he came by my house and sometimes he didn’t. When he did, we laughed a lot. Joe liked to talk about the past — his stories about when life seemed less heavy. Growing up with his pa and granddad.”
Feeling began to replace the numbness in Myrtle’s arm. She’d appointed herself the one to ease disappointments, to be reliable if anything went wrong, to maintain tradition and they’d never even thought of her. Dinner was always on the table, the house cleaned, she, cheerful and modest in appearance, and they’d never even thought of her.
“It was just a watch,” Rosie said.
“No,” Myrtle said, although it almost broke her heart again to say it. “It wasn’t. But it doesn’t matter anymore.”
Joe was dead. Her duty, her promise to be a good wife, was complete.
“He’s not coming back to my home. I’m not leaving till his ashes are scattered.” Myrtle got to her knees, hampered by the wet dress. The rain stung her skin and the coarse material of her dress stuck to her body, but the cold was worse because it made her arthritic hands unable to function.
Another pair of hands joined Myrtle’s and together they fumbled at the stubborn metal lock. Finally, together, they opened the box and tried to scatter Joe’s ashes in Cabbage Run Hollow. As the clasp yielded the box lid blew open and rain blew inside. The wet ashes formed a sodden gray paste in the container despite Myrtle’s frantic shaking. She used her left hand to try to scoop the paste out, but was actually splattering it all over herself. Coating her own flesh with that of her deceased husband.
“You have to let go of the whole box!” the other woman shouted over the wind and rain.
The smaller woman shook her head and glared at her old enemy. “It’s mine and I’m keeping it. I won’t let go!”
“You have to!” The wind wreaked havoc on their passionate exchange.
Myrtle’s body was wracked by shivers as the rain poured through the woods. It was the sound of a crashing tree that finally made Myrtle move. With a sob she thrust the box at the other woman, but didn’t let go. Four hands thrust the wooden box into the surging stream. The box sank beneath the water before reappearing further downstream. They watched as it struck a rock and went beneath the white water again. In less than a moment it was lost to sight.
The bedraggled women turned to go. The storm had turned the pathway into a mudslide, and Myrtle let her rival lead the way. The mud sucked at her feet and the old woman fell to her knees, struggling with the cold rain and the hampering fabric.
“Pull your dress up!” Bony knees shone in the dark as the mistress pantomimed gathering the dress to get it out of the way.
Then the two old women, remarkably similar in the dark, held on to each other as they scrambled up the slippery slope, grasping maple and cypress, fallen logs, anything that would give purchase. Struggling to climb what would have been much easier with bodies ten years younger. Now their aging bodies were poor shelters for the proud, strong spirits within.
Holding onto each other out of necessity the two became one. Lightning flashed, exposing the commingled creature creeping up the slope. The squirrels watched from nests of leaves, fox and bobcat safe and dry within their dens.
And then the women reached the top and were on level ground. Panting, taking deep breaths, feeling hearts pumping fast and hard in protest. The thunder was further away now, the rain slowing, but tired limbs were too numb to appreciate the reprieve. On they trudged on a path now full of leaves, brambles freed by the wind to relentlessly pluck. Steadily they walked, straight into Myrtle’s warm and welcoming kitchen.
Not a word as Myrtle fetched towels and closed the door against the wind and remains of an autumnal rain shower. Noticing the gray stain on her dress and hands, Myrtle went to the sink. She took off her rain-spotted glasses and turned on the faucet, letting the water run warm before thrusting in her hands.
Dispassionately she watched her hands emerge from the gray mask the ashes and rain had formed on her skin. Methodically rubbing and soaping her husband’s ashes down the sink, cleaning under her fingernails. She used a towel to clean her glasses and then used the same towel to attack a gray smudge on her dress, the same caked-on paste that had coated her hands.
“Now that we’re done I’ll be heading back to my own house.”
Southern hospitality forced Myrtle to put down the towel, but it was exhaustion that made her move slowly as she pulled a bowl from the cupboard. Lifting off the cover of the last batch of tomato soup, Myrtle tipped the tureen. Orange liquid filled the bowl, steam and smell lingering in the air, the last drop clinging to the lip before falling.
“Have a little something before you go.”
Accepting the warm offering, Rosie responded with a measuring look. “We are not friends.”
“No.” Myrtle replied. “But most speak well of my tomato soup.”
One spoonful and then a second. “Didn’t you want to keep any for yourself?”
Myrtle pulled out a chair across the table. “Do you want to know a secret?”
The woman looked down into the almost empty bowl as if afraid the secret had to do with what she’d just eaten.
Myrtle made an irritated sound in her throat and waved her hand.
“What, then? What secret?” Rosie demanded, shoving the bowl to the side with more force than necessary, and standing.
“I don’t like tomato soup. I don’t like the way it smells, the way it looks, or the way it tastes.”
“Then why would you make it all the time?”
“It was my role and my responsibility, just as surely as being Joe’s wife was. I didn’t utter one word of complaint. But it didn’t matter. It wasn’t enough.”
Rosie opened the front door and smells beaten from the storm-drenched earth rushed in full of hints and swirls of possibility. She looked back at Myrtle. “Make something new, Myrtle. Something you like. Something for weddings and babies.”
Copyright © 2013 by Sherri Cook Woosley