January Thaw

Here’s how I imagine it. She knows he’s there but she waits, time being of little consequence, after all.

He died in the fall, when the leaves were drenched in reds and oranges, and to the north the sharp lines of shorn soybean rows looked like something cut into the land. She thinks he chose the right time of year because autumn is so beautiful, and there’s relief–the corn finally out, although harvest is much easier now with those lumbering machines. Sometimes she wonders if anyone remembers how they used to harvest, the way snapping ears wrenched your wrists, your lower back in pain until the work was over or snow clogged the fields.

The way I think of it, she knew who he was the moment that pine box–how strange, a pine box!–was lugged into the neighborhood. There it stood above the ground. Everyone saw it–white and huge. Word had gone around that he was dead, that he would be buried in the cemetery above the town he loved, a town that sometimes hated him. She knew who he was, only too well–everyone did.

But she was a Brink, and the Brinks were timid by nature. Soon enough she’d heard how some of the others had walked over to look, gawking as if his being there was some freak show. Made her laugh to think about it, but then people had always been afraid of him.

They said at first he was sitting against a fencepost–his stone wasn’t up yet–those long legs stretched out before him as he looked out at the fields west and north. Some remembered when he’d come to the neighborhood to choose the site, years ago. People said it seemed as if, since his arrival, he’d rather enjoyed being alone, far in the corner, staring out at land and sky. Not angry either, but looking over the land as if something were out there the rest of them didn’t see.

She thought she knew what he saw, but she didn’t tell the others.

No one spoke to him. But then, he had a reputation.

There were others with reputations too, but not like his.

And occasionally at first, the rest of them acted strangely around her because they didn’t know how she would feel about his being there, this man–given what he’d done to her.

So the Brinks being who they are and this new resident being who he was, she waited. He was such a presence, always was. And he was big. He was a man. Even when he was an old man, he was a man.

The way I’d like to see it, the first few times she dropped by–her place was maybe two hundred feet or so from his, not far–the first few times she hid behind those big stones just south of his because she simply wanted to see him, those long legs, that great white shock of hair, a shard of big blue stem jutting from his mouth, something he’d pulled from the fence line. He didn’t smoke. Sometimes he’d stare down the hill toward the town, the grain elevator and the bridge and the river. And she saw how he smiled, as if he’d made the right choice when he picked out this spot, as if there was a place out there that was special to him, something she thought she understood better than the others.

Not everyone is as happy as he was. Sometimes it takes a year, maybe more, before the angry ones get neighborly. Then again, some never do. They just stay in the ground or disappear altogether.

She was sure he would have chosen to live if he’d had the choice, even though he was as old as he was, as old as most of the people in the neighborhood, many of whom were actually happy to get here finally, their agony behind them, some claiming, somewhat jokingly, that they’d already been to hell. When she hears such things, sometimes–not all the time, but sometimes–she’s less grieved about having found herself here as young as she was at the time, just 21, and leaving her baby, her first, behind. That’s another story.

I’d like to think that sometime that first month after he’d come, one of her friends might have asked her–it would have had to be a friend–whether or not she’d struck up a conversation yet.

“Has anyone?” she likely asked, somewhat perturbed.

Shrugged shoulders. “We’re wondering about you–that’s all.”

She looked away as the Brinks often do.

It likely took some time before she came out from behind the Stravers’ big family stone just south of his, and by then it was cold–November, and she had to pull her coat around her, the old blue one, double-breasted, the one her mother had given her so many years ago for a wedding present.

And if I know him, I’m sure that when he spotted her he smiled because she was the kind of tall, willowy young woman that pleased him and always had. She was his dream, as so many of his women were, the ones in his novels.

When she came to him from the darkness, the collar of that blue coat pulled up around her face, I’m guessing he didn’t recognize her. So maybe the first time they saw each other nothing happened at all. He glanced up maybe, then fell back into that pleased stare he wore as he looked over the long snow fields.

She probably went back to her place to consider what she would say because it had not dawned on her–his knowing as much about her as he did, so very much–that he wouldn’t know her, wouldn’t even recognize her. But then, he hadn’t been around town for so long. As if that should matter; she had to laugh when she thought of it because, of course, neither had she.

He was an old man, and she was young, even though he’d been just a boy when she died in her agony. Back then, she barely knew him, not even in his teens. But still, when she saw him there in the neighborhood, she couldn’t miss the fact that he still had some youthfulness. She’d felt it the moment he’d looked at her that first time. She is a woman, and even though she died so very young, she had learned–as women do–to read men’s eyes. Nothing was said, but I wonder if after that first time in the short silence, she had considered not going back, afraid of him, as she had cause to be.

Or maybe I’m thinking them too human, these spirits. What need she fear of him, really?

So she waited, maybe, for a January thaw, a cold, crisp night with a silver moon that shines on the faces of the stones and casts shadows across the thin carpet of snow, a night when her going to him cast the whole place into silence because the others watched closely because they wondered what she thought of him, the man who had claimed to know so much more than he should–as if he’d seen her naked, as if he’d actually watched her make love with the man who would be her husband.

Maybe she goes to him late at night, when she thinks she’s alone, when it’s cold but not forbidding, that blue coat wrapped around her, collar up. She thinks her visit is secret, but she knows better. The spirits are all around.

He is leaning up against his stone, a leather coat with sheepskin collar pulled up against a light northwest wind. He is twice her size.

“You don’t know me?” she says.

He smiles. He always loved the attention of young and beautiful women. “Is that a question?” he answers.

She hadn’t expected another question.

“You scare me,” she tells him, which is something no one would expect a Brink to say.

Always genial, he tries to diffuse her fear. “We’re both long gone,” he says.

“Besides, you’re young enough to be my daughter.”

“I’m old enough to be your mother,” she says.

“Vander Es–you have high cheekbones like a Vander Es.” He points that long finger. “Somewhere in your family line there’s Indian blood.”

She shakes her head.

“Brandsma? ” he says. “Tall women, all of them. Good strong Frisian stock.”

That he could be that wrong makes her smile. “Memling,” she tells him.

Immediately, his eyes narrow, his shoulders hunch just a bit, just a second or two before a long knowing smile, something she doesn’t like, spreads across his face in slow motion. He says nothing, stares.

She nods because she knows at that moment that he knows. “And where is it–this secret place? ” she says. She turns her back to him, walks almost t
o the fence. “I could look forever–I have,” she says. “There is no secret place out here. This year, beans; next year, corn–that’s all. There is no ‘Garden of Eden,’ like you said. Long, flat land–very beautiful. But no secret place. You couldn’t have brought some girl here yourself because there isn’t such a place.”

She turns back to him, and, with his finger, he taps his temple three times.

“You can simply lie like that, and we have nothing to say? ” she says. “I mean, those people you’ve lied about–we have no recourse? ”

He stands, not to make her cower, but there is disrespect in the way he’s slouching and he wants her to know that what she’s said–about lying–does matter. “I wasn’t using you,” he tells her.

“Then who were you using? ” she asks him.

“I mean, I wasn’t using you. I wasn’t using the real you.”

He tries to touch her with comfort; he’s not unfeeling. But she turns away. In life, I’m not sure he could have read that gesture, but he’s dead now, and smarter, less imprisoned. He laughs because he’s always thought he’d had a way with women–more than what he did at least. He holds his hands up as if to come clean.

“No reason to be afraid. I’m not my characters,” he says.

“And neither are we,” she tells him, the collar from her coat falling back as she looks coldly over her shoulder. She waits.

The cemetery lies a mile or so west of town, up on a bluff above the river. The view is extraordinary, the town down there beneath them, streetlights like a string of pearls in the midnight darkness, now and then a car. Occasionally, one of them comes up the road from town, driving west. The tires sing a higher pitch as they cross the bridge, but most of the time–everyone remembers the exceptions–those cars just keep going, especially at night. No one in the neighborhood hides as they pass, but then no one is afraid. Why should they be?

She waits because she knows she needs more. “What makes you think you know what happened–between Garrett and me, I mean? ” she asks. She turns to face him. “What makes you think you can create all of that out of thin air and sell it as your own? ”

“You don’t understand–”

“It wasn’t ‘thin air’ either. Believe me, I wouldn’t feel the way I do if it was all ‘thin air,'” she says, but she’s not angry.

“I didn’t even know you,” he tells her.

“Then how is it you think you can become me? ”

“Become you?”

“Tell the whole world what happened to me–to us–here, in this ‘secret place’ that doesn’t even exist.” She points north and west. “Walk with me, why don’t you? ” she says. “Let me show you.”

“You don’t have to–”

“Let’s go to this ‘Garden of Eden,'” she insists. “Let’s find this place you describe where he took me, this secret place where Garrett and I first made love.” She comes up close to him, and even though he stands a foot taller than she does, she is now unafraid. “You’re surprised that I say it that way? ” She looks into his eyes. “Why? I was as human as you. Maybe that’s why it hurt–”

“When I wrote that book,” he says, “you were gone.”

“Not so,” she says, raising a hand as if it were self-evident. “I was here.”

“If I’d have known–”

“If you’d have known it wouldn’t have stopped you,” she tells him, her voice astoundingly mellow, restrained. “You were driven. It was your calling–these stories. It was what you were born to do.” And now she takes hold of him at the elbow. “Let’s go–you and me–let’s find this secret place.”

“I made it up,” he says. “You know that.”

“But you didn’t make me up,” she says. She takes a few steps back. “That’s why these people hated it–what you did–because it was half-truth, and half-truth is worse than a lie because no one knows what to believe.”

“Stories are not to be believed,” he says.

“Then you never would have written a word,” she says. “You wanted to be believed. You wanted nothing but to be believed. That’s why you gave your life for your work. For the truth. Don’t try to deceive–it doesn’t become you and it never did.”

Just exactly what she wants from him is not so easy to name, but she knows as yet she doesn’t have it. “We remember when you came here and chose that plot, some of us do.” She doesn’t raise her voice. “We remember the tears too, not for dying but for your marriage–how it broke just then. We remember these things.”

He looks up at her, amazed. “Of that you never wrote a word,” she says.

“It’s in there,” he tells her, “that damned agony–it’s in there. You can find it all over in my books.”

“But not her–”

“She was my wife–”

“And I am less human?” she says.

“And with me–you can undress me, you can have your way with me, the whole world watching.”

“Not me,” he says. “It wasn’t me up here,” and he points at some place that isn’t real.

“Yes, you,” she says. “Because you are the one who tells all the world how beautiful I am when I lie back on the grass, my hair like some golden halo all around. You are the one who used me–my husband had my will.”

He slouches back against his own stone. “I gave you life,” he says. “When you were dead and gone, I gave you life.” And he points at her, embittered.

“You think maybe you’re God,” she says.

“No one would know who you are anymore–you know that? No one would pause a moment at your grave, so long ago it was you died. No one would know June Memling.”

“That’s not my name and you know it,” she says.

His face seems gray and empty.

“Say it,” she says.

“Say what? ” he asks, as if he doesn’t know what she means.

“Tell me my real name–not the name you gave me. Tell me the name by which I was baptized. I’m not yours.”

She stands there waiting. She drops her arms from her chest, unbuttons her coat before him, puts her hands in the pockets, then steps back as if she has forever. She looks around, sees no one, but she knows better. Hundreds are here, listening. She doesn’t care. They’ll want to know. They have their own stories.

“You don’t even know,” she says, but there’s a gracious smile on her lips. “You remember ever y detail of how you described it between Garrett and me, up here at this secret place, don’t you? You told the world. You took me here,” and she has to reach for words now, “–and all I’m asking of you is my name,” she says again. But she’s not after revenge–that’s not it. And even he knows it; he feels it in the tenor of her words. “To you I was a character, that’s all. Do you know how that feels?” And then again, “Tell me my name.”

He cannot look into her eyes, which is to say into her soul, so he pulls a hand up across his face as if something is there to wipe away.

Seconds pass. A minute. Two minutes. Her waiting is relentless.

No cars come up the road to the cemetery. Somewhere far away, a coyote. He could stand here forever and not remember because her maiden name is no longer in the vault of his memory. He remembers how he created her story, where he was sitting, how he walked around the room, how careful he was with the details, how hard he worked to get it right, how the next morning he went over and over it again, that lovemaking in this secret place.

“You don’t remember,” she says. “Admit it. You don’t know me at all. You don’t even know my name.” She is turning him in her hands. She can. Her will is immense.

He knows the silence she’s created here and now, outside of time, could go on for days, and he doesn’t know her name.

And all the while he’s standing there, face empty, the smile on hers grows more considerate because she knows she has forever. She feels no need to speak. It wasn’t how she’d planned it–what she might say, how they might talk–because she never guessed he wouldn’t remember her name, not after how much he’d written. But they are where she wanted to take him, where she needed to, for his sake, and hers t
oo, maybe. But she wasn’t thinking of herself. Credit her this: she’s been in the neighborhood for years and years, and even though time is immaterial–and maybe because it is–there’s grace in this willowy woman’s spirit.

That’s why, just then, in his silence, she steps closer.

Nothing is said. She remembers that he did give her a life that she might not have had. People sometimes drive up to the cemetery, get out of the car, and walk to her grave; and she knows–she simply understands–that when they stand there and read the words her husband had carved in the stone–“Wife of Garret Van Engen,” words that were shadowy with mildew now–when people stand there, people she doesn’t recognize, no blood relatives, she knows they are there because of him, because of what he had written.

It is 75 years since she’d died becoming the mother she never would be, save in death; and in that time she’d come to understand that if it weren’t for this man, few, if any, would ever pause before the stone the way some still do. In those first years, people stopped often, some of them–women–even crying, her parents, full of regret for their anger. Her father had come for years, but that was behind her now, and he was here, too. But then, fewer and fewer, her husband gone away, buried in California; no one but strangers ever stand before her stone. What she’d come to understand was not so much that he had given her life–only God could do that–as prolonged it, even if the facts weren’t square and what he’d written was more than he should have. He had their love right, she told herself, she and Garrit’s. That much he’d had right after all.

He looked up at her once again, still without the name she wanted. “I’m sorry,” he says. “It’s been so very long.”

“You can’t use that one here,” she tells him, and she comes closer. She brings her hands up to his elbows, then pulls herself near him, has him, this big man, in her grasp. “You really don’t know, do you?”

He forces himself to look into her eyes, and he’s struck by the fact that there is nothing menacing there. He shakes his head.

“Not even a guess? ” she asks.

What he sees in her eyes is something he doesn’t remember seeing before, something it takes him some time to understand, shocking in it guilelessness, like nothing human he’d ever seen or even imagined. He remembers, as a boy, being told about it, what it might be; but it’s taken death for him to see it for real, if this can be said to be real. There seems no anger. He opens himself in a way he hadn’t, this writer who for so many years opened himself to his readers. “I don’t remember your name,” he says. “I’m an old man, and I don’t know it, and I’m so very sorry.”

She’s been holding him at the elbows, but with those words her small arms circle his broad chest and she holds him tenderly as a lover, not a lover in any sense he might remember, but a lover that is, as she is, not of this world.

“It’s not June,” she tells him, pulling back again. She tightens her lips, stares. “That’s a beautiful name, and I wish it had been mine, but it’s not. My name was Jennie.” She backs away slightly, let’s his arms go for a moment, then reaches for an elbow again and gently pulls him with her. “Let me show you,” she says.

For the first time, he smiles. “It’s not that,” he says, “I know where you are. I remember your stone–when it was new. I used to come here. As a boy, I used to come here.”

She takes his hand, and the two of them walk back from the fence line into the center of things, from the far reaches of the northwest corner. She pulls her hand away for a moment and then pushes her arm into his, and he takes it as a gentleman would.

Strangely, the two of them are of great interest now as they walk between the stones, avoiding the scattered snow drifts. They are not alone. Eyes galore are watching them. Even though he sees no one, she knows that everywhere in the neighborhood people see them together, people who also have things to say.

“There are more,” she tells him. “I’m not alone here.” She gestures with her arm as if there is a cloud of witnesses nearby.

“Lots of ghosts around,” she says, making a joke. She is, after all, something of a girl.

“I had no idea,” he says. “When I chose this plot, it seemed right to be where I was born and reared. When I was a boy, I looked over these fields and wanted to tell their stories.”

“It was a good decision,” she tells him.

“To come here–it was a good decision.” It’s not far, the distance from his grave to hers.

“This is yours,” he says when they come to her stone, unusually tall in this old part of the graveyard. They’re standing on bare ground beside a tall pine that’s rustling in a soft wind, unusually warm for January, a wind that is reaching up from the south, creating the only sound around them.

“You’ll find us all more forgiving than we were,” she tells him.

And I like to believe that had I been there just then, at that moment, middle of the night, January thaw, cold and crisp and bright, I would have seen them together right there at Jennie’s stone. “1899,” it says, a dash, and “1920,” and then, “Till we meet again.”

They are lovers in a sense he never dreamed, the two of them standing together in the cemetery above the town, arm in arm, hand in hand, in a fine and secret place, if not an Eden, amid a gathering of hundreds of shadows, maybe more, emerging from the moonlit stones all around.

James Calvin Schaap has been writing stories and essays and what not for thirty years; his first collection of stories, Sign of a Promise, was published in 1979. For all that while, he’s been teaching literature and writing at Dordt College, Sioux Center, Iowa.