by Alex Negen
Sarah Whitson wasn’t watching her step and ran into Rebecca Huff on Water Street. The two women greeted each other cordially: Rebecca asked if Sarah had been sick, she looked so pale and anemic; Sarah flattered Rebecca on her thrift for wearing a dress that had clearly seen better days. The reasons for their mutual loathing were opaque yet severe.
“You’ll never guess what Mary Coburn told me just yesterday,” said Rebecca. “She said she saw your husband on East Beach yesterday.”
This was an impossibility. Sarah’s husband Levi was at sea and had been for eight months. He would not be home for at least another season.
“Mary was walking along the shore around sunset to exercise her hip — she hadn’t been out of the house all week, you know how it bothers her — and in the distance she saw your husband ahead of her. She said, Mark my words, it was him, the manner of his gait and his wide shoulders. Unmistakable. But when she caught up to him, he was gone.”
It was a cruel thing Rebecca Huff did, to prey upon another woman’s insecurity over her husband’s safety, and to joke about shades and shadows of the man’s soul to his wife.
“Odd, isn’t it?” Rebecca said. “In any event, I must be going. Good day, Mrs. Whitson.” And she scurried down the sidewalk before Sarah could collect a reply.
This dark premonition hung heavy over Sarah as she went about her day’s work, returning home in the evening to her household chores. She absentmindedly put away the broom leaning against a sitting-room chair, the dry overturned mop bucket in the narrow hall, and the bowls from the cupboard which had inexplicably appeared on the kitchen floor. For these occurrences, which had begun several weeks prior, Sarah blamed her own forgetful memory; though even if true, it did not explain her reasons for placing two clothes hangers inside a Dutch oven, or wrapping the tea pot with an old shawl. She preferred not to think too deeply about it.
A small dinner, an hour’s reading by lamplight, and then a lonely bed. How she missed him at night, especially during those long winter blacknesses where no sooner had the dawn cleared than dusk fell and darkness came on like a slamming door. She missed his voice, she missed his face. She missed his body beside her.
She threw back the covers, knelt on the floor by the side of the bed, removed a loose board. From the cavity Sarah withdrew an oblong box. Beneath the lid, on an old chemise, lay a porcelain cylinder, gently tapered at the end. Sarah had bought it from the old widow in Rose Alley about a month after Levi had left, the widow wordlessly answering the kitchen door when Sarah had knocked. She had heard rumors about the items the widow sold, items vended to generations of New Bedford women; but it wasn’t until Sarah had confided her aching loneliness at a post-services lady’s lunch that a friend’s older sister leaned across to tell her in a low voice about the widow in Rose Alley. The widow gestured to a chair at the table, pulled the curtains closed, and returned from the basement with a number of parcels which she displayed for Sarah. They were different widths and lengths, and the widow expostulated the merits of each while making tea. Finally Sarah chose one. The widow told her its name: he’s-at-home.
Sarah lay in bed on her back, teasing herself with it, rubbing it against her clit and then tracing it down her lips. Just like Levi. She remembered seeing him for the first time on their wedding night, staring at the veined member hanging between hairy thighs. Already half-erect, she took him in her hand, feeling the strength beneath the soft lambskin as he grew, watching in fascination as a sticky pearl formed on the tip while she stroked. A sudden impulse seized her to lick it away, and he moaned softly as her tongue ran over the glans.
A drip streamed down her folds to the sheet: she was ready for him. Slowly she edged the he’s-at-home past the gates of her lips. Plunged it deep into herself. A long sigh escaped him — he had been gone so long. Sarah covered his face in kisses, it made her so happy to make him happy. But then she arched away from him as he thrust and grunted, losing herself in her own spasms and shudders.
The next morning she awoke beside a mannequin: the mop bucket for a head, hairbrushes and a washing board for a body. The he’s-at-home rested between broomstick legs.
He always arrived at night. She would lie quivering beneath the bedclothes, naked and goose-pimply, listening as he assembled himself from the clutter of the house. She never saw him; she kept the lamps extinguished and the curtains drawn. But her other senses told her it was him, her husband. She heard him when he whispered to her, soothing her, confessing to her. She felt him — not the wood and iron that he gathered into his body but Levi the man: his skin as she pressed her buttocks against him when he kneeled behind her; his hot breath when she straddled him, leaning forward to brush hard nipples against his lips; his hair curled between her fingers as he lapped at her wetness. She tasted him when he came in her mouth.
“You are so warm,” he said once, his voice close to her ear, as he slid inside her, “And where I’ve been it’s so cold.”
“Then stay,” she told him, “Stay tonight and tomorrow and always.” But he groaned as if something tore him.
The happenings of the daytime grayed and faded. She rushed through her obligations and responsibilities; whereas before she hated the never-ending nights, now she detested the lengthening stretches of sunlight.
Afterwards she liked to put her head on his chest and run her hand up and down his body, memorizing every muscle and rib long enough to last her until the next darkness. She never dared to ask why any of it was; she suspected questions would break everything.
“I wish night would never end and we could stay here in bed forever.”
“What a terrible thought,” he said. “Without the day the crops and vines would die and the world would starve. We would starve first.”
“But then they would discover us, two skeletons lying in conjugation for eternity.” She giggled. “Which position do you think they’d find us in?”
But his voice turned heavy. “No, not two skeletons.”
Later as they lay on their sides with Levi pushing into her from behind, something clanged to the floor. In the dawn Sarah found a fireplace poker beside the bed. The next night she jumped while riding his tongue, her knuckles tight on the headboard, when something thumped and broke. And so it continued, pieces and elements falling away until the night she shrieked and convulsed so hard she thought her bones might break and there was a rolling sound across the floorboards.
Sarah called his name again. She sat up, struggled to strike a match, raised the wick of the lamp.
The creamy ceramic of the he’s-at-home shone brightly against the baseboard across the room.
In the morning Sarah rose and from the depths of the closet removed the dress she had worn to her mother’s funeral. It was difficult tying up the back by herself but she managed. At last she set the hat upon her head and pulled the veil over her eyes. Then she went down to the docks to greet the ship. She strode past Rebecca Huff and the other women come to meet their husbands, ignoring Huff’s wonder and whispers over her attire.
They had passed Clark’s Point little more than an hour beforehand; now the ship lay offshore at anchor. Sarah watched as the captain’s boat pulled toward the wharves, stood silently as the captain climbed the ladder from the boat to the planks. The color bleached from his face when he saw her standing there dressed in black from brim to wrist to hem. He breathed deeply, steeling himself to do what he had dreaded for months.
“Mrs. Whitson,” said the captain, “It grieves me to tell you there was an accident at sea.”
Sarah nodded. She did not utter the words but everything about her spoke it: the dress, the veil, her eyes. She already knew.
Find Alex here: https://twitter.com/AlexNegen
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