The Surface of Earth

Overview

Published in 1975, The Surface of Earth is the monumental narrative that charts the slow, inextricable twining of the Mayfield and Kendal families. Set in the plain of North Carolina and the coast and hills of Virginia from 1903 to 1944, it chronicles the marriage of Forrest Mayfield and Eva Kendal, the hard birth of their son, Eva's return to her father after her mother's death, and the lives of two succeeding generations.

The Surface of Earth is the work of one of America's ...

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Overview

Published in 1975, The Surface of Earth is the monumental narrative that charts the slow, inextricable twining of the Mayfield and Kendal families. Set in the plain of North Carolina and the coast and hills of Virginia from 1903 to 1944, it chronicles the marriage of Forrest Mayfield and Eva Kendal, the hard birth of their son, Eva's return to her father after her mother's death, and the lives of two succeeding generations.

The Surface of Earth is the work of one of America's supreme masters of fiction, a journey across time and the poignantly evoked America of the first half of our century that explores the mysterious topography of the powers of love, home, and identity. In his evocation of the hungers, defeats, and rewards of individuals in moments of dark solitude and radiant union, Price has created an enduring literary testament to the range of human life.

Infused with the hungers and aspirations of three generations of Southerners, this breathtaking story of two families bound, then embittered, by the immoderate passions of a young woman and her older lover, is the first book in Price's masterful trilogy.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt The New York Times The epic story of three generations torn by a simple act of love....Monumentally and tragically heroic.

The Philadelphia Inquirer Turn to any page and the writing beguiles you. Reynolds Price is at the peak of his extraordinary lyrical gifts.

The Baltimore Sun Tragic and moving...each page, each sentence, is well worth reading. A beautiful book. Like all good writing, and tradition itself, it will endure.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780689111709
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster Adult Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 3/28/1981
  • Series: Mayfield Trilogy, #1

Meet the Author

Reynolds Price (1933-2011) was born in Macon, North Carolina. Educated at Duke University and, as a Rhodes Scholar, at Merton College, Oxford University, he taught at Duke beginning in 1958 and was the James B. Duke Professor of English at the time of his death. His first short stories, and many later ones, are published in his Collected Stories. A Long and Happy Life was published in 1962 and won the William Faulkner Award for a best first novel. Kate Vaiden was published in 1986 and won the National Book Critics Circle Award. The Good Priest's Son in 2005 was his fourteenth novel. Among his thirty-seven volumes are further collections of fiction, poetry, plays, essays, and translations. Price is a member of both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and his work has been translated into seventeen languages.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

ABSOLUTE PLEASURES

MAY 1903

"Who told Thad she was dead?" Rena asked.

"Thad killed her," Eva said. "He already knew."

Their father — from his rocker, almost dark in the evening — said, "Hush your voices down. Your mother's on the way. And never call him Thad. He was her dear father, your own grandfather; and of course he never killed her."

Kennedy said, "He gave her the baby. The baby killed her. So I think he did justice, killing himself."

"Shame," their father said. He drew at his cigar. "I hope none of you lives to face such a choice." Another draw. "But one of you will. Then remember tonight — the cruelty you've talked against the helpless dead."

He had started directing his answer to Kennerly — Kennedy was leaving home in a week: a job, his life — but he ended it on Eva. His middle child, his choice of the three, the thing in the world (beside his own mother, dead twenty years) that he'd loved and still loved, for sixteen years.

Dark as it was, Eva met his eyes and waited him out. Then she said, "What's shameful, sir, in wanting the truth? We're all nearly grown. We've heard scraps of it all our lives — lies, jokes. We are asking to know. It's our own story."

Her father nodded. "It would kill your mother to hear it."

They all were silent. The street beyond was empty. Hector the dog surrendered to Kennerly's scratching hands. Their mother's voice came from the kitchen, still talking — "Mag, you can take this bread on with you and bake fresh for breakfast if you get here in time. You'll get here, won't you?" — Some grumble from Mag, amounting to Yes. — "And you too, Sylvie? We got to iron curtains." A younger docile voice said "Yes'm."

Rena and Kennedy also looked to Eva. She was running this.

Eva said "Safe."

Their father said, quickly and as near to whispering as he ever came, "Thad Watson married Katherine Epps and, much as he loved her, he wanted a son. Three, four years passed — no son, no daughter. Katherine told him it was God's will, to calm down and wait. Wait was the one thing Thad couldn't do; and within another year, Katherine had a baby and died in the act. It had been a hard labor; and Dr. Burton had sent Thad out to wait in the yard, anywhere out of sight. He waited on the porch, really sat and waited for once in his life."

Eva said, "How do you know that?"

"My mother was there, helping what she could."

"Which wasn't much," Kennerly said.

"Not much. What could you have done with God set against you?"

Kennerly said, "l could have asked Him why."

"You'd have stood there and talked, and she'd have died anyhow. My mother gave the ether, little bits at a time on a clean cotton rag. So she died at ease — no pain, not a sound, no signal to Thad twenty feet away. When the doctor had listened to Katherine's still chest — Mother said he listened for the length of a song — and seen Mother safely washing the baby, he washed his own hands and put on his coat and stepped to the porch and said, 'Thad, I lost her. But I saved you a girl.' Thad waited on a minute. Then he stood up and looked Dr. Burton in the face as calm as this evening and told him 'Thank you' and headed indoors. The doctor assumed he was going to Katherine — there were plenty more women in there with her to meet him — so he stood on the porch to clear his own head. It had lasted all night; it was past dawn, May. The next thing he heard was a single shot. Thad had walked to the bedroom, straight through the women — never looked to your mother, herself nearly killed in Katherine's labor — and taken his pistol off the mantelpiece and walked to the bed where Katherine lay — they had still not washed her — and blown his brains out and fallen on her body." He drew at his cold cigar. "Now you know."

"It was Mother," Eva said. "The baby that killed his wife was Mother?"

"You knew that," he said. "But never say killed. She was innocent as if she had come from the moon, and her own father stopped her life in its tracks before she could move. Part of it anyhow."

Rena said, "Why would he do that, Father? — not wait for his child?"

A long wait. No answer, though voices still rose and fell in the kitchen.

"He knew his life had stopped," Eva said.

Kennerly made his sound of disgust.

"— Thought it had," their father said. "Then why not take the ruined baby with him?"

Nobody offered an answer to that.

But Eva said, "Did you ever see them, Father?"

"I remember him — I was ten when he died — and I must have seen her any number of times. But I don't have a shred of memory of her. A perfect blank. Your mother even — I still have to look at pictures of her to see her as a girl, and she all but lived with us."
Rena said "Why was that?"

"She was a quiet child."

They all waited silently and listened to her come slowly forward through the house; stop in her bedroom (the left front room) and brash at her hair; then stand in the door and say, "Eva, take a chair" — Eva sat on the steps — "You're too dressed-up anyhow. Commencement's tomorrow."

"Yes ma'm," Eva said.

Their mother went on to her usual place — the far comer swing where Kennedy waited, gently rocked as though by a breeze.

Eva stayed still.

Her mother stared at her — the side of her face; she was lovely, brown cuffs in swags to her shoulders. "Eva, go change. You'll smother in that."

Eva looked to the street. "I'm breathing," she said.

"Rena, make her go change."

Rena budged, vibrated by the words themselves; but she also watched the street and stayed in place.

"Eva, look here."

Eva turned and looked and before her mother could speak, even study her face in the dusk, Eva said "Be good to me — " She looked to her father.

Their mother said, "What is that supposed to mean?"

Hector barked once.

Rena said — and pointed — "Mr. Mayfield."

He was almost on them, having come up the stone walk that quietly; and everyone but Mrs. Kendal stood to welcome him, though she spoke first — "Did she fail, Mr. Mayfield?"

"No'm, she passed," he said. "She barely passed." He was at the steps and paused there, three feet from Eva. So no one but Eva could see the smile that rose in his face as he turned to her father. "Ninety-six in English. One hundred in Latin. Be proud, Mr. Kendal."

"Thank you, sir," he said. "She'll graduate then?"

"Far as I'm concerned, she's graduated now; could have two years ago. Knows more than I do," Forrest Mayfield said.

"Too kind," Mrs. Kendal said. "Sit down and rest. Have you eaten your supper? You'll be starved and blind from reading children's papers."

"No I'm not," he said. "Good young eyes like mine — I can see in the dark."

"You're thirty," Mrs. Kendal said, "and thin as a slat. You'll lose your looks. Then where will you be?" She got to her feet. "Mag's still in the kitchen. Come on and eat.'

"Thank you, no," he said. "I'm thirty-two and I've got to move on. Just wanted to tell you the fresh good news."

"Are you leaving for the summer?" Mr. Kendal said.

"Yes sir," he said, "when I get myself together."

"To your sister's again?"

"Not at first," he said. "I'll wander a little."

Mrs. Kendal said "To where?"

He smiled again, though entirely dark by now; spread his arms wide and sang it as music — "To my heart's true home."

Mrs. Kendal said "I thought so," and all of them laughed.

He joined them but then he looked to Mr. Kendal. "But you've got all I ever wanted, here." He gestured round with one arm again, a single place in which to gather, people made in the place, made by the place and grown firmly to it.

"I love them," Mr. Kendal said. "Thank you, Forrest."

Through all that, Forrest had shuddered with fear but showed only calm, the only lie he told them till then. And when he left, he had not lied again.

2

He had hardly vanished when Eva rose from the steps and walked to the door.

As she passed, her father said "Proud of you. Proud."

Her mother said, "I hope you are going to change."

Eva nodded. "Yes ma'm." Then she turned the doorknob and looked back quickly at them all. She settled on her father and said to him "Thank you." Then she opened the door and said "Rena, come help me.

"Her mother said "Spoiled."

But Rena stood and followed her.

They were silent in the hall and on the dark stairs, Indian-file; but when Eva had entered their own shared room (the back left room), Rena gently shut the door behind them and said "You've decided" to Eva's back.

"I decided long ago."

"You're leaving," Rena said.

Eva turned, nodding. "Tonight. This minute."

Rena said "Wait — " not meaning to stop her but to hold her an instant longer, for study.

Eva said "No" and took a step forward.

"Go," Rena said. "I just meant why?"

Eva touched her sister at the damp elbow-bend. "In a year or so you'll know."

"I'm eighteen months your junior," Rena said. "Eighteen more months won't answer me why you are killing us like this."

"You're glad," Eva said. "Mama'll surely be glad. Kennedy's leaving — "

"Father will die."

"No he won't," Eva said.

"He loves you more than the rest of us together."

Eva thought through that. "Even so," she said, "my life is separate. I'm going to that. He's been through worse than this. He'll live. I'll write him."

Rena said again "He'll die."

Eva touched her again, on the back of the neck, and smiled at her fully but stepped on past her to the door and opened it.

"Your grip?" Rena whispered and pointed to a brown leather case on the wardrobe.

Eva shook her head No.

"I've promised," Rena whispered. "Silence till tomorrow. They'll kill me then."

Eva smiled. "No they won't. They'll be glad of news. Now wait in here for as long as you can — till Mother calls us. Try to give me time."

Rena went to the wide bed they'd shared for years and sat on the edge, both hands on her knees. "Will I ever see you again, do you think?"

Eva listened to the sounds from the porch — still safe — then came back across to the bed and touched Rena. On the part in her hair. Then kissed the spot she'd touched. "That's up to Father," she said. "Help him." Then she was gone, no sound on the stair.

3

From the foot of the stairs there were two ways out — the front door, the porch, Mother, Father, Brother; and the kitchen where Mag and Sylvie still tinkered. No choice. She aimed herself there and went, still silent, ignoring the pieces of her life on all sides, snags in a river. But she stopped in the kitchen at the comer washstand and lifted one dipper of water from the bucket and drank it dry, from thirst and the fresh need to say one more goodbye in her home. When she lowered the dipper, both women were watching — Mag from the sink where she picked over white beans to soak all night, Sylvie from the midst of the room where she stood like the black greased axle of the whole clark house: Eva's age, one more piece of the permanent furniture of old safe life that Eva now abandoned. She took a step toward Sylvie — the door was beyond her — and said in a low voice, not whispering, "Take anything of mine you want."

"Who going to give it to me?"

"Tell Mama it's yours; tell her Eva said it's yours."

"She'll laugh," Sylvie said.

Eva pointed backward and overhead. "Go up now and take any stitch you want. Rena's waiting there."

Mag turned full around. Her face took the lamplight, darker than her daughter's. "You go," she said. "If you going, go."

Still facing Sylvie, Eva shut her eyes once and forced out the tears that Mag had pressed from her. Then she looked again and cracked her lips to say, "I'll send for you, Sylvie"; but waves of expulsion still pumped from Mag. Silent, Eva scissored one step to the left and was out the door.

Sylvie said "She gone."

"Thank Jesus," Mag said.

Sylvie said "I loved her."

"Me too," Mag said. "But she gone now. She out of my mind. Scratch her out of yours. What she don't know — people worth loving grow on trees in the ditch."

"Yes'm," Sylvie said and watched the shut door where dark air still churned in Eva's empty place.

4

Forrest Mayfield was drowning in gratitude, kneeling above his wife, taking the last of what she freely offered — the sight of her body in rooming light laid safely beside him on linen marked only by proofs of their love. Till half an hour ago, at dawn, he had never seen more of her than head and arms — what showed to the world at the limits of her clothes. So he'd loved her because of her face and her kindness, the mysterious rein she accepted from the first on his oldest need — free flight outward from his own strapped and drying heart, that he be permitted after decades of hoarding to choose one willing gift and love her entirely, the remainder of his life. Almost no matter that she love in return, only that she wait and endure his love, his endless thanks; acknowledge them with smiles. Now she was here — by her own will, unforced, still offering (though the room had filled with light) her entire brilliant body, perfect beyond any dream or guess and visibly threaded with the narrow blue channels that pulsed on, warm from their first full juncture.

The memory of that — crown of this past night — was the deepest flood he swam in now, the union and its rising preparations: that she met him as promised at the edge of the field behind her home (had got there before him and the Negro he'd paid to drive the hired buggy six miles to the train — standing, arms at her side, her hands clenched, dark; and when he had said "Your grip? Your clothes?" she had said, "I told you if I came, I'd just be yours. Nothing with me belongs to another soul. This one dress was thrown off by my Aunt Lola"). Then she'd sat beside him silent through the ride to the train, only nodding Yes or No to his muffled questions, and walked silent to the train and mounted one step and then turned to their driver, who carried Forrest's trunk, and said "You know Sylvie" and opened her clenched hand and gave him a five-dollar goldpiece and said, "This is Sylvie's from Eva; to remember Eva." Then once on the train, they had spoken of nothing but the school-year behind them as though they were vanishing now for the summer to separate worlds and would meet in the fall again, master and pupil. And then two hours later, here in Virginia, had accepted their marriage at the trembling hands of an old Clerk of Court and his housekeeper-witness who said to Eva as the clerk took the money, "God above help you." Then had walked with him two hundred yards in the dark to this old hotel and, once concealed by a black pine door from whatever slim dangers the world still held, had welcomed him. Not at once, in a rush, but gravely in her own time, the reins in her ringed hand still firmly clutched. When the porter had lit their lamp and gone and the door was bolted, he had stood in place and looked through the three yards of dimness toward her, by the bed — the light was behind her, she shone at the edges — he had said "I thank you." She had smiled-"For what?" — "For standing here." She had said, "I am where I want to be" and slowly drew the wide green ribbon from her hair and began on the numerous buttons of her dress, looking down at them, till — finished and her undergarments folded — she stood bare and faced him. In her place, he in his. Simplex munditiis was all he could think — Horace, "To Pyrrha," Plain in thy neatness in Milton's translation which Forrest had thought nearly perfect till now when his own version came: Simple in courtesy. Inaccurate for Horace but true for this girl. Then she had said, "I'm sorry to ask it, but can we just rest for a while now?" He had said, "Tired or not, you may call me Forrest." She had nodded, smiling, and entered the fresh bed; and when he had blown out the lamp and stripped, he joined her and lay on the cool edge, separate, till she reached out and took his hand before sleep. By then it was nearly three o'clock. She held him three hours — not turning once, only flinching now and then as she sank one layer deeper toward rest — and he never shut an eye but waited in the dark, appalled by his joyous luck, his hopes; inventing for the thousandth time their life. Then first-day woke her, nacreous light like a fog seeping in; and she turned her head and studied him a long minute, gravely as though he had things still to teach or maybe because she was still half-dreaming; but when she spoke she said "I am rested."

And when he had drawn their long-joined hands from the covers and thanked them with slow dry kisses and had slowly uncovered his body, then hers — all but stopped by the simple plainness of the answer this new sight promised to all his needs — and had knelt above her in the space she offered between smooth knees and bent to the work he had craved since birth, then she'd welcomed him. Had shut her clean eyes and with two hands as powerful as ice in stone had implored him into the still-sealed door of her final solitude, final secret — only looking outward again at the instant of violation when she smiled and drew herself further around him and he said, "You must know: it's as strange to me as you."

All was shared space now, shared news, shared messages freely exchanged of gratitude, trust.

Pitiful fool. He had not seen because he had not looked, had never known he should learn to look — at her true final stronghold, the delicate skull that seemed in their struggle to press forward toward him (another fragile gift) but in which her mind in every cell was howling its terror, loss, loneliness.

Her three hours' sleep had been no rest but a punishment and, worse, a revelation — vision of the ruin she had willed on her home. In the dream that lasted every minute of those hours, she witnessed this — her father, this same night, in their sleeping house, flat on his back beside her sleeping mother in their high black bed, his face tilted slightly forward in the total dark, eyes wide open and straining to pierce the floors and walls between his room and Eva's. When the eyes had succeeded and for whole minutes ransacked the empty side of the bed (beyond sleeping Rena), he shut them and slowly rolled his huge body leftward till he lay full-length on her sleeping mother — who remained asleep as he fastened his open mouth over hers and drew up each shallow breath she exhaled till she lay empty, dead. Then he rose and walked in the dark — no help; he was competent in darkness — to the next bedroom and performed the same smothering theft on Kennerly, who could have refused but — awake, his own wide eyes on his father — accepted the death. Then up the stairs to Rena, who fought him uselessly until her whole head and body vanished under his, not only drained of breath and life but absorbed into him, food for his need. Then he rolled over off Rena's vacant place and lay on his back in the midst of the bed and stared up again — in darkness still, through plaster and lathing — and said "Eva. Now."

Forrest had separated from her and covered them both with sheet and quilt. She was on her back. He was on his left side, lying at her right, facing her profile. Now he must see if speech were still possible, feasible, between them — words after what they had finally swapped. He looked on, working for suitable words — it must be a question — till he felt convicted of mooning and said, "What will we do when we stand up from here?"

Eva faced the ceiling but her voice was kind. "You are making the plans."

He lay flat and thought; then beneath the cover, he touched her flank. "We will buy you three dollars' worth of clothes, send my sister a wire to say we're coming."

"Don't tell me," Eva said.

His eyes asked her meaning.

"Make all the plans and lead me through them, but don't tell me first."

He thought that through and decided to smile. "Made," he said, "made years ago" and took her hand again and drew it out to kiss before rising.

But, his fingers round her wrist, she pulled her arm inward toward her body.

Thinking she drew back from reluctance or pain, Forrest turned her loose and nodded, smiling, and half-turned to rise.

But her hand strained out and took his shoulder and with more strength, even than before, drew him down and over her body — now cold to his touch — and quickly in. Then with her hands on the back of his head, she fastened his mouth over hers and endured in silence the gift she required.

5

May 12, 1903

My dear Sister,

I am sending this letter care of Kate Spencer in the hope she can get it safe to your hands. If so, you will know when you finish this sentence that I am well and happy as I dreamed. I only hope you have not suffered for me or that, if you have, the cloud is past and that when you read the following description you will think whatever you have suffered worth the pain and can live in the trust of someday having what I have now.

I will not write down all the story of the night I last saw you. This letter may yet fall into cruel hands and several more of those who helped us on might suffer for their kindness. Suffice to say that within three hours of kissing you goodbye, Mr. Mayfield and I were husband and wife, joined forever in that waiting bower of trust and joy made for us by our long delayed union. For the same reason I have just expressed, I cannot here answer in any detail the main question you put to me weeks ago; but a short answer is — Yes, two become one and are better for it.

I can tell you more of that if and when we meet. Surely there is not any real "if" between us — not with you, I know; but please tell me quickly that Father and Mother and Kennerly have healed and wish us well in the life we needed, and hope to see us as we do them. Tell me that, Rena — that my hopes are met by loving hopes at home. I have prayed each hour that they be so met. I have not yet thought of another answer or another prayer and will not until you have set me right or joyously confirmed my only dream that is still unfulfilled.

So write by return of post, no fail — if only the one word Yes or No. The address below is care of Forrest's sister; and when I have seen the word "safe" from your hand, I will tell you the rest of how I live through these first happy days.

You and everyone there are in my thoughts and will always be. Please tell them that, whatever the result.

Your loving sister,

Eva Mayfield

Care Mrs. James Shorter

Bracey, Virginia

May 12, 1903

Dear Thorne,

I am alive, as you will see by this, and only wish that I had some surety the news would come as a pleasure to you. It has been the only blot on my recent days — the thought that you and your dear mother and two or three more of my colleagues at the Academy might have put me down in your books as a liar, a cheat, a traitor to friendship and solemn duty.

The fact that my hand writes such words here will be sign enough that the words themselves are only bare counters for the doubts I've had, the moments of anguish, all of which come to me in the hard form of pictures-your mother's head shaking side to side at me, No; or your own eyes calm above slow lips opening to say "Forrest, leave us." Am I piercing the veil of distance, seeing truth? Or only, as so often, vainly flailing myself? You can answer me that, dear friend of the past, much hoped-for still.

But in the event there is no answer yet — that you and yours have waited in friendship through slander and rumor for mine and Eva's facts-here they are, set down with God as my witness. You may tell them to any man who claims to know different; he knows a lie.

I have loved her los the best part of two years now, since she entered ray classes two falls ago. Your question will be Why? And my truthful answer, an answer I have searched and tested for months, is "I do not know." You have seen her, known her far longer than me — all her life; I have chiefly envied your memories of her in simpler childhood — so I need not offer descriptions of her loveliness. I have known, as you have, grander beauties who entered rooms with their armaments blazing or drew at me like great magnets in the earth — and left me less moved than a toddling child. Eva filled — from the moment I saw her, it seems — every valley in me and bore in herself the press of every height. No one has done that before for me, ever — even my mother, despite her early death from the strain to be ali in all for my sister and me after Father's leaving — and it came to seem as the months raced on and no error was made, no flaw revealed, that no one would ever do it again, that if I should scorn this offered chance, there would never come another; and I should be sentenced (self-sentenced as always) to the gradual parching of solitude, concealment, self-contemplation, which I'd felt already at the rims of my heart. And of which I told you.

So in April I seized at the chance, and won. Did you notice at all? How can you not have? The day we took the two classes to The Springs, after the meal when everyone else had gone off to change in the woods before bathing, she and I found ourselves — with no prior intent, I gravely believe — alone together in the ruined springhouse. We were separated by ail the trapped air, by the clogged springs at our feet, by the cold half-dark; but we drew at one another like moons at the full. Thorne, I did not touch her — a solemn oath. I said "Eva Kendal." She said "Yes sir." I said, "May we live together all our lives, beginning now?" and she said "Yes sir." I could not touch her — we heard the sound of someone approaching — I did not even move a step closer toward her. We had sealed our lives at four yards' distance — and none the less indissolubly for that, is my strongest prayer. Then you stepped in, having worried at our absence and come to see. But what did you see? Till that hour, I had opened my heart to you fully — no secret held back, no hunger not stated — yet, though you stood a moment in the bright doorway, staring, you never spoke a word to me of question or caution in those few ensuing weeks. Thorne, tell me that also — is there some imperfection in our bond (mine and Eva's) that to you it appeared transparent as day, as the water of those springs we loomed above (had we bent, as perhaps we should have, to clean them)?

And in those weeks, of April and May, we barely came closer than we stood that moment with you as apex to the triad we formed. Nor said much more than "Remember?" — "Yes." Till the week of our leaving when, with no word to Eva, I made what minimum of plans were required for transport and marriage, for ending my work and withdrawing those roots of devotion and thanks I had sunk in the ground of your home, Thorne. Withdrawn never — transplanted, I hope. And then two days in advance of the absolute end of my duties — all my examinations given, hers all taken — I asked her to see me at the end of the day. She came and stood before my desk — I sat, I remember now — and said "Are you tired?" She said "Of what?" and her face gathered in on itself in fear. I said "Of work." "Oh," she said, "Yes. I thought you meant our plan." Tilt then I had not known she save it as a plan, that we'd worked in silence to a single end. So in two minutes more I told her the plan and asked did it suit her, and she said "Yes sir." I said, "Could you live if your family disowns you?" She said, "Mr. Mayfield, I am sixteen years old" — meaning, I think, that she knew her own mind. So I told her again the place and time and signal, and she nodded unsmilingly and turned to go. She had got within two, three steps of the door — it was open; people passed in the hall every second — but I said to her, "Eva, why are you doing this?" She waited and met my face straight on and said, "Mr. Mayfield, I don't know that. I only know we promised, and I'm keeping to the promise if you want me to." The room was darkening, a cloudy day; but she also faced the windows and had never, in all my looking, seemed so needed, as urgent as the silent air I drew. Nor had her lean face, her wideset eyes that can hold on me whole long minutes, never shutting, seemed so perfectly preserved from error, from the chance of speaking either lie or delusion or destructive innocence. So I said, "I do. I want you to keep it." And she nodded and left; and I didn't see her till two nights later when she kept it, firmly.

And now we are here at my sister Hattie's, discovering each hour the degree of accuracy in our wager — miraculous luck. I am borne up, Thorne; there are arms beneath me where before — thirty years — there was vacancy, a shaft into dark single death.

Forgive me then. And beg your mother to believe the truth — that I never defiled the trust of her house, that my one room there was honored to the end. Believe — please, both of you — that all I have done was done from long and desperate need but also from careful study of the sustenance offered to that need: study of the danger of my crushing that food in the act of acceptance, of consuming it utterly. That I have hurt the present feelings and the memories of people who had trusted me fully, I bear as my heaviest burden. That I meant them permanent wounds, even harm, I passionately deny. Who, in the world, is harmed by the troth of two single souls unbound to others? Who would deny them their impulse to join? Who could not see that, far from diminished, the lives of our friends and families, perhaps of the world, stand to be enforced at their very foundations by the simple news that Eva and I are sworn to love?

And speak to me soon. When I know if you've so much as read on to here, if you care to know present and future as well as past, then I'll write again with word of both. Till then, for the past at least, loving thanks. But I will not believe Time suffers herself to be broken in three. She is whole and extends her whole self always — then, now, then. Thorne, you are found in all my time — your name, the sight of your generous face, your Iow kind voice.

In strong hope,

Forrest Mayfield

May 15, 1903

Dear Eva,

I got your letter and nobody but me has seen it or knows about it but Kate who'll be quiet, and nobody will. You ask me to say whether we have all healed and wish you well and want to see you. You always saw more than I ever could in Mother and Father, so I'll let you get those answers yourself by direct application. I've done enough, Eva — almost all I contracted for — and I'm relishing the peace now.

But I will tell you what happened the rest of the evening you left. You may not need any other answers. I waited in our room and read fifteen chapters of First Corinthians before they sent Kennerly upstairs to get us. He said "Where is Eva?" and I said, "Gone, with Mr. Mayfield, for good"; and he said "Thank Jesus." Then he sat in the rocker while I finished chapter sixteen; and then he said, "What do we do now, Rena?" (and him the one with the job and the life — he has already gone to it). I said, "I have promised to lie till morning, so you must too" and he agreed.

And we honestly tried. When Mother came up half an hour later, we were both sitting reading; and when she asked for you, he said you had gone up to Kate Spencer's house to borrow something. She took that, long enough to climb back down and tell it to Father; but in thirty more minutes — and no sign of you; we were back on the porch — he stood up and went in and got his hat and Mother said, "Where in the world are you aimed?" and he said "To the Spencers." So we sat through that — Mother talking every second — and then when we heard Father coming back alone, just his feet on the walk, I thought in my heart, "I'm about to kill him." But I waited and he came up and stopped at my feet — I was on the steps — and, far as I could see in the dark, sought my eyes and said, "Rena, I don't intend to harm you." I said "Yes sir." And he said "Is she gone?" I said "Yes sir." Mother said "With Forrest?" and I said "Yes." Everybody was quiet. Nobody moved for quite some time. Then Mother got up and kissed Kennerly and me and went in to bed, not a word to a soul. Then Father went in and, though I never saw him light a lamp, undressed and went to bed, I guess. The other thing he could have done was sit all night in the dark and study (we heard him and Mother saying two or three things, the noise not the words; but their voices were calm and they quickly stopped). Then we went in ourselves and closed the doors — they had left it to us, first time in our lives — and slept through till morning.

Breakfast went as usual till toward the end when Sylvie was passing the last plate of biscuits, and Father told her to get Mag and come in. So the two of them came; and when they were standing by the. sideboard, he said, "There is one new rule; everybody please obey — we are going to give her a rest in our minds. Won't mention her name, speak of her for a while." Everybody nodded and Mother shed a tear. And that same night we went to the commencement. Your name was called.

Since then most everything has gone as planned. Brother left for his job and writes that he hates it but we knew that. Father works hard. Mother has not felt well, but it's already hot here. I am loving the weather, and bed is cooler with just me in it. I will write again if anything happens.

Your sister,

Rena Kendal

May 16, 1903

Dear Forrest,

I accept with thanks your word to Mother and me that you did not abuse our home.

To the rest of what you offer and ask, I can only say that — as ever — you are begging for both the cake and its consumption. You have indeed gone toward something — its present name is Eva. You have also gone from a number of things, whose names are trust and — more necessary to life — the world's belief that love is a rational flame, consuming only what offers itself precisely as fuel, not the innocent or unwilling combustibles which I accuse you of igniting: Eva's mother and father, her sister, me.

Yet not I but the Time of which you speak will be your judge, and you err in referring to Time as she. Any child you taught two months of Latin will know Time is neuter. And neuter Time in its future aspect will uncover — in your face, your heart, and in those of your chosen — the true origin, intent, the end of your act; and any sane sighted man will be easily able to read off the news: sentence or praise. He need only be present, and that I will not be.

Believe me,

Thorne Bradley

May 17, 1903

Dear Mother and Father,

I am married to Forrest Mayfield, and at present we are living with his sister in Bracey, Virginia. She is a recent widow with two children and is the one who raised Forrest when his own mother died, so we will be staying on here through the summer at least till Forrest can get a post at a school.

Out of all that I might want to tell you or you might ask, let me say five things —

What we did was as much my wish as his. I was never forced or even led but walked with him, side by side to now.

My wish did not come out of any weakness in my gratitude to you but out of my needing what I knew you'd forbid.

I am not now, and have never been, expecting a child.

I am happy.

I am hoping, as strongly as for all but our happiness here, that you can find it in your heart to wish us well; to say you have forgotten the few days of shock, and that you can entertain at least the memory of my face and word of my name.

If you have a kind answer to that last thing, may I hear it soon?

Your daughter,

Eva Kendal Mayfield

Care Mrs. James Shorter

Bracey, Virginia

October 5, 1903

Eva,

Flora writing this for me. Me and her out here taking in the fair and thinking we would send you this postal with the news. We won it throwing balls. No news but to say everything here the same. Don't answer me back. You know my mama.

Goodbye again from

Sylvie

November 23, 1903

Dear Mrs. Mayfield,

I am Undine Phillips, Mrs. Walker Phillips; and I write this on behalf of your brother Kennerly, who has roomed here with me since late in the spring. I write in pain and oddly to a stranger, but I've thought and prayed and believe it my duty to say this much.

Your letters to your brother have arrived here since July, but he has not received them. I have laid them each time on the front-hall table where I lay all the mail, and he has not touched them. In July when your first had waited three days and he had walked past, I remarked the fact to your brother who said it was not for him. I said that it bore his name and address; but he said nonetheless he could not take letters from Bracey, Virginia. As others have come, I have laid them out; and they too have been refused.

So I've taken the liberty of keeping them safe in the table drawer, with the thought he would change. I admire him so highly; he is such a fine gentleman, so helpful to me. But this afternoon when he saw your latest, he came straight to me on the backporch and said would I kindly return it to you with no message. I said I could not consider throwing myself into such a private matter unless he explained; he had never explained. He said you were his sister and offended his parents by early marriage. I knew of his devotion to your parents.

Since I offended my own mother briefly by marrying for love — and had a grand life till he died last year, not an hour's regret — I accepted the sad task. Hence these lines.

I enclose all the letters that have reached my house — three, unopened — and I take the further liberty of going beyond my commission and adding a message, one which I trust your brother will come to himself in time: that you and Mr. Mayfield know long years of unbroken love and care. You have after all only followed Christ's command — cleave then and prosper.

Truly yours,

Undine Phillips

Copyright © 1973, 1974, 1975 by Reynolds Price

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Table of Contents

BOOK ONE: ABSOLUTE PLEASURES

ONE May 1903
TWO December 1903
THREE March 1904
FOUR May 1904
FIVE August 1904
SIX August 1904
SEVEN November-December 1904
EIGHT December 1904-February 1905

BOOK TWO: THE HEART IN DREAMS

ONE May 1921
TWO April 1925
THREE May-September 1925
FOUR November 1925
FIVE December 1925-March 1927
SIX July 1929

BOOK THREE: PARTIAL AMENDS

ONE June 5-7, 1944
TWO June 7, 1944
THREE June 1O-13, 1944
FOUR June 13-14 1944
FIVE June 14-17, 1944

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First Chapter

Chapter 1 ABSOLUTE PLEASURES

MAY 1903

"Who told Thad she was dead?" Rena asked.

"Thad killed her," Eva said. "He already knew."

Their father -- from his rocker, almost dark in the evening -- said, "Hush your voices down. Your mother's on the way. And never call him Thad. He was her dear father, your own grandfather; and of course he never killed her."

Kennedy said, "He gave her the baby. The baby killed her. So I think he did justice, killing himself."

"Shame," their father said. He drew at his cigar. "I hope none of you lives to face such a choice." Another draw. "But one of you will. Then remember tonight -- the cruelty you've talked against the helpless dead."

He had started directing his answer to Kennerly -- Kennedy was leaving home in a week: a job, his life -- but he ended it on Eva. His middle child, his choice of the three, the thing in the world (beside his own mother, dead twenty years) that he'd loved and still loved, for sixteen years.

Dark as it was, Eva met his eyes and waited him out. Then she said, "What's shameful, sir, in wanting the truth? We're all nearly grown. We've heard scraps of it all our lives -- lies, jokes. We are asking to know. It's our own story."

Her father nodded. "It would kill your mother to hear it."

They all were silent. The street beyond was empty. Hector the dog surrendered to Kennerly's scratching hands. Their mother's voice came from the kitchen, still talking -- "Mag, you can take this bread on with you and bake fresh for breakfast if you get here in time. You'll get here, won't you?" -- Some grumble from Mag, amounting to Yes. -- "And you too, Sylvie? We got to iron curtains." A younger docile voice said "Yes'm."

Rena and Kennedy also looked to Eva. She was running this.

Eva said "Safe."

Their father said, quickly and as near to whispering as he ever came, "Thad Watson married Katherine Epps and, much as he loved her, he wanted a son. Three, four years passed -- no son, no daughter. Katherine told him it was God's will, to calm down and wait. Wait was the one thing Thad couldn't do; and within another year, Katherine had a baby and died in the act. It had been a hard labor; and Dr. Burton had sent Thad out to wait in the yard, anywhere out of sight. He waited on the porch, really sat and waited for once in his life."

Eva said, "How do you know that?"

"My mother was there, helping what she could."

"Which wasn't much," Kennerly said.

"Not much. What could you have done with God set against you?"

Kennerly said, "l could have asked Him why."

"You'd have stood there and talked, and she'd have died anyhow. My mother gave the ether, little bits at a time on a clean cotton rag. So she died at ease -- no pain, not a sound, no signal to Thad twenty feet away. When the doctor had listened to Katherine's still chest -- Mother said he listened for the length of a song -- and seen Mother safely washing the baby, he washed his own hands and put on his coat and stepped to the porch and said, 'Thad, I lost her. But I saved you a girl.' Thad waited on a minute. Then he stood up and looked Dr. Burton in the face as calm as this evening and told him 'Thank you' and headed indoors. The doctor assumed he was going to Katherine -- there were plenty more women in there with her to meet him -- so he stood on the porch to clear his own head. It had lasted all night; it was past dawn, May. The next thing he heard was a single shot. Thad had walked to the bedroom, straight through the women -- never looked to your mother, herself nearly killed in Katherine's labor -- and taken his pistol off the mantelpiece and walked to the bed where Katherine lay -- they had still not washed her -- and blown his brains out and fallen on her body." He drew at his cold cigar. "Now you know."

"It was Mother," Eva said. "The baby that killed his wife was Mother?"

"You knew that," he said. "But never say killed. She was innocent as if she had come from the moon, and her own father stopped her life in its tracks before she could move. Part of it anyhow."

Rena said, "Why would he do that, Father? -- not wait for his child?"

A long wait. No answer, though voices still rose and fell in the kitchen.

"He knew his life had stopped," Eva said.

Kennerly made his sound of disgust.

"-- Thought it had," their father said. "Then why not take the ruined baby with him?"

Nobody offered an answer to that.

But Eva said, "Did you ever see them, Father?"

"I remember him -- I was ten when he died -- and I must have seen her any number of times. But I don't have a shred of memory of her. A perfect blank. Your mother even -- I still have to look at pictures of her to see her as a girl, and she all but lived with us." Rena said "Why was that?"

"She was a quiet child."

They all waited silently and listened to her come slowly forward through the house; stop in her bedroom (the left front room) and brash at her hair; then stand in the door and say, "Eva, take a chair" -- Eva sat on the steps -- "You're too dressed-up anyhow. Commencement's tomorrow."

"Yes ma'm," Eva said.

Their mother went on to her usual place -- the far comer swing where Kennedy waited, gently rocked as though by a breeze.

Eva stayed still.

Her mother stared at her -- the side of her face; she was lovely, brown cuffs in swags to her shoulders. "Eva, go change. You'll smother in that."

Eva looked to the street. "I'm breathing," she said.

"Rena, make her go change."

Rena budged, vibrated by the words themselves; but she also watched the street and stayed in place.

"Eva, look here."

Eva turned and looked and before her mother could speak, even study her face in the dusk, Eva said "Be good to me -- " She looked to her father.

Their mother said, "What is that supposed to mean?"

Hector barked once.

Rena said -- and pointed -- "Mr. Mayfield."

He was almost on them, having come up the stone walk that quietly; and everyone but Mrs. Kendal stood to welcome him, though she spoke first -- "Did she fail, Mr. Mayfield?"

"No'm, she passed," he said. "She barely passed." He was at the steps and paused there, three feet from Eva. So no one but Eva could see the smile that rose in his face as he turned to her father. "Ninety-six in English. One hundred in Latin. Be proud, Mr. Kendal."

"Thank you, sir," he said. "She'll graduate then?"

"Far as I'm concerned, she's graduated now; could have two years ago. Knows more than I do," Forrest Mayfield said.

"Too kind," Mrs. Kendal said. "Sit down and rest. Have you eaten your supper? You'll be starved and blind from reading children's papers."

"No I'm not," he said. "Good young eyes like mine -- I can see in the dark."

"You're thirty," Mrs. Kendal said, "and thin as a slat. You'll lose your looks. Then where will you be?" She got to her feet. "Mag's still in the kitchen. Come on and eat.'

"Thank you, no," he said. "I'm thirty-two and I've got to move on. Just wanted to tell you the fresh good news."

"Are you leaving for the summer?" Mr. Kendal said.

"Yes sir," he said, "when I get myself together."

"To your sister's again?"

"Not at first," he said. "I'll wander a little."

Mrs. Kendal said "To where?"

He smiled again, though entirely dark by now; spread his arms wide and sang it as music -- "To my heart's true home."

Mrs. Kendal said "I thought so," and all of them laughed.

He joined them but then he looked to Mr. Kendal. "But you've got all I ever wanted, here." He gestured round with one arm again, a single place in which to gather, people made in the place, made by the place and grown firmly to it.

"I love them," Mr. Kendal said. "Thank you, Forrest."

Through all that, Forrest had shuddered with fear but showed only calm, the only lie he told them till then. And when he left, he had not lied again.

He had hardly vanished when Eva rose from the steps and walked to the door.

As she passed, her father said "Proud of you. Proud."

Her mother said, "I hope you are going to change."

Eva nodded. "Yes ma'm." Then she turned the doorknob and looked back quickly at them all. She settled on her father and said to him "Thank you." Then she opened the door and said "Rena, come help me.

"Her mother said "Spoiled."

But Rena stood and followed her.

They were silent in the hall and on the dark stairs, Indian-file; but when Eva had entered their own shared room (the back left room), Rena gently shut the door behind them and said "You've decided" to Eva's back.

"I decided long ago."

"You're leaving," Rena said.

Eva turned, nodding. "Tonight. This minute."

Rena said "Wait -- " not meaning to stop her but to hold her an instant longer, for study.

Eva said "No" and took a step forward.

"Go," Rena said. "I just meant why?"

Eva touched her sister at the damp elbow-bend. "In a year or so you'll know."

"I'm eighteen months your junior," Rena said. "Eighteen more months won't answer me why you are killing us like this."

"You're glad," Eva said. "Mama'll surely be glad. Kennedy's leaving -- "

"Father will die."

"No he won't," Eva said.

"He loves you more than the rest of us together."

Eva thought through that. "Even so," she said, "my life is separate. I'm going to that. He's been through worse than this. He'll live. I'll write him."

Rena said again "He'll die."

Eva touched her again, on the back of the neck, and smiled at her fully but stepped on past her to the door and opened it.

"Your grip?" Rena whispered and pointed to a brown leather case on the wardrobe.

Eva shook her head No.

"I've promised," Rena whispered. "Silence till tomorrow. They'll kill me then."

Eva smiled. "No they won't. They'll be glad of news. Now wait in here for as long as you can -- till Mother calls us. Try to give me time."

Rena went to the wide bed they'd shared for years and sat on the edge, both hands on her knees. "Will I ever see you again, do you think?"

Eva listened to the sounds from the porch -- still safe -- then came back across to the bed and touched Rena. On the part in her hair. Then kissed the spot she'd touched. "That's up to Father," she said. "Help him." Then she was gone, no sound on the stair.

From the foot of the stairs there were two ways out -- the front door, the porch, Mother, Father, Brother; and the kitchen where Mag and Sylvie still tinkered. No choice. She aimed herself there and went, still silent, ignoring the pieces of her life on all sides, snags in a river. But she stopped in the kitchen at the comer washstand and lifted one dipper of water from the bucket and drank it dry, from thirst and the fresh need to say one more goodbye in her home. When she lowered the dipper, both women were watching -- Mag from the sink where she picked over white beans to soak all night, Sylvie from the midst of the room where she stood like the black greased axle of the whole clark house: Eva's age, one more piece of the permanent furniture of old safe life that Eva now abandoned. She took a step toward Sylvie -- the door was beyond her -- and said in a low voice, not whispering, "Take anything of mine you want."

"Who going to give it to me?"

"Tell Mama it's yours; tell her Eva said it's yours."

"She'll laugh," Sylvie said.

Eva pointed backward and overhead. "Go up now and take any stitch you want. Rena's waiting there."

Mag turned full around. Her face took the lamplight, darker than her daughter's. "You go," she said. "If you going, go."

Still facing Sylvie, Eva shut her eyes once and forced out the tears that Mag had pressed from her. Then she looked again and cracked her lips to say, "I'll send for you, Sylvie"; but waves of expulsion still pumped from Mag. Silent, Eva scissored one step to the left and was out the door.

Sylvie said "She gone."

"Thank Jesus," Mag said.

Sylvie said "I loved her."

"Me too," Mag said. "But she gone now. She out of my mind. Scratch her out of yours. What she don't know -- people worth loving grow on trees in the ditch."

"Yes'm," Sylvie said and watched the shut door where dark air still churned in Eva's empty place.

Forrest Mayfield was drowning in gratitude, kneeling above his wife, taking the last of what she freely offered -- the sight of her body in rooming light laid safely beside him on linen marked only by proofs of their love. Till half an hour ago, at dawn, he had never seen more of her than head and arms -- what showed to the world at the limits of her clothes. So he'd loved her because of her face and her kindness, the mysterious rein she accepted from the first on his oldest need -- free flight outward from his own strapped and drying heart, that he be permitted after decades of hoarding to choose one willing gift and love her entirely, the remainder of his life. Almost no matter that she love in return, only that she wait and endure his love, his endless thanks; acknowledge them with smiles. Now she was here -- by her own will, unforced, still offering (though the room had filled with light) her entire brilliant body, perfect beyond any dream or guess and visibly threaded with the narrow blue channels that pulsed on, warm from their first full juncture.

The memory of that -- crown of this past night -- was the deepest flood he swam in now, the union and its rising preparations: that she met him as promised at the edge of the field behind her home (had got there before him and the Negro he'd paid to drive the hired buggy six miles to the train -- standing, arms at her side, her hands clenched, dark; and when he had said "Your grip? Your clothes?" she had said, "I told you if I came, I'd just be yours. Nothing with me belongs to another soul. This one dress was thrown off by my Aunt Lola"). Then she'd sat beside him silent through the ride to the train, only nodding Yes or No to his muffled questions, and walked silent to the train and mounted one step and then turned to their driver, who carried Forrest's trunk, and said "You know Sylvie" and opened her clenched hand and gave him a five-dollar goldpiece and said, "This is Sylvie's from Eva; to remember Eva." Then once on the train, they had spoken of nothing but the school-year behind them as though they were vanishing now for the summer to separate worlds and would meet in the fall again, master and pupil. And then two hours later, here in Virginia, had accepted their marriage at the trembling hands of an old Clerk of Court and his housekeeper-witness who said to Eva as the clerk took the money, "God above help you." Then had walked with him two hundred yards in the dark to this old hotel and, once concealed by a black pine door from whatever slim dangers the world still held, had welcomed him. Not at once, in a rush, but gravely in her own time, the reins in her ringed hand still firmly clutched. When the porter had lit their lamp and gone and the door was bolted, he had stood in place and looked through the three yards of dimness toward her, by the bed -- the light was behind her, she shone at the edges -- he had said "I thank you." She had smiled-"For what?" -- "For standing here." She had said, "I am where I want to be" and slowly drew the wide green ribbon from her hair and began on the numerous buttons of her dress, looking down at them, till -- finished and her undergarments folded -- she stood bare and faced him. In her place, he in his. Simplex munditiis was all he could think -- Horace, "To Pyrrha," Plain in thy neatness in Milton's translation which Forrest had thought nearly perfect till now when his own version came: Simple in courtesy. Inaccurate for Horace but true for this girl. Then she had said, "I'm sorry to ask it, but can we just rest for a while now?" He had said, "Tired or not, you may call me Forrest." She had nodded, smiling, and entered the fresh bed; and when he had blown out the lamp and stripped, he joined her and lay on the cool edge, separate, till she reached out and took his hand before sleep. By then it was nearly three o'clock. She held him three hours -- not turning once, only flinching now and then as she sank one layer deeper toward rest -- and he never shut an eye but waited in the dark, appalled by his joyous luck, his hopes; inventing for the thousandth time their life. Then first-day woke her, nacreous light like a fog seeping in; and she turned her head and studied him a long minute, gravely as though he had things still to teach or maybe because she was still half-dreaming; but when she spoke she said "I am rested."

And when he had drawn their long-joined hands from the covers and thanked them with slow dry kisses and had slowly uncovered his body, then hers -- all but stopped by the simple plainness of the answer this new sight promised to all his needs -- and had knelt above her in the space she offered between smooth knees and bent to the work he had craved since birth, then she'd welcomed him. Had shut her clean eyes and with two hands as powerful as ice in stone had implored him into the still-sealed door of her final solitude, final secret -- only looking outward again at the instant of violation when she smiled and drew herself further around him and he said, "You must know: it's as strange to me as you."

All was shared space now, shared news, shared messages freely exchanged of gratitude, trust.

Pitiful fool. He had not seen because he had not looked, had never known he should learn to look -- at her true final stronghold, the delicate skull that seemed in their struggle to press forward toward him (another fragile gift) but in which her mind in every cell was howling its terror, loss, loneliness.

Her three hours' sleep had been no rest but a punishment and, worse, a revelation -- vision of the ruin she had willed on her home. In the dream that lasted every minute of those hours, she witnessed this -- her father, this same night, in their sleeping house, flat on his back beside her sleeping mother in their high black bed, his face tilted slightly forward in the total dark, eyes wide open and straining to pierce the floors and walls between his room and Eva's. When the eyes had succeeded and for whole minutes ransacked the empty side of the bed (beyond sleeping Rena), he shut them and slowly rolled his huge body leftward till he lay full-length on her sleeping mother -- who remained asleep as he fastened his open mouth over hers and drew up each shallow breath she exhaled till she lay empty, dead. Then he rose and walked in the dark -- no help; he was competent in darkness -- to the next bedroom and performed the same smothering theft on Kennerly, who could have refused but -- awake, his own wide eyes on his father -- accepted the death. Then up the stairs to Rena, who fought him uselessly until her whole head and body vanished under his, not only drained of breath and life but absorbed into him, food for his need. Then he rolled over off Rena's vacant place and lay on his back in the midst of the bed and stared up again -- in darkness still, through plaster and lathing -- and said "Eva. Now."

Forrest had separated from her and covered them both with sheet and quilt. She was on her back. He was on his left side, lying at her right, facing her profile. Now he must see if speech were still possible, feasible, between them -- words after what they had finally swapped. He looked on, working for suitable words -- it must be a question -- till he felt convicted of mooning and said, "What will we do when we stand up from here?"

Eva faced the ceiling but her voice was kind. "You are making the plans."

He lay flat and thought; then beneath the cover, he touched her flank. "We will buy you three dollars' worth of clothes, send my sister a wire to say we're coming."

"Don't tell me," Eva said.

His eyes asked her meaning.

"Make all the plans and lead me through them, but don't tell me first."

He thought that through and decided to smile. "Made," he said, "made years ago" and took her hand again and drew it out to kiss before rising.

But, his fingers round her wrist, she pulled her arm inward toward her body.

Thinking she drew back from reluctance or pain, Forrest turned her loose and nodded, smiling, and half-turned to rise.

But her hand strained out and took his shoulder and with more strength, even than before, drew him down and over her body -- now cold to his touch -- and quickly in. Then with her hands on the back of his head, she fastened his mouth over hers and endured in silence the gift she required.

May 12, 1903
My dear Sister,

I am sending this letter care of Kate Spencer in the hope she can get it safe to your hands. If so, you will know when you finish this sentence that I am well and happy as I dreamed. I only hope you have not suffered for me or that, if you have, the cloud is past and that when you read the following description you will think whatever you have suffered worth the pain and can live in the trust of someday having what I have now.

I will not write down all the story of the night I last saw you. This letter may yet fall into cruel hands and several more of those who helped us on might suffer for their kindness. Suffice to say that within three hours of kissing you goodbye, Mr. Mayfield and I were husband and wife, joined forever in that waiting bower of trust and joy made for us by our long delayed union. For the same reason I have just expressed, I cannot here answer in any detail the main question you put to me weeks ago; but a short answer is -- Yes, two become one and are better for it.

I can tell you more of that if and when we meet. Surely there is not any real "if" between us -- not with you, I know; but please tell me quickly that Father and Mother and Kennerly have healed and wish us well in the life we needed, and hope to see us as we do them. Tell me that, Rena -- that my hopes are met by loving hopes at home. I have prayed each hour that they be so met. I have not yet thought of another answer or another prayer and will not until you have set me right or joyously confirmed my only dream that is still unfulfilled.

So write by return of post, no fail -- if only the one word Yes or No. The address below is care of Forrest's sister; and when I have seen the word "safe" from your hand, I will tell you the rest of how I live through these first happy days.

You and everyone there are in my thoughts and will always be. Please tell them that, whatever the result.

Your loving sister,
Eva Mayfield

Care Mrs. James Shorter
Bracey, Virginia

May 12, 1903
Dear Thorne,

I am alive, as you will see by this, and only wish that I had some surety the news would come as a pleasure to you. It has been the only blot on my recent days -- the thought that you and your dear mother and two or three more of my colleagues at the Academy might have put me down in your books as a liar, a cheat, a traitor to friendship and solemn duty.

The fact that my hand writes such words here will be sign enough that the words themselves are only bare counters for the doubts I've had, the moments of anguish, all of which come to me in the hard form of pictures-your mother's head shaking side to side at me, No; or your own eyes calm above slow lips opening to say "Forrest, leave us." Am I piercing the veil of distance, seeing truth? Or only, as so often, vainly flailing myself? You can answer me that, dear friend of the past, much hoped-for still.

But in the event there is no answer yet -- that you and yours have waited in friendship through slander and rumor for mine and Eva's facts-here they are, set down with God as my witness. You may tell them to any man who claims to know different; he knows a lie.

I have loved her los the best part of two years now, since she entered ray classes two falls ago. Your question will be Why? And my truthful answer, an answer I have searched and tested for months, is "I do not know." You have seen her, known her far longer than me -- all her life; I have chiefly envied your memories of her in simpler childhood -- so I need not offer descriptions of her loveliness. I have known, as you have, grander beauties who entered rooms with their armaments blazing or drew at me like great magnets in the earth -- and left me less moved than a toddling child. Eva filled -- from the moment I saw her, it seems -- every valley in me and bore in herself the press of every height. No one has done that before for me, ever -- even my mother, despite her early death from the strain to be ali in all for my sister and me after Father's leaving -- and it came to seem as the months raced on and no error was made, no flaw revealed, that no one would ever do it again, that if I should scorn this offered chance, there would never come another; and I should be sentenced (self-sentenced as always) to the gradual parching of solitude, concealment, self-contemplation, which I'd felt already at the rims of my heart. And of which I told you.

So in April I seized at the chance, and won. Did you notice at all? How can you not have? The day we took the two classes to The Springs, after the meal when everyone else had gone off to change in the woods before bathing, she and I found ourselves -- with no prior intent, I gravely believe -- alone together in the ruined springhouse. We were separated by ail the trapped air, by the clogged springs at our feet, by the cold half-dark; but we drew at one another like moons at the full. Thorne, I did not touch her -- a solemn oath. I said "Eva Kendal." She said "Yes sir." I said, "May we live together all our lives, beginning now?" and she said "Yes sir." I could not touch her -- we heard the sound of someone approaching -- I did not even move a step closer toward her. We had sealed our lives at four yards' distance -- and none the less indissolubly for that, is my strongest prayer. Then you stepped in, having worried at our absence and come to see. But what did you see? Till that hour, I had opened my heart to you fully -- no secret held back, no hunger not stated -- yet, though you stood a moment in the bright doorway, staring, you never spoke a word to me of question or caution in those few ensuing weeks. Thorne, tell me that also -- is there some imperfection in our bond (mine and Eva's) that to you it appeared transparent as day, as the water of those springs we loomed above (had we bent, as perhaps we should have, to clean them)?

And in those weeks, of April and May, we barely came closer than we stood that moment with you as apex to the triad we formed. Nor said much more than "Remember?" -- "Yes." Till the week of our leaving when, with no word to Eva, I made what minimum of plans were required for transport and marriage, for ending my work and withdrawing those roots of devotion and thanks I had sunk in the ground of your home, Thorne. Withdrawn never -- transplanted, I hope. And then two days in advance of the absolute end of my duties -- all my examinations given, hers all taken -- I asked her to see me at the end of the day. She came and stood before my desk -- I sat, I remember now -- and said "Are you tired?" She said "Of what?" and her face gathered in on itself in fear. I said "Of work." "Oh," she said, "Yes. I thought you meant our plan." Tilt then I had not known she save it as a plan, that we'd worked in silence to a single end. So in two minutes more I told her the plan and asked did it suit her, and she said "Yes sir." I said, "Could you live if your family disowns you?" She said, "Mr. Mayfield, I am sixteen years old" -- meaning, I think, that she knew her own mind. So I told her again the place and time and signal, and she nodded unsmilingly and turned to go. She had got within two, three steps of the door -- it was open; people passed in the hall every second -- but I said to her, "Eva, why are you doing this?" She waited and met my face straight on and said, "Mr. Mayfield, I don't know that. I only know we promised, and I'm keeping to the promise if you want me to." The room was darkening, a cloudy day; but she also faced the windows and had never, in all my looking, seemed so needed, as urgent as t he silent air I drew. Nor had her lean face, her wideset eyes that can hold on me whole long minutes, never shutting, seemed so perfectly preserved from error, from the chance of speaking either lie or delusion or destructive innocence. So I said, "I do. I want you to keep it." And she nodded and left; and I didn't see her till two nights later when she kept it, firmly.

And now we are here at my sister Hattie's, discovering each hour the degree of accuracy in our wager -- miraculous luck. I am borne up, Thorne; there are arms beneath me where before -- thirty years -- there was vacancy, a shaft into dark single death.

Forgive me then. And beg your mother to believe the truth -- that I never defiled the trust of her house, that my one room there was honored to the end. Believe -- please, both of you -- that all I have done was done from long and desperate need but also from careful study of the sustenance offered to that need: study of the danger of my crushing that food in the act of acceptance, of consuming it utterly. That I have hurt the present feelings and the memories of people who had trusted me fully, I bear as my heaviest burden. That I meant them permanent wounds, even harm, I passionately deny. Who, in the world, is harmed by the troth of two single souls unbound to others? Who would deny them their impulse to join? Who could not see that, far from diminished, the lives of our friends and families, perhaps of the world, stand to be enforced at their very foundations by the simple news that Eva and I are sworn to love?

And speak to me soon. When I know if you've so much as read on to here, if you care to know present and future as well as past, then I'll write again with word of both. Till then, for the past at least, loving thanks. But I will not believe Time suffers herself to be broken in three. She is whole and extends her whole self always -- then, now, then. Thorne, you are found in all my time -- your name, the sight of your generous face, your Iow kind voice.

In strong hope,
Forrest Mayfield

May 15, 1903
Dear Eva,

I got your letter and nobody but me has seen it or knows about it but Kate who'll be quiet, and nobody will. You ask me to say whether we have all healed and wish you well and want to see you. You always saw more than I ever could in Mother and Father, so I'll let you get those answers yourself by direct application. I've done enough, Eva -- almost all I contracted for -- and I'm relishing the peace now.

But I will tell you what happened the rest of the evening you left. You may not need any other answers. I waited in our room and read fifteen chapters of First Corinthians before they sent Kennerly upstairs to get us. He said "Where is Eva?" and I said, "Gone, with Mr. Mayfield, for good"; and he said "Thank Jesus." Then he sat in the rocker while I finished chapter sixteen; and then he said, "What do we do now, Rena?" (and him the one with the job and the life -- he has already gone to it). I said, "I have promised to lie till morning, so you must too" and he agreed.

And we honestly tried. When Mother came up half an hour later, we were both sitting reading; and when she asked for you, he said you had gone up to Kate Spencer's house to borrow something. She took that, long enough to climb back down and tell it to Father; but in thirty more minutes -- and no sign of you; we were back on the porch -- he stood up and went in and got his hat and Mother said, "Where in the world are you aimed?" and he said "To the Spencers." So we sat through that -- Mother talking every second -- and then when we heard Father coming back alone, just his feet on the walk, I thought in my heart, "I'm about to kill him." But I waited and he came up and stopped at my feet -- I was on the steps -- and, far as I could see in the dark, sought my eyes and said, "Rena, I don't intend to harm you." I said "Yes sir." And he said "Is she gone?" I said "Yes sir." Mother said "With Forrest?" and I said "Yes." Everybody was quiet. Nobody moved for quite some time. Then Mother got up and kissed Kennerly and me and went in to bed, not a word to a soul. Then Father went in and, though I never saw him light a lamp, undressed and went to bed, I guess. The other thing he could have done was sit all night in the dark and study (we heard him and Mother saying two or three things, the noise not the words; but their voices were calm and they quickly stopped). Then we went in ourselves and closed the doors -- they had left it to us, first time in our lives -- and slept through till morning.

Breakfast went as usual till toward the end when Sylvie was passing the last plate of biscuits, and Father told her to get Mag and come in. So the two of them came; and when they were standing by the. sideboard, he said, "There is one new rule; everybody please obey -- we are going to give her a rest in our minds. Won't mention her name, speak of her for a while." Everybody nodded and Mother shed a tear. And that same night we went to the commencement. Your name was called.

Since then most everything has gone as planned. Brother left for his job and writes that he hates it but we knew that. Father works hard. Mother has not felt well, but it's already hot here. I am loving the weather, and bed is cooler with just me in it. I will write again if anything happens.

Your sister,
Rena Kendal
May 16, 1903

Dear Forrest,

I accept with thanks your word to Mother and me that you did not abuse our home.

To the rest of what you offer and ask, I can only say that -- as ever -- you are begging for both the cake and its consumption. You have indeed gone toward something -- its present name is Eva. You have also gone from a number of things, whose names are trust and -- more necessary to life -- the world's belief that love is a rational flame, consuming only what offers itself precisely as fuel, not the innocent or unwilling combustibles which I accuse you of igniting: Eva's mother and father, her sister, me.

Yet not I but the Time of which you speak will be your judge, and you err in referring to Time as she. Any child you taught two months of Latin will know Time is neuter. And neuter Time in its future aspect will uncover -- in your face, your heart, and in those of your chosen -- the true origin, intent, the end of your act; and any sane sighted man will be easily able to read off the news: sentence or praise. He need only be present, and that I will not be.

Believe me,
Thorne Bradley
May 17, 1903

Dear Mother and Father,

I am married to Forrest Mayfield, and at present we are living with his sister in Bracey, Virginia. She is a recent widow with two children and is the one who raised Forrest when his own mother died, so we will be staying on here through the summer at least till Forrest can get a post at a school.

Out of all that I might want to tell you or you might ask, let me say five things --

What we did was as much my wish as his. I was never forced or even led but walked with him, side by side to now.

My wish did not come out of any weakness in my gratitude to you but out of my needing what I knew you'd forbid.

I am not now, and have never been, expecting a child.

I am happy.

I am hoping, as strongly as for all but our happiness here, that you can find it in your heart to wish us well; to say you have forgotten the few days of shock, and that you can entertain at least the memory of my face and word of my name.

If you have a kind answer to that last thing, may I hear it soon?

Your daughter,
Eva Kendal Mayfield
Care Mrs. James Shorter
Bracey, Virginia
October 5, 1903

Eva,
Flora writing this for me. Me and her out here taking in the fair and thinking we would send you this postal with the news. We won it throwing balls. No news but to say everything here the same. Don't answer me back. You know my mama.

Goodbye again from
Sylvie
November 23, 1903

Dear Mrs. Mayfield,
I am Undine Phillips, Mrs. Walker Phillips; and I write this on behalf of your brother Kennerly, who has roomed here with me since late in the spring. I write in pain and oddly to a stranger, but I've thought and prayed and believe it my duty to say this much.

Your letters to your brother have arrived here since July, but he has not received them. I have laid them each time on the front-hall table where I lay all the mail, and he has not touched them. In July when your first had waited three days and he had walked past, I remarked the fact to your brother who said it was not for him. I said that it bore his name and address; but he said nonetheless he could not take letters from Bracey, Virginia. As others have come, I have laid them out; and they too have been refused.

So I've taken the liberty of keeping them safe in the table drawer, with the thought he would change. I admire him so highly; he is such a fine gentleman, so helpful to me. But this afternoon when he saw your latest, he came straight to me on the backporch and said would I kindly return it to you with no message. I said I could not consider throwing myself into such a private matter unless he explained; he had never explained. He said you were his sister and offended his parents by early marriage. I knew of his devotion to your parents.

Since I offended my own mother briefly by marrying for love -- and had a grand life till he died last year, not an hour's regret -- I accepted the sad task. Hence these lines.

I enclose all the letters that have reached my house -- three, unopened -- and I take the further liberty of going beyond my commission and adding a message, one which I trust your brother will come to himself in time: that you and Mr. Mayfield know long years of unbroken love and care. You have after all only followed Christ's command -- cleave then and prosper.

Truly yours,
Undine Phillips

Copyright © 1973, 1974, 1975 by Reynolds Price

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