Category: The Big Valley
Word Count: 1700
A fire held onto the logs with a strength unmimicked by the light it produced which though rather slight in amount made a considerable dent in the darkness. There was no real purpose to the fire, for the early summer night was warm and the dark moist and the air everywhere thick and wet in his throat.
The house was silent, but not unwelcomingly so; everything about the house, and that room, seemed open and kind. The French doors were open, the chair pushed back from the desk, papers covered much of the surface, reminiscent of days when it was used. Earlier in the day, the doors had yielded glimpses of school children playing as had become custom; years ago he had sought a way of remembrance for his lost one, and to remember the teacher, he had decided to have a day of games for the local kids, which somehow, sometime unbeknownst to all had metemorphicized into the ones they hadn’t had the chance to have. Still in the black of the dark night his failing eyes could make out the ragged lines of the maypole, clothed with cheery, drooping ribbons and chipping paint.
He rose slowly and with uneven gait made his way to the fireplace. Picking up the poker, he tenderly stirred up the embers. Small sparks crackled brightly in the dark, reminiscent of her eyes. He stepped back and seated himself on the edge of a wingchair. Slowly, he pushed his aging back into the chair and sighed.
Those days had seemed like forever when they lived them, he and his Lizzie as he called her in the darkness of the night where she never heard as he watched her sleeping. She didn’t go by that name, and she never knew he called her that, and he hadn’t had the chance to do it often, either, so that he didn’t even think of it often, for it belonged in the warm darkness that had birthed it. When she died, he thought only of how little time they had had. But eventually, he came to see that somehow there was a lifetime in those moments, and their memories would suffice for the rest of his. And such memories they were, filled with picnics and surprises and plans for the future. How she had loved that! Always planning, but never too caught up in it to resist throwing out all plans at the last minute to enjoy herself. Her joy had been contagious, for though he had always been wont to laughter and jokes, he hadn’t felt such pure joy without them. She knew joy, knew how to find it, knew how to make it. It was a perfect gift for a school teacher, and one he found himself kindly envying as he grew old and became weary and sore. It had been difficult at first for him to learn this pure joy; his brothers found it more easily than he, but he found it the truest way to honor her was to be joyful and try to make others’ happy, as she had so easily those long years ago. It was a gift he never stopped appreciating in her, even though she had long since been absent and unable to do it. And so he did it in her place, with the annual children’s festivities and bumpy buggy rides– now bumpier autocar rides– to help a neighbor where he could. He supposed some people held him in high esteem, and he did feel he deserved it to some degree, but most of all, he just tipped his hat, and silently thanked his wife, and told the friend in need that Lizzie would have done it, so he did it for her, as she was presently occupied in the Lord’s presence. And they smiled, indulgent to an old man, and said how wonderful she must have been, and how glad they were for his help.
They hadn’t had any children. Their hopes never had the time to be realized, but they had wanted them dearly. After her death, he had discreetly looked into adopting a little girl, but couldn’t bring himself to look very hard, feeling that it would be something he needed her there for, and she wasn’t, so he didn’t. He did, however, support the orphanage his sister was so fond of, and every year gave the children of the town a day of fun to honor his wife. The townspeople didn’t quite understand his actions– he always said it was her, not him, who gave the gift– but it was said among the old ones that she seemed nice, what a pity at her death, and whatever she was like, if it were enough to make him who he was, she was a kindhearted lady, and it didn’t make a difference who he said did the deeds, because anyone knew it came from both their hearts, which had remained unseparated by death or heavenly bounds.
Some wondered why he had never married. It was true he had looked into it– even seriously considered it once. Yet he felt it would be unfair to marry another when his heart was still hers. He did not wish either to spend the rest of his life comparing them, when one was there with all faults apparent, and another absent with perfection easily manufactured in the mind. One love was enough, for truly it was unending.
Nights now, alone in the big house, he sat by the fire and thought of her. Sometimes life seemed much too long. He had thought it absurd when his mother, growing very old, had told him that the long days and long life were too long. Yet now, having lived it, having known such a similar pain to hers– the yearnings of decades for a lost love– he too wished to cross into eternity, to be reunited. The long nights filled with arthritic pains, bones stiff and muscles weary, made him tired, made him yearn for what was beyond him. He kept going, determined not to let the lonely nights make empty days, praying for an end, and still being wary of it. The nights held no inhibitions, but the days were full of doubts. This night, he sat there, thinking only of her, of her voice calling to him, of joining her forever as was ever meant to be before cruelest fate removed her from him, and him from her.
He exhaled slowly the last bit of smoke on a small cigar. So much had changed, and so much was immutable, or at least things seemed to be so in the smoke. He gently tossed the tiny stub into the fire place and breathed in the smoke a last time. Some thought they were dirty little things, but the scent was pleasing to him, it suited him. He looked up and through the fog saw her face again, closer and more tangible than ever, maybe even when she was still alive. He reached forward and caressed her cheek with withered hand, and looked with tired eyes into her sparkling ones, filled with love undying, love unchanged though he was greatly changed. He said naught, only gazing and touching her face before him, though only he could see her. He felt lightened somehow, and he straightened up completely, as he had been unable to do for several years. His wrinkled face became more hardy– still old but strengthened, healthy, and not so very tired. He breathed once, and softly called her: “Lizzie.” She smiled kindly at the pet name, and he reached once more before his hand fell to his lap, and he breathed once more and then no more.
He was found the next morning by his nephew. The whole valley mourned his death, and there were thousands at his funeral, from the richest of society to the poor of Stockton who he had so willingly helped. They spoke kindly of the old man, and for once put aside the restrictions of class to share stories and discuss the faithfulness to a woman they had never met but all loved in some way or another. They buried him beside her, not far from the site of his brothers’ graves, for he had outlived them both. His sister was there, pale and old, but with all the grace of a queen, and the kindness of a saint. She was the last of the children of Tom and Victoria Barkley, and as she looked upon her brother’s grave, fresh soil coving his final bed, with all the visitors gone she smiled a little as a tear dripped down her face.
“Well,” she said, her voice in a sob, “you’re finally with her. I hope you like your stone. I thought about it a lot. I guess I’m the last, as always, always behind. I’ll come soon, though, I think. You were a good man. They came for miles, just as they did for our brothers before, and Mother and Father. I wonder if they shall come for me. I had no noble purpose or strength of will, only a desire to help. You did everything for her, and sometimes I wonder how you never understood that these people thanked you, loved you more than her, for they could not understand whom there was only memory of. Your memory they will understand, older brother, for yours they will tell to their grandchildren, how kind and good and noble you were, all in the memory of a good woman they revere but do not love. I am alone now, but not for long. I’ll visit you often, my brother, my dear one. Farewell.”
She placed one last bouquet by the grave. The tombstone read:
Loving and beloved husband,
& a father to many he did not father