The Widows’ Wall (a short story)

(This short story was originally published in 2015 in Clapboard House, a literary journal.)

The wall, when you approach it from the east, in the early morning, looks blank. Looks just like a regular stone wall. The morning sun hits it at such an angle that you can’t see the inscriptions at first. And in the summer, ivy and other creeping plants do their best to stake their rightful claim. One of the widows will usually come by, though and tear any encroaching plant life away, so that the writing is not obscured.

Marianne Carlson, twice widowed (and thus with two stones in the wall) owns the property on which the wall sits. Her modest clapboard farmhouse, built in 1913, belonged to her first husband’s family, the Whidbeys. Edward had been the only son of Ernest and Grace Whidbey; a daughter had run off to the South and hadn’t been heard from in decades. Edward Whidbey had been a drinker. One starless night he had staggered onto the pond when it was not quite frozen through, not being able, in his inebriated state, to distinguish between the snow-covered meadow and the snow-covered and not-quite-thick-enough ice that covered the pond. He had sometimes liked to wander about at night, to look at the stars and howl at the moon. Ernest and Grace moved into town shortly after that, not being able to bear living on the property where their only son had died. They had felt obligated to give Marianne the house and land as recompense for her trouble, and also so that she could raise their grandson away from their own deep sorrow.

For a long while, Marianne stewed in her bitterness over Edward’s failing her. When she married him she had been a naïve girl, had not known much about drinking or what it did to people. Sometimes when he drank, he sang to her and was lovely in ways he normally wasn’t, but that scared her as much as the other times. She wondered who the real Edward Whidbey was – the good-natured crooner of folk songs who reached under her skirts and nuzzled her with the rough stubble of his beard, or the howling wreck with bloodshot eyes who yelled at her for overcooking the vegetables and leaving the radio on and using too much electricity.

Everyone said it had been a tragedy. They didn’t know about Edward’s drinking, about his bouts of meanness, and Marianne certainly couldn’t say anything. Her anger sat in her like something sour and hard. One fine May day, that first spring after Edward’s death, she was out clearing an area for a garden. She used a wheelbarrow to haul rocks out of the soil. There was a lot of rock on this land. It sat on a glacial moraine, and sometimes it seemed that some pre-historic swath of ice must have deposited every rock in its path right on their land. There were smooth spotted pebbles, irregularly shaped chunks of granite, heavy stones of every shape and dimension, small and large boulders, and the occasional geode. Her son Eric had an uncanny knack for finding geodes. When he was young he used to put the geodes in a sock and whack them with a hammer, but now that he was older, he carefully scored them with a chisel until a crack appeared, then he tapped lightly with his hammer until the pale quartz crystals inside revealed themselves, released from their drab brown hiding places.

Marianne had filled up the wheelbarrow about twenty times. Each time she wheeled her pile of rocks down the old cow path. A couple of hundred yards down the path there was a dip in the land, a hollow, and on the other side of the hollow rose a hill. Her plan was to dump the rocks in this hollow, so they couldn’t be seen from the house.

As she worked, it got hotter, and her anger flared. If Edward were alive he would be the one to be doing this. One night, after howling at the moon, he had come back to the house, where she lay in bed with a pillow over her head, and he had forced himself on her. It had been an act of violence, not love – she knew the difference, but did not know what to do with this knowledge. Three months later he was dead, and now no one would know.

As she dumped her last load of stones out into the hollow, one caught her eye. It was a nearly perfect solid cube with rounded corners, a light speckled gray, perfect for building a wall. Marianne had been thinking of a wall while she was working; how could she not. She hauled the gray stone up the hill to a level spot near the top, and set it there. Then she went back to the farmhouse to get Eric’s chiseling tools, came back to the stone, and sat on the ground for two hours carving into the stone Edward Whidbey was a drunk. She had just finished as Eric’s school bus pulled up on the state highway a quarter mile away. She could see the bright yellow bus from where she sat, could see her son’s tiny figure as he worked his way toward the house, spinning down the road in pleasure at his freedom, stopping to examine things that caught his eye. She placed the stone on the ground and went to meet her son, her heart lighter than it had been since Edward’s death.
. . . . .
A few months later, a woman in town, who Marianne knew from church, suddenly became a widow also. Apparently an infection had started in the husband’s foot, and he had had to have his leg amputated. During the amputation his heart stopped, and he could not be saved. He had been a floor manager in the can plant, and he left his wife with four young children and a very small amount of money from an insurance policy. Luckily she was an excellent seamstress and got a job doing alterations at the department store downtown almost immediately. One Sunday after church, Marianne asked her (her name was Sylvia) if she would like to come with her children for supper that afternoon.

The two widows sat at the kitchen table while the children ran around outside playing pioneers and Indians. The radio was on low in the background – Marianne kept it on all the time now.
“It was nice of you to have us for supper,” Sylvia said. “Everyone was so attentive the first few weeks after Emil died, but I think I make them uncomfortable now. It’s almost like…”

Sylvia paused here; she didn’t really know Marianne well. Marianne took a sip of her tea and offered Sylvia the plate of gingerbread.

“Oh, I couldn’t eat another thing.”

“Almost like…” Marianne said, fiddling with her spoon. “You were saying?”

“Almost like… like – we had bad luck and it might be contagious.”

“But, it was an accident. Wasn’t it?” asked Marianne. “An accident is just that – nothing more.”

“It’s just… it’s just that if he would have listened to me, he might still be alive.” Here, Sylvia’s face contorted and she dabbed at her eyes with her linen napkin. Even though she had four children, she was not yet twenty-five years old. She had married Emil at seventeen. Then it came out in a rush of words and tears. “It started with an ingrown toenail on his big toe. One day he was limping when he came home from work and I made him show me. His toe was all red and swollen and I asked him how he could even walk on it. And he said it was because he damn well had to walk on it. Sorry. He said he was lucky not to have to work two jobs what with all the money the kids and I spent. I filled a bucket with hot water and Epsom salts and he soaked his foot for three nights in a row when he got home from work. It didn’t get any better – it got redder and so inflamed. The first couple of days I told him he needed to go see Dr. Gordon, but he said that was just the thing I would say, running off to a doctor when anyone has the sniffles, not thinking about what it costs.”

“Mmmhmm,” murmured Marianne. “Yes.” She looked at Sylvia directly and said, “You must be very angry.”

“Oh, angry! I don’t know. But in the end, he did need to go to the doctor after all. He got these red streaks running up his calf, and finally he couldn’t put weight on his foot. That Friday he couldn’t get out of bed to go to work, so I called Dr. Gordon. He came right over, and there was a terrible row. Emil did not see why he had to go to the hospital right away. He said, ‘I’d die when I got the bill for that, anyway.’ So Dr. Gordon left, and it was horrible, just awful. I had to send the children to my sister’s and we argued about it all night until finally he passed out from shock and the infection itself. Dr. Gordon sent an ambulance, but Emil never came to after that.”

“Amazing,” said Marianne. “Isn’t that just terrible.”

“I didn’t think I would ever be able to tell anyone,” said Sylvia. “If he had only listened.”

“Yes,” said Marianne. “If only they would listen.” The kitchen curtains billowed slightly in the breeze, and Marianne thought of the hill at the edge of the meadow, where her stone sat. She stirred her cold tea absentmindedly and thought of the pile of stones in the gully. She smiled at Sylvia then, and touched her arm. “Come with me,” she said. “I want to show you something.”
. . . . . .
That Sunday with Sylvia. Sylvia took Eric’s chiseling tools and sat with her stone at the top of the hill, and scratched into it Emil Kurkowski would not listen. Marianne fed the children sandwiches and milk later, while their mother sat working with her stone on the hill. She came down to the farmhouse as the sun was setting and ate two roast pork sandwiches with much gusto.

That fall after Emil’s death, Sylvia showed up at Marianne’s with Litza, a young immigrant woman whose husband had been crushed by a chifferobe that he had ordered for her from the Sears Roebuck catalogue. She had begged him repeatedly to get help moving it, but he had insisted on doing it himself. The tailgate of their rusty old pickup truck had buckled under the weight of the huge piece, and it had tipped over and landed on him, pinning him underneath. The doctors believed that one of his ribs must have punctured a lung. Her stone read Sven Larsen died a stubborn man.
. . . . .
Eric grew up and went away to college, and then moved to Minneapolis. He was only three hours away, so Marianne saw him every few months or so. He was a good son. She kept his bedroom the way it had always been, with his shelves of geodes and his chiseling tools. After Eric left, Marianne found that she was lonely. She took a part-time job at the public library in town, but the farmhouse was so quiet in the evenings, even with the radio on. One day a man came into the library and asked her if there were any local books on the geology of the area. He was a geologist from Madison and was studying glacial moraines. He was widowed also. His wife had died three years ago from cancer. One day she had felt a lump on her neck in the shower. Six weeks later she was gone. He had one daughter in college and one married. Rex Carlson was his name. He enjoyed some wine with dinner, but he was not a drinker.

Rex moved into the farmhouse and continued his studies from there. He was very good company. He liked to play gin rummy and listen to the radio. He had a rock collecting business on the side and had traveled all over the United States, Mexico, and Canada collecting specimens which he kept for his own collection or sold to museums.

By this time the rock wall was fairly substantial; about forty or fifty good-sized stones. It was not necessarily something that was known to most people in the area. Rather, one widow would tell the next, and bring her out to Marianne’s, and together the women would find a stone the new widow liked, and she would set to work with Eric’s chisel. Naturally, Rex, explorer that he was, found the wall on one of his early walks around the property. When he asked Marianne about it, she told him it was the widow’s wall, and explained to him how it had started. The whole idea seemed to mystify him; he thought it was even kind of creepy. But, being a genial sort of personality, and a person who took most things at face value, he accepted the wall for what it was. When new widows came to the farmhouse he made himself scarce without being asked. Marianne thought this was very thoughtful of him and she was glad they had found each other. She was happy and one day they drove to Minneapolis and were married.

Not quite a year into the marriage, Rex announced he was going with a fellow rock hound down to Chihuahua, Mexico. There were some caves near there where he had heard they might find some rare minerals. They would rent a car, load the trunk with dynamite and do some blasting. Marianne became very uneasy when she heard this. She had what could only be called a premonition. “Don’t go,” she said. “It sounds too dangerous. I couldn’t bear to lose you.”

“I’ve done this a hundred times,” Rex said. “John and I are pros. We would never put ourselves in danger. I swear to you.” He kissed Marianne and told her he loved her.

Marianne tried to keep busy, but she had a case of nerves like she’d never had before. Rex called her when he got to Chihuahua, but then she didn’t hear anything for three days. As she listened to the radio, she half-expected a news bulletin to come on about two geologists found dead in Mexico, blown to smithereens by an explosion in a cave.

Finally, she got a call from Rex. He was at the airport in Minneapolis and was about to drive home. He was utterly exhausted, he said. It was midnight and he had not slept well for days. Marianne told him he should just stay overnight at the airport hotel. It was unsafe to drive the dark country roads that late at night when you were that tired. They had a small argument over it, each of them peeved and righteous. Rex thought she was trying to tell him what to do, when he knew how he felt, and didn’t she want to see him? Yes, but.

Marianne made a nest on the couch and tried to doze. She slept fitfully and then must have fallen asleep for real, because she woke to morning sun and birdsong. No Rex, though. The phone call came from one of Rex’s daughters a short time later. He had apparently fallen asleep at the wheel. That was all anyone could figure might have happened. His was the only car on the road. A motorist had seen taillights sticking up out of a ditch, and seen the smashed front end of the car, and flagged down another car that went to get help. That was the Midwest for you. People always stopped to help.
. . . . .
This all happened many years ago. Marianne can no longer make it up the hill to the stone wall. The last time she had gone up the hill was to place Rex’s stone there. She had not written anything on it. For days she had sat with it, but in the end there was nothing she could think of to say. She occasionally sees women at the wall, placing their own stones, or sometimes just sitting quietly. Most of the women now don’t bother to chisel their message into a stone. Now they seem to write their stories on paper and fold these sad papers into the crevices of the stones that are already there.

Sometimes these papers come loose from the wall and pieces of them fly about the countryside there. You might find these bits of paper and wonder what the words on them mean. Words like his bitterness choked, heart exploded, wouldn’t listen, stubborn, wouldn’t listen.

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