Ellen's father died when she was five, and for several years his Place at the table was left respectfully empty. But the table was small and soon Heidi's elbow jutted where his cup once stood; Gert switched her chair with his to accommodate her new, wide hips. One night, Ellen realized she couldn't tell where Daddy used to sit. Everyone except Miriam, who had married, was spread evenly around the table; Mom, Gert, Ketty, Heidi, Julia, and herself. Without the space there, she could not remember what her father looked like, and she cried while Mom tried to console her; her sisters, all much older, said she was too young to remember him anyway. Ellen thinks now that she should be used to absence, that James's long trips shouldn't bother her because at least she know together in the guest room; me and Henry got the top of the bed, and George and Petey got the bottom. Henry's ma had cancer, and everywhere I turned, there was somebody giving me orders. . . . "
She spoke as if she were telling a funny story, something she had overheard or was making up on the spot. This really happened to you, Ellen wanted to say. How did you feel? How did you cope? But she did not ask; it would be wrong to encourage Miriam to complain, un?Christian, perhaps unwomanly. Even Ketty, whose husband drinks, never complains about her marriage. "Remember that you love him," was the advice she had given Ellen when she married James. "Sometimes you'll forget, but you do."
Thirteen years ago, Ellen thought marriage meant love. Now she believes that marriage means need, and when the need isn't there, what comes next? On her wedding day, she had looked across the street from the church to the cemetery and imagined all the women who had come before her, who had married and born children and died. Some day, she thought, that same peace will be mine. But perhaps what she saw was not peace, but silence. Perhaps those women entered the ground because they were tired and had nowhere else to go. Peace and exhaustion would look the same from where she had stood at age twenty, at the top of the church steps, high above the cold ground.
At the crosswalk, she stops and waits for a slow line of cars to pass. The downtown is larger than it was years ago when she and James drove around on restless spring nights, turning right, then right, then right again, making bigger and bigger squares, Chinese boxes swallowing the space where they'd just been. Snow begins to fall, smoothing away the cracks and wrinkles of the sidewalks and streets, re?creating a world without sharp edges, without color, without sound. Ellen crosses to the other side and finds a perfect trail of footprints from a woman's neat boot. She places her own feet carefully, following in the footsteps of this stranger so that she herself leaves no tracks, no trace, no sign that she has ever been here.
"Anything might happen to her," Mary?Margaret says, and though Amy feels her stomach tighten, she keeps her expression the same.
When nobody looks away from the TV, Mary?Margaret says, "You know, she walks down by the lake. That's where they found that girl. I told you about that, Jimmy, and I told her about it too. That girl, she'd been strangled with her own hair, and it was weeks before they found her. For all you know, there might be more girls going to be killed, and then Ellen, she don't listen, she goes walking down there at night without a brain in her head when there's men out there who would wrap a sweet girl's braid around her throat." She strokes her own throat, her fingers pushing deep beneath the pink collar.
Copyright 1998 by A. Manette Ansay. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Avon Books.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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