She folds up the collar on James' s coat; she is walking hard now, swinging her arms. It feels good to move her body, to break into a sweat and flush with bright heat, her heart a steady song inside her. She spent most of her childhood working outdoors with her sisters, Pulling thistles in the fields, shoveling stalls in the cow barn, carrying heavy pails of milk. Even now, her shoulders are rounded from the weight of those pails; her legs and upper arms brim with muscle. As she turns toward the lake, gusts of wind pinch her cheeks and she squints to see the moon rippling between the clouds, following beside her like a curious eye. The lake is rough, so she chooses the higher path that winds its way past the courthouse, past the band shell, past the water treatment plant, until it reaches the upper bluff park.
Many years ago, a woman was found dead somewhere along this trail. She'd been killed by her husband, strangled with her own braided hair. People have seen her ghost here, but Ellen is not afraid. If she appears, Ellen will show her the outcropping of rock that looks like a cow, and the shadowy sumac with its soft, deer fur, and the moon's odd dance through the clouds. She will remind her how there are so many things on the earth that are beautiful and good. Even a ghost must remember some happiness. Even in the midst of that terrible marriage, there must have been moments when she slipped away and swam naked in a nearby creek or walked along the lakefront picking up stones. The ghost will remember those quiet times; she'll lead Ellen up the path, saying, This is where the wild strawberries grow thickest; this is where I came to braid my hair.
But the ghost does not appear; soon Ellen has reached the upper bluff park. The trail ends beneath a clump of pines that overlooks Holly's Field. Ellen feels the way she thinks God must feel, powerful and strong. The town below seems like a toy town: there is the fire department with its large, circular drive; there is the police station, the church, the tavern, the grocery store, and the mill. Tiny cars line the streets, tucked nose to tail, and the green paper trees are capped in white. The rows of houses twinkle with lights; each of them looks the same. If she reaches down and swings open the hinged walls, there will be the mothers and fathers, the brothers and sisters, the cats and dogs, all with red?paint smiles. Ellen can almost believe this, standing beneath the pines.
When she gets home, it is after nine. The house is dark; she lets herself in with James's key from his coat pocket. The stale smell of the house swallows her in. She turns on the lights, hangs up her coat takes off her shoes, all by rote, A toy house, she thinks, with toy children and toy mothers and fathers. She feels deliciously calm, self?centered. Her glasses fog and she takes them off, wipes them with a comer of her shirt. Without them, the room is softly blurred. She puts them back on and shapes snap into focus: couch, chair, coffee table, television, the Last Supper framed in mock gold. Jesus is stretching a hand out to Judas, who has already turned away. Ellen has often wondered what it was that Judas intended to buy with the thirty pieces of silver. Thirty pieces of silver must have been a lot of money. You could go away on thirty pieces of silver, far away, and never come back.
But there is nowhere Ellen wants to go. James and the children are here; her mother and sisters are close by, and even though she doesn't get to visit them often, she likes knowing that they are near.
As soon as she and James have their own apartment, things will get better between them. And they'll have visitors: Ellen's sisters, old friends she lost track of when she moved to Illinois, new friends she and James will make together, friends of the children. She looks around the living room, realizing it won't be difficult to move: nothing here belongs to either of them. Before they left Illinois they'd had a huge rummage sale. After they'd sold what they could not fit in the car or send by mail, they found themselves with seven hundred dollars.
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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