Hattie awoke the first time, it was still early, around midnight. The house was
quiet. Although she had been asleep less than an hour, she felt jittery and
restless. She walked into the bathroom and drank a glass of water and started
back to the bed. Abruptly, she turned and went down the stairs. Instead of
switching on the hall light, she steadied and guided herself down each step by
pressing her fingertips against the wall as she had done a thousand times
before. Fear was the only thing different in Hattie's life.
The fear, the casket and the knowledge that Ben had been about to tell her something important. At first she was so afraid that she couldn't focus her eyes, but she approached the casket and forced herself to look at him. Ben lay there with his hands folded on his stomach; his left hand on top. He had never worn a wedding ring, and now Hattie wished he had. She thought back over the events of the past two days from her anxious anticipation of Ben's homecoming to their lovemaking, his death, and the crush of people around her. Hattie needed to think. Something nagged at her, preventing her from crying. She felt it like a pressure in her abdomen, a crushing pain holding her back.
A bank of candles in large glass cylinders at either side of the casket threw shadows about the silent room. A car dragged up the highway in the distance. Hattie thought about how she had listened those nights she expected Ben home late, thinking she could tell his car's sound from all the others as he left the interstate and wound through the valley road and started up the drive back to her. For a very long time, she stood there waiting; she wasn't sure for what. Ben would never come home again. And she seemed unable to cry about it. Her body felt icy and separate from her mind. "What was it, Ben?" she whispered. "What did you want to tell me? Why did you leave me? I don't think I can forgive you for this." Lying in the casket with the play of candlelight on his face, Ben's expression seemed to change from the benign confusion his features held earlier in the evening to a look of sinister amusement.
Hattie looked up past the casket to the glistening banner on the floral arrangement Alice had insisted on, DADDY, I LOVE YOU. Hattie's eyes blurred with the pain of her grief for her daughter. When she looked back at Ben, his features had rearranged themselves again into indifference.
Suddenly Hattie touched the ring on her own finger. She reached out to Ben. His skin felt cold, rubbery and stiff, completely different from before. She started at the sound of the refrigerator kicking on in the next room. She shivered and drew back, but then touched him again, this time resolutely. She still didn't know what she intended to do, but her fingers took over. Fearing that someone might come into the room and stop her, she moved quickly as she spun the ring from her finger. Working hard to separate Ben's hands, she thrust her ring between them and out of sight. Absently, she tugged his sleeve into place over his wrist and touched his hand again, feeling the small bristle of hair on his fingers and the turgid skin which was nothing at all like Ben Darling.
Hattie moved back from the casket and stood a long time staring intently at Ben's face as she had throughout the viewing, almost as if she expected him to respond to her actions. Still no tears coursed down her face as she expected and hoped they would. Everything about the house she had spent her whole life in had changed and shifted as it accommodated death. She thought of those other deaths - her parents, Gordie dead in Vietnam, the five Beste generations who had lived and died in the house - summoned to witness how she would grieve. She could not fix her mind on any particular emotion. But she did feel something - a chill coursed through her body so intense that her teeth chattered. Again she moved closer to the casket and bent over as if to listen to Ben whispering. She pressed her cheek against his chest.
Copyright Karen Blomain, 2001. All rights reserved. Reproduced by the permission of the publisher, Toby Press.
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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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