Honora sets the cardboard suitcase on the slab of granite. The door is mackereled, paint-chipped--green or black, it is hard to tell. Above the knocker, there are panes of glass, some broken and others opaque with age. Overhead is a portico of weathered shingles and beyond that a milk-and-water sky. Honora pinches the lapels of her suit together and holds her hat against the wind. She peers at the letter B carved into the knocker and thinks, This is the place where it all begins.
The year is 1929. A June day. A wedding day. Honora is just twenty, and Sexton is twenty-four.
The clapboards of the house are worn from white to flesh. The screens at the windows are ripped and flapping. On the second story, dormers stand like sentries keeping watch over the sea, and from the house a thicket sharp with thorns advances across the lawn. The doorsill is splintered, and she thinks it might give way with her weight. She wants to try the pitted knob, though Sexton has told her not to, to wait for him. She steps down into the dooryard, her pumps denting the springy soil, unleashing a scent that collapses years.
Sexton comes around the corner then, his palms upturned and filled with dirt. He is a man with a surprise, a stranger she hardly knows. A good man, she thinks. She hopes. His coat billows in the breeze, revealing suspenders snug against his shirt. His trousers, mended at a side seam, are loose and ride too low over his shoes. His hair, well oiled for the wedding, lifts in the wind.
Honora steps back up onto the granite slab and waits for her husband. She puts her hands together at her waist, the purse she borrowed from her mother snug against her hip. Sexton has an offering: sandy soil, a key.
"The soil is for the solid ground of marriage," he says. "The key is for unlocking secrets." He pauses. "The earrings are for you." Honora bends her face toward the pillow of dirt. Two marcasite-and- pearl earrings lie nearly buried in Sexton's hands. She brushes them off with her finger.
"They belonged to my mother," Sexton says. "The soil and the key are an old tradition your uncle Harold told me."
"Thank you," she says. "They're very beautiful." She takes the key and thinks, Crossing the sill. Beginning our life together.
The man came into the bank with a roll of tens and fives, wanting larger bills so that he could buy a car. He had on a long brown coat and took his hat off before he made the transaction. The white collar of his shirt was tight against his neck, and he talked to Honora as she counted out the money. A Buick two-door, he explained. Only three years old. It was the color of a robin's egg, he said, with a red stripe just below the door handle. A real beauty, with wood-spoke wheels and navy mohair upholstery. He was getting it for a song, from a widow who'd never learned to drive her husband's car. He seemed excited in the way that men do when thinking about cars that don't belong to them yet, that haven't broken down yet. Honora clipped the bills together and slipped them under the grille. His eyes were gray, set deep beneath heavy brows. He had a trim mustache, a shade darker than his hair. He brushed his hair, flattened some from the hat, from his forehead. She had to wiggle the money under the grille to remind him of it. He took it, folded it once, and slipped it into the pocket of his trousers.
"What's your name?" he asked. "Honora," she said. "How do you spell it?"
She spelled it for him. "The H is silent," she added. "O-nor-a," he said, trying it out. "Have you worked here long?" They were separated by the grille. It seemed an odd way to meet, though better than at McNiven's, where she sometimes went with Ruth Shaw. There a man would slide into the booth and press his leg against your thigh before he'd even said his name.
Copyright © 2002 by Anita Shreve
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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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