Fiction: Kimberly Elkins

KIMBERLY ELKINS’ fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Best New American Voices, The Iowa Review, The Village Voice, Maisonneuve, Glamour, and in the McGraw-Hill college textbook, “Arguing Through Literature,” among others.  Her novel WHAT IS VISIBLE will be published in Spring 2014 by Twelve, the boutique imprint of Grand Central Publishing which releases only twelve books a year, each of which has a month-long launch in which it is the imprint’s sole focus.  Kimberly was a finalist for the 2004 National Magazine Award in Fiction, and has received fellowships from the Edward Albee and William Randolph Hearst foundations, the SLS fellowship in Nonfiction to St. Petersburg, Russia, the St. Botolph Emerging Artist Award, and a joint research fellowship from the Houghton Library at Harvard, the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe, and the Massachusetts Historical Society for research on her novel.  Residencies include the Millay Colony and Blue Mountain Center, and she was also the 2009 Kerouac Writer in Residence.  Kimberly has taught at Florida State University and Boston University, and is currently a Visiting Lecturer and Advisor for the M.F.A. Program in Creative Writing at the University of Hong Kong.  She has a BA from Duke, an MA in English from Florida State and an MFA in Fiction from Boston University.  ”The Letter” was published in The Chicago Tribune’s literary supplement and was also the finalist for the Nelson Algren Award. Kimberly lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

 

THE LETTER


February, 1851.  Lahaina, Maui, The Sandwich Islands


Sarah woke in a panic, thrashing the netting above her.  She cried out and Edward jumped from the chair beside the bed, throwing his blanket on the floor.

“It’s all right,” he said, trying to untangle her as she struggled.  She shook her head and shrunk away from him.  “It’s for the mosquitoes.  I put it up after you fell asleep.”

She tried to rise from the low rush bed, but his arm stopped her.

“You’re making it worse,” Edward said.  “You’re confused.”

Sarah stopped moving.  “I know where I am,” she whispered.  She was still wearing her good dress, the one she’d married him in yesterday, but it was wrenched up on one side, leaving one calf visible.  She saw the darning tracks in her stockings, and the large hole that had not been darned, through which her skin shone pink.  She had rubbed herself almost raw when she took a much-needed proper bath at Reverend Carpenter’s house between getting off The Morning Star and getting married.  A hundred and twenty-seven days of grime accumulated aboard ship from Boston to the Sandwich Islands.

Sarah covered her legs and let him pull the netting from her limbs.  Their fingers touched for an instant through the tiny holes in the silk.

Edward backed away from the bed.  He had taken off his dark waistcoat from the ceremony, but still had on his white shirt and suspendered trousers.  “I’ll let you get yourself fixed.  There’s the basin.” He pointed to the ceramic bowl in the corner.  “No looking glass to be had.”  He left the room, but there was no door to close.

There were no windows either, not one in the house, unless you counted the outside door, which he opened in the central room to let in the light and the breeze.  Sarah had kept her surprise to herself last night when Reverend Carpenter drove them home in his brougham; she thought Edward’s house would be like the minister’s, except less grand—a regular frame house with low stone walls—but it was little more than a thatched hut.  She slid off the bed and craned her neck to make sure he couldn’t see her; no, but she could hear him humming and the clank of a spoon on metal.  She splashed water on her face and smoothed her dark hair back into its bun.  Her trunk sat against the far wall, unopened.

She bumped her head on the low opening of the room, but not hard enough to really hurt.  Her boots crunched against the thin layer of gravel on the floor.

“You can buy rugs,” he said.  “I haven’t fixed it up yet because I wasn’t expecting…  Here, sit.”  The sun floated in, illuminating the small wooden table, but not the corners of the room. He set a bowl in front of her.  “Breadfruit, like you had at the Carpenters, but raw.  It’s good.”

She took a piece and nodded.  She looked at the stone fireplace, the one pot slung on a hook.

“You can let me know what you need for cooking.  I have a few things here—tea, sugar, salt pork—but make a list and I’ll pick up everything in Lahaina.”

He had given her a tour of the town’s one street the night before:  the dry goods, the stable, the butcher, the smith, with the Methodist mission at one end and the Congregationalists at the other, all surrounded by swaying palms.  The Methodists and Congregationalists had been here for thirty years, he told her, but the Unitarians had only arrived two years ago.  Edward had come to be part of the fledgling Unitarian mission.

After she washed the plates in the basin, Edward took her outside and showed her the yard:  the chicken coop behind the house where she would gather eggs; the bench he’d built to sit and read; the twelve-foot ti plant waving over the house made from its own leaves and the pili grass of the fan palms.

“When the winter season is over next month,” he said, “those yellow and red flowers will turn into berries.  They’re not much for eating, but you can use them for digestives.”

Sarah smiled at him. “You might find that necessary with my cooking.”

“I had forgotten how funny you are,” he said, but he didn’t laugh.  “It’s good to have you here.”  Together they watched steam rise off the grass.  “Well,” he said, “I’m sure you have a lot of unpacking or resting, or whatever you’d like to do.  I’ll be taking Regina.” He gestured to the bay horse tied up at the gatepost.  “Past her prime but you will come to love her.”

“What if I need to go somewhere?” Sarah asked, moving closer to him.

“You’ll have to walk the six miles into town, one more to the Carpenters,” he said.  “Unfortunately, we have only the one horse and no prospects of another.  I can ask the Reverend to check on you perhaps or send his man.”

“Is it safe here? The door doesn’t even have a lock.”

“It is as safe as I can offer.  You can push the table against the door when you’re in, if you’d like, but you’ll shut out the light.”

“But the natives?  They look like yellow Negroes, but wilder.  And half-naked!”

“And more than half Christian, at this point.  In most ways, you are safer than you were in South Boston.”  He patted her shoulder and walked across the wet grass to his horse.  He mounted easily and looked down at his wife.  “Except for the mosquitoes.  The story goes a Mexican sailor fell in love with an island girl, but was refused.  He sailed home to Mexico, brought back a barrel full of mosquitoes and released them on his beloved’s shore.”

“And let her be bitten too?” Sarah asked.

“Revenge, I suppose.  The sting of love.”

“I’ll be fine,” she said, squinting up at him through the glare.  She noticed how blond the line of his hair waved against the tan of his high forehead.  In Boston, he had seemed to her like a pale child, if a child could be balding.

He bowed his head slightly and clicked his heels against the horse’s flanks.  She watched him until he disappeared on the path through the dense foliage.  Then she walked around the yard bounded by trees whose names she had yet to learn, and kicked dirt into the chicken pen.  The birds treated it as an offering and pecked through it for anything worth eating.  She kicked more dirt at them, harder this time, and ran into the house.  She left the door open while she inspected the kitchen—two pots, a pan, a few utensils, three cups.   She stood in front of the table, scooting it toward the door with her foot, but then left it in the middle of the room.

She unpacked all the clothes she owned in less than half an hour, folding them to fit on the low narrow shelves by the bed.  There were no closets, but his clothes took up only one shelf.  Her books and undergarments she left in the trunk.  She touched his pants, the waistband first and then the leg, fingering it slowly.  She unfolded them and held them out in front of her.  Though he was shorter than she was, he still seemed much taller than she remembered. She thought of him strolling by her side on the grounds at Perkins Institute when she’d had a break from teaching, fidgeting, always fidgeting.  Half-bowing every time she came into a room or left it.  She had never had any other serious suitors, and the truth was she didn’t expect any, plain-faced, plainspoken girl that she was, but she had had no great struggle of heart or conscience saying no to him just eight months ago.   He had not seemed like a man really, not like Doctor Howe, the Institute’s director.  Maybe he appeared taller now because she had been looking up at him on a horse, or maybe because there were no other men around with whom to compare him.  He was twenty-eight, so he couldn’t still be growing.

She picked up the blanket from the floor where he’d thrown it.  The wool was scratchy and stiff; he’d given her the softer one.  She lifted the netting and arranged his blanket beside hers on the bed.  She stared at it for a long time and then took it off and moved it back to the chair.

The heat wasn’t terrible yet, more like a moderate New England June than a dog’s-day August so far, but enough for her to take off her long-sleeved broadcloth dress now that she was alone, and slip her day shift over her petticoat.   She unwrapped the daguerreotype of Charlotte, her favorite student of all the blind girls, and set it on the top shelf.  She had written to Charlotte and to her sister, Elizabeth, while she was at sea, but the letters weren’t mailed until she disembarked on the Big Island three days ago.  Those letters had been full of shipboard misery—the food, the illness, the doubts–though she had tried to leaven them with anecdotes about the other passengers, like the redoubtable matriarch who’d tried to marry off both of her enormous daughters in the course of the voyage.  She had succeeded in the engagement of the larger one to a ship’s mate, which Sarah viewed for the girl’s station and sweet character as a worse match than none at all.

She found her letterbox and pen, and settled herself under the mosquito netting.  The table might be more comfortable, but as Edward pointed out, the mosquitoes were something she could at least spare herself; they weren’t a serious malarial risk here, the ship’s captain had told her, but they could carry other diseases.  She would write first to Charlotte, who needed her most.

She hadn’t seen much of the Sandwich Islands yet, but she described for Charlotte what she could:  the almost nauseatingly sweet smell of the orchids and plumeria blooming along the road from Lahaina that Edward had pointed out from the barouche; the briny tang of the ocean and raw fish and whale meat piled on the docks mixed with the sweat of the shirtless yellow-brown men swarming them, crying out in sing-song to help load the bags.  She took great care to detail the warm and gentle play of the breeze inland where the house sat compared to the wild attack of the wind at the shore when they’d arrived, and the great variations in the heat from night to day.  Charlotte would thrill to these words, but Sarah knew that one of the teachers would have to read the letter aloud to her, so she was careful not to allude to the circumstances of her abrupt departure.  She wondered if Charlotte knew that her own parents’ complaints about Sarah’s plying their daughter with too much “religion” had led to her dismissal by Doctor Howe.   She should feel blessed that Edward had accepted her with a dowry of only twenty a year, even though she had turned him down when she had a position. With her parents dead, there was nowhere else for her to go.  She finished the letter and considered trying to make something from the salted meat Edward had shown her.  She should collect the eggs, but she was so tired.

She woke in the dark to Edward’s low snores from the chair beside the bed.

#

The next few nights he also slept in the chair, and so in the second week of her marriage, Sarah told her husband that he looked awfully tired.

“You’re yawning over breakfast,” she said.  “I know I haven’t yet mastered the fine art of cooking poi, but it’s not that bad, is it?”

“No,” Edward said.  “Very well done.”

She looked down, brushing the crumbs from her lap.  “You don’t have to sleep in the chair, Edward.”

He waited to finish chewing.  “I am so grateful for everything.  You knew me and you came here anyway.”  He rose from the table.  “I have to ride across the island today to Kanea.  The mission is looking to purchase a plot to build the church.”

“And will you preach there when it’s done?” she asked.

He patted her cheek.  “You are too good to me.”

That afternoon, she named the old rooster “Doctor Howe” and pelted him with pebbles when he harassed the chickens.

#

Sarah woke in the middle of the night, dreaming of  helping Charlotte read, tracing the raised letters of the Scriptures that Doctor Howe preferred to Braille, but then the book changed beneath her fingers to one of the romances she did not allow herself.   Edward wasn’t in his chair, squirming and snoring, as he’d been the other nights.  He must still be in the other room at prayer.

#

On Sunday, they rode into town for services.  Rather than worship in the churches of their Protestant rivals for the islanders’ souls, the small band of Unitarians–less than twenty, including the families–met in the parlor of the Carpenters’ frame house.  Sarah hadn’t seen anyone but Edward since the wedding a fortnight ago, so she was happy to be among people.  Only the Reverend and his wife had been at their ceremony.  Edward had wanted them wed as soon as she arrived, so they wouldn’t have to inconvenience his employer by having her stay more than one night.

Reverend Carpenter delivered a sermon from Ecclesiastes and the group sang hymns together.  Afterward, the women retired to the large terrace for cold jasmine tea and pineapple, while the men stayed inside to talk church business.  At first Sarah didn’t know who Mrs. Carpenter was speaking to when she said, “Mrs. Bond, please pass the sugar.”

Sarah laughed.  “I’m not used to my new name,” she said to the other ladies, but no one made any mention of her marriage to Edward.  And not a soul had asked her about the Institute, though the Carpenters knew she’d come straight from Perkins. She’d never met anyone who wasn’t brimming with a thousand questions about the work of the famous Dr. Howe. Sarah wondered if the oppressive heat made folks less talkative than in Boston, but no—soon the women were chattering on about everything, especially the indolence of their servants, even the converted ones.  It sounded like everyone had servants but she and Edward.

Mrs. Carpenter asked if Sarah knew the story of the island’s chieftess, Kapiolani.

She shook her head.

“Kapiolani was one of the first converts on Kaui.  The Methodists accomplished it, but nonetheless.  She was already a grown woman, married to her own brother, and still cavorting with half the population.”

Sarah gasped.  She knew that the natives were unschooled, but she’d had no idea that they behaved that unnaturally.

The ladies tittered, and Mrs. Carpenter nodded knowingly, pleased at the effect of that scandalous tidbit on the newcomer.  “Kapioloni was won over gradually—if I knew exactly how, I’d tell my husband and we’d capture them all that way.  Her family and most of her own subjects were stuck fast to their old gods, but she figured a way to show them the power of our almighty Savior.”

Mrs. Carpenter’s baby began to cry and she shifted the child in her lap.

The girl was pretty, but Sarah could already see in the too round cheeks the promise of the mother’s corpulence.  And Reverend Carpenter was so fat that his bulk had exceeded the width of the homemade pulpit by almost a foot on each side.  Sarah had a sudden horrible vision of the sweaty, rolling flesh of her hosts attempting union.  Thank the Lord she and Edward were fit specimens.  Their children would be perfect. To make up for thinking such awful things–and right after church, no less– she held out her arms toward the querulous child.

“I’ll take her,” Sarah offered.  “I’m good with babies.”

Mrs. Carpenter pulled her daughter closer against her bosom.  “That won’t be necessary,” she said, and gave the baby a sugared finger to suck on.

She continued her story.  “Kapiolani walked thirty miles barefoot up the black lava tracks to the mouth of the island’s mightiest volcano, Kilauea.  Hundreds of her subjects thronged around her as she stood on the lip of the smoking rim and called on Jesus to challenge the volcano goddess, Pele.  Kapiolani descended sixty feet into the flaming crater, carrying only her spelling book and her Bible.  The crowd scattered, waiting for the lava to spew, the volcano to swallow her up.  But of course it didn’t.”

“They all converted on the spot,” one of the women chimed in.

Mrs. Carpenter settled back in her chair, the baby quiet now.  “God will always win out, that’s what you have to remember.  Even here.”

“Is she on the island, the chieftess?” Sarah asked.

“She died the year after that,” her hostess said.  “Pity.”

When they got home, Sarah asked Edward which volcano was Kilauea.

“Right there,” he said, pointing to the largest of the mountains they could see from the front yard.

“Is it very dangerous this close to the house?”

“It hasn’t erupted in more than twenty years.  Only smokes a bit.”

She studied the mountain top for a moment before she followed him into the house.

#

Three days later, Edward took her to the beach at Lahaina.  She rode side-saddle behind him, her arms tight around his waist as he galloped, the fern-covered cliffs rising above them.  They spread a blanket on the black sand and ate the lunch she had packed—boiled sweet potatoes, fried taro, slices of baked ham and papaya.  Afterward, they walked along the beach barefoot, dipping their toes in the water, the waves several feet higher than any she’d seen in the Atlantic.

At first, Sarah told him, she’d thought it was completely different from the Massachusetts shoreline, but now she realized it was almost the same.  “The feeling,” she said.

“Identical,” Edward agreed and reached for her hand.  Just a touch, two fingers, then he dropped it.  “Look!” he shouted.  “Jellyfish!” and they ran to examine their find.

On the ride back, Sarah let her head press into his back, happy she’d washed her hair that morning with the aupa oil he’d given her as a wedding gift.  It smelled like lilies sprinkled with cinnamon.

It was late when they arrived home, so they skipped their reading and went straight to prayers, kneeling beside each other in front of the fireplace.  Most nights, they prayed only for about half an hour, but tonight Edward seemed deeply absorbed.  Sarah kept opening her eyes to check, but he didn’t budge, his back ramrod straight, his hands joined in front of his bowed head.  She saw that the back of his neck was sunburned, and she knew when he opened his eyes that they would look even bluer than usual.

She stood up quietly and went into the bedroom.  She changed into her dressing gown and dabbed a bit of the aupa oil on her neck and wrists. Just a little—it was very expensive, he’d told her, and he seemed to be earning much less than she’d thought a Harvard-educated minister, even in this corner of the world, would be due.

He didn’t come into her bed that night either, and the next afternoon, she wrote to her sister, Elizabeth:  Did your husband extend you a prolonged period of kindness and ease when you were first married?  How long?  Of course, by the time she might receive an answer back—it could take months on the packet steamers winding their way around Cape Horn–the problem would doubtless be solved.

#

Sarah was feeding the chickens when Edward rode up at dusk.

“The Artemis arrived today with the mail,” Edward said, swinging off his horse.  “You haven’t been here a month, and already it’s the biggest packet I’ve ever received.”  He held the parcel above his head, out of her reach, and made her jump for it.

“Give it here!” she said, and he let her have it, laughing.  She rushed inside to light the lamp. She unstrung the packet, and pulled out the letters.  Edward stood in the doorway, watching her, smiling.

“One from Charlotte, my sister, my sister, another Charlotte,” she recited.  “And one  from Perkins.”  She brought it closer to the flame.  “It says, ’This arrived after you left.’  It’s from you, Edward.”  She held it out to him, surprised.

Edward hung his hat on the hook behind the door.  He walked to the table and took the letter from her, turning it over and over as if he couldn’t believe it was his, or that it even existed.  He rubbed the envelope between his fingers, traced each line of his handwriting in the address.

“What is it?” Sarah asked, but he walked out into the yard, still holding the letter.  She followed him. “Did you write and tell me not to come?”

He shook his head, his back to her.  The tips of the ti leaves above them glowed pink in the setting sun, and the shadows played on his shoulders.  Finally he turned around.  “Here,” he said, offering her the letter.  “Read it.”

She took it from his hand, trying to read instead whatever was in his eyes that she hadn’t seen before.  She went into the house and settled into her chair.  He pulled his chair to face hers, a few feet away, different from the way they sat reading at night with their chairs beside each other.  She opened the letter.

 

October 1850                                                                                          Lahaina

Dearest Sarah,

I am so sorry to hear about the way that Doctor Howe has treated you.  It is a shock and a pity that he does not recognize your goodness.

My offer of course still stands, but my circumstances have altered since I made it.  There is no way to tell you but straight out, as I have always spoken with you.

A month after you declined me and I set my path on missionary work, I was given a physical examination in Cambridge to ascertain my fitness for the voyage.  What Doctor Barber found made me unfit, it was decided, to pursue the ministry, even with my graduation from The Divinity School.  The French disease, some call it, or the Italian, it doesn’t matter.  Now it is mine, and someday I might lose my sanity because of that one dark, untempered moment of my youth.  I have already lost my real vocation, though the Foreign Missions Board allowed me to come here to assist Reverend Carpenter with legal and administrative matters.  He was apprised of my situation, and he has welcomed me as well as he is able.  I will never preach the word of God, nor minister to the sick or heathen, and I should not.

So you, my darling Sarah, must be the judge of your future and of mine.  I want you to come, I want you to be my wife, even if it is in name only.

I will try at least to prove worthy of being your life’s best companion.
Sarah raised her head and looked at her husband.  His eyes were closed, and he sat rocking a little in his chair.  She stood and put the letter on his lap, but still he didn’t open his eyes.  She walked into the bedroom, lifted the netting and crawled under it, keeping her arms folded tight across her chest, hugging her shoulders.  She didn’t weep for almost an hour, but when she did, the sound of it drove him out into the yard.

Hours later, she heard him come into the room to get his blanket and drag it out to the other room.  When she woke in the morning, he was already gone.

#

For three days, they barely spoke, aside from the necessities.  He came home after dark,  shoved down whatever she’d prepared,  read for an hour or so, and then went down on his knees to pray alone in front of the fireplace until she went into the bedroom.  He slept in the main room, or maybe he didn’t.  Maybe he prayed all night.  She didn’t know.

On the fourth night after dinner, she fixed his tea, a quarter cream, the way he liked it, and watched him sip. “You’re having the mercury treatments?” she asked him.

He looked at her full in the face for the first time since the letter had arrived.  “Once a month when I go in to the island.”  He waited, as if trying to gauge whether he should continue. “But there’s no way to tell…in the future–”

“I understand,” she said, and returned to her knitting.

#

The next night as soon as he came home, Edward grabbed the axe from behind the door, and went out into the yard.  Sarah watched him swing wildly at the small koa tree at the edge of their clearing.  The puffballs of yellow flowers trembled on its delicate branches.

“What are you doing?” she said.  “It just started blooming on Sunday.”

He swung again, barely making contact with the wood.  “Are you staying?” he asked, without turning around.  She watched him throw his weight into the next stroke, and it connected.  He did it again, and she saw the wood was dented at least an inch.  She looked at the peak of the volcano silhouetted in the distance, rosy gold against the gathering night.

“It’s too dark to chop wood,” she told him.  “You’ll lose a finger.”

He swung harder, and small pieces of the red bark splintered against the grass.  “If you’re staying, I’m building a bed,” he said.  “For myself.”

He kept working, shoulders moving, half bent over the tree.  She could see the sweat beginning to soak through his shirt, limning a faint dark line down his backbone.

“Come inside,” Sarah told her husband.  “We’ll pray.”

Edward stopped, and after a moment, he turned and walked toward her.  The sun was behind him and she couldn’t see his eyes.  He still held the axe in one hand, dragging its blade through the grass until he dropped it outside the door.  They entered the house and knelt, a foot apart, in front of the unlit fire.

For the first hour, there was no sound, no movement, except for their breathing.  Then Sarah reached across the divide between them and loosened one hand from the steeple of his prayers.  The sweat of her palm slid against his and the dampness sealed their hands together.

#

March 1875                                  McLean Asylum. Charlestown, Massachusetts

My dear Edward,

The roar is not so loud today, not so wild as on your last visit, and so I seize this precious hour to write, while I am able.  They won’t let me out of my bed this week, or this month perhaps.  I try to rise and someone I don’t know pushes me down.

Beatrice came to see me, or Abigail, with a little girl.  One of them has your blue eyes, yes?  Charlotte came, a stiff spider, all in black.  She had a spot on her bodice, and I was frantic the whole hour.  I always kept my blind girls clean.  But she didn’t know–why make trouble visible?

My rose shawl I wear for visitors to hide the sores you were spared, the tassels hanging in my lap so I may clench them in times of need–this is how my shawl gets soiled–so  please, sir, I beg you, do not come again.  I long for you, I wait for you, I arrange the gray nest atop my head and pinch my cheeks for you, but once you are here, your beard frightens me.  Or worse—the times I am shamed by wanting your comfort in my narrow bed.  Keep your Scriptures to yourself, my darling. The words scramble heavenward as I reach for them, and I pull from the air only rhymes and solitary letters.

Lahaina.  I think of our years there, but the waves crash in and pull me out again.  Not toward you, never toward you.  Away.

Sarah

“The Letter” was originally published in The Chicago Tribune’s literary supplement and was the finalist for the Nelson Algren Award.