Parting the Veil
by Phyllis Barber
Bread for Gunner
[p.75]No one seemed to know the man. His name was Gunnar Swenson, but that’s all most people knew. He lived on the corner in a small gabled house with chimneys on both ends. Who knows how long he’d been there before my husband, Heber, me, and our four children moved next door.
We’d returned to the city, discouraged by the red clay country to the south. We tried to help build the kingdom for Brigham Young and the Lord, but Indians and scorching sun didn’t want us anywhere near the Colorado—the big, unpredictable, muddy, red river. Gunnar didn’t want us around either, it seemed. Whenever I was out in my yard, he’d never turn his head in my direction.
“Hello,” I shouted several times, leaning against his fence and shading my eyes with a neighborly hand. “Hello, there,” but he never paid a mind to me. Nor to the carriages and horses passing our houses. One morning while I washed the breakfast dishes, I put my nose close to the window glass to watch him more particularly. He dug the soil, turned it over and over again, raked it, refined it, all for no apparent reason. After preparing the soil finer than powder, he ever grew anything—no sweet peas, green peas, parsley, or thyme.
This reminded me of Call’s Landing, the place we’d tried to make a [p.76]harbor for river boats from the Pacific, the place where nothing had grown—not our crops, not our sketchy apricot trees. Heber tried to hide his disappointment in our communal and personal failure, but I think he was annoyed I wasn’t the stalwart woman he thought I was in the beginning. “Heber,” I pleaded, “I’m choking to death in this place. Take me back to irrigation ditches and some real mountains. I hate this bleached soil, creeks that run dry when the rain stops, and this arbitrary river that smashes boats to shingles.”
I begged until Heber had no other choice.
“We failed the Lord,” he reminded me the day we stuffed every crevice of our already overloaded wagon. “If I didn’t love you and the children, I’d stay and finish the work.”
“I’ll make it up to you,” I promised.
For just one brief moment, in the middle of his trying to understand me, he looked as if he wished he could wash me from his skin. He stared at me with coal eyes. “God would give you strength if you’d let him,” he said, and then swept the floor harshly. For a brief second, I felt it was me he was sweeping out of the house. He needed a hardier woman, a partner to strive with him and help him find approval in God’s eyes. But why think of that now?
Pulling away from the window and back to my chores, I scratched the hardened yolk from a plate with my fingernail. Then I looked at Gunnar, bent on one knee, the soil falling from his fingers. I leaned closer to the glass. He was exceptionally tall, stoop-shouldered, massive, and blond. Maybe he’d been a farmer in the old country who’d lost his property in a drought and converted to Mormonism to answer for his losses. Maybe he was a descendant of a North Sea Viking with no faith in the land. To see him sift the fine soil through his large fingers reminded me of the fairy tale giant who held small people in his hands, not understanding their smallness as they slipped through his fingers. I couldn’t stop wondering about Gunnar’s hollow husbandry. On the following Sunday, as the weekly parade of Saints walked past our house on their way to Sunday school, my family and I joined the procession on the well-trampled path. As we passed Gunnar’s front gate, I caught sight of him clipping individual leaves from a hedge with small scissors. “Wait a minute, Hebe,” I said. “I’m inviting Brother Swenson to go with us.”
Heber smiled as I lifted the latch, approving my impulse to tend to [p.77]lost sheep. But as I pulled the gate open, I saw what moved like a shadow sliding out of view on the west side of the house. Sure it was Gunnar, I hesitated, dropped my hand, and peered into the shade at the edge of the house that now seemed absolutely still. Even the leaves on the vine had stopped rustling, as if collaborating in Gunnar’s invisibility.
“Strange,” I said as I turned back to Hebe, who was boosting Jonathan, one of our two-year-old twins, on his back for a ride. He took a few galloping steps, sang “Ride a Cock-Horse to Banbury Cross,” laughed, then waited for me to catch up.
“I’ve heard Bishop Miller’s been trying to get him out of that house and yard for a long time,” Hebe said. “Nobody’s had any luck, but if anybody could do it, you could. You’re an angel. Most of the time, that is.” Heber put his arm around my waist and nuzzled my cheek. I looked at my beloved, so close to me, struck by his beauty and by the intensity of his eyes and how his presence unhinged me.
“How long’s Brother Swenson been in the valley?” I asked, brushing the unruly hair from Jonathan’s eyes.
“Scandinavians been coming here in droves for fifteen years now. The bishop said something about a sweetheart died or maybe left Gunnar for someone else. Doesn’t know for sure. Come on, we’ll be late.”
One August afternoon as I was fixing lunch with newly baked bread and preserved apricots, I watched Gunnar set his shovel, hoe, and rake against his house. Lifting a bucket from his porch and stuffing two paint brushes into his back pocket, he walked along his white picket fence to the public corner of the yard. There he squatted on his haunches and began to paint. Painstakingly, he pressed the brush against the wood until it fanned over the face of the picket and spread the most amazing shade of red I’ve ever seen—a wild sort of parrot red, a splotch of half-formed flying bird rising up out of Gunnar’s yard. Picket after picket turned red until both sides of the front fence had no white to show.
Then, late that afternoon while I sat on my ftont porch with the twins and my mending, Gunnar walked out of his house holding a [p.78]stack of calico strips in his hand. Keeping my face turned to my stitching and the boys, I watched him tie every other picket with a strip of calico, loop the material around the wood, and fasten it in a bow, as if his fence were some kind of valentine. In two days the entire fence bordering two streets, the alley, and our house was bright red and wrapped in calico.
“Heber,” I said at dinner, my peas halfway to my mouth, “have you ever seen such oddness? Calico ribbons on a red fence?”
“I don’t know how he stays alive or buys paint and ribbons.” Heber dabbed his mouth with his napkin. “I guess the bishop drops a food basket off late at night once a week, and there are those who take pity on him in unpublished ways. Speaking of unpublished, I should tell you the stake president wants to talk to me tonight. I’ll be gone a while.”
“What does he want, Hebe?” My attempt at sounding calm failed. Heber’s cheeks grew red, like Gunnar’s fence. I saw my oldest daughter Elsie look up from her food, her ears alert.
“I’m not sure.”
But we both knew. Lately, the stalwart men in the church were being asked to restore the work of Abraham—to build up the kingdom with more wives to father progeny as innumerable as stars, uncountable as sand by the sea. “You know he’s been calling more of the brethren to live The Principle,” I said under my breath because of my little pitcher with big ears sitting at the table next to me. “Elsie, finish your peas,” I said too sharply.
“I don’t want another wife in this family,” I whispered, trying to keep my sudden anger intact, squeezing Heber’s fingers until I could feel my fingernails sink into his flesh. Elsie kept her eyes down, but I knew she heard every word. “Do you hear me?” Heber shrugged and excused himself from the table.
“Only the best men get called for that. No need to worry about me.”
I cleared the table, tucked Jonathan and Jethro into bed, read a story to Elsie and Liza, brushed my hair silky, and stretched out on top of the crocheted coverlet, a wedding gift from my mother. Another wife? Oh God, please, don’t ask that from me. Things are hard enough. I tossed from side to side until my hair was tangled again.
I don’t know how long it was before Heber tapped my shoulder and said, “Better wake up and get dressed for bed. You’re freezing.” His [p.79]face was beaming down on mine as if lit by a piece of the sun. He was a handsome man, my Heber. He had a straight, strong nose, a broad back, a penchant for nobility. “The Principle,” he said as I sat up, rubbing my eyes. “We’ve been chosen, Anna. Brigham Young has given his blessing.” Heber was happier than since we’d been called to Call’s Landing, glorying to know God still loved him.
“To me,” he said as he patted my hip and settled into the mattress, “serving God is more important than my life! We’re blessed, Anna. Doubly blessed.”
The Principle, I said to myself all night as I tried to find a place in the bed where sleep would bless my churning mind. After a time the words became a rhythm in my head-Prin-ci-ple, Prin-ci-ple, like the wheels on the train I could hear on clear nights. I finally dropped into a restless sleep where I saw a crowd of women keeping me from Heber. They pushed me away and held his hands in vise grips. He’s ours now, they said. He’s mine, I shouted back, he’s mine! I shouted all night in my dreams.
I washed the breakfast dishes, my dishcloth circling to the same rhythm I’d heard all night. The sound was so loud I couldn’t pay attention to my unkempt children—Jethro, whose nose was running, Jonathan, whose face was specked with breakfast cereal. I wanted to give myself over to God and Brigham Young and Heber, but I couldn’t, not in my mind, not with my body. This was my family. Heber was my husband. We didn’t need anyone else. Why did we have to do what Abraham did? He lived a long time ago.
I pulled the carrots out of the bin, scraped the skin, then grated them savagely into a bowl. I won’t do it. No one can make me do it. Then I caught sight of Gunnar with a pile of boards stacked against his house, the hammer in his hand rising and falling into the head of a nail. He seemed to be building a staircase on the side of his house. But there was no door or window or landing anywhere in sight. His stairs had no destination. Just before sunset, he stopped abruptly, carried his tools away, and left seven stairs going nowhere. “What a fool,” I said to my reflection in the window. “Men are fools.”
During the month of September, Heber decided on the woman he wanted for the second wife the Lord, through the wisdom of the church officials, commanded him to take. Her name was Naomi; she was eighteen years old and had a tiny waist and the beauty of a woman [p.80]in bloom. “We’ve come for your blessing,” Hebe said softly as the three of us stood together in the parlor.
“You leave me no choice,” I said. The girl blushed and moved closer to my husband.
“I’ve come to love Heber,” she said, looking up at him as if he were a lion in full mane. “I know I’ll learn to love you, too,” she added and blushed again. Right there in my parlor. The three of us.
I tried to remind myself that God works in mysterious ways, but spent many numb hours at the sink, pulling the parboiled skins from tomatoes and peeling cucumbers. Thank goodness for Gunnar.
As the weather was changing, his projects became even more peculiar. The latest was to shingle one of his chimneys with gold-colored tin. One by one, he tapped nails into each shingle until his whole chimney was covered. Through the steam of my boiling cucumbers, I saw him hoisting a blue Swedish flag on his flagpole. Then he fastened a nosegay of cut paper flowers—pink, blue, yellow—beneath the finial. I almost burned my chin in the rising steam trying to figure what he was up to.
That night, after we lowered the flame on our bedside lamp, I rolled over to face Heber. “Shame, wasting a life like that,” I said. “What life?” Heber said, yawning and folding his reading spectacles on the lamp table.
“Our neighbor’s. Have you seen those paper nosegays on his chimney?”
“You are endlessly curious about that man, aren’t you? Kiss me goodnight, my Anna.” He kissed my forehead. I kissed the top button of his garments. Then I rolled on my back and found the best part of my pillow.
“Those flowers must be for the lost sweetheart, I think. I’d like to be loved like that.” All I could hear was Heber’s steady, relieved-to-be-close-to-sleep breathing.
“My life is wasted, too,” I said, knowing my words were turning to vapor in Heber’s ears. “Me being replaced by another woman, especially someone so young and attentive to your every need. She makes me feel like her mother. And you could be her father. That’s not right, Heber. The way you look at her. That’s the way you used to look at me.”
Heber breathed deep from his chest. He was gone, and I was left [p.81]with the raging feelings that wouldn’t give me rest. I can’t do this, God; I can’t. But after I said that so many times, my mind wandered to what Gunnar’s sweetheart had been like. If she were a beauty men adored, if she were pock-faced or shy, a burgher’s or a poor farmer’s daughter? What about Gunnar could have captivated her? And if he loved someone once, why wouldn’t he notice anyone else, especially me, out in my yard every day? I felt like the invisible cloth of the emperor’s new clothes when Gunnar wouldn’t look up and acknowledge me standing there, trying to break the silence with a bunch of radishes in hand, pulled just for him.
As soon as Heber would be finished remodeling the small home on Fourth South Street for his second wife-to-be, about late November he judged, the marriage would take place in the new temple. I’d get to stand in one of the marriage rooms where the two of them would kneel and gaze at each other over the altar, their longing observable in the space between them. I’d be asked to accept this woman as Heber’s wife. And because I honored God’s wisdom more than my own, I’d give my husband away to another woman, to God’s kingdom here on earth. But why?
This was my family! My heart was an empty leaden bowl as I stood at my kitchen window and watched autumn leaves float to the ground. And it weighed even more when I tried to keep busy-pulling strings from beans, teaching numbers to the twins, watching what Gunnar did next. This time he was standing on his front porch with a pair of scissors in his hand, shaping hearts and flying birds out of paper, gluing them to his window pane. I was mesmerized by the care he took with the tiny scissors as he trimmed the rounded arcs. He was like an overgrown child, so much larger than the task he was performing.
I wanted to go to him, comfort him, pull him away from the wasteland of his futile projects. But Jethro came down with a fever that same day. I only watched Gunnar from the bedroom window while I cooled my son’s head with a wet washcloth. After dragging a ladder to the side of his house, he went back inside and brought out a large framed picture. He climbed to the roof, hammered a long nail into one of the sheets of tin on the chimney, and hung the picture way up high. I couldn’t make out what it was until later that afternoon when I went out for Jethro’s tonic. Hung at the top of his chimney was a brown sepia tintype of Gunnar’s house. Mounted on both sides of the [p.82]frame were more nosegays of paper flowers—more pink, blue, lemon yellow petals cut from stiff paper and wired together.
When I returned from the chemist’s, I decided to be bolder with Gunnar. Do unto others, I thought. He must want some company. A friend. Soon, I promised myself.
A more determined autumn moved into the valley that night. The wind picked up after sundown. It blew especially hard after I went to bed, hooting around the corners of the house and keeping me from sleep. I reached over for comfort, but before my hand reached the other side of the bed I remembered Heber was working late at her house-to-be. I listened for the sound of his hammer on the wind. Maybe it would float into the bedroom and haunt me and make me cry again, but instead I heard singing in between the gusts. Swedish words in a sweet high voice. The sound pierced into my loneliness, and I turned the warming brick with my left foot to find the remaining heat.
Turning on my stomach and folding the pillow over my ear, I could still hear the high, penetrating song filtering through the dark. “Close your Window, Gunnar,” I said out loud. “I don’t want to hear your pining!” The chilly night was inappropriate for love songs. I rolled toward Heber’s empty spot and circled my non-existent husband with one arm. No response. He could be tender, but he’d never sung love songs to me—five years in the clay country, four children, two miscarriages, always backbreaking work to do. As I nestled against Heber’s pillow held close to my breasts, I envisioned a princess in the dark in a dense forest. She had tree-length hair. She was dressed in white, waiting in a tower for a voice to call her name and nothing but her name. Anna, I heard on the wind. Anna, a part of Gunnar’s wistful melody until Heber trudged up the stairs, sat on the bed to unlace his boots, and fell into the mattress and quick sleep.
The snow came that next day.
Through a screen of gentle flakes, I watched Gunnar from my upstairs bathroom window. I brushed my long, dark brown hair while he pulled a rocking chair from inside his house, sat on his front porch, wrapped himself in a wool shawl, and sanded a piece of wood resembling half a flower vase. His knees covered with a ragged quilt, he sat there the entire day as the snow deepened, smoothing the wood patiently. From various windows of my house, sometimes holding Jethro, whose fever was close to breaking, sometimes standing with a [p.83] finger across my lips, I watched him rub the surface as if it were a baby’s skin. Finally, as the blurry sun dropped behind the Oquirrhs, he glued the vase to his front door. Then, through the steel blue light, I saw him stuff a bouquet of paper flowers into the vase, probably pink, blue, and yellow, though the dusk made them colorless.
I knew it was time for me to go to him. I’d rise early the next morning, in enough time to bake bread before the house woke.
I unlatched the gate carefully and balanced on my toes to keep the new snow out of my shoes. The sidewalk seemed long. Kicking against the porch step to shake the snow from my shoes, I noticed something I couldn’t have seen from my window. The outline of a heart and the initials GS and AS were carved into the porch pillar; tiny squares of blue paper had been glued together in the shape of a mosaic bird perched at the top of the heart.
After knocking three times, I called his name. “Brother Swenson, it’s your neighbor, Sister Crandall.” I knocked again; still no answer. “Please answer, Brother Swenson, it’s Anna Crandall. I have bread for you.”
I was ready to bend down and leave the bread wrapped in the flour sack towel, though I hated to leave it out in the cold just fresh from the oven, when I saw a tiny opening in the door, one eye peering out. I swallowed and nodded my head in greeting. “This is for you, Brother Swenson. I thought I should say hello after all this time being your new neighbor.”
The door opened wider. Standing a good foot above my head, Gunnar Swenson stared out at me. His pale blue irises looked like star sapphires. His coarse blonde hair had stubborn cowlicks sticking out in spikes. I felt my chest constricting.
“Anna?” he asked.
“Yes. Anna Crandall”
“Anna?” His white blonde eyebrows faded into his pale face and all I could see were his eyes, the centers laced with spidery white threads. They frightened me.
“I’m Anna Crandall. We moved in last spring. I’m sorry to be so long in saying hello.”
“Anna?” he said again. “Why did you leave me? Did you fall off the boat?”
“No,” I laughed. “I’ve never been on a boat. I’m just Anna Cran-[p.84]dall. Your neighbor.” I pointed to my house.
“Anna. Come in.” He trembled like a leaf in the wind. Only frail things were supposed to tremble like that.
Before I allowed myself to cross the threshold, I examined the interior, dark and close smelling. His boots sounded hollow-heeled as he crossed the room and fingered paper flowers stuffed into vases of every kind—quart jars, olive jars, ceramic candy dishes. In some places the wire stems of the paper flowers were stuck into modeling clay to hold them erect.
I held onto the frame of the door for as long as I could before my feet walked into a different world. As I closed the door behind me to keep the cold from Gunnar’s already frigid room, I felt an overwhelming iciness.
The ceiling was covered with nosegays of paper flowers, the same pink, blue, and yellow, stiff-papered flowers gathered into bouquets on the chimney and the front door. Each nosegay was fastened upside down to the ceiling to form a canopy. Spun spider threads ornamented the blossoms and gave them a silvery, wispy look. A grayed lace curtain divided the living room from his bed. Two windows, a mantel, a miniature chest of drawers, a small cast iron stove, and one rocking chair, the cane seat of which looked like a bowl for tired bones settled deep between the frame-all seemed incidental in this sea of flowers.
“I have flowers for you,” Gunnar said, his eyes not registering my face but looking past my shoulder into another reality. “I have poems. Sit down, Anna.”
He pushed the rocking chair close to me and reached over to an alabaster knob on a small drawer and slid it squeaking out of its place. He lifted a yellowed piece of paper, which was folded into a square inch and curled at the corners.
“We’ve been hoping to see you over at church, Brother Swenson. Everyone wants to get to know you.”
“The church, the ward house. You remember.”
“Was ten years ago I come from Sweden. Missionaries tell me about Zion, and then I meet you on the boat, Anna. And then you go away.”
“Anna Crandall. I’m your neighbor. I just moved here with my hus-[p.85]band last spring . Heber and I’ve been talking how we should get over here and get to know you, but I got caught up with my children, my preserves and garden and settling in. Please forgive me.”
All the time I talked, Gunnar was unfolding this tiny square of paper. He used his fingernail to peel each fold from another. Intent on his work, he hadn’t heard a word from me. I wanted him to look up so I could say, Hello from your neighbor, and be on my way, but he didn’t offer me the chance. He picked at the paper carefully. It looked as if it would split instantly with rough handling, especially at the folds. Gunnar finished the delicate operation and started to read without giving me the opportunity to leave his house.
“Anna, many years I say, Anna, fill my days with your smell. The moon changes while I wait, fullness to slivers. I feel the slivers of you in my heart that won’t let you be gone from me. Never will you be without flowers.”
Gunnar looked up at his ceiling and counted the nosegays hanging there. “Twenty-four, twenty-five,” finally “thirty-seven.” Then his white-blue eyes turned in my direction, but focused over my shoulder on some place far from this room. Spiked star-eyes filled with visions of flying birds. Gunnar was shaking, this big man who should have been telling everyone what to do. This massive body, which could have its way with people in any dispute, shook as if there were no warm place anywhere.
“Brother Swenson,” I said. “Do you see this bread? I baked it for you. I made it with honey.”
“I wait for you on the ship. I wait by the rail on the port side. I walk back and forth until Orion goes down to the water. You say you will come and be my bride in Zion. Why you go, Anna? Do you fall in the water? I listen for your voice, ‘Gunnar, save me. Gunnar; but I don’t hear you, so maybe you go straight to the bottom.”
Maybe I should have eased out the door, but I watched him tremble, like I myself had done in my bed at night. “Gunnar,” I said firmly, forgetting propriety. “Listen to me.”
“Anna, I keep calling. You don’t answer.”
I bent forward to pull myself out of the chair, to reach out and take his hand. I didn’t think about it or I wouldn’t have done it, but I stood right up to him and took his hand, as big as a calf’s head, into my small ones. “Gunnar,” I stood on my tiptoes. “Listen to me.”
[p.86]He turned to pick up a vase full of flowers. “For you, Anna.” “I am not your Anna. I’m your neighbor.”
“My Anna.” He covered his ears with his forearms, burying his head between his elbows. “No talk.”
When his hands fell back to his sides, I held them again and stroked the tissue paper skin and the blue veins. I held his hand to my cheek and warmed it. “You are so cold, Gunnar. Why don’t you light a fire?”
“Now you are here, Anna, I light a fire.”
“Why don’t you come out to church, Gunnar? There are other women who need love.”
“We need a fire, Anna, to keep you warm. I keep you warm. You’ll be happy here.”
Gunnar bent over the hearth to a stack of split logs mummified in spider webs. Cupping his hands into a small bucket, he transferred dry pine needles into a nest between the logs. Then he pulled open another drawer and unravelled stacks of scrap paper, blue, pink, and yellow, placing them carefully over the logs. He fumbled in a small glass for a match and struck it on one of the fireplace bricks. He stood there, holding the match between his fingers, letting the fire burn until it charred his fingertips.
“Gunnar!” I said. “Drop it on the fire.” He smiled at me, the kind of smile where one’s face belongs to something else. Blue smoke spiralled. He lit another match.
“Do you need help?” I stepped toward him to take the match. He held it up, out of my reach, and smiled that dispossessed smile again. His smiling canceled my wish to put my hands on his shoulders and make him all right; his smiling made me shrink toward the door. He held the match higher and higher, the flame burning close to his fingers again. “Light the fire, Gunnar. I’ve got to get back now.”
“Days go by, I wait,” he sang in English. It was similar to the one I heard him singing the other night. “] wait and] wait, and] rock my arms for my love, for my love.” As he lit another match, holding it up and away from me, the flame leapt into the bower of flowers, away from Gunnar’s hand. The flame curved into the paper stamens and folded petals and browned them, blackened them, and the entire bower of nosegays came alive for the first time.
“Gunnar,” I yelled at him. Gunnar watched the flames leap across [p.87]his flowers. The heat spread to the lace curtain and browned it to ashes that flaked to the floor and drifted onto his bed, sparking the fibers and the rough floorboards to life as well.
And Gunnar lunged forward, suddenly, lunged toward me and grabbed me in his arms. He hugged me until I couldn’t expand my ribs to find a breath. “Gunnar!” I tried to scream. And I looked up at him, and his hair was on fire and he seemed an angel of destruction, an angel
of the Lord coming to tell the world to obey or be destroyed in the last days.
“I love you, Anna. I prepare for you like the virgins with lamps. You are my love.”
I pulled away from him. “We’ve got to get out of here.” But he seemed to have turned to a pillar of stone. His hair was on fire, his feet rooted to the wooden floor. I grabbed the flour sack towel. The bread tumbled to the floor. Wrap Gunnar’s head. Stifle the flames. Smother them. But as I reached for Gunnar’s head, he put his hands up to keep me away from him.
“Gunnar!” I shouted. “You’re burning!”
His huge arms were the masters of the room, the masters of me with my flour sack towel trying to whip the /lames from his head. His huge hands, held up as guards, kept me away while the corona of flame burned brightly around his head. The cracks between the floor boards were narrow rivers of flames. The flowers were curling away from their centers, their carefully cut edges crumbling. Anna’s bower-bouquets, valentines, bluebirds, poems hidden in drawers, lace hanging to protect the bridal chamber.
“Let me help you,” I begged over the crackling of the fire.
He just smiled, oblivious to the fact he was burning alive. And something happened, something so awe-striking I was humbled in that strange house with the paper flowers and folded poems. Gunnar’s hair burned like a torch, but the fire didn’t touch his face. His face glowed white, and that rocking chair with the sagging seat, it glowed white too, like the great white throne. Gunnar sizzled with whiteness. I could hear that sound and knew I heard the power of God.
“I love you, Gunnar,” I said suddenly, surprising myself I drew close to him and looked into his eyes, filling with the power I sensed in him. “Anna loves you more than anything in the world. I’m here with you.” [p.88]I put my arms around his waist and held him as if he were the only man I ever loved. He bent to kiss me, the crown of flame on his head. And I felt the fire pass through my lips and deep into me until I was his Anna, his long-sought love dressed in white like the princess with tree-length hair.
“Forever,” I said, then broke away, out of the house and the flames, back to the safety of my home. I grabbed my twins into my arms and rocked them while the fire devoured the seven stairs, the gables, Gunnar’s tin-covered chimney. I watched the front porch cave in as the neighbors made their too-late attempt at a fire brigade. I didn’t offer my help. I held my babies close until there was nothing left to burn.
Gunnar is with me, nonetheless, as I stand at the kitchen window today, wiping plates dry and looking at the charred ruins of his house.
I can see him standing in the fire as if nothing could touch him, smiling with the bliss of a thousand years of peace while the house folded into itself and turned his paper garden to ash.
I can feel him, floating by my side, whispering Anna in my ear. And in this weak moment, on the morning of the day I’m supposed to go to the temple with Heber and Naomi, I’m almost overcome by the enormity of his devotion.
But as I lift the dripping flatware from the dish drainer, I can see Gunnar’s face in flames, finally crumbling to the black ash of obsession. My Anna, my Anna—all he can say. All he can think. I want to believe. I want to hear Anna in my ear, buzzing in my head. I want someone to love me that way. Only me. Anna, Queen of All Women. But even as I pray in my secret heart for such purity, I have questions. Wiping a spoon with my checkered dishtowel and dropping it into the wooden drawer, I wonder.
These dishes aren’t mine; the house over my head is a loan; the children are God’s. Heber is a gift.
“Not my will, but thine,” I say to myself as Heber opens the door for us to walk to Naomi’s new house and then to the temple. I say it again as I watch Heber and Naomi kneel across the altar ftom each other, fresh devotion on their faces.
I don’t cry. I don’t recoil. I take Naomi’s hand in mine as she stands. The new wife. The new possibility. I close my eyes and take a deep breath, inhaling God’s mysteries.