Heresies of Nature
by Margaret B. Young


[p.125] Journal Entry:

August 19, 1989

Most of what I do is sit here and supervise. The scary thing is, my words are starting to slur in my mouth, which probably means I’ll lose my speech. So, I’ll just sit here and love my husband and daughters, I guess.

I worry I’m requiring too much of them. Not just with the household jobs, but with this love.

My thoughts are pouring, but my hand has a hard time getting the damn letters down.

They must be allowed to resent me sometimes—must. I’m not an angel. I can’t hold onto them. I can’t be some stupid idol they’re required to adore. That would demand too much of their hearts. And it would hurt them, ultimately.

But how can I do anything other than love them? Other than sit here?




[p.126] The Shakespearean work the Senior Honors English class would be studying, Joe announced, was called The Winter’s Tale—the story of a king who puts his wife away unjustly, then repents himself into celibacy when he hears she’s dead. She isn’t dead, however; she’s faking—for sixteen years. At the end of the play, she pretends she’s a statue who miraculously comes to life. The class would not only be reading but performing it, he said, then he assigned parts. Elizabeth was to be Paulina.

After class, as Joe gathered his notes, he asked Elizabeth how life was without Merry in the house.

She considered it. “Different,” she said. “Different smells, different feelings. Kind of empty.”

He nodded.

“And my dad’s having an affair with Cody.”

He looked away. “Say it.”


“That he’s—.”

“My dad. He’s my dad.”

Joe turned back to her, paused, and then—so gently!—drew his fingers through her hair.

“Is there something in my hair?”

“No.” He kissed her forehead the same way they always kissed Merry’s forehead. “I didn’t mean to say anything against your dad.”

“It’s okay.”

“I’m sorry.”

That was the moment she knew. She loved Joe. And she understood his “I’m sorry” meant more than she wanted it to.


Of Merry’s three daughters, Janny spent the most time with her, often with her head in Merry’s lap, Merry’s stiff fingers en-[p.127]twined in her hair. The two of them in tableau formed a feminine Pieta. Janny’s being with Merry seemed sometimes a penance and other times a fulfillment of maternal purpose: Merry’s hands on Janny’s head in perpetual blessing, Janny’s blossoming womb, their weary unity. Choosing the child.

Penny didn’t visit for nearly a month. Gradually, she came weekly, then daily, then at each mealtime to feed her mother. Though Penny’s depression hung on the edges of everything she did or said, she strained towards niceness in the rest home. She became obsessed with the possibility of remission, coming too often with magazine articles about miracle cures for m.s., new herbs, faith-promoting stories about twenty-year remissions, how skiing could delay the atrophy.

Merry tolerated the information but told Elizabeth later, spelling it out, that she wished Penny would stop hoping for the impossible. Remission didn’t seem to be in the cards, her nerve damage was too complete. There was new medicine, yes, and hope of genetic therapy. But all too late for her.

Had she given up hoping for a miracle, Elizabeth asked.

She blinked yes.

The fountain of faith had leaked doubt.


Penny’s eyes shot open when Elizabeth, too, suggested that she should quit tracking down remission myths. Blazing, her eyes looked as though they would explode from their sockets.

That was the day Ben and Merry’s divorce became final. Though Elaine Boswell had demanded that an attorney defend Merry’s rights, Merry herself refused any legal help and gave up all claim to property or funds, saying the money should be reserved for the only future she had: her daughters.

Medicaid came through, and the desk nurse solemnly informed Merry’s daughters, all three present, that Merry would likely have to share a room now. “Medicaid,” she said, “doesn’t like to pay for private rooms.” She added that a new resident [p.128] had recently arrived, also a victim of m.s., though not so advanced.

Penny took in a sharp breath. She spoke softly, adamantly, but got more eloquent as she continued. She had always been that way. When she was mad, she was poetic. “No. Entirely out of the question,” her voice started a slow crescendo that built until her words whooshed around each other in the air. “Listen to me. Do you have any idea what it would do to that other woman to see Mom like she is now, to live every day with what this disease does? Do you know what it would be like for her— feeling herself move towards that—seeing, fully illustrated, in living color, the final image right there? How could you even consider something so cruel? And what about Mom? How would it be for her? To know she’s being watched like that and not being able to say anything? That’s the most sadistic arrangement I can conceive of! Absolutely not! If I have to clean toilets and scrub floors to keep Mom in a private room, I’ll by God do it! You don’t think her privacy has been invaded enough with bed pans and tampons and catheters? You think she needs some­one beside her, seeing her like that every damned minute? You think she needs that? Over my dead body! You hear what I’m saying? Over my stinking dead body!”

The nurse made a stunned apology and said she would try to keep Merry in a private room, then quickly began her rounds.

Penny turned silent at once, her face pale, appalled. She began to weep, almost to howl, and covered her mouth with both hands. Then she ran from the building, her cries like trapped ­cicadas, audible until the door slammed shut behind her.


Raw and ragged, hot, and throbbing with need. Cody, sitting on her apartment floor, felt it from that distance.

Come back. Come back. Come back.

[p.129] Raw and ragged, hot, a throbbing need, the nerve ends jumping, trembling, tightening, surging towards insulation that isn’t there, for release that doesn’t come, for an ebb after cresting, raging.

A key jangles in the front-door lock, the bedroom door opens, and she is beside him. “Couldn’t stay away.”

“Don’t,” he whispers. “Don’t.”

“Marry me, Ben. You’re free now. Marry me.”

“Don’t talk.”

He buries his chin in the curve of her neck. She sings him a dream of flying through night. And for the first time in twenty years, he dreams of the coal mine.

Falling pellets of night, sprinkling at first, then pouring, rushing like hell’s waterfall, suffocating the faceless miners and his father.

Deeper, where the earth opens itself to possibility and no trace of sky remains, where the only light is what we carry in our lanterns or on our hats. Deeper, where the brightest spots on sooty faces are wrinkles and scars, where the black dust dances into your lungs and you breathe darkness, and when you look up, there is never moon, never a constellation to map an hour or season. Deeper, like into a vast woman. Let her devour you, then scratch, scar, rape her from inside and hope against revenge. Deeper, where voices and coughs are garbled with echoes, sounds merge without interpreters, and the rattle of rocks may mean coal or death. Deeper where mortal lights expire and there are no seers, where night caves in without warning. This is the underside of hope.


When he awakes, Cody is beside him. He sees what he hadn’t noticed before. She has dyed her hair the color of Merry’s— “Honey Cinnamon” he thinks it’s called. He can smell the lingering scent of her. And the coal that killed his father, he can smell that, too.