Heresies of Nature
by Margaret B. Young
[p.130] Journal Entry:
October 12, 1990
Ben hiked his needs up the canyon. He had thought he’d pray, even knelt once, but couldn’t.
He needed Cody. Raw and ragged, hot, throbbing, the need that refused to remember Merry.
He did remember her. She had given him guilt along with the gift of faith, packaged together, and he couldn’t sluff off the package.
Would faith ever show itself without guilt? Could love possibly overcome a world of cosmic jokes like this one: Vernal’s fossils, the myriad bones, petrified monuments to barbarous nature, and no insulation? Igneous, metamorphic, sedimentary: destiny of time.
And yet. Sapphires. Diamonds. Amethyst. All that waits in the crusted depths, as though light were inevitable.
Big wet snowflakes had fallen through the night and clumped on fir trees like sparkling rags. Willows and maples were frosted, the streets a dingy, slush-edged white. The world was frozen.
[p.131] The week before, Merry had gotten head lice, which had bitten her mercilessly and made her cry for fingers that could scratch. The nurses treated her, then cut her hair. Cody had visited and bleached it white, so now, just a half-inch long, it stuck out all over like an old dandelion, ready to be blown away. It made her face seem thinner, bonier, her eyes huge behind those thick glasses.
And so, it now seemed, Cody and Merry had traded faces.
In February, Penny collapsed in a pharmacy where she had stopped to buy aspirin. The secretary’s intercommed voice broke into English class, telling Joe his wife had been rushed to the hospital, that no other family members could be located, could he leave at once?
Joe dismissed class and nodded to Elizabeth who was already standing. They left together, both thinking suicide, wondering how Penny had done it.
Joe’s body clenched against the possibility. In the car, he removed his tie—the generic blue and white diagonal one—and muttered, “It’s my fault,” gripping the steering wheel.
But it was not a suicide attempt. It was a very bad miscarriage. Pen had conceived a child the last time she was with Joe, and it had died sometime after its fourth month. She had not expelled the fetal remains; they had decayed in her womb. A doctor, using a sterile monotone, explained all of this to Joe and Elizabeth in a little room inside the emergency sector, adding that some of her uterus had been destroyed in the surgery.
“She was pregnant?” Joe echoed, supporting himself on the hospital bed, the room’s only furnishing.
“Very bad pregnancy,” the old man’s voice was a secretive tenor with a German accent. “Very bad.”
“May I see her?”
[p.132] The doctor gestured to the recovery room. “She’s not conscious yet. Not for several more hours.”
“Can I go to her?”
Joe took Elizabeth’s hand. They went together.
Penny’s face was pale, ashen lips moving constantly, nursing air. Her french braids were loose, wispy, and shining, a few strands crossing her cheeks. Joe laced his fingers through hers.
“Aw, Pen,” he breathed, though she couldn’t hear him. “Aw, Pen.”
It was six hours before she was fully coherent. Joe and Elizabeth were with her off and on, hearing her say things like “Is that it?” and “What have I done?” Whenever Joe tried to answer, she shook her head. Even when she opened her eyes, she seemed blind.
In the hospital cafeteria, the recovery nurse told them Pen was finally awake and had been moved to a regular room. Joe looked down at his barely touched sandwich. “God willing, we’ll have her back.”
“You want her back?” Elizabeth said weakly, then wished she hadn’t.
“Oh yes. God—yes.” He looked toward the ceiling like he could see through it to heaven so that God would know this was conversation, not blasphemy.
“After what she did to you? What she put you through?”
“Of course, I want her back.”
Elizabeth opened the door to where her sister lay. Joe stood in its frame as Penny gazed at him, her eyes tearing. She sat up, leaning on one hand, stretching the other to her husband. Joe rushed to her, embracing her so tightly there was hardly air between them, Penny’s arms around his head, his around her waist.
[p.133] “So sorry,” Penny sobbed. He didn’t answer save to kiss her cheeks, her eyes, her neck. “I don’t have it,” she whispered. “Joe, I don’t!”
“No—I don’t have the disease: m.s.!”
“What?” He breathed the word into her braids.
“It was the pregnancy. I was so tired, off-balance, numb in my feet. I fainted once in the bathroom. And I remembered— Joe, don’t you get it?—how Mom was at first. I knew I had it, I was going to be like her. I never even thought pregnancy, I’m so stupid! I’ve never been regular, and I did have bleeding, some, so I didn’t think pregnancy and—”
He held her face in his hands. “That’s why you left me?
“Don’t you get it?” She lowered her arms.
“Penny, how could you not tell me?”
“Oh Joseph—because I love you! I knew you’d play the hero and you’d end up hating me, hating yourself. I couldn’t do that to you.” She squeezed her eyes shut. “Couldn’t stand to let you watch me die like that.”
“So YOU played the hero.” He shook his head heavily, as though life was a great disappointment. “You were willing to sacrifice our marriage so you could—”
“Don’t,” she breathed. “Please, Joe. Try to understand.”
“Aw, Pen,” he sighed, hugging her again. “It hurts. I had more faith in our relationship than that.”
“Did I hurt you too much? Do we still have a relationship?”
He moved his lips to her neck. “How can you ask that?”
“Maybe I was being—okay—a hero. But I had visions of you carrying me to the bathroom, the two of us spelling our conversations. I didn’t want—”
“You think it would have mattered? You walked yourself out of my life months ago, and I haven’t even taken your curling iron out of the bathroom drawer.”
“So that’s where it is.” Her eyes took on some light.
“My buddies ask why I haven’t filed, and I can’t answer. [p.134] Can’t tell them how much it means to be your husband. You think I ever would have abandoned you?”
Her wrists were still attached to IV bottles. When she lifted her hands, she seemed ghostly, part of the hospital machine. “Joseph,” she said, spreading her hands over his cheeks, “I honestly don’t know if you would have abandoned me. And you don’t know either. Not really. Five months isn’t ten years or twenty. You can’t predict what’ll happen, how you’ll respond to life over the long haul.”
“I’m not as weak as you think.”
“Of course not. Aw, Joseph, you’re the strongest, sweetest man I know. But I understand some things you don’t. Like what it’s like to watch a person you love lose everything.”
“My father loved my mom. When they got married, they adored each other. I remember Mom telling me how kooky and sentimental they were. If someone had told Dad what would happen, I think he would have said their love was big enough to swallow any pill. But it wasn’t.”
Joe kissed the side of her hand. “You love me?”
She flung her arms around his neck as if to strangle him with her answer.
Elizabeth backed out of the door. This scene had nothing to do with her. She felt expelled by its intimacy.