Heresies of Nature
by Margaret B. Young
[p.166] Warm dawn, mostly clear sky, a three-quarter moon still glowing under pink clouds. Ben and Cody were in the mountains at the “Moonrocks” surrounded by foothills, patches of desert spread out below. The Mormon temple—the House of the Lord—was clearly visible in the distance.
They had not made love that night. They hadn’t talked much either, only listened to the crickets’ vibrato and the distant coyotes as Ben measured himself in negatives. Not Merry’s husband. Not loyal. Not who he had thought he was.
Before him spread a magnificent, brick-red dawn. When a sliver of sun first dazzled the horizon, he sat up and said simply, “Well, it’s got to end.”
Cody did not answer, only sat up to join him, shielding her eyes. She knew what he meant and he knew she did. “You’re saying—.”
“You’re dumping me.” Her voice came so thin and young, it didn’t sound like her. No viola now; she was an uncertain flute.
“No. Not dumping. Not you. Just facing myself squarely— facing my faith, for once, instead of doubts. Bright little speck of faith that’s burning my inner eyeballs out. Facing the fact—”
“No, you don’t have to say it.” There was desperation under that little girl’s voice.
“I believe in God. There it is: there’s my answer. I believe in God.”
Cody fisted sleep from her eyes. Her voice returned to its usual resonance. “I’m glad you figured that out. Merry wanted you to find your spiritual side.” She pursed her lips. “So did I.”
“Well, I guess you didn’t think it all the way then, did you.”
[p.167] “Maybe I didn’t.”
“Because my spiritual side puts you—.
“Don’t say it.”
She took a long breath of the mountain air, didn’t speak for a moment. “Why?” she said at last. Again, it was a child asking— a lonely, homeless child.
“Cody,” he sighed, “I’m Mormon.”
“I know that,” she said as herself.
“I mean, I really am.” He shrugged. “Which surprises the hell out of me.”
“Because I hate sacrament meetings. I’ve always hated sacrament meetings. What I wouldn’t have given most times to be in my lab! Hated Sunday suits. The whole idea of home-teaching every month.” He observed a squirrel on a baby oak inspecting the possibility of acorns. “Hated Fast Sundays.”
“But.” The squirrel disappeared, bewildered the leaves, left them tittering. “And the irony is, I probably won’t be a Mormon much longer. Not officially, anyway. My good bishop has scheduled a church court—‘disciplinary council’—for me. For the, you know, adultery.”
“I guess that’s how they do things here. But you’re a good man, Ben. I told you that from the first. You have such a good heart.”
“And you love Merry.”
He turned to her, lifted one brow. “Do I?”
“Yes.” Her chin trembled for just a second. She quickly controlled it. When she spoke again, her voice was smooth and musical. “Part of me wants to fight her. It’s surprising, isn’t it? I wanted to heal her, and I end up fighting her for you. I’m awful [p.168] at loneliness. All the practice I’ve had, and I’m still awful.” She raked her fingers through her hair—Merry’s hair, lovely gold-brown color, chin-length. “I can’t feel any bit of her soul. Not anymore. She won’t give me a blink,” she said. “So it’s just me, now. Empty me.”
He said the only thing he could think of as response: “I’m sorry,” then refocused on the oak. The sun winked through the leaves.
“Buffalo Woman came to me again,” she went on like a viola hymn. “To wake me up from this dream, I guess.”
“Which dream is that?”
“Oh, you know. This one. With you, with Merry, with me between or inside or under.”
His brow creased.
“I’m going south,” she said. “Guatemala, maybe.”
“That’s a good place.”
“Land of eternal spring.”
“So, that’s where I’ll be. Looking for a burial ground. Or a ghost. A guy. I need someone,” she said. “I always do. Same as you.”
“Me?” He was still observing the oak.
“You need Merry—even the way she is.”
He breathed deeply, remembering things in a vague panorama. “I don’t know that that’s true,” he countered quietly. “I used to need her—used to depend on her for everything from lunch to laundry. She did everything—everything!—for me. And here I am, forty-eight years old. Standing on my own for the first time in my life.” He inflated his lungs and inhaled himself into military posture. “No, I don’t need Merry. In a lot of ways, I don’t even want her.”
“It’s not easy.”
“I choose her,” he said softly.
“Because of God.”
“I believe that beyond this mess, she’s who she really is.”
“I love Merry.” The words and posture were strong, but his voice was weak.
“I know,” she said.
“Even though I only get a glimpse of her now, and only sometimes.”
“You’re dreaming her back again?”
“No.” He glanced at her, then quickly away. “But there are other moments—a few—when I’m not dreaming and I look into her eyes, try to see her, and every now and then I do.”
“I used to be able to do that, too.”
He closed his eyes. “We made a family, Mer and I did. I can’t just—.”
“So I’m your witness.”
He expelled a dry laugh. “You and Hank Simpson, I guess.”
“Your witness, and that’s all.” Her face softened.
“That’s a lot,” he said.
As he turned to her, she stood. She was wearing one of Merry’s white flannel nightgowns with pink ribbons. Merry had quit wearing it five years ago when her mother bought her a snap-down-the-front one that resembled an American flag.
“Time for this witness to move on,” Cody said.
He wanted to love her again, she was so sweet and beautiful, and he wanted to touch that nightgown. But he did not move as she leaned over and brushed his lips with hers.
“I don’t know why I came to you or to Merry,” she murmured. “I don’t understand. But the pieces will fit. They have to.”
“Or the galaxy will crumble when God thinks to look on it, won’t it?” His voice was ragged, tired.
“Yeah. We’re God’s dream.”
“And the gods and the goddesses, they’re singing us into other dreams now.”
[p.170] “Or into Armageddon maybe.” He shut his eyes against the sun. “Willing our bones to whatever survives,” he said, then more softly, “or to angels.”
Cody hitch-hiked south. In San Diego she watched the sun set over the ocean, sinking into buttery clouds. For just a moment, there were two suns: one real and one a wavering, restless reflection.
She knew. Merry was dying.
In and out of consciousness, eyes closed, Merry couldn’t even spell her thoughts. She awakened one last time when Jan and Elizabeth arrived. Jan said loudly, trying to break through, “Mom!”
Merry drew in a sharp breath. Her lips quivered, then moved with some control. The girls watched her come up from her stupor as though rising from water, choosing to return, fighting her way back. She made a sound, opened her eyes, then blinked on letters as Jan moved down the alphabet: “Forgive.”
“You?” Jan said, reaching around the tubes to put her head against Merry’s chest.
“Ben,” she spelled.
And Ben was there at the door, as though summoned by his name and Merry’s blink. South Beach Haven’s head nurse—a large, blonde woman—followed immediately after, whispering the details of Merry’s condition: They had given her tests to determine if she had hepatitis; the tests were negative. Her organs were failing, the nurse explained—that’s why her skin was so yellow.
[p.171] “Is she dying?” Ben asked.
“I’m not a doctor.” The nurse looked past him to Jan and Elizabeth.
“What’s your gut feeling?”
The nurse nodded.
Jan stroked her mother’s hand. “It’s okay.”
Merry’s eyes were closed again, her breaths shallow, rattling hisses. Her mouth yawned and quivered to finish every one.
“Can she hear us?” Ben asked.
Jan shrugged, not meeting his eyes.
“Merry?” he said. “Can you hear us?”
The nurse slipped a rubber shield over Merry’s finger. “Her pulse was 135 this morning.” She shook her head. “I’m having a hard time getting a reading now.” She squeezed the finger. “Thirty-eight,” she breathed. “She’s fading fast.”
“Nobody gave her a shower last night,” Elizabeth said.
“We have a new girl in this section.” The nurse gathered her equipment. “I’m afraid she was a little bit overwhelmed.”
“Mom doesn’t like her hair dirty like this,” Jan said.
The nurse nodded. “If I comb a little baby powder through her hair, it’ll look just fine. Smell nice, too. I’ll get some.”
Jan offered a dim “thanks” as the nurse left.
Ben approached his wife. “Merry? Do you know I’m here?”
She gave no sign of recognition.
Ben would remember later how timeless these last moments seemed. He listened to her breaths. Listened. They got farther and farther apart. It could have been hours or minutes that he held her hand and asked her—not in words now but in clearly formed thoughts, as though she might hear them with an unhandicapped spirit—“Merry, do you know I’m here?”
“Grandma’s coming,” Elizabeth said.
Ben nodded. “Good.” Pain. Love. Regret. Shame. “She should have her mother with her today,” he said. You. I loved you more than I’ve ever loved another person. I hurt you more deeply.
[p.172] “Someone should tell Penny and Joe. Did the nurses call them?” This was Elizabeth.
“I’m sure someone did,” Ben said. I didn’t intend to be less than you wanted me to be. I thought I was up to whatever God had in store, so certain of everything. You.
“This could go on for hours.” Jan.
“Or days,” Ben said. “You hungry, girls? Can I buy you both a taco?”
“No thanks.” Jan again. Elizabeth shook her head.
Silence. What did it mean, that day I promised to accept you before God and angels, before all the witnesses who were watching: Hank, your parents, my mother? What did it mean to hold your hand over the altar and say, “Yes!”? You.
“You can get yourself something, if you want.” Jan.
“I’m not hungry either,” he said.
Silence. They hate me, Merry. It’s going to take a while for them to forgive—if they ever do. You. My wife.
“The nurses called Grandma three days ago. They thought— you know. I forgot to mention it to you.” Jan.
“We haven’t had a conversation in a while, I guess.”
Silence. I didn’t mean to put you away. It wasn’t just sex; it wasn’t just that I was exhausted. It hurt to see you, to count the losses every day. Do you understand me? Your disease was killing me, too. You are my wife.
“The nurse said they could bring us some cafeteria food if we want.”
“We could send out for pizza.”
“Maybe later.” I didn’t stop loving you. But I never loved you very well. I did come back, Mer. Deathbed repentance. Your bed, my sins.
[p.173] “You can turn on the television if you want.” Jan’s voice, weary, brittle.
“No. This is fine.”
“She might get better. She did last time.”
“The last pneumonia?”
“Yeah. She beat it. She might beat this, too.”
Silence. That brave day in the temple, both of us dressed up to make our vows. We were so young, so blind, so bold! If I could have seen the future, would I have run the hell out of there? I wish I could answer “NO!” as certainly now as I said “Yes!” back then. God, I don’t know. Who would I love if not you? You.
“Mom, are you in pain?” Jan.
No response, just the labored breaths. When Merry foamed at the nose, Ben wiped it. His daughters watched him mutely. You taught me all about love, all about faith, and then God turned your lessons inside out, let me see the underside of every good thing you gave me. You are my wife. Our daughters are bitter. They see me so well. So bad. I’m weak. No surprise, huh? Who would I be if not for you? What did it mean to love you? You are my wife. YOU. He listened to the hiss of her waning life.
“Well, here we are! Having ourselves a spur-of-the-moment family reunion!” This was Elaine Boswell. Her brows were still ridiculous arches, but she wasn’t wearing false lashes today. Her eyes were red, moist.
“Hi there, Elaine.” Ben kissed her cheek.
“Good to see you, Ben.” There was no sarcasm in her voice at all.
Merry was foaming at the nose again. Elaine took a Kleenex and wiped it gently, gently. When the nurse returned with baby powder, it was Elaine who shook it onto Merry’s hair and combed it through, talking to her daughter the whole time. “Can you smell this, Merry? I used to put this stuff on you after every one of your baby baths. On your little bottom, actually. I guess I’ve got things mixed up today. It’s easy to do at my age. [p.174] Smells good to me, this baby powder. Smells clean. It’ll make your hair look better.”
Ben sighed a vague “thank you” into the air.
Then it was over. The final breath rattled in her throat, and there was no more breath.
“She’s not breathing anymore,” Jan said calmly.
“No, she isn’t,” Elaine answered just as calmly. “Soar, sweetie,” she whispered, and kissed Merry’s forehead. “It’s been a long time.”
Ben felt a breeze against his cheek which he hoped was his wife’s forgiving kiss. Elaine touched his hand but said nothing. Ben squeezed his eyes shut and turned away.
English class, the day after Merry’s death. Elizabeth had not wanted to miss school just because the last moment had come.
Joe instructed her: “This, Elizabeth, is the most important scene of The Winter’s Tale. It’s called ‘The Awakening.’ And you have the most important line of the play. Are you ready? Okay, say it.”
It is required you do awake your faith.
“Good. The statue’s ready to come to life now. For sixteen years, she hasn’t been able to embrace her husband or her daughter. But now it’s time for the magic and the mystery. Elizabeth, your line.”
Music! awake her! strike!
’Tis time; descend; be stone no more! Approach;
Strike all that look upon with marvel.
Bequeath to death your numbness, for from him
Dear life redeems you!
The statue moves slowly at first. One finger, then the hand, arm, head. After all these years, she comes to life. Moving.
You perceive she stirs.
[p.175] She speaks the first words they’ve heard from her in sixteen years. She blesses her daughter.
You gods, look down
And from your sacred vials pour your graces
Upon my daughter’s head!