Three years was the rumor. Three years of celibacy, one for each wife he’d lost. But when my sister turned up on the porch of the garish monstrosity he’d built for his last bride — that half-Indian harlot — when my sister rapped her fist upon his door, he told her she was three days off. She had miscounted.
“I most certainly have not,” she told him. “Silas Silver, I was here the day that your darling Ada passed to glory. I presented you with a stew fit for a king on this very veranda.”
“And I did savor your mother’s cooking, Miss Carson. I did indeed.”
She did not appreciate the way he looked upon her as if she were still the dutiful child who’d held her mother’s pot, but she could tell he wasn’t finished. So, she stayed silent.
“But my vow,” he said, “did not begin that day.”
“Silas Silver,” she said, “you make no sense whatsoever.”
“I loved my Ada until they put her in the ground, Miss Carson. And that day,” he said. “That day was the day my vow began.”
“The day she was buried?” said my sister.
“I’m three days early?” she said.
“You are indeed,” he said, though not unkindly.
She looked down then, could not help but notice how ridiculous her breasts looked, pushed up and out as they were by the contemptuous corset she’d had me pull her into that evening, that damnable thing that was suffocating her now.
“You have grown into a lovely young woman,” he told her. “And I am not refusing your offer altogether,” he said, lifting her chin so that he might look upon her face again.
“But I must wait,” she said.
“As must I,” he said, and then he stepped back into his house and closed the door.
That night, weeping into my shoulder, she lamented the fact that he’d made a fool of her. But when I told her, as I stroked her hair, that a fool made in the forest is no fool at all, she was not comforted. And perhaps that was because my metaphors had always been as half-made as my marriage beds, but I think it was truly because she didn’t care if there was no one there to see her turned away. She knew what had happened. And so did Silas, that son of a bitch.
“Oh,” I told her, “it doesn’t do to disparage the dead.”
She pulled away from me and raised an eyebrow as she sniffled.
“Oh, but that’s right,” I said. “You weren’t yet born when old Widow Silver shuffled off this mortal coil. So, how could you know?”
“How could I know what?” asked my sister.
“That she was exactly as you described her.”
My sister looked positively bewildered now. Both eyebrows were raised, her jaw was drooping, and her whole head was listing to one side. Confusion blew in across her face like a strong wind against her gentle sails.
“A bitch,” I said, by way of clarification. “You called him a son of a bitch, and by God that’s exactly what she was.”
Her countenance unfrowned itself at this, and she broke into as boisterous a guffaw as ever I did hear from her.
It was a joyful noise and I smiled at myself for having brought it forth from her. But deep inside me, a message in a bottle tossed about on waves of my own making, a truth inside that I knew would reach her eventually, but that I hoped would remain veiled from her until such time as I had reached the opposite shore. I shuddered to think of what manner of scream might rage forth from her pouty lips when that day came.
And when I shuddered, she found me a shawl and draped it over my cold shoulders. Then she kissed my cheek and bade me good night. She was off to bed to plot her next move, she said. Because, she assured me, there would be one. And then another. Silas Silver, she promised me, would not have the last laugh here. Not by a long shot.
On the second night, she walked past his door with nary a knock upon it. Down the road she strolled, until she reached the beach at Red River, where she knew, from a lifetime spent watching him from our home on the hill across the water, that he took his evening constitutional.
Hiding behind a dune and casting ample glances over her shoulder throughout the endeavor, she stripped down to a bathing costume a Southern cousin had sent north to us after winning second place in a so-called “beauty” pageant. Then, her cheeks flush and the goose flesh on her arms and legs in fine form, she sauntered into the surf.
A chill shook her to her soul as the water wrapped round her ankles, but the sea air was bracing as she drew it into her lungs, so she threw caution to the wind and her body into the waves.
Gasping as she emerged, she caught sight of a scandalized Silas watching her. She caught her breath, offered him a smile, and then begged him to come hither and join her. His eyes followed a trickle of water she felt navigating its way from the hollow of her neck toward the more hallowed hollow below. His eyes on her bosom now, she asked him again to heed her call. And she swore she could see him take half an involuntary step toward her before he steadied his resolve and himself.
Not yet halfway through his walk, he was so flustered he could not manage a response. And so, he took his leave of her and made for the sanctuary of his home.
For a moment, she thought to cry again. She thought of the long walk through town to the closest bridge that would bring her home. She thought of eyes on her now-soaking body that she’d hoped would not look upon her again until she was his bride, or at least his betrothed. But then she took a deep breath and held back the maelstrom brewing behind her eyes, and she remembered our father’s words that no defeat is a true defeat without a white flag waved, that every battle, won or lost, is a victory until it is not.
What he meant by that, aside from a general note of encouragement, I can scarcely say. But it was all my sister needed in that moment. And all I’ve needed in moments of my own. So, I’m thankful for that, for that one bequest he saw fit to offer us before he was gone for good. Just as I was thankful that my sister came home that night without catching her death of cold, and with so much on her mind that she did not pause to ask me about the letters I’d strewn across our kitchen table in her absence. Thankful for the moment, but mindful — fearful, even — of the moment to come.
On the third night, only one course of action remained, only one path to victory. And though I should have stopped her, though I should have laid myself bare before her — instead, I listened to her plan to lay herself bare before him. And when she was finished, when I had one final chance to dissuade the girl, to call her folly what it was, I simply laughed at her audacity and wished her well.
Whilst Silas took his walk that evening without issue, without encountering so much as a wayward crab or a scheming gull, my sister snuck into his house and deposited her naked body into his bed as a good faith payment on the debt she would owe to him if he rescued her from our broken home.
Beneath the covers, waiting for him, she explored the only collateral she had to offer, explored it as she often had in the years of waiting, and she made herself ready. Fingers found familiar places. And behind closed eyes, she saw clearly the imminence of her victory. When the door creaked open downstairs, she smiled the certain smile of a woman who knows she will not be refused. And she waited.
When he appeared at the door, he gave a little start, holding a hand to the flush chest she could see now through his unbuttoned shirt. But the shock was soon replaced with a smirk. He told her that she was nothing if not persistent.
“And will you reward me for that virtue?” she asked him.
”Miss Carson,“ he said, ”There is no reward for virtue in this world, certainly not in any prize I might offer.“
My sister sat up then, let the sheets fall away from her bare chest, all modesty gone. ”Then let me reward you,“ she said. ”You have waited so long.“
”And I will wait at least one night more,“ he said, handing her underclothes to her and averting his eyes.
”No,“ she said, throwing her brassiere at him, then the rest.
He turned to face her as she stomped toward him, laughing at her brashness as she fumbled with his belt, only taking hold of her wrists once she’d finally managed to unbuckle him.
”My vow,“ he said. ”I have made a promise.“
”To who?“ she said as she wrenched herself free of him. And then, as she slapped one open palm against his chest and then the other, she said it again: ”To who?“
”I cannot say,“ he told her. ”I am sworn to secrecy.“
”Another promise,“ she said, shaking her head. And then, when he would say nothing more to her, she dressed and she left.
I confess that, for a moment that night, I thought she had won him over. As I waited in our parlor, the clock chiming midnight, I fixed my eyes on the front gate and tried not to cry. I worried over the letters as a papist might worry over a set of rosary beads, folding and unfolding them without stopping to read even a word. I wondered suddenly if he had ever done the same. And I wondered if my words and the paper that had delivered them to him were but tinder now for the fireplace that sat at the foot of his bed. I wondered if he had even told my sister what they were before he burned them.
But then she came storming through the door, making her way for the stairs. She climbed and she climbed until I heard the faint echo of the door to the widow’s walk slamming open above me.
I thought of going to her as I gathered up the letters and tucked them away inside our father’s old chest once again. I thought about it, but didn’t. And of all the regrets of my life, that one weighs heaviest upon these shoulders that have been slouched down by the worser angels of my nature. Because she was up there still as the sun rose over Nantucket Sound and Silas Silver came calling at our door. She was up there with tears in her eyes as she watched him pull a bouquet of spring flowers from behind his back, tears of joy that turned suddenly bitter as he called out my name instead of hers.
I opened the door just in time to see her body come crashing down upon the gate, to see her impaled by the pickets as the light of the morning sky left her eyes. That light, and every other.
We waited three months to marry, Silas and me. It seemed the right thing to do. Just as, I’m sure, waiting three nights for me to lay before him the way my sister had seemed the proper amount of time to wait before seeing my damaged goods for what they were.
He was reading when I came to him the next day to suggest a visit to the courthouse might be the best thing for both of us. Shakespeare, it was, as it so often was. Henry VIII.
He nodded when I was done talking, never once looking up from the page.
I’m told that Henry’s fourth wife was the first to survive marriage to him. That I share this distinction with her, that and our name, is a small comfort. Something to laugh at when the demons come. And they do come, don’t you worry. I know what I’ve done, what I damn near dared him to do, and I know what it cost us both.
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