The Patience for Taming

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The Widow Silver’s home was the last ramshackle cottage on the path that Patience strolled to the sea. As a girl, walking hand-in-hand with her father to this very beach on Sundays after church, she had wondered what grand views might be possible from the house’s dilapidated dormers. But now, as she watched her betrothed’s sister standing upon the lawn as still as a statue, weathered eyes on the horizon, Patience saw the truth of it: to look upon the ocean was kind of torture for the women of this house. How many widows had been made by that water out there? How many beneath this one roof alone?

“You’re lucky,” the sister told her, as they made ready the yard for that evening’s reception, “that Silas fears the sea.”

“I’m lucky,” said Patience, “that my father owns every cranberry bog between here and Buzzard’s Bay.”

Silas’ sister took hold of Patience by the wrist then, and looked her straight in the eye. “You are a fine woman,” she said. “My brother is lucky to have you.”

But that night, waiting beneath the covers of her marriage bed for her husband to return from his labors at the hearth below, she wondered if he’d have her before she fell to sleep. Her foot tapping against the mattress in rhythm with her impatient heart, she longed to be had, to be known.

Patience knew that he’d known at least one girl before her, had caught them canoodling in a carriage abandoned by one of her father’s bogs, but she tried her best not to dwell on their abominable ardor. The Kissing Cousins is what every person in the town had called them, mongers of fish and rumors alike, but Patience took Silas at his word that he had repented those sins. Even though she had seen the look in his eye as he marched down the steps of the town hall holding hands with that half-Irish whore, even though she had listened to them laugh as they tried to steal from one another the piece of paper that announced them as officially intended, Patience took the words of her husband as the Bible truth. She had to, didn’t she? If she closed her eyes, she could see him kneeling in the cold mud outside Charleston, confessing to the chaplain as men moaned in pain around him, as men died in the days between battles. If only she would close her eyes.

But she didn’t want to, not anymore. Instead, she reached for his nightstand and plucked from it the tome that he’d left there. In the candle light, as she read the spine, the deckled edges of the pages tickled her fingers. And though it should have made her smile that he had a taste for at least one fine thing in life — and it would make her father smile when she told him — Patience frowned. She leafed through the book until she found the scrap of leather he’d left to mark his place, then frown turned to scowl.

Book in hand, she stormed from the room and made for the stairs.

“My love?” called Silas from below, something clattering to the floor as he spoke, as Patience stomped down toward him.

She found him standing by the now roaring fire, a bottle of wine in hand.

“Where did you get that?” Patience asked.

“My cousin Patrick liberated it from the priest’s pantry,” he said. “I was a bit nervous before the ceremony.”

Patience looked to the floor to keep from looking at him and saw there a wooden cup rolling across the hearth, the blood of Christ spilt out behind it.

“I,” he stuttered, “was a bit nervous just now, too.”

“Nervous?” she said, as she watched the cup roll into the flames.

Silas stepped toward her then and set his hands upon her shoulders. “Can you not understand?” he said. “You are a beauty, my — ”

“Don’t patronize me,” she said, shrugging him off as she clutched his book to her chest.

“Oh,” said Silas, the cloying tone upon his gravelly voice like a derelict dressed for tea. “My love, I’m sorry to have tried your patience.”

She growled at him and paid him for his pun with a sharp thwack of book on shoulder. And then another. And another. “I am no shrew to be tamed,” she said as she shook the book at him, as he grabbed her by the wrists.

“Are you not?” he said, smirking at her, delight twisting upward the corners of his lips.

Patience thought of her father then, as she struggled to break free of her husband’s grasp. She thought of her father putting her to bed when she was a girl, of what he told her as he pulled the nightgown down over her body, as she held her hair aside and waited for him to lace up the back. “What is wanted,” he said, “must be taken.”

And so she kicked the bottom of her bare foot at her husband’s shin. And as he fell to his knees, hollering in pain, she swung his book at him one last time, driving it into the back of his head. Silas collapsed to the floor, a hand clutching at the spot where she’d hit him, and he whimpered. “Why?” he said. “Why?”

Patience straddled him, pushing him onto his back as she pushed his night shirt up and away from his loins.

“Patience,” he said, as she tugged at him. “Patience, I am not — ”

“This part of you,” she said, as she mounted him, “begs to differ.”

When it was over, she staggered to her feet and leaned against the fireplace, the heat a balm for the places that ached now. On the floor, Silas sat up and tugged at the hem of his shirt to cover himself. “The wait,” he said, “would not have been much longer.”

But Patience was not listening to him. She was staring at the book that lay discarded now upon the floor, its pages soaking up the spilt wine. “I saw her perform once,” said Patience, absentmindedly. “Your beloved.”

“She was not my — ”

“Your beloved,” spat Patience, balling up the hem of her gown to sponge away what Silas had left behind. “During the war, Father took me to the city to see a show.”

“Which play?” said Silas.

“That one,” she said, nodding at the book. “This one,” she said. “The one you’re playing at now.”

“I’m not playing — ”

“And she was exquisite,” said Patience. “Far too good to be begging on the Common with a soliloquy.”

“What?” said Silas, crestfallen. “I thought you said — ”

“Oh,” said Patience, with a laugh, “we went to see a show, but she was no part of it. Oh, no, no, no. The footlights of Scollay Square were not calling for your lady fair. Nor for anyone of her ilk.”

She watched with satisfaction as her husband ducked his head in shame. But when he told her that she was just as cruel as advertised, she scowled.

“As advertised by who?” she said, watching as he rose from the floor, as he rose to his full height.

“By you,” he said, looking down on her now. “By your lack of a suitor, by that sneer you call a smile. And,” he said, grabbing hold of her chin and yanking it upward, “by the size of the purse your father paid me to take your damaged goods off his hands.”

Patience slapped his hand away. “Why, I never — ”

“And he never!” said Silas, seething. “And if a man of his particular passions is never going to take what he — ”

“What are you implying?” said Patience.

“Not implying,” said Silas, shaking his head as he made his way toward the stairs. “Telling. I am telling you that you are as bound to me as I am bound to you. And if misery is the chain you wish to shackle us together, so be it. I am already familiar with that weight. I can bear it,” he said, plucking his book from the puddle. “Can you?”

And with that, with those words and a smirk for good measure, he took his leave of her, leaving it to Patience to decide if she would be tamed, if she could be, if should be, after all.

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The Tale of Old Silas

My Story, Your Choice. Watch, Listen, or Read:

The most troubling thing about his nightmare was that it never ended the same way twice. If there had been some sense of continuity, some sticky end he could anticipate with dread each time, then it might have been easier to bear. But, no. One night it was the simple, profound pain of seawater flooding his lungs; the next it was a great white whale swallowing him whole; and the night after that it’d be the plank, walking the plank and plunging into the embrace of the shark below, feeling his flesh torn asunder, watching his foot and his boot float off toward the shore. Yes, the conclusion was revised each night, the only common theme his untimely demise. Which was what made this night’s version all the more troubling. In this one, he didn’t die.

Silas sat up in his bed in the attic of the old colonial, its drafty windows clattering in the strong winds of a November gale. He drew the thick wool blanket tightly around himself, hoping that, like the armor of Achilles, it would protect him from all comers. But still he shivered. Still, he wept. Now that he’d pulled it up over his head, there wasn’t enough blanket left to cover his ankles, his heels.

The ninth to bear the name, Silas Odysseus Silver was the first of that long line to fear the sea; the rest of them had actually worked it, had actually made their names as the pilots of English, and now American, sailing vessels. But the trade was already at the beginning of its steady decline on Cape Cod; by the dawn of the next century — the twentieth — most of the business would move north to Cape Ann, our cape’s rocky, inhospitable cousin. His brothers-in-law, once commanders of the grandest of ships, and travelers to exotic ports of call — they had traveled as far as Canton and the Sandwich Islands — would soon be reduced to cultivating the lowly cranberry. Thus, there was no need for a young man who actually shrunk at the sight of the slippery seductress he was meant to tame, not time anymore to wait for someone like Silas to overcome his particular psychosis. Maybe in some other, earlier age. But not now.

Rain lashed against his window, like a vengeful sprite trying to force its way in. The boot, the boot, the boot. It all came back to the boot. For the boot had been there this time. But not like before, not like before. Because he wasn’t in the jaws of the shark this time as he watched the boot borne off on the waves — this time the embrace was far warmer, far more…

He was an infant when it happened, the incident with the boot. Too young to remember the details of it himself, he knew the story only through the lens of his sisters’ own fractured memories; their mother refused to speak of it. And perhaps it was worse, knowing the story only this way, knowing only with the distant and often contradictory embellishments of three young women who were barely old enough to remember that day themselves.

Silas shook harder beneath the blanket now, so vivid was the horror inherent in his vision of that fateful day.

It was in the twilight of 1844 that his family’s own twilight began in earnest, a blustery December morning that brought two fellows down from the very tip of Cape Cod — Provincetown — through the snowy streets of humble Harwich. Silas was in the arms of his mother, and, along with his sisters, watched, from the window above the kitchen sink, the two men trudging through the freshly fallen snow, the wind whipping off of Nantucket Sound so fiercely that it nearly toppled them and their terrible burden. They carried with them a burlap sack containing all that was left of his father — a boot which had washed ashore, into the dunes that ringed the Race Point lighthouse, and within that boot a severed foot clod in a tattered stocking, stitched with the poor man’s initials in the sole.

While his sisters served the weary travelers tea and biscuits, it was said that Silas himself, a mere babe, could not take his eyes off of the stocking — minus the foot now, of course. He pointed at it, and struggled to wriggle from his mother’s arms to touch the object of his newfound obsession. But he would never touch it, just as he would never again feel the rough, stubbled face of his father pressed against his cheek in a silent farewell before heading out to sea. The sock and the boot would be burned. And the foot — well, nobody could remember what had happened to the foot (or, at least, nobody would say), but Silas suspected that it had been burned, too, whatever small part of it there was, for the smell of burning flesh, no matter if it were the flesh of a pig, or a cow, or a lamb, still churned his stomach to this day. Even the smell of his own sweat, his own skin after a day in the sun raising a barn or a house — even that was enough to make him sick.

His stomach churned now, somewhere beneath the dark folds of the blanket, at the thought of he and his love basking under the noon-day sun on that distant shore he had dreamt for them, she paying no attention to the bandaged stump at the end of his left leg, where his foot had once been, as she asked him, “Do you love me?”

“O heaven,” he moaned as she ran her hand down along his chest, along his stomach. Down, down, down. “O heaven, o earth, bear witness to this sound, and crown what I profess with kind event if I speak true! If hollowly, invert what best is boded me to mischief! I, beyond all limit of what else i’ th’ world, do love, prize, honor you.”

And how she cried then, thick sobs punctuating her speech as she said, “I am fool to weep at what I am glad for.”

“Wherefore weep you?”

“At mine unworthiness, that dare not offer what I deserve to give, and much less take what I shall die to want. But this is trifling; and all the more it seeks to hide itself, the bigger bulk it shows. Hence, bashful cunning, and prompt me, plain and holy innocence! I am your wife, if you will marry me; if not, I’ll die your maid. To be your fellow you may deny me; but I’ll be your servant whether you will or no.”

“My mistress dearest. And I thus humble ever.”

“My husband then?”

“Ay, with a heart as willing as bondage e’er of freedom. Here’s my hand.”

“Ay, but where is your foot?”

“My foot, my foot, my kingdom for a foot!”

And that was how it ended this night, his terrible dream. For all the world truly was a stage, and they merely players. But he was no Ferdinand to her Miranda, no matter how often they read the play together. No, he was the boatswain and this was his exit. Forever would he have the dream, but never would he have the lady.

This was his exit, his terrible exit. He stared out from under the blanket, across the dark blue murk of his room. “Oh, I am fortune’s fool,” he said to himself then. “I am fortune’s fool.” Closing his eyes, he thought to himself that he would much rather have seen the terrible dream through to its inevitable conclusion than to be facing the waking nightmares which were plaguing him now, the visions of musket fire piercing his arms, his chest, of a cannon ball taking his legs out from under him. The thought of his last words, of his fellow soldier holding him in his arms, clutching him to his breast, whispering, “Courage, man. The hurt cannot be much.”

And his reply, “No, ’tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church door; but ’tis enough, ’twill serve. Ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man.”

Of course, yes, all of this is conjecture — I’m making it up; I couldn’t possibly know what this ancestor of mine was thinking on the day he took his leave of Harwich and made his way off of the Cape to do his duty, to serve his country. I’ve had to build this scene from precious little evidence, but I think it does the man justice, even in its more melodramatic moments.

Little is known of the younger days of the man who would be the last Silas Silver. In his later years, he became a man of few words and of much disdain for the company of others. To paint a picture of his youth we must rely on a single photograph, taken the day before he and the rest of the 24th Massachusetts Infantry departed for Annapolis, 9 December 1861, and his well-documented obsession with the works of the Elizabethan playwright William Shakespeare, a contemporary of the last man in the Silver line not to be called Silas. Aside from the fact that most of the few words the old man spoke in his later years were cribbed directly from the Bard, there is the surviving collection of Shakespearean drama which is the pride of our family’s library to this day. The pages of those old volumes are dog-eared and riddled with the chicken-scratch of our Victorian ancestor, and they betray a truly all-encompassing obsession with the work.

The photograph betrays that he not only knew of tragedy in a literary sense, but that he had experienced it in his own life, as well. Reflected in his eyes, which are cast off to the left, avoiding the steady gaze of the foreboding contraption about to steal away forever a part of himself that he wasn’t sure he was ready to give up, a careful observer will see an overwhelming sadness, and a sense of resignation at the hand that fate has dealt him. In the slouch of his shoulders one might identify the weight of his family’s good name bearing down upon him, the weight of obligation. And in the tentative grasp of his hands around the musket, how could you not see doubt and fear?

Microfilmed copies of the town records of Harwich confirm that there must have been a young lady on his mind at the time of his enlistment. Silas and his sweetheart, Tamson O’Rourke, had filed their intent to marry just weeks before Silas’ enlistment. But no record of the marriage can be found. Indeed, the next documented evidence of Tamson O’Rourke is her death record, filed in the waning years of the war. She died in Boston, of consumption, and, according to the record, had never been married. Her occupation — actress — was not common in the puritanical Beantown of the mid-nineteenth century. A check of the newspapers of the time, and of available programs and posters, finds no record of any headlining performance, but it is possible that she worked under an assumed name.

What is certain in all this uncertainty is that she was actually more than Silas’ sweetheart. She was also his cousin, his first cousin.

So it’s not hard to imagine why this romance, which had probably gone further than the old Widow Silver would have liked, was never consummated. It’s not hard to imagine that Silas’ enlistment in the Union army was a convenient way to get him away from that hopeless dreamer of a girl, the daughter of the family’s black sheep and her worthless Irish husband. It’s not hard to paint a picture, our grandfather used to tell us, when the palette you’ve been given is so vast, and so full of possibility.

So, Silas went off to fight in the war of the rebellion, torn from a girl whom he loved deeply for all the reasons his mother loathed her. A tale as old as time, song as old as rhyme: Beauty and a man who would soon become a beast. The 24th Massachusetts Infantry was involved in both decisive victories and losses in and around the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. In February of 1862, they took the strategic point of Roanoke Island, assaulting the forts along its narrow waist in a victory that helped tighten the blockade of the rebel city considerably. But they lost just as decisively in Secessionville in June of that year. All wars, I suppose, are like a yo-yo — the incessant back and forth — but when you’re fighting yourself, as our country was then, it seems to me that the fruitless nature of it all could only be more amplified. Punch your own arm and sure, there is a momentary sense of triumph, but then there’s the pain, and pain, in my experience, lingers for far longer than pleasure. Soon they would be engaging in useless displays of machismo, burning the stockpiled grain of the enemy in July of 1864. And, not long after that, receiving what later generations of American soldiers would call a million dollar wound, Silas the Ninth would be discharged and sent back home, back into the bosom of an old widow who was drawing her last breaths.

The last of the Silver males, Silas was charged with the propagation of the family name. It was the dying wish of old Widow Silver that the ninth Silas Silver make it his life’s mission to beget the tenth. And Silas, well aware by now that his long lost love was truly lost, made up his mind to remove love from the equation. He set out to find his bride with the same sense of blind, systematic determination with which he had tackled the collected works of Shakespeare.

He married first, in 1865, the only daughter of a local cranberry baron, a girl named Patience, who did little but try his. When she succumbed to influenza five years later without providing him his heir, he married again. And when that woman did nothing but steal away two decades of his life before catching her death of cold, he married again. And again. For one wife, once a woman of ill-repute, who claimed to be half-Wampanoag, he tore down his mother’s home, which his bride claimed was beset upon by evil spirits, and built in its place a sprawling, garish Victorian that left so little land exposed on the property that you couldn’t properly call it a lawn. And though he had bedded her in every one of its eleven rooms, only his libido had been sated, never his desire for a son.

It was in the summer of 1913, just six months shy of his seventieth birthday, that Silas Silver met Annie O’Reilly, the teenage daughter of Irish immigrants, whose sparkling green eyes, from across the room, seemed to reflect the one aspect of old Silas that women of all ages still found attractive. Widows and spinsters who had lived long enough to know both women would note in their journals the more than passing resemblance that the young Miss O’Reilly bore to the long dead Tamson O’Rourke. And one must assume that that resemblance was at least one reason why the shriveled organ of Silas’ heart may have begun to beat more strongly than it had in years.

They met at a barn dance, that bastion of the Cape Cod social scene. And it was Mister O’Reilly, not his daughter, who made the first move, making his way across the dance floor with a proposition for the entranced Mister Silver.

“I see you fancy my daughter there, Mister Silver,” said Mister O’Reilly, smiling, clapping Silas on the shoulder. “And I hear you’ve a desire to spread your seed, as it were.”

“This is quite a vulgar conversation, sir,” Silas grunted, turning to leave. “Now, if you’ll excuse me…”

Mister O’Reilly grabbed hold of Silas by the shoulders then and held him steady, seething in a near-whisper. “My daughter’s borne the bastards of no less than three of this town’s less-than-desirable sons. I have no room left in my home for any more and no explanations left for how my wife continues to bear children even as her hair grows more silver than a storm cloud. If you would be so kind as to help us alleviate our financial burden, I would consent to offer you my daughter’s hand.”

And so it was that Silas Silver came to marry his seventh wife, the young Miss Annie O’Reilly. And so it was that, in the spring of the year 1914, Silas’ wish for an heir was finally granted. At Annie’s wishes, because she claimed the name Silas was now “out of fashion,” they named the child Elijah. “A good Christian name,” Annie said. Ten months later, before dying in the delivery room, she gave him a second child, Dorothy. Dottie, for short.

In some earlier age, perhaps Silas would have been a passable single father. But things had changed, as things are apt to do, and Silas not only couldn’t empathize with his children; he couldn’t understand them, either. Elijah took up, not the professions of his cousins — lawyers, politicians, and bankers all — but became, instead, little more than a traveling minstrel, blowing on his horn wherever it took him. He eschewed the classics in favor of dime novels, hornswaggled his way out of the second Great War while his cousins bled to death on the beaches of Normandy, then courted and married some poor Polack’s daughter.

And the girl was even worse, living the life of a harlot, calling herself an artist, living in sin with one man after another until finally, in the fall of 1944, she got what she deserved — consumption — and found herself, like her father down the Cape, shivering beneath the covers of the last bed she would ever sleep in.

Elijah came to Silas then, in his bed at the Cape Cod hospital in Hyannis, to plead for Dottie’s dying wish — a spot in the family plot in Harwich. “All she wants is to be next to Mum. It doesn’t have to be…”

Silas cackled between hacking and wheezing and he said to his son, “You’d sooner catch a weasel asleep than convince me to allow that strumpet’s corpse to pollute the eternal resting place of my family.”

“I should never have come,” said Elijah, heading for the door. “Dottie thought that age might have softened you, but I can see that, even after a century spent on this Earth, you’re still a no good son of a bitch.”

“I would live a hundred more years,” Silas screamed at his retreating son, at that coward, that dog, “if only to see that the two of you never tarnish my family’s good name… A PLAGUE ON BOTH YOUR HOUSES!” he screamed, through the phlegm that was nearly suffocating him.

But Elijah, the man would become my grandfather, had never read Shakespeare. He didn’t get the reference. And he would leave his father’s room that day thinking that the old man had simply gone mad.

Which, in a way, he had.

The last Silas Silver would not live another hundred years. He died that autumn, just after his daughter. And his attendant would make a call north that day, to summon that last scion of the Silver family south for the funeral, a call eerily similar to the one I would have to make some fifty years later.

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The Pieces

My Story, Your Choice. Watch, Listen, or Read:

I know that I’m trying too hard to make the pieces fit, but I keep forcing it anyway. You probably don’t remember this, but I was standing there, feet planted, hands in my pockets, surfing the waves of the Red Line the way I always did. And there you were, across the way. But it couldn’t have been you. I mean, your… your… they were gone. And you were with him, which made no sense. Like, none. And I tried to imagine you were someone else, both of you, but you weren’t.

It was the keys you twirled around your finger that got me started. That, and your knee pressed against my old dentist’s thigh. My old dentist. Like, really fucking old. He was wiggling a tooth in his mouth to explain a dream he’d had, and you were listening to him. You sat still, still but for the gentle movement of your chewing mouth, and you listened.

In my mind, I saw the two of you in bed together, your young body wrapped around his withered one. And I could see the moment you fell in love with him, the moment he ended your week-long pain by uprooting a rotten tooth in one determined yank.

Then I saw myself, in sweats, reflected in the darkened window of the train’s closed doors. I bared my teeth, feigned a scream to complete the image, and read the words on my old dentist’s chapped lips:

Mentally emaciated...

...mentally emaciated...

I am mentally emaciated.

The train stopped, and I followed an elderly couple out onto the platform, all the while daydreaming of fingers plugged into holes where teeth should be, of a village without pavement from one of the books he kept in his waiting room, and of the tunnels you used to dream of, back when you were the dreamer, and I was the one who listened.

I watched the train leave. And, here’s thing: it was empty, and I wondered where the two of you went. I wondered, suddenly, if you were ever there at all.

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We Could Be Heroes

My Poem, Your Choice. Watch, Listen, or Read:

Today I yearn to
go back to the drawing board
where I spent summers sketching
heroes that could rescue me
from anything,
maybe even this feeling
rooted in my gut,
a nemesis planted there
by a vengeful sprite who
sprang from my split skull,
then slithered back inside
to have the run of the place.
I am no Zeus,
she no Athena,
but still I try to strike her down
with words like thunderbolts.

My daughters hear my curses,
shouted out loud and at myself,
and wonder if the words are meant for them.
Pencil in hand, sketchbook on lap,
I wonder if I can still conjure
the hero they are holding out for. Or,
will they have to rescue themselves?

If they do, I wonder
is that so terrible a fate?
For, isn’t our greatest struggle
against the dreams we dreamed of
ourselves that still hang drying on the vine
under Langston’s sun?
Isn’t every day a confrontation
with the dreams we defer
and defer and defer again,
until they are bombs hurled at us
through time
by the imps we used to be?

Isn’t every day a rescue mission
where we are both
the heroine and
the damsel in distress?

And when Peter Parker
pulls on his mask and
disarms assailants with
a joke first and
a punch in the teeth
only after that,
isn’t he also
fighting off the tears
of a boy who wasn’t
the right kind of strong,
who still isn’t,
but might be

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