You sit at your brother’s breakfast table for the first time in thirty summers and you listen to his latest wife spin the yarn of how they were woven together. It was his stories, she tells you as you sip the too-strong tea she has conjured for you. It was his tales of woe that won her weary heart.
You try not to wince at each bitter swallow that crosses your lips, and you try not to covet the sugar bowl she has kept from you by folding her arms in front of it, nor to covet the goodly bosom making itself known beneath her bodice as she leans toward you to whisper conspiratorially the tale that topped all the others.
“Sarah,” she says to you, “do you know how many wives your brother has had?”
In your mind, you run through the names just to be sure you haven’t forgotten one. Then you tell her, “You are the fifth.”
She slaps the table and leans back, “Wrong!” she says. “I am the sixth.”
You feel an eyebrow raising before you can stop yourself. “Who have I missed?” you say, and then you rattle them off, counting them on your fingers. “Patience, Charity, Ada, Anne, and now you.”
“Ah,” she says, a broad smile spreading across her face, “but there was someone else before us all.”
And now you know exactly who she speaks of, but you close your eyes in puzzlement just the same. For there was no wedding between The Kissing Cousins. Your mother had not allowed it. And what your mother did not allow, your brother did not allow himself.
“Unfurrow your brow,” Maggie tells you, taking your hands into her own. “Unfurrow your brow, swear you’ll take my confession to your grave, and I will lay bare the sweetest secret of your brother’s saturnine soul.”
You do as you are bid and open your eyes on the bright face of a young woman in the thralls of passion. Though you are quite certain of how the story ends, you cannot help but wonder how this tale of lost love and love lost has so enamored her.
“Boston at mid-winter,” she says. “Can you picture it? The drifts high upon the Common, a blanket of snow curled around the gilded dome of the state house sitting high atop Beacon Hill. And at the foot of that gentle rise where sits the hub of the universe, down there in the shadows cast by revolutionaries and men of stature most high, there stands a simple church. Simple, but most grand in its lack of audacity. And in that church,” she says, “in that church stands a soldier, on leave from a war between brothers.”
In your mind’s eye, you can see him in his uniform, both the boy who left and the man who returned. And you wonder which it is that stands there. You wonder whether he has slipped into his chrysalis yet, or whether that moment has yet to come. And then you wonder if perhaps this is the moment, if it was not the war at all that changed him.
“A friar stood with him as they waited on the bride.”
“Was this a papist church?” you ask, confused.
She frowns. “Silas said it was friar. Are there not protestant friars?”
Over her shoulder, in the next room, you see your brother’s collection of Shakespeare and realization dawns on you just as plainly as the sun rising in the sky outside. “There may be,” you tell her, patting her hand, not wanting to admit impediments to the marriage of their true minds. “Continue,” you say.
“They stand there, the two men, their gaze locked upon the front doors of the place, and they wait. They wait, and they wait until finally she makes her entrance — the actress! Fresh from the footlights of Scollay Square, her makeup streaked, fat snowflakes in her tousled hair, she races down the aisle while she fishes through her purse. An apology on her lips, she hands the friar what he is owed and looks upon her beloved. ‘I’m sorry,’ she says as he takes her face in his hands and wipes away her tears with his thumbs. ‘I’m sorry,’ she says again and again until he silences her with his lips.
“The friar says, ‘You’re getting ahead of yourselves, aren’t you?’ But they’re not listening. They have waited and waited for this moment. Back home, down here, — down the Cape — their families would not have it. The town would not have it. But in Boston, costumed finally for roles they have cast themselves in, instead of the parts they have played heretofore, in Boston they are free.
“They have one night together,” she says, “before his regiment expects him back. And they spend it in the room she rents next door to the theater. In the morning, they argue over the birdsong they hear as sunlight fights through storm clouds.”
You can hear them in your head, debating over the nightingale and the lark, and you wonder which bits of this are true. Silas and Tamson had believed the Bard’s adage that all the world was a stage, so perhaps they had ended their wedding night with those words. Or perhaps not. It made a good story, either way.
“Maggie,” you tell her, “it is beautiful tale.”
“And tragic,” she says. “The girl died before the war was over. One of a thousand hurts my Silas has suffered.”
“But now he has you,” you say, squeezing her hands.
Maggie smiles at you and repeats your words. “Now, he has me.”
That afternoon, as you lunch with your cousin Hugo, you are stricken once again by the malady that has plagued you since your days in Dallas, since the day the horse threw you onto the tracks just outside the city limits. “Sarah?” he says, trying to shake you out of it. “Cousin, what ails you?”
But your lips cannot muster even so much as a whisper. You are rigid, your body unyielding. There is sweat dripping down your forehead, sweat which plasters a lock of graying hair across your eyes. And as your cousin dabs at your clammy skin with his too-fancy handkerchief, the monogram embroidered into the silk sending a shiver down your spine — as he pushes the hair out of your face for you, you wish you could tear the errant strands from your scalp. You feel like a weakling. You are one.
When it abates — the horror that has become mundane in these, your latter days — you apologize for not forewarning him. You give his hand a squeeze as you tell him that a life well-lived has its costs. And then you get back to your cucumber sandwiches.
“You’re voracious,” says Hugo, digging in himself now. “What shall we tell Silas if there’s nothing left for him?”
You give him a smile, recalling the play you took in some five years before during a stint in Manhattan. “We will say,” you tell Hugo, “that there were no cucumbers in the market this morning. Not even for ready money.”
He raises an eyebrow. “Do I know that phrase from somewhere?”
“Doubtful,” you tell him, knowing full-well that Hugo has not ventured forth from the comfortable confines of Cape Cod in at least a decade. “But,” you say, “Silas might.”
“Oh,” he says, with a strained chuckle. “Is that right?”
You tell him you meant no offense. You give his hand another squeeze. “It’s Oscar Wilde,” you say. “A play of his that was in and out of New York faster than — ”
“Faster than Wilde was in and out of Bosie Douglas, I’ll bet.”
You cover your mouth with both hands despite yourself, shocked not by his impropriety so much as by his considerable knowledge of British scandal.
“Shame about Wilde,” says Hugo, shaking his head. “Nothing inherently wrong with being sodomite, is there? I mean to say, why should we look upon the queer proclivities of men with any greater disdain than we do the sapphic yearnings of our young women? Is there any real difference,” he asks, dabbing a napkin at the corners of his lips, “between diving for pearls and bobbing for apples?”
You blush despite yourself. There is a real difference, you suddenly realize, between the lewdness of a lord and the bawdiness of a brawler. The men you rode the west alongside, there was nothing they wouldn’t say. But back east — back here — even amongst the mud sill of society, there was a sense of decorum. There were things one didn’t say. So, when they were said, it made all the difference in the world.
You fold you cousin’s handkerchief and make to return it to him, but he holds up a hand to dismiss the notion. “Keep it,” he says. “It came to me on a breeze, a lost thing whipping along the beach.”
“And you have no need of it?” you ask.
“No,” he says, “but you might.”
“I don’t follow,” you say.
“The initials,” he says. “That, if I were to wager, once belonged to Marcus Standish himself.”
“And?” you say. “Am I to sell it back to him? Is the man truly vain enough that it might be worth trudging into town to return it to him?”
Hugo laughs, a deep guffaw drawn up from the bowels of his barreled chest. “If I were to guess, Mister Standish has given so many of those away over these many years that there is naught but a handful of homes in all Harwich where one could not be found.”
“Do you mean to suggest,” you say, stifling a laugh of your own, “that the most infamous whoremonger in the county… What in tarnation would that man want with an old maid like me?”
“Were you not an adventuress in your day?” he says.
You throw the handkerchief at him, but he is quick, as quick as you used to be, and he catches it before it smacks him in the face.
“What would he want?” says Hugo as he folds the handkerchief once more. “This house, perhaps? This perfect perch at the edge of the deep green sea? You know that I’ve long coveted it, that it would belong to me and my sons if only your stubborn brother would admit defeat and accept the fruitlessness of his loins as the rest of us have.”
“Well,” you say, “I am fruitless now too, my branch as barren as Silas’.”
“True,” says Hugo, pushing the handkerchief back to you. “True. But permit me this: why have you returned here, at the end of your long life, if not to reconcile with your brother? And what better tool might you find to set at ease the mind of a man who still labors under the delusion that one of his wives favored you more than him? Show him this trinket, this token. You need say nothing more. He’ll write the rest of the story in his head for you.”
You look into Hugo’s eyes and see that he is telling the truth, that your brother has indeed spent these many years suspecting you of what you long suspected he might suspect. You look into his eyes and you take the handkerchief and you thank him. Then he rises, kisses your forehead, and takes his leave of you.
When your brother returns and asks for a sandwich and a cup of tea, you pick up the empty plate in horror and feed him the line. Without missing a beat, he waves a hand dismissively and tells you that it really makes no matter. “I had some crumpets with Lady Harbury,” he says, “who seems to be living entirely for pleasure now.”
You fall into each other, laughing. Laughing as you haven’t done since your mother, in her grief, made you his nursemaid all those years ago. With your father dead and gone, your sisters had to be married off. And quick. But you, you she could spare. And so, you and Silas have always shared a great many things. The blocks your father had carved for the two of you on his shore leaves, the stories you read from your grandfather’s dusty old tomes, the hand puppets you sewed for Silas when you began to read the Bard and sought for some way to more fully realize the drama on each page.
“That was a dreadful play,” he says. “Wasn’t it?”
“I enjoyed it,” you say. “For what it was.”
“But what was it?” he says, smirking at you.
He collects the plates and takes them to the sink. As you watch him, you recall that morning, years ago, when you played out this same scene. It seems like only yesterday, you tell him, the day you left.
“Only you were the one cleaning the dishes,” he says. “And the one sleeping with my wife.”
You cannot see his face as he says this. You cannot read the feelings in his monotone. Across your forehead, you feel a sheet of sweat descending from your hairline toward your brow. And as you move to wipe it with your handkerchief, you struggle for some offhand remark to set his mind at ease.
“If one shares a bed with her friend,” you say, stuttering a little as you search your mind for the line, “not meaning any harm…”
He shakes his head but does not look at you. “In bed and not mean harm?” he says, his voice still even and unperturbed, the pace of his words almost leisurely. “It is hypocrisy against the devil. They that mean virtuously, and yet do so, the devil their virtue tempts, and they tempt heaven.”
“They do nothing,” you spit out, all of it coming back to you. “Tis a venial slip. But if I give my wife,” you say, holding the object toward him before you realize what it is, what it really is. The embroidered initials lay beneath your thumb: an M and an S. But they belong not to Marcus Standish, you realize, but to Margaret Silver. Damn, Hugo. Damn him all to hell.
“A handkerchief,” says Silas as he turns to face you again, only the hint of a frown upon his face.
You mean to hide the thing away, to tuck it away in your sleeve or into a pocket. You have time before he sees. But your hand will not move. Your arm will not. You are seized by your demons as his gaze moves from your face to your hand, as his countenance is overcome by shock and then grief. And then anger.
He tears the handkerchief from your hand, paying no mind to the state of you. “What is this?” he says. “Sister, do you mock me?”
You watch him as he stalks across the room, pacing the length of it while he stares at the blasted slip of fabric he clutches between his white-knuckled hands. And you want to tell him the truth of it, but your lips are just as much your enemy now as any other muscle in your body. Just as much your enemy as time.
Time, which runs out as the sixth of your sisters-in-law opens the front door and steps inside.
“Silas?” she says, setting a hand upon his shoulder. “What’s the matter?”
He shrugs her off and wheels on her, shaking the handkerchief in her face. “You gave this to my sister?” he hisses.
“No,” she says. “I lost it. You know that. I lost it on the beach, during a walk.”
“A walk?” he says, snorting back a laugh. “You wouldn’t be the first wife to take a walk with her.”
“Ask her yourself,” says Maggie, pointing at you. But then she sees what’s become of you and races to your side. “Silas,” she says, holding your wrist in one hand whilst she cradles your head in the other. “She’s had another of them.”
“Another of what?” he says, still seething. “Care you more for her than me? Whose woman are you? I say again: whose woman are you?”
“Yours,” she tells him, shaking you, trying to bring you out of it.
“Lies!” he says. “Six of you, I have had now. And none have been true. Not a one. You have lain with her!”
“She will not say so,” says Maggie. “She will not!”
“No,” he says, stomping toward her and taking hold of her shoulders. “Her mouth is stopped. As yours, strumpet, must now be.”
When he pulls her from you, you topple to the floor. And it is only then that you begin to feel a tingling in your toes and in your fingers. It is only as you watch him straddle her and wrap his hands around her throat that you feel the spell breaking.
“I… am… your… wife,” she struggles to say.
“My wife?” he says, squeezing harder now. “What wife? I have no wife!”
“Silas,” you rasp, crawling toward him. “Silas!”
He stops and lets her go, staring at you with his mouth agape and his eyes wet with tears. A boy stares out at you from behind the weary eyes of this aging man, a boy who knows he’s about to be scolded, who knows he deserves whatever is coming to him.
“She spoke true,” you tell him, pushing him aside as you listen for her breath, as you feel for her pulse. “We were deceived,” you tell him. “The both of us.”
“By who?” he says.
You say nothing for a moment, holding a finger to your lips to shush him as you lower your ear to his wife’s face. It takes a moment more before you feel a shallow breath against your neck, as shallow as you’ve ever felt. “She lives,” you say.
He closes his eyes, mumbles, “Who? Who, Sarah? Who?”
“Hugo,” you say. “Our cousin has undone us.” But then, then you rise to your feet, steadying yourself on the chair that still stands upright. You rise, take a deep breath, and look down at your brother as you draw your pistol from the holster at your hip. “Our cousin has undone us, but now I’m going to undo him.”
And before Silas can say anything more, you are out the door and into the night.
You find Hugo on the beach, sitting amongst the dunes, cradling a crab’s shell in his hands. You see him flinch as another shell crunches beneath your boot. But he does not stand, not yet.
“She lives,” you tell him.
“Ah,” he says. “My provocation was not potent enough.”
You cock the gun as you circle to the front of him. Then you stare down the barrel at his unrepentant face. And still he does not move. “He tried to choke the life from her,” you tell him. “But she lives.”
“Ah,” he says, “but what kind of life?”
You fire a single shot into his kneecap and watch as he collapses to the side, clutching at the wound as he howls in pain. “I bleed, m’am,” is all he can muster. That and then: “I bleed, but I am not killed.”
“I am not sorry,” you say, crouching and pushing the hot barrel into the soft flesh of his cheek. “Tis happiness to die,” you say. “To meet your end feeling righteous and true. May you live forever, you bastard, crippled until the end of the world by the weight of your failure. Bathed in the stink of it.”
He laughs at you as you walk away. Laughs and laughs and laughs. “Your words are hollow, cousin,” is what he cries out to you. “We both know the truth of it! We both know the truth.”
She does not wake. Not the next day, nor the one after that. When she does open her eyes, her stare is blank, her gaze empty. Her lips part when you press a spoon of steaming broth to them. Her throat and her stomach fulfill their roles. Her body plays its part. But her mind, it is far afield.
Silas paces the length of the house, mumbling curses at himself, at your mother, at what is left of his wife, sparing no one but you. He cannot bear to look you in the eye, though. He watches with sidelong glances as you do the job that he knows is meant for him. When you change Maggie’s linens, when wash her pallid skin — these are the only moments that still him. Once you’ve left the bed, once he sees you standing over the sink to ring out the washcloth over that basin, then he is right back to wearing a hole in the rug.
Years pass and you stay in one place for the first time since you were a girl. You thank heaven every day that your body does not seize you. You spend many a night sitting in bed with the barrel of your gun pressed to your chin, wondering if you should rid your brother of yourself before you become a burden too.
A decade passes before Maggie does. At the services, the townsfolk wrap their condolences in ribbons of praise, clutching your hand or kissing you on the cheek as they yammer on about how virtuous it was of you to stay and lend your support to your brother in his time of need. You smile and nod, smile and nod, staring longingly out the window at the horse you’ve hitched alongside the new-fangled motorcars parked out front. You know your hips wouldn’t like it if you made for the door right now and leapt into that saddle. You know the cries of protest your weary husk of a body would let fly. But it doesn’t hurt to imagine your escape, to maybe even plan a little of it. After all, you never would have notched so many miles on your belt if you hadn’t spent at least a portion of each moment looking for a way to survive the next.
When the bodies are gone from your brother’s parlor, and the body too, you sit with Silas in silence and listen to the waves crashing against the shore outside his window.
“Should I try again?” he asks, after a good long while.
“You’re nearly seventy years old,” you remind him.
“It’s what mother would have wanted,” he says.
And since you can’t find fault with that calculation, you say nothing.
“Mary has had children,” he says.
“And grandchildren,” you add.
“Elizabeth, too,” he says.
You turn to him, offer him a kindly smile. “Most would say that’s enough. Most would understand that, though the name Silver dies with you, our blood still walks this earth.”
He looks to the floor, as if still the boy you once raised, as if he might find a lost marble there. Or something more precious.
“But Mother wasn’t most,” you say, giving voice to that which he seems determined not to speak.
He looks at you with glassy eyes, the lids beneath them puffy with a watery weight he cannot hold back much longer.
“I would lift the burden from your shoulders,” you say, “if only you would let me, if only my words were absolution enough.”
“Nine Silases have lived here,” he says, the tears rolling down his ragged cheeks now. “Nine Silases, at the edge of the ocean. And if I fail, I fail not only our mother, not only our father — ”
You come to your feet and it knocks the wind out of his sails, shutting him up. “Nine Silases,” you say. “Yes, nine Silases. But how many wives? How many women have been used up beneath this roof? How many by you alone? Six, Silas! Six! Don’t you think God might be trying to tell you something? A farmer who sows his seed across six fields without a crop to show for himself — he can blame the soil all he wants, but any man with any sense in his — ”
He comes to his feet now, too. “You go too far,” he says through gritted teeth.
“I will go as far as I need to,” you tell him. “I will…” you begin to say, but then you feel it, your body turning against you. For the first time in years. You close your eyes and you ball up your fists until you feel your fingernails piercing flesh.
“Sarah?” you hear your brother saying as the terror abates. “Sarah?” he says, taking hold of your shoulders. “You should sit.”
You open your eyes and you look at him. You want to shrug him off, but this is the perfect opportunity to finish it. So you stare into him, into the deepest part of him you can find, and you say, “Will you stop?”
And he answers you not with words, but with a blink of those eyes that you cannot stand to look at any longer. And now you shrug him off.
And now you are out the door. Now you are untying the horse. Now you are stepping into the stirrups and not hearing a word he says in protest, not hearing your body as it tells you ‘no’ too.
“Sister,” he says, clutching at your pant leg. “Don’t go. Don’t leave me.”
You look to the late afternoon sky and see the moon of the evening beginning to rise. Once upon a time you rode from this place in pursuit of the sun. But now, now it’s time to outrun what’s coming for you. You look down at your brother, the fool, and you know he will only hinder you. He will only encumber you, as he does everyone who latches onto him. So you shake him off one last time and you ride. You ride like there’s no tomorrow.
Because now — the stench of Maggie’s body still fresh in your nose, the revolt of your body still fresh in your bones — now you know for sure that there might not be.
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You can also read the five other installments in "The Seven Wives of Silas Silver" here:
- The Tale of Old Silas
- The Patience for Taming
- The Charity of Ruin
- The Boot
- The Best Thing for Both of Us