The Crone on the Common
The crone fled across the Common, and Annie followed. It was a struggle for her, with a belly fit to burst any day now. Nevertheless, she persisted. She might be nine months pregnant, but Annie felt confident she would overtake the old woman in time.
The chase wound up the slope of Beacon Hill and past the gilded dome of the State House, then down the other side and through the streets and alleys of the West End. By the time they reached the river, Annie was all of a dither. The crone was making for a bar of some sort, a hive of scum and villainy if ever Annie had seen one—and she had seen more than her share in her days down the Cape. If she lost the crone there, amidst that crowd, all might be lost.
So she shouted at the top of her lungs, “Stop that vagrant,” waving her arms to draw the attention of the patrons milling about the stoop. “Stop her! She’s stolen my purse.”
But they did nothing. Some of them cast a glance at the crone, yes—out of sheer morbid curiosity, Annie supposed—but not one lifted a finger to aid Annie’s cause.
The truth was that the crone had stolen nothing from Annie, nothing save an overlong glance from across the way. But that look, the look in the old woman’s eyes as she leered at Annie from the other side of the enormous fountain—there was something there that Annie had never seen before. It was a fierce look, but that ferocity was tinged by an intense affection—and maybe, if Annie was right, even a sense of pride. It was as if the crone knew Annie in some way. But how?
Before she’d had a chance to ask, the old woman had run.
And now, making her way through the huddled mass of ne’er-do-wells ogling her as she passed, each of them focused on some other fine thing she carried on her person, Annie had indeed lost her quarry. She stood on tip-toe to peer over the heads of the throng, once and then again. But there was nothing doing. The crone was gone.
“You’re after the old woman?” asked a hooded figure at the bar.
The figure looked like something straight out of the book of fairy tales she read each night to her precious Elijah, the same book she looked forward to sharing with her new baby in the years to come. The traveling cloak was as anachronistic an affectation as she’d ever seen, and it was so tightly pulled around the figure that Annie could not make out any other detail about the person. She wondered for a moment if they mightn’t be a character from Mister Wells’ novel come to life. Might their time machine be tucked into an alleyway out back? It was an enticing thought, a thread she might follow at any other time, but she was burdened with glorious purpose here and could not afford the digression.
“Yes,” she told the stranger. “Did she see which way she went?”
The stranger pointed a gloved hand at a door to the right of the bar, near the very back of the place. “You best hurry,” said the figure.
And so she did, turning her belly this way and that to avoid elbows or worse, sweating so much it was as if tarnation itself were steaming up from between the floorboards. The door was a relief once she made it there, the draft that whipped across the threshold and between her jellied legs so refreshing that Annie might have stopped to rest her head against the jamb if not for the urgency of her undertaking.
Instead, she threw the thing open and stormed out into an alley way that was lit by an eerie orange glow. Annie searched for its source and was startled to find that the effulgence emanated from a what looked to be a tear in the very air. Or, now that she squinted at it, less a tear than the parting of two great curtains. Presently the light went out altogether. And then, from the darkness, Annie finally heard her quarry speak.
“Oh,” said the crone. “Oh shit.”
Annie doubled over, panting, clutching at a stitch on one side and the raging kicks of her baby on the other. “Who,” she began, in between harried breaths, “are you?”
“You don’t want to ask me that question,” said the crone. “Annie, trust me: you really don’t.”
Annie stood bolt upright at the shock of hearing the stranger speak her name. Her jaw went slack and her voice deserted her.
“We can change things,” said the crone. “I’ve done it before.”
“Change what?” said Annie, raising an eyebrow in confusion. “Done what?”
“I…” the crone stuttered. “I’ve… I have visions. Visions of terrible things. And if I’m careful, I can stop them.”
Annie watched the crone carefully. She was hiding something. The way she paused between words—it was like she was making this up on the spot, or at least part of it. But Annie could swear there was a sliver of truth in there somewhere as well, some small morsel. So, once again, she persisted.
“How do you know me?” asked Annie.
“You don’t want to ask me that,” said the crone. “You want to stop asking me questions altogether.”
Annie scoffed. “You don’t know me at all. I’m the most quizzical person you’ll ever meet.” She puffed up her chest with pride. “Quizzical to a fault, according to my dear Silas.”
The crone sighed and shook her head, then cast her gaze down at the ground.
“I’m sorry I exasperate you so,” said Annie. “But I will have my answers.”
“Quizzical to a fault,” repeated the crone. “Did he really say that?”
“Yes, indeed,” said Annie. “He’s a man of a certain age, my Silas, and he cannot be—”
“He’s a curmudgeon, you mean to say.”
Annie looked down her nose at the stooped old woman and shook her head. “Each man on God’s green earth is born with certain ration of patience. My Silas can’t be faulted for having spent his long before he met me.”
“Sure he can,” said the crone, a smirk playing across her lips. “And he never had much patience to begin with, to tell you the truth.”
“You knew my Silas?”
The crone laughed, then nodded. “You might say I was the first to know him.”
“Who are you?” asked Annie.
The question sobered the crone straight away. She blanched, her pale, wrinkled flesh drained of what little color it had left. Under other circumstances, this transformation might have been enough to make Annie give up and give in. But the crone was spry for her age—their chase had proven that. She could take a bit more heat before Annie let her out of the kitchen.
“Who are you?” Annie asked again.
“There are too many answers to that question,” said the crone.
Annie stepped forward and took hold of the lapels of the crone’s moth-eaten top coat. “Enough riddles!” she said. “Answer me.”
The crone lay her hands upon Annie’s belly and began to cry then, and Annie wasn’t sure whether it was the touch or the tears that made her recoil so quickly and with such force. Both women stumbled backward away from each other, nearly falling to the ground before righting themselves.
“Annie,” said the crone through sobs that threatened to choke the voice right out of her, “this is it. This is your last chance. And I am begging you: please don’t make me answer.”
Annie set her own hands upon her belly then, searching for movement, frightened. It had been the slightest of touches, the gentlest, but still she feared that this strange woman might have done something to her baby, or might have meant to. After all: she’d seen the woman stitch together a tear in the air with nary a word or a gesture. Who knew what conjurations she was capable of? One of Silas’ wives had been an enchantress of some sort, and she’d tried to snuff the life right out of him. Who was to say that the forces of evil had ceased their machinations against his family that day?
“Turn around,” said the crone, wiping the tears away with her tattered sleeves, trying desperately to collect herself. “Turn around and go home, Annie. I am begging you.”
But Annie stood her ground and asked one last time, “Who are you?”
The crone sighed. Then she began, saying: “I’ve had many names.”
“No more riddles!” spat Annie, tired of the tricks, sick of the stalling.
“My name is Emily Henderson,” said the crone. “Or, well, that’s what it’s been since I married Ernest some years ago. Before that, I was Emily Gold. But of course that was to keep my parents from finding me, or my husband’s. It should have been Emily Silver, really.”
“Silver?” said Annie. “But that’s my—”
“Silas and I—for a moment, we thought that me using my middle name would be enough. But in the end, it was too risky.”
Annie’s heart was all aflutter and she pressed a clammy hand to her chest to help steady the panicked organ. Was she hearing what she thought she was hearing? Could this be–? But she was dead, wasn’t she? That’s what her dear Silas had told her, that this woman had died during the war. Long, long ago. “Your husband’s name was Silas, too?” she stuttered. “Si–Silas Silver?”
The crone cackled. “Not ’too,’ dear girl. My Silas is your Silas now.”
And with that, Annie swooned as she had never swooned before.
When she came to her senses, she was supine on the cold concrete of the alley floor. Above her, the first stars were peeking through the veil of dusk. And she would have lain there for a good while longer, her purpose here forgotten, if the crone hadn’t stooped over Annie to adjust the traveling cloak she’d taken off and repurposed as a blanket.
“Oh,” said the crone. “You’re awake.”
“How long was I–?”
The crone smiled. She wasn’t missing nearly as many teeth as Annie had suspected she might be. “Long enough,” said the crone, “to give an old woman palpitations.”
Annie studied the crone’s face as the old woman dabbed a damp cloth across her forehead. And she saw, for the first time since the fountain, that glint of affection she’d been searching for an answer for.
“Have you read any of Mister Baum’s Oz books?” asked the crone.
Annie nodded. Gently, of course, for her head felt like it had been torn apart by a cyclone straight out of one of those novels.
“I imagine you feel quite like Dorothy at the moment,” said the crone. “I only hope you don’t think me the wicked witch.”
The conversation was coming back to her now, the words that had swept Annie off her feet. It was said—never by Silas himself, for he was too a good a man to compare any woman to another—that Annie was the spitting image of his first love, that that was why he was so taken with her. So Annie searched the crone’s face for the resemblance, trying to imagine away the wrinkles and pockmarks and sagging skin and to see the Tamson O’Rourke that she’d heard so much about.
Tamson, she thought. The first wife’s name was Tamson, not Emily.
“What?” said the crone, her gray eyebrows raised, her face screwed up as she tried, presumably, to tease out why Annie’s own countenance had just gone sour.
“His first wife was Tamson,” said Annie. “Tamson, not Emily.”
“I told you,” said the crone wiping the cloth across Annie’s brow once more. “We used my middle name to hide me from my parents. From Silas’ parents, too. I was born Tamson Emily O’Rourke, but I haven’t gone by the name Tamson since all before you were born.”
“But,” said Annie, “you died during the war. That’s what Silas told me.”
A painful smile played across the crone’s thin lips. “Oh, I died a little,” she said, “every time I thought of my love bleeding out on some battlefield. But I’m not dead, not yet.”
“Then why would Silas—?”
The crone held a finger to Annie’s lips and begged the girl’s patience while she explained. Then she spun a yarn for Annie that was so colorful—and preposterous—that neither Mister Baum nor Mister Wells, for all their skill, for all their notoriety, could have pressed the public to believe it possible.
“I don’t believe a word of that,” said Annie.
“Do you think I could invent it?” asked the crone.
“Tamson O’Rourke was as much a student of Shakespeare as my dear Silas,” said Annie. “If you are her—and I still have my doubts—then I’m sure you could invent just about any story you wanted. But you will not pull the wool over my eyes, m’am. No, you will not.”
The crone shook her head. “All you need believe is the bit about my abduction—that I came to this place in a moment of weakness and that I was stolen away from my Silas and from my dear…”
Annie stared at the crone as she trailed off, as she held a hand to her mouth, rolled her eyes in disgust with someone—with herself, Annie guessed—and sighed.
“Your dear who?” asked Annie. “There was someone else as dear to you as our dear Silas?”
The crone held a cold hand to one side of Annie’s face, thumb stroking cheek. The other hand played with Annie’s hair as the crone leaned in close and spoke. “I’ve said too much, Annie. But we can still stop this. Let me walk away, and we can—”
“Let you walk away?” said Annie, shrugging off the crone’s hands and sitting up at last. “I’ve fainted in an alley way, with a baby fit to burst my belly at any moment, and you want to walk away?”
The crone stood and hurried back toward the spot where Annie had seen her tear the air in twain. Then the crone began to wave her hands about that spot again, as if searching for something.
“Answer me!” Annie shouted, trying to stand and then thinking better of it.
The crone found the edge of something there in the air, her fingers disappearing for a moment, and then she prized apart the curtains that Annie had glimpsed there before. Behind the curtains, the sun was rising. It was the sun back there, Annie realized. But how? How?
“Who was as dear to you as Silas?” asked Annie.
The crone’s head fell forward, pointed chin pressed against heaving chest. Then she let the curtains of darkness fall back into place, the orange light behind them blinking out of existence once again.
“Who?” Annie asked, one more time.
The crone faced Annie with tears in her eyes. “My daughter,” she said.
The words would not sink in, as hard as Annie tried to make them. Her Silas, who had married again and again in his efforts to start the family he had long dreamed of—trying, yet never succeeding until Annie had given him their Elijah—her Silas had a child he’d never known about?
“I left her that night,” said the crone, “in the ramshackle room that we called home. I’d been out of work for months, since before the birth, since the moment I’d begun to show really. We’d been living off the kindness of friends, performers I’d worked with at the theaters around town in the months after Silas’ departure. But I was tired of their charity, felt unworthy of it, so I took this body of mine that I’d spent weeks recovering, and I took it to a place where it might be of some profitable use to my baby and me. I thought I’d be back before she woke,” said the crone. “But I wasn’t.”
“And what happened to her?” asked Annie.
“An orphanage,” said the crone, still crying. But when Annie began to tear up herself, the crone sniffled back the last of her tears, straightened herself up, and added, “But not for long, dear. An Irish couple took her in, got her out of this city of misfortune and brought her with them down the Cape.”
“And how do you know this?” asked Annie. “Did you come back for her?
“I couldn’t. But I’ve watched her,” said the crone. “From afar. Watched as she grew and prospered, married herself a fine man, had herself many children, and even took in a few who weren’t her own.”
“Other orphans?” said Annie.
“Orphans?” said the crone. “No. Bastards,” she said.
Annie smiled, thinking that this was indeed a small world. The crone’s daughter sounded so much like Annie’s mother as to be laughable. One of the reasons that Annie had been such an attractive prospect for dear Silas was that she had a proven track record of bearing fruit, so to speak. It was only when her mother’s hair began to grow more silver than a storm cloud, when she could no longer take credit for the children that Annie continued to deliver unto their doorstep, that Annie’s parents had sought a husband for her.
“Sound like anyone you know?” said the crone.
“As a matter of fact,” Annie began, but then she stopped, and she felt her stomach churn as these words—as all the old woman’s words—finally sank in. “What are you saying?” asked Annie.
“You know what I’m saying,” said the crone, ducking her head away from Annie once more.
“But,” said Annie. “If you’re my mother’s…”
“Then Silas is your mother’s…”
“And,” said Annie, her stomach now thrashing like the seas that stole her dear husband’s father from him so long ago, “that makes Silas my… my…”
The crone ran to Annie then, seeing the color drain from her face. “They are all just words, Annie. He is your husband. That is all that matters.”
Annie fell backwards, her head bouncing off the alley floor. But her body would not grant her sleep this time. No rest for the wicked, Annie thought. And that’s most certainly what she was. Wicked. Wicked, wicked, wicked. “Not just husband,” she stuttered. “Also… also…”
And it was then that her water broke, a trickle beneath her skirts at first, and then a gush that puddled at her ankles on the cold, dirty ground.
“Why did you tell me?” said Annie. “I asked, but needn’t have answered. You could have kept running. Your exit was right there in front of you. Why did you tell me?”
“It’s what I do,” said the crone, clutching one of Annie’s hands between both of her own. “It’s what I’ve always done.”
“But why?” asked Annie, as the labor began.
“Because,” said the crone, “As hard as I’ve tried—and believe me, Annie, I have tried—as hard as I’ve tried, I have never been able to say no to those I love.”
After Annie Silver was safely delivered of her daughter, her body was safely delivered of its soul.
The crone stood over the corpse with the baby in her arms, watching the denouement of her granddaughter’s life play out just the same as it always did. From the bar’s back door, which had remained silent and shut through her cries for help and through the blood-curdling screams her pointless ministrations had brought forth from the dying mother—from that back door emerged the hooded figure who had pointed Annie toward her oblivion once again.
“It’s done,” said the figure.
“I’ll try again,” said the crone.
“No,” said the figure. “You won’t.”
The crone squinted and peered beneath the shadowy folds of the figure’s hood. And for the first time in all these years they’d known each other, she saw a smile.
The crone carried the baby back up Beacon Hill, coming to a stop in front of the family’s city house and staring up at the still-lit window of the library where she and her cousin had played as children so long ago. She could see him pacing up there—Annie’s husband—a scholar in silhouette, his nose buried in some old tome or another. And the crone longed to join him, to be with the man she’d loved a lifetime ago. Lifetimes, plural, if she were being honest with herself. But how could she explain to him, how could she begin to explain where she’d been all these years, when her honesty had already cost him so much?
She set the baby down upon the doorstep, a note tucked into its swaddling blanket with the name Annie had selected in her final moments. Then the crone rapped the heavy knocker against the door three times, said goodbye to baby Dorothy, and fled across the common once more.