So, almost needless to say I didn’t win the story contest I entered in January. I say needless to say because you know I would have been on here bragging had I won it, or even gotten some type of honorable mention (I don’t know if they even do that. . .). But I refuse to regret entering. And I figured I would go ahead and share my story with the rest of you since no one else gets to read it anyway. 😛
Dying embers in the western sky cast a glowing light over a young woman seated on an old wooden porch. Her only knowledge of the sinking sun was subconscious as she squinted to see the words of the poem that held her attention, murmuring aloud the beloved ballad.
“They heard her singing her last song,
The Lady of Shallot. . .
for ere she reached upon the tide,
the first house by the waterside,
singing in her song, she died,
The Lady of Shallot.”
With a sigh, Sheila leaned back on a wooden chair at least as ancient as the cabin, closing both the slim volume and her eyes. No more hurt, no more pain, no more wondering. Somehow the death of the Lady of Shallot sounded so – soothing. Death. The word did not hold the alarming significant of ending a loved life. No – for her it held an escape from a tortured world with nothing in it but suffering. A cold breeze drifted across her sallow cheeks and sunken eyes. With a weary sigh, she forced her eyes open. The last traces of light had faded from the sky. Standing with the fatigued posture of a woman at least 60 years older, she made her way into the house, ignoring the creaking door as it fell from one of its hinges yet again.
Stepping inside the lonely cabin, she flipped on the light, but lifted her hand to shield her eyes from the sudden flood of brightness. Too much. She switched it off again and instead turned on a dim lamp. Absentmindedly, she picked up her the pile of unopened mail. Unpaid electricity bill. Turn-off notice for her phone. Another bill from the funeral home. Pangs shooting through her, she set it aside, her father’s last days coming unwanted to her mind. He’d lain in his own bed the last days before the cancer finished its deadly job, preferring his cabin and only daughter to a sterile hospital ward full of impatient nurses. The night he died, he held her hand tightly when she came to check on him for the evening.
“I love you, my daughter.” He’d whispered stroking her wan cheek with his withered hand. “When I die, remember to look to God for grace – life will get better.”
He smiled weakly and squeezed her hand. “Marry that soldier boy of yours and be happy again.” His hand fell and his eyes closed in final sleep.
Sheila stubbornly held back the tears that formed and threw away a few more bills before reaching a letter. She frowned as she looked at the unfamiliar return address. Opening it, she pulled out a small piece of dirty stationery.
“You don’t know me, but I knew your fiancée. By now you’ll have received the news of his death. I cannot even pretend to imagine the pain you must be feeling even now at the mention of him, but I needed to write and tell you how he changed me.
“First, I should explain – I grew up around coarse, rough men who did little work, preferring instead to talk about themselves and how their government never gave them enough. My dad sent me to join the army only so I wouldn’t keep getting into trouble. I don’t mind confessing I was a sullen teenager, who believed that I was rarely given everything I deserved.
“One of the first people I met was your fiancée. His eyes held a peace in them I had never seen before and when he spoke it was always to encourage – never to hurt. He made me realize that there were still good men who really cared—that a few people truly believed in the ideals and virtues portrayed in history books.
“What struck me most, though, was the love that emanated from him no matter where he was or what army life threw at him. When he spoke of his country, it was not to criticize or complain, but to talk with reverence of the greatest opportunity a man had ever been given to defend a country whose very foundation was based on principles of freedom and happiness. He spoke of a God I’d never heard of before. One loved and cherished us as his creations, and held accountable those who did wrong, rather than indiscriminately punishing humans. And he spoke of you. Oh, the light in his eyes and the softness in his voice when he spoke your name! Just watching him, I learned that it was possible for a man to truly love a woman – to be faithful, true and loyal without shame
“He looked at me right before he died, telling me, ‘I do not regret my decisions. I am willing to die to protect my country and my beloved. Tell her I loved her always.’
I’ve never known a man like him and I never will again. I convey his message to you with both deep sadness and joy in being able to do one last thing for him. May God be with you.
She sat staring at the letter for a moment that seemed forever. As though she hadn’t had enough, she had to be reminded once again of her most recent loss. Of the news she had received the very day after her father died. How she wished that she, like the Lady of Shallot, could lie in a boat and die peacefully, with no more reminders.
She laid the letter on the couch and slowly rose, walking to the mantel of the ash-filled fireplace and lifting up the last letter she had received from him, staring at his signature. The last word he ever had or ever would write to her. Holding it, she walked back and forth, her shoes echoing on the wooden floor. How long she paced she didn’t know nor did she care. What was she to do? Utter despair and hopelessness filled her as she realized she felt nothing but dread for her life ahead. No father to walk her down the isle. No groom to walk to. No God who cared. Almost blindly, she wandered to the window and pulled aside the curtain to look out. The soft shadows from the moon fell onto the deceptively gentle looking river. The cold clear water moved ever so softly. Ever so temptingly. She cast an almost frightened look behind her at the dark, empty house surrounding her and then back at the almost welcoming stillness of the one thing that could drown all her feelings forever.
Then she drew herself up and purposefully, steadily, turned away from the window, and pulled on her shoes and jacket. She walked out of the house, leaving the door open without a backwards glance. Down the quiet path to the dock, she walked until she stood at the end of it, staring down into the water. She knelt. Leaned over. Let her hand run through the soft, cold wetness, feeling the compelling strength of the underlying current. Numbness, despair, but mostly utter weariness pervaded every inch of her soul at once. She stood again, keeping her eyes on the water. She moved to the very edge of the dock and stepped off
Wait. Her hand clung to a post, stopping her. Unbidden into her mind flew the last lines of Tennyson’s poem.
“God in His mercy lend her grace,
The Lady of Shallot.”
She froze, the words arresting her in some odd way. Mercy. What mercy? God had no mercy – not for her. There was a silent moment of struggle as she bid her stubborn hand to release the dock post.
I am here. The words seemed to be whispered on the breeze. “No, no you aren’t! You’ve taken everything from me! You aren’t here, you were never here!” She shook her fist at the heavens, her voice ringing aloud through the night, breaking the numb spell that lingered over her and the waters. The sound of her own voice startled her, and she stepped back, almost frightened.
And then, as though the sound of a voice had been all that was needed to break through the shell of hurt surrounding her, she crumpled to her knees on the dock, weeping. “Oh, God. Oh, God.” It was all she could offer repeatedly as she sobbed.
The moon’s light shifted over the lake, falling on the figure of the weeping girl as through the night she let herself feel the full extent of her pain. Finally, as the first strokes of light appeared on the eastern horizon, she rose and again stepped to the edge of the dock. A bird swooped down from the sky, skimmed the water and went back into the air.
With a face full of a new determination, eyes filled with pain, but the knowledge of hope, she turned and walked back up the path to her house, the sun’s rays slowly rising to light her way.