by Jacinta Meredith
Dying embers in the western sky cast a glow over the young woman seated on an old wooden porch. Her knowledge of the sinking sun was subconscious as she squinted to see the words of the beloved ballad that held her attention.
They heard her singing her last song,
The Lady of Shallot.
Heard a carol, mournful, holy,
Chanted loudly, chanted lowly
Till her blood was frozen slowly,
And her eyes were darken’d wholly
Turn’d to tower’d Camelot
for ere she reach’d upon the tide,
the first house by the waterside,
singing in her song she died,
The Lady of Shallot.
With a sigh, she leaned back on a wooden chair at least as ancient as the cabin, closing both the slim volume of Tennyson and her eyes. No more hurt, no more pain, no more wondering. It sounded so…soothing. Death. The word did not hold the alarming significance of ending a loved life. No, it held an escape from a tortured world. A cold breeze drifted across her sallow cheeks. With a weary sigh, she forced her sunken eyes open again. The last traces of light had faded from the sky. Standing with the fatigued posture of a much older woman, she made her way into the house, ignoring the creaking door as it fell from one of its hinges yet again.
She flipped on the light as she stepped inside the lonely cabin, 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 the pile of unopened mail and thumbed through it. Unpaid electricity bill. Turn-off notices for her phone. Another bill from the funeral home. Pangs shooting through her, she set it aside, unwelcome memories coming to her mind. Her father had 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 tightly when she came to check on him for the evening.
“I love you, my daughter,” He had whispered, stroking her wan cheek with his withered hand. “Remember to look to God for grace. Life will get better.” He had smiled weakly and squeezed her hand. “Marry that soldier boy of yours and be happy again.” His hand fell as he drifted to sleep and by morning he was gone.
She 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 paper.
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. Your fiancée was one of the best men I ever knew. I enlisted in the army early to escape my home life, and he took me under his wing. It was through him that I learned there were still good men in the world. He was the first man I met who spoke encouragement to others rather than criticism, of a God who gave grace and forgiveness, and of you. Oh, how he spoke of you! I learned as my father never showed me what it was to love and cherish one woman. He looked at me right before he died from his wounds, telling me, ‘I don’t regret it. I’ll die to protect my country and my love. Tell her I loved her to the end.’ I’ve never known a man like him and I never will again. I convey his message to you with sadness and joy in being able to do one last thing for him. May God be merciful to you.
She sat staring at the letter for a moment that seemed forever. And then crumpled it up. As if she needed to be reminded of what she had lost. She jerked herself up and marched over to the ash-filled fireplace, tossing it in and reaching to the mantle for a match. Instead her hand fell on the telegram. Still sitting there with its stark words, where she had dropped it after it came the day of her father’s funeral. Her heart seared as if it had just walked through a fire. How she wished that she, like the Lady of Shallot, could lie in a boat and die peacefully, with no more reminders.
She laid it back on the mantlepiece, her moment of anger gone, and her shoulders drooped as she looked around the empty, cold cabin, with its memory-infested rooms. She saw her father rocking in that handmade rocker next to the fire, and the love of her life kissing her in the kitchen. She smelled fresh bread coming out of the oven and heard the laughter of the three of them—as tight-knit as any full family—sitting around and offering thanks for their bounty. She saw the veil she had been embroidering, still hanging on its stand in the corner. The cold in the cabin steeped into her soul as she realized this was all that remained. A cabin of memories and unfulfilled hope.
She shuddered and went to the window, pulling aside a threadbare curtain to look out. The soft shadows from the moon fell onto the deceptively gentle looking river. The clear water moved ever so softly. Ever so temptingly. She cast an almost frightened look at the darkness behind her and then back at the welcoming stillness of the one thing that could drown all her feelings forever.
And down the river’s dim expanse—
Like some bold seer in a trance,
Seeing all his own mischance—
With a glassy countenance
Did she look to Camelot
She drew herself up, turned away from the window, and pulled on her shoes. She walked out of the house, leaving the door open without a backwards glance. She walked down the quiet path to the dock 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 moisture and feel the compelling strength of the underlying current. Numbness, despair, but mostly utter weariness pervaded every inch of her soul. 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. 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. Mercy. Her father had mentioned mercy. Her fiancée’s friend had mentioned mercy. And now Tennyson was speaking mercy to her. 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 free fist at the heavens, her voice ringing aloud through the night, breaking the spell that lingered over her and the waters. The sound of her own voice startled her, and she stumbled back, frightened.
She stopped, looking at the dark around her, pierced only by starlight in the night sky as fear and devastation ripped through her, breaking the shell of hurt and revealing the bruised pieces of her heart. She crumpled to her knees on the dock, weeping. “Oh, God. Oh, God.” It was all she could offer as she sobbed.
The moon’s light shifted over the lake, falling on the figure of the weeping girl as she let herself feel the full extent of her pain through the night. 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 kernel of hope, she gathered her courage and turned, walking back up the path to her house, the sun’s rays slowly rising to light her way.
I wrote this over a decade ago, inspired by my love of Tennyson, L.M. Montgomery, and bittersweet stories. I wanted, even as a young teen, to help people understand that there is life after hurt. That even when it feels like things couldn’t get worse, and everyone, including God, has abandoned you, there is hope. Keep the faith. The sun will return.