But in reality—and in San Francisco reality can, at times, be as difficult to capture as fog—in reality it was Amanda, who had acted, unwittingly, as a catalyst to my restlessness. Amanda—she of the languid fingers that floated like pale snakes in parlor air tinged ever so faintly blue with cigarette smoke, Amanda of the lips like pink butterflies, ahh, Amanda—Amanda had indicated that, really, my dear boy, there is no future for us; after all it isnt like we can get married. What would my husband say? And with that, she lifted back her head and laughed, and her tinkling laughter was like glass ground into my heart.
My painting was not going well, either. I stood on sandy and windy hills for the view, but what I captured was the surface of things—cable cars, glistening wet steeples, the clock on the ferry building, in the distance Cliff House and the gleaming glass of the Sutro Baths and the newly created Golden Gate Park, and the old houses with red lamps in the window, ghettos below Market, and mansions on Nob Hill. My fog was like cotton, when it should have been wet and damp. The red lamps glowed but not with despair. The steeples thrust into the sky, into nowhere. I went down to the docks and sketched in oil, flinging onto paper oyster boats and men with red hands lifting buckets onto the wet and slippery wharves. Once or twice I went up into the hills in Piedmont; I tried to seize the silence of their oaks . . . but to no avail. Often times, I carried my equipment down to the bay and tried to paint pathetic seascapes. I hoped my sea gulls would swoop, squawking, off the canvas. I wanted my pigments to smell of the ocean, of kelp and crab. I wanted my suns to blind, my wind to punish the skin, my cable cars to rumble and ring. Most of all, though, I wanted to capture the perfect wave.
Some waves I painted as translucent jade; others I captured as sapphires, with snowy froth, exploding on the rocks. Some days there were long rollers like the smoothest green glass one obtains from apothecaries in Chinatown. At other times, I would attempt to re-create the pewter-colored waves of overcast days. I only succeeded in driving myself into a frenzy. Time and again I painted my waves as they raced to the shore, trying to seize their on-rushing power before they melted into the sand and disappeared; I wished to hold their vortex in my hand. I wanted to snatch, from time, their shattering beauty, their pristine power. But my brush slid over the surface of the waves, unheeding their essence. Each time I tried I was left with a wave on canvas, but that is all it was. It wasnt the wave itself. Not once did I capture a perfect wave. I began to wonder if I had used the affair with Amanda as an excuse not to confront my futility, my artistic failures.
In desperation I decided I had to leave the city. And so I told my friends about the fog, the need for a change in climate, my nerves, the necessity for quiet. I was at a dinner party at the St. Paul Hotel, the kind of dinner where men do not pick lint from their tuxedos and women do. My host asked where I was going, as if he were having a difficult time conceiving of any place on earth other than San Francisco.
Down the coast, I explained, over sherbet. George Sterling, the poet, has offered me the use of his cabin in Carmel. He plans to stay in San Francisco for a time, and he would just as soon have someone there to look after it.
And youre going to stay there all by yourself? asked Sam Wilcox. All by yourself, had a faintly suspicious air of disbelief about it. I doubt if Sam Wilcox had ever done anything by himself in his life.
Wealthy, with servants always hovering at the edges of his existence, giving dinner parties every few weeks, it was perhaps inconceivable for him to be really alone. His wife and my long-time friend, Henrietta, at the head of the table, opposite him, lifted a hand. She hesitated, then said nothing, so I merely replied to Sam, All by myself. Im going to paint until I run out of canvases, pigments, or inspiration. Maybe Ill stay a week or maybe Ill never come back.
Sam laughed. Theres no need to get so carried away about this art thing, he said.
Sam was no expert in art, and he knew it. Not that it mattered much to him. Looking around their suite with its drapes of crimson velvet, paintings, mirrors, gilded chandeliers, I could see it was Henriettas taste that was in evidence. There was even one of my futile attempts in the parlor, a fog-enshrouded nocturne that revealed haloed gas lamps and an empty street. I wondered if any of them noticed the dim shape of the prostitute in the ill-lit doorway. In their eighth-floor suite, where they did their entertaining when in the city, with its magnificent view and brocade chairs, they probably thought little of prostitutes in ill-lite doorways.
Jonathan and Sylvia Pruitt, two other guests who were with me at the Wilcoxs well-laden table, laughed.
Jonathan said, Ill never understand you artist chaps. Jonathan simply adored the word chaps, Sylvia informed me, ever since their trip to England.
Not really all that much to understand, I assured them. I simply need to get away, to reassess . . . everything.
Shall we go into the parlor? said Henrietta, who in her regal way thought nothing of interrupting and moving the conversation in any direction she chose.
She rose from the table with its glittering wineglasses and gleaming silver. Her dress was a deep forest green. It made her porcelain skin glow and highlighted her cinnamon eyes. She was wearing a white carnation at her breast. Quite fetching, I had assured her earlier, and perhaps she even believed me. Beautiful women, Ive observed, never believe compliments and plain ones never deny them.
Philip, she said to me. She held out her gloved hand, so that I had to lift my arm to allow her to rest her slim fingers on my forearm. Would you accompanying me?
Surely, I said, bowing in my most gallant and urbane manner.
Her glove, I noticed, had pearls sewn onto it, and she had pearls in her dark mahogany hair and around her creamy throat. The amber of her eyes swept over me like the wave I could not quite catch on the beach. We went into the parlor. Henrietta had me get her a glass of sherry from a Venetian cut-glass decanter. We two stood at a large window, sipping sherry and looking at the glowing lights of San Francisco far below us. Beyond the city the bay glimmered with moonlight. It was one of those moments when attention and conversation had drifted toward the others; Henrietta, allowing it to happen, and I were alone. True, we were in the midst of a dinner party, but the Johnsons were telling of their trip to Philadelphia. Henriettas husband was talking to Josiah Perkins about some silver stocks, and the Pruitts were busy—well, you can see that we were utterly alone.
Henrietta and I had known each other since we were children when we had played at each others summer homes in Menlo Park or ran in the parks of San Francisco and flown kites under the windy skies of the bay and the watchful eyes of each others nannies. In recent years, however, we had not seen as much of each other. Or perhaps that isnt quite the way I should phrase it. We saw plenty of each other: at the theatre, at restaurants, at balls; and Henrietta always included me in her dinner parties, though I sometimes suspected it was because I, as a bachelor, always represented something of a challenge to any woman who was married. And Henrietta was very married indeed—had been for some twelve years. Still, although thrown together frequently enough, it was like my painting: our conversations slid over the surface of things and never delved below. We chatted about the latest love affairs of our circle, traded gossip, exchanged opinions on the correct temperature at which to serve pinot noir, and offered criticisms of the entertainment at The Gaiety, but we never really talked about anything that mattered.
Henrietta hesitated. Its Constance, she said.
I nodded sorrowfully. I read about it in the papers, of course. Tragic. I sent my condolences. I didnt think it appropriate to—
Yes, yes, she said, brushing aside my words. Very kind of you.
She died suddenly.
Henriettas large and curved eyes seemed to disengage for a moment, as if she were seeing other scenes and other events. Her eyelids hooded whatever it was she was seeing.
Henrietta went on, slowly: One moment she was here, and the next she was gone.
I wondered how true that was. Constance could have been perishing for years, and I wasnt at all sure that Henrietta would have noticed. Since childhood, Constance had been the plain sister, living in Henriettas small, trim but chill shadow. While Henrietta was paid court by dozens of suitors, Constance had been relegated to an unobtrusive chaperon. Constance was the page-turner (again unobtrusive, smoothing her satin gown when she sat back) while Henrietta performed brilliantly . . . beautifully—with sheer sensitivity and feeling, their mother would exclaim with a soft sigh. It wasnt as if Henrietta were deliberately cruel, for she wasnt. And if you had queried her, she would have declared how much she loved her younger sister. Which was true enough. It was just that Constance seemed to fade into the background, become invisible, whenever Henrietta entered the room. If they were at a ball together, the next day the newspapers would comment on the apricot-colored gown with silver threads that Henrietta was wearing and would fail to mention at all that Constance was there—let alone single out the lime green dress that Constance had spent weeks working on. Constance might be talking to a nice young man at the punch bowl, and as soon as Henrietta entered the room, his attention would shift and focus on Henrietta the rest of the evening and Constance would be forgotten. While Henrietta made the catch of the season, marrying Sam Wilcox, whose father was a wealthy silver magnate from Nevada, Constance had been content to be a distant member of the wedding party—not up close, thank you, but on the far right side, almost out of the picture. When Sam and Henrietta went to Europe on their honeymoon, the house that had been a whirling center of social activity when Henrietta was there, became as quiet and empty as a mausoleum. Few carriages stopped in front. The footsteps of the servants on the black and white domino floor echoed hauntingly. When the newlyweds returned, to the champagne toast of the town (as the newspapers glowingly called it), it was as if San Francisco glittered once more with gaiety, parties, dinners, and banquets. Laughter once again sparkled across the mahogany counters of The Silver Cloud Restaurant. Champagne glasses were lifted and wit pierced the air like bright arrows.
Occasionally, Sam and Henrietta invited Constance down to Menlo Park for a summer vacation; frequently they requested her presence for their dinner parties. Had it not been for them, Constance would have spent all of her time in the familys Nob Hill mansion. As Sam and Henrietta had three beautiful children—ten, seven, and four; two blond boys, Sam Jr. and Henry, and a lovely daughter, Sarah—Constance was pushed further into the background. Now it was Aunt Constance to the three vivacious and capricious youngsters. If she was invited to Christmas gatherings, it was almost an act of charity in itself. You could nearly hear Henrietta exclaim to Sam, But we cant allow poor Aunt Constance to sit all by herself, not in that dark house, not on Christmas Day. It was almost as if Constance, though two years younger than Henrietta, had leap-frogged in age over Henrietta and become the elderly maiden aunt.
Quite often, since I was a bachelor, Constance would be paired with me at the dinner parties to which she was invited, almost as an afterthought. Frankly, I found her neither particularly brilliant nor witty. She was always quiet and diffident in her views. Yet, when she expressed an idea or a thought, when she ventured an opinion, I was always astonished by the power and strength of her convictions, the depth of her insight. It was almost as if she functioned on two planes; the apparent one was the brilliant, scintillating surface where her sister was dazzling and vivacious, dominating every scene in which she participated, entrancing every pair of eyes; and a second plane that was smooth, quiet and serene where Constance actually lived out her life with an unknown intensity. When Constance died I almost expected a trunkful of superlative poems to be uncovered, a la Emily Dickinson, but if they were discovered, I never heard of it, and I doubt if Sam would have recognize superlative poetry if it had caved in on him like one of his mine shafts.
That Henrietta dominated every part of the society in which she swirled could hardly be blamed on her. She was one of those aristocrats of beauty, grace, wit and charm. If she neglected her plain sister, it was not of malice, but just simply that her life was so full and complete that she was incapable of believing everyone wasnt as happy and fulfilled as she.
Constance went down to Carmel three years ago, said Henrietta.
That long ago? I wondered.
She wanted to stay in Fathers house.
So I heard, I replied.
I dont know if it was the sudden fogs or what, but suddenly, she was—
Yes, gone, Henrietta echoed. Her will—did you know, she left a will?
No, but I can believe it. Constance would be the kind who would leave behind a will.
Her will stipulated that she was to be buried in the garden behind the house. No one saw any reason why it shouldnt be so. We had the funeral down there, but I couldnt bear to watch the burial.
I understand, I said. It has been a year now, hasnt it, since she died?
Closer to two. Henrietta hesitated again. I havent been down there since. I really couldnt bear it.
I saw that it was not so much that Henrietta refused to pay attention to a plain sisters grave. It was almost as if to do so would be to quarrel with her own vision of life, to question its validity—something that she was not prepared to do—at least for now.
Do you suppose—? She lifted a finely pencilled eyebrow. You could—?
Of course, you want me to make sure the grave is well-tended, the garden cared for.
Yes, that is it, she said, and her pearl-pale face brightened noticeably with something like relief. I want you to make sure the grave is well-tended. She placed her gloved hand on my arm, and it almost felt as if she had embraced me in gratitude. Thank you, she said.
When I return, Ill give you a full report. I promise.
When I return, Ill give you a full report, echoed in my mind when I took the train a week later. I promise. It was a night train from whose window fanned across my vision indistinct, black, and nebulous shapes. The rhythm of the train undulated through my body. The dust from the seats tickled my nostrils as I settled back.
Of course, I had more than just Henriettas request on my mind. Languid Amanda was there too, sensually beckoning, her laugh a promise, a caress a wound. Send me a note, and Ill join you for a weekend. Why hadnt I told her I wouldnt be sending her a note? Thoughts of my painting, too, revolved in my reflections, and I idly wondered how one would render a cypress by moonlight. I told myself I really must try.
For several weeks I ambled the quiet beaches of the area. You realize, I hope, that this was before Carmel was inundated with tourists. In those days, there were hardly more than a handful of poor artists, the mission, some Indians, a few farmers and fishermen, and the tradesmen who supplied them with goods. In those days, you could sit on a beach for hours and not be disturbed; you could walk for miles and never see a human being. Many were the times when I heaped driftwood on the beach and built a pyre on which to make my abalone, near the cabin which my poet friend had lent me. Afterward I let the fire die to glowing embers and gazed at the sky, searching for Lyra, Cygnus, Gemini.
Never far away was the rumbling of the sea. I would listen to it at night as I lay in bed, my hand behind my head. I sometimes thought it was speaking to me in some prehistoric language whose meaning I was just beginning to comprehend. The surf reverberated through my body, causing me to tremble. I could hear it boom and roar. Even when I could not see the Pacific I could always feel it, the vibrations in my body, hear the growling of the sea, as if it were a ravenous beast. The sound of the ocean became as much a part of my existence as the coffin of fog in the morning or the brass-bright sun at noon, the dried-blood sunsets, the lengthy twilights, and the opalescent dark.
At times, I went out with my sketchbook and crayons. Often, I took my easel, a canvas and my pigments out in the morning, as soon as the sun chimed over the east. I painted the ocean as the color ran from liquid gold to sapphire and back to bronze. I went to Pirates Cove, where green-glassy waves rolled into the shore in long, sweeping curves, heaving their way onto the strand and melting. Occasionally, I climbed precipices and tried to capture the waves shattering on the otherworldly rocks in jeweled diamonds of violence. Sometimes I stood in the shadow-eating sun of the afternoon—with the wind whipping my hair and the sun ringing like a bell in my head, heavy as a cloak on my shoulders—and I painted the white windcaps of beauty that stirred and trembled and fled before the wind across the bay.
So all my days were filled, one after another, with trying to capture the perfect wave. One evening, though, as I sipped wine in the village tavern, I remembered the promise I had made to Henrietta, the promise to inspect Constances gravesite and provide the living sister with an account of the dead one.
Jimmy, I called. Can you tell me where the Brady House is?
Jimmy, a narrow man, with narrow eyes the color of bad Scotch and a voice as deep as vodka, came over and polished the immaculate and gleaming counter. I can, but I dont know why you would want to know.
Typical of a small town, Jimmy was as interested in why someone needed to know something as in the question—or answer—itself. Why did I hesitate to say that all I wanted was to see a grave?
Jimmy, however, saved me from the lie by providing a ready-made answer for me. Oh, I get it. You want to paint a picture of the old dilapidated place. Picturesque and all that.
Its picturesque, is it?
Thats what I would tell anyone from the city who wanted to buy it, he told me, chuckling, then giving me the directions I needed.
Which werent all that difficult. Follow the coastline, and . . . . I decided that I would walk down the coast the next day, find a likely place to work for a while. After I was finished with my sketches for the day, I would stop by the Brady mansion on my way back to my cabin.
By noon, I was standing on a point, sketchbook in hand. I tried to capture the power, the ferocity, the violence of the windy waves shattering against the rocks. For a time, I thought that I was actually drawing closer to the vortex of the waves essence. The wind tossed my hair about. The smell of kelp drifted from the rocks. Hour after hour, in a frenzy, I dashed off mad sketches, filling page after page.
Finally, late in the afternoon, when the sun looked like a tangerine floating on the ocean, I quit, happily exhausted. I stretched and yawned, putting away my crayons. I was hungry and thirsty. Tucking my large sketchbook under my arm, crayons in pocket, I began to stride along the coastline—first to stop at Constances gravesite, then home to my quiet cabin and to the village tavern to sample the local wines. As I marched along the shore, I saw ahead of me the fog rolling in—a bit earlier than usual, but not abnormally so. The fog appeared to be a gigantic wave itself, engulfing the land.
Blown in from the ocean by the wind, in surprisingly short fashion the fog overwhelmed me. These were not insubstantial wisps, drifting in lackadaisically. The fog was like a tidal wave, thick and so high I could not see the top. The sun, which a moment before had been a deep and powerful orange color, disappeared instantly, hidden somewhere behind the fog bank. I immediately became chilled. The fog was clammy on my skin. I imagined it was the way a mummys bandages might feel. A sound (What happens to sound when it is cast through the fog? No, it isnt swallowed up nor dulled; it is moistened.)—I thought I heard a moist fog horn sound somewhere far away. As I walked, I listened to the waves rolling into land, first with thunder, then a moment later washing the sand with a hiss. I could feel the surf groaning like a lost soul, hungrily sucking at the rocks and sand, sighing a last breath. The waves growled and snarled, crashed and rushed in, hammered the shore; they wept in the last moment before they gathered to rush out to sea again. Was a night-animal waiting just outside the circle of vision that was my minds eye? Was it waiting to devour me?
As long as I kept the ocean on my left and within hearing distance, it was impossible to get lost, I told myself. From the description Jimmy had given me, the Brady House stood not far from the shore. The dank and milky, moist fog spun and swirled thickly around me as I searched for the house, unable to see more than a few feet in front of me.
It did not emerge from the mist, turret by turret, window by window, wood and brick by wood and brick. One moment there was nothing; the next it was there. When I saw it, looming, it was not a thing, a building, a structure, an object. It was, rather, a presence, as if the house lived and breathed as the ocean lived and breathed, roared and sighed, and the fog lived and breathed, called and whimpered. As I stood there a moment gazing at the Brady House, I thought I detected something: a glowing presence. Was it a candle? At the time, I thought so. It was the only rational explanation. As I drew nearer, the light, while it grew larger, did not become any more distinct, precise, or well-defined. The light, if indeed it was a light, was pale and wavering, diffused. Was someone waiting there with a lamp? As I drew closer, the huge, old, moldering house loomed out of the fog, towering. It had a wide veranda. Two wicker rocking chairs rested there. One rocked back and forth slowly. Through the windows I could see the glow. It moved from window to window, though not in any logical pattern. First, the glow might illuminate a window on the far left, then a moment later it might appear in an upstairs bedroom, then reappear downstairs where the parlor might be, then in the attic.
A group of marauders, I thought, or smugglers, perhaps. More likely, just someone, like myself, passing by and, stranded by the fog, seeking shelter.
Hullo! I called, lifting my arm.
Then, startlingly, out of the wet, fog-bound, pewter-colored darkness, there dankly echoed: Hullo. The timbre of the voice was moist . . . damp . . . thin, like the wind through reeds. A thrill rippled down my back, and I clutched the sketchbook to my side, as if somehow or another my art could protect me.
The boards of the steps groaned under my foot as I took one step at a time. The veranda was empty and still. A screen door hung open. A wedge, the screen was partially torn, so a corner of it hung down. The inner door, which was thick, made of oak and stained darkly, with beveled glass that refracted odd shapes of light, also stood open. In invitation, I wondered?
I peered into the house. I took a step inside the threshold. Before me was a long hall. To the left was a parlor, to the right a staircase that led upward. At first, it was a glow on my right. On the staircase a candle hovered. It was Constance. One moment there was just the candle, and the next Constance was holding it in her delicate pale hand.
Staring at the apparition, I took a trembling step back, then another, bumping the screen door at my back.
Seeing my retreat, Dont go, Constance called, and the pleading quality of her voice held me.
Is that you, Philip? she asked.
Do come in, Philip; please do. It is a nasty night—cold and damp; the fog is like death. Come, we will build a fire, just like the days when we were youngsters.
She lifted a slim and pale hand, beckoning me to reenter the mansion. It was almost as if I were mesmerized. I stood still, one boot on the veranda, the other on the first step.
Come, she whispered.
I hesitated a moment, then I followed her into the mansion. She turned to my left, into the parlor.
Constance laughed, and there was a musical quality to her laughter. It reminded me of . . . of what? I wondered. The harpsichord where she had not played but been content to turn the pages? Perhaps there was the plaintive quality of the lute to her laughter. She laughed more gaily in death than I had ever heard her laugh in life. Sitting on a rose-colored settee, she said, Im so glad to see you. She indicated the fireplace against the wall. If you will be so kind . . . and her voice trailed off.
I leaned my sketchbook against the wall next to the fireplace. In a basket beside the fireplace there was kindling and firewood stacked. I brushed aside the thick cobwebs that mottled the wood. The sticky webs clung to my fingers like obscene spun cotton candy. I lay three logs in the hearth, along with some kindling. Cold and ancient flakes of ash crinkled, spinning up the chimney and drifting down like black snowflakes to the bottom of the fireplace. I looked around and located some matches on the mantle. The flame of the match trembled as I held it under the wood. The kindling being extraordinarily dry and the logs being well-seasoned, the fire sprang quickly and powerfully to life. Its warmth flooded over my face and hands, immediately warming the chill room.
Constance said, Remember when we were children—you and me and Henrietta? I nodded, looking from the fire. We used to sit in front of the fire and imagine what the flames were. You would think of a swan or a snake and I would imagine a stallion and a knight and poor Henrietta always got mad and said she couldnt see anything at all and we were just children anyhow and why did we have to pretend something that wasnt?
I must have been twelve and you—?
I was eight and Henrietta ten . . . . Then you entered that terrible territory of puberty. My goodness, how you loved Henrietta—
Was it as obvious as that?
Constance laughed. Im afraid so. You hung around the house, mooning for hours. And you didnt even notice little Constance, who had the same kind of crush on you.
Youre right. I didnt notice.
She sighed and folded her glimmering hands in her lap. Oh, it has been so long, so very long, she murmured. It is wonderful to see you again, Philip. To think that you found me after all this time. Was it just chance or did you intentionally seek me out?
It was intentional. Henrietta asked me to make sure your gravesite was well-tended.
Ah, yes, well-tended.
Henrietta is very busy. It is the height of the season.
Im sure Henrietta is the toast of the town. Im positive Henrietta is much too busy with her three beautiful children and her witty dinner parties and her scintillating balls and her gay gowns to look in on a poor sister. What a fulfilled and lovely life she has. No time at all for a sister who was an embarrassment in death as much as in life. Im sure she thinks I was being selfish to die before her and steal all the grief for myself. Well, there was little enough grief for me. And it all comes down to a well-tended gravesite. Dreamlike, her voice drifted off for a moment.
Then she declared: Well, I can tell you it is quite inadequate—quite inadequate indeed. It doesnt get much sun; the afternoon shadows come early and the creepers are threatening to take over. It needs a great deal of tending, I can tell you. Would you like to see it? Perhaps the fog has broken; there might be moonlight by now.
And Constance rose from the settee, hovering.
There was something about that question that caused me to shatter. The thought of the damp and foggy moonlight, of looking at a grave while standing beside the occupant of that grave, caused my blood to congeal. I fled the house. The door banged behind me. The wooden steps echoed moistly with my footfalls.
Must you go? Constances voice quavered through the dense fog. Im so lonely. Please, Philip, dont go . . . .
I ran through the fog. I ran and I ran until I felt my side would burst. I found myself on the shore of the roaring ocean. Although the surf pounded against the shore, whoosh and whirled out into the darkness again, although the sounds of the tide were powerful and vociferous, it was the sound of my panting that was loud in my ears. I could feel the blood pounding from my heart to my temples. I was bent over. After what seemed like hours, but surely could have been no more than a few minutes, I caught my breath. I arched my back and lifted my head, gulping huge mouthfuls of sea air.
I was alone. No one, nothing had followed me. I trudged back to my cabin in Carmel. While walking through the fog, I realized, then, that I had nothing under my arm. I had left my sketchbook in the mansion. I thought of it leaning against the wall, collecting dust, beside the fireplace as the fire slowly died down. I thought of Constance fingering it sorrowfully.
How late was it when I finally made it back to the cabin? Twelve-thirty, one oclock? Teeth chattering, I threw myself on the cot, overcome by what I had seen that night. I thought lying down might allow sleep to overpower me. But it didnt, of course. I listened to the endless waves washing over the sand, rumbling in with regularity. I thought of the thousands of miles of coast upon which these waves were being tossed, foaming and groaning, from Alaska to Canada to Washington to Mexico to Peru and Chile. I thought of the multitudes who were listening, as I was, to the waves flowing in and out and in again. I thought about Constance, listening to those same waves. For a moment, I considered that perhaps I was hallucinating, that the weird fog had—had—what? Caused delusions? Ridiculous. I thought about Constance, how she had uttered the immensity of her loneliness, something she had never done when alive. Was she finally free of the strictures that had bound her during life? Now she could laugh and smile and reminisce and tell stories. The sound of her voice, following me in the fog, followed me into the cabin and into my reverie. Must you go? she had asked so plaintively, as if she might weep.
Must I? I wondered. Must I? The waves rushed in and out and in again.
Several days passed while I wandered aimlessly on the shore. I did no work, toying with the idea of painting rather than actually painting. I told myself, Tomorrow, tomorrow. I did nothing. I thought about Constance wandering in that mansion by herself, endlessly calling, Must you go? Must you go? I thought about the grave, and I wondered what I could tell Henrietta. I hadnt, after all, looked at the gravesite. Should I tell Henrietta that her sister was a forlorn and suffering ghost, tormented by the loneliness of her life when she was alive? Somehow I didnt think I could bring myself to that. But I hadnt even looked at the gravesite. Go, when it is daylight, a voice whispered in me. Go, when there is no night to play with your imagination, no fog to confuse your senses. Yes, go.
One bright morning I found myself walking beside the ocean with a purposeful stride. I had begun the return journey, the trek to the mansion, even before I had consciously made the decision. What did I tell myself: That nothing had really happened; that I needed to retrieve my sketchbook with its page after page of waves; that I really needed to inspect the gravesite for Henrietta. All of those reasons may have really been true.
In the flat, luminous sunlight, the mansion stood stark against the blue sky, two-dimensional. I was somewhat surprised how close the house was to the seaside. The fog had obscured that fact on my first journey. From the veranda, I could see the frothy blue water, churning and spinning against the rocks and along the sand. The mansion was weathered, mottled and gray with age; it badly needed a coat of paint. One of the boards of the steps, I noticed, was loose. The windows of the mansion had been turned into mirrors by years of accumulated grime. The door was, as I had left it when I fled the other evening, still open. I peeped in.
Constance, I called. I listened to the echo of my voice. Constance. Nothing. I crept into the darkened house. I peered into the parlor; I could see my sketchbook. The spiders had already gone to work on it. From one corner, the thread of a web trailed in the air, a silver assurance that life continued, fastening to the corner of the fireplace. Looking down the hallway, I saw a rectangle of blue sky at the other end. I opened the back door and went into the garden. A high wall encircled the property. The garden was not well cared for. Some pathetic rosebushes were strangling themselves in a welter of thorns. Creepers climbed the walls. I saw a headstone in a shady corner and walked over to it. Constance Brady, it read. I stood looking at it. Then Constance was beside me, looking at it, too.
You see, I told you it was a disgrace.
It just needs some tending, some caring, some love, I said.
Dont we all? she replied.
I was not frightened of her. As if she could read my thoughts, I heard in my mind, There was never any reason to be frightened, never any reason at all. I sensed that this shimmering apparition, with planes of golden light slanting through her, was desperately lonely, as desperately lonely as I, that in death, released, she was uttering words that she had wanted to, but been unable to, say in life. I looked at her a long moment. She returned my gaze, an eternity of longing flowing from her pale, ebony eyes that murmured: I am so lonely, so very lonely in this lonely garden by the sea.
I said: Over in the corner, I can see an apple tree.
With snowy-white blossoms, she said.
And along here some rhododendrons.
I love rhododendrons, waxy purple ones, and peach colors and pale lemon and soft pink.
All these roses need are some trimming and theyll yield enormous scarlet blooms. And maybe a golden splash of California poppies over there.
Constance clapped her silver hands in joy. Here is a perfect place for a bench, made out of marble.
Perhaps a trickle of a stream would be nice.
And a pond with lilies and frogs that will bloat with a croak.
And hibiscus against the sunny wall here.
But youll need to cover them against the frost. They are very sensitive, you know.
Did she take me by the hand as we walked about the garden planning this feature or that? And if she did, did I feel it? I noticed only a coolness drifting over my feverish brow, and for the first time in years I relaxed.
I was home.
Im so glad you came back, Constance murmured. The loneliness was even more unbearable than before you came.
I know, I said softly.
And youre never going away?
I was suddenly startled. I had not put the question to myself like that. There is my art, I began, tentatively. She looked at me. Then, when I thought about it, No, no, Im never going away.
I sent Henrietta a note, telling her that her sisters grave was a sight, a disgrace, unkept, that she would be embarrassed by it, but that I was staying to see it was properly cared for. After a few days, I thought that letter might have been unnecessarily harsh, so I wrote another. The essence of it was simply, I think the grave and garden are well cared for now; Constance would be content. A month or two later I received a reply. It was vintage Henrietta. It is so kind of you to take care of Constance like that for me, my good friend; stay as long as you wish, was all it said. I could picture the puzzled creases between Henriettas cinnamon-colored eyes as she replied to my note, her shoulders falling in a sense of relief at its completion, and her finely-chiselled lips curving into a sense of satisfaction as she folded the one line message and slipped it into a mauve envelope with the Wilcox family crest on the back—the head of a unicorn. Correspondence was never one of her strong points. A gracious thank-you letter was her entire repertoire. As for its delivery—it was fortunate that I was coming back from a sketching expedition when the postman was making his rounds on a bicycle.
Mr. Philip Schuyler? he asked.
A letter for you. From San Francisco. He handed me the mauve envelope. You the caretaker of the Brady House? he asked, scratching the purple bulb of his nose.
Care taker, care giver, take your pick.
He grunted without curiosity, obviously accustomed in this region to eccentrics.
During the day I make my artistic expeditions to the seaside. I am still trying to capture the perfect wave, and who knows, perhaps some day I will succeed. I gaze upon amber waves at sunset, opal at night when the moonlight is bright. Emerald waves and sapphire waves are just some of the jewels Ive gathered for the treasure chest of my art. I suppose I should hold a show in San Francisco, but whenever I think about it, I always wonder: For what? Isnt the doing enough?
I frequently work in the garden, too, sculpting a place of loveliness and serenity out of its rectangular wilderness. I have planted some rhododendrons for Constance, and the roses are pruned and well-watered now, erupting in blossoms of pink and crimson. The hibiscus, however, will take a couple of years. Without a shirt I work in the sun that has turned my skin to glistening bronze. Sometimes I stop and look at my handiwork, and there will be Constance, glimmering on the bench I have carved out of white Vermont marble. I embellished the bench with swans and fantastic fish that leap from the waves Ive carved. And she smiles contentedly and laughs, silently clapping her slim hands.
In the evening, to protect us from the penetrating damp, I build a fire, and we sit in front of its glow for long, silent hours. If any traveller, lost in the fog on a thoroughly unpleasant night, should happen upon the mansion, he would be rewarded with the golden glow of the fireplace through the welcoming parlor window.