Sometime in the dark, with the sky thinning to morning haze, when Regina went to the window, they ap peared on the shore, dark against the graying water, darker as morning rose and struck the gray sea: at first she saw a few vague forms, then heads, a few higher than others, then shoulders and more heads, sitting there too still, like a herd come from the sea, and not a thing moving but the waves with the first edge of sun coming. The unfamiliar configuration frightened her. What had come under the dark? She pressed close to the pane. Am I going crazy? Then the familiar besieged her. The strange silence in the home struck.”No!” she cried. She ran down the corridor opening doors; nobody. And to the rec room: nobody. Only in the sick wing were there a few old people too sick to leave—two of them were hanging off the beds, intent on joining the others on the beach. “What’s happening?” she cried to them, and then to the other nurse, “Middie, call Haley, then come down to the shore.” She ran across the lawn, down the slope onto the beach.”What’s got into you all?” she cried to the old people. They were as still as boulders deposited in the sand. Nobody replied. Nobody moved.”Mrs. Wembley? Esther? Jon Lathrop?” She went among, between, despaired.”You’ll get pneumonia, you’ll all be sick, you won’t be able to get up, you— Oh, Jon Lathrop, if you start, they’ll all follow— please?” When he did nothing, she took his arm, drew at him, but he had gone dead, weightful, only a rasped breath pressed from his lungs by her lifting. Halted, she stared at them—one face after the other. She felt the resistance, the distance, for they looked through, stared beyond.”Oh, Mrs. Waltham, you talk to them; they’ll listen to you.” But her voice thinned in the breeze. There was only wind, spring wind, and the strike of waves, strike and hush, strike, that made their stillness terrible. She understood nothing. She wanted to cry out against the fear that rose in her. She ran back up the slope, but stopped at the crest to stare back with the impossible hope that she had had hallucinations: they would be gone, they would be in their rooms. But no, they were sitting on the edge between dark and day, motionless. Only the sea moved, rose and fell behind, making them stiller yet. I thought I knew them, I tried, how suddenly they’ve changed, I don’t know what they are.
Haley came from town quickly, the administrator disgruntled at being called out, indignant with the old and more so with Regina and her staff.”Why haven’t you carted them up, strong young people like you?” “We have tried. If we haul their dead weight up that hill and break bones, then where’d we be?” Haley himself went down, gave the residents a controlled appeal in a civil tongue. Perhaps they felt his barely repressed fury. Ineffectual, he lifted fragile Mrs. Crawdon and staggered up the hill with halts and advances to the rest home. When he reappeared, “That’s how to do it,” he said. He summoned nurses and attendants and swore them to strict confidence.”Now get them to their rooms and make everything right for visiting hours. And not a word of this must get out.” They made a strange sight up and down the slope, a trail like ants carrying plunder the size of their own bodies. Finally, with exhausting triumph, they had them herded back; but with the last, appalled, they found doors opened and windows: Mrs. Crawdon was sitting far out on the lawn; Mrs. Waltham and Ed Zelinski and Mrs. Wembley were going—each alone—toward the woods beyond. In the sick ward, the patients were restless.”Why, what are you doing sitting up?” Their eyes stored energy, eyes which seemed to be hearing.”Find out who’s been talking to them all,” Haley said.”We’ll move the problem case to another home up island. Regina! Regina!”
Brought back the second time, the residents sat propped on beds, favorite chairs, cushions, ottomans; and the nurses— with a discomforting tension, a bit rough in their handling, impatience accruing as they worked—primped them, arranged beds and dressers, put in order what possessions hadn’t been stolen, their vigilant eyes seeking, ears attuned to the least giveaway of the old—but there was nothing. The old maintained silence. Now, with the usual talk and television and activities abandoned, the ocean came over astonishingly, a presence which they did not usually hear except in a storm; now waves, insistent, prodded the slopes, filled the air; the very walls whispered around them and, when the tide came in, throbbed, beat, its sound breaking over them; they seemed to raise their heads into it, feel it pour over. Around them the nurses moved with apprehension. And when afternoon came, and the visitors, still the old stayed silent, their very stillness implying not only removal but hostility, as if strangers had walked into a terrain forbidden and alien. The voices multiplied: “What’ve you done to her?” “Has his mind gone?” “You got him all doped up?” In the aged eyes was a subdued hysteria, a new tide thrust against the inevitable thrust of those other waves.”I’ll report this.” “Something untoward here.” “You experimenting with my father?” Nurses and attendants and especially Haley busied themselves to explain away the little crisis, “Little! He looks paralyzed to me. You sure he ain’t paralyzed? Look at ‘m.” One of the girls, Robin, sought refuge in the nurses’ room to cry. Attendants stood, casual sentinels, outside doors and windows. But not one resident spoke during visiting hours or after, Night came down, Middle turned the television on, they nested in their places.
This morning Regina is watching Mrs. Waltham, Bertha Waltham, the most intelligent and alert of the lot, quite a lady, who dresses, speaks, does all with an enviable grace. She had broken her hip. After the operation, the daughter had moved her here. The hip healed, The daughter—there she is, Lydia Rackham, her mouth going, pleading—is a buyer in New York City, a live advertisement, as the clothes, even the unconscious model walk, show. The Rackhams no longer have the house in town; the two children are off to college. Close, Regina hears the daughter’s voice battering at the old woman, pitched, directed: “If this makes the New York papers, think of Max and Rhonda at college—and Ted has no obligation to suffer this; after all you’re my mother,” words enough, sketchily heard, to make Regina admire the stony citadel under attack. But the whole place is filled with impatience, anger, anguish. Regina drifts from visitor to visitor: “Be patient. Give her time. It’s one of those days,” But which days? She walls that thought out. Get through one moment at a time, encourage the nurses, “Robin, Middie—,” nurture their control. Yet she keeps eyeing—on a hunch she will help—quiet, intelligent Bertha Waltham, whose daughter finally leaves with a haughty threat to “come to see you in my own good time if that’s the way you’re going to be”—not mother, not goodbye, no kiss, Regina gravitates toward Bertha Waltham, wanting to treat her—though she is sure she can’t deceive her—casually, for Regina has earned the leniency of time by convincing Haley that interrogating the residents one by one would destroy everything. Mrs. Waltham’s head turns, hair a beautiful downy white. The eyes dark as iris fix on her but abruptly shift and look far. Though the gesture unsettles Regina, she sits beside her as if unaware of the obsessed gaze. “Your daughter will be back, Mrs. Waltham. She’ll get used to the change.” Still, the eyes do not move, nor the mouth; only the breath seems to cost, rummaging deep in her.”It takes time to understand, for all of us, and talking it out, speaking, helps,”
And what when all speaking ends? One last cry maybe? Oh, Lydia, my daughter, I remember your cry when you were born. Now I know what I heard in yours was my own cry and my mother’s and her mother’s and hers and the first cry life ever gave. It made me woman and proud. And why would anything want to take that pride from us? Doctor Graham said, “Think nice thoughts, a scene, flowers, sailing on the bay.” Lies! Lies!I remember the pain, it made me know, give me that. . . . Sometimes in the dark I hear morning come like that cry—far. I wait under dark. Sun calls. Dark pulls. You have to fight into morning, knowing out the window there are things: the sky grows, trees rise, rocks are, the sea moves, damp gleams on each blade, the dandelions and violets burn. Everything is moving, I’m moving. My blood tugs—so unbearable these presses and clogs and spurts inside me that I almost lose my breath. I want to smash the pane and open my mouth and let the wind drive into me; I want to grip the trees and violets and dirt. If I dug a hole and put my feet into the ground, I would grow roots down. Oh, spring is too much! This loathsome season floods us with beauty and perfume and breeding, breeding, yellow leaves, green, flowers, and this madness of pollen that takes our breath. Sometimes the current is so fierce I know it will drown us, wash us away— Nooooo! We won’t let it, we’ll stand against it, drive back at it. What is it that does this to us?
Sea damp is pouring in. Waves sound loud through the home. An east window is broken: the old are huddled close, quiet, smelling the air.”Who—did—it?” Middie cries. But Regina says, “Mid!” “But they—” “Mid! Let them be.” “Who are you to tell me—” “You heard me!” Regina has never demanded before. The girl—she imagines discrimination charges in her furious gaze—balks. But Regina says, “We have to learn their ways.” The girl stares, mystified.”Learn!” she says. Now Regina, intentionally unruffled, crosses the rec room—”Good morning, everybody”—ignores their silence— “What a marvelous breeze”—moves chairs, arranges cushions—”Breakfast in a few minutes”—not surprised that only a few show at table, but surprised when, as they finish, three others sit down to begin. Later, two others arrive.”We got a boarding house going?” the cook says.”Walt,” Regina says, “Jon Lathrtip and Mrs. Wembley are hungry.” The cook stares.”They are, are they?” All morning the old drift into the dining hall at will. Regina calls Hennessey at the glass company.”If possible, Henn, repair the window between four and five. Our people are in their rooms resting then and the rec room is empty.” But they abandon their regular rest: they gather in little groups; they are strangely physical, nervous; they roam, prowl, pace the walls, hug windows, stare out to sea; they listen. What is it? You’d think the lawn is calling to them, the trees, the sea. What is it I don’t understand? Regina plagues herself. She leaves all the curtains drawn wide, a streaming of warm and comfort, and toward noon—sun is blazing down—it is Jon Lathrop talking to Will Bonn, throws his throat back in a laugh, the Adam’s apple going, and Will drops his head down, laughing fiercely; the two lean against one another, too laughing to stand alone, the others all smiling, seated around, basking in that laughter, and Jon stomps his foot like O my God funny yes, enjoying enjoying, and pokes Will a gentle tap, a cub paw, slap, and Will back and Jon back and Will back, tit for tat, tit for tat, a game, hands clap, palms meet, hands and palms clap clap, and laughing, Jon swats and Will swats, swatting both, laughing, and mouths open, then poke push, harder and faster till, caught up, Will lashes, the hand strikes Jon’s chin, Jon strikes Will’s chin, the laughter stops but the hands keep going, harder now, at their faces, fists now, hitting at each other’s face, and then eyes wide open, intent, fixed, and fury in their hands, and hit, hit for hit, hit for hit, and the others sit, don’t move, their eyes fixed unblinking on it, on it, bending forward. “Holy Christ!” Rex the attendant says, moving.”Stay here,” Regina says, thinking Why am I stopping him? “What?” “You stay right here.” Blood pours from Jon’s nose, Will’s chin is bleeding, they are panting. Jon pokes and misses, falls on the sofa, recovers, but sits there, and Will drops onto a chair, both huddled apart, panting.”Stay here,” Regina tells the others and she goes with damp pads, towels, and a kit. She sits beside Jon, stretched out on the sofa now; silently she pushes back his hair, wipes his face, cleans blood from the wrinkles, feeling the hot gasps of foul breath, slips her fingers into his mouth, feels his teeth, sets a wad under his upper lip, wipes the saliva from her hand, looks in his ears and turns his head to smile at him. Will she tends now, her hands easing over his face, washes him, her fingers probing his mouth too, wipes blood from the rotting teeth, dresses the split lip, cleans the mucos from his nose and rheum from the corners of his eyes, lays him down and sets a pillow under this head, smiling. The room is burning noon.
The nurses don’t mention Rolfe Williams. Last night his asthma stopped. The silence woke us. Mrs. Wembley began to cry in her bed. They found him hanging in a closet. People came and went. I watched Rolfe yesterday in the woods. When the doors were opened and the nurses turned their backs, I too moved down the air, crossed all the lawn to go to the woods, drawn—What is in the woods?—to pursue alone, alone. Oh, Lydia, you don’t know this exile into, never alone among faces you never saw one day in your life before, no memories to share, and never to undo the sight of them, never to breathe your own air. But outside—ah, free—the grass came, blue went over, I grew, grew— There was Lily moving quiet as a thief, Sarah Mulberry nonchalant as Sunday walking, Rolfe Williams running with his funny short steps—he’d be breathing up an asthma storm tonight—and Ed Zelinski, the farmer, and Mrs. Casper. I reached the woods alone— safe—to breathe alone and deep, pure green moss on the bark to touch, and walk through great shafts of sun and dark, patches of myrtles like in the old cemetery, cliff swallows streak, and Look! a bobtail, lickety-split his white. I heard cries through the woods, my ears sang, from town came motors and horns and voices—a crowd? I forgot sounds could make you dizzy. I thought Music? Carnival? The Common must be full—What day is it, Saturday?—people in hundreds at the ferris wheel, loop-the-loop, throw the ball and win a Kewpie doll, spun sugar. . . . On the far side of the woods at last would be the spire of Episcopal and Baptist and Presbyterian, Methodist, and all the houses spread under trees to the waterfront and green islands in the bay:
then to stand still and be everywhere moving.
I sat by a tree. The ants were working. A large night moth, thick with beautiful white down, held silent to the bark. I watched the bark, the dirt, wondrous with movement—myriad crawlings in my eyes, an agony of breeding; my insides ached, my blood hurt my veins, When I looked up, I saw Rolfe Williams deep in the woods. I watched him. I know what happened. Why wouldn’t I? I saw that far; the rest I feel. And what is know? Somehow you have to end the dead in your mind:
When he gets to the tree, he settles safe, free to breathe, think, drift, the head and eyes to wander and wander with nobody, nobody. But listen: a sound. Somebody coming? Not a nurse? Rat, rabbit, dog? He stands, listens more: somebody running. He retreats behind the tree, I don’t want to go back in, not yet, please. It comes closer, Twigs crack everywhere. He peers out:
a little girl.
His throat gasps, he can’t move, he stares: a little girl.
She is in a yellow dress with white ruffles. She is dancing round and round, dancing, and begins to sing words to herself, round and round.
A little girl. She is small and very white and dainty and her hair is dark and long and flows. She twirls in the wind.
He stares. He is struck: he has forgotten, he did not realize how much he has forgotten. She has come out of the world beyond, like an angel wandered into the woods to make you dream of another place and time. He has forgotten how little and white and beautiful and happy and quick. He wants to cry she is so beautiful; he has never seen anything so beautiful. He must be dreaming. He dares not move. She will vanish. But he coughs, has a fit of coughing.
She stops and stares at him.
He stares at her. He smiles.
She screams and runs. She disappears.
His head is throbbing with the scream, and his temples; he cannot stop the cry; an his body is beating and he feels he’ll fall, he won’t be able to make it back across the lawn. The girl is still in his eyes—her fear, the terror she looked with. What did she see? He looks at his hands, his legs, feet. He doesn’t know. He turns from the woods to go back; he stumbles across the lawn. . . .
All the day he hears her, all the minutes, screaming; while he is sitting with his face to the wall, waiting for the dark, to go into that closet,
because he had forgotten,
because they don’t bring children here,
they never bring children here,
ana you forget them,
and then suddenly you remember—
Haley is—as gently as he can, granted his heavy hand— “laying down the law” to the permanent guests: “. . .breakdowns in communication . . .this silence which cripples us . . . a whole staff anxious for your welfare is held at your mercy . . . and think of the terrible disruptions which grieve your families and affect their work at home . . . .” Regina listens. The wrecked phrases fall in unheeded heaps. The aged stare beyond him. Other worlds fill their eyes. Haley doesn’t exist. You fool, Haley. What are words? Regina knows Haley’s approach is not the way, but what is? We are at the mercy of rules and laws, yes, but doesn’t he see the old are close to other laws we don’t know? And what mercy? Does he know that? Why do I keep this job? she wonders. Geoff would be happy if she stayed home, lived her private life, organizations, enjoyed, instead of hauling old flesh, living in the eternal wake of foul breath, verbal and physical disguises for death, her own face day after day becoming a mask held up to visitors, especially when someone makes the quiet transition from the active to the inactive wing—nothing has happened, of course—or when one goes from the inactive wing into the dark. A vile job when you got down to certain realities—and the worst part handling the families, evasive eyes which shut out with blank stares more than any patient shuts out. Phrases fall like false coins. Instantly, she is ashamed she asks that question so seriously, for abruptly an old gaze will fall too deep and startle her like a cry from her own body, Fortunately, Haley doesn’t dwell now on the escapade to the beach, the exodus to the woods. When he says, “I know we’ll all proclaim a gentlemen’s agreement to help each other,” the pall of days of wear, rattling publicity, threats of enlarging scandal seems to mock the very artifice of his smile. Regina has tried to keep their “adventures” from him: some sick found their night way to the active wing; Rhoda Cord and Bill Troup sneaked into the kitchen at three a.m. to snack; a group walled together to protect Myra Blake and Will Bonn going at it behind the lockless door; Rose McCaffey slept in secret outside the French doors all yesterday afternoon; they’d gotten up a late night dance with Frances Muller playing the guitar.That somebody had reported to Haley, “Regina!” Haley had her on the carpet for it.”You’re head here, yet you forbade the nurses and attendants to stop them?” “I’m feeling my way with them,” she said.”You’ll—my God!—undermine the whole industry. How much time do you want—for your little research? I want the guests the way they were. Christ, relatives are pouring in here in double doses after what’s been happening. Short of police, I— You’re not even listening to me.” “I’m working on it,” she said. Feeling into, but how? She feels stalemated. The truth is the old folks’ silence breeds silence in her. She walls Haley out with silence. And her own silence begins to challenge theirs. Even the relatives, mystified at their old ones’ behavior, defiant in its strangeness, are humbled somewhat by their confusion; before it they turn solicitously to the nurses, whispering. Some—Lydia Rackham keeps at it—rage.”My mother’s too intelligent for such nonsense.” The daughter comes promptly everyday despite (because of?) her fury.”Mother, my vacation’s nearly over.” Sun bobs over Mrs. Waltham’s knee; her eyes play with it.”Well, don’t listen! You don’t try.” That stillness, Regina is sure, is fortitude itself, veiling an instinct which gathers and sanctions it, like a hand on them.”Are you trying to make me feel guilty, mother?” Lydia Rackham says. “Should I give up my job and take you home? Is that what you want? Mother, look at me.” She crooks the woman’s chin toward her. Bertha Waltham’s head rears, firm, and the iris eyes fix her daughter.”What are you trying to do to me?” Lydia cries. She turns to Regina.”What’s happening to my mother?” “You’d have to be your mother to answer that,” Regina says.”What?” “You’d have to be inside her to know that.” Lydia Rackham’s lips grip. But Bertha Waltham is staring at Regina with a look of wonder.
I know what you think, my daughter; you can’t help it, can’t. Your father is in you. You bring him here inside you. I see him behind your eyes, inside your skull his brain. What is his brain doing in your head, my blood in your body? Do I betray you by yearning for your visits to see his face, his eyes, his temper that makes me close my eyes and feel both of you between my thighs, clutching both in joy and agony in that wet place, those contractions which must at last be the same thing?
Or why his life for yours?
On that green day, your commencement, how proud we were! We sat commemorative, too, to education, sun, breath, all life, knowing that to see you tall, full, matured, all now beauty, ready at last to embark, was worth everything we’d given. You were the Depression gift we gave. My bit of teaching history paid your way. At commencement that panoply of words which on such historical occasions falls, flooded, lifted us into some empyrean. None of you knew, who crossed that platform in your flowing black gowns, the gold tassel on the mortarboard waiting to be set on the side of the active life, but we thousands watching you knew that in that one brief passage across the stage were kaleidoscoped all our pain and glory silently.
How could you guess why we wept then?
Ah, that day: with your robe over your arm, free, crossing the street at the crest of the road, your father—Otis!—saw the car, shouted “Lydia!” and leaped against you, throwing you into Ted’s arms, but, struck himself, fell dead instantly.
That day: an end for a beginning, two beginnings and two ends. Strange: to be in a second like an ant crushed, and yet hold all the world inside you. Your father comes here in you, Lydia. Your visits leave him. He stands there. I can’t move my eyes from him. I want to tell him—
“Did you say something, Mrs. Waltham?”
Otis? No, no—it’s Regina standing there between us.
Constantly the old prowl, around round round, not sleeping against the days as all winter. They go more with the sick, long hours in drones and sputters, breaks into laughter, choruses. With nurses’ footsteps, their talk ceases, though their hands lace, guarding from separation by the nurses. They look at each other’s hands, at the long black vein trees and tiny earths freckled and inching into cancers. Regina gives messages and leaves, knowing in their own good time they’ll act.
That she has learned during this week horrendous with learning, taxing with patience and the pain of wrenched habits, Geoff calls—or she him—several times a day: she talks, asks his advice, speculates; he is a whole world she can rest in, draw on: “Go at it as long as you must, darling.” She absorbs his voice, strength. It is a bad season. In four days three of the sick have died, ferried off at night; but the vacant beds hold their presence. For two days the spring blow has not ceased, sounding the waves closer, making the curtains alive; the doors, windows, cabinets wrench and crack, sigh under the spring winds and the new sun. Saturday comes a mad drumming rain, smearing the world, everything grayed in a wet veil that never stops quickening down, everything soaked so fast water flows over the lawn, over the road, persistent; the skin is damp, and hair; the furniture is a bitter salt smell, the roof a madness. Exhausted, under the sway of night, Regina catnaps: far, a sound of music teases her toward a door: she is a child, dressed in white, and begins to run toward the music. It grows loud and merrier, She throws open the door, raises her arms, and begins to dance and twirl, “Regina!” Her eyes flick open, stabbed by light.”They’re at it again!” Rick the attendant says. She leaps to. Music, A radio is blaring, In the rec room the old people are dancing, all of them dancing. Again she holds the nurses back: “No,” she says. She realizes the staff begins to think she is crazy, crazy as “them.” Robin and Anne have twice burst into tears. She knows the stress. But what of them? Why are they dancing? “They’ll break their bones,” Rick says.”We’ll have to face that when it happens,” Regina says.”That’s cruel,” Anne says. Maybe they want to break their bones, Regina thinks, startled at the thought. She watches them through the ecstasy of dance after dance, rhythms from the Thirties and Forties and Fifties, arms and legs flung.”They’re disgusting,” Robin says. “You’re off your rocker letting them go at it.” And despite her instinct to let them play it out, Regina does begin to worry: the dancers won’t let up, they push and prod, near spills and falls, hang onto each other, goad goading to keep at it, ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ing when one falls onto a chair, stretches on the sofa. Frances Muller sinks onto the floor, her head against the wall; Lily Monroe and Jon Lathrop go down on their knees together, still bobbing their shoulders, and a long time after finally fall asleep huddled upright. And when the first gray through dark comes, only the radio is left blasting, too loud. Regina turns it off. The sound of the rain returns. At last each is lain in his bed. All day the old fight their aches and nervous quivers and sleep-drunk lids; several are sick to their stomachs; Sarah Mulberry has an angina seizure, takes her nitro, glares at the nurses while they await the doctor; when they move her to the sick wing, she cries “Noooo” and reaches for the others, and when Will Bonn and Jake Rafferty move toward her, fleetingly Regina is afraid. But the attendants wheel Sarah fast down the corridor. Regina thinks of Haley, of the visitors, the strain on the nurses, but watches them, them. And the afternoon is a harassment by visitors, most of the patients propped up in bed, spreading their epidemic of silence. Relatives mill about in anger, restless and confused. The home—umbrellas, raincoats, tracked mud—is as disordered as a holiday beach. Even Haley admits the staff has performed with almost superhuman behavior. His office too is pestered by visits: they’ll sue the home, write their congressmen, consult their private physicians, remove their father, go to the newspapers . . . . They needn’t bother; articles have begun to appear, more and more goads to support the national investigations of the rest home industry. The nurses watch, watch the minute hand. Behind the glass walls, Haley visibly deflates after the last complaint, but his phone rings, rings, never ceases. The rain stops suddenly; in the quiet the sea comes back in thrusts against the shore, sluggish and steady now and louder. Regina is exhausted. She hears a constant humming in the air, in things, in her body—she doesn’t know—and feels she must—it’s time—go home to Geoff, must see her kitchen and plants, his chair, mirrors, make connection—Is town still there?—feel, touch, sleep
Minna Warren, the new nurse—Rhoda has quit—comes to her.”Nobody’s seen Jon Lathrop all day,” she says.
“What?” A quick adrenaline web burns through her body.
They search the building thoroughly. He is nowhere.
At dusk they find his body washed up on the sand.
By eight doctor, minister, undertaker, relatives—all the necessities are over. Everything throbs, Her vision moves too quickly. Her body, not her mind, tells her—she does not want to—to go home, drives her: the first time in days she sees the street, houses, the high night clear and pricked with stars, and Ah God air rushing fresh, sucked in with relief in shedding prisoned odors of flesh and sick—ashamed even at her relief. Home, Goeff is not there. Which night? Yes, his meeting. And she strips, showers, sinks into bed; but lying there, she sees them: they come, they stand at the windows staring at the sea; she sees Rolfe, sees Jon Lathrop— But no—let sleep come, let sleep come, let sleep
When I named you Lydia, I saw a whole country in you. Otis thought I was mad, poor darling, but, sweet darling, he let me name you. Vistas opened up in you, ancient and exotic, dreams of a far place which my two years of teaching history woke in me. The trick of strange names makes the unremembered dream materialize and when that happens you go on believing in the other dreams of this life. The days you visit me, Lydia, I’d like to draw you in, simply open a window to my mind and let you see the world inside me: gone, you think; but here in my head it lives. You can’t know what space and time the head can hold: there’s Terry Unger carrying you all bloody the day you fell against the rock and got that scar on your temple; it’s the Fourth—see?—and you’re screaming from the chairplanes On the Common and I’m petrified because you’re afraid of heights and it’s your first time, but you wanted to ride with the kids; Doctor Graham’s coming—he says you’ll not get through without a Caesarian, no more babies after Max, and I pretend not to see the tears in your husband’s eyes; I walk down the block every day house by house—Bergs, Rileys, Wilcoxes. I know: you say Mother, you live too much in the past, staring all the time. But it is full, full. But do you know, Lydia, I can live my life right up to the front door of this home and then my history stops. Why did somebody stop it all? The world should be going on. It’s then I know it is all inside me because I can’t touch things and people I knew all my life. I wonder if it’s really me. Then you come and we talk and I know that world was real and the people here in the home are not then and I wonder what is this place? Yet when you leave, I’m in their world, they’re in mine, and you are only in my head: if that’s true, who are you in all this? Why do you come here? There’s nothing to know in this place, Lydia. Sometimes I strain into the dark. What’s there? I want to call it by name, but it’s always so far ahead, ahead. Jon Lathrop went after it. Oh, what did you find in the sea, Jon Lathrop? You know what, Lydia? I’m afraid at the end I’ll find someone like me, naming things in this madness of spring whitemothsswallowsmustardweedaphidsbabies by the billions because whatever’s there can’t stop naming things because it’s afraid because if it ever stops naming them, it won’t have things to hold onto, it won’t be, and it’ll be nothing—and, oh, Lydia, I confess I’ll have to love it for that.
At some dim hour Regina feels the hands over her, the warm kiss on her neck, the heat against her back, his hands chafing nipples, belly, thighs into flame.”Geoff, oh, Geoff!” She turns, gripping, kissing, startled by the rift between the mere memory of his body and the joy of his real flesh.”How long have you been here?” “All night. I knew you’d sleep like a rock so I didn’t wake you.” His face comes down on hers, and the faces move into her, Jon Lathrop and Bertha Waltham and Esther and Rolfe, she can’t close them out—she wants to throw her arms out against this thing that seizes her and feel herself torn back, dragged over stones, battered, yet wants the joy agony of it never to stop, never, wants to swear shout Fill me fill me, bursting.”Ahhh, Goeff.” She clutches him, subsiding. She begins to cry, can’t stop crying.”Darling? Honey?” he says. And she tells, repeats, the days at the home, everything, in a torrent, turning back on him the flood he Has released in her. After, at breakfast, he says, “Too tired to go?” “Tired! Not with you here. But I must get back.” Morning is stark over the sea, The storm has left the air so clear. She can see the tiny specks—houses, oil tanks—on the Connecticut shore. She can seldom see so far. She kisses his neck. Her tongue tastes his smell, makes her dizzy with the feel; she could claw to get inside him, wants to tell him the taste, wants to tell him so much . . . . But she goes. Outside, the beach is littered, the water dirty and restless. She thinks When I enter, the old will be afraid, they’ll smell semen and sweat and love just as they smell pollen and green and swelling when it pours into the home in men women flowers animals fish trees; they’re afraid: we’re too strong for them, we’ll feed on everything, suck their sun, take their breath, leave nothing.Why do you come in here? Why cant we go out there? As she approaches the beach by the home, she is sure they are sitting on the beach, Jon Lathrop is walking into the sea, Rolfe is hanging in the air. She stops the car. Stop this. And her body is seething with life. She wants to be pregnant, she has never wanted it so before.I’m pregnant, I am, I am, she says.Jon Lathrop, she says.
She is surprised to find the parking lot filled, and the lobby. “What gives?” she asks Middle.”What doesn’t! We’re in for it now. Look in Haley’s office—two from the Board. Besides, the county’s here, a politician from New York City, and behind you—guess who?” It’s the Herald— Stokes and Cramer, the reporters, rabid at being held off, but Mid has strict instructions not to let them into the wings. The door is locked. Visitors jam the lobby; you can’t think in the noise. Relatives are screened through. Jokingly the reporters plead discrimination, soft-soaping Mid.”They’re not beyond stealing the key,” Regina warns. From far she gets a cold eye from Haley. What’s on his mind? Most of the sick have guests, hard looks for her; in both wings she makes the usual greetings, checks rooms, beds, floors, basins, glasses. The old don’t speak, but she detects a physical response—they do look. Still, relatives plague; small groups complain, some in loud voices—a piece of their minds—to provoke the nurses. Mrs. Wembley’s niece says, “If only I could do something to help her.” Regina pats her shoulder, “Now, now, just be patient a day more, two perhaps . . . .” But she is distracted by the reporters on the lawn snooping for a way in; she makes sure windows and French doors are hooked. Beyond, the sea burns silver; the tide makes a life. Now—Why is she so self-conscious?—her charges seem to look to her to ward off all this complaint and publicity. All the time she talks: “Had your prune juice? Your sister always calls about it.” “The pharmacy will have your prescriptions by ten, Mr. Bonn.” She feels a breaking in the air, something trying to be born out of the silence. Geoff! she thinks. But she is drawn quickly to—a loud voice whips—as Minna Warren says, “I’m sorry.” She is addressing Lydia Rackham.”If such things are going to happen here, the place isn’t fit for my mother,” Lydia Rackham says. Her words incite a murmur of apprehension. Bertha Waltham is watching the sea; her eyes are silver with it. Lydia sits before her, but her mother is not at all perturbed.”You’re so calm. And it’s in the papers about both the men. We could move you to a safer place.” Bertha Waltham seems not to listen, to hold at bay the tension of that voice. But the room grows restless. Regina goes closer: “Mrs, Rackham,” she says softly, “as they’re somewhat upset, perhaps if they didn’t quite hear what you’re saying. . . .” “It’s not healthy not to speak. Look what it’s done to them. Mother, do you want me to take you back home?” Lydia’s words strike the others; heads turn as if to echo home home home.”Why are they looking at me?” Lydia Rackham says.”I told you—they’re upset.” “Do I have to take her home to talk to her then?” “She’s always allowed to go with you for visits, Mrs. Rackham.” “There’d be no need if—they said you watched and cared for them here. She’d be better off home with a little love.”
“No. It stopped.” It is Bertha Waltham’s voice.
“What?” her daughter says.
“You can’t take it up and make it the same again.”
Bertha Waltham gazes at her daughter as if she will go into the eyes, mouth, skin. A thousand times Regina has seen that hunger, the deep uncrossable valley between faces, bodies.
Lydia Rackham is appalled. “Mother?” She stares at her mother, seems afraid to move her eyes, blinks.”Mother?” But Bertha Waltham’s gaze has gone far. What is she seeing?
“What am I doing here?” she says.
“What?” Lydia Rackham says. She turns to Regina. Now it is a plea.”It’s because of all this ruckus about those men,” she says, opening her purse, poking inside. She too turns her head toward the sea. “Tomorrow’s the last day of my vacation, Mother, I’ll be back tomorrow.” Her voice quavers. Regina calls after her, “Mrs. Rackham—”
“She only means—”
“How would you know what she means? It’s all right, nurse. I know my mother.”
“Of course,” Regina says.
“I’ll be back tomorrow,” Lydia Rackham says.
Where does love stop? Tell me that. I thought you kept it as long as things lasted in you, your man and crocuses and ocean ana the house you lived in. Or is this the final test: take all away, even what we have in our hearts, till what we are is what we cry out? Is that what I’m doing here in the world? If I cry out, then you’ll be? Do you think I’m not up to that? What do you think a woman is if she’d cower before the thing that made her? Oh, Lydia, I see—I can’t tell you the pain of it—in your face slowly growing the thing that comes in me. I used to think if I could stop it for you and let your days go on in peace without knowing, I’d balk anything, but now I wouldn’t deny you even the agony of this knowledge. Mrs. Wiggins came to my bed last night. She said, “I wouldn’t hurt the children for anything, I can’t say it to them, but they think we’re dead when they bring us here, don’t they?’ “Maybe they just don’t see where we live,” I said, “so we can’t blame them if they can’t look deep.” And she said, “But feel my heart! Listen—” and put my hand there. Her heart pumpummed madly.”You hear?” She laughed, laughed. And hers made mine beat faster. She said, “Bertha, do you know what? If they’d give me a corner and some scraps from the table and rags to sleep on, I’d want home just to hear the kids and traffic and my grandson Billie’s banging on his Chevy and smell hamburgers. I wouldn’t be trouble—I’d carry the garbage and rake leaves and sew; then I could look at the photo album in Kim’s bedroom, and mine and Ben’s bed Sara and Joe sleep in now, and my doll crib they have still got—they never did have to buy one bassinet. Oh, I spill things on me and forget the gas is on and my son says I think I’m half the time in Jersey. I’d rather hurt there. I got eyes still, and seeing the kids around’d cure most anything. They could maybe make a place in the shed.” Regina heard us. She looked in. She smiled and went away.
Grim, devoid of courtesy, Mr. Matthews of the Board passes Regina in the corridor. She checks a set of trays and goes to Haley’s office. Haley is downcast, his eyes avoidant. “You wanted to see me, Mr. Haley?” He looks up too quickly, orients himself with difficulty. He commands no real artifice so when he says, “Regina. . .,” and halts and stares, she instantly helps him.”I saw Mr. Matthews and Mr. Williams.” “Yes, Williams—” “Can I get you something?” “For God’s sake, Regina!” He is in his fifties, attractive, but a blatantly literal mind weakens him and makes him too officious. This moment his sense of order fails; she knows his struggle in the speechless interval.”They want the place restored to an evident order, no matter what it takes, and that means a firm hand, rigid discipline— all their phrases—patients to do what they’re expected to, be kept in line, even cajoled into behaving by the very careful—bribery of reduced meals, medicine, visits—of course, all very careful—disguised, if not with the maximum subtlety. The Board feels it’s perfectly obvious that our system—” He halts the rush of it, and his eyes edge over reports and cabinets toward the window. She brings him round: “Mr. Haley, such methods would be vicious, and we have no system. We never had. I—” “Yes yes yes,” he cries. His emphatic interruption awes her.”The Board has learned that; they’ve found out everything—” “Every what thing?” “Your—my—permissiveness they interpret, after questioning your staff, as a mode of practice—a system.” “My—?” “—that if you’d begun at the beginning to apply some other method—” “Some other method? They’re residents, patients, paying guests here, and human beings going through something the rest of us can’t even imagine, who can—yes—teach us; in fact, it has been, terrible as it may seem, a remarkable revelation about them to me—” “You’re not here to be taught!” She sees he is tense with perplexity. “But what it taught me doesn’t matter,” she says.”Well, whatever you learned has cost you too much.” She watches his hands rest on the telephone. He looks at his hands.”We— the Board demanded we get somebody who can handle them and let you go—resign—or transfer you, Regina. I tried— everything.” Tried. Everything. She is sure he’s not lying, She believes him—everything.”—as soon as possible, They hope you’ll settle for a generous severance pay.” She can’t even blame him; she pities him; it’s his own job to run several at long distance; he is, in a world where everybody has authority, nobody, Oh, I can force the case, she thinks, beg a guaranteed discrimination of myriad popular kinds and come back triumphant and alienated, then resign: the practice these days. The air is too still with his waiting for the mercy of some reply. She says quietly, “But it’s over, you see.” “Over?” “With them—the old. They won’t give you any more trouble. It’s run its course. They’re talking again.” “I don’t see any evidence of it. Just before the Board members left, Lydia Rackham barged in complaining and threatened to have her mother removed because—” Removed? When would they learn that a hundred moves would be futile. There’s only one final move—when they let you go the first time.”You’ll have a letter of resignation. I have a few things to do first.” She hears his relief but doesn’t want to see his face. Quickly she opens the door to let the noise come. She goes, feeling an unexpected serenity, down the corridor to the west wing, There are things she can do about her fate, of course, but she cannot give herself up to that now: she must see the old through. For a moment, she stands gazing over the deeps of shadows thrown by the afternoon sun, over the heads she knows so well, glad for the familiar smell of them, the view they look out on, which she realizes she has made her own. She can’t help feeling a certain courage in their having survived the past week. They are watching with a vague interest now, a returning focus, like dreamers whose gazes distracted from the dream fumble over familiar objects. There is a new shifting and reach and touching, laughs now and then, great sighs that turn your head toward them, and here and there old gatherings. Bertha Waltham, newly dressed in soft sky blue with innocent pink leaves falling, stands in the corner in the failing sun: it makes white fire of her hair and her eyes gleam with the view. She sits and stares into the west with a cryptic steadiness.
The brooch Otis gave me is gone. They steal everything here, combs and perfume, sweaters, jewelry, even underwear. Somewhere their daughters must be wearing them. Is that all we have to give? Well, you live on what you have. When nothing’s left, knowing what you are is everything. Maybe what’s real tells us of what is not: the quiet, trees, sea, sky— and the others. Sometimes, Lydia, I try to see the harbor through the trees, where Ted’s marina was before you got him to risk all in the city, and won. And the house—someone named Buckley lives there now. Buckley? But I see nothing: the woods are too thick in spring. Time now is bridge, television, ice cream, Mrs, Wiggins’s trip down the Mississippi 40 years ago, Ella Crawdon s memories of Europe, farm life in the potato fields out Orient way. We give each other sights, new eyes—it costs—and wait for the sun on the carpet, leaves to turn darker green, meals, dear Regina’s “Good morning, everybody,” and in dark night the sound of mouths breathing. At last, Lydia, the long hot days of summer are creeping on to free us from the terrible torrent of spring our blood struggles against that makes us call back to you out there the cry nobody hears. How good the quiet is. But it doesn’t deceive. That terrible wind will come again next spring. But one thing I know—my secret that I share with it, whatever began all this: it can’t stop itself, it can’t stop, it can’t, my daughter.
Regina goes over and stands behind Bertha Waltham, to gaze past the woods at the sunset and the crimson sea. What is the woman seeing? In the pane, struck by light, they make one long image, Bertha Waltham in her chair and she behind. Mrs. Waltham’s gaze is deep. In her eyes is the wet glitter of waves, “My daughter,” she murmurs.
“Yes?” Regina says.
“My daughter,” Mrs. Waltham says.
“Yes,” Regina says.
“My daughter,” Mrs. Waltham says.