Saturday Morning Short Story: Emily

June 16, 2012
A question on facebook sparked this story. Only literary folk are likely to enjoy it, but then again, that’s the majority of the C.C.C. audience.

“Emily”

Dear Lavinia,

I have included the details of my adventure here in Concord in as much detail as I can provide. I hope for your sympathy and mercy when you learn how badly I have gone awry.
The heavy air seemed to have exhausted the mosquitoes on that summer morning after a week in Concord, Massachusetts. The road apples left by the passage of the morning milk cart horses lay fuming on the cobbles. Yesterday’s wash drooped on clotheslines all along my route, too wet to bring in. Flies landed on the brim of my straw hat, attracted by the flowers and too weary from the sultry day to proceed to their slop-bowl destinations. I blessed my decision to wear only white, fashion being the opposite, with the day so hot.
But I couldn’t wait another day at the cottage I had rented near the bottom of the road into Concord. The place was said to be crawling with poets and scholars and philosophers, and I only had a three- month- lease to meet them all.   I felt so brave and venturesome, but I knew that it would not last and I would pull in my head, like a turtle to its shell, if I didn’t have immediate success.
But I had not anticipated the problem I had now. Emerson was apparently not in the habit of wearing a name tag. His friends, H.D. Thoreau and Walt Whitman might be lounging in his parlor this very minute, but how would I know it?
I stepped carefully along the walk, studying each house as I passed, searching for clues about the people that lived in them. I was well into the town now. A beggar-man with holes in the knees of his trousers and his two shirt buttons clinging desperately across his thin chest stepped from the Mercantile with a new trowel in his hand. His  matted hair seemed to move of its own accord  as the vermin turned over in bed. His bristly neck beard made me itch just to look at it, and I wondered if it might not be better placed on his cheeks and lip to distract from his hollow cheeks and long pointed nose.  His odor watered my eyes better than a good Sunday sermon. (Although, I must admit that for me, it is a weak comparison.) I pulled my skirt well clear lest any of his self-contained eco-system detach itself onto me.
“They ought to do something about the drunks and bums if they hope to keep their cottages rented or the intellectual elite gathering here.” I spoke out loud, I suppose to make a point if the man was in ear shot.  If he heard, he made no response. Oh Levinia, you know I am no prude, but I felt so contrary in the heat. How often have I made a rude remark for the sake of social obligations? How I rue those words!
I stopped outside a many-gabled house where a man sat on the covered porch reading a newspaper. I had seen pictures of R.W. Emerson, and I was 60% sure that this was him. I wracked my brain for an excuse to speak to him as I stood gaping. I suppose my pointed staring pricked his awareness. He lowered the paper for a moment, met my gaze with steely rebuke, and turned his back toward me.
I trudged further, knowing the futility of my pursuit, but hoping that my fortunes might change. The lobelia straggled from a flower box, as limp as prisoners of war. Cosmos and coneflowers sagged their overheated leaves and bowed their heads as they prayed for cooling rain.
I stopped in the shade of an ancient oak, pressing as close to it as I could over the fence. “This old oak knows something of the summer heat,” I said. “Yet offers me rest under it’s dark, cool skirt.”
I heard a faint chuckle from behind the tree. I could just see the end of a mossy bench on the back side of tree and the laughter seemed to come from someone, sitting there. I wanted to run away, but remembered it was my day of courage.  “Is there someone there?” I asked.
Perfect stillness answered me.
“Then it is the tree nymph that laughed and will not now show herself.”
A woman stepped into view, though the gloom under the tree was so deep that I could not see her features well. She seemed dressed in the simplest blouse and plainest skirt imaginable. Her heavy, wavy hair successfully escaped a half-hearted attempt to subdue it. Her coarse, expressive features boasted no beauty and her lumpish figure would claim no notice.
“A tree nymph indeed,” she said. “I admit that I was transported by own thoughts and it took a moment for your comment to register.”
“Will you give me your name?”
“It’s Louisa,” she said. Her deep, full, voice resonated almost like a man’s. “Are you new to our pretty, little Concord?  Do you come to be transported to perfection by our transcendental ideas or to be smothered by our clinging, cloying summer air?” She glanced at the sewing she had draped over her arm. It seemed to be the bodice of a dress for a woman much smaller than my new friend, “Louisa.’
“I think the former. I’d saved all my money to come here for a summer and be baptized by immersion in the literary culture.”
“So you’re a writer then?”
“More of a poet, I suppose. But how does one know when one is a writer? Nothing much of mine has ever been published. But that might be because I’ve never dare to send my work to anyone that might publish it. So I write, yes, but I hesitate to call myself a writer.”
“I know what you mean,” Louisa said. “Today, I sew, but I am not pretentious enough to call myself a seamstress.” The glance that fell on the silk bodice was anything but fond.
“Perhaps you can tell me where Mr. Emerson’s home is. I think I saw him as he read his morning paper, but I wasn’t sure and he didn’t seem very friendly.”
A strange, half smiling look passed over the woman’s face as she described the home and man I had seen exactly.
“So do you know him yourself?” I asked.
“Yes, I know him,” she said softly. “He’s a man full of brilliant ideas and a high opinion of them.”
“Is he arrogant?’
“No, just extremely confident. And generally good-hearted.   She turned toward the house that nestled in the deep shade.
“Thank you for speaking with me!” I cried. I wanted to go with her and find out who else she knew and perhaps have a greater insight into the thinkers of that little town. But I felt from her walk that she was tired of my company, and I turned away from the heavy shade, both glad to know that I had seen the great R.W. Emerson, but sorry that the interview with my informant had been so short.
The postman approached the gate I had just forsaken. “I see you met Miss Alcott,” he said. Until that moment, I had not remembered that Louisa Alcott lived in Concord! How could I have forgotten it?  I stared hard at the postman, who dismissed me with a glance. But I saw that his direction lay toward the Emerson home so I followed him.
Just as we approached the Philosopher’s walk, the scruffy hobo I had seen coming from the mercantile turned in at his gate. “Good morning Mr. Thoreau. I have a letter for you, somewhere in this bag.”
The hobo took the letter and saluted me with a nod. There was something in his face that told me that he had heard me speak of him earlier.
I rushed back to my rented cottage , already as hot as an oven and spent the rest of that unholy day bawling into my lemonade.
I never saw any of my three idols after that day. The summer continued unbearably hot and I think they visited cooler climes after that. So this is to explain, dear Sister, why nothing came of my “literary journey.” My scribbles continue to fill boxes and drawers but I know that none of it is likely to see daylight. I am not a girl of courage, and I shrink when I consider the giants of our time. And as is my usual way, I have been too loquacious in this epistle and will now put you out of your misery,
Your loving Sister,
Emily Dickinson    

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