A little piece of my novel for your Tuesday. It follows Leon, an older man exiled to a Minnesotan sanatorium. He reflects on Marnie, the woman he left back in Wisconsin, among many other things…
“Leon wondered how [Marnie] looked now; he longed to see how the years were tracked along her face. He wondered too what became of his books that had lined that wooden shelf in his bedroom, whether Marnie guarded them as treasure or had set them all ablaze in a bonfire long ago, watching them transmute into specks of gold spark. He would not blame her for doing so and she had always been rough to the bindings, folding them back haughtily as she began a new page. If Leon was to write her a proper ending, he pictured her in the plaid armchair in her bedroom, her feet hanging off the edge like a child, bending back The Tempest, pointing to the binding as she said, “I loved you but I worried everyday that you would leave me in this state.”
Free me, he would say to the nurses and the children. Sometimes it is too much to be even a man in your eyes. You do not know what I have done to the people that I cared for.
At the first awakening in the morning, Leon began combing his beard while still in bed. His muscles contracted against the cold, weakened by an unsubstantial sleep, but he kept his pace. Tangled masses of white hair fell upon his nightshirt and Leon moved his hands together over his chest in a prayer. He did not believe in martyrs and the sons of God, but he felt his features were solemn like a death mask. It was Easter Sunday and the medical staff had announced a group picture would be taken outdoors in the early afternoon. He would not be a revolutionary today or a man collapsing under decades of heartbreaks—instead he combed and pampered, even rinsing away the cloudiness that had nearly ruined his eyeglasses. For the sake of memorialization, Leon chose his best shirt (a stiffer linen), the only jacket that had not faded into pastel greyness, and straight-legged trousers. In the small hand mirror, his nose still had too much redness near the pointed center, blood vessels hot under the surface, but he was not vain enough to dwell on such physical shortcomings. In the early days, Marnie used to tell him that he had the air of a man long since given up his self to history; at the time Leon had marked the compliment as a romantic nod to the days of epic poems, although in his more infirm years he responded to the morbidity of the phrase. His journal tucked under his arm, Leon went outdoors to wait for instructions.
No patients roamed the grounds at that hour. Even the groups of elderly women had not yet risen to go on their daily walkabout, a chorus of whittled voices that collected the stories and gossip of the institution. A subtle reconnaissance, the thinly grooved trees guarded him—there was so much uncertainty in the sanatorium, it had been built into the walls, stained the wood, destroyed any real thread of trust between him and that environment. Yet outdoors remained an unconquered ground, still barbaric with its gleaming brush and almost consecrated shrines (on either side of the building the slumped-over shed, the bird bath, standing like bleached ruins, founded by a civilization eradicated form the land). Leon had all this, a proper kingdom, still living, still moving, as the tree branches creaked in the cooling wind. It ought to have been a lonely call like the ripples of noise along his old cottage at night, but it was lovely to Leon, a subtle reconnaissance, a meeting of pagan souls in the wilderness. Leon adjusted one of the lawn rest chairs to face towards the lake; he sat there for close to an hour with his journal upon his lap, growing cold from the wind. Past the muscular ravine, he watched. A jumble of whispers exited the open windows overhead, but no words could be found. A pack of children invaded the peace, running from the nurses down the slope of the hill.
“Are you writing a letter?” a boy asked, pointing to the blank sheet in Leon’s hand. “The nurse helps me write one each week to my mother.”
Leon shook his head, setting down the paper to fold his hands in his lap.
“I would love to write a letter to my mother, but she died years ago,” he replied.
“What about your wife?” (the boy was relentless).
“I don’t have a wife,” Leon said, lifting an eyebrow in amusement. Marnie would have accepted an offer, but they found each other too late in life to be anything to each other. She would have made a good wife—she listened until all talk had been exhausted, she had an eye for valuables at garage sales, she pretended to follow recipes but veered off course to instinct. Still, he had managed to ruin her even without the veil of matrimony.
“How about this—you take this paper and write a letter to your mother. I won’t be needing it,” Leon handed the boy the gift.
The nurses complimented Leon’s appearance as they organized the group into sections according to gender and age. Nurse Tally remarked that he looked like the very picture of Lincoln, which she had torn out of a history book and put on her vanity as a student. Emma, the Hungarian immigrant who had oiled her black curls that morning, straightened his collar for him as he walked past her to his position. Some of the younger women strolled through the crowd as they placed their freshly-done hair in Easter bonnets, holding their pale hands to their mouths as they laughed. Leon admired how bright and healthy the women looked with color circling their cheeks. A lonesome whistle came from the opposite side where suspendered men huddled; the noise brought the nurses scolding as they fixed their scarves for the photograph. When the picture was presented to the patients a month later, Leon decided that he preferred the death mask.”