October 7, 1849
The city’s streets lie dark as catacombs beneath a black ceiling of moonless sky. A low fog unrolls across the harbor like a carpet of frost, pushed by a salt-laden breeze. My thin cotton gown is little protection against the chill, but no matter. The cold can no longer make me cough or shiver. This is the harbor of Baltimore, place of my birth, a city I haven’t seen in many years. he city’s streets lie dark as catacombs beneath a black ceiling of moonless sky. A low fog unrolls across the harbor like a carpet of frost, pushed by a salt-laden breeze. My thin cotton gown is little protection against the chill, but no matter. The cold can no longer make me cough or shiver. This is the harbor of Baltimore, place of my birth, a city I haven’t seen in many years.
I walk east, the blowing fall leaves crisp beneath my bare feet, like crumpled pages torn from an old book. Yet they make no sound as I tread on them, not even the thickest drifts. Pulled on as if by an invisible net, I pass a fish market, a haberdasher’s and a newspaper office, the Farmer’s Bank, then a tobacco warehouse. But none of these are my destination.
At the corner of Broadway and Fairmount I stop before a five-story brick building with vaulted gothic windows, and hesitate with one foot on the first step. When I lived in this city, as a child, older playmates sometimes whispered of ghastly doings here, in Washington University Hospital. They said body snatchers opened tombs in the nearby cemetery to disinter the unfortunate corpses within. Then they would smuggle these grisly burdens to the hospital’s doctors to be cut apart like sides of mutton, before they’d been in their graves a full day. Silly rumors, no doubt. Still, back then most Baltimore residents preferred to die of their diseases at home, rather than suffer the shining knives and toothed saws of the physicians, who so often killed their patients before illness or injury could.
Suddenly I don’t want to go inside. If I turn away now, perhaps I could become one of those earth-bound ghosts that children whisper of, after the lamps are turned down and they lie shivering in bed, starting at every creak and groan of the settling house. Shrinking beneath the quilts at each flicker of light and shadow. Perhaps I should instead go to Richmond, back to Capitol Square, to haunt our old boarding house, and welcome Mrs. Yarrington’s new guests.
The thought makes me smile, and so at last I feel heartened enough go on up the stairs to the open door.
Inside, the high ceilings and vaulted windows mimic some great church, but with no altar, no pews, no crucifix. Beyond the mullioned glass, above the low-lying harbor fog, the great dark sky curves. Still without a moon, but now sprinkled with stars like grains of salt tipped onto black velvet. Across the street a few buildings glow with orange points, a dim earthbound constellation of gaslights.
The hospital is cool and smells of carbolic. Sparsely furnished with white-painted cabinets and straight-backed wooden chairs, populated with distracted people who do not pause but merely pass through in a great hurry. They all ignore me.
I turn in a slow circle to track the progress of a woman clad in the white shirtwaist of a nursing sister. "Excuse me," I whisper, keeping my voice low out of respect for the sick, the injured, the dying. "I’m seeking Mr. Edgar Poe. Could you please – "
She rushes past without turning her head.
From nearby terrible noises erupt: screaming, curses, shrieks, pleading. The guttural threats of a maniac which rise to fever pitch, warped with madness and pain.
After so long a time spent in solitude, this hellish clamor pierces my head like steel shards. I flee up a wide staircase to the second floor. On the landing I nearly collide with a gray-bearded gentleman. He wears the white coat of a doctor, its material spotted with rusty red and crusted yellow, mementoes of former patients. He’s accompanied by several young men whose eyes are red-rimmed, who are clearly struggling to feign interest in his muttered lecture. One tall, gangly fellow turns away to stifle a yawn in his sleeve.
I suddenly realize I’m blocking their passage down. "Pardon me." Twitching my skirts aside, I wait for them to let me by. Yet not one man looks up, or smiles, or even nods to acknowledge me.
I fall back in astonishment at this blatant rudeness. Glancing around in consternation I see, in the window on the landing, that the chair and cabinet beside me are reflected in its glass panes. Yet I, alas, am not.
Ah. I had forgotten for a moment this one sure truth: Not everyone can see the dead as we move among you.
Two harried-looking nurses at the head of the stairs exchange brief, knowing nods as they sidle past the lecture group. They brush by as if I’m less substantial than a moonbeam. The red-haired, Irish-looking one does rub her arms, though, and glances back as if struck with a sudden chill. Yet to them I am little more than a draft of cool air through a cracked pane, a faint shadow cast by a flickering lamp.
Actually, this is a freeing thought, and I step off more confidently, no longer bothering to move aside or apologize when a nurse or orderly passes by, or even through me.
Washington University is a teaching hospital. The sort of place I might’ve been well-acquainted with, had I not done all my dying at home. I drift onward through its cacophony of ceaseless sound, the sweet scent of opiates, the sour stench of ailing bodies and soiled bandages, the steamy starch of boiling potatoes, because the time is now right for one last journey.
As I reach the second floor landing more screams erupt, shouted curses and pleas, the broken cries louder, even more desperate now. A man is calling my name; he has been calling it all along. The voice is deeper, though, and hoarser than I remember. Coarsened by shouting, illness, and age. And drink, no doubt – far too much drink.
I feel again the old sinking, the vague dread and pity I once knew so well. And love, of course. That too. "Coming!" I say. "I’m coming to you, my dear."
And if no one can see or hear me – well then, why worry? I move out boldly and call again, louder, "I’m coming to you, dear! Peace, Eddy, peace."
At the end of the corridor, in a small private room, the pale dark-haired man I seek is lying on a hospital cot. His limbs tremble and jerk. "Where’s my trunk?" he shouts. And then, "I must board the train to Richmond!"
I stop beside the bed, but he does not look up at me.
"For the love of God," he mutters, throwing his lank wet hair from side to side on a sweat-sodden pillow.
They’ve tied him into the cot with lengths of stained canvas, but he does not smell of spirits. So the madness comes from within now, not from a bottle.
He shrieks, "Someone find a pistol and blow my brains out!"
I hold out one hand. "Eddy, my dear."
He squeezes his eyes shut. "You aren’t there," he whispers fiercely. "It’s the fever working on my brain. I told them I have a wife in Richmond, but they said – "
I lean to stroke his pale damp brow. He shudders under my touch like a poor mistreated horse. "I am here, Eddy. You can see me. They can’t, that’s all."
He opens his eyes again. The wild hope in them is heart-breaking. "Virginia? My own dear Sissy. It is you!"
"Yes, it’s me." I clasp the poor twitching hand to stop its pointless agitations, and we both flinch. His clutching fingers are very hot, while mine – well, to him they must feel quite icy.
The hope slowly fades. His face contorts into an expression of abject fear, of pale staring horror. "My God, my God," he whispers. " We have put her living in the tomb !"
I almost laugh at that, but it would be cruel, or seem even more horrible to him, perhaps. For the tomb, I know now, is far from the final resting place I once believed it to be. "That was only a story, my dear. One of your stories. I’m not . . . not living, merely – "
But who can explain a mystery, the nature of which they too are not altogether certain? So to soothe him, I suggest the one helpful thing that comes to mind. "I have a tale," I say, smiling down into his wide staring gaze.
He laughs bitterly, as if I’ve told a mean joke at his expense. Clenches his hands into hard, trembling fists, straining against the canvas bonds as if he’d strike me down, if only the brass buckles were weaker. "You’re not her, but some fiend come to torment me! Who sent you – Longfellow? The Knickerbocker ? My esteemed cousin Neilson? Bastards, thieving bastards all!"
"None of them, Eddy. Please – let me tell the story this time, won’t you? If it’s worthy, perhaps you’ll commend me to your editor."
He rolls his eyes up at the ceiling. His dry, cracked lips twitch into a grimace that’s almost a smile. "My editor ."
"Yes, I made a joke. Why not? So much in our lives together was not pleasant or amusing, so when the opportunity arises – "
"All right," he whispers, subsiding onto the thin, damp pillow. "All right." He closes his eyes again, and gestures weakly with those long, pale, trembling fingers: Go on, then. Go on.
So that is what I do. I sit at the foot of his narrow sickbed, still holding his hand, and prepare to tell a story – of life, of death, and of life-in-death. So that when my dying husband is calm, and finally believes in the message I bring, we may leave here. Depart the flawed, cold, uncaring world of living men once and for all, together.
Still, I hesitate. Only because – for one dizzy, sickening moment – I want to flee back to that calm and solitary peace I was so suddenly called from to come back. Would I stay here, in this loud, bright, hurried world, if I could? To do it all, our lives, over again?
I am not certain.
In any case I can’t leave without him, for Eddy needs me still. Even more than he did back then, if that’s possible, through all the joys and tragedies and even the most ordinary of our days. So I’ll try to recall to him how we came to be here together, and what lies ahead when we leave this place. Together, I hope – but in the end, he is the one who must choose.
I must content myself with simply recounting those twelve years we knew together. That brief span in our lives when I was first simply young Virginia Eliza Clemm – and then, quite suddenly, Mrs. Edgar Allan Poe.
Lenore's latest novel, Becky,
follows the lives of Mark Twain's
Tom Sawyer, Becky Thatcher, and Huck Finn -- as adults. It's now
available in both HARDCOVER and TRADE PAPERBACK from St. Martin's
Press. In Becky, Tom Sawyer's
first love finally gets to tell her
side of the story. It opens in
1910, and Mark Twain -- best known to Becky as Sammy Clemens of
Hannibal -- has suddenly passed away, just when he said he would, "gone
Halley's comet." Now she's going to tell the story of Tom and Huck and
Sid and her as it really
happened, and put back the parts Twain left out of his novel . . . such
as how Injun
Joe really died, and what actually happened when she and Tom were
trapped in the
cave, and why she finally rejected Tom and came to marry his cousin
Sid. But can she ever really forget the sweet-talking, maddening,
irresponsible Tom Sawyer? She plans to try. . . .
The novel before that was Ordinary Springs (PenguinPutnam, January 2005) set in Florida in the fifties and sixties. Pubisher's Weekly called it "Gritty, fierce . . . a fine vintage portrait of a tough girl whom life teaches to be tougher." Dory Gamble's mother left when she was a baby, so she was raised by her father, Owen, and grew up working alongside him in their hardware store in Ordinary Springs. She always thought the two of them would be inseparable. But when she's fifteen, Owen falls for their attractive new neighbor, whose husband is too sick to even come outside. Soon Dory understands how one betrayal can breed and multiply; how willing even good people can be to hurt each other. When she lashes out against everything she once loved, nothing can ever be the same.
Lenore's first young adult novel, The Treasure of
Savage Island, published in September 2005 by Dutton, was
several YA book awards. She is now at work on a new
of the marriage of Edgar Allan Poe, told by his wife and young cousin
Virginia Clemm. Part literary tale, part historical novel, part ghost
story, it will be published by St. Martin's Press in January 2010.
She has also lectured or taught at Florida State University,
Mason University, Florida Community College at Jacksonville, Eastern
Community College, the Cape May Institute, The U. S. Naval Academy at
Annapolis, Eckerd College, Old Dominion University, The Poynter
in St. Petersburg, Christopher Newport University, and Tidewater
in Virginia Beach. She's been featured
on Voice of America and in three segments of the syndicated PBS
series "Writer To Writer." She has also been a Visiting Writer at
Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania. She lives on the
Eastern Shore of
with her husband, novelist David Poyer, and their daughter, Naia.
To arrange for an appearance, please get in touch with Hilary
Press. She's at (800)
221-7945, ext. 5637.
Or you can write Lenore direct at PO Box 647, Nassawadox, VA 23413-0647.
For Hart's bio, or for more information on each book, see the
links above. To find out more about the low residency MA/MFA in
Creative Writing, visit Wilkes