Beginning at the end
“Mable, my Mable” he muttered, voice raspy, palm limp in hers. He willed his eyes open, but like a door shoved by a strong wind, they inevitably slammed shut again. Then his lips quirked up ever so slightly, his eyes fixing on her one last time, red and glassy but holding a glimmer of what they always had—devotion with a hint of jest. His forehead glistened with sweat and for a moment his breath stilled. But then he tugged her arm and pulled her forward, whispering, “The floorboard. The loose one at the back of the closet. Forgive me Mable. Forgive me.”
Never would Mable have imagined their twelve years together ending with such a plea. If anything, she should be asking him for forgiveness. He had always been the one to rein in her discontent. When she came in from a long day in the fields complaining of aches and pains, he had stoked the fire, pulled off her sodden socks and massaged her arches. “It will be a good spring,” he would say, smiling. “All our hard work will pay off.” Sometimes his optimism had seeped inside of her, placated her, rocked her to sleep. But more often than not, she had resented his easy happiness.
Hours later when his body had been removed and the children were asleep at last, she locked herself in her room and let herself cry, her sobs as unimpeded as a river tumbling over a cliff. Then, remembering John’s last words, she rose and grabbed a butter knife, glad for an interruption to her misery.
She lifted the lantern from the mantle and crept into the closet, placing her toe along the edges until she felt a loose board. She knelt, sticking the knife into the crack and prying upwards, then shining the lantern into the hole below. At the bottom sat a small, black leather notebook, a thin piece of black twine wrapped around it. When she removed the book, a smooth, wooden box lay beneath. The box was so hefty that she had to use both hands to lift it out. Once she had set the box on her bed, she unwound the twine and opened the notebook. Just the sight of John’s neat, slanted handwriting sent her into another fit of sobs, but she took a deep breath and coaxed her tears to stop.
Today I pondered telling you. It was the end of the summer fest. We were so happy, still tipsy on honey wine. I wanted to confess my secret and yet I feared how you would receive it, having kept it from you for so long. So instead, I made love to you until it was wrenched from my mind.
I am writing as you and the children play in the snow. You’re smiling, cheeks rosy, the snowflakes falling as big as cherries. Inside the fire roars and I am more content that I ever thought I could be. Life is not easy here in the new world. We push ourselves to the limits to survive. And yet I wouldn’t want it any other way. This is what we were made for—to work the land, to love, to grow.
My old life was empty of such meaning. Status was the primary ambition. To climb the social ladder, to be fashionable and witty and charming, to drown oneself in pleasure. I hated it with all my heart. So I left and found you. I thank the Lord every day for that and for the life we’ve created together.
Mable searched her memory for any hint of this past he described. Indeed, he had possessed a straight-backed confidence that came of a noble bearing. But when she asked of his life in the old country, he always simply said, “I left in search of opportunity.” She had known all along that he was concealing the whole truth, but she had relinquished her inquiries as his answers were terse and uninviting.
Mable flipped ahead to the last page.
I have waited too long. I am sick and I know I will not be long in this world. I have no regrets except that I must leave you and the children so soon. I have savored every moment of our years together, even when they were not easy. Perhaps especially when they were so. For our struggles gave us a purpose and no room for pettiness. Before you read on open the box.
Mable reached forward, turning the tiny bronze latch and lifting the cover. She gasped and slammed the box shut, then opened it once again. She had never before misbelieved what lay in plain sight. How though? How could hundreds of gold coins have lived in the back of her closet all these years? She took a deep breath, hand on her chest, and read on.
Even as you read the next words, know that I have always been who you know me to be and the person I was supposed to be in the old world was not me. That is why I left my court. That is why I chose this life. These guineas total $20,000 or perhaps a bit more by now. Start a new life for yourself and the children. Give it to charity. Whatever will lift some of the pain I have left you with, whatever will grant you some happiness. That is all I have ever wanted. It was selfish of me to desire a simple life free of luxury. That is why I ask for your forgiveness, for I know that although you found happiness in our life, it caused you great suffering as well. Mable, I don’t think I could ever have loved anyone more.
His words pounded on her heart, her body buoyant and simultaneously weighed down, as though by a hundred golden guineas. She reached inside the chest and ran her fingers along the coins, cold to the touch. Then she lifted them, letting them tumble slowly back into the box as though to confirm their substantiality. A week ago, the feel of so much gold on her fingertips would have made her giddy, a hundred doors long shut, suddenly thrown wide. Now all she could see through those doorways was darkness—for why go anywhere if he would not be there to lean over and kiss her cheek and whisper, “Our hard work has paid off.” No, she would stay right where he had left her, savoring the fruits of their labor, however measly. Perhaps she would buy new clothes for the children, hire extra hands, purchase sugar and coffee and a new stove. But for now, that was sufficient.
Mable walked back to the closet, crouching down to lower the chest into the hole, placing the floorboard on top, hundreds of years passing in the span of a few moments. The house crumbled, the wind spread layers of soil and seed over the gold below, plants sprouted up and then perished beneath a thick coating of frost. A thousand seasons passed and still the gold waited, rested, undiminished by time.
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