The first thing moving is the mouth of Josephine. A beat behind flies Richards, tendering heart medicine. Mrs. Mallard weeps, waves, declining the offer before ascending the stairs to her room.
Mrs. Mallard is of three minds: grief-stricken, giddy, and agog. Hard to believe her husband is really dead. That said, it’s spring—the rain and birds and trees provide such radiant reminders. Those streaks of blue sky too, there in the distance, shaking free like limbs from irons. She rises from her comfortable chair and glides toward a growing shaft of light. Mmm, she hums, opening at the window like a bud.
A man and a woman aren’t one. That’s what Mrs. Mallard said one snow-dumb evening, seven-odd years into her marriage, her husband and his portly colleagues having retired to the library for sherry and cigars. Louise! Josephine cried, dithering a fan before her face. They discover it always too late, after the blessing, the bombast, the blood upon the sheets. They quickly cool—and here Mrs. Mallard stopped to down a shot of wild Kentucky bourbon—then freeze. Days pass and eyes and ears and mouths crust over, the ice like, like . . . thick barbaric glass! Josephine grew faint and drooped to the settee, wrist over brow. What? Mrs. Mallard smiled, a second shot kissing her lips. You must remember mother and father—their blind persistence, that hourly civil war of wills. Josephine moaned. Shook her head. No, she couldn’t. Or she wouldn’t.
That night, the funeral arrangements made, a sudden thunder draws Mrs. Mallard from bed back to window. Under the full moon’s glow, she sees a strange sight: two hemlocks striding toward the house, a familiar figure ensconced in their ferny arms. Moments later, the front door bursts open. A Thank God! drops from Josephine. By the time she reaches the landing, Mrs. Mallard has prepared herself to see her husband, who stands in the foyer, brushing needles from his coat. Why all the fuss? his small eyes seem to wonder. Richards turns, spectacles skewed, hands thrown up to screen her view. Mrs. Mallard is shocked, of course; however, as her audience stands breathless, dreading her tragic end, she descends the stairs in style, chest out, chin up, a veritable goddess of Victory.
Doctors rush Mrs. Mallard with great care to the divan. One fingers her pulse. The other snakes a scope over her breast. In unison, they step back to declare: Your heart trouble—why, it’s gone! While Mr. Mallard, Josephine, and Richards weep with relief, Mrs. Mallard quietly backsteps to the foyer, where she dons a shawl and sun hat before slipping out the front door. If she cannot have freedom, she thinks, she is going to give herself a damn vacation.
Louise rests her head against the door of a grand glass coach that transports her from one state to another. Up and up she goes, admiring resplendent scenes, each moment filled with quietly monstrous joys. That evening, her energy flagging, she happens upon a lamp-lit mansion snuggled inside a stand of snow-dusted cedars. On the long wide porch, countless figures linger, all muted wool sweaters and scarves. At their invitation, she takes a seat and a cup of chamomile tea. Slowly—these figures seem to have all the time in this world and the next—discussion of the next day’s forecast resumes. There is considerable anxiety about stern winds expected to soon be howling down from the north, bringing the strong likelihood of a blizzard. Louise drifts, the conversation cordial but banal. No matter. For the moment, she needs nothing more than the feeling of free-free-freedom from the throes of conjugal life.
It is evening all afternoon. Winter all spring and summer. There are nights when Mr. Mallard looks up from his desk and swears he sees the shadow of his missing wife brush to and fro before the panes. There are days when Richards slouches from sitting room to garden, appraising Josephine, who lulls among the orchids, her eyes lost among the snowy mountains.
That autumn, Josephine, an aging maid with fading options, succumbs to Mr. Mallard’s marital innuendos. At the sitting room ceremony, the ancient minister, pausing between common nouns for a phlegmy cough, proclaims: A man (ack, ack) and a woman are one. Mr. Mallard smiles, freezing Josephine’s hand with his own. Taking her tears for those of joy, guests offer best wishes. Only Richards sits apart, nails carving into his now twice-spurned heart. That night, a cold front descending, Mr. Mallard snuffs the candles and mounts his brand-new wife. Josephine closes her eyes to his thrusts, her ears to the wheezing bawdy talk. Behind lids, she imagines her sister a bird, proudly dark against the sun, soaring above the highest peaks of those snow-filled mountains.
Oh Josephine! Do you not sense Richards now, cheek bone-hard against the door, hand upon the wrathful rousing in his trousers? As your husband bursts, do you not feel that other shudder—quick and dark as the blink of a blackbird’s eye?
Mr. Mallard alights from the hissing train into the cold gray breath of late November, the Times beneath his arm. Moments later, the platform disappears in the mist, and he becomes a thin, intermittent figure between the gas lamps on Haddam Road. More and more these days, he thinks of his Louise, who, in her long absence, has transformed into an object of some affection. Authorities have presumed her dead, but what if—somehow, some way—she were still alive? What if she were to appear one day at the door, tired, penitent, ready again to resume her proper role? Might he find it in his Christian heart to forgive her?
Mr. Mallard stops, his footsteps strangely too loud. He looks around, bird-like, feet frozen with fear. Hello? he calls. Is that, is that . . . you? The fog thickens, so he cannot see the icy eye that watches unblinkingly from between the hemlock trees.
One morning, Louise wakes from a death-like slumber and thinks: Why in the world should she give her bounty to these front-porch bores? She stands, attempts to dismiss uncharitable thoughts by thanking them all for their hospitality. On cue, the glass coach returns, and she dashes inside. The figures rush to the railing, wringing pale hands. The storm is coming, they cry in unison. It isn’t safe for anyone, most of all a woman on her own! As the coach moves off, she responds with a hanky and a smile.
It is snowing. In the culvert beside the road, the only thing moving is the eye of the blackbird that rests upon the handle of the knife rising like a tree from between Mr. Mallard’s shoulder blades.
Somehow—she’s not telling—Louise has enough money to purchase a sprawling ranch on a hill in Tennessee. After unpacking, she sits on the porch, bare feet on the railing, and watches with some satisfaction as people she has known rise up around her: father and mother, those sad, faint shades still bristling with hate; poor pale Josephine, eyes two dried up pools of hope; wild-haired Richards in leg irons, driven by jailers to his knees. After a time, even her definitely dead husband appears, knife buried in back, a blackbird flapping on his shoulder.
Ah, she thinks, sometimes there is nothing quite like the delicious breath of order!
In two short days, Louise becomes quite the personage about town. If she’s not spinning impious rag on her front-porch Victrola, she’s pumping her bicycle hard up and down the tree-lined street, bloomers billowing in the breeze. Suffice it to say that the God-fearing folks of Tennessee are taken aback by such liberated hullabaloo.
On the third morning, Louise rises late, strides from the house in a vermillion two-piece, jouncing an umbrella in a tall, resplendent drink. Beside her saunters a comely stranger, hair loose, shoulder moving toward Louise’s for a kiss. The mayor, out for a stroll with his wife, stops dead in his tracks to tug his stiff moustache. Simply monstrous, he says. His wife nods yet glances back as they go, tongue stealthy across her arid upper lip.
Story Hour happens whenever Louise sees fit. Whether noon on the dot or three sixteen in the morning, young girls flock to her porch, bright birds seeking seeds. Louise holds forth, legs open, hands upon knees, spinning mordant tales of modern love designed to gird these young and tender hearts. Patriarchs tut and frown. Matriarchs strangle pearls. Anonymous threats arrive in the mail. But nothing—nothing!—stops Louise. The girls come at the appointed time and cheer. Their excitement is euphonic, reaching like church bells as far as the snowy mountains. And always, Louise ends the hour exactly when she wants to, standing up to shout, Let me be finale of seem! It’s a killer line, she has to say, one that slays the darling maidens every single time.
Kate Chopin: “The Story of an Hour” and “The Storm.”
Wallace Stevens: “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, “Sunday Morning, “Domination of Black,” “A High-Toned Old Christian Woman,” “Death of a Soldier,” “The Idea of Order at Key West,” “Anecdote of the Jar,” and “The Emperor of Ice Cream.”
Michael Cocchiarale is the author of the novel None of the Above (Unsolicited, 2019) and two short story collections--Here Is Ware (Fomite, 2018) and Still Time (Fomite, 2012). His creative work appears online as well, in journals such as Fictive Dream, South Florida Poetry Review, The Disappointed Housewife, and The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts. See him on the web at https://michaelcocchiarale.wordpress.com/. Michael recommends Philabundance.