‘As Rosemary is to the Spirit, so Lavender is to the Soul.‘
Gnarled and spotted thumb draws circles upon the worn linen sachet. Careful, careful, I remind myself. The yellowed fabric now so thin the contents easily bleeds through. Thin and yellowed, like my skin. And yet I still live. Wretched.
I sit on the straight back chair, watching death as it hovers ever near. This time my husband, Gaspard, breath ragged and strained, lost already in the deep sleep of death but with a body that, ever so stubborn, continues its functions. How many hours have I sat waiting for death to come and take somebody I love? I absently stroke the sachet as my mind counts Maman, Papa, young Pierrette, Grandmere finally at 102, and now Gaspard. All these years I sit and wait for death to come, jealous each time that I am not the quarry. What cruel God keeps me healthy and breathing? What cruel God gives me nearly half a century of living after my soul has died?
I brush a bit of lavender dust from the fragile fabric of the sachet, thin as moth wings, powdery. I lift my hand and breath in, hoping the scent will come, but that scent was rend many years back. Another time of grief.
There was a dream. He had been steps away from me in a fog and I chased after him, calling his given name, a name I never dared to have uttered in my waking moments. I called and called in my dream but he remained just out of sight. When I awoke I tried to bring his image to my mind but found it had gone. I panicked then, trying to remember the turn of his jaw, the shape of his brow, the shine in his brown eyes, but he was not to be found. He was ten years in the earth by then, but I grieved again as if it were a day. His image, the face I fell in love with, gone forever. That was another bad year. The scent of the lavender survived a bit longer, but it too has faded from the world.
My other memories remain viciously clear. I remember the moment he placed three sprigs, freshly stolen from the botanist below deck into my bare hand. He was full of mischief, laughing about his crime. Our fingers brushed and we both held our breath. My face was reddened and I hid my fluster behind my fan when Gaspard joined us at the rail. Gaspard did not come above deck often, finding his sea legs were far too uncertain, but on this day he had managed.
“A few days to port. I am very eager to see land once more,” Gaspard spoke cordially to M. du Pre. The gentlemen settled in to talk with cigars at the rail and I made my way to the state room to attend the children. We embarked from home five years hence with three children in tow and since that time three more have joined our family. The seventh was waiting for home soil. Swollen with child I berated myself once more. How could I be tempted so when I was matron, wife, mother, dutiful member of polite society? And M. du Pre and his beautiful, childless, yellow haired bride, with a waist easily spanned by his long tapered fingers, how could I be so foolish as to believe he would even glance my way?
We could not stop our eyes from finding each other and once found, to linger, seeking depths never before known. I feared that others around us must be aware of our racing hearts for the beating was profound. Oh I had noticed him looking, searching the dining room, the deck, and then setting eyes upon me, his seeking would end. And my eyes drawn to him as if I had sight unseen, knowing when he was near, yet uncertain how I knew. Two flames drawn together, but belonging to separate chandelabre. We could not seem to resist, though we both knew that the fire would destroy us.
I hid the lavender in my sleeve, and later dried it carefully on the windowsill.
Moments, so few, I replayed them over and over through the years until they became dust. What words did he not speak? Handing me down the gangway, his kerchief over his hand lest our skin touch, he looked into my eyes for the last time. Loosening his grip on the cloth he released it to my care, a secret gift. His monogram, AdP stitched into the corner was tucked carefully inside the sachet so that only I can tell that this, and I, once belonged to him.
These two gifts, the lavender and the cloth, sewn together and tucked next to my heart now for forty eight years, are all that I have left of him. He and I never spoke of love. We never even spoke our given names. Propriety won out. But we did love, of that I am most certain, though that has not always been the case. I had many moments through the years when I would doubt his feelings, and convince myself that I had imagined the whole thing, read nuance where there was none, or brought my own feelings to bear where his were devoid. Perhaps he was just polite, being attentive to the matronly passenger who sought the fresh sea air as he did. Those were some of my worst moments, so much worse than the silent screaming grief that I carried with me. Did he love me as I loved him?
When we parted, he spoke of reuniting upon his return from Polynesia. He spoke of a time when we would drink cognac in a parlor and he could tell of his great adventure. He held my hand a moment longer than necessary and I saw his mouth move, a silent word unspoken. Olivia.
I smiled politely, waiting until the children and I were in the carriage and had moved beyond his sight before I shrugged behind my veil and allowed tears.
The first parting, ever bittersweet with longing and hope.
The second parting was much worse. He lived within my heart those next few months, alive in my thoughts every moment of the day. He was with me when I gave birth to my son, and in all of the moments I sat in a sunny window alone with my memories. Sewing him in every stitch of the sachet, I could feel him warm against my beating heart, a tender secret. A whispered maybe.
News of his death was a black feather, stark and surprising, landing softly at my feet. A parlor filled with smoke and laughter. Talk of news and gossip interwoven with the steady hum of nonsensical chatter. Smile affixed I feigned interest in something, my thoughts at the rail, a hint of lavender rising from my bosom. A word across the room caught my attention. Polynesia. I tilted my head toward the speaker, a man addressing a group of others.
“… findings that the expedition made luckily were salvaged. At the very least he kept good notes. Terrible shame. Young widow.”
Voices like ice pellets. Scattered words.
“du Pre leaves a great legacy”…”death on foreign soil”…”young man with great potential”…”dead”.
I rushed across the room, my skirts waves upon the stillness. “Tell me. What is this you are saying?” Men staring at me with surprise, but answering my question despite my impropriety.
Anton du Pre was dead, they said. As was my soul, perished that very day.
Several hands caught me as I swooned and I was removed hastily to the confines of my bed, where I stayed for many days and nights. When I finally arose it was to begin life as one already dead. Years passed and no day was spent without thought of him. I played and replayed our moments together, imagining what I could have said, should have said, and wondering what he wanted to say but didn’t.
A widow with no weeds. A grief with no voice. A silence so loud and hot and full of tears that some days I could not rouse myself to leave my bed.
I persisted in my duties, smiling at the successes, romances, weddings and lives of my children and cooing at the births of theirs. I craved the sleep of dreams to once again be with him, for his visits were infrequent, but offered vivid color against the spectrum of gray and brown that was the waking world. Years of living but not. Years spent sitting the death watch for so many, but never for the one who mattered.
Gaspard releases a rattling breath and I wake from my reverie. His face has turned gray, lips parted and purple. It will not be long now. Soon he will win the death that I covet.
My hand squeezed the sachet involuntarily and I feel it disintegrate in my hand. I cry out in despair as I see the fine dust escape the shattered linen and fall to the floor. A fine whiff of scent, a death knell. Lavender at last. I inhale with a shudder.
My gnarled hand releases the fabric. As it floats to the ground I finally see his face, clear as the day I last saw him standing on the pier. He is staring into my eyes and trying to convey a thousand words with one look. I reach to touch his face and see that my hand is no longer the hand of an old woman but is once again young and soft. At last. At long last. Years of aching sadness release on a breath and I ride the beating of my heart to the next world.