Maria stood outside the farmhouse, surrounded by her children, who were hugging her tightly. Eleanore was holding back tears, and Johannes and Matty were trying their best to act tough, reminding Maria so strongly of Friedrich and Kurt on a stormy summer night in Aigen long ago that her heart contracted, and she felt a sob of love and gratitude rise up in her chest. Gratitude both for what was, and for what had been.
"It will be alright," Maria said reassuringly. "I promise you that. This doctor, he is the best, and your sister is insisting that I go to him. You know Brigitta is never wrong."
"You'll come home as fast as you can?" Matty asked, his face anxious. He was almost as tall as Maria now, but there was never a boy who belonged more to his mother than this one did, and it was safe to say that he was not eager for her to disappear again for any length of time.
"As fast as I can make it," Maria promised, nodding assertively. "You don't think I want to be poked and prodded any longer than I have to be, do you?"
"I suppose not," Matty said.
"Be safe," Eleanore sniffed. "Snuggle the baby for me. And tell Brigitta and Robert that they must have me for the fall break so that I can watch the kids for them."
Maria lifted her daughter's chin and smiled at her, marveling at how grown up she was. Of all of her children, this girl most resembled Maria feature-for-feature, but she was shorter, and her hair was blonder, and though she had her mother's tilted nose and downturned shape of her eyes, her eyes were ice-blue in color, just like her father's. She was her mother's daughter, but she was softer and more compassionate than Maria felt she had ever been herself, or ever could be.
"I will," Maria nodded, then leaned in and kissed her forehead.
She addressed Johannes last, encircling him with a one-armed hug and reminding him to mind his brother. As he and Kurt were similarly tempered, it was a prudent warning, and Johannes nodded.
"I'll do my best, Mama," he promised.
The final farewells were then made for Kurt and Annie and their brood, who had indeed agreed to stay in the farmhouse in Stowe, and then Maria allowed Georg to help her into the car, and once both doors were shut behind them and the ignition turned over, Georg put the car into gear and they were off.
"This is it," Maria said softly. So softly that Georg almost didn't hear her.
Reaching for her hand, Georg patted it and then grasped it, giving it a squeeze. "This is it," he agreed.
Maria swallowed, smiled nervously, and tightened her grasp around her middle as she turned to look out her window. Though she felt well enough to travel, she had woken the last few days with crippling fatigue and shooting pain in her flanks, and now there was blood in her urine and she knew that it would only be a matter of days before there was trouble.
Fever would set in, and this whole endeavour would be terribly delayed. Perhaps well into the next year. So she had said nothing, and had decided she would tell Georg only once they were safely in Brigitta's little brick-faced home in Cambridge. He would be furious, she knew, but it was a risk she felt she had to take, and not one that was worth his wresting it away from her in worry or concern. She knew already how this would go. He knew it, too, but his sailor's mentality always kicked in and he treated every episode as if it were new.
Maria frowned, reflecting on this thought, and began to turn it over. The frequency of Georg's nightmares and terrors was now finally abating, but in her very-nearby opinion, as the person who shared his bed and had to soothe him in the night, if he was not first thoroughly worn-out by any prior lovemaking or physical labor from the day, the episodes were still as intense as they had been when Rosemary telephoned and asked her to come home.
She had said to Brigitta that she had asked Georg to consider getting help. There had been a few moments in the intervening weeks where she sorely wanted to ask if, at this juncture, he would now consider seeking the guidance of someone versed in shell shock, but determined not to make him feel worse, and to let him make up his own mind, she bit her tongue and continued to wait.
She had no particular reason to believe that this was the right thing to do. The only thing that she had to go by was a small voice in her head which whispered to her to have patience, to wait, and to have compassion. In prayer, this voice became louder, and if there was anything that she prayed harder for than her own health, it was for his. That little voice all but screamed at her, then, and she was inclined to believe it.
Perhaps it would be all wrong, and she would find that out, and pay dearly to do so, but she understood that Georg valued his own autonomy above anything else. It was ironic, because he was a staunch military man who had risen to respectable rank in a short amount of time in his youth, but so it was. The way she understood it, the wars he fought in had torn him so quickly and thoroughly from his wife and children that when he finally did retire, he had decided that missing the sea was worth having control over his own self again, thoroughly and entirely.
It occurred to Maria later, after confessing to him in the bed inside Brigitta's garden house just how fragmented she had felt by their limited and jarring intimacy from the time of the Anschluss and into the beginnings of her illness, that she had been so silly to think he could not relate in any way whatsoever to her plight. Surely he must have felt very similarly, if not precisely the same! He had told her how there had been a free and easy time in his and Agathe's marriage, before the wars and before the children, but once Liesl was born, nearly every encounter afterwards held that same jarring, staccato rhythm that had the taunting whisper of pain and envy hovering over his shoulder, reminding him of how it could be instead of taking total delight in what was in front of him.
How crass she must have sounded, she thought later. But he hadn't said a word of any of this. He hadn't tried to compare, or to show in some way whose experience was worse or better, and instead he had kissed her into oblivion and made love to her just the way she had asked for.
It was slow, and easy, and drawn out, and every feeling that rose in her bloomed with both intensity and with measured care. He was gentle, and he spoke of how he adored her, and every touch was a caress and the utter delight of her soul. "You know how to play my music," she had whispered in his ear. "How? Even I didn't know."
"It wasn't meant for you to find," he answered back. "It was meant for me."
And then he had dipped his head down and ran his tongue from her naval to her collarbones, right between her breasts, and nearly made her scream his name as he pushed himself inside her.
God, it had been glorious, and every time after that had been equally glorious. A discovery. A luxury. A delight. He made her sing, and he made that music within her draw to a crescendo again and again so that it reverberated into the very essence of her soul. She thought that she might actually levitate, that was how deep feeling ran inside her.
She wondered to herself if the magnetism would fade. As far as she could tell, it was as strong as it had ever been. Was it the thing that made people act like adolescents together after thirty or forty years together? Or was it love?
Love made her silly and insane and prone to giggles. It felt so much like being drunk on wine that Maria considered those feelings virtually the same. When, married a week and having her first truly full glass of wine in all that time, she felt it go from her throat straight to that place behind her navel and quickly felt that lurch inside when she looked at Georg and noticed how it seemed to expand and pulsate under the influence of the wine, making her loose and warm and receptive, she decided it was very much the same.
Idly, but not without a flash of guilt, Maria found herself wondering if it had indeed been their intimacy which made her sick again. Would there be a way to know? She had been as careful as she could be, and she had yet to be hospitalized since the episode in February, but she couldn't help the feeling in her gut that said she was due for trouble.
But why do I think this? she asked herself as the countryside around her rolled by in a blur. Is there a pattern to my illness? Is there any one thing which indicates I will go to the hospital this time?
Pulling out the tattered daybook from her coat pocket, Maria started to thumb through it. She read pages here and there, and eventually pulled a stub of pencil out of the glove box. She turned to the end of the book, to her next blank pages, and began to scratch the graphite onto the paper, taking care to write as neatly as she could while the car rumbled over the road.
Glancing over at his wife when he realized she was writing something in the daybook, Georg asked, "What's that you're writing, love?"
"I'm writing down the truth that I know, so that I can look at it, and try to believe it," Maria said steadily, her eyes not leaving the pages opened on her lap.
"And what is it?" Georg asked.
Maria was silent for several minutes while she wrote her truths down on the pages. Georg did not prod, and merely waited. He suspected that his patience would be richly rewarded. If Maria did not deign to tell him these things, she would have deflected his question, or refused to answer, or perhaps even lied.
When she was done, Maria scanned the lines she had written, muttering to herself, then stared out the window. She was quiet for a while, and only began to mutter again after the passed a sign indicating a city limit, and again she scanned through her list.
Maria did this several times over the next few hours before finally nodding to herself with closed eyes. "This I believe," she said.
Then, she turned to her husband, and she began to read to him what she had written.
There is no discernible pattern to my illness.
I do not know what will be good or bad, nor do I know why.
I did not cause the loss of Nathaniel.
I did not fail my children because of my illness.
I did not fail my husband because of my illness.
My illness is not who I am.
My illness has answers, but I am not in control of what they are.
No matter what happens, I will be alright.
Alright does not mean healthy.
I made many sacrifices to stay alive, so I must use that life.
Failure to be a responsible steward is what I am accountable for.
Everything that lies between now and then was not worthless.
There is a great and boundless middle that is full of lovely and amazing things.
After darkness, there is light.
I have to look for my life.
Every item Maria listed broke Georg's heart more with every syllable, but he understood that these were true things about herself that she needed to truly know, truly and intimately, in the fully Biblical sense of the word. He could see how acceptance of these things would make it easier to move forward, and to move forward into a different way of being. She had to, for she was no longer the woman he had married. This life had taken that from her.
But she was still the same person. And it seemed she was beginning to remember.
"Maria," Georg said, swallowing around a hard lump in his throat, "you don't have to believe these all at once, or in full. But it is an astounding, true list. Please know that while you cannot totally and deeply believe these things—because sometimes it just isn't possible—I am holding these truths for you, and I believe them with all that I am. They are safe with me."
Maria felt the tears prick her eyes and she swallowed, nodding. "Thank you, Georg. I appreciate it."
When they stopped to refuel the car an hour later, Maria climbed out of the passenger seat with the daybook in hand and she walked over to where an off-duty attendant was burning garbage in a tall can. Georg watched from afar as his wife approached him, asked him something, and held up the tattered thing in her hands to show him. They conversed, and both nodded, and Maria flipped to the back of the book and tore out several pages, then closed the book and threw it into the fire. The man doused it with gasoline, then handed a box of matches to Maria to reignite the flame. She struck the match, dropped it inside the barrel, and watched the flames burst to life anew. She remained there, watching, until her husband called her over, indicating that he was finished and that it was time to keep going. She thanked the attendant, wishing him a pleasant day, and they continued on their way.
"Feel better?" Georg asked, glancing over at his wife once they were back on the highway.
"Yes," Maria nodded, then she looked over at her husband. "Georg, I have to tell you that I'm having pain, and urinating blood, and I'm quite tired. It has been this way for several days. I'm sorry I didn't say anything, but I hoped it would go away, or I thought if it didn't, I could tell you when we arrived in Cambridge. But that wasn't right, and you should know. So, there it is."
Georg was focusing very hard on not swerving the vehicle off the road, so for the good of them both, he waited until he found a place to pull over, did so, and killed the engine. Then, without a word to Maria, he climbed out of the car and began to walk away from them, way from the road, and into the vast green expanse that was the land beyond the highway.
Maria watched him go and did not fight the disappointment that welled in her. Any desire to run after him was good and quenched by her exhaustion, and by the effort she had exerted burning the daybook. She looked down at her lap and found the pages clenched in her fists. They were bent out of shape, crumbled from her nervous grasp, but she held onto them, however silly it felt, as though they were her lifeline. She glanced nervously at her watch.
Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick.
He would come back.
Finally, after twenty excruciatingly long minutes, Maria could see the figure of her husband returning to her, growing larger and larger as he neared the vehicle. He was hunched over, his hands jammed in his pockets. and he seemed to be muttering to himself.
When he arrived back at the car, he looked at her with a hard expression and asked sharply, "Have you got anything else to tell me?"
She shook her head.
"We'd best be getting on our way, then," Georg said. "If you're to need a hospital, there's nothing within fifty miles of here that could take you."
They were halfway to Cambridge by then, anyway, and so Maria knew that even Georg would not see sense in turning around. They would continue on to Massachusetts, and once they arrived to Brigitta's little garden house, what would be would be. If he was furious with her, she would understand, but she had made the ill-advised decision to say nothing before she'd come to her quiet epiphany, and now that she had cleared the air, as sorry as she was for having hurt him with her silence, she was glad she had been honest now, while he still had a say in the conversation.
"What made you burn that book?" Georg asked after several uncomfortable minutes of silence.
He sounded rough, like he was having some sort of episode, and Maria, recognizing this, swallowed, but she answered carefully, "I told you that I wanted to burn it, Georg. That I wanted nothing to do with it. I couldn't do that because I left it with Brigitta, and once she gave it back to me, I had been thinking that perhaps it could be useful after all, and kept it. But I asked myself a while back, as I was reflecting on why I kept it from you that I am feeling ill, what the patterns really were. Why did I think that this time would be a bout that leaves me hospital bound? And so I started to sift through, and I found no answer. I did, however, come to the truth." She held up her fist, in which the papers were crumbled. "It may not be the whole truth, but it's a start."
"Maria, what if that daybook helps you get better? What if the doctor sees something we cannot?"
"Georg, all that stupid book was, was notes about our life that have no meaning whatsoever to the fact that my kidneys cannot function correctly. It's all just colorful little scribbles, and those scribbles show an ordinary woman living an ordinary life under an extraordinary burden. All an outsider would see is my pain and my triumphs, my highs and my lows, and he would see the stark, wonderful ordinariness that is this life, and still there would be no answer! I did not keep that to understand my body. I kept it to keep myself sane!"
The muscles of his neck were straining with anger, Maria could see. His jaw was locked tight, and she could sense that he was trying to keep himself from saying something that he thought he would regret.
Underneath the exhaustion, and the stabbing, burning pain that reminded Maria that she had a lot more at stake than her husband's ego, the fight in her came rearing up and she demanded, "Well, say something! I can see that you want to!"
"It was rash and stupid, Maria!" Georg snapped. "You could have waited. Just one day, and we would have known if it was of any use!"
"Georg," Maria riled back, "the only thing that's going to tell the doctor anything useful is to cut me open and look inside my kidneys! You have to let go of the idea that old knowledge will find something new! It won't!"
Georg slammed on the brakes, and the impact sent Maria sliding forward, and breaking her trajectory with a hand against the dash caused her bent wrist to press into her side. She cried out, and this seemed to be the bucket of ice water over his head that Georg needed to find his head again and snap out of his storm.
"Maria!" he cried.
"Pull. Over." she growled through gritted teeth.
He did so, guilt and shame burning inside him, and looked helplessly over at his wife.
Maria, breathless, slowly edged herself back into her seat, resting her head back and breathing through the spasms of pain until they eased. She couldn't help the clutching at her sides, though, and was worried that it was heat she could feel radiating from her flanks, not her elevated heart rate or blood pressure causing her body to flush with warmth.
When she thought she could breathe again, she glared at her husband and said, "I'm not Agathe, you idiot, and I never will be. I will have the surgery—I'll even ask for it—because I cannot live this horrid half-life one second longer. I will not allow you to keep me here because of your own fear, and that is why I told you, after all, that I am not well. You know better than this, Georg, and you cannot make me stay here anymore than my body can force itself to stay well!"
This tirade seemed to shake him, for he went white at the mention of Agathe, then seemed to wilt.
"Georg, I want to play with the children, and the grandchildren, and not worry about hurting myself constantly. I would like to make love to you not having the whispers in the back of my mind reminding me that still my body will make me violently ill in spite of it. I want to live my day to day life without wandering, without wondering what it will be like next time, making bets with myself how bad the pain will be, how long I'll be forced to stay in hospital, how many courses of antibiotics I'll need, and how much it will cost this time. I'm tired of it. I want to live in a nice home that feels lived in and not feel threatened by my own body. And I don't want to keep having this conversation, certainly not in the shadow of your late wife."
Her voice was shaking from pure fury, now, and Maria was afraid of her own anger when she finished speaking. She knew how harsh her words were, but she had seen it in him, she had seen that he was in an episode, and instead of taking the blame onto herself for pushing him into it, she had seen clearly that he was not seeing her, and she snapped.
"I do not deserve this," she said as levelly as she could manage. "I have been as patient as I can be, but now it is not an option. If you want to share a home with me when this is all over, you will spend the time while I am in surgery and recuperating talking to someone. Brigitta and Robert know people, good people, and I will not tolerate this anymore. I am too sick, and in too much pain, and I don't see you taking half the ownership over our problems that I have. You still have these nightmares, they keep me up, and I have to bring you back down to earth. We are both ill, but you have far more control over your own situation than I have ever had for mine. Use it."
Stunned, Georg stared at his wife in awe, and he wondered where this fiery woman had come from. He hadn't seen her in so long. This fire hadn't come out so clearly since a summer day by the lake on the grounds of his villa in Aigen and she had dressed him down thoroughly, taking in the measure of the man he was—a measure which indubitably found him wanting.
He found himself wondering if this creature that came out of her only came out when he was so blatantly wrong about things that nothing else in the universe could make him understand. It felt like being hit upside the head with a cinderblock over and over. She had a way of digging in her heels and delivering precise, terrifying blows, and she only did this when she had exhausted her every bit of patience, empathy, understanding, and what some might term innocence.
Suddenly, he felt ashamed for having brought her to this point, and the guilt coursed through him strong and unyielding, telling him all the ways in which he had failed her and would fail her still. The first time she had dressed him down, it had been about the children, and he'd fallen in love with her. This time, it was about her, and how he was hurting her, and the overwhelming emotion was hate. Hate and disgust. He had always promised her that she did not live in the shadow of Agathe's memory, but he could not escape how that magical and absurd time of his life had shaped him—it was a sort of idealism that he had never had with Maria, even with the war interspersed between the years of bliss with Agathe Whitehead.
It had been a different time, he had been a different man, and innocence had worn different clothing.
"Alright," Maria," he muttered. "I'll talk to someone. Even if we can't fix this, I'll talk to someone. I hear you, now."
She nodded stiffly, then said they should continue onward. There was still over an hour left to go, and she was feeling worse now for the events which had just transpired. He acquiesced, turning on the engine, then pulled back onto the road.
When they arrived at Brigitta and Robert's home, Maria was aware that the air between her and her husband was somewhat tense, and that Brigitta would certainly notice it. Without preamble, however, Georg informed his daughter that Maria was unwell, had decided to come to Boston anyway, and could she please sleep in the small guest bedroom on the first floor of the house in case there was trouble, and he would take his things out to the garden house.
Brigitta quirked an eyebrow at this rambling pronouncement, but Maria's health took precedence over her father's odd behaviour, and she immediately ushered Maria into the tiny bedroom to lay down.
"I'll send Robert in to examine you once you've changed into your nightclothes," Brigitta said. "Just to make sure."
"Fever could come in the night," Maria mumbled tiredly.
"Yes," Brigitta nodded reassuringly. "I know, Mother. I'll check on you when I'm up with the baby, alright? If Robert gets up, he'll come also."
Maria nodded, sitting down on the bed looking as if she had been hit by a bus. Brigitta remarked this, and her mother laughed and said darkly, "I think I'd feel better if I actually was hit by a bus."
"One of those days, hmm?" Brigitta said lightly, then offered to help her mother change, which Maria gratefully accepted.
Brigitta had learned early on that these kinds of statements weren't the macabre indication of doom that some might take them for. Instead, it was a measure of how bad the pain was, because the only thing that would make it better would be something equally horrible that meant stopping it.
"Brigitta," Maria murmured when she was tucked into bed and the light had been switched off, "he says he'll talk to someone. Your father. It was ugly, but he says he'll do it, now."
Brigitta nodded, reassuring her mother that she would see to this issue in the morning, and said that she hoped she felt better overnight because she had a big day tomorrow.
Maria, smiling weakly in the darkness, mumbled, "Fat chance," for there was no way her daughter could know that the intensity of the pain was all she could fixate on. The pain told her that there would be no tomorrow, and that there was always an end to good things. Thus, here they were.
Brigitta shut the door to the guest bedroom, then pulled on a coat and hurried out to the back garden. She found her father putting his clothes into a dresser drawer, and she wasted no time with a preamble or greeting.
"What the hell happened, Father?"
Georg turned to his daughter with a look of utter shock on his face. "Excuse me?"
"Mother!" Brigitta fumed. "She hasn't been like this since early summer. As I recall, you were the source of her distress, then, too! And she might have said something odd about a fight, and you agreeing to talk to someone. I don't know what she means—she's not well, and she shouldn't be here, but she is, so let's have it."
Georg sat down on the bed and shook his head, helpless. "Brigitta, I'm sorry, but I didn't know. She kept it from me for days, the fact that she was getting ill. Then, she burned her daybook when we stopped for petrol, and when I asked her why, I lost all control of myself. She got hurt when I slammed on the brakes, we yelled, and now she's saying we won't be together after this if I don't speak with someone about my… I don't know. She calls them episodes. She accused me of treating her as if she were your mother."
"My mother…?" Brigitta trailed. "That doesn't make sense, of course she's my mother!"
"No," Georg shook his head. "You don't understand. Your mother. The one who died. Agathe."
Brigitta's confusion cleared, and comprehension dawned, and she said in a sharp voice, "Oh. I see."
Georg looked up into the face of his grown daughter and saw such disgust and mistrust there, that he supposed he deserved it. Maria had looked at him the same way just a few hours before.
"Are you?" Brigitta asked, direct and to the point.
"I don't know," Georg sighed, spreading helpless hands. "I just don't know. I don't know anything about these things."
"Then it's time you speak to someone who does," Brigitta said. "If you're to stay here, that is my condition. While Mother goes with me to Boston, you will go with Robert to meet a friend of his. He treats shell shock, and he's very good. He uses the most current methods, and he has good results. No medicine, no hocus pocus. You only need to be honest and forthcoming."
Georg couldn't help the nervous feeling that rose up in him that said it wouldn't work, that it wouldn't be worth the effort, because he had tried it with Maria and he had failed. He had thought they were having a fine go of it, discovering truths and getting closer, but in one fell swoop, she had snapped. He had snapped.
Swallowing, shoving back the dread, for Georg felt it must be made of lies, he said, "Alright. I will do it."
"Good," Brigitta said, then she turned around and left him alone in the garden house, disappearing into the night to return to her warm, bright home, wherein Maria was ensconced.