Sample of Hawthorne & Heathcliff
by R.K. Ryals
Sample of Hawthorne & Heathcliff
by R.K. Ryals
Copyright © Regina K. Ryals, 2015
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
Whatever I see I swallow immediately
Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.
I am not cruel, only truthful,
The eye of a little god, four-cornered.
Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall.
It is pink, with speckles. I have looked at it so long
I think it is part of my heart. But it flickers.
Faces and darkness separate us over and over.
Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me,
Searching my reaches for what she really is.
Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon.
I see her back, and reflect it faithfully.
She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.
I am important to her. She comes and goes.
Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.
In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman
Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.
In my life, there were three words more powerful than I love you. In my life, there were three words that carried me, three words that made everything I’d done, everything I’d gone through worth it. In my life, love was never I love you. Love was for my sake.
I knew the moment I saw the water falling from the sky that my life was changed forever. We walk through moments in our lives, each one marked by something. For me, it was rain. Anytime anything bad ever happened, there was a downpour, as if the clouds, the sky, and the world somehow knew that I was getting screwed. It was as if the old adage when it rains it pours was written for me. And when it rained, I prayed and cried and shouted. It often made me wonder which was worse: the rain or the prayers.
“I’ve got news,” my Uncle Gregor said, swallowing audibly.
My uncle was the definition of unkempt. No matter the occasion, he always appeared to be falling apart, as if he were afraid looking like he was put together would ruin the world. There’d never been a moment in my life when he hadn’t worn a button-down white shirt only half tucked, his hair a brown spiked mess, and his black tie pulled loose. His pants were always a tad too short, which made no sense because he’d never been very tall.
That day, he’d been even more unkempt than usual. I remembered it because his eyes had been bloodshot, his mouth twisted, and his shirt stained. Even half-tucked, his top was never dirty. That day, it was.
My feet were frozen to worn, carpeted stairs, my hand clutching a wooden banister. My uncle was an odd man who spent his life pretending he was a scientist while living in a ramshackle plantation somewhere between Mississippi and Louisiana. The name of the town never mattered much. It was the plantation that mattered. It was as unkempt as he was, and yet it was alive.
That was the day I’d turned six years old.
That was the day I was wearing a pink sequined dress with a frilly tutu skirt, and shiny black shoes strapped just the way they were supposed to be strapped.
That was the day I wore my mother’s coral lipstick, and a plastic, silver tiara sitting lopsided on my perfect coiffure.
That was the day I wore the pearls.
That was the day I grew up.
Outside, it was raining.
It was raining because that was the day my parents left me.
“Are they coming back?” I’d asked my uncle.
He’d tugged on his tie, and I’d known simply from the gesture that they never were. Oh, my parents weren’t dead. I wasn’t that lucky. What an odd and cold way to feel, I know, but with dead parents, maybe there would have been good memories, this hope that with their last breaths, they would have cared … just a little. Alive, they’d simply never cherished me. Alive, they’d given up. Alive, they’d abandoned me.
Outside, the rain poured.
That was the day I quit trying, not at life, just at myself.
That was the day I’d pulled the pearls from my neck and watched as the beads rolled from the carpeted stairs to the hardwood floor below, the clunk, clunk, clunk a loud reminder that I had a heart.
That was the day I’d pulled the tiara from my perfect coiffure, and then screamed, my fingers digging at the hairstyle, tugging my hair so hard my scalp burned.
That was the day I learned why my uncle stayed unkempt. Because if someone was already messed up, then maybe being put together wouldn’t hurt so much.
That was the day my uncle looked up at my reddened cheeks and smeared coral lipstick, his fingers pulling at that awful tie, and he said, “You’ve got this, Hawthorne. Together, we’ve got this. We may not do it right, but you’ve got to try. For my sake.”
Hawthorne wasn’t my name, but that day, it became my name. I often wondered why my uncle called me that, but that day it didn’t matter. The only words I heard were for my sake.
My uncle’s home wasn’t much of a home, and he was a very not typical father, but he climbed those stairs that day and tried unsuccessfully to straighten out my hair, his eyes reddening. That climb and his trying fingers were enough to make him a dad. He cried, and I cried with him on those stairs.
“For my sake,” he’d said.
The sobs were drowned out by the rain.
If you want to know the truth, this is a love story, but it isn’t the kind of love story you think it is. Because this story isn’t easy, it’s hard. This love story is full of fear. Life is downright scary, and if you survive it, no matter how easy you have it, then you’re brave. You don’t live life, you tackle it, jump on top of it, and pound the shit out of the earth all while it rains around you.
Life happens while it’s raining.
Life happens when you’re falling.
Life happens when you exhale.
Life just … happens.
For my sake.
11 years later …
The first time I ever met him, he was sitting in the back of my last period English class. He was the kind of guy that girls looked twice at but didn’t approach, because no matter how attractive he was, there wasn’t much you could do with a guy who didn’t talk.
Maybe that’s why I noticed him. It wasn’t just because I sat next to him, it was because I wasn’t much for talking either. Our mutual respect for silence was the reason we were relegated to the back. The only difference between us was our appearance. He was handsome enough to be remembered. He was handsome enough to have poems written about him, the kind that called him solemn and stoic, the kind of brooding soul I’d always imagined Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights to have. I was just the strange, unkempt girl with the weird uncle and no parents. I was a bunch of sad stories.
Truth was, life had taught me that words were better spoken when they meant something. Which meant I spent more time talking to my uncle and to myself than I did to those my age. It’s funny, really, how much one moment in your life can separate you from the people you’re supposed to relate to. I’d lost that. I’d lost the need to talk about clothes, dating, and sex. I wanted to talk about the things everyone else wanted to forget; life and death and symbolism.
It was true. I was weird.
I’d only had three loves in my life: my uncle, books, and an overwhelming desire to become a philosophical chef with a Classics degree, because who doesn’t want to eat great food and spend hours lost in history?
It was true. I was weird.
And yet, in many ways, he was, too. So it began, this odd dance of sidelong glances and uncomfortable shifting, as if neither one of us wanted to admit the other was there across the aisle from the other, not talking. For half a year, I spent my last period pretending the guy didn’t exist, that the girls didn’t whisper about him, that the other guys didn’t throw him strange, murderous glares.
He didn’t care.
In passing, I’d heard one of the girls refer to him as Max Vincent, but I’d quit thinking of him as a regular name. In my mind, he was Heathcliff. He was a quiet, young man too large for his desk, his legs always stretched out in front or to the side of his seat to accommodate for his height. Occasionally, his beat-up tennis shoes rested next to mine in the aisle, and I’d stare at them—my foot and his—as if they were more than shoes and feet, as if they represented something larger than that.
Two shoes, my size seven and his much larger undisclosed number.
Hawthorne and Heathcliff.
Two names that didn’t belong to us. Two shoes that did.
I obviously needed a better hobby than baking and philosophy. Last period English class was a sad reminder of that. Six months of sidelong glances and comparing tennis shoes, and sadly it was a Friday afternoon and Sylvia Plath who did me in. There’s a mystery to silence that, once broken, can’t be returned.
Poetry was Mrs. Callahan’s favorite form of senior torture. Poetry is an acquired taste. It’s a deep look at life in an odd, sometimes broken way. It turned life into a puzzle, and puzzles weren’t something my class was interested in solving. Their lives were already bursting with perplexities, and they were too occupied with trying to figure each other out, trying to figure their hormones out. High school was like a zoo packed with predators trying their best to scent out the weak.
Poetry handed them the weak.
The moment Mary Callahan read Mirror by Sylvia Plath, I was riveted. Call it fate, but the poem spoke to me. That was the point of poetry, I guess, but this poem wasn’t about romance or nature or death, it was—
Suddenly, my musings were interrupted by Rebecca Martin.
“I love my mirror,” she teased, her throaty voice enough to enchant a room.
A masculine snort answered her. “I bet you sleep with it, too,” Hunter Green said, his brows wagging. “You know … bow—”
“That’s enough,” Mrs. Callahan called, her short but lithe figure leaning casually against her desk. “We’ll start there. Do you think the poem is about someone’s love for their reflection?”
“No,” Jessica Reeves replied, “it personifies the mirror.”
Mrs. Callahan tapped a pencil against the top of her desk. “Sure, it brings the mirror to life, but what—”
“It’s ridiculous,” Rebecca remarked. “Who cares about a mirror?”
The teacher’s brows rose. “And yet you admitted to loving yours?”
Rebecca shrugged, her highlighted brown hair falling over her shoulder.
Brian Henry whistled. “Well, if it had that to look at every day …”
Rebecca threw him a wink.
Mrs. Callahan smiled. “I wasn’t quite looking to make that point, Mr. Henry, but now that you’ve touched on it, why do you think the mirror is so important in this poem?” She glanced at Rebecca. “Why do you think the woman keeps it? Why does she keep coming back to it over and over again, even when she’s trying to mask what she sees in it? She obviously doesn’t always like what it shows her? So why—”
The room went silent, and for a moment, I was as surprised as the rest of the class. I was surprised because the words were mine.
Mrs. Callahan pushed away from her desk, her eyes squinting at the back of the room. I wanted to hide, but there was nowhere to go. I’d never meant to speak. Speaking got you noticed, and I was the master of disguise. Speaking replaced mystery with sad stories.
“Miss, um …” The teacher bent to glance down at the grade book on her desk, but was interrupted by Hunter Green’s quick cough.
“Hawthorne,” he coughed again, “the girl whose mirror should tell her she needs a brush.”
Rumbling laughter filtered through the room. The laughter didn’t bother me. His words didn’t either. It only bothered me that I’d spoken, that I’d broken this strange pact my tennis shoe had made with Heathcliff’s bigger tennis shoe.
Mrs. Callahan crossed her arms. “What’s honest, Ms. Hawthorne?” she asked.
Hawthorne wasn’t my first name, and it wasn’t my last. It just was, but I didn’t correct her.
“The mirror,” I answered. “The mirror is honest. I-it’s what makes a poem about a mirror more than a poem about a mirror.”
There was no laughter now, just scattered coughs and hissed freaks echoing throughout the room. Mrs. Callahan didn’t reprimand anyone. I think she figured, like I did, that it was pointless. You can’t change people’s minds about someone. You can only change how you feel about the title. I was above the words. I’d learned that life was deeper than teasing laughter and whispered names. It was so much deeper.
“And what makes it more?” Mrs. Callahan asked.
It was too late to pretend I was suddenly mute.
My eyes met hers. “Mirrors don’t lie. You may not like what they show you, and you may try to change what you see, but they never lie. The woman keeps coming back, because no matter how much she dislikes what she sees, she craves the honesty. The mirror gives her the truth, and it can’t walk away from her.”
“Pathetic,” Hunter coughed.
The large shoe in the aisle moved, sliding with careful precision away from my desk. The movement shouldn’t have hurt as much as it did, but there was something about the way the shoe left me. It was as if, by speaking, I’d told it good-bye.
“Is it the mirror that’s pathetic or the honesty?” a deep voice asked.
My gaze flew to the desk next to me, to the way Heathcliff’s legs were suddenly alert, his feet flat against the floor. He’d spoken.