Love Is Strong as Death, Jealousy Is Cruel as the Grave

by Lily Ann Hoge

It was Halloween. It had been their custom on Halloween night that she would make them an early dinner, an especially nice dinner, one of his favorites. That last year she made a curry of shrimp. She spread the table with the damask cloth and set their places with silver cutlery and the best china. There was a bouquet of late marigolds in a delft vase. There was chutney in a crystal dish with a silver spoon. There was a green salad. They had a glass of wine. She was quiet and preoccupied, but she served him lovingly, touched his hand as she filled his plate. She kissed the top of his head, where the hair was a little thin, as she cleared the plates. She washed the dishes and tidied the kitchen, folded the dish towel over the oven handle, and then she embraced him, kissed him sweetly, smiled, and ascended the stairs.

She left him to deal with the little people, the dwarves and the ghosts and the bums, the angels and the fairies, who came to the door and asked for candy. Everything was ready. She had set out the footed silver bowl on the table in the hall and filled it with chocolate. Theirs was a popular house. They gave away large bars of chocolate in gilt wrappers. There were no supermarket candies in unnatural colors, no popcorn balls, no despised boxes of raisins. Their reputation as a good Halloween house had spread throughout the elementary school. All the neighborhood children came and some others that he did not know. There was a little bowl of pennies for the UNICEF boxes. All the pennies were newly minted, shining copper. Every year she made a trip to the bank.

The children came. They ran along the sidewalks where the fallen leaves rattled. Their flashlights bobbed in the dark. They were relics, all that remained of an old and once serious custom. On this night the veil that parted the worlds was thin, and the dead of the household returned to ask for food and drink, a place by the fire and a pipe, wanting for this one night some of the pleasures they had enjoyed in life. The household provided these things, and in exchange the dead watched over the family for the next year. The dead were vengeful if they were denied. There were tales of sickened livestock and blasted barns. Now all that was left were costumed children asking for sweets and threatening tricks which never came to anything much more than soaped car windows and the occasional garlands of toilet paper on the yews. Now there was nothing more to fear than a razor blade in an apple, but there were no apples at this house either.

Upstairs he heard the water running into the tub as she prepared her bath. She was humming to herself, setting out the towels and pouring the bath salts into the water. There were beeswax candles arranged on the dresser in the spare bedroom.

The doorbell rang, and a clutch of fairies stood on the doorstep. It was cold, and they wore their gauzy gowns over down jackets and long underwear and held their wands in mittened hands. They came into the hall to be admired and stood on the red rug to choose their candy. Beyond them their parents stood in their coats on the brick path, a few scattered marigold petals at their feet. The fairies waved their wands in farewell. More children came.

Above him the bathroom door opened, and a warm gust of damp air scented with lavender billowed down the stairs into the cold hall. A pirate took a bar of chocolate from the silver bowl and put it into a pillowcase. The pirate had a stuffed parrot on his shoulder. He wore a bandanna and a gold hoop in his ear, and he had a black leather eye patch — a surgical eyepatch, the real thing. The pirate’s father and their opthamologist neighbor stood on the path and said that the Patriots would win on Sunday. It was a sure thing. Above him, her bare feet walked on the polished floorboards of the upstairs hall. She went into the spare room and closed the door. She would not emerge until morning.

This ritual happened each fall. There had been a condition to their marriage. When they met, she was a widow. When they got as far as talking about marriage, she had told him that she must spend each Halloween night alone and not be disturbed until the morning. He had questioned her about it, but she would not say anything else, and at last she told him to ask her no more. He protested. She understood his wanting to know, she said, but she would not change her mind. “I will be yours on all nights but one,” she said. “On that night I will lie with no living man.” He saw that he would get no farther, and he was smitten, and he agreed. “You must promise,” she said, and he had promised. It seemed a small enough thing to ask.

Their life together had been good, happy and prosperous. They lived together in the house she had from her first marriage. It was a gracious house, old and spacious. The silver lay polished in its drawer, heavy and pale as the moon. The linens were ironed on their shelves, and the bed sheets smelled of lavender. The floorboards shone. The furniture glowed with beeswax. In the spring, white curtains stirred at the open windows, and the cat slept on the windowsill. In the summer they went to a cabin on the lake. In the winter the furnace sang in the basement, and there was music and evenings with friends. They prospered. His business grew.

More children came to the door: a frog, more fairies, the requisite princess. It grew later. The wind picked up and threw branches across the face of the rising moon. The stream of children slowed to a trickle and stopped. He locked the door and turned out the porch light. He put away the leftover candy, wiped out the silver bowl, and went up to bed. The sheets were cold. Her scent was on the pillow, and he did not sleep well. In the middle of the night, it seemed that he heard the door of the spare room open and close again, but he heard no footsteps and soon slept again. Toward morning, he dreamed of holding his wife, and it seemed that he heard her cry of pleasure.

In the morning, he woke before the alarm. The sun was barely up. It was All Souls’ Day. There were frost flowers on the windowpanes. There was a marigold petal on the third step up from the bottom. He went to the kitchen and started the coffee pot. He filled the cat’s dish and went outside to get the newspaper. There was frost on its blue plastic sleeve and a bright patch of green grass where it had lain in the middle of the hoarfrost on the lawn. He came back into the house and heard the shower above him. His wife came down the staircase in her white robe. Her hair was still wet. She had rolled-up bedsheets under her arm. She came to him and kissed him. She had a sweet, sleepy look. She passed him to take the sheets to the laundry room, and he smelled, above her own scent of soap and shampoo, a salty smell, the scent of the sea. They drank their coffee and read the paper, and the washing machine agitated in the room beyond. When he went upstairs, the door of the spare bedroom was ajar, and the candles on the dresser were burnt down to their wicks.

Things went on as they had always gone on. There were Christmas parties and a ski vacation. Their friends came for dinner. They went to concerts. Spring came, and the daffodils erupted. In the summer they went to the lake. The leaves began to fall. A year passed. As the days darkened and the nights cooled, he found himself restless. It was almost Halloween. The prospect of the annual ritual irritated him. It seemed ridiculous and unnecessary. The recollection of the bedsheets and her sleepy smile galled him. He wondered if she had a lover, and he chided himself for being ridiculous. But his restlessness grew.

On Halloween afternoon he left his office early and came home. He did not go into the house but into the garage. From the workbench he could see the front door of his house. He sat among the gardening tools, the dusty hammers, and coffee cans half full of bolts and washers and screws. He smelled rust and gasoline and felt the faint warmth of the car, its engine ticking as it cooled. She must have spent the morning shopping for groceries and candy and making a trip to the bank for the rolls of new pennies. He felt like an idiot as he sat lurking in his own garage, watching his own house like a detective in a cheap thriller, spying on his own wife, but he could not leave.

In the middle of the afternoon she left the house. She pulled the white door shut behind her, walked down the path, and turned right at the hedge. She wore her tan raincoat and had her large bag slung over her shoulder. He followed her for a block, feeling foolish, walking into driveways in case she looked behind her. The road was straight. He let her get two blocks ahead of him, not wanting to be caught. He followed her at a distance until she turned right at the church and disappeared. It didn’t matter that he couldn’t see her, because he knew now where she was going.

He walked through the graveyard, keeping off the gravel paths and walking on the wet grass. He stood behind a stand of yew and watched her kneeling on her dead husband’s grave. That she should be there was not by itself strange. She visited the grave each season, raked away trash, and planted flowers. Sometimes he came with her. Bulbs bloomed in the spring, and a small rosebush flowered in the summer. In the fall there were bronze chrysanthemums. They had frozen and faded, and the couple had cut them down a week or so ago. The orange berries of the rowan tree they had planted a few years ago were the only color in the landscape. They glowed in the gray afternoon.

There wasn’t any work to be done until the spring, yet there she was in her good raincoat kneeling in front of the headstone. She was speaking quietly. She seemed to be praying. She laid something that he could not see on a white cloth on the grass before the stone. She smoothed the cloth and embraced the stone like a lover, stroked its sides, and kissed it. Then she rose from her knees and left the graveyard, walking quickly with her head down and her hands in her pockets. Her heels crunched in the gravel.

He waited until she had gone and approached the grave. The stone stood as it always had, gray marble with incised words: Beloved Husband. There was the mark of her lips on the polished face of the stone and an apple and a cup of wine on the white cloth spread on the grass before it. Marigold petals were scattered over the cloth and the grass over the grave. He was furiously angry. He poured the wine onto the ground and threw the apple as hard as he could. It bounced against another headstone and lay in the grass. He pulled up the cloth, scattering the marigold petals, and wiped her lipstick off the headstone. He put the cup and the cloth in his pocket and started toward home. There were marigold petals on the white gravel path and on the sidewalks that led to his home. They lay in the street where she had crossed to the other side. They lay among the roots of the hedge that bordered his yard, and on the brick path that led to his own front door. They lay on the threshold.

He scraped them off with his shoe and opened the door. The house smelled of his cooking supper. She was in the kitchen filling the candy dish.

“Where have you been?” he said. His voice was loud and angry.

She looked up, startled, from the cellophane papers. “Shopping,” she said. She gestured at the candy dish, the rolled pennies.

“What about this, then?” He slammed the pewter cup on the table. He threw down the napkin, smeared with her lipstick.

She went pale and took a step back from him. “What have you done?” she said. “What have you just done?”

Her shock enraged him. “What have I done?” he said, pointing to the cloth and the cup. “What have you done? What is all this about?”

“I often visit the grave,” she said. “You know that. You’ve been with me.”

“This isn’t visiting a grave,” he said. “This is … I don’t know what it is. I saw you touch that gravestone. I saw you kiss it. It’s sick, that’s what it is.”

“You’re being ridiculous,” she said.

“I’m ridiculous? You’re the one that’s going out in the rain and talking to a gravestone, leaving food like a savage? What’s going on here?”

“My business,” she said. She pressed her lips together and turned back to the counter, starting to unwrap the penny rolls.

“Every Halloween,” he said. “This ridiculous ritual with the bath and you sleeping in the other room, and now this.”

She drew herself up, looked him in the eye. “You knew about this from the first. You agreed. I’ve kept nothing from you.”

“Well, I’ve had enough. Not tonight, okay? Just this once. You stay down here with me. We’ll give out the candy, see the kids, talk to the neighbors.” His voice softened. “They always ask where you are. Then we’ll go to bed, together. Please,” he said.

“No,” she said. “It’s not possible. I’m not going to do that.”

“And why not? Just why not?” He was angry again, angrier than before. “It’s him, isn’t it,” he said. “It’s still him. You still love him.”

“I do still love him,” she said. “I will always love him. But he’s dead, you know. Who’s being ridiculous now? You sound like you’re jealous of a man who’s been dead for ten years.”

“If he were still alive, you’d still be with him.”

“Yes, I would,” she said.

“So it’s only because he’s dead that you’re with me.”

“That’s true,” she said. “If he hadn’t died, I would never have known you.”

“So you love him more than me.”

“That’s ridiculous,” she said. “He’s dead. I’m married to you now.”

“And you’re sorry about it, aren’t you?”

She looked at him. Her eyes were cold. “Right this minute, yes, I am,” she said. She turned back to the counter and unwrapped some more pennies. “I’m not going to talk to you when you’re like this.”

Her coldness and dismissal made him more angry. “Sorry or not, you’re married to me now. You’re mine now. You’re my wife. I won’t permit any more of this.”

“You won’t permit it? What are you, a policeman?”

“I’m your husband. I won’t stand for it.”

“You agreed to this,” she said. “Long ago.”

“I changed my mind,” he said. “Not in my house. Not anymore.”

“What do you mean, your house?” She was angry now. “How is it your house? It’s mine. It came to me from him. And you’ve enjoyed it well enough for the past ten years.”

“I’m not enjoying it now,” he said, and grabbed her arm. She tried to pull away, but he held her fast.

“Leave me alone!” she said. “I’m going to do as I like. If you don’t like it, you can leave.”

He hit her across the face. “You are going to listen to me!”

She fell back against the stove. There was shock in her face, and pain. Her eyes were full of tears, and a red mark spread across her cheekbone.

He grabbed her shoulders. They were small under the light red sweater. He was appalled by what he had done, but he felt a fury he had not known he had, and a horrible joy at the sudden awareness of the power he had over her. He pushed her toward the stairs. She was a small woman, and it was easy to push and drag her up the stairs and into their bedroom. He pushed her onto their bed. She covered her face, and tears spilled out between her fingers.

He left her there and went downstairs. Night had fallen, and soon the children would come, goblins and elves, monsters and fairy princesses, their parents waiting on the path beyond. He turned out the porch light and locked the door. He turned out all the lights on the first floor. The house was dark.

He went back upstairs. His wife had closed their bedroom door. Behind it, he could hear her quiet crying. He sat beside the door for a long time. He heard the children passing in the street, but no one came to their dark house that night. Later he went into the spare bedroom and slept on top of the covers of the freshly made bed, breathing in the faint scent of lavender. There were new beeswax candles on the top of the dresser.

In the morning he was in the kitchen first. He made the coffee. The candy in the bowl on the counter was a reproach, and he tipped it into the trash and put the bowl back on its shelf. He gathered up the pennies and put them into a drawer. He was ashamed of himself.

It was late when she came downstairs. She was wrapped in her robe and hadn’t showered. She did not look at him or speak. She sat at the table with her hands around a mug of coffee and looked out the window at the new day. There was a faint bruise on her cheek. She seemed like a person in mourning.

All the rest of that brief fall she was quiet and withdrawn. He tried to please her. She thanked him graciously for his gifts but took no joy in them. The earrings stayed in the jewelry box. The chocolates stayed in their crinkled cups until a white bloom covered their silky tops. They never spoke of Halloween.

Winter came early that year. The earth froze hard after Halloween, and snow fell. The ground was like iron. It rang against the shovel as he tried to plant the spring bulbs he had bought. The bulbs softened in their baskets, shrank inside their papery skins, and began to rot. There was ice on the river. The current beneath threw up walls of ice six feet high. The radiators banged and hissed and dripped drops of boiling water on the floors and blistered the shellac. The roof leaked and stained the ceiling in their bedroom. The snow stayed until St. Patrick’s Day and melted reluctantly. There was sleet on Patriots’ Day. It piled on the yellow forsythia and stung the legs of the marathon runners.

The house dimmed and became dusty and unkempt. There was tarnish on the silver and crumbs on the dining room table. Blue mold bloomed on the bread. In the linen closets, the towels and sheets developed a musty smell. Tiny holes appeared in them, which grew into rips. The windows were grimy and speckled with spots. They let in little of the gray light outside. Fly corpses lay along the windowsills. The plants dropped their leaves, leaked under their saucers, and made white rings on the floors. The cording on the sofa pillows unraveled, and there was no more music. In the kitchen the oven turned itself on and off, charring the food or refusing to warm it at all. Sparks flew out of the toaster. The refrigerator mimicked the weather and turned itself into an impenetrable wall of ice in which the food was suspended like fruit in aspic: red apples, green lettuces, frozen shards of milk.

In the late and reluctant spring, he went with her to clear the winter trash away from her first husband’s grave. They raked the wet black leaves away from the headstone and tidied the plot. The rowan tree was leafless and dead. He arranged for a tree service to cut it down and chip out the stump.

That summer they did not go to the cabin by the lake, and at the end of the summer, the papers from the lawyer arrived in the mail in a thick creamy envelope. The divorce was swift. They sold the house. He moved to an apartment in Boston, a sterile cube with curling parquet floors. He did not know where she went, and he could not find out. At Halloween there were new people in the house, who did not give away good things but the vile sweets in unnatural colors from the grocery store that left a bitter aftertaste. The word must have spread in the elementary school, for the little people, the fairies and elves and dragons, bypassed the house and only two children came asking for treats. They were dressed in suits and carried briefcases. They said they were from the IRS.

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