Widow’s Walk by Shannon Frost Greenstein
I lean on the railing of the widow’s walk, shivering slightly, exhaling heavily, strands of hair around my face wafting in the breeze I’ve just created. The ground seems impossibly far below, even though it is only three stories. Looking down, peering around the neighborhood and then looking further, to the expressway and the beach and the ocean beyond, I am equal parts exhilarated and terrified.
Lately, I have been retreating to the widow’s walk after one of the many fights with my husband. It’s the antithesis of what I imagined for the space the day after the wedding as we signed the deed for the house, when my mind was on morning coffee and Fourth of July fireworks and watching snow fall on the many Christmas Eves we surely had in store. Now, I don’t think about Christmas Eve anymore; I think, instead, about my failure as a wife.
The wind picks up and, below me, leaves dance through the air. I lean over to watch them and am struck with a wave of dizziness, then one of adrenaline. You would think I’d avoid those situations which exacerbate my acrophobia, but that emotional dialectic of elation and fear is actually the precise reason we bought this property.
Or, at least, the widow’s walk is.
I have always been drawn to this tiny cloister, jutting out into the sky, even before it became my sanctuary when I am heartbroken. But especially recently, it’s also the only part of this house that truly feels like mine. Everything downstairs we acquired together—for our future, for our life together as a unit. The furniture and the window beds and the shed out back were all purchased in a time of potential and optimism and hope, when the sky was the limit and we didn’t yet know my uterus doesn’t work right. Everything down there will always be Jack’s. But the widow’s walk is where I can be me, where I can cry and daydream and pretend my marriage is as good as those of all my friends.
We chose this Victorian because it is historical; we chose it because of the architecture. We chose it because perching on a flimsy dais three stories up almost feels like an orgasm to me, and because that made me love this place more than all the others.
We chose the house, but the widow’s walk chose me, and it is here I come every time another baby dies in my womb.
“Elizabeth, you have to come inside.”
“I will,” she said faintly, not turning around.
“Elizabeth, it’s raining.”
“Do you think John is cold?” she asked, staring blankly at the nothingness of the clouds in the gathering gloom.
“Elizabeth, you can’t go on like this,” her sister pleaded. “Your son needs you.”
“My son needs his father.” Elizabeth gripped the cold metal railing. “He’ll be back any moment.”
She felt her sister’s presence through the window for another second; then she sensed absence and knew she was alone on the widow’s walk once again.
Elizabeth knew—she knew, deep in her bones, knew with every fiber of her being—that John was just delayed. With the weather, and all the uncertainty over the route, and the discord among the crew—well, it would be silly to presume her husband would return on the exact date he’d given in his letter. The sea, she knew as a captain’s wife, could not be tamed; it would deliver John’s ship back unto the harbor precisely when it chose.
“Momma,” she heard over her shoulder. “Momma, it’s cold.”
She was not feeling the icy rain; she did not notice her shawl soaking through. John was almost back, and Elizabeth was determined to be waiting for him, just like always. High on the widow’s walk, she would be the first one to see him as he approached, so here she would stand until he returned. Just like always.
“Elizabeth, come in here this instant,” a voice commanded, a stern contralto that contrasted with the plaintive soprano of the child’s whimpering.
Conditioned as Elizabeth was by Protestant social mores, the voice of her mother broke through the heavy fog in which she had been wading since John’s ship failed to appear, rousing her in a way that even the voice of her child was failing to do. Elizabeth shook her head briefly, raising a hand to clutch her brow and turning around to the open window at her back.
“Mother, I want…” she started, shaking violently, “…to wait for John.”
“Nonsense,” the old woman said firmly, chin raised, clutching her grandson by the shoulder and speaking down her nose to her daughter. “It’s been weeks. You’ll come in at once and close this window. Hysteria never made anything better.”
“Momma, come in,” echoed the child. “Momma, where’s Papa?”
Elizabeth startled at the question, a scrim drifting down to slowly cover the lucidity in her eyes, then turned quickly back to the ocean as if she had just remembered something.
“Papa’s coming, my love,” she soothed. “He is just deterred.”
I watch the sun setting, the brilliant yellows and oranges finally fading to muted grays and indigos, the stars announcing themselves one at a time. I know Jack is waiting for me downstairs. Or, at least, waiting for dinner.
In Jack’s defense, he was always very clear about our respective parts in this arrangement. He would buy me any house I wanted; he would work so I did not have to. And in exchange, he expected a son. Or, rather, his mother did.
Don’t get me wrong, they expected daughters, too. But the son was supposed to come first.
My first pregnancy really was a little boy. We lost him at twenty weeks, way past the time you’re supposed to have to worry about things like that, way past the time I could pretend he wasn’t already real to me, wasn’t already my child.
“Liz!” I heard Jack call from the depths of the house behind me. “It’s getting late, hon!”
Bless his heart, he can’t help being old-fashioned. Jack’s is a proud New England family, dating back to a time before this land was even a country, and they are a people not really known for dynamic interpretations of gender roles.
But, then, neither am I. All I’ve ever wanted is to be a mother.
“I’m coming!” I call back, forced cheeriness straining the upper register of my voice. To be honest, I am really in no hurry. I don’t want to cook dinner. I don’t want to wash the dishes. I don’t want an innocuous conversation about crown molding or snow tires to devolve into yet another argument. I don’t want to go to bed alone, to lie awake for another night, thinking of the empty nursery on the other side of our bedroom wall. I don’t even want to try to make a baby again, because I also don’t want to lose a baby again.
I just want a respite from grief.
I spare one last glance at the ocean, a bottomless well of onyx now that the sun is fully below the horizon. For just a moment, I pretend I have somewhere important to go aboard one of the towering ships in the harbor; I let myself imagine I have another destiny awaiting me, one which has nothing to do with Darwin or natural selection or my reproductive capabilities. Then I fetch my sweater from the railing where it is hanging and turn to go back inside.
My brain does not register the figure in front of me until it is too late.
I jump, emitting a squeal of surprise, and instinctively put my hands up to cover my face as I stumble backward against the railing. There is a split second of confusion wherein I feel like I am floating; next there is a moment of terror when I realize I am a split second past the point of possibly regaining my balance. Then ice consumes me, flows into my fingertips and my calf muscles and my limbic system and all the bones in my spine, and then my breath freezes in my chest as I begin a slow-motion tumble over the railing and toward the concrete driveway below.
“Liz! Where were you? Are you ok?”
Every muscle in my body is quaking. My heart is hammering in my chest, my blood pressure so elevated I can hear the rush of my own blood through the labyrinth of my circulatory system.
I literally cannot form words. My attempt comes out in a rush of air, my breath uneven and panicked. I hover in the doorway to the living room, unable to sit, unable to move, unable to convey what has happened.
“I… I just…”
Jack finally seems to realize I am not just late for dinner; I have not just lost track of time. He rises from his chair, his mouth agape.
“Liz? Liz… your hair.”
I can see what he means—there is a large mirror directly over his shoulder—but I suddenly could not care less about my hair. The reason for this is hanging next to the glass in which my reflection gazes dazedly back at me, my hair gone completely white. It is a large, dirty portrait of some stuffy-looking relatives of the man from whom we bought our house, something he could not bring to the assisted-living facility and insisted we keep “for the history.”
It is a stuffy young woman, standing with a stuffy older man, a child posed formally between them in stuffy short pants. The woman is seated with a parasol; the man—presumably her husband—towers overhead.
I have seen this painting daily, ever since we closed on the property; we left it exactly where it was, so sick were we of unpacking by that point, and there it has hung ever since. There is absolutely nothing remarkable about this portrait, save for perhaps how badly it is in need of cleaning.
But now—I cannot look away from it.
I walk slowly across the room until I am standing directly in front of the frame, feeling a magnetic draw, feeling like my eyes are burning through the canvas.
“Liz?” Jack asks hesitantly. “What are you looking at?”
It is the same woman.
It is the woman I have just seen on the widow’s walk. It is the woman who saved me, throwing me back over the railing just when I started to fall, freezing my insides and whispering in my ear, her awesome and horrible voice echoing through my head.
It is the woman who then disappeared, leaving behind only the memory of when our grief was intertwined for the briefest of moments.
It is the woman who—according to her great-great-great-grandson as we parted ways—threw herself from the widow’s walk when her husband was lost at sea.
“Don’t give up.
The words had filled my fingernails and my chest cavity and my molars as my feet found solid purchase on the widow’s walk once again and I was finally able to gasp an icy inhale.
She was my age, and a lifetime of sadness illuminated her from within.
Then she was gone, and in that moment of ringing silence, I found the only thing I wanted was my husband.
Gripped with mortal terror, I was surprised I wasn’t thinking about babies; instead, it was thoughts of Jack and our nascent life together which had consumed me as I prepared to plummet to my death.
And so, for the first time in a very long time, I fled the widow’s walk for the comfort of my husband; for the first time in a very long time, I felt like I was rushing toward home.
It was not much later that we started to talk about adoption.
Shannon Frost Greenstein (she/her) resides in Philadelphia with her children, soulmate, and persnickety cats. She is the author of Pray for Us Sinners, a collection of fiction from Alien Buddha Press, and More., a poetry collection by Wild Pressed Books. Shannon is a former Ph.D. candidate in Continental Philosophy and a multi-time Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee. Her work has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Pithead Chapel, Bending Genres, Epoch Press, X-R-A-Y Lit Mag, and elsewhere. Follow her at her website or on Twitter.