Blurry. Everything was blurry through the haze of my tears. The gray, rainy weather suited this day well. Behind me, the sterile coldness of the cemetery — the place I left my heart five years ago. This day hadn’t gotten any easier. From midnight on, I would just lie there in a bed too big for a small woman. Lie there, waiting for the dawn, willing the sun not to rise. The garb of the widow awaited me. I’d put away my mourning clothes after the first year, but still wore somber, sad colors. For this day, however, back into the black.
“Momma, you’re hurting my hand.”
The little voice brought me back into the world with a painful sharpness. My little miracle, born five months after I buried her father. Like me, she wore black, grieving for a man she’d never met. “Sorry, love,” I said.
And I was. For more than squeezing her hand too tight. We saw her only grandparents once a year when we met to mourn at her father’s graveside. Despite the fact she was a beautiful feminine version of her father, right to the same shade of green-hazel eyes, they couldn’t bring themselves to approve of the only grandchild they’d ever be blessed with — a granddaughter, not a grandson. Not a fine, strong, handsome boy child to carry on his father’s name and legacy.
“I don’t want to do that any more, Momma.”
“What’s that, Alaine?” I knew what she meant. “Never mind. I know. It’s important to your grandparents.”
Not quite five yet, my daughter already exhibited a fearsome intelligence. I couldn’t explain why her words could surprise me, but that they did. “I don’t think Poppa would want us to be sad for him forever. I think Poppa would want you to be happy.”
“I am happy. I have you.”
“Poppa said you wanted a large family, so that none of your children would be left alone like you were.”
“He did, did he?” My Alaine often told me things ‘Poppa said.’ More times than I could count, I’d found her sitting on the edge of her little trundle bed, holding the framed pencil drawing of her father that I’d given her when she’d asked what he’d looked like. Her little tidbits always pierced my heart — because they were always correct, often word-for-word conversations I’d had with her father during our too-brief marriage.
“Yes. Poppa said that someone is coming your way soon. Poppa said his name is Charlie and that you should be nice to him.”
“Your Poppa’s name is Allen.” I pulled her to stand in a recessed doorway as the sky opened up and poured on us.
Alaine made an impatient snorting sound. “I know that, Momma Rue.”
I closed my eyes for a brief moment. My daughter called me ‘Momma Rue’ only when I’d annoyed her in some way. Rue was the name my parents had seen fit to inflict upon me in what seemed to me to be some precognitive sense that I’d have more sorrow than joy in my life.
A gust of wind slanted the rain to soak us. I turned to shield Alaine even as someone large came to shield me. He wore a long black raincoat and he carried an enormous umbrella. “Left your umbrella at home?” he asked.
I didn’t want to admit I didn’t have one. Sure, umbrellas were nice, but so was having a roof over our heads, even if it only covered two small rooms. Food. We were especially fond of food. And warmth. And not being naked. So many other things that were much more important than an umbrella.
“Yes,” I answered, feeling awkward. “Thank you for sharing yours with strangers.”
He flashed me a brilliant smile. “Charles Black, at your service.” He pushed the brim of his felt hat up with his index finger.
“Rue Wentworth. And my daughter, Alaine.”
“No longer strangers,” he said as my daughter tugged on my hand. Charles. Charlie. Very close. “I had a friend once, long ago, named Wentworth. Allen. He dubbed me ‘Charlie’ when we were at school together, and he was the only one I’d allow to use that name. Last I’d heard of him, he returned from his tour of the Continent with a wife. Much to the displeasure of his parents. Not even a year after that, he died in a hunting accident. I’m very sorry for your loss, Mrs. Wentworth.”
Astounded, I could only blink. “I’m sure we’ve never met,” I mumbled, after too-long a pause stretched between us.
“I saw you at the funeral. Allen’s parents spirited you away so quickly, very few of Allen’s friends were able to express their condolences to you. We’ve all talked about that since. On behalf of Allen’s numerous friends, please allow me to share our sorrow with you in your loss.”
“Uh — thank you.” What could I say? This Charles Black spoke so kindly to me. I had no idea my late husband’s friends speculated about me. I’d decided they, like my in-laws, chose to shun me and my daughter.
“The rain is easing up. Please allow me to see you home. I’m surprised Allen’s parents didn’t insist you use a carriage.”
I smiled. “Thank you, but we’re not too far from home here. Just another block.”
Now it was Charles’ turn to blink. “You don’t live with the senior Wentworths?”
“Why would I? They don’t approve of me.”
“You’re the mother of their son’s only child.”
“A beautiful daughter,” I agreed. My heart pounded. I realized I’d shared more than I’d intended with my new acquaintance.
“It’s still raining, though not as hard,” Mr. Black informed me. “I’ll share my umbrella with you to your doorstep. You cannot dissuade me, Mrs. Wentworth. I insist.”
The hard rain left deep puddles in the street that required skillful navigation. Sometimes one could manage not to step in a puddle, only to be soaked by a passing carriage or horse. My skirts grew heavy with the water, and droplets fell off poor Alaine. She squealed when Charles swept her up to his hip, but made no other protest. She smiled at me.
Be nice to him, Momma.
Poppa said someone is coming for you.
For the first time in the many years since being widowed, I felt a lightness in my mind, which extended to my heart. A heart pleading to be whole again. I’d been without my husband longer than we’d been married now. I could still hear his voice, still see his face, but perhaps not as clearly as I could before my daughter’s astonishing message from her Poppa, and our crazy chance meeting with this Charles Black.
I glanced across the street before I turned towards the building where I lived. It was habit to look over, for I didn’t live in the best of neighborhoods and didn’t have the most savory neighbors. I all but choked on my gasp. It couldn’t be. No. Allen was five years in his grave. That couldn’t be him standing on the corner across the muddy street, smiling at me and nodding.
“This is us.” I put my back to the street and led Mr. Black into the worn brick building. I trembled, undone by my ghostly sighting. “We appreciate you and your umbrella, Mr. Black. Right, Alaine?”
“Thank you,” my daughter chanted dutifully. She framed Mr. Black’s face between her small hands. “You could ask Momma if you might call on her again.”
“Alaine,” I admonished. Embarrassed heat flushed my face as the ability to form a coherent sentence, much less speak it, fled me.
“She’s right. I did intend to ask you that very thing, Mrs. Wentworth. I won’t take no for an answer.” Mr. Black lowered my audacious child to the floor, pausing long enough to chuck her under the chin before he gave his full attention to me again. “Tomorrow afternoon? I’ll bring my sister. We could go out for tea. Four?”
Be nice to him, Momma.
“I — um — Four would be fine, Mr. Black.”
Another brilliant smile, this time with him doffing his hat completely and favoring me with a shallow bow. I wanted to giggle like a schoolgirl. Such gallantry for a widowed mother. Such a thrill.
Minutes later, I stood at the front room window that overlooked the street. Home might be shabby, but it was ours. Safe. I could see the top of Mr. Black’s umbrella as he made his way across the street. The world no longer looked hazy to me, even though the rain fell again with great enthusiasm. The sky had grown darker in the short seconds it took me to chase my daughter up the stairs to my flat, Yet despite the black, low-hanging clouds, the late afternoon seemed brighter. Behind me, in our shared bedroom, I heard Alaine’s excited voice as she spoke to the drawing of her Poppa.
And for the briefest of moments, I swore I felt Allan’s fingers brush against the nape of my neck as he’d liked to do. Swore I heard his beloved voice whisper, “Time to find love again, my Rue.”
I couldn’t shake the notion that I’d already found that path again, just this very afternoon.
Time to find love again.