When Will I See You Again?
The young man opened one eye and gazed lazily at the window. Judging from the angle of the sun, it was already late afternoon.
"It's getting late –I've got to go, honey," he whispered, dropping a kiss onto the girl's bare shoulder, as she moaned sleepily and twisted around to stare beseechingly at him.
"Don't go – please? Can't you stay here with me for once?"
Isabella's voice was like molten honey and it was hard to resist her pleas, especially when her eyes beseeched him like that and her tousled hair did little to disguise the lush curves of her body, but he forced himself to get out of bed and began shrugging on his clothes. Propped up on her elbows, the girl watched him silently, admiring the strong muscles, the way his hair curled at the nape of his neck – she could never tire of watching him.
"When will I see you again?" Isabella looked incredibly vulnerable, sitting upright and clutching the sheets around herself, her apprehension making her suddenly modest.
"Soon, sweetheart, real soon," he reassured her, bending down and kissing her tenderly on the forehead, before rushing out of the room, running down the stairs and back into his real life.
Exiting onto the busy, Boston street, Adam Cartwright breathed a sigh of relief and then strolled slowly back to college, tipping his hat and smiling roguishly at two fetching young girls who rode past in an open carriage with their mother and received identical squeals of delight at his gallantry. Replacing his hat at a jaunty angle, he set off towards his college, never thinking to look up towards the upper storey window of a dilapidated house, where a young girl, clad only in a threadbare robe, stood watching him wistfully. He was young, he was far from home and Adam was having the time of his life.
The sound of swift hoof beats made Ben raise his head and furrow his brow in displeasure as Joe rode into the yard at full tilt. Even from a distance he could see how Joe's eyes sparkled with mischief and a broad grin displayed a flash of white teeth in his tanned face.
"One of these days," Ben murmured grimly, rising to his feet, about to shout out a reprimand. A sudden flash of memory stilled his tongue, as he remembered one fateful day when Joe had misjudged his headlong rush home and had nearly broken his neck in the process, just as his mother had, in almost the very same place.
The boy is so like his dear mother, Ben thought, so very like Marie, in both looks and personality.
In many ways, he often felt that his sons resembled their mothers more closely than they did himself. Adam – with his calm, reserved, phlegmatic exterior and reluctance to share his inner soul with his family; Hoss, with his ready smile and wide, open heart, always ready to help anyone or anything that crossed his path. And Joe! Joe with his exuberance, his love of life, his wholehearted and ready acceptance of any challenge that crossed his path. All very different, which was as it should be. Ben prided himself in having raised three independent, individual sons and celebrated their differences. No matter what, Ben knew he would not change a single fibre of any of his boys.
Boys! Now, there was an irony. Joe was in his mid-twenties, which meant that Adam had to be… Ben paused for a moment, doing the arithmetic in his head – Adam was nearly forty! It scarcely seemed possible that he had a middle-aged son. Surely he wasn't old enough for that? Where had all the years gone?
"Hi Pa!" Joe grinned broadly, his insouciant smile flashing out brightly. "Guess what was waiting for me in town?" Without waiting for an answer, he fished inside his jacket and pulled out an envelope. "A letter from Adam!" he said, waving it with a dramatic flourish before leaning down and dropping it into his father's waiting hands.
Ben received the missive gratefully, smiling back up at his youngest son, the child he had thought he would never see and was unable to utter a single word of reproach. Joe lives life fully and that is way things should be, even if he did turn my hair snow white! Ben thought fondly. Restraining his whole-hearted approach to life would be like breaking all the spirit out of a horse.
Joe caught the wistful look in his father's eyes and instantly regretted his impetuous arrival. He knew how much his father worried about him. Although he did his best to stand back and allow Joe to make his own mistakes, Ben was never quite able to suppress his concerns. That was part of being a parent – letting your precious child venture forth into the world, yet longing to keep him safe at home, where you could protect him. No matter how hard he tried, Ben was never quite able to let go of Joe in the same way he had relinquished Adam and Hoss. Joe knew this and although he sometimes chafed against his father's concerns, he knew they were born out of love.
"Sorry, Pa – I didn't think. I was so fired-up with excitement when I saw the letter…" Joes voice trailed off uncomfortably, for Ben Cartwright still had the ability to reduce his adult sons to bashful boyhood with a single look. It seemed just yesterday that he had sat at the table and surveyed two small boys, eagerly demolishing the rare treat of ice cream…
Ben sat back in his chair with a sigh of utter contentment and watched as Adam and Hoss scooped up the ice cream with eager relish. He caught Marie's glance and gave an almost imperceptible nod. He had held off long enough, but now the time was exactly right.
"Boys?" For once his normally commanding and confident voice held a note of uncertainty. "Your mother and I have something to tell you." Apprehension coloured his words and transmitted his nervousness to his family.
Dark-eyed Adam darted a resentful look at his stepmother, still unreconciled to the term "Mother". He felt a certain deliciously guilty satisfaction watching her squirm uncomfortably in her seat under his steady gaze.
"Yes Pa?" he replied sweetly, as Hoss scraped around in his bowl, intent on retrieving every last morsel of ice cream, internally debating if he should ditch the spoon and just use his tongue instead.
Ben cleared his throat and wondered why he found it so difficult to meet his eldest son's eyes. "We, that is, your mother and I… well…" He cast a pleading look at his wife, who coloured as prettily as a peony rose, while giving an almost imperceptible shake of her head. Realising he was going to have to continue without her help, Ben took a deep breath and managed to continue, albeit with some difficulty.
"We're going to have a baby! You boys are going to have a little brother or sister!" Having delivered the news, Ben sat back in his chair and exhaled in relief, watching keenly as the boys digested the news.
"Really?" Hoss squealed. "I'm gonna be a big brother, just like Adam?"
Marie nodded and opened her arms wide, enveloping the child in a warm embrace. Over the top of his sandy head, she watched Adam carefully; aware of how difficult this news must be for him to digest.
" A baby?" Adam murmured in wonder. He was nearly twelve – he knew what that meant. Just this a few weeks ago, Pa had taken him for a long ride and explained a whole lot of things. He felt embarrassed just thinking about what must have taken place… But a baby! The first baby born on the Ponderosa – that really was something! The thought pushed Adam's embarrassment to the back of his mind.
"When?" he asked eagerly. "When will the baby be born?" The words tumbled out in excitement and Marie felt a sense of peace suffuse her whole being as she observed the delighted sparkle in her stepson's eyes and heard the exuberance in his voice.
"In the summer," she replied and revelled in the love that shone out from Ben's eyes. They had hoped, prayed and planned for this child, for this most wanted child and now, now that the time for worry was finally past, her only worries were as to how her stepsons would take the news. Their joyous reactions convinced her that her fears were unfounded, that she was truly a part of the family and at last Marie felt she could relax and enjoy her pregnancy.
There was so much to do – a room to be prepared in readiness for the baby, a cradle to be made and a myriad of tiny garments to be lovingly fashioned from the finest, softest cloth she could find. Marie sat back in her chair, lifting her eyes from a delicate chain of forget-me-nots she was embroidering around the neck of a small dress, folded her hands across her stomach and let her thoughts drift pleasantly into dreams of the future, dreams where she and Ben would sit on the porch and watch their children frolic contentedly, happy and healthy and living life to the full.
The dark days of the past were pushed to the corners of her mind, for although her sorrows were still present, their pain was diminished and put into perspective. The memory of her long-dead baby and the nightmarish disintegration of her first marriage would always be with her; indeed they had made her the woman she was. Marie had suffered greatly during her life, but now there was a bright, shining future to look forward to, with the man she loved by her side and the baby she craved in her arms. Life seemed very sweet indeed and Marie gave heartfelt thanks for all her blessings.
"What are babies like, Adam?" Hoss asked, as he helped his brother to milk the cow.
"Little!" Adam said prosaically. "Little and squirmy and noisy!" He grinned at Hoss, who stood beside the milking stool, his blue eyes wide with curiosity. "But cute with it. I can remember holding you and feeling there wasn't anything I wouldn't do to protect you."
It took Hoss a moment to unscramble this complicated sentence. "You loved me right from the start?" he queried, furrowing his brow.
Adam nodded. "Before you were born, even. Just like I love this baby, even if it isn't here yet."
Hoss looked worried. "But I don't know how to be a big brother!" he exclaimed. "Will you help me, Adam?"
"Of course I will." Adam smiled reassuringly at his brother. "Don't worry, Hoss – you don't need to be taught to how to love – it comes from your heart. Love just blossoms forth and we can't do anything about it. Just wait until the baby is born – you'll see. Once you hold the baby, why - all of a sudden, this love pours out and you'll wonder where it came from and how you ever lived before the baby was born."
At the back of the barn, standing half-hidden in the shadows, Ben Cartwright had to blink several times in succession and felt an incredible surge of pride towards his eldest son.
It was difficult for Marie to sleep at nights – the warmth of early summer, the activity of the baby and the pressure on her bladder all contributed to ensure that she slept only in short bursts. She spent many hours in the calm solitude of the night, staring up at the stars and dreaming of the day when she would hold her baby in her arms and enfold it in love. Eventually, her eyes would grow heavy and she would return to bed, giving her stomach a final, loving pat and whispering "Dors bien, mon enfant".
And then it happened. Suddenly, without warning, the baby stopped moving and Marie felt a part of her die along with the infant. She clung frantically onto her hopes and dreams, refusing to accept the inevitable, even when Paul Martin sat on the side of her bed and explained, in slow, halting tones, even when Ben leant against the wall, unable to speak, but with tears rolling down his face.
They sent the boys away, as far away as possible, to stay with friends, so that they would not hear Marie's cries of anguish as she laboured long and hard to painfully deliver her dead baby. Such a perfect little baby, but one that would never breathe or even open its eyes, a baby that would never suckle at her breast or feel the painful fervour of her love.
Marie held her child, swaddled in a blanket, yet cold and unresponsive. She looked down at the tiny face, pinched and waxen, but still beautiful, pure and unsullied. There were no answers, no reasons, no comfort that anyone could give her. Her love was as boundless as the ocean but it thundered fruitlessly upon deserted shores. Ben watched in terror as his wife seemed to slip away between his fingers like sand in an hourglass, unable to breach the terrifying passivity of her response. She was as quiet and still as the baby they both mourned.
The boys returned home the next day, to hold the baby and weep for the sibling they would never know. Hoss realised that the love within his heart was pouring out with nowhere to go and tried to comfort his stepmother, but while she accepted his hugs and kisses, she could not help him in his grief. Unable to deal with her own heartbreak, Marie was barely holding on to the corners of her sanity. It felt as if the slightest breeze would whip away her reason altogether and she clung to her impassivity. Twice she had given birth, and twice her babies were taken away. Her belly was empty, but once again there was no baby to hold in her arms. She felt hollow - how could she ever risk loving again?
Marie was the only member of the family who did not cry. There was no point in crying. It would not bring her baby back and there were not tears enough to begin to express her grief, even if she should live to be one hundred. She hugged her mourning and sorrow to herself, wearing her grief like a shawl, wrapping it close around herself as if it might help to contain her misery.
He placed a white flower placed between the tiny hands and marvelled at how the baby looked as if it merely sleeping, with a sweet serenity on its face. It was hard for Ben to acknowledge that his child had never woken, never felt the warmth of the summer sun, never heard the sweet song of birds in the morning – and never would. Saying a final farewell and closing the coffin lid, in the full and certain knowledge that he would never again see the sweet face of his third child was the hardest thing Ben had ever done. No other sorrow had come close to piercing his soul with such exquisite, exacting pain.
They buried the baby by the lake, where the sound of the waves lapping against the shore would provide a gentle lullaby for a child that never knew its mother's voice. Marie watched as the priest blessed the tiny soul and sent it on a journey into eternity and wondered how God could let such a tiny being make such a long voyage all alone. When would they meet again in Paradise? Would she recognise her two children? Would they know her? So many questions, all unanswered, all unanswerable. So many dreams, ground into gaping nothingness.
Ben had insisted on carrying the tiny coffin in his own arms, trudging slowly up to the lake, his head bowed and his entire body pressed down by crushing sorrow. He bent down, kneeling on the warm earth and laid his burden down as gently as if he were laying this precious child into a crib. Except there was no warm safe bed for this baby, whose only blanket was a miniscule shroud, while the dry, sandy soil of the Ponderosa proved a poor substitute for a counterpane. He remained at the graveside for a long time, until Marie tugged at his elbow and led him away. She could not bear to stay there a moment longer, for the threads of her control were unravelling with dizzying rapidity.
They stopped at the foot of the slope and turned for one final look, for what parent does not worry each time they lay their child down to sleep or pause in the doorway for a final look at beloved little being?
Back home, Ben took out the family Bible, opened it and stared long and hard at the list of names, written in many different hands. He dipped his pen into the inkstand and slowly inscribed the pitiful legend, recording birth and death on a single day. It seemed too bleak, too final and too impersonal to give his baby, his baby who had never lived, such a short memorial and, more than that, it felt like a betrayal. After a pause, he added "dearly beloved child of Ben and Marie Cartwright." It wasn't enough, but Ben knew he could never put into words what this child had meant to him.
Late that night, Ben took a solitary walk back towards the lake. Under the golden light of a harvest moon, he stood by the pathetically small mound. To his right, a bird rose from the buses and flew upwards, the moonlight beating down on its wings as it soared towards the sky, free and beautiful. Ben thought of the child he would never know, fell to his knees and wept out his love and sorrow into the still night air.
A sudden, splashing noise caught his attention and, looking up, Ben saw not one but two birds land upon the shimmering water and then start to paddle across the lake in perfect unison. They swam closely together, moving along a bright, moonlit path that turned the wine-dark waters into molten gold, guiding them towards an unseen destination. He watched, entranced, until they were out of sight and fancied that perhaps, just perhaps, he was watching Marie's two babies, united in death and travelling into eternity together. It was a small comfort, for the thought of leaving his baby all alone in the dark emptiness had troubled his soul deeply.
For a long time afterwards, Marie flitted around the house, as pale and unsubstantial as a ghost. A pall of sorrow seemed to overwhelm everything, yet still she did not weep, could not weep, for in truth Marie was beyond tears. Nothing could begin to express her grief. She even refused to have any marker erected on the gravesite, for what need was there? The memory of her baby was burned into her heart and all those who truly mourned knew where the child was buried. Her baby haunted her dreams. Night after night, Marie dreamt that she held a warm, living baby in her arms, only to awake to dull, despondent reality. Each day was a trial of endurance, a nothingness that seemed to stretch out towards an endless horizon.
Ben began to wonder if he would ever see the woman he married again or if she was gone and lost forever. He watched as she carefully folded up all the tiny garments, with love stitched into each seam and into each delicate piece of embroidery. Next, Marie tucked sprigs of fragrant dried lavender between the folds and then packed her dreams carefully into a cedar chest, which she gave to her husband to store in the attic, to be stored out of sight underneath the eaves. After completing that chore, Ben took the cradle out to the barn and smashed it with three swift, savage strokes from an axe.
Days passed in dreary succession, lengthening into months and yet nothing changed. Summer eased into autumn, and then froze into winter. Ben was heartily relieved when the year drew to a close knew that things had to change, that they had to find the strength to make a fresh start together. Late on Old Year's Night, as the hands on the clock inched towards midnight, he sat down beside Marie and took hold of her hand.
"I want to start again – to move on. For your sake – for the boys' sake – we can't continue like this. This is tearing us apart, little by little."
Marie nodded, knowing he was right, longing for Ben to take hold of her hand and pull her out of this pit of despair. She no longer felt she had the strength to do that herself and desperately needed someone to help her, to save her from downing in sorrow.
"I love you."
Ben stared deep into her eyes, anguish etched on his face and searing into her heart like a lance. With a start, Marie noticed how tired and worn his face seemed and realised his grief was as deep and unresolved as her own.
"I love you, as I have never loved any woman. You are my life – my whole existence. And I can't bear to stand by and watch you leave me. We lost the baby – but I can't loose you too. I'm loosing you and I can't stand it. I need you so much." Unbidden, the tears rolled down Ben's pale cheeks and then deep sobs racked his whole body as he burrowed his head in Marie's skirts.
A gentle hand soothed across his head. "I will never leave you, Ben. I love you too much. I will always be with you. I will always love you."
A pang of joy suffused Ben's whole being as he raised his head, clasped her face between his hands and kissed her, knowing that they had made a start, but that some hurdles still had to be overcome.
"We will have another baby, I promise you," Ben whispered, suddenly unmanned by the way her body folded in to his own, pressing and caressing. "I promise you – we will have another baby."
And at last, at long last, Marie was able to cry. She wept healing tears, but ones that flayed the tender flesh of her soul. "I know, my love. But I wanted this baby."
Finally, she could let her anguish and anger pour forth. Marie threw her head back and howled out her misery and bitterness at the injustice of the world .She wept for the children she would never hold, no matter how deep her love was; she wept for the loneliness that threatened to engulf her and she wept for the injustice of a world that denied her a baby to love and nurture. There were so many unwanted babies – why was she being punished in this way?
Holding on to one another for support, grasping at each other for succour, sharing their grief and gaining new strength and understanding, the New Year slipped in unnoticed… and slowly, life once again began to flourish, putting forth faint, green tendrils of love that entwined around their hearts and bound Ben and Marie even closer.