1922

Spring was blossoming, the damp earth showing life...bluebells, daisies, and green grass. The ground thawed, frost and snow receded weeks before, and the sun finally warmed Downton after the longest winter of Mary Crawley's life. Grey skies dissipated to a bright, clear blue and the air in her lungs was fresh and fragrant, no longer harsh and cold.

She could breathe again.

There was something foreign to the spring, something off-putting about bright sunlight, when the last six months had been so dark. Mary felt like a spectre when she stepped out of the grand house and squinted against the baring light. She seemed to glow white, her usual pale English skin even more so after an exhausting winter, in which she could barely eat or sleep or leave the house at all. As she walked the path away from the house, foregoing the chauffeur whenever she could, she extended her hand and turned it over under the sunshine, surprised at her own opacity. Blue veins contrasted along her wrist and knuckles and she tightened her palm into a fist and dug it into her pocket, uncomfortable with this sad version of herself wrapped in black.

She had faded away.

Everything was very loud about the day, the trees loaded with birds squawking, insects buzzing on the lawn, and as she approached the village there were children laughing, doors slamming, wheels turning, bells ringing. It was as if spring was making a grand entrance, an official declaration of the season and no one could miss it even if they tried. Her own footsteps crunched loudly on the gravel, making certain she was very aware of her path, of her presence and she nearly winced at it all. She was so accustom to quiet, snowy days in the house, where everyone tread softly, voices hushed, movement rustled, whispered lullabies, that this day was blinding her into reality.

There was a moment of panic, of shock, one that snapped her breath back into her body with a painful gasp, as Mary stopped and looked all around and realized she was walking alone. She was still so familiar with a presence beside her that it was more worrisome to not find it there than it would be to see an apparition. Perhaps the warmth of the sun on her neck and shoulders had convinced her she had company for this lonely trek into the village.

She thought about turning back.

For, everywhere in this bursting, bustling Spring afternoon there was Matthew. In the air, the road, the flowers, the laughter. The sky, oh the sky was Matthew, perhaps the very colour of his eyes, so identical the blue that Mary's own stung with emotion when she gazed up and instead she kept her head down.

Matthew in the boy riding his bicycle, in the lush, green grass that was drying and inviting for picnics by the lake, in the golden flowers that waved in the breeze from the fields, the colour of his hair, Matthew in the cognac she drank after luncheon, sweet and warm like the gentle rumble of his voice, like the taste of his lips on her own.

Matthew in the gravestones surrounding the yard behind the church, for one was Matthew's and it bore his name. It would be her's, too. Was she not far too young to have a predetermined grave-marker? Was he not too young to be buried beneath it?

Mary's hands shook as she approached the site, the first time she had visited since the snow melted from atop and around. It was so barren now, no longer protected by the thick blanket of winter, sticking out new and polished, the grass starting to grow on the mound of mud that covered his casket six feet below.

The thought made her stomach knot and she put a hand to her mouth, eyes searching the nearby grounds to make certain she was alone. She sighed wearily and pulled her cloche hat, that was tugged low over her ears, off of her head and fisted it in her hands. The hairs on her neck and arms prickled with a low breeze that cooled and brought goosepimples onto her skin. She felt so strange and exposed without her hair wrapped in a chignon resting against her neck. Her head felt light and without burden and she laughed audibly, a desperate, shrill sound, nearer a sob – for light and unburdened was the opposite of what she was.

She had cut off all of her hair.

"I haven't had a haircut my whole life, and then Sybil cut her's and Edith too and mine took ages to style up but you – you liked it long, of course. To tell you the truth, Mat,-" Mary paused and pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes and felt a strange flare of anger mingle with her dark, dark sadness. "To tell you the truth I did it myself with a pair of scissors from Carson and I asked Anna to fix it but she thought – a nice trip to the hair boutique in London would do a better job, so – I went and spent the day and they...finished what I started."

She inhaled and it was shallow in her chest.

"The whole time I was there, I thought – this will get him, won't it? No matter where he is, cropping off my hair will get his attention. But I thought you'd like this," She ran her fingers through the styled waves in her short hair, cut just above her defined, elegant jaw.

"I didn't even blink when I did it, didn't even consider – It didn't seem like my hair or myself in the mirror because I don't feel like myself." She spoke through clenched teeth.

"You took half of me with you, Matthew."

When his name left her tongue it hung heavy in the pleasant, fresh air, like an entity itself and Mary's legs felt deadened and her muscles trembled but she only stood taller, straighter. She would not be weak here, not let him see how...how hurt she was, even though it was impossible for him to see anything again.

"Your son won't yank on it so much at this length and I looked in the mirror and thought I saw a woman, finally, not some sad girl. You'd forgive me this length but if I had shorn it off like the pageboy cuts, well, I'd only do that if you were here to react," A smile touched her eyes but not her lips at the notion.

"And I can run my fingers through it all the time now, not only when I'm ready for bed. You'd like being able to touch it, I had never seen you more impatient than waiting for me to take my hair down."

Mary groaned, impatient, feeling her cheeks flush with how silly she felt, how trivial and stupid this was. He was dead, this was a stone, he was rotten in the ground below it, he didn't breathe or move or love or exist anymore so why waste her breath talking to an object onto which his name, year of birth and death was scrawled. There was nothing for her here.

"I won't be this widow, you know. Who stands by your grave everyday telling you about – about how your son – your son is growing...every morning he has grown and changed and – looks more and more like you – with...your eyes," Her voice was high and formal but stuck in her throat. "and nearly crawling – he will be saying Papa soon with no idea who – who that father is. I won't be that woman who thinks you should be kept up to date on our lives, because you were the one who left us, Matthew."

Resentment boiled in her as white, cottony clouds were building up in the azure-coloured sky and Mary trailed her wet, amber eyes up, above his gravestone, and blinked slowly as the clouds formed and rolled along. The world had moved on, the seasons had changed – She had seen autumn and winter without him...and then a new year...and now spring. She was alive and breathing and she was a mother and widow. It was strange to Mary how little it all meant to her, just then, standing by where he lay.

She did not know what any of it meant without him.

"I feel as if I've lost my mind. I come here and hope I find you but I should have just stayed home and talked to myself. You're no more here than in the house we lived or the ditch you died. I could write your name in the dirt and it would be all the same."

The sun slid behind a cloud and Mary's eyes relaxed from their slits, for they were narrowed against the sunlight. They stung with the salt of tears that had long since been shed but clung to her lashes, and little lines grew and stretched around her eyes. She was older everyday since her son was born, since her husband had died, since a part of her turned black with the loss.

In the moments the sun was hidden, the day grew dim and shadows leaped out and she felt one on her shoulder but that wasn't altogether new. Some days he was always there, his shadow cast onto her from where he once stood beside her and she wished she felt him more tangibly, wished it was something she could touch, she could feel, rather than sense. His presence lingered but it didn't warm or comfort her, it only reminded Mary of all she...they...had lost and she grew colder, thinner, angrier.

She tightened her jaw and her face was hollow, sharp, angular cheekbones jutting out and changing the appearance of the young, glowing woman she had been. Everything of her was darker and sharper now and she worried for the cloud she carried, which her son would grow up beneath. Would he love her, this broken woman who flinched the first time she saw his unclouded, clear blue eyes? The older he got, the more blonde and blue he became, and her heart swelled with love and affection at the beautiful reminder but then was trodden down of the life that waited for her, for them, now that their family was broken, too many of them dead in the ground.

Who would she ever be now?

She hated that Matthew took from her a livelihood which she had only just found and now she too wondered if her life was over, if she would never see a happy day again.

Mary folded up the hem of her black skirt and stepped carefully around his plot, her thick heels sinking into the soft ground, and she knelt beside his towering grave-marker as the sun reemerged and dazzled, reflecting off the polished piece. Tentatively, she reached a hand onto it and traced her pale fingers across the letters that spelled his name...

Matthew.

The most familiar word in the world to her, the name she spoke even in her sleep, one her mouth and lips had memorized for a lifetime...

A chill jolted through her and Mary shuddered but tilted her face toward the sun, letting the warmth of the stone seep into her skin, the pungent, damp smell of mud wafting toward her. She could almost imagine, just nearly, but not enough, that the warmth was from his hand, not his tomb and she could...she could remember places Matthew had warmed that she had never known could feel such.

Her heart had warmed only when he loved it with his own...her insides had burned with the warmth of desire when he touched her that first night...her cheeks with his flattery when he would murmur about her eyes in the early morning light...her toes had warmed against his strong, comforting body in the cold, dark winter after Sybil died...warm breath on her neck as he loved her as quiet as they could...warmth in her arms when she first held their son...

She could remember him better like this, touching his name under the sun, a soothing breeze caressing her face. Yes, Matthew had once been here, had given her so much in the short time they were married, had completed her, and perhaps she could learn to feel lucky for that.

Though, Mary once knew her future and now it raveled away from her,dark, bleak, and unknown but she did know it would be without him. Without Matthew, he who had touched her whole world in the years she had known him, had shaped her so (and she, too, had changed him). When she opened her eyes, gazing toward the sky, she could see him again, his own eyes again reflected to her in the spring day, light and love and all she remembered...

She could not lose herself, and if she had, she must find herself.

"I don't want to be without you, Matthew." And her cold, formal tone had slipped and was low and tender, a whisper to her beloved, to her departed, the only man with whom a life she had intended to build. She was angry, but she was sorrowful and lost. She wished she could sleep in their big bed without waiting for his side to dip down with his gentle weight, his whispered goodnight, or sparring words, whatever they were that day.

Just when she had knelt a bit too long, had stared too hard, let her eyes brim with tears to the point of spilling over, she heard footsteps and her name softly from someone's mouth.

"Mary, my darling girl."

Isobel, all in black, was approaching Mary and Matthew('s bones) and Mary quickly stood, clutching her hat tightly in both hands, dissolving into a painful smile as her Mother-in-law beamed, even in mourning, reaching a hand out in greeting.

"How are you today?" Isobel glanced at the gravestone and back to Mary, a warm arm wrapping around her back.

"Angry," Mary said, her voice whooshing with a breath. "I'm angry today."

"That's perfectly fine. And is that grandson of mine asleep?"

"I put him down before I left, he should nap for an hour or two," Mary said, shakily, as Isobel turned them away from their morbid meeting place.

"Good boy. What say you to tea at Crawley House and then we'll go back up together?" Isobel was bright and strong and a light in this darkness and by allowing Isobel to help, Mary was helping the Crawley Mother who lost her son herself, keeping Isobel's heart stitched together.

Mary pressed her lips to her hand and touched his name, the only kiss she could give, and let Isobel guide them with a presence that was so like Matthew's that Mary felt comfort, and the ache in her chest subside as she thought of Isobel, and Matthew, and the baby boy waiting for her at home.

She could carry herself, carry her son, carry them all and she could – oh, she would live without him.