La Promenade

A bay willow's long tendrils shifted in a sporadic rhythm from the subtle breath of the early summer wind, ebbing and flowing, sometimes caressing the tops of the earnest grasses that reached heavenwards, vibrantly green from the winter snows. The glowing disk of the sun glimmered shyly from behind the soft curtain of greenery afforded by the willow, its twinkling light peeking out and finding a target in the gently waving flowers or on the woman's cheekbone. Here, in the middle of the countryside, with no roads in sight, the only sounds that pierced the sweet silence were the flapping of the woman's skirt against the breeze as she sat there, the occasional twittering chirps of two birds in love, hidden away under tree branches, and the rustle of the tall grasses as the small child made his way through them.

The woman inhaled deeply, running a hand unconsciously over the place where her heart rested, as if to comfort it, somehow. Her gaze traversed the panoramic view laid in front of her: the gentle roll of the hills towards the east, then the luscious green trees lying just behind them in the beginning of a forest. And, as her eyes traveled westward they found the flower-dusted fields in which she now sat, with yellow and green grasses that reached her knees. The flowers that sprinkled the fields were wild and unknown to her, some rising up as stalks with purple and white clinging onto them, or growing lower to the ground and sprawling; bright red and yellow and peach colored bursts of blossoms that wound in ambling paths across the field. These flowers were randomly dispersed, and almost looked out of place. It was as if the artist of this painting she seemed to be sitting in had finished his beautiful landscape, and then dipped his brush in these untamed colors, flicking them at random across his canvas so they sprouted up unexpectedly. But she found it pleasant, and their petals were so delicate and soft against her fingers that she couldn't help but smile gently at their wild beauty, the feeling reminding her of a baby's soft cheek against her breast.

Her eyes closed for a moment as the light from the twinkling sun flicked across them again and she exhaled a sigh of contentment. For an instant the woman, whose name was Mary, experienced a peculiar feeling of intense solitude. If she closed her eyes it was as if the whole world slipped away and she was sitting quite alone with only her thoughts and self. The sensation suddenly caused her to feel nauseous, and she was glad to be rid of it as a child's voice interrupted her world and her eyes flashed open again.

"Mamma, Mamma!" it called.

Her heart seized in terror as she rapidly scanned the horizon and couldn't locate him. Gripped with a maternal sense of fear she stood up quickly, her parasol dropping unceremoniously to the ground as she raised her hands to shield her eyes and frantically searched for him.

Ah, there he was! He jumped up, sensing that she couldn't see him, and Mary put her hand over her heart again, caressing the place like she had done moments ago in the same gesture, comforting herself.

"Come closer, George, you're much too far!" she called down to him.

He was at the bottom of the hill, the grasses tickling his hips as they continued to sway.

"Look!" the young boy called again, and she squinted to see him hold something aloft in his hand, waving it back and forth.

Mary waved at him to come closer, and told him to do so again, having to call out loudly against the wind, which seemed to have increased in velocity. She saw his small head nod and her brows relaxed knowing he was safe. She did not sit down again until she saw him begin to climb up the hill and move up towards her spot, chastising herself for letting her focus slip. The feeling of losing him, even when it was only losing sight of him for a moment, was terrifying to her. As her heart unclenched itself she brushed hair, disheveled from the summer breeze, out of her eyes. But she didn't regret taking her hat off, it was too beautiful a day and she delighted in feeling the sun over her cheeks and forehead.

She chuckled as he tumbled up the hill towards her, the knees of his pants dirty and his hair hopelessly ruffled by the wind. He looked up and saw her helpless laugh at his appearance and smiled widely, laughing with her. He finally reached her and brought his left hand out from behind his back, presenting her with a small bouquet of wildflowers, slightly crumpled from his journey.

His mother's mouth opened slightly, deeply touched by the gesture, and she took them delicately, bringing them up to her nose and inhaling deeply, a smile crossing her lips as she looked up. "Thank you, they smell wonderful, darling. Now come and give me a kiss."

He was pleased at her reaction, but not at all pleased when she drew him into her arms and placed kiss after kiss over his face and head. He made a noise of protest and struggled against her, then felt her laugh against his forehead and her arms relax around him.

"Now, what was it that you found?" Mary asked curiously as he pulled away and wiped at his cheek, although not leaving her lap entirely.

He held up his treasure and watched as she took it in her hand, turning it over and brushing dirt off of it.

"It's a handkerchief!" she exclaimed in wonder, unfolding it and looking at the carefully embroidered roses on one still creased square. She ran her thumb over it and saw the initials "M.T." stitched on it as well.

"Who do you suppose it belongs to?" she asked, looking back up to her son, who was trying trying to put his hair back in order.

"A girl," he shrugged.

Mary nodded, then folded the handkerchief up and offered it back to him. "I'm sure you're right."

He took it and set it aside, and his mother smiled at the boy's innocence and gentle nature. His cheeks were slightly rosy from the sun and she hoped they wouldn't burn. She exhaled with a sigh and lay down in the grass, disappearing from all view except perhaps that of an aeroplane if it happened to pass overhead.

He smiled joyfully and followed her so that he lay beside her, his arms folded under his head as he looked up at the cerulean sky, with puffs of wispy clouds brushed across its surface.

Mary turned her head and watched as he closed his eyes, smiling at the slight knit of his brows and the sprinkling of light freckles over his face. She had hoped, before he had been born, and after her husband's death that their son would look just like his father. Because at least she would still have that part of him to carry with her. And when George's baby hair had darkened she hoped his eyes wouldn't, that the infant blue would fade to the clear azure of his father's. But even that changed, and now she looked at a fair, brown eyed and dark haired little boy that no one in the world could mistake for anyone's but hers.

She tore her eyes away from him and picked up the handkerchief that still lay beside them and looked at it again, wondering what girl or woman had made it and carried it with her. Was it a young girl on a walk with a governess, reciting French verbs and protesting at her skirt being snagged on the brambles? A young woman with a lover, hidden under the cover of tree branches and sharing a secret embrace? A married woman who had misplaced the poor handkerchief on a family picnic? Or a mother, as Mary now considered herself, who had wiped a child's sticky hands and merely forgotten it, her attention only on that small little person whom she loved so dearly?

Mary remembered herself at all these stages, some more painful to remember than others.

She saw George open his eyes and blink sleepily in the sun, which was waning now. He lazily picked up her left hand and played absentmindedly with it as he looked up at her.

"Mamma?"

"Yes?"

"Did you ever come here with Papa?" George asked softly, his fingers tracing her wedding ring.

Mary shook her head. "No, I never did."

George placed her hand back where it had rested over her abdomen and propped himself up on an elbow. "Why?"

His mother raised her eyebrows in lieu of shrugging. "Oh, I don't know. Perhaps we should have done."

"I think he would have liked it here," George said.

Mary smiled softly, "Why do you say that?"

George picked at a stalk of grass, twisting it and knotting it. "I don't know, I just do."

Mary turned her gaze back up to the sky. "Well, you're probably right. I think he would have, too."

There was moment of quiet, and in the air Mary saw the two birds she had heard conversing earlier flit from the bay willow to a wynch elm on the other side of the field.

"Do you miss him, Mamma?" George's sweet, small voice asked.

Mary was startled by it, he had never asked this particular question before and it threw her off. As a baby, of course, he hadn't known, couldn't have known that there was something missing. And, as he grew and was told about his father, he begged for photographs and stories, mostly ones that would make him laugh, because he hated to see his mother cry, although she rarely did. So now, when he asked such a simple, predictable question, Mary was not sure how to answer it. She settled on the truth, it was always easier than a lie.

"Not as much as I did before," she said in a low, calm voice.

He was quiet, then prodded her again, "But you still miss him terribly?"

"Of course,"

George was an usually perceptive child, especially when it came to those he knew well, so as he looked at his mother then he knew, without really needing to understand it, that her heart was tightening under her breast, and that her voice was hitched in her throat, and that if he were to ask one more question it might be too much. So instead he moved closer and snuggled up against her, his cheek resting against her shoulder and chest, feeling the comforting beat of her strong heart and the steady rise and fall of her breathing.

"I love you, Mamma." he said with a whisper against her neck, and felt her arm wrap around him, her fingers brush through his hair in an attempt to tame it. The wind blew strongly then, and the grasses bent over against it, the sound a soft whistle around them.

She shut her eyes firmly and pressed a fervent kiss against his forehead, "And I love you, so terribly much."

"Just like you love Papa?"

Mary shook her head, opening her eyes, "No, it's a different kind of love, but the same amount."

A drop of water splashed onto her cheek and she looked up in surprise to see darker clouds billowing up from behind them. She brushed it off and sat up with her son still near her, looking above and around them.

"We'll have to head back, it looks like rain," she said with purpose, and reached for her discarded parasol. George pulled away and stood up, dusting himself off and waiting for her to stand before taking her ungloved hand in his, looking over his shoulder at the flower-sprinkled field and then back in the opposite direction of their country home where they spent the summer.

They were too slow for the rain, which decided to beat down on the two of them soon after they departed from their peaceful afternoon spot. Soon Mary's blue dress was soaked through and her son was flecked with dirt, which did nothing but make her laugh. Hair escaped her chignon and plastered her neck and face no matter how much she brushed it off, and by the time they finally reached the estate they looked as though they would be dismissed from the house with not so much as a kind word.

Pushing George forward and telling him to get inside quickly before he became ill, Mary looked once more back out and across the green hills and flower speckled grasses, now weighed down with the weight of the heavy summer rain. And as she looked out and saw the rain coming down in heavy sheets upon the meadows and the willow's tendrils swinging in the wind she recalled words spoken to her once before, words she would cherish forever in her memory: "You're strong. A storm braver if ever I saw one."

She had not remarried. She could have, if she'd wanted to. She knew Matthew would have told her to if the chance arose, but she didn't want to marry. She didn't need to. Of course, she regretted the fact that George would never have a father to guide him, but he seemed to guide himself. Her son was a curious creature, some days he clung to her side, while others he spent quite by himself. He was happy with people and equally happy alone, and she watched this phenomenon with fascination as he continued to grow.

She had refused to become weak. No, Mary wanted to be his Mary, and that Mary was not easily pushed down. She was strong and brave and sure of herself. And she knew that would make Matthew proud.

She had thought it impossible, to be strong, when she had been told of his death. She couldn't bear to hold their child, couldn't bear the idea of going on without him. But, after days of torturing herself with what if's and should have's she realized that that wasn't his Mary. And so she picked herself up, she took the baby into her arms and whispered her love against his soft cheek, knowing at once that she would never be able to say it enough in her whole lifetime.

From the moment she took George -then still unnamed- into her arms again she knew that there would be no room in her new life for weakness. So she rose up and overcame it. Of course, there was always a dull ache that returned, often at night when she slept in a bed that suddenly seemed too large for one body, making her feel his absence acutely. On some of these occasions she let herself cry, for she knew there was nothing wrong in it. Oh, sometimes she clenched the sheets in anger and screamed silently into the pillows, sometimes she thought she smelled a lingering scent of him on the sheets and wept when she realized it couldn't possibly be real.

She had been horrified one day when she couldn't remember his face. That day she really had cried, shutting herself in her room and not allowing anyone in until she had memorized him again, clutching his photograph to her chest and promising to never forget him. Ingrained in her memory in this way he never aged, even as she did.

Yes, sometimes she had felt so weak she wasn't sure she could stand. But then it was as if he came beside her, put a steadying arm around her waist and pulled her up from her low place.

Sometimes she closed her eyes and remembered the feel of his kisses everywhere they had touched on her body. Sometimes she remembered how he loved her in blue, and wore it. And sometimes, in the middle of the night, she would go to his dressing room, to which only she had a key, and lean against the door, breathing him in. She touched his clothes, held them to her and hugged them, trying to replicate the feel of him in her arms. Sometimes it helped, sometimes it didn't.

But despite all this, despite the sadness, there was joy. She had learnt to be happy, and to not feel any guilt in it. She knew he was there, and that was all that she needed. Mary had only to look at their son, who grew up to be like neither of them, to ease any pain she might have felt. Her son, their son, their George, who grew up to favor neither of his parents in anything other than appearance. Their son was completely his own person, independent and strong, fearless and intelligent. Mary marveled at him, wondering how she had ever given birth to him, he who was sometimes totally foreign to her.

She was strong. She had bourn it bravely, all of it, and grown happier and stronger with each passing year. She had doubted his words then, she had not ever referred to herself as strong before. And when he had said it, that she was strong, it struck her. Was she? She now knew the answer, after revisiting his words for years. She was strong, there was no doubt about it, and she could brave any storm.

Fin

A/N: This piece is something I'm extremely proud of. It was inspired by the Impressionist movement of the later 19th century. Two examples of this influenced this piece greatly, the first one being 'La Promenade' by Claude Monet (look it up, really), as well as 'Gymnopédie No. 1', composed by the French composer Erik Satie. If you have a minute, I'd love to hear your thoughts!