"I didn't think you and Gilbert Blythe were such good friends that you'd stand for half an hour at the gate talking to him," said Marilla with a dry smile.
"We haven't been — we've been good enemies."
LUCY MAUD MONTGOMERY
When Anne lets her hair drift, strand by strand, in the Lake of Shining Waters, she can almost convince herself that it is a darker shade of auburn.
She still refers to it as the Lake of Shining Waters. She still does a great many things Marilla refers to as nonsense no grown woman would ever entertain. From Anne’s experience before Avonlea, being grown doesn’t afford much more than a surfeit of grief and a pinch-faced exhaustion, not a single speck of romance or imagination. So she takes this as a compliment. So she lets her hair drift; she lets herself imagine.
She is alone, but also, she is not. Fallen leaves float atop the water alongside her and birds chitter in the trees that surround. Some of the leaves match her own hair, wet or dry, as if she belongs to the land as much as anything naturally found there. She grins. A wood nymph of Avonlea then. She laughs and the sound carries.
It is that autumn that Gilbert returns to Avonlea. This does not come as any great surprise. Gilbert had written to Anne, his handwriting messily filling the scant space afforded by the back of a postcard, and he had told her he was considering a return home. The card was postmarked near a month ago, and while Anne had stowed and kept it, she did not give it much thought. Either he would return or he wouldn’t; either he’d come or he’d just go on thinking about it. No sense in her going on thinking of it too. She called this highly practical and far out-pacing her fifteen years of age and told herself she would think on that rather than Gilbert, his handwriting, the option of his return.
The surprise is that he is to stay at Green Gables.
He turns up at their door as if Anne had conjured him there, a magician's trick she might never replicate. She gawks up at him, most unfashionably, as he stands there on the porch of Green Gables, a battered suitcase in hand.
“Gilbert!” Her voice comes out high and bright, as nervously excited as she discovers she herself feels.
He nods, his smile growing wide. “Anne,” he says.
They both have grown in age and height, but Gilbert is still taller than her, more adult in a way she is unsure how to quantify. He had worked on the docks until he was hired on to a steamer that traveled up and down the eastern seaboard. She knows this because he had written of it, but she tells herself she can see that fact reflected in the build of his body. Perhaps she can; his shoulders are broader, built more like a man’s than the schoolboy she had known before his departure.
Anne glances down at herself once she can pull her eyes from him. A blush rises to her cheeks; she is wearing an old dress she has mostly outgrown — the sleeves too short and tight in the shoulder, the bodice too fitted — and she finds herself rearranging the pinafore she wears atop it. She grimaces at the smear of what she assumes is raspberry from helping Marilla can preserves.
“It’s divine providence, is what it is,” Anne says to Gil, brash and sudden. “You being here, alive and in the flesh.” She blushes again, this time at the word flesh. But he is here, he is standing there before her, forcing down the shivers from the cold so that she might not see. She does, and she wishes to label this a small act of heroic chivalry but she’s still trying to put the pieces together of this not-quite man before her.
He is watching her expectantly, and Anne doesn’t know what to do with that either. Whatever tentative truce they had established that last day she saw him has dissolved into an incredible, impenetrable awkwardness over the course of their separated years. The pause lengthens between them until Gilbert clears his throat.
“Did you get the postcards I sent you?”
“No,” Anne says, over-quick. It’s a lie with no purpose and she regrets it immediately as she watches his face fall for a moment. She thinks of Marilla scolding her for her dishonesty, but even that is not enough for Anne to take it back. She is not brave enough to tell him the truth. Not yet, she thinks.
“Oh,” is all he says at first. And then, brightening, “Aren’t you going to let me in?”
It’s Anne’s turn to say, “Oh?” this time, hers marked by the inflection of confused question. She can feel her heart in her throat and she worries she might cough it up.
He cocks his head to the side and the word she wants to use for how he looks down at her is fond. “Didn’t Marilla tell you? I’m to be your new boarder.”
“Bring the boy in, why don’t you?” Marilla calls from the kitchen.
Gilbert had written to her from his travels and Anne had received his postcards. From those notes received, she knew that he had indeed found work and passage on a steamer. That he had gone down to the States. That he had hoped his father would be proud of his sense of adventure, but if not him, then perhaps she would be. She kept these postcards secret, like a heroine in a novel where her star-crossed beloved had taken to the sea or to war or any other cause of great noble strife. Only it was not like that at all because Anne’s hair was too red and she was too freckled and gawky to be anyone’s heroine, and Gil was hardly her beloved. But his handwriting came to be a familiar friend, an unexpected comfort to hear from Gil, out in the world. As if despite everything he saw, none of it was enough to erase the memory of Avonlea, or of her.
“You didn’t tell me,” Anne hisses at Marilla. She had waited until she had heard the door close upstairs before she whipped around on Marilla. Marilla wipes her hands on her apron. She arches an eyebrow, some private amusement drawing her firm mouth upwards.
“Tell you what now, child?”
“Gilbert,” Anne says. The name is whistled out from behind her clenched teeth. “Gilbert Blythe is staying. Here.”
Marilla gestures towards Anne with a wooden spoon. “And this display right here is specifically why I didn’t tell you.”
“You get silly.”
“I do not. I most certainly do not.”
Marilla does not respond, though the knowing twist of her mouth says more than enough in reply.
“Help me get supper on,” she says at last, ignoring Anne's exasperated groan. “Lord knows that boy must be hungry.”
Their first shared meal is a true test of endurance and resilience, Anne thinks, unbefitting anyone she might have once called a friend or mere acquaintance or whatever it was Gilbert once was to her.
It is also possibly, entirely, her fault.
While Gilbert is clearly tired from his travels, he is perfectly respectful and friendly. Anne, by contrast, sits uncharacteristically watchful and quiet, an exasperated Marilla serving as the engine of polite conversation.
“Take these on down to the cellar,” Marilla tells Anne after they leave the table. She hands her the jars they had canned earlier. “And watch yourself!” she calls after. “Don’t let the door shut behind you — that latch has been sticking.”
“I know!” Anne calls back.
When she has finished, lost in the slippery course of her imagination and deep rumination pertaining exclusively to the mostly silent supper that passed amongst the three of them, she wanders over to the barn. She is feeding Belle an apple, chatting quietly, when Gilbert finds her.
He doesn’t say anything at first, his hands bunched in his pockets, gazing out over the view. She doesn’t dare interrupt him. She knows what that view means to her, this land, Avonlea, and she can only begin to imagine the comfort of returning to it after so long without.
“It’s nice, to be back,” is all he says when he turns back to Anne. Before he can say more, she leaps to it, her mouth opening, words spilling out, bred at first from a petty spite, each more ill-considered than the last.
“You’ve missed so much, truly. You haven’t even met Miss Stacey! She's teaching at the school, now that that awful Mr. Phillips is gone, and she’s wonderful. Genuinely a kindred spirit, well in the company of Diana and Marilla and Matthew.” Her voice stumbles, but she keeps on. “I broke my ankle, if you can believe such a calamity. The two-year anniversary was this August past and I recovered splendidly and with no lasting effect or limp,” she concludes with a haughty raise of her chin.
“How’d you break your ankle?” His eyes are wide and amused.
“I fell from a roof, of course.” They begin the slow walk back to the house in the growing dark together.
“Oh, of course.” He pauses, their pace slow. “Anything else truly thrilling I missed from the autobiography of Anne Shirley-Cuthbert?”
She’s not sure why she finds she wants to impress him, but she does, desperately. She always has. That, at least, has not changed between them.
“I dyed my hair green.” She says it with the same drama befitting a great and epic poem she would stand and deliver.
“Beg your pardon?”
“I assure you, the length of hair I currently wear was through no intended design of mine, but rather on account of a peddler and his false wares.” She self-consciously skims her hand through the ends of her hair just below her shoulder. She drops her hand and glances up at Gilbert. “It was supposed to make me beautiful, but instead, it only made my hair the most heinous shade of green. Marilla chopped it all off.” She shakes her head, rueful and mournful all at the same time. Gilbert looks like he wants to say something but he doesn’t say anything at all. “Marilla says my vanity is my Achilles’s heel, and I fear she may be right. I am truly doomed on multiple fronts.”
He halts their walk and she stops a pace before him.
He reaches and he gives her hair a small pull, a ghost of a grin gracing his face as he winds a strand around his finger. She meets his gaze. She feels funny, like when she fell from that roof and all the air was punched out of her.
“What?” she says, all breath, her voice very faraway.
He releases her hair and steps forward, towards the house.
“Come on, Carrots.”
Anne goes to Marilla later that night. She finds Marilla in bed, reading.
Without prelude, Anne says, “I do not think we should keep secrets, you and I. Not from each other.”
Marilla closes her book and sets it in her lap. She looks to Anne standing at the foot of the bed.
“No. I suppose you’re right. You’re made of more solid stuff than I give you credit for.” She smiles soft, warm and familiar. Neither of them mentions that it is nice to have a third member of their household again, but it’s there, unspoken between them.
“Good night then, Marilla.”
Matthew had passed earlier that year. His loss remains a fresh wound that pulls open in Anne at a moment’s notice, his absence at times too painful to bear. Orphans, she tells herself, are meant to handle grief better than this.
Before Matthew died, the farm had turned a corner, became profitable again. Jerry still works for them, and they were able to hire another hand in thanks to their continued benefactress Josephine Barry. Anne resolutely changes the subject each time Marilla brings up a schedule of payback. Try as Anne might, she cannot make Marilla understand the concept of being the recipient of generosity and compassion.
Gilbert is the first boarder they have had in years. Marilla and Anne had gotten used to the comfortable solitude that came with the two of them alone in Green Gables, even if they were greeted with the ghost of their missing third each morning they woke and Matthew still was gone.
Anne ditches Gilbert that Monday morning. She had snuck out like a thief, Marilla calling after her, “What about Gilbert?” only for Anne to reply, breathless, “He knows the way!”
She meets Diana in the woods, her cheeks flushed from the crisp autumn morning and her hasty flight from Green Gables. Fleeing, she tells herself, is not an act of cowardice, least of all when there is so much to tell Diana in the strictest confidence governed by a bosom friendship.
As it turns out, however, the news had met Diana before Anne could.
“I can’t believe Marilla is letting A Boy stay at Green Gables,” Diana whispers in greeting, over-loud all the same, clutching Anne’s arm. She says A Boy as if it demands dramatical capitalization.
“It’s not a boy,” Anne says. She glances over her shoulder, concerned he might have caught up to them. It’s possible, his legs are so very long now. “It’s Gil.”
“Gilbert is A Boy,” Diana says, dragging each word out. She’s not wrong, but Anne doesn’t think she likes what it does to her insides to think of Gilbert as A Boy.
“Well, Ruby is beside herself over the whole thing. She came over yesterday evening, practically in tears. She’s deeply hurt Gil didn’t come to her in his time of need.” Diana’s voice has taken on that rushed lower register she gets when there is gossip afoot.
Anne rolls her eyes. “Then she can go ahead and invite he stay with her. Besides,” she says, her voice going louder, more indignant. “It’s not a time of need, it’s a room. For him. Gilbert.”
“In your house!” And then Diana bursts into giggles that does nothing to ameliorate Anne’s current situation.
Gilbert’s arrival at the schoolhouse is received as if he is the visiting Premier. A hush goes up when he enters only to erupt into excited shouts and earnest greetings. Anne watches, seated at her desk, her edition of Tennyson poems opened and she studiously stares down at the verses.
Anne’s head whips up when she hears Miss Stacey say, “I have heard so much about you, Mr. Blythe. Welcome!”
Miss Stacey catches Anne’s eye over Gilbert’s shoulder, an impish smile rounding her face, and Gilbert joins her, glancing back at Anne.
“Well, Miss Stacey, I hope you won’t judge me on the reputation that precedes me then.” Gilbert smirks at Anne before turning his attention back to Miss Stacey.
“All good, Mr. Blythe, all good, I assure you,” and her smile grows.
Anne’s eyes go wide in embarrassment and she buries her face in her open book, retaining not a word. The betrayal of it all!
Anne is ambushed by a pink-cheeked, over-excited Ruby Gillis at lunch.
“Am I not to get a moment’s peace?” Anne asks in dramatic exasperation, only for Diana to smother a laugh and say, “Oh, Anne.”
Ruby plops down beside Anne and leans in close.
“I’m frightful jealous, as you must know, but I must know everything, you must tell me absolutely everything, Anne, my heart is breaking. How dashing was he when he turned up at your house? Did he still smell of the sea? What does he smell like? Is he the first thing you see in the morning? Gosh, that would just be the most romantic thing. To wake up. To Gilbert! What does he eat for breakfast? What does he look like?”
“Eating his breakfast?”
“In the morning.”
“The same way he looks at night.” Anne’s voice has gone monotone and irritated and Diana looks as rapt and amused as anything.
“You see him at night?” Ruby’s voice flies up through an octave scale to end in a cracking squeak.
Anne returns to Green Gables after school, traveling again without Gilbert — she was, for once, the first one out of the schoolhouse, racing for home at a mad dash — only to find Rachel Lynde seated in the kitchen, taking tea with Marilla.
“That Gilbert Blythe has grown up quite nicely, hasn’t he?” Her eyes drift to Anne, at the sink where she stands, doing the washing up. “Keep an eye on that one,” she stage whispers to Marilla as she points, obvious, to Anne.
Anne drops the crockery she was scrubbing into the sink basin with a splash and a thud. She whips around to face Rachel, her face already grotesquely twisted in a prelude to her outrage.
Marilla intervenes before Anne can say, or do, anything more deeply regretful than shout the name, “Gilbert!” as if it is the very last thing she wishes to hear spoken to her again. Which is entirely true and exactly what she does shout.
“Now, Rachel Lynde, you know I have no room for gossips in my kitchen. The boy needed a bit of charity, and we are in a position fortunate enough to provide.”
“The boy’s grown, practically a man, Marilla.” She arches an eyebrow, suggestive in a way that makes Anne flush and whirl back around. She stares resolutely out the window. She bites her tongue only because, for once, she finds herself without words.
Anne thinks everyone talks about her and Gil as if they are characters in a story. Any other circumstances, any other person, and she might appreciate this.
But the story is Gilbert. It’s inescapable.
He alters the entire universe Anne had come to know in his absence. She can feel Gilbert’s presence at her back in the small schoolroom. She had not thought of it as small until he came back. He’s smart and he’s quick, and even with the gap in his formal education accrued during his travels, he keeps pace.
He’s made the decision he wishes to be a doctor.
“How truly thrilling it must be,” Anne tells Diana, later, carefully avoiding Gilbert’s name, “to know exactly what and who it is you wish to be.”
They are laying side-by-side in the late October woods. The leaves have already changed, the branches laid bare, that promising chill nipping on the air.
“You’d make for a real fine writer, Anne,” Diana says.
Anne tips her head back and she stares up at the naked trees, the slice of gray sky beyond. The ground is cold but solid under her.
“Perhaps.” She shifts up onto her elbow. Diana reaches and picks crumbling dead leaves from Anne’s hair. “But what if I want the fantastical and the dramatical of the written word to be my actual life?”
Diana scrunches her nose up. “I don’t think that’s a job, Anne.”
Anne flops down onto her back. “Just as I always feared.”
“But,” Diana is saying, “if anyone was to make it so, it would be you. I have no fear.”
It’s not long after that Anne relents: she begins to walk to school and home with Gilbert. Together. It seems foolish to her to so determinedly avoid him, far easier to let him walk alongside her. This is what she tells herself, and when she finds herself speaking to him, asking him questions, she calls this polite instead of eager.
“Let’s see,” she says late one afternoon, “you’ve been back long enough and you still have yet to tell me anything at all.”
“How's that now?”
“You went to sea! To the United States!”
“Yeah,” he says, his eyes never leaving her. "I did." She looks away instead, but her curiosity gets the better of her and she turns back to him.
“Well, you have to tell me absolutely everything.”
His mouth folds into a closed-mouth grin. “Alright then. Where do you want me to start?”
“Like a proper story: from the beginning.” And so he does.
The coffee is better in New York, he tells her, but no one can make a decent cup of tea once you cross the border. She has theories on that, and it has to do with British imperialism, but when she interrupts him to tell him that, she stops mid-sentence and tells him to, please, resume. He’s not the sort to get seasick, though he came close when they hit squalls off a nor’easter along the coast of Maine. Lobster dipped in butter is a delicacy every person should have the pleasure to try. He read much, gobbled up philosophy and anatomy volumes that belonged to a disenchanted bunkmate who had taken to the sea in defiance of his family and their immense wealth. Everything he says sounds like a tale that belongs to a different person than the Gilbert she had known. The Gilbert who left. That Gilbert is a part of the Gilbert walking alongside her now, but there is so much more to him now. She wonders if the same can possibly be true of her, if she has grown and become a different, wilder, larger Anne. An Anne who can contain Whitman’s multitudes, and more. She’s not sure why she is so concerned how she measures up to him beyond her usual competitive nature. Why she wants to be a strange land he wishes to explore, and if not conquer, then learn to live in.
“Mother got the newest issue,” Diana had whispered to Anne, and the next morning the two find themselves secreted in Diana’s room, poring over the opened pages.
The Delineator, which Anne had read, was published by the Buttternick Pattern Company out of Toronto. To Anne, that might as well be a world away. Diana’s mother received copies, and on the days she was otherwise occupied, Diana and Anne would silently borrow these copies away and study each and every word and image. Page after page of dress patterns, lushly recorded details of the current fashions, dresses fancier than even Josie Pye wears.
They stall out often on the pages labeled, “Fashionable Coiffures,” illustrations showing how the women of Toronto ought to wear their hair.
“I can’t wait to wear my hair up,” Diana says, her finger tracing one of the drawings. That’s a shame, Anne thinks, even if she feels similarly about her own. But then, her hair is not nearly as lush and beautiful as Diana’s. It’s still too short, the ends now finally reaching below her shoulders.
Buried in the back, they find an errant pamphlet someone most have slipped in to the catalog. The banner across the top of the page reads, Women’s Suffrage!, and beneath, an illustration of the most handsome woman draped as though Grecian in flowing fabrics. She holds aloft the scales of justice.
“Do not let my mother see that,” Diana says, wide-eyed. Anne picks it up and folds it neatly. She pockets it in the waistband of her pinafore. Later, she will slip it between the rows of books she has accumulated over the years since her arrival to Avonlea. Anne likes the intrigue of a meaningless, harmless secret.
She likes the word suffrage, too. It is grandiose and bottomless. If only based on the arrangement of letters and the sound it makes when spoken, it tells of punishment and ill-will endured and, still!, a woman could come out the other side.
“That’s not in the slightest what suffrage means,” Marilla had said when Anne explained this one spring morning. The budding of the trees and the humid, sweet scent of honeysuckle on the breeze had made Anne’s tongue looser and her thoughts wilder.
“Well, it’s what I have chosen it to me to me.”
Marilla shook her head. “What fool ideas you get in that head of yours. You can’t just go off making up the meaning of things. And don’t you let Ms. Rachel Lynde hear that kind of talk. That’s all we need, her running her mouth that we’ve gone and raised a rebel.”
Anne had liked the sound of that almost as much as she had liked the syllables of suffrage.
Diana finds the letters and postcards, Gil’s missives from beyond, a week later.
“Anne — what is all of this?” Anne moves to snatch the parcel back. Diana lets her. It’s tied together with a faded blue hair ribbon of Anne’s.
“It’s nothing. Correspondence.”
“With whom?” Diana’s eyes are big, the way they get whenever Ruby or Josie presents her with the latest schoolroom gossip. Anne can see her fingers all but itching to grab the package back. There’s a small hurt there, too, as if prior to this Diana had thought nothing went unshared between them.
Anne doesn’t know how to lie to Diana, and frankly, she never wishes to learn. She sighs heavily. “Fine. But you have to promise me you won’t get,” she casts around for a word, lands on Marilla’s, “silly about it.”
“Oh, I won’t. I promise I won’t.” Too late, Anne thinks, well-aware of the giddy expression on Diana’s face. Diana has already gone and married her off to her mysterious pen pal.
“It’s Gilbert,” Anne says, handing back the parcel. Genuine surprise slants across Diana’s face before it settles into a triumphant expression, the same Anne gets when she is afforded the opportunity to say, I told you so.
“Anne,” she says, not without a bit of awe.
“Don’t tell Ruby.”
“I wouldn’t dare.”
“And don’t tell Gil.”
Diana’s face stills blankly in confusion. “Don’t tell Gilbert about the letters he wrote to you.”
“They’re not letters.” Letters sound too romantical. “They’re postcards, and things. But I maybe told him I never got them.”
“I know, Diana. It just came out.”
Diana hasn’t read any yet. She draws her finger along the dulled edge of the pages from Anne’s repeat reading and handling. There’s nothing deeply personal to be found in his correspondence. Nothing clarifying or affectionate beyond the act of writing and then posting these small notes to her. Her name written in his hand, neither carefully neat nor illegibly hasty.
“Did you write him back?”
Anne gestures towards the stack in Diana’s hands. “Where would I have sent it?”
That doesn’t mean Anne didn’t attempt her own replies, but she has yet to tackle the impossible mountain that is brevity. Nothing she ever had to say could fit in the space allotted to the back of a postcard. And without him here, there, seated in front of her, watchful and attentive in that way that makes her painfully aware of herself, it was too easy to say everything. She never sent the letters, but she did keep them. Hidden away even better than his own post to her, kept for some sentimental cause that equally frightened and excited Anne. A secret, kept even from herself.
Anne keeps a great many secrets from herself where Gilbert is concerned.
They are walking home from school one afternoon when Gilbert interrupts a long-winded not-quite sermon of Anne’s on everything from Guinevere to the Lady of Shalott (which Ruby mistakenly still refers to as the Lady of Shallot, much to Anne’s ever-mounting chagrin) and her own complexion which would surely bar her entrance to Camelot. He halts their progress, and he turns to her. He swipes his thumb across the bridge of her nose, where she knows rests a cluttered constellation of freckles.
“They don’t come off,” she says, with the smug knowledge of one who has already tried, the implacability of her vanity a stain on her character, or so says Marilla. It distracts from the low sweep in her gut from being both so close and touched by Gil.
“Good,” he says.
Gilbert looks at her too long. He does this often, these searching looks of his, like he is both certain of her but unsure what it is he wants from her. That’s incredibly adult of him, she thinks. Or perhaps it’s adult of the both of them, or she only thinks that because thinking about that —Gil’s eyes on her, catching his gaze, meeting it, how he never flushes and never looks away until he is good and ready — makes her own body feel unfamiliar. Like it might already belong to him. No wonder he looks at her so long.
In her head, she recites, as they walk in mutual silence, But Lancelot mused a little space / He said, “She has a lovely face; / God in his mercy lend her grace, / The Lady of Shalott.
Being alone with Gilbert is unlike being alone with anyone else. Bit by bit, shared moment by moment, she is learning that. She has not taught herself what that means, but she knows: it’s something.
One night he finds her seated alone before the fire, downstairs at Green Gables. Some nights she cannot sleep and some nights it as if the only thing to keep her company, even here, in this house that she loves and the those she loves in it with her, is a hungry and persistent grief.
Anne has a blanket wrapped around her, her hair messy from sleep. Gil sits across from her, far enough away that if Marilla were to find them here the only impropriety she could accuse them of, short of being out of bed, was Anne being herself.
“I miss him,” she says, quiet, the crackle of the fire almost drowning her out. Gilbert hears her.
The firelight crackles over his face, rendering him a changeling. Boy and then man, then back again. Stranger and friend. She feels that familiar tilt within her she has come to tie to him, as if she has abandoned known solid ground. The strong jaw, the dark eyes, the kindness always visible there, the slight upturn to his mouth. Anne never thought of him as handsome, save for all the times she did and then denied it. It feels like a great truth to find him this way now. Handsome. For a brief moment she lets herself imagine it is her hands, her fingers, that brush across his face rather than the light from the flames. He’d let her. She is near positive he would let her do and take anything she wants from him. And that’s romance, isn’t it?
“I know,” he says. “I miss my father, too.”
She looks down at her hands, picking at the hem of the blanket, and then back up at him. She tells him then, that it had almost been easier, before. Not knowing her parents, not having anyone specific to miss. She missed them, of course, she loved them, but she had fashioned them into tragical, mythical beings. Not bound for this earth, too much for it, much as she often imagined — and was told — was true of herself. But with Matthew — oh, with Matthew there was so much to miss. So much she had known of him that was now gone. A hole opened up in her world she doubted could ever be filled. She didn’t want it to be filled, for there would be no replacing him.
“We’re not lonely though,” she says, meeting Gilbert’s eye. It’s a question, but she does not phrase it as one.
“No,” he says, practical, serious. “We’re not.”
Sometimes Anne wanders the fields of Green Gables. She speaks to Matthew as if he is still here. She likens it to praying, and believes Matthew would appreciate that minor act of blasphemy. Kindred spirits, after all.
The latch sticks on the cellar door. Marilla had warned her how many times, but the one time she is too distracted to remember — carting down an armful of canned preserves with a bickering Gilbert at her feet, her own hand raised after depositing the jars on the shelf to emphasize her point, mid-turn to face him — she sees it happen, right behind him. The wind gusts and slams the cellar door shut.
Her eyes go wide and she clambers past Gil, her hands pressing first against his chest to shove him, and then one errant, treacherous hand still clings to his arms she races past, finding the door, just as she knew it would be, stuck.
She calls up to Jerry, her appeal as dramatical as their crisis demands.
“I don’t think he can hear you,” Gilbert says, his hands stuffed in his pockets, watching Anne with a mild look of amusement.
“Suppose they don’t come looking for us,” she wails to him.
“Not that many places for them to look, I’d say. It’s Avonlea.” He doesn’t do it often, mention Avonlea as it compared to the outside world he had seen and recently experienced, but when he does, Anne dislikes it immensely. It’s never smug, coming from him, but rather a reminder to her, intended or otherwise. He was gone. He existed outside of Avonlea, outside of her. She doesn’t think that’s supposed to matter to her, and it doesn’t, she promises, crosses her heart and hopes to die. When it comes to Gilbert, it all too often feels as if she hopes to die.
She blinks up at him in the shadow of the darkening cellar. Long minutes have passed.
“What if they think we ran off together?”
“What?” his voice cracks; she thinks the whites of his eyes grow larger.
“We eloped, ran off to Montreal to make it official. We lied about our ages and our identities to start a life together, madly and secretly in love.”
“No one,” Gil pauses, clears his throat, “no one thinks that.”
Anne feels oddly offended, her face flushing hot, even though he’s probably right and that’s probably a good thing. “Why would that be such an impossible thing to believe?” she hears the steel in her voice as she asks it. Surely he’s heard of stranger. Not that the two of them running off to live a life together is all that strange. People did it all the time. Fell in love and acted rashly and threw caution to the wind. It was romantical and it was strictly commonplace.
“You wouldn’t leave Marilla. And you would never leave Green Gables. And you certainly wouldn’t do either of those things for me.”
Anne freezes. It's as if she’s been caught at something awful. Like they are now talking about something very grave and very different.
“You’ve made that much clear to me,” he continues, and this is him, Gilbert, making something clear to her. Whatever her intentions, perhaps even unknown to her own heart, she has gone and hurt him.
“You’re very sore at me,” she says, softly.
“Anne,” he starts, as exasperated as she probably has earned, when the cellar door bangs open behind her.
Jerry leans in. “Hallo!” he calls.
“Gilbert’s mad at me,” she tells Marilla.
“Lord, child, not a moment’s rest.”
“He’s mad at me. And I probably deserve it.”
Marilla scoffs. “Probably, indeed.” Her face softens when she settles her gaze on Anne. “You accept kindness so readily from all but him. Why do you suppose that is?” Marilla asks. She sets her darning in her lap, her attention now fixed on Anne.
Anne sets her jaw, uncertain how to reply. She shrugs. She could tell Marilla the truth. That with Gilbert it’s a different breed of kindness, one that makes her feel funny and strange. Not as if she’s not herself, but rather too much of herself. A bonfire stoked to full flame, untenable and dangerous. Marilla’s mouth quirks upward, knowing and wise and full of a love that still surprises Anne to think of as hers.
“You have a big heart, Anne Shirley-Cuthbert. I’d hate to think you’d shutter it from those who bravely reach for it.”
Anne writes one final letter, addressed to Gilbert, her handwriting an anxious, furious parade of thoughts and smeared ink. What she had meant to serve as a preface to the stack of unsent letters beneath has become something else, as wild, perhaps, as her own heart. She does not stop herself. She writes hurriedly, and then, with a quick knock, she leaves the letters outside his bedroom door.
The following morning, Gil comes to her, out by the barn. She watches his approach. The morning air is chilled, the bite and promise of snow carried briskly on it, her nose pink with it. Her hair is messy, a horse blanket draped around her shoulders. She had been unable to sleep, anxious as she could not stop imagining Gilbert reading her letters, anxious even more so imagining he would not care.
Perhaps she will tell him that she likes to do this in the mornings she is able — stand alone outside Green Gables and watch the day’s arrival. Another day here, her home. But f or once, she does not say anything. She only looks to him, wide-eyed.
She is fearful to break the quiet of the morning and this moment. Gil stands too close to her to be polite. The warmth of him is tangible. Real. He is looking at her with great fondness. It is a rare occurrence when Anne finds herself without words — her armor, her strength — but here she stands. She does not find herself diminished in the slightest. Merely speechless.
He runs his fingers through her messy hair, his fingers catching on errant tangled strands. He pulls just enough to make her breath catch, the cold a shock inside her chest. His fingers are still warm from the house, from his room, his bed, and they drift down her chilled cheek.
“Carrots,” he says. She meets him with the breathless start of a laugh, cut off when her teeth sink into her bottom lip.
Does she want for him to kiss her? What does she want from him? Everything — she wants everything. How enormous. How dreadfully wonderful, as if an entire world has opened to her.
He pulls her to him, an embrace. He buries his face in her neck, and the intimacy, the rightness of it, startles her. She can feel his breath, hot against her skin, the feel of his nose, his mouth, Gil right there, that close to her. She takes a shaky breath in and grips his shoulders that much tighter. He pulls back from her with a small and knowing smile.
He kisses her forehead and then he lets her go. “It’s freezing out here,” he says, clapping his hands together. He turns to head back to the house. Her house. Theirs, shared.
“Welcome home,” she calls after him. He waves.