You’re right about some of it. You couldn’t not be, I suppose, you always were too clever for your own good, you with all your words and your couplets like blades.
But really, darling. He didn’t tell me everything, and you’ve never been able to keep anything locked away in your head, not for long. You always lost when we played strip poker...enjoyed losing, if I remember correctly, taking off your shirt with an insouciant smile, like some young god, which is, I suppose, how I thought of you in those days.
But even as I worshiped you, I held all the cards, my dear. I thought you liked it that way. I thought it made a balance between us when otherwise you might have overwhelmed me with your dazzling brilliance—yes, my love, we know how brilliant you are, we always did, he and I. But you never knew. You never wanted a balance at all.
Which is why you are out there, and I am inside. With him. Where even now you want to be. Why else would you have chained yourself in the snow so? And no, dear, you don't get to blame that on him, the man you so snidely refer to as my master when I come to bring you food. Is it so strange to you that we chose this? As you said, you did send me to him.
The two of you fought, in your war, for the right to have no chains but those we choose. You told me after it was why you fought—he thought that in freedom, the human race would choose no chains at all, while you were never so naïve as that. You choose your chains even now, don't you?
But I differ from you both. For me obligations are not chains. For me there is pleasure and love in sacrifice and duty. In the pain of denial. Is that why you hate me, because you never managed to understand that?
Did you only want him to hurt me as long as I hated it? Was that your gift to us both? If so, you miscalculated. You can deny yourself out there in the snow all you want and pretend it's somehow different from the things we do, but you can't make it sordid.
You met him in the war. Told me he was your very dear friend, and I had no reason to suspect anything else--I saw, darling, how you looked at all the pretty boys in their uniforms, as starched and pressed as your own, but you had never done anything more than look. You came back to me mostly whole, except for the bad nights, and said nothing more of him but that he had not yet been recalled. He had chosen to stay until the bitter end. I could never tell if you were angry or envious. Likely both, knowing you.
Then you got word that he was missing, and all the nights became bad. The days, too--you were no young god, then, but an angel of vengeance, an instrument of some higher power as you tore the world apart to find him. When the letter came that told you he’d been found, you left without looking back, not even noticing that I had followed, that I had read the letter more carefully than you. Significant damage, it said, and memory loss.
(He asked me once, in his humming, halted half-words, why I came that day. It's one of the few times I ever lied to him. I said it was because of my love for you. He laughed, seeing through my excuse. Curious, he said. Me too.)
I didn't meet him at a temple, except in the sense that it was a place where the broken go to be made whole, if possible, and to be forgotten if not. His family's money made sure he was well-cared-for and out of the way, a neatly-tied-up loose end, not an inconvenience or a burden.
They let us in as soon as I took the nurse aside and explained the situation—old comrade, I said with a smile, we thought it might help him to see—but you were already tearing past me, to the man in the chair, parked in the corner like some forgotten hat stand.
John, you sobbed, falling to your knees in front of his wheelchair, clinging to the footrests. John, oh, John John John. All your clever words gone, only his name left. That, of course, was when I knew. The horror of that knowledge, though, was quickly eclipsed by the horror that was your lover's burned body, the stumps he had instead of hands, the sightless eye.
You couldn't look at him. You still can't. That's what this is, you know—you can't bear to see your lover so diminished. You prefer to remember him as he was, and me as the obedient little wife I never was, rather than accepting that people change. People die.
(And the change is not always bad. There's a capacity in the physically frail, in those whose bodies or minds were broken by life, that pretty soldier boys will never have. Endurance, perhaps, or stillness, an awareness of…limits, you could say. He knows pain, and as such, he is a patient teacher of it, in a way he has admitted he never was with you. I don't know, my love, I am not the poet. If you came in to us you could describe it, I am certain. You could catalogue his differences, sing to me in your raw voice about the still pools of his eyes, the strange new beauty of his body. Why don't you give it a try?)
But worse was that he didn't look at you either. He didn't know you. One of his stumps patted your neck absently, fondly, like an errant dog demanding attention.
His one sighted eye found me instead. Smiled, shyly. Warily. Like an old friend from school he couldn't quite place, but was sure he'd had good times with, if he could just remember.
I smiled back. What else was there for me to do?
We took him home, of course. There was no need to discuss it. We simply could not leave him in that place. He settled into our home easily enough, the home I furnished with you and me in mind, and after a time it seemed as though he had always been there. He didn't talk, not then—no, you talked, and talked, to him and to me. To him, it was your memories, the same old war stories over and over, which I always thought was a rather silly approach. Why would he want to remember anything about that time?
To me, you talked about cures. Treatments. For his pain, for his memory, for anything that might make him closer to what he was. You would slide into bed without touching me. I don't mind telling you, it pissed me right off, for his sake and mine. My cunt ached with want. His one eye watched us with something like fear, or maybe it was desire, I don't know. He doesn't either.
I walked with him, that first day, more out of a desire to get away from you than anything else. I took him to the apple orchard, he seemed to know where it was without any direction from me. Did you walk there, in those days when you kept all you were from me? Was there some stolen furlough of a day or two you never thought to write to me about, where you took what peace you could find together?
I might have begrudged you that once. I can't, any longer.
I took down an apple. Handed it to him. Was that my sin? It's the first one, I know, the sin of man, the sin of woman, to want too much. You were right, most of all, about that part.
(Though, I must point out, for the record, my thighs are in no way ruined. You just caught us at the wrong time, is all, a time when he devours me like that fruit, like a feast, drinks from me like water in the desert. The marks fade in time, and when they don't, at least it's a record that he's here. That we're both here and that we love. Isn't that enough?)
His mouth on mine was warm, nothing like yours. He kissed like a boy who had never kissed a girl before (he hadn't, at least not that he has managed to remember since), shy and hesitant about taking liberties. You men and your liberties. I found myself hungry. Laughing, I kissed him back, much less shy.
I didn't realize you might consider it a betrayal, my love, which I suppose was stupid of me. Why would it have been? You both love us, we both love you, why should we not love each other too, especially after everything we've lost to the war?
But you came upon us. You shouted. John shouted back, and it was the first time we all knew he knew you, knew what you had been to each other. You mentioned terrible things—terrible things you had seen together, terrible things you had done together. That was the first time you left.
"Well," said John, the first clear words he had spoken to me, "shit."
You came back, of course. You always do, but this time you were desperate and chilled with fever, near raving mad. That was when you gave us permission, and when, as you said, John sang to you, his words not stolen from him as they are in speech, somehow made holy by the broken humming you gave him as accompaniment.
You tried to scare me with the pain, the things he could do to me.
That was another thing you were wrong about.
You were right about the airplane. That wasn't very fair of me, to go with him, to let him court me like he was the rich playboy he was before he met you. But he can be scared with me in a way he isn't with you, darling. He wanted so badly to fly, and with me, he could risk not being able to do it. He could let me save him.
He did not fail.
And I must admit something else, something that makes me ashamed in the way letting him teach me masochism does not. For this, I wanted him all to myself. I wanted something that was just ours, the way you will always have each other as soldiers, the way only I know just how you looked at me on our wedding day. I alone saw John smile as we looked down on the rain, and I cannot quite bring myself to be sorry about it.
It's all about balance.
Here's the thing you are most wrong about. You're not in exile. There are no chains on your ankles but the ones you yourself have put there. You stay because you want to, even though you left because of pride.
You have always hated the cold. You are no different from me, no better, seeking out pain like it can purify you. Like it can redeem your suffering, or John's. I don't know if you care about mine—men's suffering is a story to you, but women's is just our lot.
Even so, I love you, as much for your flaws as virtues. If it's pain you want, we have learned so much more of that together than you know. If it's love you want, we have plenty of that too.
I left you the key. You can come in at any time. Even now I want too much. Come home and look at your lovers, look at my thighs, his legs and arms, look at the changes the years have wrought in all of us. Then make a song of it for us to sing. Arrange it for three voices.