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and there was only her

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Laurie walked towards the March House with a disquieting feeling of anticipation in his belly.  

He had returned from Harvard early with the intention of calling on Beth. 

His grandfather had written to him about the girl's poor state, and Laurie did not think he could conscionably stay away at such a time, even if his wounds were fresh from Jo’s crushing rejection. In fact, he rather prided himself on being mature enough to put that aside, t hough he'd spent much of the interminable carriage ride wondering if she had met any men in New York. Petty, churlish thoughts, not fit for the gentleman she hoped he would become. 

Laurie sighed to himself, and the sigh carried with it self-loathing, but also a great deal of self-pity. In a deep, dark corner of his heart he believed Jo would change her mind once she saw how badly the world treated girls of her spirited nature, and then she'd run back into his arms and everything would be all right because he was the only who could understand her. Only, he knew that it was very  wrong to think this way and he felt awfully ashamed for contemplating the possibility with relish. Whenever such evil spirits took him, he thought about the rest of the March women, he thought about the family he loved much better than his own unreliable, foreign flesh. He thought about how much he loved them all, in different, yet unifying ways. They were clean-cut American, pure and sweet, clever and brilliant, Christ-Women, human and godly, like the Savior himself. He wanted to be Christ-like too. He wanted to be them. But if he had to choose only one to join with, he thought it should be Jo, his faithful, better half. And now that this dream might be forever lost he did not have the gumption to face it. 

I’ll talk to Marmee , he thought as he walked up the porch steps in the dark of a quiet evening and opened the door which had been left unlocked. 

Laurie trampled absently into the parlor, caught up in his own selfish universe, and was met with a sight that stopped him dead in his tracks.  

The matron he had been so eager to see was lying reclined on an armchair by the fire, one arm flung sideways, fingers almost trailing the floor. She must have fallen there, like a proud tree after a storm, too exhausted to get up. Her face was etched with worry even in sleep, but it made her expression fierce and beautiful. Stray curls had loosened from their pins and untangled further as her chest rose and fell in the lulls of weary sleep. Laurie stood in the entrance, watching her. 

She looked dispossessed of her body, flung there by an invisible hand. Yet, she also looked supremely comfortable in that old dress, in her own clothed limbs. 

Darling Marmee.  

At first, his heart was filled with sad fondness for the watchful mother who had finally succumbed to sleep.

But the more he gazed at her, the more his thoughts and sensations blurred, until he stopped thinking about the abstract, saintly figure of Marmee and took in the prosaic details of the older woman whose name was once Margaret. He couldn’t help it. The more you observe a familiar face, the less familiar it becomes.  What he hadn’t noticed before were her stockinged feet, propped on a stool, peeking out from the many folds of her dress. 

The sight of them gave him a jolt. 

He had only ever seen young girls’ feet.

Jo’s in particular, for she liked to expose them to the sun. He still remembered her stubby toes, grabbing them, pinching them. Jo had howled. 

But the older woman’s feet bore a different stamp. They rested mysteriously on the stool, rested with a kind of supreme power. He couldn’t ever picture grabbing them or pinching them. He could only - could only imagine approaching them reverently to kiss them. Yes, kiss them. Irrepressibly, he imagined Dr. March doing just that on their wedding night. They were feet meant to be kissed. Laurie blushed at himself and the horribly strange turn of his thoughts. John Brooke had always said his mind was vitiated. 

But he couldn’t stop there. It would be like leaving a sentence unfinished. He wanted to supply his mind with enough details to defend himself. For he thought, they were not cold, statuette feet. You wouldn’t kiss them out of respect. There was something sensual there, a different kind of appreciation. A poet wouldn’t have sufficed. A poet of all things earthly, maybe. 

He often liked dreaming like this, dreaming while he was awake. But he had gorged himself and he was choking on it, rather. 

Laurie swallowed, thirsty from the journey. 

He ought to clear his throat, go to her and shake her shoulder gently, apologize for disturbing her.

Or perhaps he shouldn’t disturb her at all and simply leave, return the morrow when she would be Marmee again. 

He stood there, hoping that Abigail would bustle in and make the choice for him. But she didn’t. 

Laurie knew himself to be weak. It was his essential quality, both good and bad, in equal turn. In fact, his grandfather never tired of reminding him subtly of his Italian blood, the darkly purple shade of it, festering inside him like wine. He approached the woman with no intention of waking her.

He went gently on one knee at her side. His breath came short as he felt her sleeping warmth, radiating towards him, pulsing like a strange organ. All of her daughters were in this body. She had Meg’s feminine powers and cheerful maturity, she had Jo’s fire and wit and vitality, she had Beth’s patience and calm assurance and love for the world. Most mysteriously, she had Amy’s ambition and seductive charm, even when asleep. Her age amplified them, made all of these qualities embrace like lovers. 

Laurie knew his weakness, cradled it to his chest. He had been rejected, and now he wanted more than he had originally intended. All or nothing.

The attraction came upon him so swiftly, as if it had always been there.

He gently lifted the hem of Margaret’s dress - for she was Margaret now - and watched her sleeping face. She did not stir.

He let his fingers ghost over the whistling sharpness of her ankle, the worn patina of her sole, the perfect roundness of her heel, the imperfect pear-shape of her big toe. Such an utterly female limb. He wished he could see the bare flesh beneath it, but then again, he didn’t. The perfumed, slightly damp wool made his mouth water. He bent down and brought his lips close to the object of fascination. He kissed it softly, so softly that he barely felt the contact. So softly that he wanted to kiss it again.

He did it again. 

His lips were cold, but she could warm them. 

He imagined lifting the rest of her folds, hitching them up to reveal more leg, her dress cascading quietly to the floor. He imagined kissing the arch of her foot, trailing a cold pilgrim passage to her knee as his fingers sank into the soft flesh of her calf. He imagined the weight in his palm. He imagined going even further, for he had never had much forbearance or known when to stop. He wondered how many times she might have been touched like this and hated all those other times. The stirrings of his heart traveled low to a treacherous place, and he also hated himself.

“Margaret,” he whispered, barely audible. 

It was as if her daughters had disappeared, swallowed back into her womb, and there was only her.

He wanted her in a strangely imperative way. His thoughts were so wretchedly low that he even wondered, what if she becomes a widow? It’s very likely. Who will look after her? She'll need a husband and quick. No stranger will do and no good man can be trusted. It ought to be someone young, someone who can keep up with her, someone who won't put her in a lace cap, someone who knows her intimately - 

A soft sound was heard from above. Margaret stirred, humming in her sleep. Almost like issuing a reply to his proposal. 

Laurie rose quickly, making the floor creak and almost losing his balance. 

She opened her eyes slowly, cat-like.

His youthful face was a mask of terror for a moment. 

Marmee frowned, sleep-addled. “Laurie? Why, are you really here...or am I dreaming?” 

Laurie heaved a sigh of relief and redressed himself. “Y-yes, Marmee. I came to see Beth. I’m sorry, I didn’t want to wake you, I thought you needed your rest.” 

Her smile was also cat-like, always a joke in it, even when she was hurting.

“You are too kind.” 

Laurie shook off the talons of guilt that sank rapidly into his flesh.

He looked down. “Tell me how I can be of help.”

Tell me you need me. Tell me you’ll rely on me. I promise I’ll be good. I'll be a good man for you. I’ll make you happy, Margaret.

He felt so foolish, yet so utterly sure that he would. Jo might've been right. He would have made a flighty, impatient companion. But he would be steady for Margaret. He would be a steady man and husband, claiming the inheritance of his sex without regrets. 

Perhaps the ghost of that dark Italian pianist - his mother - had finally come to haunt him. 

“Thank you, dear,” Marmee replied, still somewhat caught in the domesticity of sleep. “Your presence has already fortified me. Lend me your hand.”

Laurie offered more than his hand. He took her by the waist and lifted her up from the chair.

Marmee chuckled an apology, unaware of his erratic pulse and the way his fingers burned and stained the back of her dress. 

“Shall we go see Beth?” she murmured into his shoulder. 

Laurie burned and ached.

“Yes. After you.” 

He watched her dress brush the carpet, water receding from the shore, and he followed, throat still parched from his journey.