Fiction by H. Dair Brown

SYLLABLES

I was born Rosa Carlotta Silvana Grisanti, but in the mid-Eighties, I legally changed my name to Eve. And like that heedless girl from the Bible, I have come to see the appeal of following your own instincts, of doing what you want.

If you had asked my parents how they arrived at my name, they would have told you about long dead relatives and homage. But really, I think that it was their first attempt to protect me in the world, swaddling me in consonants, circling syllables like wagons in defense of their little girl. My four dead sisters and eleven dead brothers each had their own army of letters commissioned in their defense. Some had better armies than others, apparently.

One morning when I was thirteen, I visited my father on the construction site where he was helping to build a mansion for the son of one of the local vineyard owners and his new bride (who in all honesty, was one of the unhappiest women I have ever met). It was there that I met Ned Rapka. These days, the shopkeepers downtown with their crystals and incense would say that Ned had an aura. He wore his golden kindness without self-consciousness. He was hardworking, honorable, generous, wounded, effervescent, fifteen. I fell for him so completely as only thirteen-year-olds can. And really, anyone would have. He was beautiful. My father liked him fine, thought him the appropriate age for me, but forbid me to see a Pole – or, in those days, Polack.

In the years since, I have come to understand that he was protecting me from the kind of heartache that those not yet fully acquainted with their shortcomings invite. He knew that there are those beyond our love. As the neighbor girl, Arial, says, he was out of my league. My vague good humor and shape, with its bumps in their odd places, were no match for his beauty. He didn’t come down from Woodville the summers after and eventually left me (with the imitation melancholy of the never-was-in-in-the-first-place) to go and seek (and certainly to win) others beautiful.

When you grow up in a town of 1,000, you come to know nearly everyone. When you are a child in such places, you are treated to the kind of civility from adults that can only come when they know they will run into your parents sooner or later. It also helps when your father is big and your mother has the sort of gentleness that shames people who abuse her. My town, this town, Naples, New York is that sort of town. And now that it has shrunk, like me, I still grow in Naples. I grow into the woman who leaves marks on children and lonely women. I know that my job now is to inspire them. And while many laugh or become awkward and jerky in my presence, I know that I am respected. I am the one who endures, who thrives in the barren soil of loss, loss, endless loss.

My name has changed many times over the years. When I married Asa to become Rosa Carlotta Silvana Grisanti Borden, I both added and subtracted syllables. For most things, I was simply Mrs. Asa Borden. When Asa died, I become to most people, The Widow Borden. When the feminist movement returned to the Finger Lakes in the 1970’s, I became Ms. Borden. I insisted upon it.

My boss, the principal of our elementary school, for whom I typed and mimeoed endless copies of stupid and insulting memos to the parents and teachers of our town’s youth, persisted (like the allocco that he was) to call me Mrs. Borden (emphasis on the uz of Missus). Always, when Mr. Glenn made a show of introducing me or thanking me in front of others, he would say: “This is Mrs. Asa Borden.” Or “I don’t know what I’d do without my secretary, Mrs. Borden to take care of the small details.” Behind my back, like everyone else, he called me The Widow Borden, of course. He’s dead now, too. His children moved away to escape the guilt by association, I think. They were lovely people, all things considered, and I’m sure make a welcome addition to whatever homes they found elsewhere.

When my only child was killed in the last weeks of the Vietnam War by a child carrying a bomb into the hotel where Lily stayed on her last R&R, I became The Poor Widow Borden. Sometimes, I dream about the child that delivered my child out of this world and of Lily herself. I dream that the bomb failed to explode and that my Lily, seeing another lonely child trying to be brave, brought her home here to the safety of Naples. These dreams have been going on for so long that my daughter and the child are beginning to age in that dream world. Always they walk the rolling hills of Naples, stealing grapes from the vineyards, breaking icicles from the eaves.

I lived as The Poor Widow Borden for more than 10 years. I was The Poor Widow Borden when I retired and Mr. Glenn made his ridiculous speech and hugged me with an aplomb that made him even more detestable and pitiable. I was The Poor Widow Borden when I realized that I wasn’t going to die right away. When the last of my brothers died, and left me, the baby of the family, without any traces of even the family I was born into, I felt like the last, loneliest, oldest woman on earth. It was that day that I decided I wanted out of this tangle of letters. And so, over the strong objections of the same attorney that helped me to decipher The Last Will and Testament of Asa Borden, and to arrange Lily’s funeral, I became Eve.

At first, I was going to be Eve Borden. But being nearly three-quarters of a century old, I decided that toting around even two extra syllables was more than I was willing to do. They weighed me down. So, like Cher or that Prince (who abandoned letters altogether for a time, I hear), I became a one-syllabler.

For more years than I was Asa’s pampered and adoring wife or more than my daughter was alive, I have been Eve. And learning to live as if I’m not about to die has been my full-time occupation for more years than I typed Mr. Glenn’s memos. In honor of that original bold girl, I try every day to do something someone tells me I oughtn’t. I have the extra scoop. I get the puppy or the beautiful and impractical shoes. I buy the house with the big yard and plant grapevines. Sometimes, I listen to the music of the teenagers, which masks its yearning and hopefulness with shocking words and sounds.

I have learned in my lifetime that misfortune can find you either way. It is never thrown off your scent by good planning or proper behavior, by hard work or clean living. No one can offer sanctuary, not even good husbands or brave daughters. Like a glum but relentless bloodhound, Misfortune – along with its pitiless master, Heartache – will always find you. And when they do, they will slice through even the most tightly woven cocoons as cleanly as a sharp knife. Misfortune and heartache find you. But joy, you must go looking for. And sometimes, it requires you to do the unseemly thing and become someone inappropriate. You have to be Eve and dive into that unprotected world, feeling everything, learning everything until it’s time to go. And you have to do it as naked as possible.


H. Dair Brown (hdairbrown.com) is a short story writer and freelancer who’s probably right this very minute somewhere with a book, notebook, and pen at hand. She is seeking representation for her novel-in-stories, Molly Bright.