Sarah woke to silence. Thin lines of moonlight lay in diagonals across the floor. She listened for awhile. The only sound was the soft rustle of her hair against the pillow.
She slid her legs from beneath the layers of blankets and let her feet touch the chill of the hardwood floor. As she walked, a line of moonlight slipped around one ankle, then the other, ascending, scanning and measuring her body in strict undulations. At the west window the moon caught her fully, a slender white animal beneath the new winter’s sky.
To the north the terraced lawns twinkled with frost as from a sprinkling of ground glass. To the south the meadow’s tall grasses were broken, the stalks strewn like fallen soldiers, the stumps standing like nails on the hills. Below and before her lay the expansive gardens, where the moonlight was caught in webs of shadow beneath the bare rose bushes and in chains of diamonds beneath the arched trellises. Beyond the gardens the shadows converged in venous networks that covered the forest floor and stretched down to the lake. The black water held a solitary, struggling prisoner, the twin sister of a star above. Beyond the circle of the horizon lay the borders of the estate. Within, the only movement, the only sound, the only life was the faint beating of Sarah’s heart.
She wrapped herself in her robe and stepped into her slippers. The bed hardly looked slept in. In the long hall, the moonlight floated in slanting shafts from the skylights to oblique rectangles on the wall. It was still her habit to pause at each of the children’s rooms. In Kelly’s, the moonlight glinted from a fleet-footed Mercury atop one of the running trophies. The stuffed animals waited patiently on the bed. Kelly was doing well in law school, her holiday visits were rare. In Paul’s room, his model airplane hung in a banking climb above the darkened computer. Paul was piloting his own plane now from one development project to the next. The last Sarah had heard, he was somewhere in Argentina. In Jonathan’s room, his first sculpture, a lovely nude, reclined on the dresser as comfortably as the day he had placed her there. He had been so proud of that first effort, and rightly so. Jonathan lived in the city now with his wife and two young children, adjacent to his new studio. They hadn’t been out to see her in a while. Sarah had hinted that perhaps she might come in to the city for a visit this weekend, but Jonathan had demurred, saying that he was trying to finish an important project before a deadline, that they would be out to see her when they could. Of course she understood.
At the end of the hall, the desk light in her office illuminated the neat stacks of papers. It was the one light in the house she left on at night. After toiling into the small hours beneath its glow, it was always there for her when she woke before dawn, the lightship guiding her back into its harbor. On her desk, the day’s priorities filled three pages of yellow pad. The computer screen blinked an urgent message from Hong Kong. A text from the Zurich office wanted her to call immediately, before the close of their business day. She found herself staring blankly at the pencil lying on the desk. A moment earlier, she had meant to pick it up, but her hand was still on the back of the chair. She switched off the light. Through the window, behind the silhouetted branches of a towering fir, the sky was shifting to a somber charcoal grey. She drifted on.
The library’s fireplace was empty and cold. The leather recliner loomed in the shadows. Sometimes she could still smell the burning oak mingled with the sweet scent of pipe tobacco, and the boys would be perched on the arms of their father’s chair, with little Kelly nestled into his lap, his golden baritone holding them in rapt attention as he read. Last year, Sarah had called the movers to take the chair away, but when they arrived, she wouldn’t let them touch it. The chair remained, the sole monument to the years. He had taken his books with him. She had tried filling the spaces on the shelves with figurines, vases and curios.
In the great room, her finger followed the edge of the grand piano. Across the floor where she had danced, she moved in a straight line, on through the foyer and into the dining room, hearing again the laughter of friends and the clink of champagne glasses as she passed the table. In the kitchen she circled the island, the home’s heart from which all had flowed and to which all had returned—had once returned. Its veined granite lay bare and clean. The surrounding chairs, which had been nicked and worn, were repainted and re-covered. She opened the French doors to the patio—the cold splashed her face and hands, spilling around her wrists and ankles, rising beneath her robe, around her bare legs.
The morning mist had settled over the back lawn, wetting the frost. Her daily routine led down the flagstone walk to the greenhouse, where reflexively, she turned to wind through the boxwood hedges that led to the gardens, following the serpentine route that allowed inspection of each well-groomed plot. The pruning was finished. The perennials were trimmed and mulched. The tulips, larkspur and peonies had been tucked under. In the vegetable and herb beds, the clods of earth lay belly-up to the sky, awaiting the blanket of snow. There was nothing left to be done.
By the time she reached the back of the gardens, the night’s shadows had dissolved in the dawn’s silver twilight which seemed to rise from the earth itself, the moon a paling wafer lingering in the haze above. Along the path through the stands of maple and birch, the moss on the trunks glistened with frosty dew, the carpet of dead leaves and rotting branches offering up the crisp pungency of decay. Ahead, the water lay like polished slate beneath the diaphanous shroud of mist veiling the lake’s far shore.
She paused at the gazebo, where the swing for two hung empty and still at the end of its chains. It was there that Douglas had left her sitting, too stunned to cry. From the supply in the lidded bench she took a fresh towel and draped it over the railing. Beside the towel she draped her robe. Below the robe she arranged her slippers.
This year, the ritual of her morning swim had extended past the end of summer and on through the autumn months. She couldn’t say why. The water’s embrace was simply something she needed, like the light on her desk. When she reached the middle of the lake, she would float awhile, then exhale and let her body slip quietly beneath the surface to sink slowly down through the ever colder, darker depths. The feeling of the mud closing about her feet had at first sent her kicking upwards for light and air—but it was only mud, she had been telling herself, the same as the stuff in her garden beneath a rainy day, where all things that have had their season inevitably return to rest. She had been staying down longer of late.
The path to the water’s edge passed through the outermost feature of her landscaping, a circular haven of evergreen hedges. She stopped there—startled.
There had always been the stone bench on the one side, but she had never found quite the right ornament for the view opposite. Her first thought was that the style of the sculpture was unmistakable—and then she couldn’t think anymore because her body was straightening to match the bearing of the marble figure, an ageless beauty in a summer dress, hands resting lightly on the hips, looking out into the world with strength, resolve and a peaceful joy. Gazing at it, she could feel her son’s hands gently pushing on the small of her back, pulling her shoulders, lifting her chin. It was a perfect likeness of her. It was her own lost soul, and as she stood before the vision, it filled and filled her. The base was engraved:
For the woman who has everything —
Happy birthday, Mom.
She had been standing there for longer than she knew when the morning’s silence was broken by the sound of a horn from the direction of the front drive, followed by the shutting of car doors and the laughter of children—Jonathan’s.
She hadn’t expected them. She turned and walked briskly toward the gazebo. There was hot cocoa and muffins to be made. As she tied the belt of her robe, she glanced back to the lake. As soon as it froze over, she would be out on the ice with the children, teaching them how to skate. She removed the remaining towels from beneath the bench, tucking them beneath her arm as she turned toward the house.
Above the circle of evergreen, the first snowflake of winter drifted down, turning a fine pirouette. It came to rest on a sublime marble cheek, and melted there.
* * *
In the twilight of the Roman Empire, as the darkening forces of mysticism descend on Western Civilization, the daughter of itinerant traders is falling fast for a local boy—the apprentice and adopted son of a sculptor. The old master, concerned for the boy’s future, recalls his years as a younger man in bustling Alexandria, where he had found the love of his life before having to flee the threat of religious persecution. Now, having finally rebuilt his life and career in a village far away, an enemy from the past reappears, threatening all he holds dear.
“Beautifully written, on the order of Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth, with the historical insight of James Michener, it brings to life a time of great thought, great art, and its clash with religious fanaticism. Cordair writes with a poet’s sense of scene and nuance and gives us a great deal of insight into the mind of a sculptor….” ~ Alan Nitikman
“It is extremely difficult to believe that this is a novella when you finish it. You feel like you’ve followed the entire burning course of an epic romance, the life of a young bright mind carelessly following a difficult road, and a dramatic plot against anything glorious. Cordair had a way of bringing tears to my eyes in his previously published short stories. He has a way of creating scenes of emotional wonder and then forcing you to linger on the emotion in sorrow or defiance or happiness. … Cordair leaves us with the feeling that any obstacle, any voice that says with any amount of force that we can’t be exactly what we want and know we ought to be, is too small to care about – and the consequences of ignoring such a voice can never be so bad.… Cordair’s craft is a triumphant inspiration, the kind a soul can yearn for more of in whatever part of the tale comes next.” 5 STARS — Joseph Hampel