4 of 5 stars.
It’s not rare for a married couple to view a situation, even the state of their own marriage, differently from one another. What is rare is for an author to depict that chasm so movingly. This modern folktale exists as a double vignette, with each spouse’s POV leading one of the contrasting vignettes. In a twist, the vignettes are separated by 20 years.
Alma felt isolated by her husband Jacob whom she considered an insensitive man, at one point noting a “strained and unaccustomed smile” on him. He had denied her children despite their overly large farmhouse on the outskirts of a dying town. Noticing her sadness, but ignoring its cause, he offered Alma her choice of furniture from the best craftsman in the area. She took what she could get.
Alma had twenty rooms of furniture, the vast majority of it handed down from various branches of Jacob’s family. Alma had never known her husband to be very close to his relations, but any time one of them died and there were goods to be divided he was one of the first to call with his respects. And although he was hardly liked by any of those grieving relatives he always seemed able to talk them into letting him leave with some item he did not rightly deserve.
Sometimes at night she would catch him with his new acquisitions, stroking and talking to them as if they had replaced the family he no longer much cared for. She could not understand what had come over her that she would have married such a greedy man.
At a suggestion from the craftsman, Alma accepted a curious little nursery cabinet.
20 years after Alma’s passing, Jacob’s vignette picks up the story on the third occasion of him entering her bedroom. He first went in to offer her the choice of gift. Next, was when he found her dead. On the third occasion, he looked for closure, but found the nursery cabinet . . .
It pained him that it was with her as it had been with everyone else in his life–some scattered sticks of furniture all he had left to remember them by–where they had sat, what they had touched, what they had held and cared for. He had always made sure that when some member of the family died he got something, any small thing, they had handled and loved, to take back here to watch and listen to. And yet none was haunted, not even by a whisper. He knew–he had watched and listened for those departed loved ones most of his adult life.
His family hadn’t wanted him to marry her. No good can come, they said, of a union with one so strange. And though he had loved his family he had separated from them, aligning himself with her in this grand house away from the staring eyes of town . . . His family virtually abandoned him over his choice, but as a grown man it was his choice to make.
This wonderful short story was included in the anthology The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror: 2010 edited by Paula Guran. I’ve previously reviewed this author’s “The Still, Cold Air” which explores similar themes albeit between an estranged son and his parents that have passed away.
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