Autumn finally came again. The world slowed down and the prairie air grew clear. As if this year were the same as any other, Elizabeth Barnett performed her annual chores. She shopped and packed and got the twins off to their respective colleges. She sorted and washed the summer cottons and packed them away. She replaced the batteries in all the smoke detectors and emptied and stored the terra-cotta planters that lined the front steps and back patio (twenty in all). She arranged with the yard service to rake and bag fallen leaves, to mulch the perennial beds against the coming winter. Days, functioning at a certain level of competence, she managed for the most part to fend off panic. Nights—when even sound became a fear—nights were different.
She woke to the clutch of panic in her throat, to a racing heart and sweat-dampened gown. It was a moment before she could breathe normally again. Even before she turned and slid her palm over the linen on Richard’s side of the bed, even before she touched the cool sheet, bereft of his body heat, she knew he was gone. His absence provoked in her commingled feelings of betrayal and relief, an emotional dichotomy typical of her lately. She wanted connection but pursued isolation, was obsessed with her illness but found refuge in denial, wanted the support and understanding of friends but refused to let Richard tell them she was sick.
Finally she rose and padded barefoot down the hall. His study door was ajar and she nudged it open an inch more. He had opened the drapes. Moonlight poured in, providing the room’s sole illumination. His back was to her, and there was a snifter of brandy at his side. He was listening to Bach. The Mass in B Minor, she recognized, always his selection when he was distressed: all through the frightful period of the twins’ pneumonia, through his denied tenure at Wesleyan, through her parents’ deaths, and Matt’s experiments with drugs the summer before his senior year.
These things, the crises of married life, they had handled together, had found strength in doing so. Why wouldn’t she allow it now? What would it cost her, after all, to cross the room, take his hand, let him console her and find the solace that comforting another can bring? Why couldn’t she permit this simple mutual comfort? Her illness, God knows, hadn’t been easy for Richard. Just that morning, he’d had to turn away to steady himself before picking up the syringe. From the beginning, although near phobic about needles, he had insisted on giving her the erythropoietin injections that were supposed to stimulate red cell production, this act his mute and nervous offering of love and support.
She tried to summon gratitude, tenderness, some trace of softness toward this man—her husband—who sat in moonlight with only Bach for comfort, but all she felt was fear, as if her emotional gearbox were fixed in one position. Although he never talked about it, she assumed Richard was afraid, too. What had her doctor, Carlotta, told her? When one system is diseased, it affects all the rest. As true of a family as of a body, she thought.
The flow of light through the windows suddenly reminded her of another night. Had it been only one year ago? It might as well have been a century. In that very room, she and Richard had lain naked in a moon pool. There had been music, as well, that night. Saint-Saëns? Or was it Schumann? She still confused one with the other. And brandy, too. And a hunger for each other they’d not experienced in a long time. It might have been farcical—their haste to strip, to bare their middle-aged flesh while their nearly adult children slept down the hall—but it had been lovely. She remembered that now. How lovely it had been, although she could not recall what precipitated their passion. They had just returned from a party; she did recall that. (Whose, she could not say for love or money. Another professor’s, she supposed. The college circuit pretty much defined their social life.) In that small mirror of lunar light, they had coupled and moaned like newlyweds, momentarily innocent of the knowledge that passion, like love, is friable and transient. In the morning, she’d had rug burns on her shoulders. When she showed them to Richard, he had blushed.
That couple was far distant tonight, as removed and illusory as a scene she might have read in a novel or seen on-screen. Now she knew too well the fragility of life, knew that in the breath of a second, the future you’d planned for could be altered beyond imagination. She thought about opening the door wider then, going in, taking his hand, asking him if he remembered that night. Instead she eased the door shut and retraced her steps to their room, walking carefully, as if the floor were made not of wood but of some thin and insubstantial substance, ice that at any moment might fracture, plunging her into brumal depths.
She would have liked to watch television and let the inanity of a late-night show wash over her until she was lulled to sleep, but she knew the sound would draw Richard. So she climbed into bed and drew up the duvet. Finally, feeling foolish, she tried something she had read about in a magazine she’d picked up in Carlotta’s waiting room. She pictured a white light, an amorphous glob, suspended overhead. She concentrated on it, pulled it toward her, imagined the feathery weight of it settling on her body. Was she doing it right? Were there special instructions she was forgetting? She wished she’d paid closer attention to the article. It was ridiculous anyway. If healing were accomplished as easily as that, doctors would be selling Chevys instead of driving around in Jags. Still, she continued. She visualized the light entering her body, washing through her, flooding blood and bone and tissue, then flowing to her kidneys, cleansing and healing each cell. Eventually she fell asleep.
In the morning, Richard slept at her side, his breathing heavy, just short of a snore. Today will be better, Libby promised herself as she looked over at him. She would practice patience, learn courage. She eased herself out of bed. He did not stir. On the way down to the kitchen, she paused at the door to his study. The drapes had been drawn again, the brandy glass rinsed and put away. Every trace of moonlight and music was gone from the air.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Law of Bound Hearts by Anne LeClaire. Copyright © 2004 by Anne D. Leclaire. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.