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Bloomsbury Heads West 

Short fiction

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We found her beneath the old footbridge at the western crook of our farm, diary splayed over one knee, scribbling away as she watched the water. Mute and ecstatic was the way a poet might have described her. Me, I thought she looked kind of dead. Every freckled inch of her was hidden beneath a black dress, the kind I’ve heard some call “Victorian” — lots of pleats and frills and such. I’d never seen this particular one before, but God knew that costume trunk was huge.

Clem looked at me. I looked back at Clem.

“Christ,” I said, picking cornhusk spears from my overalls, “not again.”

“’Fraid so,” Clem said. He ran his hands through what was left of his hair — when I’d first met Clem, the year before he married my only sister, Darla, he’d had a head of hair any man would have been proud to call his own. But now only lonely graying strands remained to hold down the fort. “Better call Dr. Connors.”

Darla dipped her quill into a small jar of India ink, then continued writing, enraptured. When she finished, there was a sharp intake of breath; then she clutched the diary to her bosom; moaned, “Of course!” She turned, glowering at us, and said, “Well, if it isn’t my oppressors come to refasten my chains.”

“I’ll fire up the pickup,” I said.

Clem and I squeezed into a burgundy love seat beneath a painted landscape featuring livestock behind a broken fence. I guess it was supposed to look homey, but they didn’t look like any cows I’d ever seen around this part of Vermont. Darla was in a rocking chair next to us, and Connors sat opposite in a brown, slat-backed desk chair with rusty casters. It was right at home with the rest of the secondhand furniture.

“Well, here we are again,” Connors said without looking at us, busy upcapping his pen, opening Darla’s file and reading over some things. I couldn’t say what it was exactly, but I got the feeling every time we were here that the three of us made him nervous. He tapped his foot a lot. Kind of kept his distance, you know?

“Why doesn’t someone bring me up to speed?” he asked. “You said when you called that things had … progressed?”

I waited for Clem to kick things off, but as usual, he’d clammed up, jammed his pipe into the crook of his mouth and crossed his legs, his muddy boots dropping clumps of dried alfalfa on the floor. Looking flummoxed, Connors shifted his gaze to Darla.

“Virginia?” he asked.

“Aw, hell,” I interrupted, “don’t call her that! It just makes it worse. It took her four days to come out of it last time. The house was a mess.”

“Clem, Robert, I thought we agreed that in this space we are open to all psychological possibilities as a means to pursue healing.”

Clem looked like he was about to part ways with his breakfast. He nodded, and Connors kept on.

“Virginia? Mrs. Woolf?”

Finally Darla stopped writing and looked up.

“Yes?” she said. “Is there something I can assist you with? As you can see, I’m rather engrossed in my work.”

Clem put a hand over his face.

“Virginia,” Connors said, “how are you feeling today?”

“Well, now let me see. Aside from being housemaid to a pair of barbarians, stuck doing an endless string of menial domestic tasks that leave my spirit barren and my heart wailing for mercy, I’m splendid.” Darla said. “And how are you today, Doctor?”

Connors looked at me. I looked at Clem. Clem looked at Connors.

“Told you,” I said.

“Virginia,” Connors said, “your husband and your brother are worried about you. That’s why we’re all here again today. Do you understand that?”

“What I understand,” Darla said, “is that my husband and my brother get paid for their work, whereas I do not, though I work just as hard. Such is the soiled lot of my gender, I suppose. What I further understand, Doctor, is that I’m forced to cohabitate with selfish Neanderthals who couldn’t wipe their own backsides if I wasn’t there to help them, and as long as I’m forced to continue doing so, I’m one step closer to killing myself!”

“Hey now!” Clem began, taking umbrage at something in there, though I couldn’t say what — the Neanderthal comment and the suicide thing both seemed fair game — but now that he’d hoisted himself up and launched one of his fingers into the air, he didn’t seem to know what to say and looked like he’d swallowed a blackfly.

Later, after convincing Darla to wait for us in the pickup, Connors pulled out some black-and-white pictures of the actual Virginia Woolf. “I pulled these off the internet and printed them out. Are you online?” I glared at him. “Well, I’ll just let you have a look, then. I think you’ll find the resemblance is rather uncanny.”

Clem took a gander first. Then me. I had to admit — they were spot on. It was Darla, all right.

“I shoulda never let her go to that book club,” Clem said. “Stupid, stupid idea!”

“What was the book they read again?” Connors asked. “Mrs. Dalloway?”

“I don’t know. Something in England a long damn time ago. The hell difference does it make?”

Connors went to his desk and took some books out and brought them to us.

“Here,” he said, passing them over. They were all by the Woolf woman. “I made a little trip over to the Northshire Bookstore in Manchester on your behalf. In case you get curious. I’ll add them to your bill, of course.”

We drove home in bitter silence.

“Where in hell you suppose she saw those pictures?” I asked Clem later. We were in the kitchen passing a can of beans and a can of beer back and forth. We’d worked out a system: While one drank, the other ate. Darla had gone to bed in a dither, railing about the feminist uprising, saying something about having a room of her own and something else about the pools and depths where the largest fish slumber, but I didn’t know what the hell any of that meant.

“She’s your sister,” Clem said vaguely. He added that the only reason Darla had access to her costumes was because of our dear, deceased mother, to which I replied, “It ain’t my fault Momma liked the theater!”

Ten days later, she still hadn’t come out of it. Clem and I were starving. The house was a war zone. Dishes were piled in the sink like bodies. One of us left the freezer open, and all the meat went bad, reconciling us to peanut butter and beans. I blamed Clem. He blamed me. We kept wearing the same clothes day after day until it started to feel like they were wearing us. Darla had always joked — or maybe she hadn’t been joking — about how, if she ever stopped doing all the little things we never noticed, the farm would quickly cave in on itself. I never believed it, myself, but Jesus, look at us now. I tried to reason with her. So did Clem. Tried to bargain and barter. She scoffed at us. I trudged out the old photo album and showed her family snapshots, trying to jog her memory. She said they were very interesting, indeed, but that she recognized no one. Then she added that, for most of history, Anonymous was a woman and that it was harder to kill a phantom than a reality and left us, as usual, scratching our heads.

The next day I found Darla in her usual spot out under the old Macourtey footbridge, although this time she was laid out in the grass beside another woman, the two of them looking like they’d been dropped from above, their hair unleashed, clothes loose, their fingers touching through the tall grass. Darla’s diary lay at her side like an obedient puppy. I cleared my throat.

“Robert!” she cooed, tilting her head and looking at me upside down. “I’d like you to meet my … my…”

“Friend,” the other woman finished. Now, she wasn’t what you, or I, or anyone would call pretty. In fact, and I’m just telling it like it is, there was a manliness about her. But she had strong full lips and arresting eyes that sucked you in.

“Yes, my friend!” The both of them dissolved into hysterics and shared the kind of glance that made the small hairs on the back of my neck pop up. Darla seemed weirder than ever, but at least she wasn’t yelling for once. She looked pretty happy, actually. “This is my dear, dear, very dear — did I mention she’s dear? — friend, Vita” she said, indicating the other person. We shook hands, and I apologized for dirtying Vita’s, though she didn’t seem to care.

Now, Vita looked an awful lot like Hugh Rumpley’s wife, Susannah, to me — they lived a couple miles down the road — but I couldn’t be sure. What I was pretty sure about, though, was that Susannah had been the one who organized that book club Darla went to last winter before all these shenanigans started.

“What are ya’ll doing?” I asked.

“Well, now, that’s a good question,” said Darla. “What are we doing? We’re … um…”

“Conversing!”

“Yes, we’re deep in conversation,” Darla said, the both of them washed away by the wave of laughter. “I hope you don’t mind but Vita will be staying for dinner.”

The next morning, Clem and I were drinking coffee in the kitchen. I’d stopped fishing the grounds out of mine days ago. It’s amazing what you can get used to. Clem looked mussed and tossed as wet laundry, but he was grinning slyly, shaking his head as if at something he couldn’t quite believe.

“You OK?”

“Oh, just dandy,” he said. I heard a pair of women’s voices ambling down the hallway from Clem’s room, followed by the closing of a door and trickles of laughter. I looked again at Clem, who wouldn’t meet my eyes.

“Who the hell’s she got in there with her! Is that Hugh Rumpley’s wife? Was she in there all night?”

“We better get at it ’fore it gets any hotter,” he said as if he hadn’t heard me, and as he walked past, he started whistling. Whistling!

When I came in from the fields that afternoon, Vita and, hell, I may as well just call her Virginia, as well as another woman — this one named Dora — were sitting in the front yard at the feet of an older man wearing a dark suit and round spectacles with a beard like a beaver’s tail. He was introduced to me as Lytton, or something, but I’ll be damned if it wasn’t Hugh Rumpley himself. How the devil had old Hugh gotten himself mixed up in all this? He hadn’t shaved in months, but I knew old Hugh when I saw him. Hell, he’s the one taught me to side-dress my corn with nitrogen when it’s knee high and how to spray right to avoid cutworms. He was talking about some guy named Pascal who I’d never heard of and who up until today I would have bet money Hugh Rumpley’d never heard of neither. They invited me over, but I went on past them into the house without looking over and poured myself a glass of Jack Daniels.

I called Dr. Connors. “It’s spreading,” I said and hung up.

Clem was sitting in the living room in my mother’s old rocking chair reading one of the Virginia Woolf books Connors had given us. I didn’t catch the title because he hid it away too fast, pretended like he was scratching his foot.

“You, too, huh?” I asked and walked on down the hall. I took the coldest shower possible, but goddamn if I didn’t start to feel a little randy in there as I washed myself down. I kept thinking about Vita. Those lips and those eyes. Next thing I knew I was in my bedroom with the door closed.

Late that night I heard a ruckus and went downstairs in my nightshirt with a rusty hatchet in hand, only to find a party under way in my living room. Virginia was lying on the sofa with Vita’s head against hers. Lytton (Hugh) was flat on the ground with his shirt off and the girl Dora, also minus her shirt, on top of him. I hadn’t seen a woman’s bare breasts in a long time, and I’ll be damned if I didn’t spring to half-mast at the sight. And, though I couldn’t believe my eyes, there was Clem still sitting in the rocking chair, reading away.

Someone pounded at the door, and Vita bounded over, yanked it open, and I about died when I saw Saul and Esther Johnson, who had the next farm down from the Rumpleys’. Vita sang out, “Vanessa! Clive!” and in they came. The door was nearly closed when a foot shot through and Dr. Connors, barefoot in a beige suit and a striped tie, strutted into the room, making eyes at Vanessa (Esther).

“Oh, Duncan, I’m terribly sorry; I didn’t see you there! Well, I guess everyone’s here!” Vita said and kissed Connors on both cheeks. I glared at Connors, even considered going over and punching him in his damn nose, but he ignored me completely and wound himself into the party.

I found Clem’s eyes right about the time they found mine. He nodded. I nodded. I walked over, feeling like a country fool in my nightshirt, and sat on the floor by Clem. He handed me another of the books — this one was called Orlando — and I leaned back against the wall and started to read. I don’t mind admitting it was a corker.

Just as it peaked, it ended. I couldn’t say exactly what burst the bubble, but something did, and when Darla woke up one morning and exclaimed, “Would you look at this goddamned pigsty!” everything went back to normal. Weeks passed. Months. Our crop was down, but by season’s end we’d rebounded and just broken even for the year. Darla was Darla again. The house gleamed. Our laundry was fresh. Our meals were hot and timely. We celebrated Thanksgiving, then Christmas. Spent long, quiet nights in front of the fire, Darla knitting silently, Clem and I playing cards and smoking our pipes. Conversation was at a minimum, just the way I liked it.

Eventually, a year was behind us. One afternoon the following July, I came in from the field for lunch only to find the kitchen empty, the table bare. Clem was leaning against the icebox eating beans from the can with a sly little grin on his face.

A 10-minute walk later, we stood at the top of the embankment above the footbridge. Virginia was just visible. I could see the hem of that fancy dress, perceive the flutter of her hand as it wrote.

“Well, c’mon,” I said, starting down, “there’s a phone book full of head shrinkers. Connors ain’t the only one.”

Clem put a hand on my arm. “Leave her,” he said.

“Really? You sure about that, Clem?”

He nodded, and we started lazily back toward the house. I found myself whistling as we walked along. I couldn’t deny I was looking forward to seeing Vita and the rest of the gang soon. I think Clem felt about the same.

Benjamin Roesch’s work has appeared in "Brilliant Corners" and Word Riot, and he was a recent attendee of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. He lives in Burlington and moonlights as a high school English teacher.

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