Chapter X: Heartbeat

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Twenty four years, eight thousand seven hundred sixty days, is an eternity to a wretched soul. Ethan Frome had forgotten how to smile, how to love -- the joy of being happy. Those frivolous daydreams of escaping dissipated the moment he opened his eyes, awakened to a world without her. This must be his punishment for his infidelity. He did not deserve to live; yet he could not imagine God inflicting a more agonizing penance. He did not deserve to be under Zeena’s meticulous care after the accident. There was too much that he owed her, too many offenses that he could not atone for in this lifetime. It has already been too late for far too long.

Although the very reason for his being was snatched away by the relentless grasp of fate, he could always rely on Starkfield for its wintry consistency. The scintillating coats of white, blinding to the naked eye, an evanescence of frozen breath lingering in the air, numbed feet and weathered hands consumed most of Ethan’s recollections. How long has it been since the last summer? Years or maybe decades, perhaps? He could not remember summer without being reminded of Mattie -- her cascade of auburn curls, rosy cheeks, pink smiling lips, golden lashes, a timeless beauty -- the absolute epitome of the lovely season. Without her, Ethan’s heart was an everlasting blizzard. Starkfield winters, melancholy landscape, and bitter sunless cold could smother one’s burning passions no matter how zealous or fervent they may be. For this reason, he was relieved that he did not have to bear witness to Mattie’s transformation -- it was only a matter of time that a change of heart would occur in this bleak abysmal tundra he could not bring himself to call home. Perhaps her leaving him that day was a blessing that saved her from an inevitable acerbity. Ethan was greeted by darkness when he woke. Moonlight filtered through the gossamer curtains. He silently crept from the bed to a nearby bathroom, careful not to disturb a sleeping Zeena, and caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror with a single thin fracture. Even he could no longer deny the dreadfulness etched within each cease or the ghastliness of his neglecting personal hygiene. His bloodshot eyes, grey prickly beard, dusted-white hair, furrowed brow and wrinkled skin pronounced him centuries older than his actual fifty two years. As he descended down the stairs, lightly crossing those that creaked under too much pressure, his feet found each step without the aid of candlelight. Reaching for a coat draped over the kitchen chair, Ethan remembered the early mornings from a long time past when he would be the first to wake to scrub the kitchen floors and complete chores that Mattie had not done to perfection. Before arriving at the door, he passed the empty space next to the stove where he once sat and the ancient lampshade where she once sewed underneath. These were their exact positions during their first and only night together.

After stepping outside the threshold and declining the hill leading to a pathway away from the house, Ethan saw the low fence enclosing the Frome grave stones. A fresh layer of untainted snow covered the surface; only protruding angular shapes could be seen. He already knew the carved words by memory and wished for the addition of his own epitaph to the family history. The full moon’s radiance illuminated a passage to the barn. Ethan harnessed his aged horse and rode up the Bettsbridge road. Despite years of avoiding this trail, he subconsciously chose to take a midnight ride past the landmarks that he only saw behind closed lids. The path was identical to those in his dreams, except this night was bathed with ethereal moonlight and incandescent constellations. Even the occasional gust of arctic wind could not dampen Ethan’s aberrantly giddy spirits. The old bay trotted along at a steady pace; the Shadow Pond was only footsteps away. It was a secret place, the first place where their feelings surfaced and affections developed: Mattie with her pink hat, him in his uncouth clothing; her offering him coffee that he never imagined could taste so sweet, and in exchange, him finding her a lost locket.

Before arriving at the summit of the Corbury Road, Ethan could only hear the soft thumping of hooves on snow and his own rhythmic heartbeat palpitating in accompaniment. The sight of the white church and ebony Varnum spruces were all too familiar. Even when life became a cycle of constant routine, when he could not differentiate one day from another, somehow, he knew that this would be the one memory he would have preserved regardless of the forgetfulness escorted by passing time. He could almost hear Mattie’s mellifluous laughter, feel her waves of auburn brush across his face, tickling his nose, and taste the tearful longing for freedom. When the old bay traveled close enough, Ethan pulled the reins and descended the sleigh. As he walked toward the big elm, his heart throbbed with an unfamiliar tingling sensation that he only experienced with her. Arriving underneath the august tree, he lay horizontally on the blanket of lily-white snow. The luminous moon and resplendent stars were his only witnesses. Without hesitation, Ethan closed his eyes and spread his arms. He smiled sincerely, hearing nothing except the slowing of his heartbeat. Before his last moment of consciousness, he was almost certain he heard the breeze carry Mattie’s dulcet voice, telling him that she had been waiting for twenty four years, eight thousand seven hundred sixty days. And their love would be engraved with the thought of eternity.





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