"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Topics: Life News
June – Early July, 1962
It is the black husk of another life that blows through her: the cold planetary blank of the crawl space, lightless beneath her mother’s cellar; the flaking of dead stars into her eye as she bashes her head against the edge of the concrete foundation. It is the Morris climbing the lane and pulling into the courtyard after midnight, headlights sweeping the darkened windows of the bedroom and extinguishing as her husband turns their car into the stable. It is the crush of the tires on the cobblestones she hears from their bed.
The fifteenth of June. Sylvia climbs the stairs in her dirty canvas work pants, wet through the knees from a morning of scrubbing floors, carrying Nicholas on her hip and a tin of baking soda with a spoon balanced in a cracked teacup in her other hand. Minutes ago she was wearing a beekeeper’s veil, the whole contraption, all new. The cloud of cheesecloth spread out before her over the picture-frame brim of the straw hat beneath, giving her a dreamer’s view of the low mist of wood smoke curling about the ankles of the apple trees. As never before, she saw her world through a veil — she’d eschewed even a hat at her simple wedding. Their sixth anniversary is tomorrow.
It is the new queen who is the bride today. The bee man is still in the orchard searching for her, pumping his bellows in a hazy landscape of fern and meadow grass and purple-tufted thistles. The bees grow sleepy as he checks the brood combs with his smoker, puffing the nurses and the workers to the edges of the frames, looking for the sleek auburn body of the young queen. When he finds her he’ll mark her with a drop of nail polish, a little red drop on her back. She’ll take her bride flight, chased by the drones; then she’ll never leave the hive again. Like a bridesmaid in attendance, Sylvia painted the hand-me-down beehive herself, a green gabled house positioned under the semaphoring trees.
Upstairs, Ted sits on a chair in their bedroom, his hair dusted yellow with pollen, his forearms and collar sticky with propolis, his fingertips green-stained from mowing the lawn. He was up first thing, bringing the baby to Sylvia in the bed before she even awoke, then off to the Taw at dawnlight with his tackle in his old army rucksack. He’s been outside all morning as she’s been in, scouring the house until the bee man arrived. The bee man brought the swarm humming furiously inside a vibrating box.
Ted is holding ice cubes wrapped in a tea towel to his purpling lips. His forehead is lurid, lumpy and hot, his eyes swollen almost totally shut. When he shifts his weight in the chair, dead bees fall out of his loose cotton shirt and skitter crisply on their velvet over the grey floorboards. They stung him six times, swarming his head. They chased him as he ran, the bee man pumping his smoker uselessly, trying to mask the banana scent of fear.
“We smell of smoke,” Sylvia says quietly as she sits down on the edge of the bed beside Ted’s chair, propping Nicholas into a sitting position among the pillows. Nicholas sucks his fat hands and a large wooden bead.
The yeasty aroma of burnt twine and peanut shells drifts from their clothes and their hair. Sylvia scans her husband’s mottled, darkening face. He looks wretched, a miserable Cyclopean monster. The curtains exhale behind them at the open windows.
“I thought you said they didn’t like white,” Ted mumbles, his mouth swollen, his voice pulpy and slow.
“That’s what the rector told me. He said they’re attracted to black. But you didn’t put on the hat. Did you think you could keep them away with that napkin?”
“Not a napkin. My handkerchief,” he answers gloomily.
They listen as Nicholas smacks his toy. Sylvia opens the tin of baking soda with the edge of the spoon and knocks a few clumps of powder into the cup. She leans forward toward the bedside table, pours a bit of water from the drinking glass there into the cup.
“Where’s Frieda?” Ted asks.
“Feeding her babies downstairs,” Sylvia answers, stirring the baking soda and water into a paste. They can just hear Frieda from the playroom, the rise and fall of her toddler prattle mimicking with disquieting accuracy the fawning neighborly emptiness and bitter private remonstrances of adult conversation.
“What did the bee man say?” Ted asks.
“Not to run,” Sylvia answers.
“It’s too late for that now, isn’t it,” he responds wearily, his words thick.
“I’m sorry,” she says, giving him a weak smile. “I was just trying to cheer you up.”
“What did he say for the stings?” Ted asks, unamused by Sylvia’s risk at humor.
She holds up the cup. “Baking soda and water paste.”
Ted sighs, pressing the ice pack lower, to his chin and jaw. “All right then. Shall I keep the ice on?”
“Yes, for a moment more.” She continues to stir the paste, the solids of which continuously separate from the liquid and settle in a silty clog at the bottom of the cup.
“Did the dentist give you any painkillers?” Sylvia asks as she stirs.
“What?” Ted replies, his voice muffled and distracted.
“For your bad teeth. Did he give you anything yesterday in London, a prescription?”
Ted looks at her. She can’t gauge his expression; his face and his eyes are too swollen. His countenance is unreadable.
“No,” he finally answers.
Sylvia gapes at him, scoffing. “Unbelievable, the dentistry in this country. It’s barbaric. I thought the whole reason you went into London and not just Exeter was to see a better dentist. And still they didn’t give you anything?” She shakes her head, indignant for him. “How do your teeth feel?’
Ted’s chin drops; he looks at the floor. “My face is worse.”
They are quiet for a moment, listening to Nicholas, Frieda in the background, the scraping of the spoon in the cup.
“Did they fill your teeth, at least?” Sylvia asks, her tone more gentle.
Ted’s breathing is slow and measured. He sighs and pauses. “Yes.”
“Gold, I hope,” Sylvia mumbles.
Ted shrugs vaguely.
They give you sedatives, things to relax you. Then they scoop it out and you’re done.
Sylvia looks up at her husband, his weirdly colored, oddly distant face. “Does it hurt?” she asks quietly.
“Yes,” he answers, not moving his mouth.
“I’ll get you some aspirin in a moment,” she says tenderly. “I’ll finish the mowing, too. Can you take the ice away now?” she asks.
Ted withdraws the ice pack from his mouth, resting his hands in his lap. He sits utterly still as she surveys the welts on his head. On his ears, his neck, his lips.
“You look fine,” the nurse said nervously. “Just a little swollen.”
But they wouldn’t give her a mirror. She could feel the right side of her face under the bandages. She was sure she was blind in that eye. It felt like a meteor had crashed there.
“You’re going to look a fright for my mother,” she says, her voice low.
“When’s that, now,” he mutters unhappily.
“Thursday,” she answers. “And Rose says Percy is worse next door. She’s sent for their daughters. I listened to her braying into the phone all yesterday while I hung the laundry. July is going to be a long month.” She taps the spoon against the edge of the cup and drops it the last few inches to the floor; it hits the softwood with a flat contracted ping. Holding the cup in one hand, Sylvia dips two fingers into the slushy paste and gently begins to smooth it over the hard, knotted bee stings.
Her fingers on his skin. His softness, the radiating heat of his burning face. It feels oddly different to her, new in a way. New as the stranger who came back to her hotel in London six years ago, as she was leaving Cambridge for spring break. The ex-Cam poet with the broody cowlick, with the voice she could hear in the soles of her feet. The one with Shakespeare in his pocket who met her at the train station with his friend. His friend, his groomsman, who soon disappeared. All the next week in Paris, magnolias blossoming along the river, she could think of nothing but him. His fingers on her throat, her ribs. Magnolias blossoming, flushed and heavy scented, parting like lips as she walked through the gravel of the Tuileries.
The cool milky paste is dripping down his neck. Into his thick dark eyebrows, down his shirt collar. Neither of them says a word. She holds her hand to this new face. Ted doesn’t even look up. He doesn’t move. She catches the drips with her hand. She wipes them away with her finger.
Sylvia rakes the lawn her husband mowed, the blades cut down like overrun soldiers, broadcast with random finality over the yard. Her shadow looms over the clipped grasses. She covers their shocked faces with a bag.
Old Percy across the lane, blue-faced, wheezing, is dead. Three months ago he had stooped through her April daffodils in his billowing jacket, waving, his eyes soupy in his collapsing face. He had called to her through the window glass. She couldn’t understand what he was trying to say: the wind was eating his voice, as something else had eaten the rest of him. What was he doing in her garden? It wasn’t a public park. She couldn’t hear, and turned away.
All that is left of his flesh pools into the satiny cushions of the coffin, his nose flinty and steep, his eyes like currants baked into a fallen cake. His wife has had him set up for viewing in the parlor in front of his telly, that dead too. The villagers troop by to gawk at the corpse, holding their hats as they shove in to the box. So lifelike, they yop to the widow. They gabble with sock-puppet sincerity, they trade recipes. Rose has colored her hair. Sylvia slides her eyes over Percy’s dead face: the powder that chinks his wrinkles, the book wedged under his chin to keep his mouth shut. So lifelike, she nods as she backs out the door.
Already the mattress has been slumped down the staircase and tumbled outside to air; it lists in defeat against the cottage wall. A freshly laundered sheet flaps at the window like an escapee. Parakeets hang from a hook in the doorway, whistling and butting their bells, bobbing their senseless cucumber heads.
Sylvia cleans. She paints and weeds and mends. She scrubs, echoing through her house, her yard, in wet-kneed pants, alert to signs of corruption, wary of anything frayed or soured or askew. She drags the ash cans, freighted with grass clippings, out to the lane.
She glues the shredded edges of the wallpaper in the parlor. She washes every window in the house, sunk with age in their wormy casements. She hangs garlic in a braid along the mahogany sideboard in the kitchen, a dented horseshoe in the back hall. She throws netting over the ripening cherries, cushions the melon vines with hay. She whitewashes her children’s furniture, trims it with small painted hearts. She sends for more of the pink memo paper from Smith, her covert fetish, its pages stiff like the face of a shield.
Workers have cemented the playroom floor, sealed off the cold stones from inside. Still she knows they are there: the stones that never change. Under her house, muttering below the linoleum. She puts down a rug; she hears nothing. She hems the checkerboard curtains and pulls them shut.
Hearts on the sewing machine, hearts on the beehive. Little painted hearts, sometimes flowers and leaves or a bird. On the trestle table in the playroom. On the piano. On Frieda’s little rocker, on the doll bed made by Ted. Pink hearts a tripwire over the doorways. Hearts on the mirror in the hallway. Hearts and a garland on the baby’s cradle.
Sylvia stands on a chair outside the guest room. She holds her fine sable brush; she paints a glossy red heart on the threshold. Downstairs, the nail-studded door opens in the back hall. She listens, her heart ticking like a bomb. Has it come? Is it over? Soft voices foam into the house: it’s only Ted, Frieda, Nick. The heavy oak door groans on its hinges and clicks into the lock. Her fat black anxiety rolls back, for a moment, like a stone. She paints a leaf, flowers, steps down off the chair and checks her work. It looks just perfect; it looks just as it should.
“I can hardly bear to watch.” Aurelia Plath is hamster flat against the warm red vinyl seat of her daughter’s car, clutching her pocketbook in her lap. With her other hand she grips the door handle, darting a worried glance in Sylvia’s direction.
“Mother, please stop it,” Sylvia asks tensely, her neck craned over the seat as she drifts the car slowly backward. “I’ve done this for years, I know what I’m doing.”
Sylvia’s easing the clutch and reversing out of their parking spot on Cathedral Close, the lane that runs alongside Exeter’s thirteenth-century cathedral. The opposing traffic approaches around the curve that rounds the cathedral green, the cars hidden until the last moment by the jaywalking crowds of sweaty summer tourists and by flickering patches of leaf shadow thrown from the mature hawthorns and plane trees shielding the cathedral from the street.
“You’re right, it’s my fault,” Aurelia apologizes. “It’s just so hard to get used to English driving on the wrong side.”
“It’s only wrong to you,” Sylvia mumbles under her breath. “Could you please roll your window down? It’s stifling in here.” She pulls into the street and steers herself into the steady wave of traffic. Aurelia cranks down the window glass but pretends not to have noticed her daughter’s rudeness. She gazes out the window, concentrating on the negligible view through the full trees.
Sylvia drives the short arc of Cathedral Close, past the lathe-and-plaster façade of Mol’s Coffee House and the Georgian Royal Clarence Hotel. She pulls to the stop sign at the High Street intersection and prepares to turn left, her signalling arm out the window, into what would be oncoming traffic anywhere but England. The insistent blinker clicks like a surfacing memory.
A long parade of cars is inching narcoleptically down High Street, keeping Sylvia waiting at the intersection. She watches the traffic continue to pass, willing it to stop. Three more weeks; she needs to get a grip on herself. This is all her mother wants to see: the picturesque thatch. The baby skin. The pink-checked curtains. The hollyhocks. She’s here for a tour of her daughter’s heart, the nice part; she wants to see everything nice. There’s no need to give her anything more. She can protect herself; it’s only three more weeks.
“I’m sorry the day isn’t turning out as planned,” she apologizes stiffly, keeping her eyes on the passing cars.
“It’s just fine, darling, there’s no need to apologize,” Aurelia responds, relaxing at the milder tone in Sylvia’s voice. “I don’t know that you could see that cathedral in one afternoon anyway, and we’ve had a full day as it is. I’ll have a chance to study my Michelin before we go back. We still have lots of time this summer.”
“Right,” Sylvia replies with scant enthusiasm. The cars clear ahead of her. She steps lightly on the gas and pulls onto the High Street, heading west toward the river.
“I’m just glad we found that charming toy shop — was that on Gandy Street, with the iron oil lamps on the walls of the buildings? I do hope Frieda will like the paper dolls. Don’t you? They’re not as pretty as the ones you used to paint –”
“I’m sure she’ll be very excited, Mother. But we should reinforce them with tape before you give them to her. Frieda’s a little young for paper anything. She’s still at the stage where ripping things up is endlessly fascinating.”
“Well I hope not — they were expensive,” Aurelia says, a trace of hurt in her voice.
Ignore it, she thinks, both hands on the wheel.
“I would have thought they would carry more baby things in a toy store,” Aurelia says, veering the topic in a safer direction. “I did want to find something for Nick also.”
“He’s a baby, Mother,” Sylvia says. “He doesn’t need anything.”
“I don’t know about that,” Aurelia protests. “When you could hardly walk you formed your blocks into the shape of the Taj Mahal –”
Sylvia sighs. Here it comes.
“– just like the image on our bathroom rug. Babies are brighter than you think.”
“Mother, I know,” Sylvia says, growing exasperated. “I know about babies. But you gave both of the children piles of presents a week ago. They don’t need anything more. They’re too young to know the difference.”
“I wanted to bring a few other treats, just little things,” Aurelia continues with a wistful pang, groping for a benign connection. “But I didn’t have any more room. The suitcase was getting too full of chocolate chips and molasses and fluoride toothpaste. I can’t imagine why they don’t sell molasses in England, or fluoride toothpaste. So peculiar –” She glances at Sylvia for a nod, any signal, of friendly commiseration. Sylvia keeps her eyes on the road. Aurelia moves on. “– But my true preoccupation was that box of dishes. I never took my eyes off it from the time I left Wellesley until you picked me up from the train station. I was afraid one of the stewardesses on the plane or one of the porters would kick it, though I labeled it ‘fragile’ on every side.”
“Mother,” Sylvia replies, trying to let her genuine gratitude for her mother’s gifts soften the annoyance she feels at yet again having to express her gratitude, “I really do appreciate all that you brought for us. I love the dishes especially. You know I always wanted them.”
“You always liked that forest green border,” Aurelia notes with satisfaction. “It’s hand painted, you know. I think the color caught your artist’s eye.”
“I think you’re right.”
“And they’re quite valuable now, also. They’re nearly antique. I doubt you could buy a set like that at all, even if you’d kept your job at Smith.”
“I’m sure they’re irreplaceable, Mother.” Just ignore it, she tells herself.
“I would have given anything for a job like that,” her mother sighs.
Sylvia doesn’t respond, gripping the wheel.
“And I was looking at your garden. There’s a nice sunny spot to plant the corn right by your trellis of broad beans,” Aurelia says.
“Mother, it’s July. It’s too late to plant corn.”
“Oh,” Aurelia says, her voice pinched with disappointment. “Well then, you can save the seeds and get an earlier start next year.”
“Right,” Sylvia replies automatically, watching the road. Always — something she could do better. Some way that she’s let her mother down. They are driving alongside the Roman walls of old Exeter and out toward the banks of the river, which they will follow north and west for much of the trip home, along the same route across Devon that Vespasian’s legionnaires had followed. Hundreds, no thousands, of years on this road. She feels its pull under her, fundamental, innate. An ancient path; they’d been following it all her life. Whatever she did, whatever pearl she dropped at her mother’s feet, it would never be enough.
“Well, it will be so soothing to get back to Court Green after the morning bustle of Exeter,” Aurelia blathers, bridging the stiff little gap in the conversation. “Though I’m sure you really don’t have to worry about Ted or the children,” she offers reassuringly. “I’m sure they’re just fine without you.”
“What do you mean?” Sylvia asks, braking at the next stoplight. “I never leave them. I never leave Nick.” Her voice goes suddenly tremulous; she flashes a tiny fearful look at her mother.
“Sylvia, I didn’t mean anything,” her mother replies blandly. “I just meant that Ted has been gone so much this week — ”
“What do you mean by that?” Sylvia asks, defensive, gathering herself up on the seat. “Don’t criticize Ted. He’s got to go to the dentist for his teeth. He has things he must do whether you’re here or not. I’m not going anywhere.”
“Sylvia, of course I’m not criticizing Ted,” Aurelia answers, puzzled, quick to explain herself. ” I only meant that I’m sure he doesn’t mind keeping the children alone for a day. I just meant that I don’t think you need to worry about them.”
“I worry about them all the time, Mother,” Sylvia says, her voice welling despite herself. “All I do is worry about them.” She is gripping the steering wheel, staring ahead now at the lozenge of Exeter trapped in the windshield, one foot on the brake, the other poised over the gas.
“Darling, of course you do, I’m sorry,” Aurelia says, scrabbling for balance. “I don’t mean you don’t worry about them at all. I just meant that you could take a day for yourself and they would be fine. Ted said it would be fine.” Uneasy, she watches the side of Sylvia’s face, which has receded into impenetrable shadow. Sylvia stares at the traffic signal, which urges her mindlessly to caution.
They’d been gone all morning. She maneuvered her mother first through the shops along the flower-potted sidewalks of the Princesshay markets, then to an early cream tea on the quay. Aurelia, who had been appalled when Sylvia and Ted quit their teaching jobs to move back to England and live, they hoped, solely by their writing, insisted on picking up the check: her thin bony fingers feeling around the inside of her little coin purse, her eyes sliding around with anxiety. St. Peter’s Cathedral, thank god, was free. It reposed dramatically in fawn-colored stone beyond its copse of protective trees, humbler buildings crowding in on all sides of the grounds. They crossed the sunbeaten green to the Gothic western entrance, as tall as Court Green’s trio of elms. The carved saints were stacked up to the windows, standing on each other’s shoulders with their faces ground away by the centuries, shimmering grittily in the heat.
Inside, the cathedral was brilliant with uncharacteristically hot July sun, a kaleidoscope of golden light ratcheting through the stained glass windows on either end of the vault, as if honey were pouring, liquid, through the glass. The immense stone room was blinding in the light, a world of amber-toned compartments magnified and mathematical under the ribs of the flying buttresses. The whole glowing interior seemed to be respirating in the heat. A sweet waxy musk of incense seeped out from deep in the pores of the stone. It was like being inside a hive: the capped windows in their gilded hexagonal fittings, the marble-skinned martyrs writhing like pupas up the walls.
“Watch.” Her father stood in sepia light by the fence of their house in Winthrop, across the bay from Boston. The coarse-textured sand inched right up into the yard, blowing in little eddies between the salt-bleached pickets, drifting over the shells that bordered the grass. It was 1937; she was four years old, almost five. He would be dead in three years, and they’d move away from the ocean. The door of her childhood would close.
Her father waited, perfectly still before a snaggle of battered geraniums, tall in his nubby brown suit, his hands held out and stiff. He was uncompromising; he could wait forever. Suddenly he clapped his hands together in a trap, then folded down onto one knee. Flecking his head to one side, beckoning her over. He held his cupped hands to her ear. From inside came a stifled, frantic vibrato. “A bee,” he said, smiling down at her like a god. “It won’t sting me. I know which ones to catch.” The bee buzzed and buzzed in its cramped black cave. Slowly her father opened his blunt fingers. The bee shot out, sputtering like a backfiring motor; it droned again and was gone.
She watched it fly, amazed.
Her father watched it too, grinning. Then he tugged one of her sun-blonde plaits and stood, his broad hand cantilevered on his knee.
The cathedral was humming with holy, golden judgment. It sizzled at the back of her eyes. She held their bags from Jaeger and the toy shop, the library renewals for Ted that she’d forgotten to drop off at the car before they entered the church. Her mother was gawking at the long Gothic ceiling in the nave. All that light pouring in. Sylvia was ill; it was making her ill. The barefoot saints muttering at the door, the honeyed light bucketing down on all their heads. All that sorrow, all the wringing of hands. What made all that gold so bright was the blackness yawning behind it.
She stepped quickly out of the pew where she was resting the bags. “Mother, let’s go.” She took hold of her mother’s elbow, began pulling her down the side aisle and out of the cathedral. “I have to go home. I have to go now.” Confused, her mother fumbled for the toy bag and the library books, trying to help. She jerked her mother’s arm, gripping it hard. “Forget it. Let’s just go.”
“They are fine. But I’m not fine.” Sylvia stares now at the traffic signal. Stop, it says. Stop,
Her mother is watching Sylvia with mounting fear, holding her face steady, trying not to betray her own flailing emotions. Is it back? Is it over?
“I have everything,” Sylvia says, her voice breaking into little chunks. The light turns green, and she eases the clutch, turning right onto the road that lies along the river, waving her arm cursorily out the window to signal. “I never thought I would have all this. My beautiful children,” she says. ” My husband. I have everything. My house and my writing. I never thought I would have it.”
“But of course you were going to have it, my darling,” Aurelia blurts, reassured by what she misreads as a simple overflow of emotion. “Of course you were.”
“No –” Sylvia says. “I wasn’t going to have it. I didn’t think I would ever have it. I was afraid I was going to have nothing.” She pauses, bracing herself for the words her mother has never been willing to hear. “That’s why I broke down. That’s why I tried to kill myself.”
There is a moment of thick, airless silence.
“But that’s over now, Sylvia,” Aurelia finally replies, her words measured and motherly, calmly declarative. “That was so long ago. You put so much pressure on yourself. You didn’t really want to die.”
“What?” Sylvia says, incredulous. “What?” she says, stabbing furious glances in her mother’s direction while watching the road. “Of course I wanted to kill myself! I wanted nothing else but to kill myself.”
Aurelia’s face drains of all color.
“You know I did, Mother. You know I did,” Sylvia says, her voice both pleading and insistent. “That’s why you locked up the knives. That’s why you locked up my sleeping pills.”
“No, Sylvia,” says Aurelia, scrambling. “You didn’t really. You didn’t really want to die. That’s how you gashed your head, that’s why you’ve got this scar –” She reaches toward Sylvia’s temple to brush aside her bangs with a finger. But Sylvia’s arm flies reflexively off the steering wheel to block her mother’s touch. Aurelia recoils, stunned; her face begins to melt off its bones. “Sylvia, no,” she insists, her eyes brimming. “You were trying to get up. You were trying to help yourself, you were vomiting up the pills. You were crying. That’s how we found you.”
“I was dead for three days!” Sylvia cries out. She swings the wheel and pulls over, the tires spitting stones on the narrow grassy shoulder of the road as she brakes at the edge of the river. “How can you deny it? I was dead for three days under your house! The only thing I did wrong was to take too many sleeping pills!” She glares at her mother, who is trying not to cringe. Aurelia’s eyes are glossy with tears; she is too frightened to cry.
“I was trying to help you,” Aurelia trembles. “We were all trying to help you. You were so hard on yourself.”
“Help me!” Sylvia says, shrill, disdainful. Her voice has grown rich, echoing; she feels it moving over a dark plane, blank and windswept. “You killed. You’re the one who gave them permission to electrocute me. You told that quack doctor to give me the shocks.”
“No,” Aurelia says, quietly beginning to sob into her chest. “No. I was trying to help you. Everything I’ve ever done has been for you.”
“Help me?” Sylvia repeats, bitter, her voice caustic with mocking sarcasm. “You won’t even admit what happened. If you won’t admit the truth, how can that help me?”
Aurelia is slumping against the door, holding her purse over her chest, quietly crying. Sylvia’s hands are still on the steering wheel as she watches her mother’s collapse. She is breathing fast, her heart pumping. She’s aghast, amazed by the ominous force of the words as they come out. “I should be dead, Mother. I’m living a resurrected life. Everything I have is a miracle. My whole life is a miracle –”
Aurelia is sobbing harder, nodding her head, tears dripping off the underside of her nose as she nods, clicking open her purse and looking for a handkerchief.
Let’s just pretend it never happened, Sylvia says. “That’s what you told me when I got out of the hospital. But I’m telling you now, it’s all a miracle. You have to understand. This is why it’s so precious to me — ” precious to me. It scares her even now to say it. She says it. “I should be dead.”
Her mother is crying helplessly, wedged between the car seat and the door, a cowering animal. She is nodding her head and wiping her nose with her hankie. She doesn’t look up; her mouth hangs open in a gash. It awes Sylvia to see it, this stunning, unspeakable power.
She turns her head, searches the dashboard to locate the car’s starter. Her hands are still gripping the steering wheel. She turns the key in the starter and steps on the gas; there is a loud metallic grind from the engine, and she jumps. It’s still running. She never turned it off. She flicks on her signal and glances into her rear-view mirror, preparing to reenter the line of traffic.
She listens to her mother’s quiet, steady keening beside her as she pulls onto the single lane road. The green Devon landscape revolves past the windshield and away.
She enters the house blinded, as by a bright explosion.
Her pupils flare, adjust, and the rooms of her house emerge, washed in the submarine light of summer afternoon. Her life takes tangible shape again, returned to her in high relief: the curtains she’s sewn wavering at the windows. Her pewter candlesticks, her braided rug; her Chesterfield sofa and its worn blue velvet undulating like a reef at the edge of the parlor. The playroom abandoned for naptime, the debris of toys and storybooks scattered over the floor. Her mother follows behind, brittle, carrying more packages, her face wrung like a rag. The ringing of the telephone begins to surface. The house is otherwise still.
“Ted?” Sylvia calls, peeling off her purse and bags. She hears his chair’s faint scrape across the floor of his attic study. Another ring stiffens in the air. “I’ll get it,” she says to no one, anxious to pull her life close, crossing the parlor and turning into the hall, where the phone table is centered against the wall between the main staircase and the kitchen. Ted’s feet are clattering down the attic steps.
“I’ve got it,” she calls as she reaches the phone table, rounding her voice: calm, efficient. As her hand extends toward the black receiver she sees Ted turn the corner at the top of the carpeted stairs and hesitate in the blue shadows. She raises her chin to him and sends him a tight, hopeful little smile — a tiny intimate motion between people long married, almost a reflex, almost benign. She picks up the telephone, cutting off its shrill pulse. She brings the receiver to her ear. “Hullo?”
A second of dead air, then another, hisses at the other end of the line.
“Hullo?” Sylvia says again, her hand already tensing to hang up, her swiftly shaped composure going liquid at its center.
Ted is walking quickly from the second-floor landing down the remaining flight of stairs.
The line crackles with the oceanic suck of a hand covering the mouthpiece. The hand slides back, and the caller speaks into a tinny void. “Hello,” says a deep, gravelly voice devoid of affect. “I’m calling for Ted Hughes.”
The muscles and joints and pearly taut sinews of Sylvia’s body go slack with immediate relief — it’s nothing, it’s only for Ted — and then something in the caller’s muffled, genderless voice sets off a rush of blood from deep in the cage of her being. The voice has a Germanic edge.
“Who is calling, please?” Sylvia asks, her vocal cords tightening.
There is no answer; just the vibration of air in the line.
“Who is this?” she asks, her voice suddenly gummy with fear. Ted stops halfway down the stairs, listening, his head bowed like a mourner’s.
The caller hesitates. “I’d like to speak to Ted Hughes,” it asks with sudden, false briskness.
Sylvia grips the phone and holds it tight to her ear. The bones of her hand whiten under the skin. She twists to face Ted, her face an appeal of helpless terror. He does not meet her terrified eyes; he cannot look at her. He listens, his head bowed, his shoulders sagging, as if he holds the ancient weight of the rafters on his back.
“Who — is — this,” Sylvia demands, drawing herself up, her desperation mounting, throwing off panic and dread like sparks.
The caller says nothing.
She knows this voice: it is the voice of her nightmares. Not the voice itself, but the ceaseless void it comes from.
Sylvia’s voice rises up in a wave, crashing into the receiver of the phone, flooding the mouthpiece, the full force of her fear transforming, becoming an unchallengeable furious anguish. She has been betrayed. “I know who this is, Assia,” she says. “I know it’s you.” She jerks the phone away from her face, as if it stung her, and stabs it at arm’s length into the air at Ted. “It’s for you,” she says to him, looking away, her face contorting.
For a second, for hours, no one moves.
Ted descends the remaining stairs slowly, as if walking through a wall of water. He takes the phone.
Sylvia’s mother is trying not to tremble by the front door, hitching herself as close to the parlor furniture as she can, trying to disappear. It doesn’t matter; Sylvia has ceased to notice her. She’s been absorbed, become part of an already operating machinery. Sylvia is pacing away from the phone table, into the kitchen streaked by thick bars of dusty sunlight, her back to the stairs where Ted has carried the phone up the steps to the second floor landing and is whispering hoarsely and clearing his throat. Sylvia’s bare arms are crossed over her chest; she is gripping her arms with her hands, squeezing with her long fine fingers.
Within seconds, Ted has finished speaking. He begins to again descend the stairs, the receiver still in his hand, the base of the phone at his side, his fingers curled under the cradle. As he takes a step, another down the stairs, Sylvia turns and swings her hands down and out to her sides, regnant. Everything, suddenly, goes dry. The sea light slides back, evaporated. In the potent, magnetic air everything looks bleached and static — the walls, their faces, everything but the pitch-black, glossy phone. Sylvia’s upper arms glow white with the imprints of her own hands. She rushes forward, the blood blooming under her skin, her face febrile, lit by a ghastly inner radiance, to meet Ted at the phone table.
The receiver is still in his hand. As he sets the phone down on the table and readies to fit the receiver onto the cradle, Sylvia snatches the telephone’s cord out of the air and pulls, grimacing, yanking the telephone itself off of the table, yanking again, the table falling, the drawer crashing out and the pens and pencils and scraps of paper tumbling and sliding to the floor, the cord ripping out of the wall socket and snapping into the air, its wires bursting like a coppery flower out of the end of the striped fabric cording. Sylvia pulls the phone out of the wall and feels a surge of electric current, a charge, the million filaments of the wires exploding, burning all along the line from London, all along her nerves, electrocuting her, burning the shadow of the moment into place. Shocking her again with their lightning stroke, straight to her electrified heart. He had betrayed her.
As Sylvia pulls the telephone out of the wall, the cells in her brain are charging, the synapses going off like cannons, like fireworks, setting off little tails of smoke, the scent of scorch electric in the air, and silence behind, everything over. Sylvia pulls the telephone out of the wall: dead air. The voice on the other end cut off, severed, extinct. Dead air. And that’s not all that’s dead. In the moment the cord sails up and snaps and shoots its sparks in the potent hall Sylvia knows how futile all of her protections have been, all she did to sandbag her slipping hold. What’s dead is the life she saved from herself. The moment has cut her loose, stripped her of everything that tied her to her perfect, ordered, resurrected life. In the eye blink of a god, in a heartbeat, all that she clung to rises up with her like smoke, like ash, into the charged, dead air: The cakes of soap. Her wedding ring. His gold filling.
- – - – - – - – - –
Excerpted with permission from “Wintering: A Novel of Sylvia Plath,” by Kate Moses, published by St. Martin’s Press. All rights reserved.
Kate Moses is the author of "Wintering: A Novel of Sylvia Plath" (St. Martin's.) She was the co-founder, with Camille Peri, of Salon's "Mothers Who Think" site, and she and Peri also co-edited the award-winning book "Mothers Who Think: Tales of Real-Life Parenting." She lives in San Francisco.More Kate Moses.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)