C.L. Sweeney, Jr.: The Merciful

 

She laid the bricks carefully, lovingly, using the same infinite patience and meticulous care that she used when ironing the ruffled curtains or polishing the furniture to a warm glow. The wall between them was now almost four feet high, and she paused at the end of the row and smiled at him where he sat in the rocker.

“Really, dear,” she said, pushing a wisp of white hair neatly back into place, “you do understand why I’m doing this, don’t you?”

He nodded dumbly. Upstairs, the grandfather’s clock struck the hour, but he was scarcely aware of it. Time had ceased to have any meaning for him.

“It’s for your own good, you know, dear. I want to spare you the . . . the unpleasantness. I wouldn’t do it if it weren’t for your own good.”

He knew this to be true, knew that her every word and action for almost fifty years had been for this one purpose. And yet, now—

“Are you comfortable, dear?”

Again he nodded.

“Try to be patient. It won’t be much longer.” She resumed her work, spreading just the right amount of mortar, placing each brick in its place just so. It was only a small niche in the cottage cellar which she was walling in, perhaps five feet deep and four feet across and six feet high, and so the work went quickly.

He might have offered to help her, but he had become so accustomed over the years to having her do things for him that it never quite occurred to him now. And so he only sat there, slumped in the rocker, the heavy weight of age almost too much for his frail shoulders to bear.

“Dear?” She had to stand on her tiptoes now to see him across the wall. “Now, dear, you relax and try not to worry. Just a few more rows and then in a little while it will all be over.”

He wanted to speak to her, to say something, anything, but the old familiar words seemed meaningless.

“It’s really much better this way,” she said. “I mean, once they’ve told you, once you know for sure, there’s no sense in just sitting and waiting to he eaten up by the pain, is there, dear?’’

He shook his head, slowly.

She sensed his doubt. “There now, you know we agreed last night that this was best,” she said, smiling solicitously.

Last night was a million years ago. Then, sitting before the open fire, sipping tea from the tiny blue cups which she used only for very special occasions, they had talked it out rationally, sensibly, and he had finally agreed. But that was only natural. They had always agreed on everything. Even when, many years ago, she had wanted to bear their first child, they had talked it over beforehand and thus had brought a life into their bright new world only with loving assent. Was it so strange that they could choose now to ease a life from a world of torment with this same perfect understanding?

“It’s so easy this way,” she went on, her voice soothing. “Once the wall is sealed, there’s nothing to do but lie back, and in a little while, a very little while, the air will be gone and there’ll be nothing left but sleep. No pain, no fear. Just soft sweet sleep.”

Of course, there had been alternatives to the wall. A gun, for ex­ample. They had talked about it, but she had immediately ruled it out. Life should end as it began, she had said, not with a shattering explosion, but with only a faint gasp for breath and no more than a small cry. Too, there was poison, but neither had mentioned that. They had once owned a beautiful dog, a magnificent Collie. They both remembered how the dog had dragged himself home that late summer evening, whimpering against the gnawing pain of the poi­son that he had somehow eaten, how she had ministered to him all through the long night and how he had mercifully died in her arms, licking her hand, as the sun broke across the hills at dawn. They both remembered, and so neither had spoken of it.

She paused for a moment to wipe her glasses. “It isn’t as though we were leaving one another, you know,” she said. “We’ll always be to­gether, really, the same as the days when you went upstairs for a nap after lunch. I couldn’t see you and I couldn’t talk to you, but still I knew you were there.” She smiled. “It was such a comfort.”

He watched while she laid the next row of brick, ever so neatly, and then he could see her no longer, only the bricks being placed in their orderly succession. There was but a narrow strip left between the wall and ceiling now, and she began to fill this, tapping lightly to force the last bricks into place.

When there was only a single opening left, he heard her voice reaching out to touch him. “Goodbye, dear, and try not to think about it. Just set your mind to remembering the good years, the good things, and in no time at all . . .”

And then there was the tap-tap-tapping as the last brick went into place—and then there was nothing, only the wall and nothing more.

He sat back and closed his eyes and, obediently, tried to remem­ber. He could remember the smell of new mown fields and the song of birds wheeling against the blue of the sky and the young warmth beneath a blue-checked gingham dress and the faint scent of violets as petal-soft lips met his own. He could remember …

but the memories were far away and the years had blurred his senses and he dozed.

The grandfather’s clock awoke him, bringing him back from the past slowly, reluctantly. Finally, after what seemed like a very long time, he forced himself to open his eyes and look at the wall. Oddly, he noticed, it did not seem cold and ugly now. Rather, it was somehow warm and graceful, like a garden wall shielding and pre­serving the beloved beauty within it.

Then he eased himself out of the rocker and went up the stairs into the kitchen and began to prepare his own supper.

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