Anna heard the ting of the brass bell from the midst of a dream. In the dream a baby cried. A newborn-- her face was red, her fists were clenched, her legs waved as if she was swimming. The small voice echoed through time, probed Anna's memory. Someone called her, someone she refused to hear. As soon as she woke, the dream was forgotten.
The bell tingled again. Anna reached for her kimono and slipped her feet into rubber thongs. The thongs flapped against her heels as she hurried down the dim, dusty hallway towards the living room where Mrs. Mornay lay in a narrow hospital bed. For a third time the bell rang, followed by the sound of Mrs. Mornay's hefty voice, a voice that belied the frailty of her body. "Anna."
"Coming," Anna said. She'd spent the night here tending to Mrs. Mornay's needs. A neighborly thing she did every once in awhile, helping out when Mrs. Mornay's homecare workers were sick and no substitute could be found. The house was small and tidy, filled with furniture Mrs. Mornay had inherited from her parents. In order to pay for her daily care, in order to keep herself out of a nursing home, she had put the house in hock, so to speak. When she died, the homecare agencies would cash in their liens. Anna admired her for that. For finding a way to die in the manner she wanted, since there were no relatives nearby to help.
In the living room Mrs. Mornay's dark eyes blinked. "Nightmare," she said. Her forehead was beaded with sweat. Anna moistened a washcloth and washed the old woman's face. "Thank you, dear. Now, fetch my cigarettes if you will."
Mrs. Mornay's hands shook as she tried to strike the match. "Let me," Anna said. The house and everything in it, chairs, windowpanes, curtains and carpet were layered in years of cigarette smoke, each layer holding the stories of Mrs. Mornay's life: her marriage at sixteen, the birth of her two sons, her husband's death thirty years ago, the innumerable Christmas and Thanksgiving celebrations, the birthdays and anniversaries, the arguments and laughter. A mode of marking time no longer acceptable. But Mrs. Mornay was not dying from lung cancer, and she was damned if she'd go through withdrawal symptoms. At this stage, what did it matter?
"My grandfather," Mrs. Mornay said from within a cloud of smoke. "I dreamt of my grandfather. Of when he died. I forget many things, but this I remember. The summer I was eight, Grandpa lay on the daybed in the dining room at the farm, his breathing raspy. The priest gave him his last rites. He was dying, they said. 'What happens to us when we die?' I asked. Grandma sat me down beside her on the living room couch. She took my hand and pointed to three lines on the carpet beneath our feet. A brownish carpet, I remember, patterned with trees and birds. 'Death is nothing to be afraid of,' Grandma said. 'Death is just stepping from this line over to that one. From one spot on the carpet to another. No matter what happens, you're still on the same carpet.' Mrs. Mornay paused, then said, "I'm not long for this world, dear."
Nonsense, Anna said, all evidence to the contrary. Mrs. Mornay took a drag on her cigarette and squinted. Beneath her gray lashes her brown eyes gleamed. That's not what I need, her look seemed to say. Don't give me those worn cliché's, those blind responses. I expect more from you. A writer. A sensitive. She fumbled on the bedside table for her ashtray and ground out the butt against the pink glass. "I'll try to sleep again."
Anna tucked the light summer sheet around her, the early morning could be chill, then she wandered back down the hall to the bedroom. Now, she was awake and restless, anxious to leave Mrs. Mornay's world and return to her own. A summery breeze blew the low-tide smell from the bay through the bedroom window. Anna opened the curtains, sat in the rocker and gazed out the window. By the light of the half moon she saw the trees outlined behind the house, the clothesline posts, the garage with Mrs. Mornay's round topped Volkswagen bug parked before it as if awaiting an expedition. Such expeditions were over for the little car, at least with Mrs. Mornay at the wheel.
Beyond the garage lay Eel pond and on the far side of the saltwater pond stood Anna's own house, invisible in the dark. They were pond neighbors and had met in the woods that surrounded the pond. Conservation land, where for years Mrs. Mornay had planted daffodil bulbs with her 4-H club, so that now, in the spring, a huge blanket of yellow blossoms bloomed. They had chatted and arranged to meet for tea, and had been meeting every now and then ever since.