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In this excerpt from a novel in progress, Maria Branwell, who will go on to marry Patrick Brontë—and give birth to Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne Brontë before dying when Anne is a year and a half old—is keeping a journal of her courtship with Patrick, whom she has recently met in Yorkshire. Yorkshire, where Maria’s aunt and uncle have a school, is native ground to neither of them. She is from Penzance, in Cornwall, Patrick from County Down in Ireland.


 September 6

TODAY, A SUNDAY, I sit in a patch of September sunlight, not identical to last week’s, and look out again at the tops of ancient oak trees. The land slopes down to the river below, where Patrick Brontë and I, known to our friends now as an engaged couple, walk together as often as we like beneath the oaks and beeches that are already beginning to take on the ruddy tones of autumn. I remarked to Patrick the other day that at this season the oaks are dropping acorns that strike the ground with a patter like rain. We have commented too on a shift in the light, how the afternoons draw in a little earlier now, how the equinox is close at hand.

From where I sit, high in this house, the trees appear upside down, their great leafy branches lifted up as for inspection. Their sturdy trunks disappear somewhere into the ground far below, as into the floor of the ocean. They recall to me the drowned forests of Mount’s Bay in Penzance. Out of sight, forgotten most of the time, at low tide a bit of gnarled branch will suddenly twist out of the water as if craving alms of the sun. What remains of the forest has been buried for thousands of years, preserved intact because no air penetrates the peat and sand to hasten its decomposition. But then, over centuries, I’ve been told, some shift takes place. The sea level changes. Or some slow but untiring erosion reaches a critical point, and a bough is suddenly released and startles up out of the mire, free of the sediment that has enclosed it, time out of mind.

I have sometimes wondered if that bit of petrified wood preserves whole the memory of a time when in the month of March birds built their nests in its vanished parts, when morning sunlight washed its new leaves. Or, for that matter, when during bleak midwinter it was violently tossed in a storm. I feel sure it does, convinced as I am that every grain of sand carries its entire history with it, its millennia of turning slowly on the ocean floor, swept by currents into distant caverns of coral, rising, falling, amid sudden shafts of light.

When I sit here alone, notebook lying open on my writing desk, I find I become someone other than the person I am when walking about or sitting in company or even sleeping. Or indeed writing letters to Patrick. Then who am I? It may be that I am my own ancient ancestor who, walking about lost and alone in the forest that is now under water, falls into rapture at the sight of dawn’s first pink light slowly undoing the most profound darkness.

Or it might be I am the hermit Kieran praying in a meadow. Cornflowers and Queen Anne’s lace and red poppies blow there, open-faced before the sun. Kieran this day has given himself over to a song of praise, and so he has no words at all. Rather he listens to the wind pass over the meadow as a breeze might sweep over the strings of a harp. It is not a music composed by man or woman; it is the vibration of the strings when the wind blows over them and they release what waits there always, the sound of the voice beneath. That is what he calls it to himself, the voice beneath, and he has heard it since any time he can remember. Sometimes he forgets, has no ear for it, and all he makes out is the disjointed and accidental sound of a branch creaking or a rooster’s sudden raucous crow or it may be the rumble of a wheel over stones. At such times he hears no more than that: each sound is separate, whole in itself, but detached from what comes before or what follows. No single sound takes its place in a sequence as in a sentence that syllable by syllable drives toward a conclusion.

But today, as Kieran listens, he hears a sound that seems to him foreordained. He might have called it a word, but it is unpronounceable. That is the first thing he knows about it. And yet there is no particle of matter in the universe that does not hear it, that does not utter it. What is this joy that ripples like a cool spring perpetually bubbling up from a holy well? The clear water that pilgrims carry away in vessels to soothe the child that wakes terrified in the night, to relieve the burn of a warrior’s wounds, or to dry up the milk in the aching breasts of the bereaved mother.

I must leave Kieran now, whose joy spills everywhere, and return to writing down the story of Patrick and myself, insofar as I can recall it. And I do recall it, mostly. But before I continue our brief history I turn and bow to Kieran, thanking him for preparing my way. Kieran’s ear for the voice beneath, its ceaseless murmur, encourages my pen. May I speak the truth, insofar as I am able, even when its demands run counter to my need.

Because there is desire and there is destiny. They are not the same. Desire attaches to the here and now. I suffer it in the present moment. Destiny is the after story, revealed only with death and beyond. I pray that in this instance of Patrick and myself my desire is my destiny. I can’t know how today and its turbulence will be seen from the distance of a hundred years or more. But however that may be, I pray the fulfillment of this burning moment be allowed. My will be done. Though I daily pray for Thine.



Kathleen Hill is the author of two novels, Still Waters in Niger (TriQuarterly) and Who Occupies This House (Northwestern) and a memoir, She Read to Us in the Late Afternoons (Delphinium/HarperCollins). Shorter work has appeared in Best American Short Stories, Pushcart Prize Stories, Best Spiritual Writing, and Commonweal. She has taught for years in Sarah Lawrence’s MFA program.




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