A young woman watching beside a sickbed in a torment of anxiety. Twenty-one and ready to begin her life, she nursed her cousin, Harriet Gilley, who was dying. She was certain Harriet was dying because she had sat beside her father’s sickbed, and so she knew consumption.
Harriet coughed, drowning from within. She was thin and gray and scarcely dimpled the pillow that she lay upon, though its duck feathers were almost new, gathered just three winters ago, in 1854, by her husband, John, before they were married. In those days, Harriet was the schoolmistress on Little Cranberry and her cousin Mary Jane had come to visit her from Sullivan, where the girls had been raised practically as sisters, though seven years separated them. Mary Jane could never take her eyes off her older cousin. As Harriet left Sullivan, Mary Jane had looked ahead to the day when she, too, could strike out for the islands.
When she visited Little Cranberry, Harriet confided in her. John Gilley was saving his feathers. His sisters had told her that their brothers were accustomed to gunning ducks over a winter and selling the feathers, fifty cents a pound shipped to Boston by coaster. He had said nothing, but they reckoned that he was thinking of looking out for Harriet. He was saving his feathers, and actions spoke louder than words.
Mary Jane had thought of the hunter and the quarry and the down and soft sleep and the tall bony figure of John Gilley, and she had been suddenly vertiginous with desire still mysterious to her. Stirred, she had watched John Gilley stalk Harriet, then she had returned to Sullivan and smoked for a hunt of her own.
John Gilley entered his bedroom barefoot and surveyed the two young women in the early June light. They once looked somewhat alike, though Mary Jane was always sturdier. His Harriet was not meant for the islands. He considered the worn faces of the island women, all traces of beauty early lost. All the time he was preparing the old farmhouse that he had purchased on Sutton’s Island for her, he was aware that he wished to spare her the ruggedness of his own ways. But Harriet had tried gamely. The summer after they were married, when he had been at sea fishing for cod and haddock up the Bay of Fundy for two or three weeks at a time, he had thought of her at the island farm they were hewing and shaping together. She was pregnant that summer, rounder and heavier and sicker, and after their son was born she had never been quite well again. The child died at seven months, and last summer John had scarcely been away from the farm. Since then it had been all medicines and physicians, but nothing reversed her thinning. A cortege of sisters and cousins kept them in food and fire while he tended the fifty acres and fished in an open boat near home, as much as he could.
And now this one—a cousin, Mary Jane. He brought her a cup of hot water, and their fingers touched as she took it, the steamy cup tippling slightly as they started to transfer it from his hand to hers, scalding her enough that he lowered the cup to her thighs and apologized. The hot liquid tinged her lilac frock at her lap, but she said she was fine, thank you. She rose and straightened the woolens over Harriet who slept raspily through this exchange, then she stepped outside to tend the livestock, twelve hens, a cow and a calf. She was fond of animals and wished there were more to care for, as though she had not yet spent her whole capacity for tending. She would bring a pig and a calf and maybe her dear father’s steers from Sullivan, for her mother told her that he wanted those to be hers when she found a man and it was time. The thought of her animals by the Gilley barn dizzied her. She had the vertigo too often, she thought, during these weeks. She knew she was tired. She steadied herself against a spruce.
Mary Jane Wilkerson was exhausted by the vigil of nursing Harriet. More than once she had forgotten to eat for most of a day. She was awakened by Harriet’s paroxysms of coughing, night after night. She dried the night sweats and rinsed the clay-like expectorations and ichorous fluids that escaped her cousin’s waning body in quantities far greater than she took in. When Mary Jane sat up, worried and striving valiantly to keep watch and stay alert, she sometimes fell into a fitful sleep, a half-slumber that resembled nothing so much as that of her patient’s restlessness and fevered dreams. Her own reveries began with Harriet, then oscillated between her present suffering and happier days in Sullivan that slipped out of her grasp.
Against her will—no, beneath her will, defenseless against her wishes—she yearned to be elsewhere. It troubled her to recognize that she felt both things, irreconcilable again: desire to care for someone dear and desire to be elsewhere. Often when she sat by the bed, the only sound was the gnawing and picking at her fingernails and cuticles, a nervous habit she had acquired from her father. Harriet lay within arm’s reach but receded to a nether-background, and, in the foreground, instead, Mary Jane was suddenly back in Sullivan. She thought of its noisy bustle, the busy shipyards turning out coasters, the saw mill, the shingle mill, the stave mill, the grist mill. She recalled her father’s hand leading her to the quarries and the immense deposits of granite with its veins of feldspar green. Her father showed her how readily it split, how it could be wrought into any shape, any building. He showed her silver mined in slate-like quartzite. Here it was talcose, there calcareous, and sometimes porphyritic. She heard the strange names and qualities of stones falling off his tongue like the silver itself. In Sullivan.
This experience of transportation was not new to her. For eighteen months she had played the leading part at the sickbed of her father, waking repeatedly in the middle of the night, her feet seared by the cold floor in winter. She sponged him ceaselessly and cleaned away the food that passed through him quickly and but little digested. She forced herself to a semblance of good cheer as her father railed against and then resigned himself to the ghastly wasting away of his trunk and extremities. What she remembered now when she sat with Harriet was her concern that she had been too distracted when she tended her father, just as she was now more fidgeting than alert, tugged in spite of herself by thoughts of other places, times, persons.
Sitting on a cane chair beside her father, she had often ruminated on an evening with a young man of her acquaintance, Will Eliot, who had befriended her father and whom she had come to feel she loved. She had believed that their marriage was imminent, though he had broached no such intention. Her hopes had carried her away, and her abundant opportunity for reverie—as sick-nursing and love are each wont to supply—had ignited her yearning. Combustion in the furnace of love and sick-nursing. She embroidered domestic fantasies, like tapestries elaborately animated by habitation, husband, animals, children. Sometimes she had been appalled at her disloyalty to her dear father; often she had possessed the wit to understand that she was in her own way merely soothing herself with pleasanter scenes than those at hand, as though she were telling herself through daydreams that it was time for something more amusing than this perpetual sick-nursing.
Months later, her father dead and Will distant, her thoughts had often turned to her own loneliness, to the untoward fate of her family, to her cousin setting out in matrimony on the island, and to her burning wish that she might one day be as content. How John cared for Harriet, how lovingly he had put the old farmhouse into condition suitable for her, how they understood each other with glances and were certain of their own and the other’s attention and affection!
John, pacing in the farmhouse, saw Mary Jane—a skating stem of lupine in the mist against the darker purple firs, returning to the house with a basket of eggs. She would coax a poached egg down Harriet, and he would sail the rest to Northeast Harbor to sell to Squire Kemball, then beat homeward with more useless medicine. Mary Jane was tired, he saw, but she glided easily through the scud, as though she were born to the islands.
On a Sunday, when John’s brother Samuel visited them, he urged the weary nurses, Mary Jane and John, out of the house for air and activity and whatever meager distraction they might discover. They each demurred. But when even Harriet raised herself and insisted they must go away, if only for an hour, they agreed they might.
In the milky afternoon light Mary Jane and John walked from the farmhouse toward the shore. Away from the sheltering firs, the wind was up, chopping the sea and whiffling Mary Jane’s tawny braid. In the Gilley cove, the rising water rolled before them over the snaily beaches. Tufts of algae and black crowberry sprouted out of the rocks in and above the tidepools. John leaned down to the water and snapped off a bough of slippery bladderwrack. As he walked, his busy fingers squeezed and burst the small pods one by one, popping and splitting like the entrails of the pigs his father slaughtered on Baker’s Island, when the bladder was a prize for the children. They climbed the rocks through seaside goldenrod not yet blooming, but still they did not escape the salt spray. John offered, and she took, his hand as she stepped across fissures that contained the boiling sea. Their voices were louder by the sea and softened as they rose away from it toward the crest of the island where John had been endeavoring to enlarge a small field. Mary Jane carried beach peas, with their small salmon and lavender blooms above fleshy leaves, to place in a cup by Harriet’s bed.
John surveyed the swirling channel and curling line of hills above the harbors of Mount Desert Island in the distance. He told Mary Jane that on Sundays, before he came along, his mother took the elder children to church seven miles in an open boat, Baker Island to Southwest Harbor, in mild weather, anyway. Mary Jane, unconfined and amusable, seized his odd locution: Before I came along? When he came along, had the waters parted? Had Sundays been banished from the islands? He let himself lean into her buoying banter, as he might let himself lean into a wind on the ledges. Yes, that was it, he agreed, diverted now, there were no more Sundays thereafter—only relentless laboring, for the men anyway! Then, her riposte, because laboring had been on her mind: The men? It had been his mother, after all, who labored relentlessly—a dozen labors for a dozen children, not counting the ones lost! He allowed a smile at her play and way with words.
He liked to remember his mother, Hannah, and did then, aloud. It had not been his birth that turned things. She was not easy with the Congregationalists in those days. She had come to Maine from Massachusetts, where she had been schooled far more than most islanders. She was a reader and owned her own mind; she was repelled by macabre threats of perdition emanating like fetid lobster from a pulpit. By the time John was old enough for church, Hannah no longer tolerated preaching that frightened the children. One of her legacies to them was her new allegiance to the Universalists, a cheerful faith, as she saw it. She had taught all of her children to read. She summoned the suitable word, always. It was no wonder, he often told Harriet, that he married a schoolteacher. John thought of Harriet when he first met her, keeping the long school in spring and early summer, and the short school in fall. His thoughts skimmed time and water from island to island. His mother had read aloud to the family through the winter evenings of his childhood, and he heard her voice these days when Mary Jane read aloud to Harriet.
Mary Jane, shivering in the breeze, was not precisely aware of his thoughts, but she was baffled by the rustle of recreance within her, a discoloring vein deep inside the alloy of her delight in her cousin’s good fortune to have embarked on a life with such a man and her scorching desire to have a husband like him. Concentrating hard, she retrieved the thread both had dropped during their momentary, private engrossments. She told him that Gilleys and Wilkinsons were in agreement on many matters, including hellfire sermons. Once, her own family had gone a distance to hear a visiting preacher, dark and hard and tight as a mussel. Her parents had been horrified by his fearsome preaching, and they said afterwards that they would have been as wise to stay home and play fox and geese.
Pleased, John looked at Mary Jane. What he had admired first about Harriet, and what he remarked on as he had met each of the Wilkinson women, was the good cheer that seemed so much like his mother’s. He said these things, then paused for a few paces. At least it had been so for Harriet until they lost the child, and then this sickness. Now he couldn’t say she was cheerful and vigorous, but she was steady through it all.
As her own father had been, Mary Jane averred, and then confessed that she had been afraid to leave Harriet behind just now because she recalled a time she had left her father when he was ill. When John asked, she explained it had been on an Independence Day, when she had been persuaded by all—and not least by her father himself—to attend a local celebration with Will Eliot, that young man John had heard about from Harriet. She had gone, vowing to return early. The skies had been splendid, and there had been a break in the heat, and all the families that she was most fond of were gathered on a stony burned point by the sea. There was lemonade and a drum and fiddle and dancing, her heart brimming over with conviction that her companion shared her warm feelings as never before. But when they had departed, it was far later than she had intended, and her father’s condition had deteriorated. She reproached herself bitterly for her abandonment and her pleasure, and that was the last time she had left her father for an entire day. It had turned out that she didn’t often see her friend after that. She was preoccupied, and he gradually disappeared into his life.
Fortunately for us, John hastened to console.
Us. Mary Jane considered. Harriet and John. We three. We two. Who were us? The vertigo again. She dropped a beach pea. John stooped to retrieve it. He handed it to her. She was vexed to notice that their fingers did not touch during this transaction—not vexed that they did not touch, but vexed to have noticed that they did not.
They were silent for a few moments until they came to John’s field. He indicated where he was clearing stones from the western end. Patiently, he was giving to the future every hour he could spare from the present. As he did even now.
They walked the perimeter of the precious mowing field, where his usual companions in the laborious harvesting of rocks were a yoke of oxen. He pointed out his mound of stones growing on the ledges. You’ll see, he forecast, one day it would be taller than she was, longer and broader than the barn. A landmark. A seamark. Almost everlasting.
Mary Jane looked giddily at the gray stone wall rising before the sea. Her head was light, and not with awe at the scale of his ambition and industry. It was words, she knew, that singed her heart: You’ll see.
“The Sick Nurse” is after a suggestive lacuna in Charles W. Eliot’s exquisite account of “the life of one of the forgotten millions,” John Gilley, Maine Farmer and Fisherman, 1899.