First published in All Rights Reserved, Autumn 2010
It was a story she had told him many times in the salad days of their courtship. She had leaned her head upon his shoulder – in those days her hair was long and tied back with loose ribbon – and talked of shores and seas and poetry. She imagined that it was the reason he had come to her in the beginning: why she had bowed her head into the crook of his neck and accepted his arms and his stacked memory of sonnets.
She had never been in love before, and she had never told anyone before of that day she nearly drowned, and how splendid it had been. It was seduction when she told the tale to him: she did not know that she was capable of seduction, although she knew that she had long legs and wild hair and that her passion for language was indomitable. She had remained after class one day to talk about Tennyson, and so she told Flinchwood the story of how she nearly drowned in search of Ulysses’s sirens, and in response he had closed the door and then kissed her.
Devonshire was snowy that winter. It snowed every winter. The air and trees and frost-caked bricks all imagined that the students learned character by trudging from their dormitories, by slipping on ice. These were Puritanical elements; they were tamed and they tamed their prey, and by her fourth year at Devonshire Veronica had learned the art of crossing the quads without sinking. She had engaged in battles with the gods that lived in the trees and the sports-grounds, with the spirits that controlled the weather. She imagined that she could hurdle past them by determination alone. In this manner she brought avenging fire upon her classmates in lessons, striding to and from classrooms with a metallic surety in her own brilliance. She challenged all the dead boys’ names and dead mens’ portraits hanging from the walls of the Academy Building, and challenged the living to stop her.
Veronica was half a ghost and half a girl. She had been this way since she nearly died in Sardinia at the age of eight, since she first slept with Flinchwood at the end of seventeen. She did not acknowledge anybody on the road from Revere Hall, but she paid her silent respects to the departed Jebediah Devonshire, whose statue shadowed the pathway to the Academy Building.
In Sardinia, the Mortimer family had rented a villa near the sea. Mr. Mortimer read his newspaper, and Mrs. Mortimer drank limoncello, and Veronica Mortimer danced on terraces with chubby feet and trailing teddy-bears. She turned up her little face to the sun and opened her mouth to the salt and read aloud her poetic compositions to the bear and to the mermaids.
Halfway into the vacation she found a book of poetry on one of the shelves in the villa, and she had her mother read to her Tennyson’s “Ulysses.” She arranged her dress about her skirt and flexed her fingers in her lap and when her mother got to the lines “Come my friends, ‘tis not too late to seek a newer world” she squirmed and when she got to “my purpose holds to sail beyond the sunset and the baths of all the western stars until I die” her eyes grew round and her lips taut.
At sunset she leapt from a rock into the Mediterranean. They found her some five minutes later with lungs full of water and her heart full of the secrets of the mer-people. Once she had spewed up the sea she attempted to explain her reasoning but found that words failed her. She was convinced that the Mortimers had stopped her from discovery of the western stars, and that consequently she had lost her one chance at immortality. She never stopped believing this, but as she grew older she grew wild-eyed and sure and voracious that the world should bend to her peculiar brand of paganism.
There was no blame that could sensibly be attached to Septimus Flinchwood, who had a very good name for a classicist. He was young and Southern and married to a poetess more successful than he was. He wore white smoking jackets to class and quoted old things at his students in the hopes that one of them would echo him, like a cavern, and he could hear his words a second time. He was mild-mannered with a dangerous streak of condescension that sent shivers down Veronica’s back – he never directed them at her, or when he did, she imagined that it was a flirtation. At night, he returned back to Revere Hall and took care of his twins. His wife lived in Cambridge that term; she returned on the weekends on the train, but Harvard wanted her, and to Harvard she had gone. When Veronica decided that she would sleep with him he would have contended with all the furious force of the Mediterranean should he have refused her.
For six months they had debated Catullus and Virgil across the table. She was sure in herself and in her interpretation of The Aeneid; she told him so and her belief in her own brilliance made it true. He refuted her in a manner that made them both uneasy; the correctness of the literary issue varied between the two of them, but it did not matter. She spoke about sex in Ovid with a frankness that was nearly and actually a proposition. There were four other students in the seminar and all of them were thoroughly uncomfortable.
She wasn’t sure at the time what it was she meant to do when she told him about Sardinia. “It was only that I loved the poem so much,” she said, “and it drove me mad that I could never find any sirens at all.”
She was beautiful, but that didn’t matter. When Veronica told Septimus Flinchwood the story of her childhood, he closed the door and locked it, and then kissed her. The moments between when he left her for the door and when he returned were the second most thrilling of Veronica’s life.
It really was the story that had done it. Flinchwood had taught English at Devonshire for three years and in that time nothing had struck him quite so deeply as the sight of brown eyes upturned with talk of Tennyson. When he stood up and turned from her, he had not yet decided what to do. When his hand was upon the lock, he realized that he had.
The sex was mediocre in the ranks of affairs. Veronica was in love with him and so she did not notice; it compared favorably to boys of her own age. For his part, Flinchwood was besotted with her, and hated her and it, and the sweat that came over them both at the end of a meticulously scheduled hour.
He had not, at first, realized that she was more intelligent than he was. He imagined that any brilliance she had exhibited was strictly for his benefit, and thus could comfortably attribute her exegeses to the erotic. It was only when, over tea two weeks later, she refuted his theory about Greek tragedy, that he realized she existed outside his conception of her.
“That’s why you’re in education, my dear,” he said. “To learn things. In the great grand world outside this campus, you’ll have to defend assertions like that.” When he kissed her she died again. It was a brilliant submission and for the first time she realized she was not immortal; she would one day not be young. She could not imagine that one day she would not be in love with him.
She put her arms about his neck and hung off it like an affectionate albatross. She tidied up his rooms when his wife was away. He put out an arm and pliant she came to him, curled up on the couch. There was a queer ease between them, even in his jealousy, even in her adoration. They spoke like a married couple. He offered to take her out to a restaurant in Dover, where nobody would recognize them. She insisted on cooking. For his birthday she bought him an old map from an antiquarian bookstore in town. She perched on his knee and kissed his nose.
Meanwhile he read her essays and critiqued them perhaps too sharply, but with an authoritarian air that delighted her. She thought that she was learning a great deal from him, and indeed she was, and when they spoke of abducted maidens and insatiable gods she laughed. He pulled her close to him, and imagined that she still smelled of Sardinian lemons and beaches to which he could no longer afford to go. He conquered all the human bits of her and then set out to lay claim to that core of her that was divine.
They existed for some time before they grew bitter.
She loved him too much. He had taken her as only the sea had taken her – alive and by surprise. She found all at once that she was young and clumsy and messy. Once he came to her room to check her in and when she apologized so profusely for the untidy heaps of clothes and coffee-cups he realized that she was seventeen.
“I’ve been working all day,” she said.
He shut the door behind him.
“What have you been doing?”
“Stupid things – student things.” She turned her face from him. “I’ve been doing my homework – I’ve been doing my homework diligently.”
“You’re a good girl.”
“I’m a mess.” She shuffled some papers from a beanbag chair and bade him sit.
“You shouldn’t be here,” he said to her when he sat. “It’s not good for your complexion. We ought to be somewhere sunny.”
“Like Sardinia?” she said.
“Yes, very much like Sardinia.”
“Would we drown?” she asked. Reality beat against their windows with the rain; she had an essay due for English class in sixteen hours.
“I would like that,” he said.
She looked so small to him, huddled, swiveling about on her desk chair with precarious neurosis. He wanted to take her in his arms and warm her away from winter. And yet it did not seem fair to him that Veronica should speak of Sardinia, that Veronica should be so close to seas and salt between her toes.
He sat in his white smoking jacket which was not made at all for winter and wondered at her for a while. She flushed underneath his gaze and glided about the room on her chair. “You shouldn’t concern yourself with me,” she said suddenly.
“I like to concern myself with you.”
“I’d be useless to you.”
“I’d vanish off into the sea.”
“You would not.”
“I suppose I wouldn’t,” said Veronica. “I wouldn’t leave you.” She cast her eyes downwards.
He could not understand her unhappiness; he imagined that it was his fault. Septimus was right in a sense; it was his fault. He had taken this airy creature out of her surf and tied her down to all the things that made one human. He had kissed her and made love to her and made her fall in love, and tethered her to tears when he did not telephone her in time. He reasoned this was the best education he could have given her; he regretted it, and he envied her songs of Sardinia.
He could not stop himself.
“You shouldn’t go to Sardinia without me,” he said. “Imagine it – I’d miss you.”
“Would you miss me?” Veronica said. “You’ve got loads of students.”
“Aren’t you a jealous girl!”
“I never used to be. I was always entirely unconcerned.”
“Now you concern me.” Veronica kicked at a pile of textbooks on the floor.
He felt a fantastic power in thus having made a mortal of her. She had in other days been lovely and flashing and gone to cities he had never seen; in other days she had been brilliant and argued Tacitus with him in seminar. He wondered at the sight of her docile; there were moments when he even pitied her love for him.
He had been in love at her age, and as much as he cared for her he could not equate her arms about his neck to any of the sort of knight-riding adventures he would have carried out in those days for his imagined brides.
He did not regret having slept with her. He regretted only having made her fall in love.
It thrilled him, however. It thrilled him most of all when in bed he taught her to say the sort of things unpoetic and sublime, things that rooted them both in the earth, in the dust of mortality and the grit of sex. He was battling with spirits for her soul and winning.
One day three months from their first encounter Septimus Flinchwood discovered that his wife was to publish a novel. She told him so haphazardly, when he had a twin in one arm and a bottle of baby-feeder in the other hand. She did not notice when he tensed so tightly the infant began to cry. Septimus Flinchwood had never published a novel.
That day in class, Septimus told his students a story of his childhood. It happened unintentionally, and Veronica was sitting in the front row.
“I was always quite fanciful when it came to the Greek myths,” he said. It was in response to Cecilia Churchhill, who wondered that anyone could find Greek myths relevant in the modern age. “I adored stories of Odysseus – I preferred the name Ulysses, but I suppose it depends on the author, doesn’t it?”
Veronica leaned her head upon her hand and gazed at him. She imagined that in the summer he would take her abroad.
“I always liked the Tennyson poem, you know – Tennyson’s “Ulysses.” I thought it was a wonderful summation.”
She thought it was a wonderful flirtation.
“When I was a boy, we spent summers in Sardinia.”
As a boy, Septimus Flinchwood could not afford summers in Sardinia.
“We rented a villa by the sea, and there in the villa were loads of English books left by previous tenants.”
They had been left by the owners for the good of all subsequent tenants.
“One of which was a copy of Tennyson’s poetry. My mother read Ulysses to me. She had a beautiful voice, my mother.”
Mrs. Mortimer’s voice was high and squeaky. Septimus Flinchwood could not stop himself. He caught Veronica looking at him; her eyes were wide and he wondered if she would begin crying. He could not resist it. She had given him her story with her heart; there was nothing for him to do but to take it.
“And when she got to the line – sail beyond the sunset - ah, well, I was always an adventurous boy.”
Flinchwood really was. He would draw pictures in the sand dunes around their house.
“And that sunset, I leapt into the sea, in search of a place beyond the sunset. I nearly drowned. I was in a coma for two days.”
Veronica was never in a coma.
“I think that – that was the moment I decided to become a teacher of Classics. To chase those pagan gods as best as a grown man can. Because of course – one can only see sprites and dryads as children! When we grow, we must find other recourses towards our hidden deities.”
His students laughed and thought him charming and eccentric. One or two even found him handsome.
Veronica did not speak to him again. She slung her book-bag over her shoulder when the bell rang and glared at him. She cried. He knew what he had done and there was no excuse or pardon. He let her go.
She did not speak of Sardinia again, not for years and even then only casually. It was no longer her story to tell. Septimus Flinchwood made the story a staple of his September introductions to new classes of seniors; he never slept with any of the others. There was no need. He had Veronica with him, as long as he had her tale upon his tongue, and he had the smell of the sea to sustain him.
At times there was guilt. His wife would be away at a conference; his children would be off at university, and he would sit at his kitchen table and wonder that a seventeen-year-old virgin had cooked for him far better than his wife ever had. He would think of Veronica and miss the smell of her hair and the look of old gods in her eyes. Those days he would pour himself a glass of Campari and decry that he was ever given the task to educate young girls.
It never stopped him, however, from talking of the sea.