Chapter 12 - 1918
Mary Hawkins was buried in the small cemetery next to the Lutheran church. Her husband led the private graveside service. Fewer than twenty people attended, mostly family who lived nearby. The relatives who lived farther away sent their condolences but didn’t attend. It seemed to Helen her father was all too anxious to bury his late wife and move forward, just as he had hidden his guilt and gotten on with his life since the loss of his other daughter.
Beyond the cemetery, townspeople passed, stopping to gaze at the church. Pastor Hawkins accepted their tokens of kindness in the forms of food, cards, and words, but he didn’t speak much of his wife, even in church. He went about conducting himself in his job as he always had. When talk came up of Mary, he changed the topic.
He moved out of the house Helen occupied and took up residence in his church office. He kept a cot and his few possessions with him.
People spoke of the change in the pastor. They chalked it up to the loss of his wife, but how could they know the rest of the truth?
Meanwhile, Helen lived in the house alone. She kept it clean and made it hers. She found income in mending and making other people’s clothes. She copied the fashions she saw in the magazines and remade her clothes, using the fabric she had. She repurposed her mother’s old dresses for her needs. While the weather was mild, she had a regular supply of fruits and vegetables from the garden and canned some for the coming winter.
And there was Matilda. They grew closer as the weeks turned into months. The leaves changed, shone in their colorful brilliance for a short while, and then fell to the earth.
All this time, Helen didn’t access her father’s body. In fact, she kept as far away from him as possible and only glimpsed him in passing. He seemed to feel the same about her, for when he saw her in the distance, he went the other direction--each incident a victory for Helen. She had him right where she wanted him.
Helen slipped into the other young woman’s body during the night when she was sure Matilda was asleep. At first, Helen’s control remained a challenge. She slid into Matilda’s body as her eyes grew heavy and she drifted to sleep, much like when she had no control. But those times lessened. Often now, Helen could ease into Matilda’s slumbering body while Helen was still awake. As Helen had full control, Matilda remained sleeping when she moved into Helen’s body, leaving Helen conscious in Matilda’s form. Matilda’s body grew to have the feeling of a warm, familiar coat wrapped around Helen to keep her protected. And this coat was special, for it held every memory with it. The coat became a book for Helen to peruse--a book of Matilda’s life.
On a mid-November day, the wind howled outside as Helen brought the tea things into the sitting room. As she placed the tray on the coffee table, a slight smile tugged at her lips. Her eyes landed on the chair where Matilda sat.
“Is something humorous?” asked Matilda, accepting a cup of tea from her dear friend.
My mother died in that very spot. “Nothing at all. How are you feeling? Have the fainting episodes lessened?”
Matilda took a sip of tea and placed it aside. She nodded. “Why, yes, they have. It’s a strange thing. They were infrequent for years. I would be in the middle of doing something, would black out, and then when I came to, a few seconds or upwards of a couple of minutes would have passed. I sometimes was in a completely different part of the room, like sleepwalking.”
“That is strange.” Helen tried to keep the grin from her face, but her cheeks warmed. “Have you seen a doctor?” I know very well you have, but no one has had any useful answers or advice.
Matilda nodded. “Of course, but the fact that they are happening less and less frequently is reassuring. Mother thinks I may be outgrowing whatever was causing those odd fainting spells.”
“That’s wonderful news.” Helen gave a genuine smile and took her friend’s hand.
Matilda smiled back. “Your concern is touching, darling. You have been such a supportive friend all these months.”
“It’s my pleasure.”
“But I worry for you, Helen.” Matilda’s eyes rested on her a moment too long. Helen could almost reach out and hold the emotion she knew so well when she was inside Matilda.
“But your parents… I mean, you’re all alone in this house.”
“I’m not completely alone.” Helen’s eyes glinted. She leaned toward her friend, placing a hand on Matilda’s knee. She licked her dry lips.
Matilda blushed, didn’t quite meet Helen’s gaze.
“I know you feel it, too,” Helen whispered.
Matilda’s cheeks reddened further, but a slow smile formed on her lips. She looked at Helen. “Yes.”
As if propelled by a force beyond her control, Helen closed the distance as her lips touched Matilda’s. Their mouths brushed at first. Then Helen, bolstered by the moment’s emotion, pressed into Matilda. Matilda melted like ice on a hot day, molding to Helen like a dress with the perfect fit.
When the kiss ended, each young woman took some time to catch her breath. Helen’s heart thudded in her chest, reverberating up to her head, intoxicating her as if she’d had too much alcohol.
“That was…” Matilda sighed. “I mean, that was quite… Darling, I have no words.”
Helen took her friend’s hand and squeezed it. She looked up at her through her lashes. “I’ve been wanting to do that for a long time.”
Matilda tittered. “Well, in that case, I suppose I ought to tell you I’ve been waiting for you to make the first move. I admit I am a bit shy on matters of the heart, and this...between young women, it’s not what most would call natural.”
Helen shook her head. “If I cared what others thought, I would be unhappy indeed.”
“But how could you know I would return your affections in that manner?” Matilda furrowed her brow. “I have dated a few young men, but nothing serious.”
Helen grinned. “Call it a certain feeling, a vibration if you will. I believe I have a good ability to read people.”
“Well, you certainly have read me like a well-thumbed book!”
Helen laughed. “Oh, you have no idea!” I always finish what I start.
When the laughter subsided, Matilda said, “Surely your father wouldn’t approve.”
“I don’t care what anyone thinks, especially him.” Helen frowned, her giddy bubble bursting.
Matilda nodded. “I want us to be together, to be more than friends, very much so, but I’m afraid this will have to be our little secret. My parents are wonderful, but they would never understand. This sort of connection…”
Bitterness stabbed Helen’s heart. She crossed her arms over her chest. “Of course, I should have known--”
Helen shook her head, tried to dismiss the matter. “It’s our little secret, then.” She put on a smile, conflicted by the heaviness in her heart.
“Very good. We shall be happy. That’s all that matters.”
* * *
Helen paced her room that evening, burying her fingers in her hair. Her nails dug into her scalp. She released a noise somewhere between a groan and a growl, then flung herself onto her bed. She ripped her blouse off, the buttons clattering to the floor. The skirt followed. She stripped down until she was naked and lay on top of the covers, staring at the moonlight on the ceiling.
People already talked about her in town. She was different, bold, daring--some said a loose lady because of her shorter-than-acceptable skirts and low-cut blouses. Helen loathed the close-minded nature of Hurston and thought maybe she would fare better in a big city. Cleveland wasn’t far, but Matilda wasn’t in the city.
I lie to myself most of all, saying I don’t care what others think. If I can’t handle their talk because of how I choose to dress, how the hell am I supposed to handle gossip about being in a relationship with Matilda?
She slammed her fists down on either side of her.
It’s not fair. It’s not! Why should my life be built of one unhappiness after another? I finally found love, and it’s forbidden. I should be over the clouds with joy. Matilda loves me! But it’s not enough, is it? Who am I kidding but myself? I knew, I knew she would never be brave enough to be open about it, not even to her family. I know everything about her, so why the hell did I try to fool myself into thinking otherwise?
“Because I’m in love.”
A tear escaped and lost itself in the bedding. Helen screwed her eyes shut and tried to block out the pain. Sleep claimed her.
When she opened her eyes, she was in Matilda’s lacy bedroom, sitting at her vanity.
She gasped, reaching toward her reflection. Matilda’s hair cascaded halfway down her back. Bobby pins from the usual updo littered the vanity surface. Helen ran her fingers through the soft tresses as she had longed to do with her own hands. Today it was only a kiss. Caresses should have followed. Featherlight touches to the gentle curve of the neck--Helen turned her head a bit to the left and took in that curve, pushing the hair back. Her eyes traveled to Matilda’s bosom. She lifted her, Matilda’s, their entwined hands to those round breasts and held them. Her own hands should be fondling those soft orbs. She moaned in pleasure, allowed her eyes to slip shut. Her hands searched lower. Her core shuddered with the anticipation of the touch. She smiled as she explored this perfect body.
Her eyes opened. She was still rooted to the chair at the vanity. She gazed at herself, imagined how much better her life would be as Matilda. She was Matilda.
A memory surfaced of dinner two weeks ago.
Matilda was seated with her sisters and parents at an overlong dining table. Fine linen napkins were folded in such a manner that Helen couldn’t begin to understand how the servants created the little masterpieces. The china and all the silverware had been laid out according to the standards of high society. It was as foreign to Helen as knowing an embrace from a loving father.
Mrs. Forkins prattled on about introducing Matilda to the eldest son of a wealthy businessman from the next town over. “But, my dear, do give the young man a chance. I have already made arrangements. He shall be joining us in a fortnight, as well as his parents. These types of connections are important to keep the family lines going strong.”
“You mean the family wealth going strong, Mother,” Matilda said with a sigh, staring at her hands in her lap.
Her mother smiled. “Now, now, it will be just the thing you need. You’ve been spending so much time with the pastor’s daughter lately, and I would love for you to make some new friends. What ever happened to Jennifer? You two were close for years.”
“Jennifer is to be married next month. I haven’t been invited to the wedding. We have drifted apart. It happens.”
“Beatrice, let it rest,” said Matilda’s father. “You have plenty of time to play matchmaker. Not all young women must be married off before they turn eighteen.”
“With their parents’ approval, Jacob, it’s quite normal. I was sixteen when we were wed, and here we are, twenty years later, still together.” Mrs. Forkins’s eyes shone in the light of the chandelier, an import from Murano, and electric.
“You two are such lovebirds,” Matilda said with a giggle, her brief annoyance over her mother’s interfering in her imagined love life disappearing.
Her sisters, Ingrid and Emily, joined in the laughter, followed shortly by her parents.
The memory dissolved. Helen pursed her lips and tried not to smile at the adorable way Matilda’s little bow of a mouth drew up.
“Even in times of tension, her parents love her, want what’s best for her.” A tear streamed down her cheek--Matilda’s cheek, for now the chasm between the widened--as she closed her eyes.
When she opened them, she was back in her bedroom.
These escapes were teases, nothing more. Helen sat up and went to the window, staring into the darkness. The dim moonlight rested on the branches of the skeletal tree beside her window. The view never changed, even if time passed and the seasons moved on. People were getting on with their lives--even in Hurston, where time seemed to stand still.
Helen balled her hands into fists and released her fingers, trying to undo the tension throughout her body. That dinner with the wealthy young man would likely be tonight or tomorrow, Helen realized. Matilda hadn’t spoken of it, but perhaps she had managed to change her mother’s mind?
Helen doubted that very much from what she glimpsed of Beatrice Forkins. The more Helen thought about it, she realized she only knew Matilda’s family from her times in the other woman’s body. She scowled, shook her head, and returned to bed, hoping her mind would stay in her body for the rest of the night.