(interpolating material by Paul Simon, John Sebastian, Johnny Jewel, Johnny Mercer, Emily Jane Meluch, Conor Oberst, Jaret Ray Reddick, and Eddie Argos)
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The weight of the world
– Allen Ginsberg
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What a dream I had, like when I woke from out of my fever. You were calling me, as you did then, and even though it was back to these four walls, the excitement of our time together still rang. It’s the hope, Ed. It’s the hope. It never goes out.
I’m afraid my imagination has gotten the better of me. I’ve started seeing myself reflected in the wider world you introduced me to. Take those headlines – Woman’s Insane Infatuation! and Criminals Won’t Burden Themselves with a Woman! More than news reports, they were communiqués from one part of my mind to another, articulating things I couldn’t bear to let myself think. How wrong they were, anyway. This was no amour fou. Your energy, your wild mind, your physical beauty, the sanity of your heart – it was the most rational thing in the world to love you! Who could blame them for saying, anyway? Who could’ve believed a hausfrau like me – warden’s wife, mother of four – could run away with a couple of condemned men – handsome men, brutal men, men who could’ve chosen any of the multitudes of women seduced to their defense. Thank you, Ed, for letting me believe what no woman of 1901 could ever have believed of herself.
Have you heard about this new thing, the “movies”? What they do is, they take a series of photographs shot one after another, speed them past a light, and project them on a screen to give the illusion of motion. Right now they’re simple but they’re starting to tell stories, and one day I bet they’ll tell ours.
Here’s how it’ll begin: in smoke and stone – in industry; a church; our correctional facility – factories of desire! There’ll be smokestacks flaring: physical and intellectual longing finding release in heated sighs. Fire barrels on every corner – ours and the city’s burning hearts. A spire rising out of the fog. The lockup where I found you transformed by love. All this our Pittsburgh; our prison; our life.
When they make this movie, they must have a homosexual write it; he’ll know how this place represses desire. A woman should bring it to life, because only she would know what it’s like to have these beautiful children and still not feel your presence known in the world. There’ll be a correspondence between you and me, a simpatico, a coming into consciousness and a sense of there being no way back from where we’ve gone. They’ll feature the whole affair, from meeting in Peter’s prison when I was handing out bibles and you were kept pending hanging, to our escape and life on the run, till now. Recaptured; uncontained. A romance born in captivity; not content to be left there.
You came to this institution they called marriage to let me know I was really free, Ed. Thank you for drawing me out of my mind and restoring me to myself. You are the one my life has been leading to.
Every time I read your letters I get this feeling: Distracted. Uneasy. Restless as hell. What’s the expression? “Like someone’s walking over your grave.” There’s so much I can’t make sense of, even now. How you bought my line and put aside your love for me. How honest affection grew out of an act of desperation. How someone like you could risk all on the off-chance there’d be room in the world for us; our unlikely symmetry.
Let’s face it, though: there’s no room for communication between our separate Pittsburghs. (Mine grows more claustrophobic by the day; it’s getting so I can’t tell light from dark, anymore.) These letters are no substitute for the great relief of having you to talk to and share with in person. We were always meant to be. We just weren’t meant to be together.
I know your longing. We are heart of heart, mind of mind, if not the same body. I need you in my life, if only in my dreams, or I fear I’ll fall back into weakness, listlessness, purposelessness.
I had no idea how lonely I was till I had that dream: lost in a snowstorm till someone pulled me free. I remember, too, the look on Peter’s face when I recounted it to him and could tell it was his dream, also: he was as trapped in this system as I was. Poor dear, the first thing he could think of was to fix me a sedative, too afraid of a woman’s liberation to hear me out and too fearful of his own freedom to let it breathe. Didn’t the mixture look like the blizzard I’d just come out of! (In our movie, I see me appearing from behind the glass – out of my fog, into everyday life.) Someone should have told him I was Persephone arising from the Underworld (my three-month faint a seasonal spell), as I must every springtime.
There were so many voices in that moment: my God telling me He wasn’t going to let me die, Peter saying Yes, drink this now, and the women outside protesting your incarceration; their incarceration. The first thing I thought of when I heard those women was the 50-year voice of suffrage, that restive spirit that moves the world body. Does it matter that the mother praying for you and Jack and the injustice of your imprisonment, was wrong: That you did kill the shopkeeper in that robbery? She knew there was a greater theft at issue: of hope, promise, and the dream of a better world for her daughters. (When my younger, Margaret, dropped that bucket from a window onto the newsboy’s head it was like feisty Sybylla in that book that came out last year, My Brilliant Career, dropping a pillow on her suitor’s head! Whoever makes our movie should do that one first!)
Sometimes I wonder if I’d made a deal with the devil in giving my future to you (my eldest, Irene, said as much; but then who was she bargaining with, agreeing at sixteen to marry a man she plainly didn’t love?). I need only remind myself how my deal with God had been going, to cure me of that faint. No wonder our first clinch came in your escape attempt, that wild untamable energy running headlong into me and knocking me over, saying I’ve gotta get out of here too. Your failed flight was the first step in my liberation; after that there was no hope for me. I didn’t eat. Didn’t sleep. I did nothing but think of you. When they threw you into isolation after, it reminded me of the smokestacks outside – Fires Within – surging into the world then stanching while a hotter, permanent flame bided its time, bided its time, bided its time. Our world was burning from the inside out.
Oh, Ed. It looks like I’ve written myself up to another sleepy bout. Just one more read through the beautiful poem you wrote me, and goodnight.
What I remember most about that poem is what I wanted it to do to you. It was a seduction, sure, but I was only doing my job, speaking the words of your heart from a place you’d long lost connection to; like now, as we communicate from one chamber to another (lub-dub, lub-dub). That rumbling you feel is my heart beating inside yours. “Just a little violet from across the way,” it started, after the device on the hanky you gave me when we ran into each other: a symbol of mercy, like so many dormant things in me that found flower under your light.
I knew my talk of escape would get you, too; everybody loves a jailbreak story. They like to think there’s a way out of this, but there’s no way. They think their body is a prison and some sort of rapture awaits them in a next life, so they abide and even legitimize the abuses and longueurs this one visits on them. When I refused your bible but bit your apple I was telling you that this body, this life is our only hope of liberation. The pure joy of being. I had what you wanted.
And look where it got us.
I know what you intended with your poem. I take the ending – with that flower soon being buried with you – to be playing on my sympathies, but the only way I can make sense of its heartbeat from beyond the grave is that the grave you’re talking about isn’t real or yours, but mine, and in that you’re right. Some beautiful organic part of myself was in danger of being prematurely buried. And yet our feeling for each other transcends such concerns. That’s the thing about love: it validates itself. From the writing to passing it to me, your poem was all about bridging the gaps between us – my marriage, our difference in age – as between our sexes, our divided mind, heaven and earth, finally even life and death – gestures, and the meaning behind things that only those in tune can comprehend. You knew I’d taste freedom on your lips in our first kiss, between those prison bars, when our worlds – our separate selves – came together. (When Peter demanded, “Have you lost your senses?” I wanted to ring back, “No! I’ve found them.” Isn’t freedom born of the erotic?) What you weren’t expecting was that in that sequence of sharing I would become yours forever.
You know, you will always be an enigma to me. The ambivalence in your motives; the multiplicity of meanings in everything you say. That’s why I read your poem every night before sleeping, because I know that understanding you means understanding why I need you so, want you so, yearn to share with you again. In art or in action. I want to taste life behind your eyes. That’s why all these letters: our story is history, and I can’t allow you and me to become history too or all is lost. Ed, you’re all that’s left me. One day, when you’re not the only thing I think about, maybe I’ll move beyond this prison all writing comes from and live the life you promised. I will always be true to your memory; the way I’ve constructed you in my mind.
Didn’t I say we should leave something irreplaceable with our lovers?
When I told you Jack and I were “innocent as snow,” we both knew that wasn’t true. What I really meant was that maybe snow isn’t as pure as everybody thinks. There was snow all around us, along with the fire. You were born in a snowstorm, as far as anyone is concerned, like me and Jack; maybe you weren’t so innocent either. I was in hell when I wrote that poem, by candlelight (by candlelight, Kate), trying to summon my own path to redemption. Coming out of that blizzard was a coming out from both of our illusions – about the world, about ourselves. We knew what we were capable of.
As my eyes visualize that snow, I understand it was my entire world. So much blankness, yet so much light. Odd there could have been that much water in the sky, that much life. If only we had some way to convert its potential into energy – like a winter dam! It would be our time then, a source of renewal, and we’d see something new in an old season.
I can’t tell you how many prisons I broke out of that night you came to take me with you. Marriage, history, domesticity, conventionality, most of all my own sense of self. I had potential, with you! Can you even contemplate how revolutionary that was for me? There will never be quiet in my heart again after knowing you – for me or any of my sisters.
When I tried to walk things back with Peter after my letter begging your clemency, you have to understand how terrified I was of the fires you stirred in me. Fires that would melt the snow and purify my soul even as they corrupted my body. Though I begged him to take me away for a while it was you who did that finally, as though you’d heard my pleas and understood what I needed, sweet beautiful sensitive charismatic you. All I got from him was “Just be patient.” That scream you heard in the prison’s core after my “Yes, Peter” wasn’t Jack’s escape-attempt ruse with his wastebasket fire, it was my cry, from deep inside this armored heart. How appropriate that you collected me on the same staircase Peter criticized me on only hours before, as though the whole world was in transition and teetering on my response.
What were we, that nobody wanted us to be together, to be free? There was something rising up then, with women consorting with men of lower station since Cathy met Heathcliff spare decades ago, calling up our latent power from the depths of our psyches. You and I were nothing new; nor would we be the last.
When I imagine the hubbub back at Peter’s press conference announcing our jailbreaks (like the furor at the safe house we fled to: how we upset the apple cart!), with the detective, McGovern, breezing in and pocketing our family photo (the whole social structure going missing) like some preprogrammed moral authority come to drag me back to reality, I understand there’s a broader consciousness at work. I’m in touch with more than my own life.
So I dream of future lives – bearing witness to the women I might be when I’m done being me. A writer, say, forsaking love to pursue her brilliant career, or her sister ninety years on, running away with a brother-in-law in the last days of chez nous. A starstruck singer determined to establish herself, or a chorus girl rediscovering her long-lost daughter at high tide. A refugee fleeing her troubled homeland to encounter the fires within, or a charlatan romancing another escape artist like yourself through his death-defying acts. Romantics all, forging into unforgiving territory, like the train that delivered us through the wilderness snow. Like my Margaret and, who knows, maybe those in our storyteller’s own work and profession years from now. (Whoever she is, I hope she favors revolutionaries who break their bonds and escape their fates, because I still hold hope that will be the end to our story, too.)
It’s all right for you to dream, you’ll be out of here one day. For what I’ve done there’s no forgiveness. Like that train you talk about, the tracks are set.
Do you remember us on our “honeymoon”? Two lovers alone and out of sight in a schoolhouse on New Year’s Eve – on so many thresholds. Why did I have to urge you so to get rid of your ring? Didn’t you see that those paper chains all around us, festooning the classroom like all the wedding bands in all the world, braided into a warning? We carry our prisons wherever we go. Your detective was after us even then on a train of his own (chugging and steaming like the factories we were fleeing), while we had only our horse and sled. Sometimes there’s nothing more defeating than the possible.
What I remember most about that time was screaming when I woke up in that hollowed-out factory the next day. I thought I’d woken into the same dream that started it all, and maybe I wasn’t far from wrong. From empty schoolhouse to abandoned factory to winterstruck farm, there was no farther for us to go. Did I know then that the fire dear old Mr. Stevenson lit for us when he took us into his guest room – our own fire! – wouldn’t be the last heat we’d share, when flesh finally met flesh?
You were so innocent when I coaxed you into my arms. Remember what I said? “Come keep me warm.” You were my fire, the molten center of my world, and the heat we made together so compressed and perfectly molded it warms me even now, far apart as we are. I told you then how I used to calm my children by telling them to look up at the sky – beyond earthly concerns, like that opening spire – and see the sun at day and the moon and stars at night – the heat and light from far away, guiding us even still. “God’s eyes,” I told them, “protecting you.” Because everyone needs protection. When I shared that with you, it was understood: we’d have to be each other’s protection, now. We’d transcended the old order, and there’s only so long they’d let that stand. Sometimes when I need that light in my cell I send my soul through these bars, down the hall, to the heart of this prison with its skylight open to the heavens, and bathe in your rays, for you’re my sun, Ed, my little piece of heavenly.
Maybe we were out of our minds by that point, bless us. When Mrs. Stevenson gave Jack the newspaper to read to her Mr., it was like putting your dreams in charge of reality (for the little while that lasted). And maybe those were the only conditions you and I could remain as one.
Isn’t that when they get you, when you’re dozing and that mental housekeeper is sweeping up, like Mrs. was doing (like I imagine lots of women in our storyteller’s work – and the world – will be doing)? She must have had an effect, because that’s when I confessed to you about the murder and you told me what to do if they ever got you away from me. You needed a killer on your side.
When you talked to me through the bars early on about the four horsemen, did you know they would come after us like that, McGovern and his posse? When they shot you, thank the sun you saved a bullet of your own so you could keep your promise to me. That’s when things started doubling back on themselves, like they always do when a dream is coming to a close and there’s nothing new to discover. There was a smear of blood on my face then like there was on yours the first time we embraced; we’d come full circle. Jack’s howl when he saw us was a cri de coeur like he gave the night of our prison break, his circling back a crazy move like McGovern’s shortly before, a last stand for irrationality, bless his ruined soul. He took you off the sled with him and left me alone on that runaway coach like a mind in freefall, and when you took to the woods it looked like the biggest jailhouse in the world and you the tiniest prisoners, making small our love and our chance at escape.
Funny, I can see you and Jack getting caught more clearly than when they discovered me shortly after, like I had gotten lost in the snow again and you two had to finish some business before I could regain myself. I’m not even certain I survived. And what if I hadn’t? Maybe this is the testament of an indomitable spirit, still sounding off in 1903 – 1984 – 2018? Next thing I knew Irene was coming to see me in the hospital to tell me she’d gone and married Billy. (“Billy!” How can anyone make it in this world with a boy for a husband?) Peter didn’t know she was there, would never have permitted it, so there might be a spark in the girl yet. In a few more years that spark will catch fire. I know it, Ed; I know. (If I could tell our chronicler one thing, it’d be to start with her awakening, not mine.)
They gave me flowers when I was brought here, like they must have given Irene at her wedding, so I hope the irony wasn’t lost on her. The early spring the matron told me about was some reassurance: that’s when they let Persephone out, so maybe I’d get off easy. Somehow in that bouquet someone hid the photo you gave me, with your poem on back, and when I found it I heard your voice so sweet and clear, as if you were with me again. “Just a little violet from across the way.…” A token of mercy traversing the divides, from me to you and back again.
I guess that was about the time they hanged me. Strung me up and let me go. Like you ought to already.
How far did we get on our great escape anyway, and what was it a failure of – will, or imagination? Always had plenty of one and not enough of the other. That’s the frustrating thing about dreams – and dreamers: they can’t communicate with reality, so there’s only so far you can take them.
You know the truly ruinous thing about living? It allows you to forget the magic you’ve seen with your own eyes. Not the fairy tales you believed as kids or the ideals you struggled to realize in life but the true physical beauty of a child standing in a shower of maple seed pods or constellations of fireflies in the foliage lining a forest road, or the face of a longed-for lover curtained in a snowstorm of cottonwood, lighter than air. The things that flood the mind as the last breath is leaving your body: the light around her head as she speaks; the curve of her lips when the wind compels you to kiss; her face as she invites you in from the cold when you’ve burned your last bridge behind you; an image of you both in a carelessly placed mirror, about to meet for the first time. Sights so perfect you’ll one day doubt you saw them just to get yourself through another non-magical day.
Why they didn’t let me die there in the snow like I asked I’ll never know, only to make me swing later. I guess as much as they didn’t want us to be together, someone didn’t want to see us go. If you don’t remember anything between then and now maybe it’s because nothing happened. Maybe Jack and I are still out there in those woods where we belonged, calling to each other like you and I are doing now. We weren’t liable to hurt anyone anymore, like that deputy said when he stayed McGovern’s pistol; their only unfinished business was keeping us alive till they could get you behind bars. We’d fulfilled our purpose: to inspire the adventure that’d reunite daughters with their rebellious ma’s and provide tomorrow’s storytellers with another notch on their pencils and fodder for their magazines. They needn’t have hanged us. We would have done it ourselves, eventually.
Can you picture Peter and the boys, packing all their useless curios while Margaret plays, alone, the piano so many will play in unison in other stories this chronicler of yours will tell, providing the music to their sad inventory, till finding the letters that will give them pause? Our letters, this dialog between impossible worlds they will put away until unpacking some eighty years later for your movie and who knows how far off again after that. The furniture – appointments of a fixed life – sheeted all around like ghosts (like ghosts, Kate), everybody preparing to move on. Will you be one of them? Or will you keep our story close to you? Will you tell it again and again, like vaudeville, or the creation myth of a new life? Are we over, Kate, or are we only a beginning.
I would never let you hang; I will hold you next to me like you did in that sled when you pulled your trigger and I cried aloud at the fire you put in my heart. This torch that I hold is always aflame. The fire in my heart is you.
ED,[text is indecipherable]
It’s been days since your last letter, spring is coming, and I fear the worst. Your messages are the only thing that reassure me our time together was real. Keep writing, Ed, and keep this line open till we’re together again. We harmonize; we synthesize; we recognize each other. What is love, if not seeing through the same eyes? And what would be left were we to lose that?
I feel like I’m waking up again and can’t get back to sleep. Tell me the story of our escape again. Tell me how we did it, even if only for a while. Tell me a story about love. Tell me the story of love.
[Editor’s note: All manuscripts were found in the Allegheny County Prison cell vacated by Mrs. Katherine Soffel, 1904; all were written in the same hand.]
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All images are screenshots from the film.