PART TWO. [To read Part One of The Anthroparion, click here.]
My dear Iris —
So much has happened since last I wrote! My pen cannot move fast enough to capture these thoughts.
The first news, inescapably, is this: death, death, and still more death. Because of our relative isolation from Lowell, I had hoped that our Academy might be spared the specter of the Spanish flu. As if my students have not suffered enough! But two ninth-grade boys have already been taken away in a funeral carriage since the start of classes.
Some of my students have been sent home to their parents, but many stay on because it is too dangerous to return. So we limp along with classes, and I attempt to fashion some version of normality for the boys remaining. I have been trying not to let my academic standards slip, but on more than one somber afternoon I’ve allowed them to push their desks together for a game of Ping-Pong.
But it was this past Tuesday evening that things began to change in earnest. Classes were cancelled because yet another wave of influenza had broken in one of the dormitories. So I went home to my little cottage off-campus, and sat by the window, half-heartedly correcting papers on the lap desk, but mostly watching the light fade behind the nearly leafless trees, when there came a desperate knocking at my door.
I got up very sternly, because Elford Academy students are under a strict curfew as well as a quarantine. Despite all the table tennis, I do not want them to get the impression that they now can bend the rules with me. But it was not a student at my door at all, but Mr. Pursley — or, as he has urged me to call him now, Nathaniel.
You have probably already guessed that my intimacy with this man has suddenly, and delightfully, increased. I only wish that it were under more pleasant circumstances. His beautiful fiancee has been in a terrible accident. She was kicked in the chest by a horse while Nathaniel was standing just a few yards away, and he arrived at my doorstep in an appalling state, his neat white shirt covered with Dorah’s blood!
It is impossible to explain to you what happened next, Iris. I fear that you will be ashamed of me when I tell you the story in full detail, but I must confide in you. I pray that you will not think less of me, Iris, though I admit — I hardly know who I am anymore.
Let me begin by saying that Nathaniel Pursley is not like our beloved father. Nathaniel is not a modest man. But in telling you this, I must admit that I am not a modest woman!
Like so much sin, it started innocently. What else does one do when a dear friend arrives at your doorstep, asking for aid? I bade him sit down and fetched warm water, soap, and some clean towels. I was in a state of some alarm but, I also must admit, arousal and some excitement. Nathaniel, too, was breathing fast, like a man in shock. I was in the process of gently wiping the blood from his cheeks when he seized me around the waist and pulled me onto his lap!
At this moment, I know you must be gawking in disbelief, trying to decide whether to hurl my letter into the fireplace. I pray you will keep reading, if only because I feel lost in some vast dark land. My soul is like the weak light of a single, freshly-struck match in the abyss. The smallest unkind breath might put it out entirely. Please, Iris, bear with me!
My eyes fill with tears as I remember how readily I succumbed to sin. Here I thought it was something that one dipped oneself into gradually, like the river in late May. But as he tore at the buttons of my house dress, a strange other self pushed out of me with abandon, like a flower exploding into bloom, and I seized him around his neck and kissed him fiercely.
And you know that I have not even kissed a man before! I had known only what Mother told us about carnal matters, Iris, and I believed her when she told me that a marital bed was necessary in order to complete the act. Now I know better, of course, but I suppose it’s clear that I had never given the notion any critical examination.
You have always been more circumspect about these matters than I — perhaps because you are the one who actually has a tale to tell. Yet I’m afraid that what happened between Nathaniel and me that evening was much more sordid than a few furtive embraces on a sailboat.
In the heat of the moment, my previous life tore away like the flimsy paper on a child’s Christmas present. It seemed not only natural but necessary that we did it as we did, on the settee, with him sitting up and me astride him in a frenzy, licking the blood from each other’s faces and necks like animals. And it was after the shock of that, that he led me to my kitchen table, where he pushed me down so roughly and I submitted so eagerly that looking back on it I want to retch!
Afterward I felt dazed and not quite myself, and the more time that has passed since this encounter, the more and more I feel fundamentally altered. Iris, I had never known that these appetites existed within my heart.
When the deed was done, we brought out Aunt Beatrice’s old quilts and lay together in the kitchen before the open fireplace door — I know you laughed at my newspaper-lined winter coat last Christmas, but it grows considerably colder in northern Massachusetts than it does in Providence. I opened the dusty bottle of port that Dr. Wietzel gave us for Christmas last year and it was only then that Mr. Pursley — Nathaniel — and I set to truly talking.
He said that the War changed him, both within and without. The disease that followed our men back from the trenches is not just a disease of the flesh, Iris, but one of the eternal soul. Nathaniel’s horizons are so much broader than yours and mine, Iris! I wish I could do his tales justice in the retelling. He told me of his travels in Europe after he left the army, where he made the acquaintance of more than one black magician. Such people do exist, Iris, can you believe it? These magicians had been predicting this Great War for more than a decade. Now there are whispers of sinful rites meant to open portals to new dimensions so that humanity may have some chance at redemption. I can’t claim to understand it all, but it sounds thrilling, doesn’t it?
We spend our nights together now, sleeping inside a chalk circle on the kitchen floor.
Iris, this man is my angel and my devil at once. I hardly know what to do. The loss of my virtue is troubling enough on its own, but I have now learned that, contrary to my initial assumption, Dorah Fletcher was not killed in that accident. She remains at the hospital behind the Academy in some awful state between sleeping and waking. The rumor has it that her speech has become degenerate and filthy; it is difficult even for her own father to visit her. Nathaniel has only visited her once.
I do not know why his affections have leapt from her to me with such abruptness, but there is no denying the power of this hideous connection. While the flu still holds the Academy in its grip, it is possible that our liaisons will go unnoticed — he had me against a tree the other day, like some randy peasant girl straight out of Chaucer! — but as things settle back to normal, it is inevitable that our affair will be discovered. The prospect weighs heavily on my conscience.
I am a graduate of Vassar College, and the first woman ever to teach at Elford Academy. I sat astride a white horse to march for the rights of women! I spoke into a megaphone in front of City Hall about women’s unsullied moral virtue! I feel a responsibility for the betterment of our sex overall and yet…I cannot resist this temptation.
Iris, I throw myself at your feet. I will do my level best to cleave to any wisdom you can offer.
Tearfully awaiting your reply,
P.S. If it makes any difference at all, I do love him.