"Eddie, Lennie, and Berenice" by Steven Leech
“The teeth,” said John Lofland, student of medicine, “shall last as long as bone, when flesh is gone and turned to dust and the grave shall claim the coffin in the roots of that which grows new life.”
Poe had traveled by coach and packet to this bard as some had named him, or he had named his self. John Lofland, once a medical student, now poet published with much acclaim for The Harp of Delaware.
With him, Poe had brought that volume for Lofland to inscribe. In that room, spare except for books, tucked away in a large house provided through inheritance, Lofland read, composed, pined away in melancholy, far from the metropolises Poe had visited more than once. Only in Philadelphia had Lofland lived to discover himself and to study medicine, and now in only Milford, in the midst of farmlands and agrarian commerce and the misery of dark men retreating into night with the mystery of their lives with soft-skinned wives of their own sworn covenant and stolen children.
Poe had asked that student of medicine about the nature of death, its clinical terms that proved its final definition. And so Lofland began with the teeth over which flows breath and prepares nourishment for the body and the soul.
Both Poe and Lofland, in the late springtime of 1831, shared the same melancholy from a similar source, of romance and betrothal denied by the convention of the ordinary. There would be no affirmation of life in an earthly paradise for both.
“In death,” Lofland continued, “the earliest certainties are the seizing of joints to bone in a process called rigor mortis, and the greatest certainty is the bloating of the body while the inner organs begin to expunge the gasses of putrefaction turning gore to thick liquid. There would be no question that death has made its claim.”
“Blessed are the dead,” Poe mused pensive, “that the forces of nature can alleviate the anguish of the living where there is no relief from the relentless stranglehold of melancholy.”
“Yes,” replied Lofland, “the living fare far more agony when measured by years than the sudden release through death’s sudden door.”
“And may we be blessed,” Poe quipped, “by the door to paradise not experienced but by a fortunate few of the living.”
“Yes Edgar, and unfortunate for me that door to mortal bliss lives but a short distance from here, now the wife of a shopkeeper droning ordinary from day to day, and I hold constant in my head and in my heart, in all its ramifications, the stuff of earthly beauty. Can a common shopkeeper write poetry? Can a common shopkeeper sing it full of love and cheer to a woman he does not love as I would?”
“I know my dear friend,” Poe disclosed, “barer of that same wounded soul. I too have lost the woman I truly love to the lore of the common, when yet the fruit has grown lush in our hearts and picked clean from its stem by a grocer of the mundane.”
“What was, or is, her name Edgar? Say it so it rings out at least to hear like a bell to pierce the air.”
“Elmira,” Poe lowered his head to look away into the floor, “or Myra in its familiar form. Sarah was her first name though . . .”
Lofland let out a soft groan, painfully so from some tight place near his heart. Poe paused slightly to give the space for acknowledgment, and then continued, “She had promised me matrimony. Perhaps I’d been too full of myself. Too open to the tales my newly found brother Leonard and my erudite friend Armistead would tell me to fill my imagination, to seek instead the means to lift me from the poverty of a dreaming soul into an acceptable avocation in a dull world of commerce and daily diligence.”
“Yes, I know Edgar,” Lofland began with a heavy sigh. “Had I finished my medical studies in Philadelphia and had become a doctor, I’d have been allowed to marry Sallie. I found that studying medicine and the workings of the human body had led instead to the discovery of my own soul. There is no commerce of the soul, ‘tis not wealth enough to sustain the living.”
“The great irony of life,” Poe was almost bitter, yet tempered by his own sense of sadness.
“That we may, however,” Lofland continued, “enrich the world while those who populate it are not looking, or hearing, unaware that those like ourselves give freely in beneficence.”
“But freely at the cost of melancholy, the detritus of creation,” Poe letting his bitterness seep out, then pausing a moment to come out from under his self-absorbed utterance, was about to change his subject, augmented by a fleeting thought.
“Can I be sure you know of the discoveries,” asked Lofland as if to read Poe’s mind, “of Franz Mesmer?”
“Yes,” answered Poe, “I know of him.”
“. . . and that he suggests,” continued Lofland, “mysterious workings of the brain beyond mere awareness of our everyday world? Perhaps there is some small hope that life as we know it has some invisible dimension that we have lost the ability to access.”
“I have had the same thoughts,” mused Poe. ”Perhaps those abilities are inexplicably innate in poets like us, who struggle to squeeze from reality a deeper vision, not to see with only eyes and hear with only ears but perceive by the mind striving to put into our feeble speech what is being told to us regarding the combined essence exuding from every living thing.”
“I agree Edgar, and the hopeful aspect is that it might exist beyond death, in the ether and perhaps even melancholy is a symptom of some innate suspicion of this underutilized human quality.”
“ ’tis a painful prospect,” Poe quipped.
“But one to spur on our search for it, to give us a good reason for living,” Lofland added.
“John,” Poe began, “you ought to relieve yourself of these hinterlands, your proximity to Sallie and come to Baltimore. At least there you’d find the sympathetic company of others. At least there’d be a way to realize a few pennies from your pen, and perhaps some island of relief from melancholia.”
“I have found some relief,” Lofland divulged, “albeit, at a cost beyond the monetary one, provided by the Grand Turk, the cost of which is exacted by Sir Richard Rum.”
In the course of Poe’s visit the two discussed and found an affinity with, the English poets Byron and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, especially Coleridge’s narrative poems Kubla Khan, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and especially the conundrum present by Christabel.
“Marvelous tales,” Lofland exclaimed.
After several hours Poe had to catch his coach for the packet leaving for Annapolis. Before leaving Lofland’s garret he afforded Poe a parting gift. Into a small glass he poured a small amount of a brown liquid from a flask.
“This should provide relief during your bumpy return,” said Lofland.
“Only a few drams of the very best for your comfort,” Lofland answered.
After seeing Poe off at Milford’s coach stop the springtime exuded some extra soft warmth from the still-standing trees in the distance through the subtle sweet scent of tasseling corn. He could smell the warmth seeping into him. He reached around for Lofland’s volume of poetry, the one he brought with him for Lofland to inscribe, realizing in muted shock that he had left it in Lofland’s garret.
“Drats,” he muttered, but he remembered a favorite poem from it, the one that had spawn from its kernel the subject of their conversation:
Far in a wild sequestered vale,
Pale melancholy dwells;
And to the winds her piteous tale,
The musing maiden tells.
Where crystal cascades dashing pour,
At noontide oft she strays;
And listens to the rocks that roar,
ln dreams of happier days.
At midnight’s solemn sacred scene,
Where steals the winding wave;
With wild buds, and with green,
She strews the new-made grave.
And now in memory’s glass she throws,
Her kindling eye of fire;
Starts wild! –– and in her dream of woes,
She sweeps the Lydian lyre.
Fired at the sound of pity’s tale,
She beats her bosom bare;
Rends the loose silken snowy veil,
And waves her hanging hair.
And now again when Luna’s light
Illumes the gurgling rills;
Her song awakes the shades of night,
And dies along the hills.
But ne'er the joy of youthful years.
Shall bless that heart of care;
She wanders o’er the world in tears,
The victim of despair.
He could hear the wind that he could not feel against the moving coach, the same wind that eddied around tombstones he could not see. Closing his eyes he heard the faint sound of fresh cornstalks rustling forlorn, then opening his eyes the daylight bursting in his head.
The ride to the waiting packet to cross the Chesapeake was indeed smooth yet rolling with scattered tiny dry rills, but regular after the packet left its dock. The splashing against the hull sang a secret language, and the water was soothing with its vastness.
It was nearly dark when Poe reached Annapolis. Poe’s feeling of melancholy deepened in the waning twilight. Nearly as soon as the coach departed he nodded off and slept the entire way to Baltimore.
The coach arrived in Baltimore just before dawn. The first thing that greeted the waking Poe was the foul air. The second thing, upon climbing out of the coach, was his friend Armistead Gordon.
“A nice surprise,” exclaimed Poe through the gauze of sleep while disembarking from the coach.
Armistead Gordon was a fast friend from Poe’s student days at the University of Virginia, and had been manumitted when Thomas Jefferson had died.
“A surprise indeed,” Armistead replied. “I never expected to see you climbing out of a coach at this hour.”
“I’ve been having a very productive visit with the Bard of Milford.”
“Oh yes,” said Armistead, “the venerable John Lofland.”
“And,” inquired Poe, “is there always this stench at this time of the morning or have I merely had too much of a dose of country and Chesapeake air?
“No Edgar, this is new. The Loa are concerned, nay aggravated,” Armistead replied, referring to the spirituality engendered by Africans, particularly those who had gravitated from the deep South through sales or barter. “A deep evil is seeping up from the sewers.”
Poe had never heard Armistead, who had knowledge of secrets closely guarded by many Africans, make mention of this unfamiliarity.
“The what, may I ask?”
“The Loa, any number of invisible angels who speak to us and warn us at times, like now, when we need to be warned.”
Poe had always taken Armistead seriously, but this was the first time Poe had heard such words from him. Armistead took Poe’s brief pause as a cue to continue.
“I’d been told Ghedé and Baron Samedi, who may be one and the same, bring to the city the specter of death.”
“This stench would support that notion,” Poe mumbled. “How are these beings manifested?”
“When summoned they may ride you like you’re their horse. When not summoned they may manifest by myriad upon myriad of creatures so small as to be invisible to the naked eye.”
“Like ether?” Poe asked.
“More firm than ether, and with a collective brain.”
Poe shuttered, “They surely smell bad.”
“As a warning Edgar, as a warning.”
Armistead walked along with Poe part of the way to Milk Street where Poe lived, but departed up an alley to make his way to some destination of employment as a butler, where he would dress elegantly in order to be of service.
The household where Poe was living was a packed yet small row house managed by an aunt Marie Clemm, her eight-year-old daughter Virginia, and his older brother by two years, William Henry Leonard Poe, to whom had been affectionately referred by the family as Lennie.
“Eddie!” squealed Virginia seeing Edgar coming through the door. Virginia, who had purple eyes, ample and nearly black hair contrasted by pale white skin, adored Poe and ran to hug him around his waist burrowing her head into his solar plexus where she could hear the beating of his heart.
“Is Lennie here?” Poe asked having accounted for everyone else in the household.
“Upstairs,” Marie droned distracted. “He stumbled in late, drunk on punch.”
Poe stifled a chuckle.
“You must be starved,” Marie added. “There’s still warm porridge and biscuits. I’ll steep some tea.”
While Poe ate the breakfast, Virginia peppered Edgar with questions about his trip across the Chesapeake into Delaware.
“Did you see a lot of cows?” she began enthused, grinning, and displaying a perfect row of gleaming white teeth.
After breaking fast, weary from his trip, with a full belly, and perhaps still feeling the effects of the laudanum Lofland had given him, climbed the steps to the front room to nap a bit and soon fell into a dream.
In the dream Poe found himself holding a shovel surrounded by books. And there was his cousin Virginia, grown-up into adolescence. Yet he, in his dream felt sorrow for the earth would swallow her, she who was full of life and joy. It was why he held a shovel, nearly embracing it, holding its long handle dearly to his jaw. Far away there was a rainbow across the horizon and between he and it was a wretched gray barren land. Was he holding the shovel to bury her or exhume her? He could not remember his name. He knew only that he was searching; yet he knew that the shovel was not the implement of that search. There was an innate joy in his inner depths he knew for certain, but could not share it. It was lodged in him too deep and Virginia looked so pale, her pallor blanched like a corpse. And there was that stench all over the city. Then he heard his name.
“Eddie,” it was his brother’s voice, “you know she really adores you.”
Poe turned his head and saw Virginia’s bright smile. She had settled her head near his collar as he napped and nestled her face under his jaw.
“Berenice,” Poe whispered inexplicably. It was a name he had dragged out of his dream.
“Welcome back home, and to waking,” croaked William Henry Leonard Poe.
Lennie was sweaty and pale across his lips, his eyes red-rimmed. He muffled a cough deep from within.
“Out with Rosa?” Edgar asked while Virginia broke her hold to allow him to rise from his cot.
“No,” piped Virginia, “she’s grown tired of his drinking.”
“Quiet child,” Leonard spoke while clearing the gravel from his throat. “I’ve been reduced to quelling the advance of consumption with the palliative of liquid spirits.”
Leonard Poe stood slightly taller than the younger Poe. Circumstances had allowed their growing affection for one another only during the past few years. Edgar had been removed from the University of Virginia by his foster father, John Allan, after which he had joined the Army and got himself court marshaled before taking a short trip to Europe at Allan’s expense. During this time Leonard sailed the Seven Seas.
When Edgar’s deepening sorrows over the loss of Elmira Royster to matrimony, Leonard was there to soothe him with stories of his adventures at sea.
“There is,” Leonard once recounted, “in the Norwegian Sea a hungry whirlpool with an appetite for sailing vessels, with current stronger than any steering winds.”
“The seas lead to foreign shore,” Edgar mused, “yet carry many tempting tales home with the wind in their sails.”
It hadn’t been hard to compose lines of poetry with Leonard, also keen on the art. The two brothers, together, had honed the lines of Poe’s Tamerlane, published a few years before in 1827, and inspired by his broken heart. That same year Leonard had written a compliment to Edgar’s sorrows in the form of a story entitled “The Pirate,” about a sailor, named Edgar, who seeks revenge by murdering the woman who spurned him and having to live out his life in exile as a pirate.
Among the stories Leonard brought to the shores had been those true tales of gruesome murders at the hands of the vengeful; of walling up alive a gluttonous quack who, as Leonard related, deserved it, or the mystery of how a murder victim could’ve been shove up a chimney instead of down it. The topic that enticed Edgar the most, however, were the stories churned up from the sea.
“I have not been able to determine from where the seas go,” Leonard had once speculated. “Their mysterious currents yield no answers. Only the management of the winds control passage. I have sailed to many places. Along tropical climes, in the Mediterranean, and among the South Sea Isles. The seas in these places are more inclined to be smooth rather than turbulent as in the extremes of the north and the south where the seas seem angry and cold as if they are rushing to a place that evades us.”
“I have heard,” Edgar added, “That there may be openings at the poles wherein are calming waters and peaceful people.”
“I cannot attest to such,” Leonard commented, “the waters forbid us with sudden storms and frigid air.”
It had been a wretched summer of hot fetid air settling upon the city of Baltimore. Leonard Poe was becoming a surly coughing drunkard, sleeping long hours in the wake of each binge and waking in the middle of the day coughing up blood. By the second week of July, he’d stopped drinking, only because he couldn’t get out of bed. He was moved down to the main floor so he could be close to the water pump and other amenities. He had stopped eating. The room was kept dark until that final darkness fell on the second day of August. He was interred the next day in Baltimore’s First Presbyterian Church graveyard.
For days afterward Edgar moped taciturn in the hazy and soupy air of Baltimore. He mumbled the last words he heard Leonard, now cold and mute in the ground not far away, speak. They tumbled around in Edgar’s head: “Misery is manifold. The wretchedness of the earth is multifold. Overreaching the wide horizon is the rainbow . . . “
On one atypically clear day in Baltimore Poe ran into Armistead, still dressed in livery garb. Seeing Armistead again lifted his spirits against a blue sky, and noticing the spurs on Armistead’s boots began their conversation with a question.
“I never knew you to be inclined toward the equestrian?”
“On rare occasions,” grinned Armistead, “only if my client has enough money. Don’t want anyone to foist a frisky filly on me. At best I want to come out in one piece.”
It felt a little strange to Poe to smile a bit.
“It’s sad to hear your brother has departed,” Armistead continued. “His was a lively and adventurous spirit.”
“I only hope he’s in that grand ocean of the sky,” Poe responded, making a sweeping gesture with his hand across the sky, “and not the fiery caverns beneath our feet.”
“I trust you’re expanding your vision to those wider expanses and not let the worms of despair gnaw at your giblets.”
“Yes Armistead, I’m thinking more and more about the seven seas. Perhaps Leonard is still speaking to me from the beyond. I suspect I shall tread upon those waters, if not in reality, then with words. And if it is with words I’ll bring you along with me dear friend.”
“I really appreciate that,” Armistead replied. “The sea air, whether imagined or actual, will do us well.”
“I only wish,” Poe added. “we could leave this stinking city for a spell.”
“We’ll go away from here soon Edgar. I know a place.”