Mrs. Lion was alone. Not in the physical sense, of course - she had her friends, her customers, her neighbors. Their presence was constant, in the form of whispers when she walked through the streets, murmured expressions of sympathy and faked grief from anyone she spoke with. Despite this, she felt unflinchingly, unfailingly alone.
It hadn’t always been this way. She used to have her husband and two children. When her husband had left to sail the seas, the house felt only the slightest bit emptier; there were still two children to play in it, two children to fill the rooms with laughter. And then, one day, one child was gone. His name was Jonathan - sweet, kind, strong Jonathan. He had sacrificed himself for his younger brother, breaking Karl’s fall as the two leapt from a window to escape a fire. He had died upon impact, the doctor had told Mrs. Lion. Was it selfish of her, she wondered, to wish the death had not been so quick? Was it selfish of her to want to have cradled her son’s head in her hands, to have told him he would be okay? She resented herself for resenting the mercy of his minimal suffering.
The next day, the house seemed even emptier. Without her husband and without her oldest child, little noise was left to fill the space. All that remained was Karl. Karl. He had been battling with a strange respiratory illness the past few weeks; the incident with the fire had drained him, so Mrs. Lion had confined him to his bed to rest. As she placed neat stitches along a piece of fabric, she could hear his coughing and the rattle of his lungs. Her fingers trembled as she jabbed the needle into cloth, and silently, she prayed. Please, God, don’t take my last son.
A week passed, and then two. Karl was not improving. In the corners of her mind, Mrs. Lion knew this. Her son had slimmed down until he was stick-thin; if she so desired, she could fit her index finger and thumb comfortably around his wrist. His skin was perpetually feverish, and the frequency of his coughing increased until it seemed there was never a moment in which she did not hear him doing so.
One night, Mrs. Lion heard her son murmuring something to himself. When she approached, his eyes were closed. The purple veins stood out against his translucent skin, and his chest rose and fell almost imperceptibly. She could hear his voice, faint and breathless, saying one name over and over again: Jonathan. Jonathan. Jonathan. She held his hand as a wetness coated her burning cheeks, and watched her youngest son, the last piece of her family, die.
The house was completely silent now. Silent and empty. There was no warmth next to her in bed. There were no small hands and hungry mouths clamoring at the kitchen table. There were no footsteps on creaking wood but her own, tentative and barely there. She had used to wish for five minutes of peace and quiet, five minutes in which her young sons were not hounding her for food or stomping up and down the stairs or slamming doors. She had never expected her own children to die before her. Now? Now all she wanted was her children back.
She met Tom on a Sunday. She had taken to attending mass, hoping that somehow, if she tried hard enough, she could receive some sort of reassurance that her sons were in heaven, that God was taking care of them the way he took care of her. Tom was tall and lean, with dark hair and the smoky scent of firewood on an open flame. He treated her gently, acknowledged her past, offered her a better future. She knew he would never be able to provide what she desired. When he asked for her hand, she said yes anyway.
The house wasn’t quiet anymore. When she fell asleep, there was a body tucked next to her in bed. When she woke up, she could hear the heavy tread of her new husband in the kitchen. A space had been filled, but it was not the space she had cared about. This was not a solution, but a replacement. Mrs. Lion knew, no matter how much she refused the knowledge, that she was still unbearably, unwaveringly alone.