The following is a piece of realist fiction about Emma Stebbins, one of the first notable women sculptures from the 1800’s.
July 23, 1880
When you pass a certain age you start writing things down as they happen, instead of afterwards, like when I used to jot things down right before I would drift off to sleep. For me that certain age was sixty-one. I took a walk to Central Park today, as I do every year on this day. Henry is here with me. He has just informed me that he has picked out his cemetery plot at Green-Wood in Brooklyn. I don’t know why my foolish brother has done this—he’s going to outlive all of us.
He’s going on his usual rant about how proud he is of his children. Last year his eldest, May Emma, came with me to the fountain. Of course she wouldn’t be the eldest if my brother’s first son Henry Gerald hadn’t didn’t shortly after birth.
Scanning through the pages of my journal, I spot her name, my Charlotte, the angel of the water, written so many times. When I am sad I do this, scan through my journal to see her name; it heals in me for a time the hollowness and yet reminds me of how I couldn’t heal her.
November 14, 1872
I was working on the sculpture for the cherub of Health and thought about my sweet charlotte and her treatment of breast cancer—oddly enough that surgery, that fear of loosing her, reaffirmed my belief in God. It is only fitting that I am creating a sculpture of an angel from the gospel of John that will be casted into a bronze replica for the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park.
My brother Henry found his way over to my studio today to inspect my work and we talked for quite a while about my “public image.” He went on about how proud he is of my work and how beautiful it is, and a part of me believes that when he says that he hopes to use my sculptures all over Central Park that he is being truthful, but I do not care about my so-called “image.” What should I care what the people will say about my sexuality. My wits were with me when I told Henry that what happened with Karl Ulrichs’ books about homosexuality—the banning of them all over Germany and Prussia—would happen to my sculptures too.
He didn’t find it funny, the idea that no one would go to the park and he would loose his job as commissioner. I feel obligated to comply with him, to be an upright and proper lady for the public, for he did sponsor me to live in Rome all those years—the best times of my life, not to mention the place where I discovered my beloved Charlotte—but I still believe what I told Henry to be logical: the Bethesda Fountain will work with or without my sculptures; it will be ugly, no doubt, but it will work.
August 9, 1873
Today we celebrated the completion of the bronze sculptures that are going to decorate the Bethesda fountain—they’re being called the Angels of the Water. We had a little get together in the living room next to one of my earliest works, a portrait bust of Charlotte—my favorite creation; it is a lot more beautiful than the angel and he cherubs if you ask me. I was thrilled to have a surprise visit from my old Italian friends, Edmonia Lewis and Harriet Hosmer. I knew I was getting some kind of surprise because the sneaky way Charlotte has been acting lately, but this? I didn’t expect it at all!
We shared some Italian wine—a gift from Edmonia—and talked about the days when we all lived in Rome, when Henry was still the head of the New York Stock Exchange, and I was able to do great things like the trip Charlotte and I took to Naples. At one point I had to stop and look around the room and take in how we all had changed so much. I thought about how we used to dress looser clothing and dance to Bohemian music; I thought about the way Charlotte hips moved so smoothly.
I remember a time when the four of us had taken a trip to the coast. We had stayed in the most decrepit of hotels, but we didn’t care. We were able to be ourselves there without the constant anxiety of being discovered and castigated. Edmonia and Harriet ended the night when they started to talk about past relationships—we all had a laugh when Harriet reminded us of Matilda Hays, a super eccentric actress that Charlotte once dated. Oh how the times have changed! Whenever our friends left for the night I watched Charlotte washes the dishes as she quoted lines from Lady Macbeth as if she were performing from the stage again. She’s still got it.
March 3, 1876
It has been two weeks since the pneumonia killed her. My dear, dear Charlotte. We buried her a few days later. Only a few of our closest friends attending the service knew about our real relationship, knew why I was crying.
I decided to take a walk today—the doctor said that I needed to get out of bed or I would start aching. I found myself in Central Park, watching the young couples holding hands and smiling. I sat close to the Bethesda Fountain and watched the water trickle away. I thought to myself: I made this and it’s the first time I understand its meaning. I imagined myself carrying Charlotte to the river. I laid her on the bank and dipped her body into the water. I washed away her sickness. I watched her swell with life again.
When I finally decided to walk home, I vowed to return here every day on her birthday.