Pilgrim Teen Bestie Chatter

Degory: Hey, beotch, you goin’ to Evensong?

Susanna: Said I was too tired. Mother thinks it’s scurvy. LOL

Degory: You suck.

Susanna: Haha.

Degory: I’ll have to sit between Oceanus and Resolved now. Ugh! Fart sandwich.

Susanna: Now you don’t like him? Thought you said his codpiece gave you more wood than the scrap yard at the shingle smithy.

Degory: Whatever. He’s stupid.

Susanna: Ha, ha. He stood you up again?

Degory: You suck. I wish I’d never told you.

Susanna: Whatevs. You know my secrets. LOL #ThrustingBear

Degory: True.  How those loin cloth crickets treating you today?

Susanna: Fine.  He gave me some bear grease to put on it.

Degory: You nasty.

Susanna: Ha, ha! I’m kidding.

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Susanna: Hey, you still up?

Degory: I shouldn’t talk to you. Folks said prayers for your recovery tonight. You’re evil incarnate.

Susanna: You trip over Oceanus’ codpiece, break your funny bone?

Degory: LOL

Susanna: What are you wearing tomorrow? Thrusting Bear says they’re bringing corn and turkey, so we all know what our shyte will look like this week.

Degory: The gift that keeps on giving.

Susanna: Well? What are you wearing?

Degory: Maybe black with black and a little black hat?

Susanna: Yawn. I told Mother I wished I had a calico apron and she boxed my ears, called me a Rotterdam whore. Whatever that means. LOL

Degory: I asked the buckle smith if he could carve a vine on my boot hasp and he said he’d give me an Edward the second.

Susanna: Day-um.  Ha, ha. Well, stay warm.  See ya tomorrow. Winky face.

The Skies Over Bethlehem

He had a dream last night that left him floating all the morning in a surreal fog.  In the dream, he was looking through the woods for a persimmon tree he’d once found but lost.  That much he recognized; that tree had been on his mind recently.  His mother took him to it once when he was a boy and she’d said the fruit was only good when it was nice and fully ripe.

“Otherwise, it’ll turn your mouth inside out.”

He’d been thinking of his mother, too.  It happened like this a lot in the autumn.  They’d last seen her on a brittle Sunday afternoon of a long lost November.  The woman who disappeared just before his tenth birthday had worn a warm coat and a knit scarf of mixed greens and oranges.  Her scuffed boots had been brown like her hair.   She waved before climbing into the station wagon.  The man behind the steering wheel stared straight ahead, his thick glasses glinting so that his eyes could not be seen.  She winked at him as they backed into the drive, that familiar wink that was meant to say everything would turn out fine.  It wasn’t convincing this time around.  He and his sisters lifted their hands and waved as the dusty car vanished down the pale drive.

___________

In the dream, he came to a clearing in the woods and he stood there and turned around and round, peering into the forest, trying to spot the tree.  Then suddenly, in the way of dreams, he was no longer alone.  Stretched out in the clearing, lit by a stream of heavenly light, was a woman giving birth.  Her shoulders and her belly and her knees under the nightdress were a range of mountains.  The damp brown hair snaking through the wild onion was a black spring that began and ended with her.  He started at the sight of her, but she only smiled at him through her labored breathing.  It was a pained, mysterious smile, a bittersweet smile that was a little afraid.  She wasn’t his mother, but she had her smile.

“They say you forget the pain,” she said.

He crouched beside her in the wild onions and the hand that reached out to comfort her was pale and dimpled and small.  He hadn’t known until then that he was a child in this dream.  She took his wrist painfully.

“But you won’t be forever,” she said. “None of us are forever.”

“Please, let me go.”

She looked into his eyes for a long while.  He could not decide the color of hers.  They shone like the tops of lakes on days when the sun hasn’t broke through, but it might just.  Her gaze was a moving storm.   Finally, she released his wrist and he took his hand back.  He’d not got to comfort her, after all.

In the next moment, she was gone.  The clearing seemed to be growing smaller around him.  When he looked at his feet, the wild onion had become pine needles.  Soon, the forest was overhead again and the sky had changed to a deep, smoky violet.  It wasn’t the real color of a night sky, but the color of night skies in children’s books.  No, more than that, he decided; it was the exact color of a sky they had painted.

____________

His mother had agreed to help with the Christmas pageant at church.  She felt that it was her turn and perhaps she wanted a little something to help fill the long autumn nights.  She corralled each of them into the station wagon, Tuesday and Thursday nights for weeks, stopping along the way to pick up the Clatterbuck girl and then, a little farther on, the Willard twins.  The other kids lived close enough to the church to walk.  They were always there on the porch waiting when they pulled up in front, because his mother had never been on time to anything.   When she got the heavy paneled door unlocked, she’d reach along the inside wall for the switch to the vestibule.  Then one of the older boys would feel his way half way down the basement steps to flip the breakers for the knave.  It had been wired late and funny.

When the lights came up, the red plush cushions on the pews jumped out first, then the dark green carpet running up the twin aisles. The alter looked bare without the Sunday flowers.  The big room was cold at first, but the huge old oil furnace would quickly warm the place.  Coats and hats went into a graceless pile on a pew at the back.

His mother got them started on lines and in a half hour, another woman came to help out.  She brought a few kids with her, too, and she played the piano in the choir loft and helped with the singing bits.  His mother was in over her head, her slightly stunned face confessed, but she laughed a lot as she tried her best.  That was all she could do.

Close to the pageant, she had one of her breakdowns at home.  It was on the carport, while she tried to finish the backdrop to the nativity scene.  It was hard to paint the skies over Bethlehem with the wind kicking at the corners of the cloth.  The coffee tins she tried using weren’t heavy enough.  She tried prying up some stones from the garden.  By the time she spilled the paint, she was a nervous wreck.

“Goddam it!” she yelled. “It’s tomorrow.  Can’t the world give me a fucking break?”

He watched her for a moment through the screen door and waited for the nervous giggles that her breakdowns always caused.  This time they didn’t come, which was a blessing.  They always infuriated her, even though she knew it was involuntary. He pushed open the door and came to crouch beside her.

“I’ll help, Mommy,” he said.

“It’s too purple anyway,” she said.  Her face looked older than it needed to look under the yellowy overhead light.  The doubt and the anger and the suffering in her eyes was something he couldn’t quite understand.  They would get the skies over Bethlehem painted in time.  But her misery would vanish and come again and again. It was the way of things.  He felt the feelings with her and for her, even when they made no sense.

He took up the brush and began to smear the spill back and forth, filling in more and more of the white canvas.  Because there was so much, it spread far and quickly.  She sat beside him, her face in her hands, but her frown beginning to fade.  After a moment, she found another brush in her caddy and she crawled to the other side of the cloth.

“Just pour some on,” he advised. “It works good that way.”

Soon they met in the middle of a vast, plummy sky and laughing, they held up palms of the exact same shade.

“We should have started here and worked out,” she said ruefully.  But the crisis had passed again.

Marie’s Crisis

On a side street in the village, there is a little booze joint with a piano.  It’s in the basement of a narrow townhouse.  The floors are sticky and the writing on the bathroom walls mostly forgettable but sometimes funny and tragic.  Drinks are never a fantastic pour, but they’re cheap and the price fair.  People don’t come for the hooch; they come for the music and the community.  It is church for people who love show tunes more than god.

If the Lovely Man is behind the piano when he peers through the window, Marcus comes down the steps and makes his way through the throng to the bar.  He won’t stay if the younger one is there, the one who tosses his hair around and plays the keys heavy, who purses his lips to say things that are snide but never witty.

The Lovely Man has a gentle smile and the kind of hands one wants to see at a keyboard.  They’re long and slender hands, pale and elegant hands.  If Marcus stays late enough, nursing first one and then another snifter of bourbon, most of the crowd will clear.  The Jersey thrill seekers will leave first, in their nice long coats, and all the way home they’ll probably chatter about the songs and voices. The young bloods who came in groups will leave in pairs.  Finally the stage queens will slip out into the night, swishy old cats with short prowls home.

At this late hour only a few remain, the shy ones who wanted to sing all night, but hadn’t found the moment or the courage.  For such a small group, at two in the morning, the Lovely Man plays any song he knows, even if it’s not Broadway, which is the rule of the bar.  It’s a rule the young one with the hair keeps jealously and without humor.   Not the Lovely Man.  He and his stragglers want to hear and to play and to sing what is soft and blue.  Their hearts and notes break over lyrics written for molasses voices that pour slow.  What they like best isn’t for shouting.  These last singers, these patient souls, are the sweet remains of the long evening, the honey to cajole from the bottom of the teacup. There’s always some new faces, but many have been coming for years.  Marcus knows a few of them by name.

He knows Miss Katina, who always tells new lies and never repeats one or tells the truth.  She’s told him her name is Anthema, Cheryl, Nefertihiti and Butterfly Moon.  He sticks with Miss Katina because that was the first one he knew. She sings from deep in her big belly, up and up through her nose and out over her teeth.  Once she told him how her daughter died – freezing in the night on a roadside in Virginia – and how she could never again sing ‘Autumn Leaves’.  She wept so mournfully, he almost believed her.

Old Sam sits by himself, a wasted little elf with silver and jet curls, with a speaking voice dry and lonely.  When he sings ‘Three Coins in a Fountain’ he has a rich baritone that seems not to belong to him.  The surprise he causes delights him.  His eyes crinkle when he sees jaws dropping.  He eats up the applause with kid delight and no one wants to stop beating their hands together for him.  When the claps at last subside, there’s a gentle sadness that steals back into his blue eyes.  He turns toward the table where he sits, the smile fading, but not quite leaving him.

The stout man with the opera voice sings things like no one else, songs with Italian words that make him throw out his hands when he trills them. Marcus doesn’t know his name, but he thinks of him as Senor Lieberman.  His affectation is Italian, and clearly his appetite, but there’s something about him that makes one think he grew up in the back of a Jewish deli.  He reminds Marcus of a boy named Ira, who he loved when his hair was still golden.   The senor has mastered something that would never fly at the Met.  He renders opera small and tender, making the epic explosions into soft confessions for the midnight hour.  Maybe it’s something about the way he sings that makes Marcus remember past loves.  He cries every time, clasping the senor’s hand fervently and whispering, “You bastard.”

Before the bar closes and the others shuffle out, the Lovely Man casts Marcus a glance from under his long lashes.  He smiles and says, “We can’t turn out the lights until you sing us out.”  Marcus blushes and he wants to protest, but he won’t because it seems silly when all the others mustered the courage.  He smiles back at the Lovely Man and they begin.

When Marcus sings, he starts rough and ends sweet.  The engine needs to warm.  If the first song is short, he’s usually asked to do another.  His poor voice is broken, he was told long ago, but he made it into something of his own.  It’s a woman’s voice, but a woman who had it bad from the word go.  She’s tough and hard and bittersweet, but more sweet than bitter, not that she’d want that to get around.  When he sings ‘All of Me’, people look away – it feels like peering into a window – but they listen close.

These nights, Marcus walks home in a glow, the music of the others still lingering close, like voices of people he lost along other walks along his way.  They come back to him through the singing, and they stay to put him to bed.

Blind to Her Own Faults

The house the Hurley’s built was named Primrose.  Folks called it ironic because the Hurley girls were neither demure or pretty.  Alice was broad across the back, her mouth an angry pen stroke under a nose that begged a full pair of lips.  The older sister, Tansy, was as grey and crooked as a melting snowman.  Even in youth, when her grey was brown, she’d never had a bloom.  She had a laugh like a cat who lost its breath and she found things funny when no one else did.  They were inseparable, the Hurley girls, not that anyone had ever wanted to break the set.

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Tansy kept up the house while Alice earned their living looking after an estate up the road.  It was a job she fell into nice and easy.  The Washingtonian lawyer who owned the place was rarely out except a few weekends a year.  He got to talking to Alice one Sunday in the pub where she was manager.  The tall homely woman wasted no words and she asked good questions.  He’d been impressed with her manner for years, since she came on as a barmaid.  People said she was given the run of the pub because no one could stomach fish and chips from a woman with a pie hole that sour, but if they’d been fair, they’d have admitted she kept the place tight.

The lawyer offered her five dollars more a week than she was getting and she took the job at once.  When she hung up her long apron for the last time and walked down the pub garden to the street, someone said the dead lilac outside the kitchen bloomed again for the first time in twelve years. The folks in town loved ugly jokes about the Hurley sisters.

The favorite one was about the new preacher, who went to have tea at Primrose before he found out they wanted no god over or under their roof.  He said they served him out in the back yard under a battered sycamore that held up one end of the clothes line.  While they were sipping, the older one suddenly grabbed her arm and said, “Oh, Alice, a snake bit me.”

And the preacher said Miss Alice cried out, “Why, Tansy, he’s got me, too.”

The preacher looked down and saw the snake writhing on the ground.  He never had to sully his pious mouth with the punchline.  Instead he’d pause for affect and let someone else beat him to it. “You know them Hurley girls is mean enough to kill a snake.”

Alice hadn’t much to do out at that estate.  She toured the grounds each Monday to make sure the gardener did his work.  Every Wednesday, she walked the house through.  If it smelled like piss, she set mouse traps.  If it smelled like mold, she had a plumber check the pipes.  If the lawyer wired he was coming out, she hired in a few girls from Front Royal.   She liked the black girls best.  They worked the afternoons straight through and they were cheap enough she could skim some of the allowance.

They took all the dust covers off the furniture and the chandeliers, gave everything a good rub with beeswax, and sprinkled the rugs with lemon water after vacuuming them.  She never had Tansy out to help, though her sister was good at house work.  Just once, at the beginning, she let Tansy walk the house with her.  That decided it.

Alice knew they might quarrel about it, so she waited until Tansy made her supper before she broached it.  They were listening to jazz records and killing a bottle of moonshine on the back porch when she said it plain.  “I can’t have you in that lawyer’s house. You’re too embarrassing.”

“Oh, hang you.”

“Always picking things up and wondering how much they cost.  You ain’t got no pride, Tans, no pride at all.  You think he’d have offered me that job if I was always mooning over him out at the pub? Batting my eyelashes like an ignorant Smoot, saying I bet his sports car rides smooth?”

Tansy blinked at her sister, then got up to change the record.  Leaning on the side of the house to take the pressure off her longer leg, she rifled through the box of albums.  “What the hell are you on about, Al?”

“I’m just saying that man gave me the keys to his house because he knows I don’t give a rat’s ass about all that fancy old furniture.  You walking through there today, picking stuff up and saying things like, ‘Oh, I bet that’s from England.’ No, ma’am. I don’t need that around me, making me nervous.  Besides, you’re supposed to play it cool.”

Tansy rolled her eyes, dropped the needle.

“Who cares?” she asked the porch ceiling.  The chipped boards were silent. “The problem with you, Al, is you care too much about folks.  Whether they think you care, that’s what you’re always going on about.  ‘Don’t make so much noise about how much the cabbage costs, Tans! You want them to think we can’t afford it?’  Stuff like that.  Who cares?”

Alice got so mad she almost threw her drink in Tansy’s face.  Instead, she clamped her jaw closed for a moment, mulling over revenge.  At last she let out a little laugh, delighted with herself over the tack she’d chosen.  “Well, maybe you care some, too.  I see you putting on lipstick before the iceman comes.”

Tansy just threw her face heavenward and hissed out a good laugh.  She was hard to figure, the crooked thing, her hide thicker than her skull.  Alice ought to have known better.  When she recovered, Tansy gave her sister a leering glance, said, “Well, what you think, Alice? Ain’t you seen the arms on that man?”

Alice cast her eyes out over the yard, tempted to spit her booze on Tansy’s begonias.  Instead, she swallowed the lightning and burned on its fumes for a silent minute.  Her sister was laughing again.

Tansy caught her breath, picked up the topic again.

“The way that man walks, manly like, you know he’s in charge of his woman.”

“Tries to be, more like,” Alice said. “He’s not that manly.  You seen that wife of his?  Sickly little thing with a flat ass. Looks like the runt of the litter. But she’s got them big sad eyes, too.  I bet she’s got your man all trussed up; gives him those weepy cow eyes whenever he steps out of line.”

That made Tansy laugh some more.  “Well, you’re probably right, Al.  Still, I could look at that man all day long.”

Alice shook her head.  It crossed her mind to say, plain honest, that Tansy ought to throw out the lipstick and save herself the trouble.  She knew they weren’t the beauty queen types, but not Tansy.  Even when they overheard comments – and they’d overheard plenty  – Tansy shrugged them off.  It was like she was blind to her own faults.  Times aplenty Alice wanted to make her sister see things straight.  She always bit her tongue in the end.  Maybe they were all broken, herself and the whole world, too.  Maybe being handsome was something to do with being simple and happy with yourself.  Besides, as much as Tansy deserved it now and then, Alice would never side with the rest of them by holding up a mirror and trying to make her sister crack it.

Missouri

The kids were drowsy by the time the sunset painted the big sky over Missouri orange and fuchsia.  All day long they’d found things to quarrel about.  Most often Julie and Crosspatch sided together against Burpy.  This was the usual way.  They accused her of letting her snot drip just to gross them out.  Burpy was singing terrible on purpose, they crowed, while the culprit screeched the Prince song playing on her Walkman.

“She doesn’t even have to hear herself!” Julie complained bitterly.

It was mean of them to make such a fuss about her snot; Burpy was still getting over a cold.  But Benny had to suppress a smile about the singing.  Her little tow head did have the worst singing voice.  Now they were in the home stretch of their long westward haul and the silence in the car was a blessing.

Benny glanced over her shoulder at her brood.  Julie was nose deep in a book and Burpy was sleeping.  Crosspatch was looking out the window.  His round chocolate eyes rolled to match her gaze.  He’d be asleep in minutes, she guessed, if the others stayed quiet.  She gave him a little smile and he smiled back.  She put a finger up to her lips and he let his head roll to his shoulder, his eyes returning to the rainbow sherbet sky.

It was dark when they reached their hotel on the outskirts of the city, a row of rooms hunkered low on an acre of balding grass.  Each door was turquoise.  Weeds grew along the fence around the pool and on the gate a rusted sign read ‘Watch Your Children’.  Mike stopped the car in front of the office and Benny watched him cross to the door with a heavy heart.  He looked thicker than ever yet somehow very small.  He carried himself like a man older than his years.  She felt her heart agitate in her chest and she took a few breaths to chase off her sense of panic.

It was hard to see her husband so whittled.  He was a strong person.  Never missed work, never broke promises.  By Friday night he was dead on his feet, but on Saturday morning he was up first, making batter for the silver dollar pancakes the kids loved so much.  This past week had been terrible for him.  When their eyes met, his held something she’d never seen in them before.  The hazel was clouded, the whites shot with red.  His mouth was broken and could not muster a smile.

She felt a hand on her shoulder and found Julie sitting forward, watching Mike through the window of the office.  He stood at the counter talking to a woman in a yellow smock.  He pulled his checkbook out of the back pocket of his trousers.  Julie was her eldest child, the one most like her father.  She had his sharp eyes, his high forehead and his steady ways. The girl looked worried, so Benny gave her hand a pat.

“It’ll be okay,” she said. “Your father.”

Julie nodded.

They didn’t wake the two little ones while they unloaded the luggage.  Mike made sure he took the big suitcase out himself.  The handle was broken and had to be carried a special way.  There were a lot of things like that in their life: hinges that needed babying, appliances that needed a tap before they’d run.  He had a knack for all that sort of managing and if it bothered him, he never said.  He didn’t like to complain.

After all the suitcases and grocery store bags with kid clothes in them were on the beds, they opened the side doors as quietly as they could.  Benny lifted Crosspatch out of the back seat while Mike reached in from the other side and got Burpy.  She was damp with sweat and smelled like a chocolate candy bar. Julie stood outside the room, hugging herself because the night was chilly.  Under strings of wind-blown hair, her eyes roamed the parking lot gravely.  In the distance, cars and tractors hummed along the highway.  A lot of people were still heading places.

Her mother mussed her hair, said, “Come on in.  We’ve got everything.”

____________

Earlier that year, Mike’s father had come to live with them.  The two of them were cut from different cloths, people who knew them liked to say.  Mike was good at figuring things.  He worked in Washington, drafting contracts for the FDA.  In a picture he’d sent home years ago, he sat with overflowing ‘out’ and ‘in’ boxes to one side of him.  A coffee cup with a dried drip on the handle held down a stack of paperwork in the foreground.  Behind him, in soft focus, a secretary in a green dress was shifting the blinds.  His eyes were lost behind a glare on his thick glasses, but his smile told them he was happy.  On the back of the photo he’d written, “Hey, folks, they’re keeping me busy.”

Jarl thought that life looked like hell.  He couldn’t imagine being in an office all day.  He’d spent his years out in the sunshine, growing peanuts and sometimes watermelon, hooking catfish out of the river and selling the yield.  There were a lot of families, black and white and bronze, along the shaggy county roads and not one wife could resist his bright eyes or his tall tales.  The sweet melons he brought, the bags of waffle-shelled peanuts and the strings of fish, they wound up in just about every kitchen there around.  Some of  the money came home to his wife and his two boys, but most of it went into the till at the Knotty Pine bar in midtown.  It was a simpler life than the one his son lived, there was no doubt, but he never gave his liver much rest.  It got worse after his wife died.  By the time he came to live with his son’s family, he was worn pretty thin.

Mike brought his father into their home because it was the right thing to do, but sharing space was hard, especially with a soul who came by happiness the hard way.  It didn’t take them long to figure out things ran smoother when Jarl was drinking.  If he was dry, he was sullen; his gaze threatened frost bite if you crossed him.  When he drank, his drawl went soft and lazy like a daydream.  The frost melted and his eyes bloomed cornflower over his rosy cheeks.  He puttered in the kitchen, making a split pea soup that left you homesick for the next bowl.  He prowled the garden, leaning on his cane and turning over the tomatoes to check the other side.

The girls found in the old man the thing his customers had seen.  They saw the sparkle of his eyes, liked the silly way he told stories.  Crosspatch could not warm to his grandfather.  He had given up his room when Jarl came to stay.  Crosspatch was a funny little boy, whimsical by turns, but older than his seven years.  His chocolate eyes carried a lot of worries.

Crosspatch had always kept his little green bedroom tidy.  Every toy had a proper place.  The bed was made as soon as he got up each morning.  When Jarl took the room, he made it his own.  The bed was left a tangle and the nightstand was piled with the tissues into which he emptied his sinuses through all his fitful nights.  Crosspatch stormed through the room once a week, angrily jamming the dried tissues into the waste basket, yanking at the quilt until the bed looked like his again.

“You’re different, aren’t you?” Jarl would say.

He squinted ruefully at the child and Crosspatch knew there was an insult in the question, though he couldn’t figure it out exactly.  He could find no love for the old man.

Benny felt sorry for her father in law.  From the window in the dining room, she saw him out in the yard sometimes, the wind molding his loose clothes to his frame, revealing the wreck of his once manly figure.  His watery eyes carried many regrets, even when they were stormy and cold.  His sun-spotted hands, open on his lap when he dozed, seemed too empty.  She wondered how much he missed his fields and his fishing rods.  In their house, he was tended to so that no harm could befall him, but Benny sensed his was not such a great life.  He was just killing time now and he knew it as well as anyone else.

____________

Last Sunday morning, they woke to a heavy frost.  The cars in the driveway were silvered over, the grass white sugar crusted.  A sparkling sun promised to melt the dew, yet it seemed like the kind of day to stay in out of the wind.  Mike and the kids piled up in front of the television to watch an old black and white movie on channel five.  Benny took refuge in the kitchen, phoning her sister and riffling through her recipe box.  She tossed out magazine clippings ruthlessly, in one her moods suddenly to be rid of dead weight.  After about an hour, her neck got stiff from clamping the receiver between ear and shoulder.  When an argument in the family room erupted, she took it as an excuse to say goodbye and hang up.

Burpy had tried to tap dance like the lady in the movie and when the dog joined in, circling her and barking, the other two revolted.  Jeering loudly, Julie and Crosspatch had finally succeeded in booing their sister off her imagined stage.  She and the dog had retreated to a corner, from where they were casting vengeful glances when Benny stepped into the room.  Crosspatch was still riled up.

“It is very rude to make noise when other people are watching TV!” he said.

Burpy was so mad she pulled her twin ponytails until they hurt.  “I hate you!”

One glance at Mike showed her why he had not intervened yet.  She gave his arm a shake,  “Wake up and come help me feed the animals.”

When they got back in from the barn, Mike’s dad had started to make up a batch of lima beans, sizzling up a fatty cut of bacon before opening one of their canning jars into the pot.  One look at his glowing cheeks told them he was in a soft mood.  He’d been nursing his bottle in his room all morning.  The movie had ended or else the children had tired of it.  The television set was off, the curved glass reflecting back a view of the room, aglow in chilly autumn sunlight.  Benny headed to their room to lie down and read for a while.  Mike went to find the kids.

They were all together, the upsets of the morning forgotten, laying together on the bed they had shared since Jarl moved in with them.  As Mike came to the door, Crosspatch was telling one of his stories and the girls were pretending to sleep.  In a grave voice, Mike said, “I see little people who need to be tickled.”

Julie rolled on her side with a groan and Burpy followed suit. Crosspatch kept to his storytelling, but a grin betrayed him.  He heard his father.  Mike loved tickling the kids.  He liked to announce it first, then to close in for the attack.  He wouldn’t believe anyone who said it wasn’t as fun for the tickled as it was for the tickler.  That afternoon, he was merciless. Armpits, bellies, knees.  He knew where to get a giggle from each one of them.

Benny was the first to smell something burning on the stove.  She bolted past the door to the kids’ room.  Mike rolled off the bed and barreled after her.  They found Jarl on the kitchen floor.  His face was a lurid violet.  Mike knelt beside him and called his name and shook him, his voice rising, growing sharp, breaking.  Benny was on the phone instantly, but by the time the paramedics came, there was nothing they could do.  The blood receded from his cheeks, taking his whiskey bloom with it, leaving his eyes as pale and distant as the skies over his old home place.  It was impossible to shield the children from seeing.  There was no time to think in all the confusion.  The girls were sobbing in the family room, as confused as they were sad.  Crosspatch just stared, unable to find tears.

____________

It was ten before they got settled in the hotel room.  It was too late to go out for food, so Mike and Benny poured over the yellow pages, shoulder to shoulder, looking for a pizza place that delivered.  In the soft glow of  a single lamp, the cheap little room felt close and safe.  One forgot the smell of mildew that had first greeted them.  For tonight and tomorrow night, this would have to be home, until the funeral was over and they made the trip they had just made in reverse.

The children were murmuring softly to each other, piled on the other bed, waiting for their bath.  Despite the long dusty ride, Benny still smelled a little like her morning shower.  The warmth of her was a comfort and he was awash suddenly in gratitude.  He’d been shaken, beaten and stunned since last Sunday.  In a moment, all he still had came back to him.  The little voices. The shampoo on Benny’s hair. Her hopeful smile, the sad watchful eyes. The four homely walls that stood against the wind to keep them warm.  He could still be happy, he could find it again.  Just not now.  It wasn’t time yet, he sensed as an animal knows things, but the reminder that life would wait for him left him trembling with humility and thanksgiving.  He did not realize he’d grabbed hold of her, that he was clinging to her and crying into her hair.  The children had gathered around, their little hands patting his arm in comfort.  Let them hold him, he thought, as he had held them all.

Last Bus Stop

The school bus had twenty-seven stops on Dumpling Ridge Road.  The last one was for the Gilbert twins, who were a boy and girl and not two girls or two boys.  They didn’t look anything alike either.  Victor was pudgy and brunette with white skin and nibbled down finger nails.  Deena was slender and blond, her grey eyes trimmed in long white eyelashes.  From licking them all the time, her chapped lips looked like cracked glaze on doughnuts.

Their house was so far up the ridge, there was twelve minutes between the next to last stop and theirs.  Deena read quietly from magazines about antique furniture.  Victor stared out the window with a finger plugging one ear. The bus driver thought they were weird children.  When he got home, he’d strip down to his socks and boxers first thing, make himself a cheese sandwich on Wonder bread and tell his partner the same joke.

“Well, another day without the twins knifing me and dumping my body off Pie Man Peak.”

His partner gave back a half smile and a grunt.  In what he called his other life, he’d been a mailman.  Now he spent his days watching soap operas and making miniature worlds in old fish tanks.  This was a man who could craft elf houses out of polymer clay for hours.  With that kind of patience, he could tolerate the same joke every day for nine months of the year.

When they were let off, the Gilbert twins had a long driveway to walk.  They never said goodbye as they thumped down the bus steps.  They never looked back or waved, but the driver was already gunning the engine to get out of there.

They lived with their grandparents.  The grandmother was a sturdy woman with long white hair in a braid down her back.  Her arms were covered in faded tattoos.  The walls of her little office were plastered with pictures from her youth when she was a roller derby queen.

“I used to mow those girls down like bowling pins,” she’d say when someone asked about the photos.  “I miss them all so much.”

It wasn’t easy to go down memory lane near her husband.  Fred always took it as an opportunity to sermonize on the way the world had gone since they were young.  He said things like, “Simpler times back then, Bets.  Now you got faggots in the White House and prostitutes running the courts.”

She rolled her eyes.  Political antagonism was the only heat left in their marriage.  Over the years she’d stubbornly held her ground as a mid-century liberal, while he careened rightward after Reagan.  She told herself he’d had a shower of strokes when Clinton got elected.  It allowed her to pity him instead of shoving a knife in his back.

He spent most of his time in his wood shop, listening to AM radio or opening clips from Fox news his old navy buddies emailed to everyone they ever knew.  When he aimed to get his wife’s goat, he hurled insults in peculiar sets, like mismatched salt and pepper shakers.  His pairings had a certain poetry to them, no matter how nonsensical.

“You got gooks running the Fed and chicks with dicks shutting down the high court.”

“There’s muff-divers taking our guns and chinks tearing up the CIA.”

“Now we got jigaboos running the schools and Mexicans guarding the hen house.”

Bets was not one for debates.  She usually picked up her purse and the keys to the truck and drove the kids into town for ice cream.  There was a place on a side street called Pop’s.  You could sit out at a picnic table in the warm months or in the overheated little dining area in winter.  People in their town took ice cream very seriously.  This was not a seasonal business.

The twins had funny ways about them, but they liked ice cream as much as any kid.  Victor always got chocolate.  He ate it fast, his finger in his ear, and waited for the headache.  As much as it hurt, it fascinated him.  His sister ate her strawberry sundae very slowly.  Victor sat watching her, jealous that he’d already finished his.  Deena’s lips changed while she was eating the ice cream.  They got soft and smooth from the pink cream.  She licked them over and over again on the way home until they got crusty and dry again.  No one in her family noticed; no one suggested chap stick or made her stop licking.

Despite her history of knocking down girls on skates, despite the tattoo on her back that read ‘Fear the Reaper’ and despite her favorite story about once smoking a joint with Iggy Pop in a janitor’s closet at O’Hare Airport , their granny loved delicate and old-fashioned things.  Her collection of treasures looked like they got their weekly dusting from an Angela Lansbury type.

ImageHer favorite thing was this one porcelain lamp.  Just below the tasseled shade, a party of French aristocrats played violin and spinet. They were dressed in pink coats and ruffled gowns and on their cold white faces, they each wore the same peaceful expression.

“That’s just beautiful,” Bets said every time she finished with the Pledge and an old toothbrush.  “Look at the details, kids.  That’s what quality looks like.”

Then Fred would get to roll his eyes.

The twins weren’t sure why their grandparents were raising them.  Fred let it slip once that their father might have been anyone.  Their granny was so instantly furious, she sacrificed one of her teapots to get him in the back good and square.  Later the boy helped her clean up her mess and tried to comfort her by saying it was one of the ugly ones.

“Thanks, honey,” Bets said, her tears meeting on the tip of her nose as she bent down with the dust pan.  “Now you go find your sister. I think she went out into the woods.”

Victor didn’t like the task.  He wasn’t sure how he felt about Deena.  Everyone said they ought to be close.  They ought to know each other better than most brothers and sisters.  There was supposed to be a connection.  He couldn’t decide if it was true.

In the end, he didn’t have to search the woods for her.  Their grandparents came out onto the back porch together and Fred said, “Come on, you two. We’re going to Pop’s.”

Victor paused halfway across the lawn near he broken swing set, and after a moment Deena came out from the trees, her face red from crying.  When she got to him, they walked side by side to the truck, not touching except for a moment, when Victor pulled some pine needles off her sweater.

One winter Victor got pneumonia really bad and they had to put him in the hospital.  Deena waited in the lobby outside the gift shop, perched on the edge of her chair so she could make her shoes squeak on the linoleum.  The windows of the gift shop were crowded with teddy bears and pastel trinkets.  There were bursts of daisies in cheery mugs.  She wanted to look closer at the toys, but the old woman behind the counter gave her mean looks when their eyes met.  Her hair was short and tightly curled, washed a pale shade of violet, and she wore a tiny gold cross on a chain around her neck.  Under her pink ribbed sweater, you could see where her bra pinched her lumpy frame.

A nurse breezed by and stopped at the soda machine down the hall.  She got herself a Mountain Dew and stepped into the gift shop on her way back.  Deena could hear some of what they were saying.  She was pretty sure they were talking about her.

“…second time this year.  But I’m not surprised.”

“Well, what can you do?”

“Trash always let a cold turn on them.  I guess they like hospital food.”

The two of them laughed.

The old women compressed her lips into a grave slit, said, “I just feel sorry for the kids.”

“I’d save that for when the mom gets out of jail. It’ll get worse then.”

The old woman nodded with a look on her face that said she agreed.

On the way home that night, Bets didn’t talk.  She was someone who liked to tell stories while she drove.  Usually she knew a little bit of something about the people in the houses on their route.  Once she talked about two old maids who lived in a blue cottage outside of town; one of them had an iron lung and the other one fell in love with a Korean who worked at the Chinese restaurant.  They couldn’t get married because of their families.  Another time she said, “That’s where your bus driver lives. I’ll tell you about that when you’re older.”

Tonight she didn’t say anything.  Deena licked her lips, scooted across the bench seat, and leaned her head against Bets’ arm.

“He’ll be okay,” her granny said.  Her voice was hoarse.

“Is it bad?”

There was a silence.  “Pretty bad.”

They were climbing one of the big hills on their road now.  It was the hill the bus always had trouble with in the winter.  One time, Mr. Day had to back down really slow and start up again.  Everyone of the kids had been white with terror.  Tonight the roads were clear, but the truck engine rumbled angrily all the same.  It was no easy patch, no matter the weather.

One time Deena asked her granny why they lived so far up the mountain, away from all the town people, even a little ways farther out than anyone else.  Cleaning up the dinner mess, Bets seemed distracted and first she made a joky kind of  answer.

“Cause we’re far out, honey.”

Deena blinked at her and waited.  Bets let out the dish water, shrugged and turned to face her, “People are shits, honey.  At least, that’s how I see it.  We belong up here.”

As they climbed the mountain that night, Deena wasn’t sure what to think of her granny’s moody silence.  She wondered if Victor was ever going to make it home.  Her mind turned over the things the nurse and the gift shop lady had said.  The cold winter moon was peering at them through the windshield while a spidery veil of tree limbs flew across its face.  She gave her granny’s elbow a squeeze and Bets pulled away for just a second so she could hook her arm over Deena’s slender little frame. It was warm in the truck, the heater blowing hot in their faces.

Claudine

I cannot manage to sleep tonight.  Each time I begin to doze, I find my mind turning over the thing I heard last Sunday, when we had the new doctor to the house.  Obsessive thoughts are common when the year turns again to autumn.  The white witch of winter peers at us though the forest, promising mischief and isolation.  Last night I dreamed of bloody skulls and women hurling themselves into darkness.  I lay the blame wholly on the handsome young physician.

The doctor is a pleasant dinner companion, despite the rumors coming out of town about his coldness.  His manners are impeccable and he chooses his every word with care, which might be mistaken for a kind of stiffness, yet he has a gentle warmth that came through more and more as the evening unfolded.  He was fastidiously polite about the meal, although we had made nothing very special.  And he had many nice things to say about the house, though Agnes and I are the first to admit we’ve neglected it terribly these last years.

The most remarkable thing about his visit, though, would have to be the story he told.  It was about a woman he once met in a village in the south called Severance.  It took Agnes a while to understand him; she was sure he was saying St. Vance and there was entirely too much discussion about that.  By the time we all agreed it was an amusing mistake and that likely there was no saint by that name, the cocktails had lost their chill.  I think the doctor was shocked when I said the drinks were no longer laughing at us and we ought to toss them out and start anew.  After he left, Agnes said it made us look frivolous and I bit my tongue because there is nothing so tiresome and middle class as a rout when guests go home.

Before I get to the meat of the story, I had best say the doctor was very conscientious about his oaths as a physician.  He gave us a pretend name for the woman in the story, lest by some chance we should have ever heard of her.  He said we should call her Claudine Allard.  Agnes asked if we ought to construe that she was French and because it was not a bad question, I paused as I shook our new batch of drinks, as to hear the doctor’s reply.

“They were French enough,” he said.

That caused me to chuckle.  I could see it amused Agnes, as well, because her eyes flashed merrily as she accepted the fresh cocktail I held out to her.  She said, “My grandmother liked to say she was a Catholic and a Liberal, but first and foremost she was French.”

I took my place beside her on the sofa, keenly aware that our snug little den with the crackling fire was the perfect setting for ghoulish storytelling. There was a lively energy between the three of us and I felt happy we’d invited the young man.

“Please tell us your tale,” I said. “I promise Agnes and I will be good little children and not interrupt.”

“Speak for yourself,” Agnes said.

I wagged my finger at the doctor. “I should take that as a warning, young man. In twenty-seven years, I’ve never been able to stop her asking too many questions.”

“There are never too many questions,” she said.

The doctor settled back in his chair with a bit of color in his cheeks.  Perhaps our silliness was embarrassing to him, I thought briefly, but next he smiled and said, “I think Ms. Poe is delightful.  I myself have a love of curiosity.”

Wetting his throat with the cocktail, he unfolded his tale.

____________

“When I was through internship,” he began. “My father found me a job working in a surgery in this town I mentioned.  Severance.  It was a grim little place.  Never recovered from the picking over the carpetbaggers gave it.  Everywhere one looked, mills were grinding to a halt, cotton fields going to scrub.  My father had no notion the town was so poor.  A dear friend of his at university was their sole physician and he spoke of it with the love of a loyal native.  He wrote my father about the grand estates, the elegant manners of the meager old guard.  He never mentioned all the poor and dirty children, black and white, who were lucky to get a meal a day.”

“The doctor and I spent much of our time with the poor.  They were most of the population. I never complained to father. He’d have called me home to Boston immediately.  If I can say it without sounding a perfect horse’s ass, I had a poetic sense in the pink of my youth that I was doing the world a great service.”

He laughed at himself.

“In any event, perhaps I thought what I was seeing would teach me the true horrors of life and I’d return to New England, the prodigal son, to write a searing essay on the maladies of the South.  The nation would be called to action.  There would always be soup in the pot and cornbread in the oven when I was through.  At the very least, I thought I was helping in my way, day by day.”

He raked a hand through his curls.  I could tell by the gleam in Agnes’ eye she was quite smitten with him at that moment.  It was impossible not to be.  Nothing is so attractive in the young as a sense of righteousness. It can also make them ugly.  Still, I gave him an encouraging smile.

“Well, naivete may be the wart on noble intentions, but we ought not be judged by our warts alone.”

He smiled at me.

“From the first, I’d been hearing about this grand old place called Petit Lac.  It was different from the others, I came to find out, because the family had never gone broke in the civil war.  The same people – the Allard family – had owned it sense the land was little more than a swamp, they said, with Indian villages and the like. Although it was a mile away, on a clear day you could see its columns from the town.”

“Well, although one could see the poetry in the place from all that distance, I had little reason to ponder it much, what with trying to chase away fevers and patch up fingers busted on grist wheels.  Then one day my boss said he had a note from Petit Lac.  We were needed there immediately.  I still remember his wry tone as he pulled the note from his breast pocket and said, ‘It’s a royal summons, young man.  Take heed.'”

“When we got to the gates of the plantation, the sun was already smoldering low on the ridges.  There were three freedman on the bridge to the house, the soft earthen pass that allowed cars over the water.  They stopped us before we could cross.  I knew one of the men.  His name was Marshall.  I’d helped his daughter earlier in the year, when her leg was mangled in a harvester. We had to take it clean off, but she lived.  He glowed with sweat in the twilight, his smile the warmest thing I would see in the coming hours.  ‘Hello, doctor sir,” he said. ‘I hate to see you out here tonight.’

“I wasn’t sure of his meaning. His eyes dropped away from me, and he said, ‘We have to fix this here bridge, doctor sir. The culvert is cracked and we’re putting in a new one.  You’ll have to cross the lake on the little raft down below.’

“We parked my employer’s car on the road, took our leather cases and met the man who waited at the raft.  He was a quiet sort, his shape a tortured one, the spine quite twisted.  My mentor leaned in as we crossed, told me the name of the flu that had left the man in such a state.  His eyes in the dimming light were sad.  I remember how the crooked man looked against the orange twilight.  Despite his malady, he got us across swiftly.  The old physician seemed quite moody as we set off on foot again, so I  asked him questions about the history of the estate.

“He told me about a gory uprising between the Indians and the settlers as we walked.  They said a man came across the head of a native in the midst of the battle, so freshly cut from the neck that the eyes were still roving about with a glower of accusation.  Queerly enough, he laughed a little as he said, ‘The Indian head asked the man if he were the one who had cut him and by the time he composed himself enough to say he was not, the eyes had grown quite glassy.’

“When we got to the house, a dark woman in long, old-fashioned skirts led us down the gallery.  I was at last walking among those grand columns I had seen from town.  Even in the wan light, I could see what I had not guessed from afar.  The brick was in need of white wash and the floor boards were eaten here and there by vermin.

“We went through a set of glass doors opening onto a dark library.  Walnut shelves climbed fifteen feet into the air all around. There might have been tens of thousands of books.  They were so old, I knew at a glance the family must have bowed before devils to keep the collection safe during the war.  Unlike the other plantations I had visited in that year, this one owed none of its crumbling rot to the cruel hands of looters.

“The thing pulling this old place apart was simply neglect.  I knew that the moment I got a glimpse at the man laid on a bed at the center of the room.  The captain of this ship was all but dead.  The face above the brocade mantle was so creased and pale, I was sure I could glimpse each vein running beneath the skin, if only I had the light of day instead of dusk to aid me.”

At this point in his tale, I noticed Agnes shivering.  I stood and went to close the doors to the porch, but she stopped me.  “Oh, the goose bumps are lovely, Margaret.  Sit down and let him tell the tale.”

I may have rolled my eyes because she gave me that look, but I pretended not to notice and changed course only slightly, stoking the fire instead.  The young doctor glanced at us, his face as handsome in the rising light as the statues Greeks used to covet, but he carried on as though uninterrupted.

“When my mentor pulled away the old colonel’s covers, we could see all the more how wasted he was.  Our eyes met as they had before and if words could be printed on the cornea, ours would have born an identical print: cancer.  We ordered him tea and mixed a medicine to ease his suffering.  I allowed my eyes to roam the salon.  When I noticed the portrait over the hearth, I felt the breath leave my body.

“The woman in the painting was likely the most beautiful person I had ever seen.  Here I must confess that I had a brief love affair with art when I was younger still.  I connived to study painting and sculpture in Paris before I settled on a physician’s studies.  I was no stranger to the flattery a painter is capable of when he must pay his rent by the patron.  In this one, I recognized both the talents of a man who is well known to us all, but also I was convinced beyond a doubt of the honesty of the piece.  The woman in the painting, with her long honey hair and her dark, wretched eyes was not the compliment of a hungry artist.  Her beauty was her own possession.  I could sense the longing of the artist to portray it in every brush stroke.”

The young physician laughed at himself.  He said, “Well, I know I am sounding very dramatic.  But in the next moment, the woman herself appeared.  She stood in the doorway of the library, tall and proud, dressed in black as though she knew where the next days would land her: on the grim hillside plot where the rest of her clan was buried.

“She managed a little smile as she crossed to us.  She said to my mentor.  ‘How long does he have?’  I was shocked, I admit, by her blunt manner.  I glanced away, but I sensed she was watching me.

“‘My grandfather is in much pain,’ she said.  I cautioned a glance and met her eyes.  They were a lovely, pale brown when the light hit them.  The kind of brown that is almost green, like the rusty moss of the forest.

“The good old doctor administered his medicine and the patient lay still, though his pallor was a grey that would stay with him until the end.  The granddaughter left us for a bit.  I could not keep from peering at her painting.  When she returned a while later, she had troubling news.  ‘I’m afraid the bridge collapsed while the men were trying to secure the new culvert. Damned stupid of them not to quit when they’d lost the light. No one was hurt, thank heavens, but the raft was rather badly broken.  You’ll have to stay over the evening. We can get another one from up lake by morning.’

“There was nothing for it but to accept our fate.  Shortly after, we took dinner with her in a dining room far too large for three souls.  There were two hearths at either end, both of them roaring with good logs.  She sat at the head of the table in a familiar manner, as one who might have taken the liberty for a good while.  The food was rich and our wine glasses were kept quite full.  She told us amusing little stories, all the while fidgeting with her knife.  She laid it flat and spun it in circles on the mahogany top or else she held it straight up and down, the tip on her plate, turning it to see it glint in the fire light. I barely noticed her fascination with it at the time, but I recalled it later and have never forgotten it.

“There was something about her I found hard to fathom.  When we were in school and our masters talked about compassion, I knew only the meaning of the word.  Later I learned the feeling of it in all those sad little cottages of Severance.  I felt it most keenly one night when I held a dieing boy in one hand and the hand of his father in the other.  The father could not bare to touch the son just yet.  It is hard to describe how I felt about Claudine.  I did not know her, which might account for my lack of compassion, but still there was something about her that made sense of my coldness.  She was beautiful but ugly.

“Later the doctor and I were led to a set of guest rooms at the top of the old house.  Everywhere I looked, I could see the portraits and the traces of the men and women who called this place their home and who were now amongst the dead.  The damask on the walls was split open, fine gowns clinging to bones.  Up there the air itself smelled of rot.

“Though it was hard to feel at home there, I staved off my morbid fancies and managed a sort of half sleep.  Not long after I dozed away, I woke with a sense that someone was in the room with me.  I must have cried out in alarm, because her voice came to me, cold and clear.  ‘It is only I,  physician,’ she said. ‘Claudine.’

“‘Is something wrong with your grandfather?’ I asked into the shadows.

“‘Only himself,’ she said oddly.  Her voice was so miserable, I felt a shiver despite the warmth of the room.  Then she told me everything in an instant, unasked, as though the wave of her sad life had at last found a shore to break against.”

He blushed then, our young doctor, and Agnes and I exchanged a glance.  He continued, “I had never heard of the kind of things she told me.  Perhaps in the darkness, I was merely a priest and she at a kind of confession.  Her mother left Petit Lac when she was young.  She was an adventurer.  She wrote stories for magazines about travels all over the globe.  Her choices scandalized her family and the old colonel was known to tell his closest friends his daughter was dead.  But when the woman did in fact pass away – and left behind Claudine – he took his granddaughter in with the diligent haste of a fine old saint.

“Yet when his granddaughter became a young woman, when she flowered, as was his word for it – or the French word perhaps – something changed about the old man.  His gaze was different.  She said his eyes had a heat she could feel on her skin.  He brought her jewels from the vaults under the house.  He ordered gowns for her that caused the servants to look away when she wore them. He told her she was beautiful so often, she learned to hate her own reflection.

“I was horrified by how quickly I figured her meaning.  I thought about asking her to stop telling me.  At last she said into the darkness, ‘One night, I knew there was nothing left but to surrender. And so it has been these last years.'”

Agnes rose suddenly, setting aside her empty glass.  “I need to stand.  Please, continue.”

His eyes were now older than the rest of his pleasant face.  He hesitated and only when we prompted him did he carry on.

“She stopped after she told me the worst of it.  I didn’t know what to say and so we were silent for a while in that dark room.  Only a bit of moonlight, coming over her shoulder, told me that she sat near the window.  Finally, I said, ‘That’s monstrous,’ or something of the kind.

“She said, ‘He’s dead now.’

“I knew she spoke the truth.  Another silence stretched between us and at last, knowing nothing else to say, I murmured, ‘I’m sorry.’

“She heaved a sigh then, and I’m almost sure, but not absolutely convinced, she said, ‘Thank you.’  Then she stood and opened the window. I was still sitting up in the bed.  The chilly night breeze chased off the musty odor quickly.  For a moment I thought she only meant to air the room, but she stood there so long, I began to wonder if she had more to say. Then she did something quite astonishing.  The last thing she ever did.  She lifted a foot and stepped up into the window sill.  Without glancing back at me, she hurled herself out into the night without a cry.  I realized later she must have been praying before she jumped.

“I rose despite the futility of any action.  When I glanced down, she was twisted and bloodied on the stones below.  I told myself I would carry her secret, but yet I wondered if they would think I had pushed her.  Then another thought came to me and hastily, still shaken, I managed to dress myself and find my way to the bottom of the stairs.  Despite the gloom, I found the colonel’s library, lit one of the lamps on the desk, and carried it to his sick bed.”

He paused.  Agnes and I were silly with curiosity.  I cannot imagine two teenagers at the cinema any more foolish.  I sat forward.

“Yes?”

The doctor stood and braced himself on the hearth.  I could see he was trembling.  The mood of the room had changed. Hang the crackle of our little fire.  His face, as ashen as gravestone, chased away every thought of cheer.

“Before she came to my room to tell me of their wretched arrangement,” he said. “She had cut away his face, ear to ear, hair to chin, leaving only the skull to stare up to the ceiling.  I have turned myself inside and out trying to understand why.”

The physician is a gifted story teller, but despite her silly questions, my Agnes is the real scholar of the heart.  Without a pause, she answered the riddle, “So she’d never again see his face in the beyond.”

The doctor looked amazed and I must say he gave my Agnes a quite kindly hug when he went away that night.  As we drifted to sleep later, her voice cut our dark room.

“I wish I’d asked him if they ever found the face.”

My Agnes.  Her questions.