To whet your curiosity, I thought I’d post the first chapter of my newest novel, The Rose Guardian.
Maybe, if you find it intriguing enough, you’ll go and purchase a copy of your own to read, either trade paperback or ebook.
I realize now innocence, once lost, can never be retrieved. We yearn. We search. But that search is vain; only the vestiges of what we once had remains.
It was of innocence I thought as the officiant droned on. He spoke of a woman he didn’t know. He attempted to convince those of us gathered in that sombre and neutrally appointed room Una Cotter was someone to be remembered, a vital part of her community, loving mother, devoted wife. There was no denying she was all that.
Una Cotter, descended from Norman conquerors. Or so she liked to say.
I remembered a woman I both loved and feared. There was little of softness about Ma. Estranged, widowed, hardened by experience, she was as capricious as Canadian weather. The only thing on which you could depend was in her winter, it was bitter. In her summer, it was glorious.
White Cotter roses bookended the funereal urn of plain, penny-wise stoneware; a digital display on the wall above, sequencing through images of Ma from femme fatale to fatal crone. She died so very small, coiling into herself as though gathering all her effort for one final, full-colour explosion.
I had few illusions I would escape the repercussions of that explosion, like thunder in the heart, or the tsunami after the quake. For now, there was this calm. I should feel something, I told myself. Surely this marked some sort of personal shortcoming that I couldn’t squeeze out even one tear. As a woman of age, had I become as impenetrable as Ma?
Finally, a pause in that fabrication from the lectern, and in that space a song about time to say goodbye, meant I was sure to elicit profound weeping from the host of mourners. Ma was like that. I didn’t know whether to laugh or rage, to feel fondness or scorn. How was I supposed to feel after all these years, after all this history?
I could hear someone cough, the rustle of cloth as bums shifted on padded seats, the breathing of so many people who had come to mark the death of this enigmatic woman. I stared at my knees where black silk noile draped down to touch the tops of my black leather flats. I wanted to shift my own bum, rid myself of the casing of spandex designed to make the Rubenesque feel svelte. Or at the least acceptable. Dear god I was getting too old for this.
I wondered vaguely if they’d stuffed Ma into spandex underneath her funerary garb. Or had they simply taken her to the crematorium and incinerated her, gardening clothes, gloves, and all?
My brother, Bennet, who in true Irish form styled himself Benneit, sat to my right. His wife and their adult children were behind us.
Ben glanced at me. He was as always clean-shaven, beautiful in a hoary, stag-like way, and closed as he had been since he learned we were not fully siblings. How long ago was that? Fifty years? Somehow the taint of that was something he’d never accepted. Or forgiven. As if I was responsible for our parents’ shortcomings.
I wished I could read him, gauge what lay beneath that polished exterior, wished somehow we could regain the laughter and lunacy of childhood. I managed a smile, not much more than a lift of the corner of my mouth, an attempt to say I know, it’s okay, death is just part of life. But Ben didn’t need that. Ben, like Ma, knew how to survive. They were both expert masons. Their walls were impenetrable.
Ah, there was the great, fully-orchestrated crescendo I’ll go with you upon ships across the seas, seas that exist no more….
I glanced to my left where Uncle Ianto sat, and good the gods he bent over his knees, tongue between teeth, a quarter clamped in thumb and forefinger. What was he doing?
“Uncle Ianto!” I hissed. “For the love of god!”
That song went on about being together, forever, endlessly on.
He looked up at me, an idiot grin on his face and a mesh of lines around those recklessly blue eyes. He turned his attention back to the task of deconstructing the kneeling rail in front of him. I should upbraid him, I thought, tell him to show a little more respect for his sister’s memory. The officiant shot a frowning glance in my uncle’s direction. I had the strangest urge to giggle. Jesus God, hold it together! If I started now I’d never stop. And then would come those tears I thought myself incapable of shedding. Foolishness. Liar.
No. No tears. I swallowed, wishing for this service to end, wishing for home and the sound of waves on the shore, of loons and their wild asylum cry.
I wanted to help Uncle Ianto take apart every last rail—Uncle Ianto who likely had more understanding than any of us about this funeral and what we marked.
Thank god, an end to that saccharine song.
The officiant–what was his name?–made one last futile attempt to urge either Ben or me to deliver a eulogy, and when met with a fidgeting, twitching silence, broken only by the scraping of Uncle Ianto’s makeshift screwdriver, intoned his last words on the subject of Una Cotter and made his way to the door. That was a signal, I supposed, the service was at an end.
I elbowed Uncle Ianto to his feet, and managed to get him to leave off his deconstruction. We shuffled by the officiant, grasping hands, thanking him for his efforts. There was no invitation extended to him to join us at Ma’s for the small refreshment we’d arranged. Mean spirited, I’m sure, but none of us needed this hired mourner to intrude upon the acrimony to come. That kind of vitriol is best savoured among the willing few.
We retired to the room set aside for family. Ben was already in discussion with the funeral director. I stepped forward to join in, thought better of it and retreated to where coffee had been provided. I swirled cream into a cup, watching it shift and billow, then finally settle into beige, heard my name and turned. Ben was there, introducing me to our host. What the woman said I hadn’t a clue. It all seemed lost in a bubble. Nodding and smiling seemed in order, so I did that, shook her hand, mumbled thanks.
Ben took the velvet bag the woman handed him, hefting it to the cradle of his elbow. She withdrew. I looked over to Ben, tried to articulate my thoughts, but he said, “We’re taking her ashes back home. I figured that was okay, given history.”
He might have asked. I wanted to offer a bridge, found myself without the equipment to do so, and so only said: “Of course, Ben. Whatever you wish.” But then, from somewhere, the courage to say: “I’ve missed you.”
He seemed startled, his face softening for a moment. I saw the boy, my brother; then the man reasserted himself and Ben was lost to me. “We live in an age of communication.”
I didn’t think you’d want to hear from me—left unsaid, not knowing how. “I’m sorry,” came out instead.
“So am I.” He glanced down, then to the door. “We should go.”
“Of course.” Easier to fall back on duty. Easier to leave the demons chained.
Escape wasn’t to be swift. There were the niceties of polite society, the acceptance of people’s apologies–for what did they apologize?–the offer of comfort, of empathy, hands grasped and joggled meaningfully, faces full of well-intentioned emotion meant to convey solidarity in the face of the enemy of death. There were even hugs, unsolicited, unwelcomed, and my impotent hand patting a shoulder, a back, lips responding with platitudes and clichés, and the brain running ahead, anticipating bridges that might be blown or secure. Navigating. Always navigating.
“Should you need anything, Violet—”
Who was this? Don’t remember. “Very kind of you to offer. We’re all good. But thanks.” The withdrawal of my hand from the clasp of two, a vague attempt to remember a name for that face. Glancing off to the doorway where Uncle Ianto fidgeted, laughing of all things.
“I need to get him in check,” I said to Ben who stood next to me. “Rendezvous at Ma’s.” No response. None expected. I steered a course through the flow of bodies, keeping my attention anchored to my recalcitrant, unpredictable uncle.
At last I hooked my hand around his elbow, and head down, beat a retreat to the parking lot.
Relieved was how I felt when I buckled myself into the car, a moment’s respite. I could feel Uncle Ianto about to explode into comment and criticism. What was it about the Cotters made us so willing to shake our fists, rattle sabres, beat shields? We should all just paint ourselves with woad and be done with it. Go charging off with the Wild Hunt.
I closed my eyes, feeling sunshine hot and penetrating on my face. A balm, a blessing. If there were any heroes in our family they’d long since vanished in the mists of Ireland, too insubstantial to make the journey to Canada. We were refugees, all of us, whether from famine or history made little difference.
“The hell with your brother,” Uncle Ianto muttered. “Unmitigated shit!” I laughed, opened my eyes and turned to him. He looked like a radish. Blood pressure, I thought. Time to calm him down. “I never liked that little turd.” That last salvo apparently just for good measure.
“Hush, Uncle Ianto,” I said. “Let’s just get through this.” I raised a warning finger to him. “No shenanigans, okay? Behave yourself.”
“Damn right, my girl. Damn right. Get through this and get back home.”
I really am getting too old for all this melodrama, I thought.
It was about a twenty-minute drive from the funeral home to Ma’s. On the way, Uncle Ianto and I spoke mostly about our plans for the remainder of the day and his departure tomorrow. It was agreed we’d try to quickly wrap the après deuil, have a quiet evening together, and stay in touch throughout the following week. I’d keep the car, drive Uncle Ianto and David—my ex—to the Waterloo airport where we’d arranged a hitch on a small charter. David would drive Ianto home at the other end, stay with him while I was away. David, another dangling thread in the fabric of my life.
But for now, we’d be a team, my uncle and I, with David conscripted in; we three dispossessed in uncertain territory.
I headed west out of Paris into the triangle of rural country between Highways 401 and 403; mostly flat, arable land now given over to the growing of ginseng and cereal crops, a few upstart vineyards creating nouveau vintage by marketing the ashtray flavour of tobacco to youthful trendsetters. Orchards joined those vineyards along with agritainment farms for the urban family seeking reconnection with the land.
When we turned north and rattled along the washboard gravel sideroad that led to Ma’s farm, I felt my heart stutter. The last time I’d travelled this road I’d been in tears, David dispensing advice and indignation in equal measure at the wheel of the car.
Twenty-five years ago. And too many years of silence before we found a way through the fog of that particular war. It’s always too late for regrets.
I slowed when I approached the maple-lined laneway, observed for a moment the old stone house, a Loyalist, utilitarian box, twenty-six windows, and one thousand acres of land given over to woodlot, a pond that was more a lake, and gardens that would have put any public horticultural centre to shame. The service entrance for the business side of Ma’s property came in from the north, and it was there the trial beds of Ma’s roses were situated, along with the greenhouses, labs, and office facilities. At least that’s what I remembered.
Crown land deeded to the immigrant Loyalist Cotters.
“Still a sight to behold,” Uncle Ianto said. “She always had style, did your Ma.”
I eased the car up the shaded lane and drove into the courtyard created by virtue of a converted carriage house to one side of the house, and a renovated stable to the other. All, apparently, a reconstruction of the farm the Cotter’s had left behind in Burt, Donegal. When I stepped out onto the gravel drive I paused, listening, remembering it was quieter when I grew up here. You had to go a long way north now before you could achieve that kind of quiet, where the reverberation of traffic didn’t underscore everything. I had that at home, at my refuge at Meldrum Bay.
Then the mood was broken by a goldfinch’s trilling, a sound to penetrate the heart and fear, a song of such joy as to make a mockery of the sombreness of a funeral. Here was life.
Are you there? Are you there? I still thought of goldfinches as throwing queries into the air.
I looked to the copse of trees in the distance, trying to find the brazen yellowness of the bird. But no. Only that glorious sound, and despite myself I smiled, allowing such simple pleasure to touch my apprehension.
I scanned the lawns, the gardens, watching a little girl dart amid the rose parterre, her red capris and white shirt as defiant as the goldfinch’s song.
“Who’s that?” I said, nudging Uncle Ianto.
He looked up at me, frowning. “Who?”
“There.” I nodded to the parterre where this imp of a child now stood, waggling an admonishment at a white rose.
“Yer daft,” Ianto said. “There’s no girl there. Just Una’s roses.”
I opened my mouth to protest, snapped it shut. She’d gone. No matter. I steered Uncle Ianto past other vehicles in the drive, guests who plainly arrived ahead of us, along to the front door that was thrown open to the beauty of this May day. Ma would have fetched a fit. Letting in mosquitoes and blackflies and who knew what vermin. Nature was perfectly fine kept ordered and in its place, all ugliness eradicated.
My nephew, Colm, greeted us in the foyer, all hugs and exuberance, tall and no longer the boy I remembered. He laughed with Uncle Ianto, found someone to guide our fey relation into the parlour and get him settled and seated. Alone with Colm, I asked, “Would it be silly of me to say you’ve grown?”
He grinned and looked down at me. “A bit, Aunt Vi. But I’ll forgive you.” He gestured to a diminutive woman beside him. “This is Aislinn.” I shook her hand, raised an eyebrow to Colm, who said, “We’ve been together a few years now.”
“I’m the last to know anything.” I nodded into the house. “I gather your father doesn’t approve?”
“Living in sin and all that.”
“We just didn’t see the point in contractual love,” Aislinn said. “And weren’t sure how you’d feel, so we just kept things quiet.”
I smiled. “Manitoulin’s a long way away, but you’re always welcome. You and Colm both. Might as well find out how the rest of the non-conformist Cotters live.”
“It’s a date then,” Colm said. “Give me your keys and I’ll fetch in your bags.” Colm gestured to the parlour off the foyer. “Dad’s in there with Mum and Erin. I know for sure at least the females will be glad to see you.”
“Thanks for the warning.”
I stepped through the wide archway into the parlour, dodging ghosts and memories, listening to the susurration of voices both present and past. Not much had changed since last I was here. Light still flooded the room from a long bank of deep-set windows. There the fireplace with its ornate fire-screen and potted plants, the Regency-style sofas like bookends, the butternut bookcases and leaded glass, leather volumes carefully arranged alphabetically by author. The Heppleworth knock-off secretary, the Persian carpets, occasional chairs in conversation groups for conversations that never took place.
“Can I offer you refreshment?” my sister-in-law was asking, I realized. I turned toward her.
“It’s good to see you, Evelyn.” I declined the offer of a drink. “The only time we Cotters seem to gather is at weddings and funerals, and not so much the former as the latter.” You’re being unfair, I thought.
“It was a lovely service, don’t you think?” she said.
“Mmm, yes. Ma had it all arranged, I’m sure.”
“Down to the obituary notices for the papers,” Ben said, drawing abreast. He watched me over the rim of his glass, garnet wine catching the light. Why was it I always felt there was subtext?
You’re too paranoid. Just fergawdsakes stop being so damned anti-social.
I gestured to a settee and eased to the jacquard cushions, fitting myself into a corner. A shrink would rub her hands with glee over that, I’m sure. Uncle Ianto, radar zeroing in on potential family conflict, thumped down in the opposite corner of the settee, looking like a cornered hound.
There was an uncomfortable pause, and then my niece arrived, all effervescence like her brother, and asked about life on the island. I responded, asked about her doctoral studies.
“Bio-ethics isn’t it?” I said.
She confirmed, talked about the Third World crisis in medical care, of human experimentation by the giant pharmaceutical companies, and while I watched her face illuminate with passion, I thought I couldn’t be too harsh on Ben and Evelyn if they could create a woman with this kind of commitment and intelligence.
It wasn’t long before her brother joined in the debate, and that kept us all occupied for the next twenty minutes. By now other guests arrived. The room filled, people spilling out onto the back terrace where spring breathed. Where I needed to breathe, so I rose from the sofa, made my excuses, and wove my way through mourners to the freedom outside.
A surprise, yes. Ma’s death was quite sudden.
In good health? Yes, she had been in good health. Or so we thought.
Stroke. Yes. A surprise. Yes, a surprise.
I wondered what it had been like for her, ass to the heavens in the garden, endlessly eradicating weeds. Had there been pain, a dizzying moment of disorientation? Had she pitched into her beloved roses and wondered if now, these many years and sins later, she was to meet her Maker. Had there been fear? Had there been regret? Had she been lonely, dying alone, the perfume of flowers her last absolution and sacrament?
I found myself sitting on one of the stone benches in the rose parterre, remembering when first Ma had taken spade and shovel to the ground, digging out the shapes to make a Maltese cross and medallion. I had been no more than five or six. She had been frenetic, I remembered, furious, tears cascading with sweat down her face, her dark hair a jumble of curls escaped from the bun in which she customarily contained it.
I had wanted to comfort her. But even that young I knew Ma’s view of comfort was grim, a sign of weakness.
“You’re not to come home from school with your father,” she’d announced suddenly. “I’ve made other arrangements.”
I didn’t ask the obvious, the genesis of a lifetime of avoiding crisis. Dad hadn’t been at dinner that night. Nor at breakfast the following morning. Nor any meal thereafter. Our neighbour became my after-school ferry and safe house while Ma earned our keep. Uncle Ianto came to live with us about a year later, after Ma had been in hospital.
“They talk to you if you listen.”
Startled, I looked to my side, unaware I’d been joined by the little girl I’d seen earlier. She shifted her bum on the cool stone of the bench. I smiled.
“Who talks to you?” I asked.
Such a serious little face. There wasn’t any artifice there, not even a suggestion of mischief.
“The roses talk to you?”
“Sure. Don’t they talk to you?”
They used to, I remembered, after Ma planted them, encouraging slips she’d nurtured in the greenhouse, a feather forever in her pocket with which she’d dust and broadcast pollen like a human bee.
“Not for a long time,” I answered.
She considered that for a moment, then: “Well, maybe they’re just waiting for you to say something.”
Startled, I looked up, bringing into focus a face I knew well. I swallowed regret. “David. You came. I was just talking to—” I looked to where my young guest had been to find only the cold bench.
“Yourself?” David asked.
“No. To…where did she go?”
“The little girl I was talking to.”
“There’s no one here. Just you and me.”
“But…I….” I winced, looked back up at him. “I’m glad you came,” I said instead, confused, suddenly unsure of everything and this entire day.
“I promised you.”
“That was gracious of you. You certainly didn’t owe Ma anything.”
He shrugged. “I owed her at least for the gift of knowing you.”
I looked down and away. “I suppose the whole bloody island knows.”
I heard him laugh, looked up at that familiar face. “It’s a big island.” And together we said, “Largest fresh water island in the world,” and giggled like kids caught telling a dirty joke. He joined me on the bench.
“You sure you’re okay taking care of Uncle Ianto?” I asked.
He nodded. “It’s all set. We’ll get back to Gore Bay tomorrow afternoon, late. Just came down for the service and to help with Ianto. I’m staying at Featherstone’s B&B tonight if you need me. You figured about two weeks you’d be here?”
“About that. There are apparently details of the will that need to be addressed fairly soon for the smooth continuation of the greenhouses and guesthouse. Not sure how long that will take. I’m hoping we can get the majority of it addressed in the next two weeks while you holiday with Uncle Ianto, and then I’ll take care of any further details via email and the like.”
“Good thing the ferry’s open. It’ll make getting back easier for you.” He nodded toward the open doors of the terrace. “You and Ben talked?”
“Not really. Hasn’t been time yet.”
“You going to be okay?”
I laughed and ran my fingers through the cropped curls on my head. “Oh sure. You know me.”
“Tough old bird. Like your mom.” I stiffened, looked at him. “Vi, relax. All I meant was you’re a survivor, whether you realize it or not. All of you Cotters are. It’s just that in you, survival doesn’t come at someone else’s expense.” I closed my eyes on tears, sudden and hot, felt the rough tips of his fingers along my jaw. “If it weren’t for her….”
“I know,” I said, looking at him, at that face I’d known and would always love. “It was an unfair war in which I placed you.” I kissed the tips of his fingers, pushed his hand to his chest where I let mine linger a moment. “I should go mingle.” Stood and left.
The room and Ma’s mourners enclosed me. In the end I sank back into the corner of the settee where I’d started, sipping water. Conversation flowed and ebbed around me. I answered questions, offered comments and gratitude, pulled a smile from my pocket of theatrics and pasted it on my face. I wished there was booze in the cup, was grateful there wasn’t. After awhile the afternoon became a blur and then past tense as the door closed on the last guest, and Ben brought us back to the funeral, and the miracle of medicine that had allowed Ma such longevity.
“Ninety-four,” he said.
“Ninety-eight,” I said, and once again realized how much she’d risked, even then. She’d always said it hadn’t been convenient for her to have children. Convenient. Children. Yes, that was Ma.
There was an uncomfortable pause, and then I said, “I suppose we should talk about the logistics of the estate. I can spend a few weeks down here to help. It’s not like my boss is going to fire me.”
“That’s true,” Ben said. “Unlike you, some of us do have responsibilities to employers.”
I closed my eyes, chewing on the bait, rejecting it. It was just Ben’s way of stirring things up. “I have a show coming up, but I’m well ahead,” I said.
“Where are you showing?” Evelyn asked, arriving with a new tray of refreshments and fixings. There was a moment’s interruption as people moved to clear space on the coffee table.
It was Uncle Ianto, ever my defender, who answered, “She’s showing at the Manitoulin Festival of Art.”
“Ah, art for the indigenous,” Ben said.
“It’s a fundraiser,” I finished, throwing Uncle Ianto a warning glance. What I didn’t want was an all-out fracas. Bad enough we fired ranging shots each other.
“I can do this on my own,” Ben said. “There’s really no need. But thanks.”
“Really, it’s okay,” I answered. “I figured I could go over the will with you tomorrow, start organizing. I thought it might take some pressure from you.” And now he knew where I stood. I wasn’t going to be sidelined, and while it wasn’t like I was hoping for some buried treasure to be unearthed in this sorting of the deceased’s effects, I did want a chance to be alone with Ma’s memory, with the possessions she’d gathered around her like a shield. Nope, Ben didn’t like that one bit. What I wasn’t prepared for was his next statement.
“The will’s been changed, you know.”
Ah, there it was, the quake. “Oh?”
He smiled. “You and Uncle Ianto are welcome to read it.”
“You’ve got that right, my boy,” Uncle Ianto said. “Isn’t that so, Violet, my flower?”
“Perhaps we can do this tomorrow morning?” I asked. And suddenly I felt as though my navigation had foundered my ship. Why couldn’t anything to do with Ma ever just follow a simple course?
Ben swirled the wine in his never-empty glass. “Actually, there’s a meeting over at the greenhouses with the CEO of Cotter Greenhouses tomorrow morning to discuss the smooth transition of the greenhouses and business. But of course, if you’d rather not attend….”
I hesitated a moment, never good in the line of fire.
“I can go with you,” Uncle Ianto said.
Not a great idea. “You’re travelling home with David.”
“I saw him here. David.” Ben said. “I thought that was all washed up?”
“People are capable of civil separations, you know.”
Ben snorted. “Ah, my sister the diplomat. You’ll talk yourself into anonymity.”
“And have a clear conscience.”
He shrugged in that judgemental way he had. How was it he could raise violence in my sensibilities where no one else could? All I wanted to do was break my fist on his face.
It was Colm who said, “Whoa, Dad. Ease up, eh?”
I threw Uncle Ianto a look I hoped would convince him of my need to be here alone for the meeting.
“You sure?” he said.
“Absolutely.” I turned back to Ben. “It would appear it’s settled.”
“Suit yourself,” Ben said. “Nine. Ma’s office. You remember?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “I’ve retained some of the hired staff for the next few days.”
“I don’t know why,” Evelyn said. “It’s not like there’s going to be an army of guests.”
“My wife isn’t serving my employees.”
My employees. Ah. Then the will made Ben the new major shareholder of Cotter Greenhouses. As much as that information stung, I wasn’t surprised, which was in itself a surprise. First the quake, now the tsunami, the stutter in the heart. I couldn’t even bring myself to wonder why, once again, Ma chose to overlook me. Was I incompetent? Was that it? Was the fact I’d run away from her and a marriage and confrontation enough to tattoo failure on my forehead? How was it I could be a senior citizen and still feel like six even in the memory of her presence?
“Right then.” I set my cup on the coffee table and rose, turned to Evelyn who looked bewildered by the duel that had just taken place. I managed a smile. “It was lovely, as always, to see you, Evelyn.” To the kids: “If you’re going to be around, would love a chance to chat over the next few days, catch up a bit.” I levered Uncle Ianto to his feet. “C’mon, you. Enough excitement for one day.” And made my way to the stairs, Uncle Ianto ready to sputter. The moment I had him in his room he broke into an uproar. And through it all he muttered, “The little shit.”
I let him rant. Sometimes it’s good for the soul to scream at the gods. Just be careful they’re not listening. There was enough momentum in his anger it carried him through my administration of his meds, which usually was enough of a chore, and overseeing his trip to the loo.
“You can manage your pyjamas?” I asked.
I wagged my finger at him. “Don’t you of course me. I know you. If I don’t do a bed check you’ll be sleeping starkers in the chair or flashing at the window.”
“Oh, now, Violet, that’s hardly fair.”
I retreated to the door, continued to wag my finger at him. “Behave yourself. Pyjamas and right into bed. Your book’s on the nightstand.”
He thumped down on the edge of the bed and glared at me. “You’re no fun when you’re serious.”
“And you’re a pain in the ass when your balls are in an uproar.”
“Go to bed, Uncle. And behave yourself.”
He clucked a disgusted sound and waved me away. I closed the door on him and made my way to the adjacent bedroom where memories would ooze from familiar furnishings.
Despite my assurances to Uncle Ianto, I was under no illusion the settling of Ma’s property would be smooth.
I ducked into the bathroom while the rest of the family were downstairs, removed cosmetics I detested, brushed and flossed, and padded my way back down and across the hall to the room that had been mine in another life. When I closed the door, I felt I might drown. There wasn’t enough air. It was too congested with memory in here, and all of it bittersweet, both joy and sorrow, laughter and anger. I eased to the edge of the bed, remembering a satin-edged blanket where there was now a down duvet, flounces of floral bed skirts where now a neutral box-pleated skirt hung stiff with starch. But the bedframe was the same, cherry posts and headboard, a blanket rack in the footboard where one of Ma’s amazing quilts hung. She had a way of painting with fabric, of employing colour and texture.
I slathered moisturizer onto my face, feeling the push and shove of my skin, no longer supple, ever thirsty, let my fingers linger over my closed eyelids, paused, swept in and up, paused again, and this time knew there were tears and that despite all my denial, all my own carefully built mechanisms, grief eroded it all.
Unable to face myself in the light, I snapped off the switch on the lamp, leaned over and curled myself onto the bed. I watched the last vestiges of the day darken from crimson to indigo behind the maples.
Why was it I always seemed to be crying myself to sleep in this bed?
I woke with a start in the night, heart skittering, disoriented, a face from childhood like a ghost in my mind. This wasn’t home. This wasn’t my bed. I could hear voices, and for a moment I thought perhaps there were trespassers on my property. With a jolt I sat up and realized I was in Ma’s home, that she was dead, and we presumed upon her hospitality in her absence.
I eased off the bed, crossed to the armchair by the window and sank into it, after a moment opening the sash to the cool night air. It touched my face as I sat there, a relief, scented with wisteria and grass, the verdure of the garden. Far off there was the tenor whirr of an eastern screech owl, mysterious and lonely, and beneath that the spring treble of peepers and toads.
My heart stilled. It had been thumping, silent to all but me, the way an owl’s wings beat unheard by both prey and predator. In that suspended moment, I wondered if I fell, like an owl from her perch, would I be able to effortlessly push away the air once, twice, rise in disdain of gravity and glide across the meadow to that far line of maples and spruce, find the gnarled ancient that spread limbs over the spring that fed the lake, and rest. And watch the water that flowed ceaselessly, deceptively warm to invited skin even in the bitterest of winters. Would I see that face again? Would those fingers rise as liquid cascades like skin shedding? Would I be able to conquer my fear? This time? Would I?
I let out a breath, gathered another, slowing my frantic thoughts, gathering reality and order out of the shreds of dreams and old fears. It had been decades since I’d thought of that face, a child’s ripe imagining in the blue-green waters of a sulphur spring.
I looked up and out the window, feeling the night air bathe my febrile cheeks.
There was a full moon caught in the arms of the willow I called Grandmother as a kid. It always reminded me of her, of Grandma’s long hair that she’d let down and allow me to brush in those rare, still evenings. When she was gone, and all that was left was her book of Shakespeare’s sonnets and a lingering impression of the dowager empress, I began to sojourn with the willow, seeking out Grandma’s spirit beneath its graceful cascade, reciting poetry she’d encouraged me to memorize. Ma did not approve. I was never sure if it was because of her impatience with my romantic adolescence, or the fact I broke curfew by escaping into the willow’s variegated moonlight.
It seemed to me I was always part of her disdain quotient. Certainly, it was her disdain that finally shattered my fear of her and led to me not only hanging up on a telephone conversation with her, but smashing the phone into plastic gravel.
It was an outburst of violence that had shocked David, I remembered. He’d enfolded my rage into the harbour of his arms, while I gasped out my wish for her death. Careful what you wish for.
We were married two days later. Only Uncle Ianto and David’s sister attended the civil ceremony. And from there we’d migrated north to Manitoulin and the hope of a life free from Ma’s influence.
But sometimes we allow a person to linger in our minds, permanent residents that shadow all our brightest moments. Chiaroscuro. That was Ma.
And since then not a word. Either of us could have easily picked up the pieces of that conversation, glued together some semblance of a working relationship, mended pride. Yet I found myself incapable of forgiving her for her condemnation of David and our marriage. What were her reasons for silence I would now never know.
All that was left was regret.
I leaned back in the chair and apparently allowed the moonlight and cool night air to lull me finally into sleep. I kept hearing that wee girl’s voice: They talk to you if you listen.
If you listen.
It was my niece, Erin, who woke me with coffee and a smile.
I sat up in the chair, full of imperative.
“It’s okay, Aunt Vi,” she said. “You have an hour.”
“Is up, dressed and downstairs breakfasting thanks to Colm. We thought we’d give you a break. It’s going to be hard enough for you getting through this meeting with Dad and the team at Cotter Enterprises.”
“Thanks,” I muttered, and took the cup into my hands, sipping this forbidden, rich brew. “You two staging a mutiny?”
“Oh, Colm and I have pretty much always teamed up with Mum to keep Dad in check. You Cotters, you know.”
Erin squeezed my shoulder and retreated. I took a few moments to let the coffee work its magic, and then set about making myself presentable. A meeting with the executive of Cotter Enterprises was something for which I’d been unprepared, and rummaging through my suitcase after showering I realized I’d have to cobble together an outfit from the jacket and shirt I’d worn yesterday with the only pair of dress pants I’d brought with me. Jeans and t-shirts wouldn’t cut it, and there was no way in hell I was going to struggle into spandex and pantyhose, let alone bother with cosmetics.
With a despairing glance at my wet and unruly head of curls, now mostly grey, I headed downstairs. I could hear David as I descended the stairs, the rise and fall of his husky voice. Down the hall I could see Uncle Ianto’s suitcase by the front door. I turned right into the dining room where I found David, sitting back in one of the chairs, his legs stretched out and crossed in front of him, completely at ease as was his wont. Colm looked up from across the table, grinned. I murmured a general greeting, waved off offers of breakfast from the small buffet on the sideboard.
“Car’s picking us up in half an hour,” Ben said.
“We couldn’t walk?”
“You can. You’d better get started. It’s a hike.”
“Take the car,” Evelyn said. “Leave the walk for when you’re not on a schedule.”
“Good point,” said Colm.
“The indignities of getting older,” I said, which generated a few chuckles and a stony silence from Ben. I wanted to confront him, ask exactly what it was I’d done wrong, why he continued this antagonism. After all this time I just wanted a little peace. But the truth of it was I was afraid to open the subject, afraid of what might result. Learned responses have a way of creating negative instincts.
The moment passed when David sat forward and nudged Uncle Ianto.
“We’d best make tracks,” he said.
“You’re carting me off, then, is it?”
“Afraid so. We’ve a flight and then a bit of a drive.”
As a unit we all rose and followed David and my uncle to the front foyer, embraced, and said our farewells. Colm and Aislinn stood with them, a ferry to the charter.
Uncle Ianto patted my hand. “It will be fine. Never you mind.”
I looked at the gnarled knobs of his knuckles, hands that had known hard work. “You think so, do you?” I said.
He leaned close and hugged me, whispered in my ear, “Shall I come with you, take apart the chairs just in case?”
I laughed, pecked his cheek, and turned him toward the door. Watching him drive away I smiled again thinking of him bent to the task of deconstructing rails. The memory seemed almost inappropriate given what was to come, and even more so when Ben announced what we all could see, that the car from the office had pulled into the courtyard. He descended the steps without another word to either his children, his wife, or me. I supposed that could be considered adversarial.
It was later I understood there was nothing adversarial in Ben’s actions. His was the surety of the victor.by