She let out a furious huff of breath. "Katherine, I have been over and over this - why do I have to tell you this again? I - "
I cut in. "Because, Aunt Maud, I want to know. Where is my mother's coat?"
Her eyes blazed. "I did the best I could, Katherine Alice. I did the best thing I could think of for you, and your brother. I did the best I could. Why are you digging this up now? Let the dead lie.
"Maud! Just tell me. What happened to her coat? I grew up hearing all the whispers, all the lies, all the parts of the fiction that you orchestrated. Mama put on her coat and went out in the night and was never seen again. Tonight you said she was in her nightgown. Where did it go?"
"I threw it under the dock!" Maud snapped, then looked ashamed. "I went back up to the house but Phillip was dead drunk and Alice wasn't coming up - she was dead and I thought....I took a big rock and I wadded the coat around it and threw it into the water. She was gone! There was no getting her back! There was no....." she trailed off, studying my face.
Porter had my hand, his long fingers wrapping tight around my own. I pulled strength from him and faced my aunt, calmness flooding through me. "You thought that here was a tidy way to end a giant mess. No one had seen. You could just....walk away. Walk away, comfort your grieving brother, mop up the spilled milk, erase the crazy from the family tree. Was that it?"
She looked rebellious. "You grew up fine."
"I did. I was lucky enough to be loved by my father and my grandparents and my great aunt. But there was a hole in my life, and questions always in my heart. Maud, how could you?"
My voice broke a little, and Wood whined, shoving his big head at me again. I patted him absently while I kept my eyes locked on Maud's troubled face while her expressions cycled through belligerence to dignity to confusion to quiet sorrow.
"I did" Maud said, heavily, slowly, sadly, "what I did, to protect you, Kitty. I thought your mother's....illness....was like a cancer - if I cut it out of your life completely, everyone would recuperate. Everything would be different - I never imagined how much this would haunt you - but really, was it so bad?
"Was it bad? Knowing people thought your father killed your mother? Hearing the whispers? Wondering what I could have done that was so awful to make Mama run away -and stay away - from me forever? Feeling flawed all my life? Was it bad??"
"Katherine, you can't imagine how terrifying it was, watching Alice go mad and seeing your father try to cope. He tried for so long. He even gave in when she said she wanted another baby -even after three doctors told him it was a terrible idea -he thought it would give her some grounding, some joy." She looked at me sorrowfully. "Alice was good with babies. Stanton told me to hush, but I knew this wouldn't end well, I knew it."
I was flooded with the relief of finally knowing what had happened and rage that it had.
Maud clasped her hands in her lap and looked down at the tabletop. "I'm sorry that I couldn't save your mother, Katherine. I'm sorry you and your brother grew up not knowing. That I couldn't protect you from that. I'm sorry I couldnt find the words to tell your father or your grandfather the truth. But I'm not sorry I protected you from years of being labeled the lunatic's children."
We were silent -I was struggling with what to say- and she looked up at me. She looked old, I thought, and exhausted. She waited a minute, then spoke into the suddenly loud silence, making Clay jump a little in his seat. "I suppose," she said, heavily, "that you'll want the truth to be known now."
Was that what I wanted? I had no idea. Although.... "Grand-dad will have to be told. And Dover."
She sucked in a breath, and nodded. "It's time."