Sunday, 22 September 2013

Beneath the waves

Porter caught me to him as soon as the door closed behind her, and I went, shuddering, into his arms.  "That was terrible, Katie. Are you okay?"

I took a deep breath of his scent, searching my heart. Was I okay? Sad, yes. Heartbroken for how sorrowful my mother must have been. Chagrined by her life had gone from a cheerful, happy existence to a black and grey shroud of depression.  But okay? "I think so."

"It's good to know that she didn't walk away from us." I told Porters shirt front. "And horr-" my voice broke, and I took a big gulp. "Horrible to know that she couldn't."

He murmured something and brushed my lips with his. Dizzy, I tightened my grip around his neck and sighed.

"What are you going to do about Maud?" 

"I don't know yet. I know things can never be the same between us. God, Grand Dad will never forgive her. No matter what happens between she and I, her life will never be the same."

"Will she tell him?"

He was really so, so kind. Did it make me a bad person that I wanted to lose myself in him and forget for a little while what had happened today? Tempted, I stared up at him and sighed.

He caught my look and his lips twitched. "Later, Katie. Right now I think you might need a little diversion. Come with me." 

Taking my hand, he led me out to the disreputable old truck. "We," he said, smiling a bit, "are going for a drive. There is to be no talk about what happened. We'll come home in a few hours and talk it to death, I promise. But not now. Right now we need fresh air and something else to think about."

Although I thought it was a crazy idea, I was charmed.

Porter kept it light and casual as he turned the truck toward the hills that fringed the area. He pointed out squirrels and cows in a field and kids with fishing poles, all heading home for their suppers. He patted Wood when the hound insisted on laying his head in Porters' lap. It wasnt hard to follow his cheery statements with nonsensical replies until a swell of misery overcame me and I stared into my lap, ignoring his banter. I thought I was hiding my big fat treacherous tears well, but he slowed and stopped on a hill and reached out to catch one on his fingertips.

"Oh, Kate. I'm so sorry."

I was undone. 

He tugged me closer, undoing my seat belt and folding me against his heart. I snuffled and snorted and wept against him until I reached a point where I felt marginally better, and then he kissed me long and deep and pulled me out of the truck to stand beside him.

"Look at the sky."

It was a fantastic display of pink and orange, shading down to grey. Here and there, tiny points of light showed through as the first stars peered out. In the valley below us, porchlights and streetlights were beginning to come on. It was a magical and comforting scene, and I sucked in a breath, sadness forgotten for a moment.

Porter took my hand, stroking my fingertips. "I know you're sad and sick and angry right now. But look, Katie. Look at the town, and look at the sky. Can't you feel your mother's peace? Look at the stars.  She's with you, Katie. Every day. She always has been."

Looking out over the display, I felt something hiccup in my chest. Something creaked, like an old rusty door cracking open, and suddenly I knew...Porter was right.

Mama had never left me.

The next day was hard. The family was all there, Grand Dad looking older and sadder than I had ever seen him. Ford hugged me for a long time, his usual smile gone, all bonhomnie absent.

I drank a lot of tea with Clay, and listened: to the birds, the bonging of the grandfather clock on the mantel, Maud's explanations interspersed with her noisy sobs, Wood's tail swishing across the floor, Grand-Dad's voice, sore with unbelieving and despair, ringing through the closed parlour door.

It was a long, turbulant day. At one point Grand-Dad asked me to take him down through the gardens to the riverside. I nodded and walked beside him, matching his heavy step. 

He paused at the lower field, smiling wistfully at a grove of peach trees. "Your Mama," he said, "started those trees with pits from peaches she brought from my house. She said they were the sweetest things she'd ever tasted."

He sighed, lost in the past. "You have her eyes, Katie-girl. And her laugh. She was always laughing."

At the bank, he stopped just before the dock. "So. It was here, then."

I nodded over the lump in my throat, missing the memory of Mama but more touched and sad for my Grandfather's breaking heart. He looked greyer and tired beyond compare.

He stepped out and looked at the rushing water, lost in thought. When he spoke it was with a heavy cadence. 

"Will you leave me for a bit? I need to think."

I nodded again, stretching up to kiss his cheek. 'I love you, Grand-Dad.'

I wandered through the gardens past the clump of peach trees, topped the rise, and saw my house. I was taken aback suddenly by how much I loved this place. Everything -the curtains, the trees, the windows, the way the porch beckoned, the gingerbread of the house itself - created a picture that made me heart swell in my chest. This.....this was home now.

What would happen now? The summer was almost over. My life in Rowland waited. The house was finished - would Grand-Dad sell it now? It held no ghosts for me, but how could he bear to know that his daughter had died there near the spot his granddaughter was having her morning coffee?

And what about Porter? Did the summers' end spell the end of us?

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Mama's jacket

There was a hush, then the guys leaned forward, reinvested in the conversation and focused in on my unhappy aunt.


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."

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

ripples of memory

Her chin came up and she looked like her old fierce self. "I searched all over. Usually she just stalked the paths near the house, but that night I ran all the way down to the lower garden before I saw her."

I didn't dare move. Or breathe. Maud drew a shuddery breath and went on.

"Kitty, I yelled my head off but she just...didn't... stop. She was just ahead of me on the path down to the river, and I was screaming like a banshee. She looked back once - I remember how serene her face looked in the moonlight - but then she turned again and went on."

Clay made a stifled noise. "The river!" he half-whispered. "The river flooded its banks that night!"

My great-aunt looked at him, her mouth trembling. "The river was washing over the edges of the dock there. Alice went out on the dock, tipped her head back to look at the moon," Maud sniffled and went on "stepped off the edge, and went down like a stone."

"I ran after her, of course. It was eerily quiet that night, and if you hadn't seen the ripples, you never would have known anything had happened. I watched and waited but she never....she never...."

"She never came back up."

I was fighting down sobs. "Why didn't you go after her?"

Maud looked ashamed and oddly triumphant.. "I don't swim, Katherine Alice. And your father was ...." she searched for the right word, and I stepped in, icily furious.


She nodded. "I went running back up toward the house, screaming out for him. It wasn't until I couldn't wake him up that I thought of what would happen when people found out."

"When people found out my mother was in a drowning accident?"

"No, Katherine. When people found out your mother was wandering around outside by herself in a nightgown while her child slept and her baby - her starving baby -  wailed. What kind of woman would do that?"

Her mouth firmed. "I was protecting you. People would say your mother had a lover. That she was meeting him near the river and after a quarrel decided to run away. That she never loved her children or her husband. Rumours would start, and soon you and your brother would be bastards."

I sucked air down to my toes. "Aunt Maud. They said that anyway."

Before my eyes, she aged. "I know, Katherine." she half-whispered. "What could I do? I moved you out of here. I gave you a new home, a good life. Phillip wouldn't have been any better knowing the truth - he'd still have taken shelter in a decanter - and there was noone else that needed to know." She ignored Clay's indrawn breath. "I didn't realize until a few years later that this man here" - she nodded towards Clay -"had cow eyes for your Mama, or that she had been such friends with Minna Clairborne."

"I regret hurting them."

Porter's arm was around my shoulder now. I didn't feel alone.

Looking at her, I could see the toll this had taken on her. The years of secrets. The years of regrets.

"Maud," I said, leaning forward, "what did you tell Grand-dad?"

She leaned back in her chair, surprised. "Stanton? He knew Alice was going downhill. He knew she couldn't handle being a mother. He knew she...." she trailed off.

Drily, I filled in the obvious blank. "That she was thinking of leaving?"

Maud snapped."That she'd decided to leave. She was going to go home. She was going to give up. Stanton knew she was unhappy. He didn't need to know she was dead. It was kinder to let him think she'd just left without saying goodbye."

All the years of not knowing where my mother was. The years of whispers and taunts, of not thinking I was good enough, that I'd been left... came down to one woman's fears. All of them.

I heard the clicking of toenails and then Wood shoved his head into my lap. Smiling a bit through my tears, I petted his silky ears and ruffled his neck fur. "Oh, good doggie. Such a good boy." He broke the tension nicely and gave me a moment to recoup before I thought again to speak. Still stroking his worried head, I asked her the question burning through me.

"Do you regret it?"

She opened her mouth, then shut it again. "When I see you? No. You grew up fine."

She grew insistent  "Katherine, there was nothing I could do. She was gone.It was easier on your father and your grandfather to just....say she left."

I leaned forward again. "Maud, where's her coat?"

Monday, 1 April 2013

out in the moonlight

Maud's face was taut with rage. "Katherine Alice. How could you sit here and listen this nonsense! I loved your mother."

I goggled at her, unsure if I was really seeing her or not. "Maud? Why are you here?"

She snorted, delicately, and stepped into the seat Clay scrambled to offer. Ignoring his furious blush and his protests that he hadn't meant it, that he'd only thought she was involved in the beginning, she looked straight at me, seething.

"I came here.....because Minna Clairborne called me. She seems to think you needed me to be here for this festival of yours, that you needed me to see what you've done over your summer. Now I walk in here and you're listening to lies. Katherine Alice, did I raise you this way?"

Porter's hand was warm around mine, his presence calming. His eyes when they met mine were confused but steadfast. He had no idea what was happening, but offered love and support.

"No, Maud, you didn't. I'm really glad you came for the festival. This is, though, my home, and you should have called to let me know you were coming.Clay and Porter and I were discussing the night my mother disappeared. Do you have something to add?"

Maud made a rude noise. "I'd love to hear this conversation."

Porter looked over at her, his dark eyes flashing. "The night Katie's Mama disappeared, you were here. What happened, Maud?"

Maud was vibrating a little in her chair, the anger pulsing up from her clenched hands into the taut cords in her throat. I could tell she really wanted to tell the gardener's son that he was meddling in things that weren't any of his business, but she held it in. "Katie? You call her Katie?"

Porter nodded. "I do."

Maud dismissed him with a flick of her eyes and centered in on me. "You know she was wandering out of the house at night, right?"

I shook my head. Clay nodded. "I did hear something about that."

I shot him a narrow-eyed look but kept silent.

Maud snorted. "Two gorgeous babies, a husband that adored her, a new house, gardens to play in. None of it was enough for her. She wouldn't sleep, wouldn't eat, wouldn't nurse you - she said she could feel her life being sucked out of her when she did - walked all over the property in her nightdress (Maud's voice was scandalized. You'd have thought poor Mama had been caught voting Democrat) and wouldn't tell us what was wrong. I begged her, Katherine Alice. She was asleep. Like her light had gone out. We'd bring her the baby - you - and she'd smile and coo but the minute we left her with you she'd just let you cry.

She started stalking the grounds soon after that. You were hungry all the time. We tried you on goats milk and cows milk and honey and water, but you were never full. Never happy. Always red-faced and screaming. It got so your Daddy was the only one who could talk Alice into feeding you at all, and only if he distracted her long enough. Most of the time she'd listen to him for awhile then reach down and yank you away, and you'd squall loud enough so she'd leave. Go walking in her gardens, her blouse all rucked up and barely covering her.

Maud went on, her finger stabbing the air for emphasis. "She was going to leave your father, you know. She was going to move back home - Stanton tried to talk her out of it, but she was determined - and leave Dover with a toddler and a baby. And Alice wouldn't have looked back."

"There was something broken in her. And she was getting wild. There were nights when I'd come up to Bailey and she'd not come to bed all night. Dover would rock you and rock you and rock you, but even though you were wailing loud enough to wake the neighbors - Minna even offered to feed you, since she'd just had Julia, but your father wouldn't hear of it - your mother was indifferent. She'd coo at you during the day, but the night times were different. It was like she was made of stone."

Clay handed me his handkerchief, and I realized then that my cheeks were wet. My heart and my head hurt.

"So Mama didn't want a baby. Where did she go, Maud?" Maud looked down at the table and I knew. Cold ice shooting down my spine, I let go of Porter's hand and sat up straight in my chair. "So...your niece wasn't doing well with motherhood, and she was going to leave her husband and go back to her parents' house." My voice was eerily calm. "Great-Aunt Maud? When did you decide you had to kill her?"

Maud's head snapped up and she focused a look of loathing at me. "Can you really see me murdering your mother? My brother's daughter?"

 I blew out a breath. "No, I can't, really. But I'll bet you do know what happened to her."  I could tell by the way she looked away from my gaze and winced that I wasn't wrong.

Clay learned forward. "Maud, it's been so many years. Where did Alice go?"

I opened my mouth to snap that I knew Alice hadn't just gone away, but Maud blew out a long troubled breath and I stilled.

Maud's voice was so quiet we all leaned in as one. "I would never have hurt Alice. I couldn't. I was furious with her, angry that she wouldn't see what precious gifts she was throwing away and broken-hearted when she wouldn't let any of us get close to help her, but hurt her? No."

"It was almost two in the morning, and Alice was up, pacing the house. I had sent your father to bed an hour before. This was getting to him, too, and he'd been hitting the whiskey. I was standing in the kitchen holding you, and you were screaming so hard your face was blood red, and it was like we weren't even in the room. She was like an animal. And all she wanted to do was escape."

Maud was looking at her hands folded in her lap. She sucked in a deep breath and then focused on me. "Kitty, I let her out of the house. I thought it would do her some good to get out in the fresh air (the rain had stopped for a bit that night) and while she was gone I could try and get you to take a bottle and maybe you'd fall asleep." She sighed. "You didn't like the bottle. I didn't realize how long Alice had been gone until I heard the clock chime. I put you in your bassinet there by the stove and went out to find her."

Sunday, 3 March 2013


Porter tried another tack. "Dad, when did Minna and Maud last talk?"

Clay set his coffee mug down.  "I guess - the last time I saw them together was the day the children left. Minna wanted to keep you here, you know. She said it was inhumane to take you both away from where you'd grown up, where your father was, where your mother would expect to find you. Maud said that people were beginning to talk -she was right- and that she would bring the babies back the minute Alice re-appeared. After Minna carried on a bit, Maud said she'd think about it, but then the next morning y'all were....gone."

He stared at the table, rubbing the grain slowly with his thumb. "I'd never seen Minna cry like that. She would come over and put her baby down on a blanket in the garden and wander around, weeping big silent tears and touching the apple trees. Then she'd go down and stare out over the river, hugging herself and shivering. Her eyes were red for weeks. Minna thought the world of Alice, and having you taken away was awful for her."

I thought for a minute. "So Maud just took Dover and I and left Daddy here?"

He nodded. "Phillip was like a sleepwalker. He wasn't very capable of taking care of you, Kitty. He didn't really know what to do with a baby - Alice had taken care of Dover  -  and when you would fuss he'd try to figure out what was wrong and then get irritable when you wouldn't stop crying. It wasn't the best situation.
       Maud told Phillip she'd take you both back to Rowland and find a nanny for you. Dover could start school there if he was there long enough, and that way Phillip could concentrate on trying to find Alice."

"Instead" I broke in "we never went back. Daddy died still mourning Mama, and Grand-Dad and Maud just....took us in."

Clay looked relieved. "Yes."

Porter was holding my hand so tightly I was wincing a bit. "But Dad, you didn't believe Alice just disappeared, did you? So tell us - who did you think murdered Alice?"

Clay looked miserable.  "I thought....I thought...."

A sound from the hallway brought his head up. There stood Maud, a look of distaste on her face.

"I thought" said Clay, all in a rush, "that Maud had killed her."

Saturday, 2 February 2013

long time coming

Clay sighed. "It's been so long. A long long time to think someone's involved without having any proof."

I stood up and went to the stove, bringing the pot with me and refilling the mugs.  I worked to keep my voice calm and non-judgmental. "Was there someone you thought was guilty?" Any reason you didn't turn them in?

He snorted. "It's a small town, Kitty. I've been thinking about this for years."

Porter moved to grab an apple out of the big copper bowl I kept on the table. "Dad, who do you think did it?"

His father looked old. Old, and tired. "I've thought it was just about everyone at one point or another. When the posters started getting papered over with lost dog and flea market notices, your Great-Aunt came down and stayed with you kids while your father got reacquainted with a bottle.When Maud took you two and moved away, people ...stopped talking about it. Then your Daddy's Mama claimed the house after your Dad died,  the trees grew in so you couldn't tell anything was here, and people just....forgot. Shit, (he looked at me guiltily, and I nodded to acknowledge the slip, and he went on) after the Fosters' house burnt a couple of years ago, this place stopped being the 'haunted' house for the kids, even. People just pushed Alice into the past, and forgot her."

He raised his head and caught my eye. "I didn't forget."

I was holding Porter's hand now, clutching it tightly, his hand running soothingly over my knuckles.

"So help me, Clay. Tell me what you know."

He began hesitantly. Life living near the woman he'd always had a soft spot for had been hard. It was hard being near her, seeing that (he threw me an apologetic glance) the man she'd married didn't deserve her, that she was big-bellied with another child that would tie her to this man forever. She was so happy, so overjoyed to be having another baby, even after the bad time she'd had with her first.

"She loved you from the moment she knew you were coming," Clay said gently. "Don't ever, ever forget that."

I was swallowing back sobs that wanted to rise in my throat.  How, I wanted to say, do you go from loving a baby with your whole heart to leaving, just leaving, and never coming home? How do you leave? And how do you not come back?

I  nodded. There just didn't seem to be much to say.

"I stayed near, you know. I tried to help as much as I could. I've never let your mother's gardens go wild, not even the ones down by the river.And when your grandfather said I could live here, I did. I couldn't (he reddened) bear to stay here, not here where she lived, but I love the little house. It keeps me close to her."

Porter put a peeled orange in front of me. I was suddenly bemused by the thought that we were going to eat the fruit bowl for breakfast, the three of us, and had a quick second of shame that I hadn't cooked something. Then I caught myself, thanked him with a quiet word, and got back to the conversation.

"Who did you suspect?"

He shot me a crooked grin. "Right off the bat, your father. I think most of the town did. He and Alice had been having rows since they found out she was pregnant again, and having Maud come by all the time didn't help much. She was.."

I stopped him. "Maud was here?"

Clay wore a quizzical smile. "She was here a lot, Kitty. She'd come down, spend a few days, help your mother, then leave again and do the same thing the next weekend. I thought Phillip must have bitten his tongue a lot, having an extra wife. But she was a great help, especially after you were born. She organized people to fill sand-bags when the river started rising, you know. The night your Mom disappeared."

"Huh" I said. "I don't think I ever knew she was here when that happened."

Clay shook his head. "It musta just never come up. Look, Maud was heartbroken when Alice disappeared. She clung to you and your brother like a life raft, and she wouldn't let anyone - not even your father - express any doubt that your Mama was coming home soon. She believed that with her heart and soul."

"Clay," I said, changing the question, "why doesn't Maud like Minna?"

His face changed, became harder and less transparent. This Clay wasn't going to give me answers.

"I don't know, Kitty."

And for the first time, I didn't believe him.

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

crush (crushed)

Clay's mouth hung open. He sounded dazed and horrified. "You what?"

Porter's hand was still cold in mine, but his voice was clear and resolute. "I heard you, Dad. I heard you tell Mom to get the shovel. Now why did you do that?"

Clay looked at me, and I shivered. He still looked like the kindly man who had smoothed my transition here and helped me in so many ways, but was he? Was he my friend? Or had he hurt or (my mind shied away from completing that thought) done something to my mother?And if he had,  how could I ever trust my instincts again? Suddenly the thought of knowing my mothers' fate wasn't as appealing as it had been.

But Clay was still speaking, his hands tight on the mug before him on the table, his eyes cast down, his voice far away.

"I think", he said, picking up the salt shaker and moving it around restlessly, " that I loved Alice from the very first time I saw her." He smiled across at me. "Not that she paid me any mind, though. She was always someone else's girl. I used to stare at the back of her hat in church and wish that just once she'd turn around and beam one of those wonderful haunting smiles towards me.But I don't think she ever really saw me.I was just the kid from down the street."

His grin faded. "She fell in love and married and had your brother the same year I married Grace. Gracie was a beautiful, kind woman - you have her eyes, son  - who knew she wasn't the love of my life. I think, though, that she never knew who was. I tried to spare her that. We were happy."

Porter stirred. "I know Mom loved you, Dad. What happened that night?"

Shaking his head, Clay looked back into the years. "I'd spoken to Alice a few days before - we'd talked about her new baby girl and how happy she was - and then the river began to rise, and everyone's attention turned to filling sandbags and keeping the water out of the town. Your father was looking for your Mama, and he'd asked me to keep an eye out for her while I was around town." He sighed. "They....disagreed sometimes, Katherine. Your Mama spent some nights at Minna's house. By the time the waters weren't such a threat anymore, Alice was nowhere to be found."

"Porter" he said gently, "you don't really think I....." He broke off and then went on, his voice stronger."I looked for her every day. I wanted her to come home."

I could barely see through the tears in my eyes. He was telling the truth, anyone could see that. He'd loved and lost and he'd just laid his entire soul bare, and I believed him.

Porter stretched his arm out. "Dad. I'm sorry."

"But help us. Who else could it be?"


I took about a hundred names off my facebook friend list tonight. Really, it went surprisingly quickly, with only a few 'who was this ag...