Adeline – Part 2 of 4

Belle

(Accidentally skipped ahead? Go back and read Part 1.)

Winter was coming. The cold winds were blowing down from the north and, more importantly, Abominable Snowman and his family were moving back into their igloo nestled at the foot of the mountain nearby. Their seasonal migration from the far-away Northern continent meant that the cold was too intense there, even for them.

Adeline liked the Snowman family. They were all so burly and fluffy white and so different from human people that Adeline couldn’t get enough of them. She wished they never had to leave. Mr. Abominable wasn’t very social and tended to hide in his icy office all day, planning next year’s disruptions on the Eskimos and northern tribes. His daughter, Abysmal, however, was great fun and only a year older than Adeline. They played together in the snow and, when the blizzards blew too arrogantly, Abysmal’s mother, Deplorable, made excellent penguin and corn chowder for them to eat. Sometimes Abysmal would visit at Adeline’s house and they would play checkers together, sitting on Adeline’s rainbow rug. Abysmal loved checkers and was very good at the game. Still, checkers matches were rare; Adeline had to put out the pot-bellied stove the day before her friend came over because, otherwise, the cabin would be too warm for comfort for her guest. Her father only permitted it once or twice a winter. It was too difficult, he said, to get the fire started up again.

One afternoon, when a snowstorm was being especially disruptive, the girls were engrossed in the tail-end of a checkers match when Abysmal noticed the photograph on the wall off to the side. She pointed at the picture with the black nail of a furry, white hand. “Who is she?”

“That’s my mother.” Adeline tucked her red blanket closer around her neck, wishing she could start up the fireplace.

Abysmal got up to take a closer look. She tilted her head and squinted. “What’s that on her face?”

“Her birthmark.”

“Oh…” Abysmal said absentmindedly, continuing to stare at the photograph. Adeline stared for a moment as her friend’s eyes blinked and she cocked her head from one side to another, and then twisted herself to glance behind her, at the sleeping mourning dove nested in the waning sunlight coming through the tiny window. Abysmal let out a quiet gasp. Adeline turned around and watched the snowgirl’s eyes widen as she took a step back. Without a word Abysmal reseated herself, her mouth slightly agape and her eyes still wide, glancing nervously at the floor. A long silence followed as she studied the checkerboard. At least, Adeline assumed she was studying the checkerboard. Finally, Abysmal spoke up. “She’s very beautiful.” She reached to move one of her pieces directly in the line of fire of one of Adeline’s red tokens. Adeline gave her friend a lingering glance. Abysmal didn’t look up at her. Adeline jumped the piece then removed the dead black token from the board into a small pile near her foot.

“My father says I’ll look like her when I grow up.”

Abysmal stopped for a moment to look at Adeline. Adeline didn’t know what she had said that was wrong—perhaps it was still too warm in the cabin and Abysmal was uncomfortable—but her Snowman friend stared at her, confused, as if Adeline weren’t sane, a hand hovering over the checkerboard.

“What?” Adeline asked, more frightened than upset.

“Nothing. Sorry.” Abysmal finished reaching and moved a token on the board. She jumped Adeline’s line and crowned her piece. “Yes. You’ll look just like her when you grow up.”

*           *           *

That evening, after the snowgirl left, Adeline, her father, and Belle gathered around for dinner. Adeline was sitting on her stool, her feet dangling and swinging back and forth high above the old rug. She was staring at her bowl of stew when her father asked what was on her mind. She confessed the day’s checker game and mentioned how Abysmal had looked at her.

Her father chuckled, nearly choking on a potato. “You’re being silly, Addie,” he said, wiping his face with a cloth napkin and coughing a little. “Why in the world would she look at you like that?”

“Maybe it was the cold,” Belle insisted. “Coldness can make a creature see things that aren’t really there. And it was awfully cold in here.” Belle fluffed her feathers in recollection. “I don’t see how those Snowmen do it.” Adeline’s father nodded in agreement, muttering something over a mouthful of carrot and celery about how it would take all night to get the house warmed back up. Belle cooed and went back to pecking at her dish of grass seed. Adeline sat, quietly, feeling forgotten.

“Maybe,” Adeline whispered. She nudged her potatoes around with her fork. Her father and Belle continued their discussion about the cold.

In bed later that night Adeline was having a rough time falling asleep. She’d never known anybody to stare at her the way Abysmal had. Except, she gasped, instantly remembered, the time Mr. Humphrey came for dinner one time and saw the photograph on the wall. “Why!” he had said, stepping closer to it. “What a pretty lady!” At that moment he had paused, his face suddenly pale, and looked apprehensively down at Adeline standing by his side, who was grinning proudly up at the photograph of her mother. When she’d looked over at him, he’d had a funny look on his face. “Wait a minute…” Mr. Humphrey hadn’t had time to finish his thought. Adeline’s father called him outside to show off the new axe and grinding stone he’d just bought.

*           *           *

The next morning Adeline woke up earlier than usual. She tiptoed past her father’s bed, past Belle crouched up on her perch, and into the living room. She stood before the photograph and studied her mother’s image closely. What could it be, she thought to herself. Did she look nothing like her mother, after all? Would she grow up to be boyish and square-shapen, not curvy and soft like her mother had been? Was she some illegitimate child?

She couldn’t get the stares out of her mind. First Mr. Humphrey, then Abysmal, both after looking at the photograph. The meaning evaded her. The truth evaded her. She felt frightened, deceived. She felt her face growing warm and her heart race. Lies? Tears began to well. She wiped them away with the sleeve of her nightgown and took a deep breath. She was a big girl. She mustn’t over-react. She tiptoed back into her bed. As she tucked the covers around her chin she decided: today, she would go to see Mr. Humphrey.

*           *           *

The revolving door of the hotel cast flashes of white on the tiled floor as it spun, the panes of frosted glass reflecting the sunlight like someone was taking pictures from a giant camera. It was a small hotel, maybe only twenty rooms, and smelled like fresh-cut cantaloupe at all hours of the day and night. The walls were coated in decorative paper; little blue nymphs danced across a pale green background, their private parts gracefully adorned with yellow sashes, as they threw yellow and orange flowers from their woven picnic baskets. The lobby was furnished with a few padded waiting benches and matching high-back chairs with lion-claw feet, and a tall desk where people came to check-in to their rooms. Mr. Humphrey was always behind that desk, recording in a ledger the day’s transactions. Past the lobby was the ice cream bar which smelled of peppermint and toffee and caramel and hot chocolate fudge, the place where Adeline came often to retrieve her free scoops. But, she reminded herself, this was not a day for ice cream.

Adeline approached the desk. She had to stand on her tip-toes in order to see over the edge. She saw only the top of Mr. Humphrey’s tell-tale top hat, a black silken one with a red band around it near the brim, and the silent fluttering of a peacock-feathered ink pen. She could hear his pencil scratching dutifully on the ledger. Adeline cleared her throat. Engulfed in his task, he didn’t notice her. “Excuse me?” she said.

“Ah, yes!” Mr. Humphrey jumped, still staring down at his ledger, and scribbled a few more numbers into his book. “Excuse me, yes, who…” he looked up. “Ah! My darling girl! You’re early today for your ice cream. It’s only ten in the morning! I haven’t yet had the chance to open up the register back there.” His moustache leaned back and forth like a wiry grey seesaw on his upper lip. He pursed his lips and squinted his eyes to mere slits at her. “Ah, well.” Mr. Humphrey burst into a grin and hopped out from behind his big desk. He was a pudgy man, and very short, not much more than a foot and half taller than Adeline. He carried a sturdy black cane and waddled with a certain quickness which lent his polished black leather shoes to appear as dark blurs beneath him as he sped off toward the dining room. Adeline rushed after him, pulling on the elbow of his blue-striped shirt.

“No, Mr. Humphrey. I’m not here for ice cream.”

The man stopped at a slight skid and cocked his head toward the girl. His moustache giggled again. “No ice cream? Well, then, my dear, what for then? Candy this time, eh?”

“No, sir.” Adeline pulled her hand away from his sleeve. She rolled her shoulders back and straightened her posture, then cupped both hands around her mouth and leaned in. Mr. Humphrey turned his head and leaned his ear toward her. Adeline whispered, “I’m here to ask you something.”

The innkeeper straightened and removed his hat. He stuffed his cane in the crook of his armpit and held his hat in the hand of that arm as he scratched the top of his bald head. Only a few lonely strands of hair were combed over from one side to cover his pink scalp. Big tufts of black hair salted with grey stuck out from behind his ears and, where his hat had covered him, the hair was plastered down, shiny and flat against his skull, its shape assisted by a coating of the musky styling pomade he was prone to overuse. “A question?” His free hand maneuvered from his head to his shirt pocket where it twiddled with a pair of reading glasses that Adeline had never seen him wear. “Isn’t that what your father is for?”

Adeline considered lying for a moment and then remembered about Pinocchio. “I can’t ask him,” she said plainly.

Mr. Humphrey’s eyes blinked in quick succession. “Why not?”

“He won’t tell me what I want to know,” she said, shaking her head. Then, thinking again, she added: “And he’s at work.” The innkeeper grinned a little, appeased.

“Oh. Well…” Mr. Humphrey stood, fiddling with his glasses, and broke out into a light sweat. His face turned red. Adeline didn’t know whether it was out of anger or embarrassment, but she hoped he wasn’t mad with her. She hid both hands behind her back, crossing the fingers of one, and made a private wish that he’d tell her what she came here to find out. Mr. Humphrey dropped his hand suddenly. “Where’s Belle?”

“It’s the first day of autumn, Mr. Humphrey.” The innkeeper stared blankly. Adeline sighed. “It’s Mourning Dove Mourning Day.” Adeline whined a little as she explained: “She’s at the dove cemetery out in the woods, mourning her dead brothers and sisters and parents and aunts and uncles? After that she’s going to go to a big dovey party with all the other mourning doves to celebrate that they’re still alive. Don’t you remember? You ask me every year.” Adeline scrunched her face and crossed her arms over her chest. Belle was always very descriptive about the dove holidays and rituals and had, every year but this one, been very strict about not allowing Adeline to join her. This year Adeline had not asked to go. Belle hadn’t asked why. Adeline supposed the dove had assumed she had finally gotten the point across to her charge. It was a convenient enough assumption for Adeline’s purposes, but she planned on resuming her inquiry to tagalong next season.

“I see.” Mr. Humphrey proceeded to finger his moustache. He replaced the top hat onto his head and shrugged his shoulders, the red from his face faded. “Well, then, I suppose I’m next in line, aren’t I?” Mr. Humphrey reached out his hand to Adeline and, lightly grasping her wrist, led her to an upholstered bench at the edge of the room. She sat by his side. “What can I do for you, sweetheart?”

“I wanted to ask you about my mother.” Mr. Humphrey’s face exploded in scarlet. He fiddled with his cane. She nonetheless continued without too much pause. “You visited one time and saw that photograph on our mantle and looked at me funny. Why did you do that?”

The innkeeper fidgeted. Adeline saw beads of sweat collecting where his hat met his head. He grabbed an orange paisley handkerchief from his back pocket and dabbed at his face. Adeline was worried he might have a heart attack. She had learned about heart attacks in school. She began to regret having come here to bother her friend.

“Mr. Humphrey?” She looked at the poor man, panting a little, dabbing at his face, and looking down at the tiled floor. “Are you alright?”

“I’m fine, dear. Just fine.” He breathed heavily and, after a few more dabs and lickings of his lips, looked at her. “Hasn’t your father already told you about your mother?”

“He told me that she worked at the mill with him before they were married and that, after that, she just stayed home to keep house and raise me.” Adeline swung her feet back and forth; she wasn’t tall enough for them to reach the floor and noticed Mr. Humphrey’s feet only just barely reached. “And he told me that she got sucked into the mercury lake when I was two, but I don’t remember any of that so I’m not sure for sure.”

“What is this? You don’t believe your father?”

Adeline hung her head. It was her turn to stare at the tiles. “No, sir. I don’t.”

“Hm.” He swished his moustache as Adeline continued to swing her feet beneath her. “What more do you need to know?”

Adeline looked up at the innkeeper. “Did you know my mother?”

“No,” he said, almost reflexively. He opened his mouth to say something more, then closed it before letting out another word. “I’m sorry, Addie.” He patted her on the back, returning the handkerchief back to his pocket. “I didn’t know her. She never came into my inn, you see?”

Adeline squinted. “Why not?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know. She just didn’t.” He moved in his seat a little, just enough to look over her head and out the Inn’s front window, to the Red Cottage store across the street. Adeline felt the tingle of a lie. She stared at his nose to be sure. It didn’t grow. Mr. Humphrey turned his eyes from the window and back to the girl. “I used to see her going in and out of there.“ He pointed across the street. “She liked to buy things there, I suppose. She seemed to go a lot. Liked red, I guess. Then one day she just didn’t come back. She was just gone.” He paused a moment and let out a deep breath. He turned to Adeline with a gloss draped over his eyes. “That’s all I know,” he shrugged.

Adeline sat quietly for a little while, looking down at the shadows of her feet shooting over the cold tiles as she swung them. Mr. Humphrey’s nose wasn’t changing; he must be telling her the truth. She suddenly felt empty inside. She had thought she really might find out more about her mother from her friend.

“I’m sorry, Adeline.” Mr. Humphrey patted her on the back a couple more times. “I wish I could help you more. Fact is, nobody really knew your mother well.”

Adeline stopped her feet and turned to him. “Why not?”

“Well,” Mr. Humphrey lifted his hands and clasped them over his bulging belly. “She was what you would call a ‘loner’. She didn’t have many friends and didn’t speak to very many people. She was like a ghost, really. Just in and out of the Red store.” Again he pointed across the street. “She was beautiful and your father loved her very much. That’s all I know.”

Adeline nodded, feeling the warmth of hope slowly draining out of her body. She imagined it pooling on Mr. Humphrey’s shiny floor. She felt bad for making it dirty. Mr. Humphrey gave her shoulder a little squeeze and lifted himself from the bench. He quietly returned to his station behind the desk; he propped his cane against the side and lifted his feathered pen, dropping his gaze to fix his concentration on the unfinished paperwork. In a few moments Adeline approached the desk again. This time Mr. Humphrey noticed her immediately.

He slowly placed the pen in its holder and raised his eyebrows at her. “Yes, dear?”

“One more question.”

“You are a brave girl,” he muttered. He leaned forward on his elbows. “What is it this time?”

“Do you know what that mark is on her forehead?” Mr. Humphrey’s smile disappeared. Adeline’s face flushed and she pursed her lips at him. “In the photograph, Mr. Humphrey. I know you saw it!” She couldn’t control herself. She knew it was rude to yell at people, especially adults, but did it count when they were fibbing to her about something important? “Do you?” she pressed. “Do you know what that mark is?”

His shoulders slouched. “Yes,” he mumbled. “Yes, Adeline. I know what it is.” Mr. Humphrey held up his hand to calm the irritation building in the air. Adeline bit her lip. Her face felt hot and puffy, the way it felt when she was about to cry. She didn’t want to cry. She was too angry to cry. “That mark on your mother’s forehead is, well…” Mr. Humphrey paused. A heavy sigh fluttered the peacock feathers. “That, Addie, is the Mark of the Dove.”

Adeline cocked her head to one side. She felt the puffiness fading, but it was replaced by a coolness that left her feeling nothing. While she was relieved that Mr. Humphrey had given her an answer, she was also bewildered by the flood of additional questions his answer had poured onto her head, but one stood out over them all. “What’s the Mark of the Dove?” she whispered.

Mr. Humphrey kept an eye on her for another moment before waving her away with his hand and picking up the feathered pen to return to his work. “Go, dear,” he said gently. “No more questions. I’ve got work to do, and I’m very tired.”

(Ready for more? Here’s Part 3…)

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