Adeline exited the building, unsure of whom to go to next. Besides finding out what the Mark of the Dove was, a jumble of other questions zigzagged in her mind and she was having a difficult time sorting through them, figuring out which ones needed to be answered first and which ones were not very important at all. She tried to clear her head.
The revolving door slowed itself to silence behind her Adeline stood out on the white-picketed porch of the Inn at the top of the steps and watched the people in the street, finding some solace in their unassuming day-to-day activity.
A chubby lady across the street in a long, pale blue floral dress and wide-brimmed yellow hat was crouching, fussing with the red bow tie around her son’s collar. Her son was small, probably a couple of years younger than Adeline, and was squirming, making the task all the more difficult for his mother. He appeared to be on his way to school—a pair of books hung from a book strap in his left hand and a shiny red apple was clutched in his right. One of his tall white socks drooped, gathering at the top of his ankle around one of his brand new dark blue penny loafers. The boy caught Adeline looking his way. He pouted and scrunched his face at her.
A gentleman riding a tall grey gelding trotted by. He sloppily held the reins with one hand and his round bowler hat atop his head on with the other. He bounced about in the saddle a ridiculous amount, obviously having a hard time staying seated. As the horse approached the florist’s cart parked just a few yards away in front of the pharmacist’s, the man jerked the reins back and nearly fell forward over his mount’s neck. Either he was not very good in the saddle or the horse had some training left to go through. Adeline watched the man dismount and, in the process, get one foot stuck in a stirrup. He bounced on a leg, trying to maintain the hat on his head and a little bit of self-respect, as the florist hurried around his cart to assist and the horse stood, its head turned to the side, looking on in wonder at his clumsy rider’s antics.
A crashing noise turned Adeline’s head to the left. A produce cart had toppled in the middle of the road; one of its wheels had come unhinged from the axle. The young couple handling the cart scampered in opposite directions. The young man grabbed fistfuls of his red hair, ran to the side of the cart and moaned and shook his head at the dislodged wheel. The blonde-haired woman, probably his wife and donned in a drab grey dress and tomato-stained apron, chased after the oranges, eggplants, apples, and heads of cabbage bouncing and rolling across the cobblestone street. A pile of green lettuce heaped onto the ground beside the fallen cart; droplets of water from a fresh washing had shaken from them and left dark spots on the road’s stones. Adeline started to move to help but stopped when a woman emerged from the Red Cottage Store.
She was a stately lady, tall and slender, and she carried herself well. Her face was pale but pretty and powdered, her skin slightly drawn and wrinkled around her eyes and thin, red-painted mouth. She was old. Her hair, though full and curled and pinned up loosely in a bun at the back of her head, was startlingly white. She wore a red dress with long sheer sleeves which showed off the still-firm muscles of her arms. Big white buttons sparkled in the daylight at her wrists. Adeline thought they might be mother-of-pearl. The dress’ bodice was low-cut and corseted with white, eyeleted cotton. The skirt was constructed of dozens of cascading layers of the same sheer, red fabric as on her arms, each layer drifting of its own accord, giving the effect that she was floating across the road on an imperceptible breeze. In a clenched fist she held a large wooden mallet and, settled crosswise from her shoulder, was a small sackcloth satchel. As she marched toward the cart, mouth firm and chin high, her black boots clicked on the cobblestones and her shoulders were rolled back, as if she were on her way to make demands of an emperor.
Adeline held her breath. She was the most beautiful and regal lady Adeline had ever seen.
Adeline watched as the woman approached the cart and assertively handed the mallet to the young man. She said something to him as she pointed at the axle, he nodded, and then she bent over to drag the fallen wheel out from under the cart. The man called after his wife, who was forlornly cradling a bundle of cabbages to her breast. The wife set the vegetables on the road beside the lettuce heads and came swiftly over. After some brief instructions from her husband the wife nodded. She took the wheel from the woman in red, the woman in red took the mallet from the man, and the man grabbed hold of the bottom of the cart and lifted it up. The wife placed the wheel alongside the axle and, with a few mighty swings of a thin yet powerful arm, the woman in red slammed the wheel back onto the axle. She then pulled out a round of thick copper wire from the satchel and bent the wire around the axle with some precise tappings of the mallet head. After some quick additional hammering, the wheel was set firmly into place and the cart was again standing and functional. The woman in red looked over her handiwork and, without so much as a smile at the young couple who were nodding their heads at her in gratitude, marched away and disappeared into the Red Cottage.
The instant the woman closed the door Adeline knew she was the one to speak to about her mother.
* * *
Adeline peeked in one of the round windows. Through the glass she saw rows and rows of trinkets and oddities and everyday things, like blankets and shoes and a dozen little mechanical bears on a high shelf wearing red vests and hats and holding tiny brass cymbals in their hands. On the walls hung myriad of paintings of fields of red daisies or scarlet hot air balloons floating high up in the clouds. On the farthest wall Adeline spotted the crown of a great big grandfather clock with a family of cardinals nesting on top. Despite the amount of merchandize surrounding her, the store felt bright and spacious. The little round windows, which sat low enough to the ground for children to peer through, were many and close together. They allowed in ample daylight and, from inside, a good view of the goings-on on the street outside.
As Adeline was looking around at all the trinkets the woman in red emerged from a room in the back. She held a crystal vase of red and white speckled carnations out in front of her; the flowers dripped water onto the carpet from their fresh rinsing. The woman was whistling softly to herself then stopped abruptly in the middle of the aisle when she noticed Adeline. She didn’t smile.
“Oh,” she said. “Why hello.”
Adeline said nothing. She stared at the lady and watched her as she continued on her way toward the front of the store to set the vase on the checkout counter. She gave the flowers a fluff before wiping her hands on her dress and turning to face Adeline again. She knelt, slowly, gently, as if Adeline were a cornered kitten, and a soft grin spread across her face.
“My goodness,” she said. Adeline thought she saw the woman’s eyes mist. “I never thought you’d come.”
Adeline thought for a moment. “You know me?” she said.
“Oh, darling, yes! Of course I know you. Your mother and I were great friends,” she said, standing. “And your father comes in every now and then to buy things. Like your new shoes, for instance.”
Adeline looked down at her feet and nodded. Her red shoes sparkled as she turned her feet this way and that. She looked up at the lady, who was still grinning down at her. Adeline was suddenly unsure of why she had come. She looked around her and spotted a painting of a white dove holding a red ribbon in its beak hanging behind the big brass cash register. Adeline pointed. “I have a dove,” she said timidly. “But she’s not white. She’s grey.”
The lady let out a weary sigh, but her smile didn’t fade. “Yes. I’m aware of the dove you call Belle. I watch you when you walk by. She rides your shoulder.”
Adeline nodded, not thinking to wonder how the lady had known Belle’s name.
“Come,” the lady said. She walked a few steps away toward the checkout counter and patted her hand upon the red leather top of a wooden bar stool. “Sit.” Adeline did as she was told. She stared at the woman and her long, white hair which draped across her shoulders and flowed behind her when she walked.
“You took down your hair,” Adeline said, climbing up onto the seat. The lady laughed. She pulled a small, red bowl of small, red candies out from a drawer and set them on the countertop. The lady rested her elbows on the counter and her chin in her hands, watching Adeline and waiting. Adeline picked a candy and tasted it, never taking her eyes off the woman. It was cinnamon; sweet and a little spicy on her tongue. She sucked on the candy until it was gone. The woman watched her in silence. “What’s your name?” Adeline finally asked.
Adeline scrunched her nose. “That’s a weird name.”
Álainn simply shrugged, a crooked smile gathering across her face like a quiet storm front sneaking its way into a valley. She plucked a cinnamon candy from the bowl and popped it into her mouth. “Why did you come to see me?” A squeaky-wheeled cart rolled by outside. Adeline turned to watch it pass. It was the cart of the old soup woman, Canh; she lived in the forest with her herd of goats and sold fresh, hot soups to the pedestrians. The pots, ladles, bowls, and spoons hanging from hooks on the side of her cart clattered as it bounced down the road.
“I thought you could tell me about my mother.”
“Oh, darling…” Álainn took Adeline’s hands into both hers and cradled them, holding them for a few seconds as she closed her eyes and muttered something too quietly for Adeline to hear. Adeline panicked a little as a trickling warmth enveloped her fingers; the warmth grew, creeping up her hands and up her arms and eventually wrapping her entire body. It felt like the warmth of an afternoon sun. Adeline suddenly felt safe there, sitting on a stool in the Red Cottage with the strange lady who had a strange name. She didn’t want to leave. Finally Álainn looked up and said, her voice like soft butter, “Darling, I can’t.”
The warmth disappeared instantly. Adeline pulled her hands away. “Why not?”
Álainn sat up straight and rolled her shoulders back. The caring, like the sunshine warmth, had disappeared from her face. She was once again the cold, stern woman Adeline had seen out on the street, commanding the young couple to action. The woman with the purpose and the tied up hair and the heavy mallet and the serious frown. “I just can’t,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
Álainn took the bowl of candies and locked them back into the cupboard. She pulled back her hair and fixed it with a few pins from her apron pocket into a loose bun at the nape of her neck. She dusted off her apron and made her way to the back of the store, her red skirt streaming behind her, trying to catch up.
“Well,” Adeline called out after her. “What about the Mark…”
“You’ll show your way out, won’t you, dear? I have a lot of work to do.”