The day waned, welcoming night into the bosom of Mother Earth’s horizon. A mockingbird chanted from the roof of the barn; he perched from his usual corner of the tin roof sheeting nearest Gayla’s bedroom window and called for the shield of darkness to come forth, to bring the delight of coolness with it and the easy drift of an evening flight. He sang melodiously, in the usual form of mockingbirds, in a never-ending chorus of tunes and melodies borrowed from any number of creatures, living or not. Gayla swore the bird sometimes imitated the sound of her mother’s squeaky sneezes. She hated the bird for that, then loved it and yearned for it seconds later when it took a pause for breath and she was afraid it had gone away for good.
The bedroom was small—a ten by ten foot space with a view of the vegetable garden and barn through a solitary, single-paned window, now lifted open and held there by an opened agate geode, its innards sparkling in the lamplight, to let in the evening breeze—and housed only the essentials: a creaky bed; a lit and dusty oil lamp atop a nightstand hand-carved with finches and crickets dancing to a silent tune; and a small wardrobe in the corner partnered with, and somehow inseparable from, a delicate and cloudy copper-framed mirror which hung by a tiny nail tapped into the plastered wall.
It seemed a miracle to Gayla that the nail held on so furiously.
Whereas a window or bed is typically the focal point of a bedroom, in that tiny enclosure it was the nightstand.
The tiny piece of furniture runneth over in hardbound books covered in fabric spanning the hues of the fullest rainbow. Hardly an inch remained for anything else to reside there; even the lit oil lamp in its porcelain saucer sat atop a number of volumes stacked one upon another. Somewhere within the depths of that miniature library rested a tattered journal—her father’s—through which Gayla had read and cried and wondered over countless times. His entries were often dull, talking about weather and crop intake and failed farming experiments as well as the less dramatic affairs of managing a farm. Still other entries were saturated with intrigue and mystery, like the day back in August 1934 when Mr. Masterson, led by a new acquaintance of ripened years who swore his ancestors were natives to the area, went on a hike down into the valley and across the small stream near the back slope of the property that, at that time, cut the Masterson land in half. The hike was intended to last only an afternoon, but an unexpected bout of foul weather sent upon them a dangerous torrent and subsequent flash flooding which kept the farmer and his companion from crossing the swollen stream back home. They’d managed to find shelter in the arms of an old and gnarly oak—“…which looked as the Father of the regional growth,” Mr. Masterson whispered through his scrawl of now-faded penciling—and arrived at the house the next morning, soaked to the bone and with a great story to tell the hands and expectant bride, then six months pregnant with their first daughter, who were all hopefully and prayerfully awaiting their return.
Following that fiasco, Mr. Palmer and his companion never again ventured off; never again was the old, self-proclaimed Indian mentioned in the journal. Even in that single entry, he was only called once “Red Coyote”.
Gayla lay on the bed on her stomach, knees bent and feet absentmindedly kicking in the air just as her barren-footed ten-year-old self would have been. She propped herself on her elbows as she turned and inspected and turned again the stolen kerchief in her hands, intently inspecting the detailed embroidery woven between the fibers of the white cotton square. She followed the dyed threads with her fingers, tracing over the A.P.P. stitched into a corner amid fraying roses and daisies and unidentifiable vines. Just to the side of the monogram was inked with dark blue pen a terribly unevenly drawn heart and the scribbled initials A.C.R. The effort had been childish, yes, Gayla thought, but in the sweet, silly, and delicate kind of way that bumblebees fumble through the air as they fly.
Gayla hadn’t yet changed out of the dress she’d worn that morning to see Andrea Palmer. So deep was her mind and effort on trying to figure out the recent trouble that she’d missed the calls from the other side of the door asking her to come to dinner, and didn’t hear the hesitant taps on the adjoining wall from the room next door—from her sister’s room—to say goodnight in Morse, as they’d done since their Uncle Charlie from the Navy had taught them the trick.
It was nearly nine o’clock by the time Greta knocked on the door of the small bedroom. She cracked it open and peeked in without waiting for an answer from its inhabitant. By then the mockingbird had long since left his post and had been replaced in duty by an owl who’d made his home in the rafters of the creaky barn. His calls were more lonesome than the mockingbird’s: a soft, thoughtful baritone compared to the shrill excitement that the smaller bird produced, but more appropriate for lulling those on the verge of sleep over the crest and into a deep and happy slumber.
“You missed dinner.” Greta eased her way into the room and shut the door softly behind her, not wanting to wake the girl sleeping next door. She walked the two steps to the bed and stood beside the young woman lying there. Looking at her, she couldn’t help but see as her own daughter.
Gayla laid on her back now, arms up and hands cradling her head as she stared blankly at the ceiling, blinking only once in every great while. Her feet dangled over the edge of the mattress—she was almost too tall anymore to fit in this child’s bed—and her boots and socks lay haphazardly on the floor below her bare feet, no doubt lying where they’d fallen after being kicked and tugged off by their owner’s toes, as so often happened. “And lunch,” Greta added, smiling just a little at a hole worn into one of the red wool socks.
Gayla didn’t turn to acknowledge her visitor but pursed her lips a little instead. The two stayed quiet for a few seconds, contemplating one another, while the owl outside made his way through the last prolonged hoots of his nighttime ballad. The women listened to the bird’s claws scrape against the dry wood of the loft’s door frame as he took off into the night air, prepared and ready to wander the moonlit countryside in search of his evening’s morsel.
“I’m sorry,” Gayla said finally. “I wasn’t hungry.”
Greta nodded. “Well, we missed your company, even if you didn’t want to eat.”
Gayla nodded, reluctantly admitting to the quiet shame of a tiny lie. “I wasn’t feeling sociable,” she admitted.
Greta inhaled, ready to speak, but, deciding against it, held her breath at the peak of her lungs’ expansion. She released the air slowly through her mouth, blowing her worries across the room and into a dusty corner to be found and whispered some other day.
But Gayla must have heard them anyway, because she sat up abruptly and turned to her caretaker, legs crossed as she wrapped her strong fingers around the bony portions of her ankles and flung her long hair behind her shoulder.
“Amrid must know about it. That’s the only explanation.” Gayla’s eyes were vivid and clear when she spoke, sparkling with a revelation that was boiling up and over in her mind. Greta stared down at her, waiting, until the girl continued on in the soft and even tone that often came upon her when she was feeling certain of herself. With that tone, Greta knew: Gayla’s mind wouldn’t be changed.
Watch yourself, child, lest you get us into trouble too deep to dig out of.
“He’s so decent, always trying to be a hero, always trying to save everyone. He would do this—would leave me with a note and a shallow goodbye—knowing and trusting that I’d figure it out, knowing somehow that Mr. Palmer would come knocking and unravel the mystery for me. And he knows me, Greta. He knows I wouldn’t let allow that miserable old man do anything to us; he knows I wouldn’t back down or let them threaten push us around.
“That he knows me so well proves he loves me still, and I just can’t let it go.”
Gayla rubbed a thick, inch-long scar on her left ankle with the flat of her thumb. She pressed it and it turned white; as she released her finger, the blood rushed back beneath the thin layer of skin and brought its pink tint with it. She continued—press, release, press, release, press, release—as she contemplated out loud Amrid’s angle and Cherie’s situation.
“I still love him, Greta,” Gayla said, this time dropping her eyes and picking at a small thread that had wiggled its way from the seam of the bed’s quilted cotton top. The thread eventually gave way to the abuse: it frayed and broke about an inch from its end, leaving Gayla without a tether to carry her deliberations from one point to another. Lost floating aimlessly in a sea of thought, she gave up her quest and flicked the string onto the floor; it floated down on the thick summer air and disappeared under the bed, no doubt into a crowd of dust specks and cracker crumbs and dust bunnies already living there. The hands returned to their positions on the ankles and Gayla lifted her gaze again, her eyes not crying but damp with the emotion of longing, worry, and painful yet overdue relief. The light of the room’s single flame reflected on her dark pupils, imitating the sparkle of a childhood innocence not-so-long forgotten and the embers of a love which, though frustrated, still remained.
“I want him back. I can’t help it. I know it’s silly, but I do. I had almost given up, but this whole thing about Cherie got me thinking again about everything: about how there were no signs of a romance with Cherie to anyone, about how there was no goodbye, about this letter—” Gayla quickly looked over at an envelope resting nearby on top of the quilted bed cover, as if startled by its sudden materialization. She reached to take it in her hand, to test its tangibility, and then looked up to her stern and looming companion.
“I know with everything in me that there was a reason—a good reason—I shouldn’t let him go, a reason why something inside of me couldn’t accept that he’d leave me behind the way he did. I knew he couldn’t do that to me without cause. You know him, too, Greta. Even though you’re angry at him and you don’t want to believe he’s a good person, you know he is.” Gayla clenched her fist and with it crumpled the envelope. Still, the nanny looked on silently.
Sure, I know him. I know men, and their reasons are different from ours, my dear.
Gayla finally realized Greta would say nothing. She’d not voice her disagreement, but it separated them as plain as a mile-high stone wall. Gayla could see the restraint on her mentor’s face—the subtle tightening of the skin at her temples, the darkening of the eyes, the almost indiscernible downward tilt to her head though their eye contact never wavered—so continued declaring her case, hotly debating the way her mother always would when she felt alone in the world.
How like her you are, even though you’d rather have more of your father in you and less of her. If only you knew how much she wishes it, too.
“Amrid is no fool.” Gayla’s words remained whispers for the sake of her sister sleeping next door, but the timbre of her voice increased with the urging of the fire beneath it.
The owl returned, no doubt with his latest catch securely in his gullet, and fluttered and scratched his way to an ungraceful stop in the loft.
“He wasn’t raised a fool,” Gayla continued, “and I don’t believe there’s a single bone in his body, an ounce of blood in him, that can be called such. He’s too practical, too—” she struggled to find her word, “—calculating.” Her voice drifted as she raised her eyes toward the ceiling. The sparkle in them had grown brighter while the flame on the lamp’s wick had diminished.
Greta reached over and turned the knob on the lamp, urging more of the oil-soaked wick from its hiding place. There was nothing left to uncoil.
Gayla reached into the envelope and pulled out a tattered note that had the look of aged and bleached leather. It was crumpled beyond repair and stained by the many touches of fingers stained with dust and sweat and tears. Greta recognized it as the note slipped not long ago underneath the big oaken doors of the Masterson home. She inhaled deeply at the sight of it, hating for a moment its existence, hating for a moment the boy who’d scrawled his insufficient apology across it, then, after a moment, released her breath. It was only a slip of paper, after all. It had no motive or evil within it, no intention or loyalty to guide its path. But the ink on it breathed—words breathed—and the smell of them made Greta’s soul shiver when she thought of them.
“I’ve read this a million times,” Gayla continued, “and I’ve only just come to realize Amrid never explicitly said he was eloping with Cherie.” She paused again, rolling a top corner of the paper in between her thumb and finger. “Have you read it, Greta?” She didn’t hold out the slip or wait for the matron to respond, but kept on in a tired, excitable tempo. “He never mentioned her name. He never wrote that he didn’t love me or that he loved someone else. Those are things we all just assumed.” She paused, then added, “Things I assumed.”
No turning back, Greta stared back and forth at the two sparkles blinding and shining at her. There’s no turning back now. She reached her hand out to stop the restless thumb from continuing its abuse on the old scar. It seemed just as vibrant and red as it had been a year ago, when the bandages were freshly off and the old Indian ointment was still being laid on every night, at the suggestion of Maggie Mayweather. The scar hadn’t faded with the summer sun nor healed with the help of Maggie’s ointment, the one sticky as tar and which smelled strongly of pine sap and herbs and maple syrup, guaranteed to make the wound disappear from sight and, in effect, from mind.
But it was still there, boldly and brightly, like a beacon.
It was then that Gayla opened the note and began, softly and slowly, with careful diction, to read the words out loud. Greta ground her teeth, but listened, stone-faced:
You are so beautiful, so smart. You must know I love you in all practicality. But I have met with an impulse that is beyond practical. I must follow it. I hope you don’t hate me. I will care for you always, but we cannot be married now. I am sorry.
As she finished reading, Gayla looked up from the paper into Greta’s eyes and waited. Then she saw it: recognition.
“Let me see that,” Greta said smoothly. She took the note from the girl’s hands and raised it to her eyes so that she could read its scrawl in the dim yellow light of the single flame.
Like a silken veil falling softly across her weathered face, the housekeeper’s expression steadily traded coldness for inquisition, then inquisition for hope, then hope for regret as she read the lines over and over again, with each pass combing out more meaning, more code, while filtering out presumption and pride.
The girl waited longer still, knowing that after Greta’s regret faded anger would pour in to take its place, just as it had with her, but the anger wouldn’t aim its bared dagger at the hand that had composed the letter. No, that stab would instead jab both inward and also farther away, at hands unseen and evermore cunning that had crafted the situation in which they—Gayla, Greta, and Trudy—were now entombed.
Then—wait for it—yes! There it is! The spark! The spark of understanding lighted upon the matron’s face. Turning the words over in her mind, Greta heard an echo of what Amrid had been saying, heard the words as they were written, as they were intended, as Gayla now read and heard them.
Greta looked up at the girl and handed the note back without a word.
Is this truth revealed, or a new hope turned conviction? Neither of us will be able to rest until we know what’s real. That means you’re leaving Trudy and me, and I can’t protect you out there.
“You see it now, don’t you?” Gayla asked. Greta didn’t say anything, but turned her eyes shyly downward. “It’s me who’s been the fool.” Gayla stuffed the paper back in its envelope and then into her skirt pocket. She pulled her knees in toward her chest again, reassuming her position of quiet yet swift contemplation. “Never did he mention Cherie. Never did he mention he didn’t love me. In fact, he said he does love me. He didn’t say ‘we cannot be married ever’, or simply that ‘we cannot be married’, but that ‘we cannot be married now’.” The fingers absentmindedly traced the length of the scar. “If I know Amrid—and I know I do—he was very careful to write that word.”
Greta’s hope reached forward, wanting to believe. Her heart dove one moment—a cold skepticism and fear of the unknown dragging it down into her belly—and the next it lifted with the resilience of a mother, the optimism of a friend. It was a strange feeling; a confused feeling. She reined in her flighty spirit, remembering what Willard had often told her: ‘If you have to stretch yourself,’ he’d say, ‘it probably ain’t right.’
Greta inhaled deeply, setting the sound of his voice aside. “And the ‘impulse’?” she asked. The dull edge in her tone poked at the young lover, driving her on where it had intended to rein her in.
Gayla squinted at her caretaker, hearing the bitterness there. She lifted her hand from ankle to knee then moved both arms behind her to lean back upon them. “I should have seen it. ‘Beyond practicality.’ He got the saying from his father, who fought in the war: Honor is beyond practicality.” Gayla snorted a laugh, shaking her head as she slid off the bed to move toward the window. She crossed her arms and looked out from it into the deep black night. “He’s not chasing Cherie’s tail, Greta. I think he’s saving it.”
The two pondered silently as the flame ate away at the wick and the light faded ever so slowly. The mild smoke from the oil lamp gathered and swirled in the small space before seeping out into the world through the cracked window. The vapor lent an ethereal quality to the room; the edges of everything the light hit blurred as if they weren’t really there.
Maybe, Gayla thought, they weren’t.
Gayla stood and moved toward the window. Her arms crossed as she peered outside and looked at everything and nothing, on guard against an invisible foe lurking everywhere and nowhere. It was a habit she was prone to in those dark hours before action struck.
That action was what frightened Greta most, though she knew they couldn’t avoid it now, nor could she keep her brash young charge from diving head first into it.
Every now and again the incessant howl of a distant coyote followed swiftly by the echoing calls of his comrades would remind them that life still existed outside that small room. Though the coyotes were talkative, the owl had finally stopped his moaning, gone quiet for the evening to digest his meal. Greta looked up at the ceiling when she heard something scurrying along the roofline, no doubt a rat anticipating a meal from the unattended table scraps the humans had wastefully tossed away.
He only needed to find them, first.
As Greta opened her mouth to excuse herself to bed, the lamp breathed its last and the flame died. Greta sighed. “You need a new wick, dear.”
A pause. A quick turn to pull her eyes from the window and point an ear toward the voice. “What?”
“Your lamp,” Greta pointed at the device on the nightstand. “It’s gone out.”
Gayla turned fully from the window, her arms dropping slowly to her sides. In the softness of the faint moonlight the matron saw that the girl’s head was cocked and her brows were lifted, eyes wide.
Greta chuckled, unable to imagine why the girl would look so shocked. “What? You think I don’t know when a wick has gone cold?”
Gayla simply shook her head and pointed through the darkness at the white-painted lamp sitting atop its blue ceramic saucer. “I thought I was seeing the reflection in the glass.”
It was Greta’s turn to be shocked. She stepped quickly toward the window, moving one of the drawn curtains aside with the rushed swipe of a hand.
Then she saw it.
In the warbled lead glass floated a tiny orange flicker, like that of a candle flame, surrounded by nothing but its own pale glow and darkness. It didn’t seem to move, but would intensify for an instant, then return to its previous condition the next, then disappear for an instant and return again, as if sending out its own Morse signal to whoever might be watching.
Understanding struck. It wasn’t a reflection, but something outside and far away.
Greta stuffed her calloused fingers into the open crack of the window and pulled up the sash, shoving the stiff frame and its glass out of her way. She leaned her upper body through the opening, both hands firmly on the sill, and inhaled deeply through her nostrils.
She could smell it. She could vaguely taste it.
That was a very bad sign.
Greta pulled herself back into the bedroom and moved an arm to Gayla’s shoulder, shaking it with firm grip. Her eyes never left the distant assailant.
“Wake Daniel and your sister. I’ll wake the men,” she said. “There’s a fire coming.”
Keep reading! Here’s Part X!