It was beautiful outside her window. When she could bring herself to look, she saw lobster boats bobbing on the ocean, seagulls gracefully moving across the sky, and faces that after only two weeks had become familiar. It seemed a good place to finish a life that had become one long and endless ache.
She lit another cigarette and switched on the black and white TV. "General Hospital" appeared on the television screen. She leaned back, pulled the pink and white afghan around herself, and smoked. Her daily routine consisted of cigarettes, warm beer, and meaningless TV. Within minutes she was asleep.
The August sun shone down on the coastal village where she had come to hide. It was a poor town populated mostly by those who fished, worked in the seafood processing plant, and those who were too young or old to do either. Villagers lived in houses that failed to hold paint for more than a season or two. A place where spring and summer held promise, and fall and winter called for prayer. Visitors struck by the village's stark beauty, romanticized the lives of its' inhabitants. They were right - there was romance here, but there was also back breaking work, poverty and despair.
She'd come to Hamden with a savings book claiming possession of $92,000 dollars, a red Saab, a suitcase filled to the brim with wrinkled clothing, a journal, 3 novels, 8 cartons of cigarettes, 6 cases of beer, containers of seconal, codeine, and sleeping pills, and a plan to kill herself.
A dog is barking. She doesn't want to wake. She turns over, pulls the cover over her head, and reaches for her child. She's been grasping empty air for a lifetime it seems. Her baby girl is gone. She searches for her daughter's image and finds her tiny face, her beautiful, innocent face. She begins again to whisper her name over and over, as if it were a chant. "Cara, Cara, Cara..."
The dog keeps barking. She throws her covers off and struggles to sit up. Her agony and rage rise up to choke her. She briefly considers killing the dog, but it would take far more energy than she has. She wills the tears to come instead, but they don't. She'd used them all up during the first two years that she'd grieved for her sweet little girl. She rests her head against the arm of the couch, feeling desolate and depleted - empty except for her hatred and pain. "Why wait any longer?" She wonders. Her pills, tucked safely away, lie waiting.
Her brother's birthday is only a few days away. She understands the cruelty of killing herself so close to the day her brother was born, and so she's decided to hold on just a little longer. She lies perfectly still, barely breathing. The sun finds it's way through the darkened room and warms her face. "Soon," she whispers and closes her eyes again. Her auburn hair lays soft against her cheek, and her long, slender body is still. One hand rests on her chest. It's a pale, delicate hand that hosts a thick gold wedding band.
It's almost four when she finally stirs. She slowly slides up and leans against the shapeless cushions. She reaches for another cigarette, takes a sip of flat and tepid beer and gazes at the television screen. A woman is yelling at her boyfriend, while a pretty talk-show host stands by. She shakes her head in disgust and smokes. It will be dark soon. She curses the night; it's far too like the darkness in her soul. She begins to unconsciously brace herself for the torment that will soon swallow her up. She walks slowly over to the refrigerator, stretches her aching muscles, reaches for another beer, and stumbles back to the couch. She hasn't eaten in days. If only nature would accomplish the final task for her, allowing her to just fade away...
For two weeks now, she's smoked and drank, each night ending up howling in agony by dawn. She's barely said ten words since the time she arrived at the cottage, and yet her voice is hoarse from screaming into the damp, flowered cushion that smells like rotted boards.
Not so long ago, her life had been filled with Cara's laughter, and Mark's seductive smile. Her days were spent caring for her child in an elegant, pastel painted Victorian in Charleston. She and Mark had been enchanted by its grand front porch, the round windows in the study, the fireplace in the master bedroom, and the winding mahogany staircase. It had been love at first site and they'd claimed it immediately. She'd added sunflowers to the garden the first spring and they'd peeked in at her threw the kitchen window. She'd sit in the sunlight with Cara, who'd sing little girl songs and play with Barbies' while Virginia sipped coffee and made plans. There were always errands to run, friends to visit, and shopping to do.
While Cara napped in the afternoon, Virginia would begin the ritual of preparing dinner. She'd gather thyme and parsley, slice onions and lemon for the fresh Cod Boulangere, and then pause to check on Cara. Her little bottom would be facing straight up in the air, her mouth moving as though she were still nursing, and her tiny face half buried in the fur of her constant companion, Freddie.
Mark would come home for dinner, cheerful and equipped with slightly embellished anecdotes of the day's events. He'd faithfully deliver them each evening over white wine, and she'd laugh delightedly - always pretending to believe each and every story.
After dinner, while Cara played hide-and-seek with Mark, she'd load the dinner dishes in the dishwasher, and chat with her best friend, Lindsay, on the phone.
They'd been best friends since Junior High, gotten pregnant at around the same time, shared many of the same interests, and socialized with the same group of people. They spent three mornings during the week in the park with the children, claiming Fridays as their own. Fridays were wonderful - filled with shared confidences, delicious lunches, shopping, and spontaneous adventures.
Late each night, she'd lie snuggled against the warm and sleek back of her sleeping husband - feeling safe and protected. Listening to the muffled ticking of the grandfather clock, she'd gently drift off into dreams that were as sweet as her life seemed.
On the weekends, the family would usually retreat to the islands off the Charleston coast, where they'd build sand castles, forts, dance in the waves, and rest contentedly on the beach. Friends frequently joined them and they'd stay up late into the night, laughing until Virginia's side ached and her vision blurred.
She had no particular interests other than spending time with her friends and family, creating picturesque meals, and working in her garden. She didn't like to read the serious books Mark delved into each night, she preferred her life simple and light.
She'd been the youngest of two children, indulged and pampered by her upper class parents. Her father was a surgeon, and her mother an artist. They'd both been devoted to their careers and married late, having children well after entering middle age. She wasn't particularly close to her brother Steven, having been sent to separate boarding schools, they'd only been brought together for a few weeks each summer and on major Holidays. Steven had been a lover of sports and of golfing, while she'd been a collector of butterflies and rare and expensive dolls. Her mother saw to it that the children received every advantage, private tutors, progressive summer camps, and elaborate birthday parties where only the children of the finest families were invited.
When asked about her childhood, she generally described it as wonderful and exciting. It never occurred to her that she'd missed anything of significance, although she did envy Lindsey, who's mother tucked her in to bed each night, and was always kissing her on the cheek. She loved going to Lindsey's house, in spite of being overwhelmed by the noise and the clutter. The family was loud and boisterous, filled with laughter, animals, and littered with Lindsey's brother's and sister's toys. She especially liked Lindsey's Dad, who was so unlike her own proper and dignified father. He told jokes, and chased the children around the house, threatening to eat them for dinner. He always greeted her with a hug and a "hey beautiful."
She'd met Mark during her first semester as a junior in college. He was in his last year of Law school. He'd been handsome, and self-confident; sure of himself in a way that most young men she'd dated never seemed to be. He was her first significant relationship and they were engaged by the end of the summer.
Their parents very much approved of the match and jointly participated in planning the wedding. It had been a glorious occasion. Set for two weeks after Mark's graduation, there had been Champaign flowing out of a fountain, a carriage drawn by four magnificent horses which delivered the bride and groom to their reception, and so many flowers that their scent carried into the elegant hotel lobby which hosted the reception. She'd been a princess that day in her dazzling gown, accompanied by the most handsome groom in the world. They'd purchased the house in Charleston upon returning from their honeymoon. Their parents had jointly contributed the rather large down payment required.
She finished her last year at school, and then promptly got pregnant. Her life seemed perfect, although she never thought to describe it that way. It was simply what she'd been raised to expect. She never once questioned her good fortune. In fact, she seldom stopped to question anything.
It was on the third day of their vacation in the mountains, under an indigo sky, that she was abruptly wakened from a nap by the blood chilling sound of her daughter's screaming. She moved heavily on shaky, half-asleep limbs towards the sound of Cara's terrified cries. She found Mark leaning over Cara, attempting to calm her and hold her still at the same time. "A snake bit her," Mark mumbled, his face white, eyes wide with fear. "No," she croaked, wide awake now, sinking to the ground and reaching for Cara. "Keep her arm still!" Mark rasped.
And then she saw them. Two puncture wounds on her little girl's hot, swelling arm. "Mommy, Owe, Mommy, Mommy!" Cara screamed over and over while struggling in her father's arms.
"Oh my God, we're at least 15 minutes from the car!" she choked out, fighting back hysteria. Mark glanced at her, "Calm down Jinni, you'll scare her more. I'm gonna lift her up, and I want you to keep hold of her arm, keep it as still as possible. Do you understand?" he asked, attempting to give the illusion that he had things under control. She nodded, half blinded by tears. They moved quickly down the path, Mark trying not to jostle Cara, while Virginia held fast to her arm. "It's O.K. my big girl, it's O.K. my sweetie pie," she crooned over and over to her now silent child.
Once in the car, she held Cara tightly while Mark sped towards the hospital. Cara was sweating profusely and had lost consciousness. Virginia hummed lullabies, resting her chin against her daughter's drenched head. "Please God, Please God, Please," she pleaded silently. "Jinni, it's gonna be all right baby,"" she heard Mark say from far, far away. "Nobody dies from snake bites anymore." 'He's right,' she told herself, still frightened, but reasonably certain that things would be all right in the end.
They weren't. Cara was dead by dusk. She'd suffered from a severe allergic reaction to the snake's venom. Surrounded by family and friends, Virginia began her long descent into darkness. While they touched her, tried to feed her, love her, and comfort her - she took one step after the other - down, down, down, until she was so far below surface, she couldn't see or hear them any longer.
She ventured outside the cottage for only the second time in the three weeks that she'd been in Hamden. She vaguely hears voices in the background, and the sound of an engine running. The sun warms her skin. The air smells of the salty sea and the breeze blows gently, lifting strands of her hair, as if they were waving to someone vaguely familiar. She notices someone coming towards her and quickly shifts direction, moving towards the beach. Her feet sink and sand creeps into her sandals. She removes them and heads for the water.
The North Atlantic is frigid, unlike the gentle waters of the South, and within moments her feet ache painfully. She's grateful for the distraction. The spasms in her feet allow her to concentrate for the time being on something other than the torment in her soul. She shifts her weight from one foot to the other; they throb in protest, and then eventually grow numb. Why is it that the relentless ache in her heart refuses to deaden too? She stands still, closes her eyes, and allows the tide to gently sway her. She imagines herself lying down, arms spread wide, floating out and away, and then under. Above her head, a lone seagull swoops down toward the earth and then back up again, heaven bound.
She hobbles slowly out of the water and towards the rocks. The sand begins to warm her frozen feet. She climbs the rocks and settles into a crevice. Just as she can't escape her anguish, she's also captured by the beauty before her. The great, wide, blue-green ocean lies beyond - moving, always moving, away from and then towards. In the distance stand the Mountains, sleeping giants that rest solid and still. The seagulls call out but the mountains remain unmoved. As she gazes at the water, some small part of her begins to stir, whispering so quietly and so tentatively that she doesn't hear. Perhaps her ignorance of the small voice is for the best, for she'd surely silence it...
Two weeks later, she's hiding in her crevice again, hypnotized by sun and surf. She hears a child singing. She automatically seeks out the singer, and spies a skinny little girl in a red and white checkered bikini. The little girl carries a pail and shovel, her hair is tied back in a ponytail, and she skips, and then runs, and then skips again along the beach. Up ahead a woman is walking, her head bent as if she were studying her feet. The little girl calls out to her, and runs quickly forward. "Wait Mommy! Wait and see what I found Mommio, Mommio, Mommy!" She yells and sings at the same time. The woman turns away and keeps walking. The little girl runs in earnest now, no longer skipping or singing. She reaches out for her mother as she runs, and stumbles over a small sand dune. She falls flat on her back, shells tumbling out of her orange plastic pail. The child begins to cry loudly, the way that small children do, belting out her pain and grief. The mother looks back, impatiently walks toward the fallen child, yanks her up by the arm, and pulls her along. The little girl struggles to stoop down to retrieve her shells. She's desperate to collect her treasures, but her mother's in a hurry. The woman easily overpowers the child, and the sea gifts get left behind. Echo's of the child's grief reaches out to her.
Virginia feels the all too familiar rage burning inside of her. She's trembling as she watches the ignorant bitch haul the vulnerable little girl down the beach. Heart racing, face hot, fists clenched, she wants to chase them. She wants to rip the girl from the monster's cruel hands, pound her face, and kick her in the stomach. She wants to gouge out her eyes and shove her fist down her throat. She doesn't deserve to be a mother God damned it! It's not fair! Virginia wants to destroy her.
She's still shaking as she makes her way down the rocks and towards the abandoned shells. She stoops to pick them up, and then pauses to watch the image of mother and child moving quickly up the path and away from the beach. Her vision is blurred and she realizes she's crying. She kneels, and begins to sob over the broken shells - for the little girl, for Cara, for Mark, and for all of the ugliness in this deceptively beautiful world. She wails, and moans, and begs God to bring her baby back. She cries until her shirt is drenched with her tears, and then she collapses, exhausted.
It's 11:00 am and the damned woman is knocking again. Virginia, still in yesterday's clothing, with warmed over coffee in hand, hides behind the door. "Why does the old bag keep coming back?" she mutters. She peeks through a crack in the pale blue curtains. A solidly built woman dressed in blue jeans and a short sleeved, plaid shirt is standing at her door. Over her right arm rests a basket. Her left hand is poised to knock again. Virginia grudgingly decides to give in and open the door. "Well hello there! I've finally caught you," the old woman says, smiling warmly. She steps into the room uninvited, and Virginia reluctantly moves back to let her pass. The woman appears to be in her late fifties. She has short graying hair, pale blue eyes, and appears rumpled and dowdy. Virginia, recently awakened, unwashed and fuzzy headed, retreats behind an air of superiority. "Can I help you with something?" Virginia asks, her voice cold, polite, and tinged with disdain.
"My name's Mavis. I've been meaning to meet you, but I've been so busy, and when I've gotten around to coming by, you haven't been home. I brought you a wild strawberry pie and my apologies for taking so long to welcome you." Mavis walks over to the table and sets the basket down.
"Why thank-you Mavis. How sweet of you." Virginia pushes back her hair, "Please excuse my appearance, I was up reading late and I'm afraid I've over-slept. Can I get you a cup of coffee?" Virginia asks, without a hint of warmth, praying that Mavis decline her unenthusiastic offer.
"I'd love a cup, two sugars and a bit of cream," Mavis instructs sitting down and settling in.
Mavis chats about the weather, the residents, and the church pot luck dinner. Virginia hears nothing, just gazes out the window, hoping that Mavis will get the message. She's not welcome here. She watches an old lobsterman and his young assistant struggling with their nets. The sun shines on the young man's hair, and his arm muscles ripple as he lifts a heavy piece of equipment. She can barely see his face from this distance, but she can't help noting what a compelling sight he makes. His movements are efficient and graceful, he smiles widely, and appears to be enjoying himself. Virginia scowls, disgusted that she's allowed herself to be captivated even for a minute by him.
"That's Joe's nephew, Chris." Mavis offers, leaning forward to get a better view. Virginia's cheeks flush, she feels invaded and embarrassed. "He's a sweet boy. He's spending the summer with Joe, all the way from San Francisco. He worries so much about that old man. Always has. I remember when he was just a tadpole, Joe would be scrambling around, and there'd be Chris - stumbling behind him, his little face all scrunched up, trying to help him. Bless Joe, he never once let on that the little guy was getting in his way."
Virginia slides her chair away from the table and stands abruptly, moving to the sink to run hot water. She notices the beer bottles and coffee cups scattered on the counter and feels her resentment growing hot and thick. She keeps her back turned away from Mavis and begins to collect the soiled dishes and empty bottles. Mavis remains seated, silent and watching.
Mavis is not a native, in spite of the fact that she's lived in Hamden since she was a new bride. Tom had enchanted her with tales of his wild and wintry homeland and she'd followed him, filled with dreams of love, and family, and friendship. Oh, she'd had plenty of the first two since coming, but friendship, well, that had taken years to find. Over a decade, she figured. People were nice enough, but she was considered an outsider by most of them. Mavis felt sorry for this strange young woman who stood before her, back hunched over and yet held rigid. She worked quickly, with short, jerky movements. 'Now here's a lost soul,' decided Mavis sympathetically, but also with more than a little intrigue. Mavis thrived on collecting lost souls. Her husband called it her strange affliction, while Mavis saw it as her mission.
"So can I expect you at church this Sunday?" Mavis asked, bringing her coffee cup to the sink to hand to Virginia. Virginia kept washing dishes, head down; eyes focussed on the soapy water. "No, I don't think so Mavis," she answered, refusing to offer an excuse or even look at the old lady. "Sure would love to have you Hon, it'd be good for you to meet pastor McLachlan, and some of the townsfolk. I could come and pick you up?" Mavis offered hopefully. "I don't think so Mavis. Thanks for the invitation though," Virginia responded with an edge of irritation in her voice. Mavis took the hint and headed for the door. She turned at the threshold and stood waiting. Virginia didn't turn to say goodbye. Mavis considered whether or not to say any more and then decided that she'd said enough for one day. She'd be back though, she decided, her jaw tightening in determination. 'I'll definitely be back,' she vowed to herself as she headed out the door.
Virginia heard the door close quietly and flung the dishcloth. "Dam it! Is there no place in this God forsaken world I can be left alone?" she grumbled. 'Dam that busy- body, Dam her,' she cursed silently. She was humiliated. She looked around the cottage. It was filthy. Tears welled up in her eyes as she studied the wreckage. The furniture was old and battered, and dust and cigarette wrappers were everywhere. She hadn't noticed it before and didn't want to see it now. 'It's not worth it, not worth it, not fucking worth it,' she protested even as she moved around picking up the debris.
She'd been walking on the beach undisturbed for weeks until now. She heard someone calling her name. Pretending not to hear, she put her head down and picked up her pace.
'Please go away, leave me alone, go away," she silently pleaded, fighting the urge to start running.
"There she is," exclaimed Mavis, pointing to Virginia's retreating figure. "She's always lost in her own little world. I see her out here everyday, she just walks and walks the beach. I told Tom there's something very wrong with that girl. Something terribly wrong." Pastor McLachlan squinted in the sun and fastened his gaze on Virginia. "She doesn't look as lost to me Mavis, as she looks in a hurry," the pastor observed.
"Well then let's hurry up and catch her! I'm telling you she needs us, and I'm not giving up until I find out what's brought her here and what I can do to help!"
The pastor sighed and hurried to keep up with Mavis. He was fond of her and indulged her all too often. She's been his first ally since moving from Nova Scotia to Maine. He'd had mighty big boots to fill, or so he'd heard more then he'd wanted to from the townsfolk when he first got here. Mavis had stood by him, coaxing members of the congregation to give him a chance, and bullying those who refused to. Their bond had initially been that of both being outsiders, as well as possessing a fierce pride of their shared Scottish heritage. She'd filled his belly the first night he met her with Shepherd's pie and Stout Loaf. She'd then blessed his first lonely nights with Scottish folk tales and gossip, and eventually filled his tired old heart with hope and love.
He'd never quite met anyone like her before, and marveled at how she'd pushed her way into the closed little community of Hamden. She'd recruited him on many a mission to aid floundering souls, and he always complied. He owed her plenty. She'd become the backbone of his church, always the first to volunteer her services and those of her husband, Tom. She'd knitted more socks, baked more casseroles, and scrubbed more church windows and walls then any other living person in Hamden. She lit the alter candles every Sunday morning, and she'd finally managed to turn a light on is his own weary soul.
There she was, talking to Virginia now. 'Oh boy, I'm quite sure we're not wanted' he thought, reluctantly closing the distance between himself and the two women.
"Here you are! Say hello to Virginia," Mavis commanded.
"Hello Virginia, it's very nice to meet you," the pastor responded, with a touch of apology in his tone. Virginia refused to make eye contact with him, simply nodding her head in acknowledgement. He was grossly overweight, she observed with disgust.
Virginia and the pastor stood in uneasy silence as Mavis chatted cheerfully. Virginia tuned her out, studying the seagulls instead. Suddenly, Mavis took Virginia's arm and gently tugged it. "Come on, it's not far," Mavis explained. "What's not far?" queried Virginia with dread.
"My house. The pastor and I were on our way to back to my place for a cup of tea. You're coming with us."
"No, I can't."
"I've got some letters to write," Virginia explained lamely.
"They can wait, it's not even lunch time yet. I'm not taking no for an answer," asserted Mavis, steering her towards the house. Virginia unwillingly allowed herself to be led.
The house was like a dark, cozy den. Seated at a huge wooden table in the center of Mavis's kitchen, Virginia studied its surface, as Mavis focused on making tea. Someone had carved letters into the wood, and she traced them idly with her fingers, keeping her head down in order to discourage the Pastor from engaging her in conversation. All too soon, Mavis joined them laden with cups, saucers, cream, sugar, and a pot of aromatic tea. She also placed a heaping plate of cookies on the table.
"Try one, there Ginger Rounds, an old family recipe."
"You'll love them, there even better than my grandmother used to make," the pastor advised, placing three upon his plate.
"No thank-you," muttered Virginia.
Mavis and the pastor exchanged glances. Her eyes assured him silently that she would not be deterred. His eyes mirrored his resignation. Pouring Virginia, the pastor and then herself a cup of tea, Mavis proceeded to question Virginia.
"So, where you from?"
"I've never been there, but I hear it's a wonderful city." offered Mavis, who'd heard no such thing.
"It's nice." Virginia wasn't going to encourage her.
"So what brought you clear to Hamden?" Mavis persisted.
"I wanted to spend some time alone," Virginia responded pointedly.
" Well, I guess this is as good a place for that as any," added the Pastor lamely.
"You've had plenty of time to be alone, well over a month. So now what are you planning to do?" asked Mavis somewhat gruffly.
Virginia didn't know how to respond. She felt as though she was being interrogated. She also felt Mavis's disapproval, and was surprised that it stung. What did she care what Mavis thought, and why should she have to explain herself to this nosy old broad? Virginia wanted to get away from Mavis and the fat man with soft hands.
"Watch that MacDougall blood of yours Mavis!" admonished the pastor.
"Mavis is from the MacDougall clan," explained the pastor to Virginia. "Their motto is to conquer or die, and I'm afraid she takes it very seriously."
Virginia didn't respond.
"And I bet that 'strong and faithful' describes you to a tee pastor?" Mavis retorted cheerfully, seeming to be entirely unoffended by the pastor's previous remark.
"Aye, faithful, that's me, although strong, well that's another story all together."
"Oh, I'd say you're strong. You'd have to be to live here among us heathens," Mavis chimed.
"Well, every winter these days, I tell myself I won't be among you fine people much longer. I think it's of to the south I'll be hauling these old bones someday soon."
"The south! Ha! You wouldn't know what to do with yourself in the South, why there you'd be sitting in your little screen room in shorts some February morning, crying for home!"
"But home is where the heart is my dear lady."
"That's right! And your heart is right here where your ass is!" retorted Mavis.
Virginia glanced at the pastor, certain he'd be offended. But he didn't seem to be at all. In fact, he seemed to be enjoying himself. Without thinking, she reached for a cookie, and automatically took a bite. It was delicious. She took another and savored its' rich flavor.
The two continued to banter back and forth, and in spite of herself, Virginia became engrossed in their conversation. She remembered sitting around dining room tables in her old life, joking and exchanging gossip. It seemed like a lifetime ago. And it was. It was the lifetime of Cara ago. She felt the grief well up in her again. She'd lost it somehow for a time here in Mavis's warm kitchen. But it was back with a vengeance. She stood up to leave.
"You're running off?" asked Mavis.
"Yes, I really have to get my letters off before the mail goes out," Virginia explained, heading for the door.
"Okay hon. I'll stop by later in the week," Mavis promised to Virginia's dismay. She didn't answer as she made her escape.
"What did I tell you?" Mavis nodded to the pastor.
"Yes, I can see that she's deeply troubled," the pastor sadly observed.
"I'm worried about that one. Something tells me she's not long for this world. Maybe she has some kind of fatal illness, I mean, look at her, she's skin and bones! And her eyes, why they look absolutely haunted!" The pastor could tell that Mavis was getting herself worked up.
"Mavis, I know you're concerned about her, but it's not our place to go barging into other people's lives. We can only be available should the call come in."
"I'm not gonna barge into her life. I'm just gonna feed her. The girl is starving to death! Now how can bringing over a casserole be considered barging?" Mavis defended.
"Just be careful Mavis. I don't want you hurt, and I can see that you're walking a very fine line right now. That girl is a grown woman who wants to be left alone."
"Sometimes I wonder about you pastor, you're way too meek for a man of God. Did we have to ask him to send his son to us? No we did not! He just sent him!"
"And what did we do to his son, Mavis? We crucified him."
During the next two weeks Mavis went to Virginia's cottage five times, armed with her most popular casseroles. Virginia didn't respond to her knocking, and so Mavis always ended up leaving them on the doorstep. She made a point of walking by the cottage several times a day, hoping to peek in through the window. The curtains remained closed. She started watching for Virginia on the beach but never saw her. On her sixth visit, before she even paused to think about it, she started banging on the door. Silence. She banged some more. Still nothing. "That's it!" she decided, preparing to break the door down if she had to.
The door was unlocked. Mavis let herself in. Virginia was lying on the couch with a bucket before her. The cottage reeked of vomit and Virginia's clothing was covered in it. Virginia lay unmoving with her eyes closed, her face pale, and her body stiff and corpselike. Mavis rushed to her side, slipping in the vile puke, and began to roughly shake her. Virginia whimpered, and weakly pushed her away. "Oh no you don't darlin'. I'm not leaving, so you better just open your eyes and tell me what's wrong."
Virginia started to wretch again. Mavis grabbed the slop pail and placed it in front of the miserable girl. Virginia dry heaved into the bucket. Mavis rubbed her back. Virginia was sobbing. "It didn't work! It didn't work!" she whimpered in between her heaving and sobbing. Mavis smoothed back her hair and held her.
The sun was shining and Virginia heard a child laughing. Cara? She opened her eyes and quickly sat up in bed. Where was she? Where was Cara? 'She's dead,' the familiar voice quickly reminded her - the voice which refused to be silenced, which showed her no mercy- which she could never drown out. She saw fresh flowers on the night table to her right, a Bible placed beside them. The window was open and a gentle breeze blew in. She thought she smelled Lavender. Where in hell was she?
Just then Mavis entered the room, a little boy trailing behind her. "Good Afternoon sleepy head," greeted Mavis cheerfully. "I've brought you some fish chowder and biscuits. Lets get you fed so we can change your nightdress," Mavis added, turning to the boy who was getting ready to pounce on Virginia's bed. "Stay off Jacob! You promised you'd be good for grandma today!" she admonished. The little boy giggled and ran out of the room.
"What am I doing here?" demanded Virginia coldly.
"Don't you remember? You were terribly sick yesterday when I found you. I got Tom and we brought you to the doctor. He said you needed to be watched over, and so that's what I'm doing."
"I don't need to be watched over!" snarled Virginia with open hostility.
"Oh, I see, we're gonna be out in the open are we? Well, why don't you tell me about those pills you took. It's a lucky you're alive, or at least not at BMHI where the Doctor wanted to send you." Mavis was angry too. She roughly pushed the flowers aside and slammed the tray down on the table. "You picked the wrong town to do yourself in lady! We don't appreciate outsiders coming here and littering the place with their empty bottles and trash, and dead bodies!"
Virginia covered her face in her hands, feeling humiliated and vulnerable. She heard Mavis moving toward the door.
"Now, I'm gonna make a deal with you. You don't give me any shit, and I won't give you any. You just behave yourself, eat your lunch, and don't fight me. You've still got plenty of pills left if you still want them. But first you're gonna get well enough to get the hell out of my town before you try anything like that again! Swallow 'em somewhere else if you're determined to knock yourself off!"
Mavis slammed the door behind her. Virginia sat dumb struck, and then she began to eat.
She'd been with Mavis and her husband Tom for a week. She was completely won over by the big, gruff, bearded man. He told jokes and long drawn out stories, he brought her flowers every day, and pretended that she was part of the family. He even called her, "Sis." She'd begun joining them for meals and to her surprise, rediscovered her appetite. Jacob was adorable and she looked forward to his visits. He'd taken to her right away and would climb up into her lap and demand that she read him the same little book over and over again. Virginia now knew the tales of Peter Rabbit by heart.
She helped Mavis with the dishes that night and finally agreed to accompany her for a walk. They followed the shoreline in silence. Virginia steeled herself for a lecture from the old lady. None came. "I love it here," sighed Mavis finally, "After all these years, I still thank God for this place."
It was incredibly beautiful. The dusk sky was blue-gray, pink and white. Virginia felt the warm breeze on her face, smelled the salty air, and felt rocked by the waves washing in close to their feet. She felt peaceful - not barren, not hollow, nor dead, just calm and emptied out.
"I've decided that if you're going to stay in Hamden, we're gonna clean that hovel of yours. I heard you rented it for six months. So why not make the best of it? You've got plenty of time, to ah, make other plans later." Mavis was referring to Virginia's suicide attempt, and Virginia found herself smiling at Mavis's discomfort, and touched at the same time by her gruff concern.
"Ok," she responded.
"Ok what?" Mavis asked, afraid to get her hopes up.
"Ok, we'll clean the place if you agree to take me shopping. I hate the dÃ©cor."
"Of course I'll take you shopping, You've got nothing suitable in the place to eat."
"Food wasn't what I had in mind."
"Well, food is what you're gonna get first, then we'll tackle the rest of the house."
"You've got a deal," said Virginia, smiling.
Mavis smiled back and for the first time Virginia noticed what beautiful eyes she had.
She still planned on dying. She refused to go on living indefinitely with her misery. But she'd decided to consider her time in Hamden as a final adventure. She'd stay on for a while longer.
She sat in the living room later that night with pastor MacLachlan, Tom, old Joe, and Mavis. Mavis and the Pastor were arguing over an old Scottish story. "It wasn't the princess of the fairyland that came riding up to Thomas Learmont, it was the fairy queen!" Mavis insisted.
"Alright. It was the fairy queen. And now where was I?"
"Thomas was admiring the scenery," volunteered old Joe.
"Right," continued the pastor. "He was happy as a clam, admiring the scenery, and along she comes on her horse. She was a real beauty let me tell you, and Thomas was so taken by her that he begged her for a kiss."
"Foolish man, that kiss was about to change his life!" Mavis interrupted.
. "Yes it was Mavis, now how about letting me finish," the pastor coaxed.
"Go ahead, I don't know why you always have to have the limelight though," she complained.
"Because I started the story, so I should get to tell it!" he retorted. "Now, as soon as Thomas kissed her, she turned into an awful, ugly old crone and told him he was sentenced to seven years in Fairyland."
"And that's where he learned more then he ever did in his own country!" added Mavis.
The pastor ignored Mavis. "Thomas is made to climb up on the queen's horse. He doesn't want to but he has no choice. She takes him to a place where three roads wait before them. The first road is wide, straight and stretches as far as Thomas's eyes can see. It's an easy road, explains the hag, but it's also one that has no significance and no spiritual value. The second road is winding, narrow, and dangerous."
Mavis got up to warm the water for tea. Virginia offered to help, and Mavis motioned her to stay seated.
"Now this road has thorny hedges on both sides, and their all reaching out, just as if they can't wait to pierce Thomas's skin."
"It's the path of righteousness," Mavis called out from the kitchen. Old Joe and Tom smiled at one another.
"This road is a difficult one, the queen tells Thomas, but it's a worthwhile journey because it leads to the city of Kings."
"It's an honor to reach the city, it means you've survived all the terrible hardships put in your way, and you're ready to meet the king," Mavis explained.
"The third road is very beautiful, surrounded by fields of flowers and greenery, with forests so lush that a man could get lost in them forever," the Pastor continues "Now the queen tells him nothing of this road except that it's the road to Fairy Land, and that if he utters so much as one word while traveling there, he'll never be allowed to leave. And so they start off, riding swiftly, until they come to a cave along the river. They've been riding for quite some time and Thomas is famished. He begins to see visions of food dance before him, and he wants it badly."
"He saw fruit," Mavis clarified.
"Yes, fruit, anyway... The queen tells him not to eat the fruit or he'll be lost, and reassures him that he'll receive an apple by and by. Thomas resists his temptation and they continue on their journey. Soon, the old queen stops her horse, climbs down and leads them to a tiny but perfect tree filled with apples. She invites Thomas to eat one, telling him that once he does, he'll receive the gift of truth. Thomas gratefully accepts her offering. They're close to the castle now, and the ugly hag begins to turn back into a beautiful maiden. Or maybe she'd been beautiful all along, only Thomas had been so frightened of her, that maybe he'd only imagined that she'd been ugly," the pastor contemplates.
"Anyways, when they get to the castle, he sees these creatures from another world stuffing themselves at a banquet. Now, these were beings that only experienced pleasure or pain, one extreme or the other. They puzzled Thomas; he was unable to imagine being stuck in any one feeling. He watched them for days. All they did was feast and feel the same thing over and over. He began to long desperately for home, where people's feelings changed."
"Finally, the queen tells him that his seven years are up and that he can now leave. Thomas is amazed that seven years have gone by so quickly."
"That's what happens sometimes, before you know it a decade has passed and you wonder where the hell time's gone," observed Joe.
"Ain't that the truth," agrees Tom, and Mavis nods her head in agreement. Virginia's touched by how these old folks surround the pastor, and like children hang on to his every word.
"The queen offers Thomas the gifts of premonition and poetry, and he takes away an enchanted harp which serves to link him to both the fairy world and his own. And with these gifts, Thomas becomes a wise and fair leader." The pastor stretched and poured himself another cup of tea.
"So that's it?" asked Joe. "That's the end of the story?"
"What more do you want Joe?" quipped Mavis, "and he lived happily ever after?"
"Well, there's usually more to the story when the pastor tells them, " explained Joe.
"Like what?" Virginia wonders out loud. They all look at her, pleased that she's spoken.
"I think what Joe means is, where's the message in the story? There's usually a message," offered Tom.
"Oh there's a message all right, you can bet there's a message. But don't wait for it to hit you over the head," advised Mavis, smiling at the pastor as though they share a wonderful secret. And they do...
That night Virginia dreamed of paths that twisted and turned and never ended.
The old cottage sparkled and was filled with the aroma of lemon, ammonia, and potpourri. There were daisies on the kitchen table, hanging plants in the windows framed by bright yellow curtains, a new couch cover graced with cheerful teal and mauve cushions, a huge yucca tree in one corner of the living room, and elephant ears in the opposite corner. Virginia had filled small baskets with potpourri and placed them in each room. She'd purchased a new bedspread with matching curtains for her bedroom, VanGough prints for the living room, and earth toned prints for the kitchen. She had a new wicker rocker turned toward her favorite ocean view, a small CD player and a CD stand containing some of her favorite music, scented candles, and colorful rugs scattered here and there. Her refrigerator was stocked with milk, cheese, fruit juice, fresh fish, a small steak, eggs, vegetables, a bottle of wine, and real butter. In her cupboard, along with various canned goods, boxes of pasta and cereal, was a new bread maker.
Virginia collapsed in her rocker, worn out from her day of shopping and cleaning. Mavis had finally left after making Virginia promise to heat up the stew she'd left her for dinner. It felt wonderful to be alone. She gazed out at the water, rocking gently and listening to Windham Hill. The rage and grief she carried around inside of her were still there, but they seemed to be silent, leaving only the familiar ache in the center of her belly. It wasn't that she felt good or even at peace, but she felt strangely calm, even with the knowledge that night was approaching.
One late afternoon she watched a puppy playing in the surf and smiled at its silly antics. Eventually she noted that it didn't seem to be accompanied by anyone. She continued watching and waiting for someone to call it. Finally, she went to the refrigerator, took out a piece of cheese, and went outside to get a closer look.
The puppy was a mutt, part lab perhaps. She called it and it ran full speed to her, gobbling up her cheese and muddying her shirt as it jumped up on her. She scolded it and pushed it away from her, but the lout refused to be deterred and was immediately back up on all fours, straining to lick her face. She pushed it away again, "down!" she commanded firmly. The puppy decided she was playing and barked at her, running around in circles. He had no collar, Virginia noticed. She sat in the sand and the puppy was all over her, jumping up, pushing her back, and licking her face furiously. Virginia did her best to hold him off, but in the end she lost the battle and surrendered. She played with the puppy, allowing him to kiss her, chase her, and gently chew on her hands. She found herself laughing as she ran at full speed away from him. He caught her - no matter how fast she ran or how many sharp turns she took - he still caught her...
Virginia wasn't surprised when he followed her to the cottage; she'd hoped that he would. He raced around the living room, the kitchen, and into the bedroom where he promptly settled on her bed. She scolded him, told him to get down. He just looked at her innocently. She pushed him off and he scampered after her into the kitchen. "You can stay the night, but then we're going to figure out who you belong to," she told the puppy. He sat before her, looking up into her eyes lovingly. She reached down to stroke his head.
The pair shared Mavis's chowder and after Virginia finished the dishes, settled in the living room to watch television. The puppy rested his head on her leg, and she stroked him while waiting for her nightly sleeping pills to take effect.
Her grief returned as the darkness descended. She thought of Mark, his mouth, his arms, and his smile. She remembered that awful night. She'd just gotten out of the hospital and was recovering from her mastectomy. She could still hear him telling her that he'd always love her but that he couldn't live with her anymore. She remembered how sad and defeated he'd looked, the guilt emanating from him. He'd never love Sandy the way he'd loved her, he assured her, but he needed to start his life again. Sandy loved him and was pregnant. He wanted a divorce. He would make sure that she was well cared for. She would never have to worry about money he promised. On and on he talked. Finally he took her in his arms. She allowed him to hold her. She was numb at first, disbelieving. Finally, the magnitude of his words hit her. She pulled away from him, started to scream and smashed her fists into his face. She was still screaming like a mad woman when he slammed the door behind him.
She wondered for the thousandth time, what he was doing now. Was he snuggled up on his own couch with his wife and son? Was he happy? Did she and Cara haunt him still? The tears came. Soon she was trembling, then shaking and sobbing. She felt something cold and wet on her cheek, a warm body pressed against her. She pushed the puppy away violently. He yelped as he hit the floor, but was immediately back up again. He whined and desperately tried to claw her hands away from her face. She curled her body forward in an attempt to protect herself. Her hands were bleeding when she gave in and put her arms around him, holding him close, matting his soft fur with tears.
Someone was knocking at her door and the puppy was barking. "Shit!" she scowled; she'd forgotten her promise to go to church with Mavis this Sunday. She rolled off the couch and stumbled toward the door. "Dam girl, I was getting worried about you!" scolded Mavis. The puppy kept barking as Mavis pushed her way past it. "What the hell is this? You got yourself a dog? Don't tell me. You've got ten minutes to get ready, now I don't want to hear any arguing, so get your ass in gear and get dressed!"
Virginia swore and headed to her bedroom with the puppy trailing behind her.
She sat quietly beside Mavis, irritated and resentful. The little church was filled. Mavis had introduced her to so many people that all Virginia could finally do was nod her head woodenly. 'Where the hell did all these people come from?' she wondered bitterly.
Pastor MacLachlan began his sermon. Virginia smirked, what a hypocrite, this sheltered old man was going to talk to her about heaven and hell. She was agitated. She didn't want to listen. She looked around. It was a modest building, the benches were old and uncomfortable, and the tapestries were worn. The room seemed to be filled with mostly old folks and children. She sure as hell didn't belong here.
Pastor MacLachlan was speaking about a woman named Ruth. Virginia knew very little about the Bible, and this was the first time she'd heard about Ruth. The pastor was explaining that Ruth had suffered greatly. She'd lost her husband and left behind her homeland. She was poor and worked very hard gathering fallen grain in the fields of Bethlehem to feed herself and her mother-in-law. She was a young woman with a very strong faith for which she was rewarded.
Virginia had no faith and no rewards. Suddenly she found herself longing to believe in the goodness and existence of God. But how could she? What kind of a God would allow such terrible things to happen? It seemed simpler to accept that there was no God. 'There is no God you foolish bastard. Don't you get it you stupid old man? How can there be a God?' she protested bitterly and in silence.
The little chorus began to sing. The music was soft and soothing, while imperfect voices sang true and sweet. Tears slid down Virginia's cheeks. What ever else she found or didn't find here, she'd found her tears, a fresh new supply that once again seemed as endless as her grief.
That night for the first time since she'd arrived in Hamden, she slept in her bed. The puppy snuggled up against her back, his head facing the door. He would guard her.
Virginia continued going to church with Mavis. Not because she believed, she just liked to listen to Pastor MacLachlan's stories, told with his gentle voice. She liked the singing, too. Most of all, she came to appreciate the peacefulness she began to feel there.
Still, she refused to join the congregation for fellowship lunches, and Mavis was wise enough not to push.
She began to read the Bible and other spiritual works. She found many of them to be filled with wisdom. She didn't like the Old Testament, there was too much violence and punishment for her taste, but she loved the Psalms and the Songs of Solomon. She also found the teachings of the Buddha intriguing. Her days began to take on a slow and relaxed pace. She read, walked, played with the puppy, and read some more. Keeping to herself as much as Mavis would allow her.
Summer had led to fall, and she was still in Hamden. Her pills were safely hidden away. She still planned to use them, but she wasn't in such a hurry. She'd lived most of her life in the southeast where the changing of seasons was a very subtle thing compared to the transformations that took place in the northeast. She told herself that she would live to watch the seasons unfold before departing from this strange world. Knowing she would die soon enough (and when she chose) brought her some comfort.
Virginia was sipping tea with Mavis while Sam snoozed under the table. Mavis visited regularly now, and Victoria had given up all attempts at discouraging her. Mavis was indomitable.
"It's time Virginia. I've been more than patient and I'm sick of making excuses for you," admonished Mavis.
"Since when did it become your job to make excuses for me Mavis?"
"Don't try your avoidance tactics with me today Jinni, I'm in no mood for it. I need your help dam it! What the hell will it cost you to make one lousy casserole and show your miserable face!"
"Alright, I'll make a casserole and bring it to your house Saturday morning and you can take it with you when you go," Virginia offered, attempting to appease Mavis.
"What do you mean no?"
"I mean NO. I need you to be there," insisted Mavis.
"For Christ sake Mavis! Why do you have to be so stubborn? I'm making the fucking casserole for you!" Virginia growled. Sam, sensing Virginia's agitation, got up and nuzzled her leg, demanding that she pat him.
"That's not enough Virginia. You sit around this cottage, reading your books, taking your walks and giving back nothing. You've got a debt to pay."
"I do, do I? I never knew that was how you thought Mavis!" Virginia jerked out of her chair, marched to her purse and flung open her wallet, throwing bills on the table.
"How much Mavis, how much do I owe you? Should I write you a check? Let me know how much it'll take to settle my bill with you," she snarled.
Mavis was speechless and felt the blood drain from her face. She felt Virginia's rage and hatred pierce her chest and lodge its poison arrow into her heart. She refused to show Virginia that she'd succeeded in wounding her. She'd be damned if she'd show any vulnerability; "never let anyone see they've hurt ye" her mother had told her when she was a small child. And she hadn't. Ever.
"Put your money away," Mavis commanded coldly. "You don't owe me one miserable penny, you don't owe me so much as one measly kind thought."
Virginia immediately felt ashamed of herself and sorry that she'd struck out at Mavis. She'd known better. Why was it all she seemed to offer anyone was her distrust and hatred, she wondered miserably.
"Do you think the air you breathe is free just because you don't pay dollars and cents for it? Do you think for one minute that just because your heart's been broken, you don't have to be thankful that it's still beating? Oh, I know, you poor thing, you want your heart still and your body cold, but it isn't. It's warm and alive in spite of you! You're alive Virginia! Stop feeling sorry for yourself and do something with this life of yours! You'll be in your grave before you know it, so how about giving something to this world while your still in it!"
Virginia was struck by Mavis's passion. She'd never seen her so animated, so passionate, so self-righteous.
"Give what Mavis? What do I have to give? Every other word that comes out of me is hateful. I have no love, no joy, and no skills to give. I'm just barely hanging on here. It takes everything I have to get out of bed in the morning. You tell me what I have to offer anyone?"
Mavis looked back at her unaffected by her outburst.
"Plenty. You have plenty. Your hands still work, your eyes still see, your ears still hear, you've more than enough to give. I'm not stupid. I know your still planning to snuff out your life. I also know that now's not your time."
"How do you know when my time is?
"I don't know when your time is up, but I know it's not now?"
Virginia laughed bitterly. "Oh, I see, you get to control everyone and everything in your little town, and you decided that my time isn't now, did you?" Virginia smirked.
"I didn't see it."
"You didn't see what?"
"I didn't see a shroud." Mavis explained simply.
"A shroud, what's a shroud?" Virginia asked incredulously.
"I haven't seen a shroud around you, not once. Even when you were lying close to death, I didn't see one."
Virginia was confused. Mavis wasn't making any sense. She wondered if she'd given her too much credit. Maybe she was as crazy as Virginia was. Maybe when you're crazy, you don't recognize insanity in others.
"I know you're thinking that I'm touched," continued Mavis, "I have the second sight. I see things sometimes and know things that others don't."
Virginia studied the little woman before her. Mavis had struck her as domineering, bossy, and even as a know- it -all, but this latest development surprised even Virginia, who'd learned to expect the worst from everyone. She was amazed at Mavis's grandiose delusions. She wondered how she could get rid of her for good, short of leaving Hamden.
"I was born with it. I didn't ask for it. I saw the shroud on my grandma the night before she died, I saw it on my own little boy the morning he drowned, and I've seen it on friends and neighbors who're dead now. I've tried all of my life to not see it, but like death, it keeps coming, no matter how unwelcome," Mavis continued.
Her son had died. Virginia never knew. Mavis had never mentioned him. She tried to pay attention to what Mavis was saying, but the words, "the day he drowned," kept reverberating in her head.
"I've seen my own Co-walker, like a ghost, it appears before me when I least expect it," Mavis confessed, lost in her own world now.
"I've seen a white bird flying over your head twice now. I've seen more but my ma told me never to tell what I see, that it's unlucky to tell." Mavis sighed. "She never understood why I inherited the sight instead of one of my brothers, because most seer's are male. She told me I'd probably never have children. Women who have the sight are supposed to be barren. But I had children and I kept on seeing. My babies never chased the sight away."
Mavis looked directly into Virginia's eyes. "I know I sound crazy. I'm not. I'm absolutely sane, though the site has come close more then once to turning me into a mad woman. It's a terrible burden, a curse that I can't hide from. You can't escape your memories, and I can't outrun my visions. I've had to learn to live with them, and you have to learn to live with yours."
Virginia didn't respond. She didn't know what to say. The two women sat together quietly. Finally Virginia broke the silence. "I'll be there Saturday night. I think I'll make vegetable lasagna, you'll either love it or you'll never ask me for another casserole. I'll meet you Saturday at five-thirty."
"Better make it 5:00 so you can help me set up," Mavis answered, preparing to head home.
Monty begins another story. Virginia has laughed so hard that her sides ache. "So there I was, flat out of money, with a load of smelly laundry in the machine. What was I gonna do? I was late all ready! Well, I rushed up to this nice looking lady, put on my sweetest smile, and begged her to let me use just a little bit of detergent."
"With that smile of yours I bet she said yes right away," quipped Chris, even handsomer up close then he'd been when she watched him out her window.
"You bet she did! She was captivated by my charm, let me tell you. So she gives me the detergent, thrilled to be of service to a poor hound dog like me. I run over to the wash and like a flash I throw in the detergent - phew, I'm saved." He gives a dramatic sigh. "Just then I hear the lady yell, scared the piss and vinegar right out of me, let me tell you!"
His eyes widen and a look of exaggerated horror comes over his face, "I'd thrown the detergent into the wrong machine! I'd dumped it into her wash," his voice takes on a tinge of hysteria, "and it'd been on the RINSE cycle!"
The room erupts with laughter again. Virginia's having a hard time catching her breath; she's laughed so hard. She and Old Jake reach out to one another for support, their bodies convulsing. Chris joins them, a devil eating grin on his face.
"He's still going strong. That guy missed his calling, he should have been a comedian," he says, reaching out to straighten Old Jake's collar.
"And who says he isn't?" retorted Jake.
Virginia feels shy under the dark gaze of Jake's nephew. All of the sudden, she feels old, and yet like a young girl at the same time.
Jake playfully punches Chris and asks him if he's been introduced to their newest member of the community. Chris smiles at Virginia and holds out his hand.
"It's nice to meet you," Virginia offers, taking his large hand in her own.
"And it's very nice to meet you too," Chris replies.
"I've heard you're quite a reader, and that you're checking out some very interesting books at our little library too," Chris teases.
Virginia can't believe she's heard him right. "Well, I guess librarians don't have to uphold an oath of confidentiality," she finally responds.
"Who, Emma? That'd be the day," Chris answers with a wide smile. "Her life revolves around books and the people who read them. She considers it her duty to inform us of what people who catch her beady little eyes are reading."
"So I've caught her beady little eyes have I?"
"You've captured the interest of a number of eyes here in Hamden," Chris solemnly informed her.
Virginia blushed. "And how have I managed to do that?" she asked, hoping it didn't seem that she was flirting. She wasn't, was she?
"A woman alone, haunting the beach, speaking to hardly anyone except Mavis and the Pastor, with no history here or discernable purpose. Pretty mysterious, wouldn't you say?"
"I never intended to be a mystery. I just wanted to spend my time quietly for awhile,"
"Well, Id say you've certainly managed to do that. Spent your time quietly that is. It's funny."
"People who vacation here, they either want to know everything about us, or they want us to leave them completely alone. Some of them make me feel like apologizing for cluttering up their vacation spot."
Virginia felt uneasy and somewhat under attack. She wasn't sure how to take him.
"I never meant to make the people who live here feel unwelcome or unwanted," she said apologetically. But she had very much meant to do that. She'd resented anyone who so much as looked her way. All of the sudden she felt like a petty thief who'd been caught red handed.
"Don't look so remorseful, I'm not complaining. At least not about you."
"I'm off the hook then?" she asked.
"I don't know, are you?" he shot back.
She felt increasingly disoriented. What were they talking about exactly? It seemed as though every other word he uttered had some deeper meaning. 'Don't be ridiculous,' she scolded herself, 'you're just not used to making conversation.'
"So how long are you planning to stay in Hamden?"
"Probably until next spring, I thought it'd be interesting to experience a Maine winter. And how about you, I heard you were only visiting from San Francisco?"
"Ah, so Emma's not the only one who's talking now is she?" he said, grinning playfully.
"I heard it from Mavis. I'm beginning to wonder who doesn't talk in this town though."
"Jake. He doesn't talk much, but that's about the only one I know around here whose lips are sealed. Anyway, I'm not going back to San Francisco until next September. I'm on sabbatical to do some research on the Passamaquoddy and the Abenaki."
"Native Americans," he corrected automatically.
"Sounds interesting," she said, and to her surprise, she meant it.
"Hi Chris! How's the sweetest boy in town," Mavis greeted, giving him a peck on the cheek.
"I was hoping you could help us with the clean-up, Virginia," Mavis informed her, patting her shoulder as she headed back towards the kitchen.
"Well, I've just gotten my orders. I better pitch in or I'll definitely catch hell from Mavis tomorrow," Virginia explained.
"I learned when I was just a little guy never to keep Mavis waiting. I'll see you around now that you've decided to socialize with us back woods folk," Chris teased.
"I'll look forward to it," Virginia politely informed him, as she turned to follow her friend.
The next few weeks were transitionary ones for Virginia as well as for Sam. She found herself agreeing to assist Mavis with her various humanitarian projects, providing Mavis respected Virginia's wishes that her mornings remain undisturbed. And Sam, having become accustomed to Virginia's company on almost a continual basis, learned how to cope without her. He did this by dozing in a sunny patch in front of the living room window, and by chewing on cushions, slippers, and other available objects when awake, much to Virginia's chagrin and Mavis's amusement.
The air was growing crisper as October approached. Virginia, Mavis, and Monty's wife, Thelma, sat close to the woodstove one evening making initial plans for a Halloween banquet to benefit the children's fund. Tom, Old Joe, and Monty played cards and told off color jokes, while the women worked. Without warning, a human tornado burst into the house.
"Hey Guys, it's me! Someone give me a hand here!" yelled one of the most interesting women Virginia had ever seen.
"Howdy 'play thing'!" called out Monty," rushing to unburden their guest.
Her arms were loaded with paper bags. She was wearing embroidered overalls over a flowing sheer shirt, bean boots, and a derby hat framed her long golden hair. Virginia raised her eyebrows skeptically as she made a quick assessment, 'pretty tacky,' she silently decided.
"It's 'play queen,' not 'play thing', you old shit!" the young woman scolded, giving Monty a kiss on the cheek as he took her bags.
"Hey Dad! Where the hell were you today? I waited for you all morning!" she scolded, planting a kiss on Tom's head.
Tom didn't look up from his cards. "Did you check your answering machine? I left you a message."
"You know I hardly ever think to check the damned machine!"
"Well if you had of, you'd of known where I was Leisha"
"What you got in those bags for us this week baby?" Old Joe asked with significant interest.
"Ice cream, Spanish peanuts, chocolate sauce, stuff to make my famous nacho's with, and a porno flick" Leisha answered, plopping down at the table.
"You better not have brought that trash into my house," Mavis warned.
"Live a little Ma, you never know what new tricks Daddy might learn."
"This old dog knows plenty of tricks," Tom added, still concentrating on his hand.
So this was Mavis's other daughter, Virginia concluded. She wasn't anything at all like Jacob's mom, Shelly. Shelly seemed proper, and reserved - a New England lady who spoke softly and dressed immaculately. This creature was Shelly's opposite - loud and vulgar, a free wheeling wild woman. Virginia couldn't believe she was Mavis's child.
"You doin your good works again Ma?" Leisha asked, bending over to pat Simon, an ancient Siamese.
"Yes we are, and we could always use your help if you could manage to spare us some time."
"I help!" Leisha protested.
"When?" queried Mavis.
"I helped you with the "Festival of Trees."
"That was last Christmas."
"So what? It counts, as helping doesn't it? I busted my ass!"
"Leisha, have you met Virginia?" asked Mavis, changing the subject.
Leisha smiled warmly at Virginia. "I'm glad to meet you Virginia. Chris told me he met you at the potluck."
"It's nice to meet you too Leisha." Virginia didn't know what else to add. She would have loved to have known what Chris had said about her.
"Hey Thelma, I heard you haven't been feeling so good lately?" Leisha asked, sounding genuinely concerned.
"Oh, I'm fine. I've just been having some trouble with my diabetes, my blood sugar's been real good this past week though."
"I'm glad to hear it. You sticking with your diet?"
"Pretty well my foot!" objected Monty. "You should see the junk that woman puts into her!"
"And what kind of junk are you planning to put into you tonight?" asked Mavis pointedly.
"No doctor's told me I couldn't," countered Monty.
"Thelma, why don't you come swimming with me at the inn? You'd love it, and after we can float around in the Jacuzzi," coaxed Leisha.
"I don't think so honey," Thelma declined, heading off toward the bathroom.
"Why don't you go with Leisha Virginia?" suggested Mavis, exchanging glances with Leisha.
Virginia felt put on the spot. She shifted uncomfortably. Dam Mavis, always interfering!
"I don't swim."
"You don't have to swim. Playing around in the water will do you good, won't it Leisha. When are you going again?"
"On Friday. Want to come Virginia? I'd love the company. Just try it once and if you don't have a good time, I won't ask you to come again."
Leisha was more like her mother then Virginia would have initially guessed. She seemed to genuinely want Virginia to come along. Mavis was urging her to agree without saying a word.
"Alright. Where should I meet you?"
"I'll come by to pick you up around nine, is that too early?"
Virginia cringed. She never got to sleep before two in the morning. She considered coming up with an excuse to back out. Mavis kicked her ankle.
"Sounds fine," she agreed, wanting to tip over Mavis's chair.
"Great! Now lets get this show on the road!" Leisha urged, beginning to prepare her feast.
Leisha was a musician. She played acoustic guitar and sang folk songs in small clubs in southern and central Maine. To supplement her income, she worked part-time at a local health food store. She lived in a small hunting camp that she'd acquired as part of her divorce settlement three years before. She was a lover of music, art, nature, good food, and play. Her x husband had once accused her of being a hedonist, to which she'd responded that she simply planned to experience all the pleasure that she was lucky enough to have come her way.
Mavis worried about her daughter, wondering from time to time if she'd been a changeling. She was so different from the rest of them; a fact that brought Mavis joy as often as it irritated her. She was closest to this child of laughter and of light, who made her living in the darkness. She lectured Leisha often enough about her irresponsible life style, but she'd also come to appreciate the girl's spirit and spunk. Mavis decided that Virginia could use a little of what came to her daughter so naturally. If joy it could be taught, Leisha was the perfect teacher.
Virginia joined Leisha in the water, surprised by how warm and inviting it was. She allowed her body to relax as she laid her head back and attempted to float. She envied Leisha's effortless movements and sure strokes. The woman was part dolphin - diving and surfacing, spinning circles playfully. "You're a terrific swimmer," Virginia observed admiringly. "Ah, it's easy, you just have to let go and flow," Leisha replied, diving again.
Virginia gazed out the big window, watching the tree tops gently sway in the wind. She hadn't swum in years, and her body welcomed the old familiar feeling of weightlessness and freedom. She felt meditative and allowed her mind to empty as her companion swam laps.
Later, in the Jacuzzi, Leisha attempted to get to know more about this sad eyed stranger whom her mother had adopted. "So you're from Charleston?" Leisha asked rhetorically.
"Yup, the southern jewel by the sea." Virginia answered.
"Do you miss it?"
"Not very often, but sometimes I think about the open market, the museums, and the wonderful restaurants, and I wonder what it would be like to go back for just a day."
"What about your friends? Do you hear from them often?"
"They haven't any idea where I am," Virginia informed her, sounding guarded.
Leisha got the message and decided not to press her. It was abundantly clear to her that Virginia was running, and she was damned curious to know what she was running from. She was reasonably certain that she'd find out eventually if she bided her time and didn't push too hard.
"How about my place for lunch?" she asked, hoping that Virginia would say yes. Chris had told her that he really felt sorry for the woman, and Leisha could understand why. She wanted to help her, not just because she'd clearly became one of her mother's projects, but because the woman had somehow touched her.
"Do you live far from here?" Virginia asked uncertainly.
"Not too far, about twenty minutes once you get off the Rockport exit," Leisha assured her. "I've made a really terrific spinach quiche that just needs to be heated a bit, and I'll get you home when ever you say you need to head back," she promised.
Virginia agreed to go home with her but not without a struggle.
The hunting camp was tiny but inviting. It was filled with plants, artwork, wicker, and sculptures of wild animals. "Did you do these?" Virginia asked, motioning to the carvings.
"Nope, not me, Chris is the artist," Leisha informed her, putting the water on to boil and taking the quiche out of the refrigerator.
"Are you and Chris seeing each other?" Virginia couldn't help but ask.
"I stopped hoping for that years ago, but he's most definitely my best friend."
"So you've known him for a long time."
"Since we were babies. His mother and mine were best friends. She died of breast cancer when we were in Kindergarten, then old Joe took him. We've been pals since we shared our first bowl of dog food together."
"What? Oh you mean his mother dying. Yea, it was hard. My mother cried for days, and Chris stopped talking for a long time. I didn't really understand much of what was going on at the time, but I knew it was really awful."
"Your mother's lost a lot in her life," Virginia sad sadly. It was difficult to connect the tough old bird who plagued her now with the grieving woman she must have been."
"Who doesn't loose a lot in this life?" Leisha responded nonchalantly.
"That sounds pretty fatalistic."
"Depends on how you look at it. You loose and you gain, and if you're smart..."
"You count your blessings," Virginia finished the sentence, having heard Mavis say those same words.
Leisha smiled. "So she's gotten to you too, has she?"
"She's an incredible woman. I'm never sure what to expect from her, a hug or a swat on the side of the head," Virginia shared, smiling back at Leisha.
"Guess that's her secret, she keeps us all off balance."
"That's not her only secret," Virginia added, feeling Leisha out.
"True. My mother's a labyrinth of secrets, most of which I suspect we'll never know."
"You're really not so different from your mother."
"Me? I don't have a single secret, go ahead, ask me anything you want to know."
"I don't mean that. I mean that you're really warm and caring like she is."
"Does that surprise you?"
"You all surprise me."
"How's that?" Leisha put the quiche in the oven, turned on the timer, and sat down across from Virginia.
"I'm not sure. I guess I heard New Englanders were difficult to get to know. That they minded their own business and expected you to keep your nose out of theirs."
"Well, like any stereotype, that's not totally untrue. As a rule, we don't go out of our way to get to know outsiders, but we're not an entirely closed group. I guess it just depends on who takes notice of you. You got my mother's attention and she's definitely a package deal. Is that why you came here? Because you thought you could hide out among all of us cold and private Mainer's?"
"I guess that's one of the reasons," Virginia confessed.
"Well, too late, we've got you now."
After lunch Virginia joined Leisha for a hike in the woods. The cool autumn air smelled like damp leaves and evergreens. It felt good. Virginia realized that she'd been feeling good more and more often. "I wonder if this place is magic," she mused out loud.
"Leave the Magic to Mom and Chris. Just enjoy," Leisha advised, taking in a deep breath.
"It's just so beautiful here. I can't imagine a place more beautiful."
"I wouldn't know actually."
"You mean you've never been outside of Maine?" Virginia asked incredulously.
"Not often. The family took a trip to Florida once to visit my Aunt Mabel. I've been to Boston a few times, even played there once, and let's see... there were a few vacations with my husband to New Hampshire and Vermont, and one wild time in New Orleans," Leisha smiled, remembering.
"Well let me assure you, this place is magnificent."
"I know," Leisha replied, stating a fact that was clearly obvious to her.
When Leisha dropped her off, she made her promise that she'd try a yoga class with her the following Wednesday morning.
"I'll need an appointment book pretty soon! I've got plans with you for Wednesday, story night at your mother's on Thursday, who knows what else!"
"Story night. I forgot about story nights. I'll have to come along sometimes. I used to love story night when I was a kid."
"They've been having story nights that long?"
"Longer," Leisha answered.
Virginia put her book down and patted Sam. She'd been reading Mathew Fox's "Wrestling with the Prophet's," at Pastor MacLachlan's insistence. "Whew, seems like that could get you in some trouble at the main office pastor," Virginia muttered.
She'd never known God. She didn't really believe there was a God actually. But she found Fox's God appealing. A God that didn't live in some fantasyland, but who was rooted inside of each and every living thing. A God not of judgment, but of compassion.
She thought about the first path to God that Fox wrote about. Via positiva - the feeling of awe and wonder one got by recognizing the miracle of life. She'd felt that, she realized. She'd felt it walking on the beach, and in the woods with Leisha. She'd experienced a sense of awe that she'd only felt when she first held Cara. It made her feel guilty though. How could she feel anything positive when her baby was dead? How could she do that? To appreciate her life felt like a betrayal. It would mean letting Cara go all over again. She couldn't do that. But she was afraid that she was starting to. She was compelled by a force that she couldn't control, being pulled away from her daughter and closer to... what?
Leisha and Virginia sat sipping coffee after Yoga class. She'd been surprised by how good her body felt. She'd never been entirely comfortable with her body, had never completely trusted it. As the session had concluded, the instructor had gently placed blankets over the participants' bodies, and soft rice filled pillows over their eyes. She'd felt relaxed and nurtured as she listened to the soft music and the instructor's soothing voice. She felt her warm and loosened body sink into the mat, as she'd let out a deep and contented sigh.
"I've never felt quite so relaxed before." Virginia shared with Leisha.
"It's great isn't it? I've become addicted to it. One of my kinder addictions."
"I can understand why. It feels so good."
"And it's drug free!" added Leisha with an impish smile.
"I can't believe I'm saying this, but I want to go again."
"Great. How about Friday."
"Friday?" Virginia asked, not sure that she wanted to make a commitment. She'd meant some day, not just two days from now.
"Why not Friday? The class meets twice a week. How about if you plan on coming with me regularly?"
Virginia hedged. Leisha pursued. Finally, she found herself agreeing. She was amazed at how often these days she was agreeing to things she wasn't entirely sure of.
"I'm so glad your starting to wade in. It's time I think."
"Your mother's always telling me it's time," Virginia mused.
"Let's leave mom out of this. I'm talking about what I see."
"What do you see?" Virginia was afraid to ask but couldn't help herself.
"I see someone who's been hiding from life for too long. I think that inside of the person I see in front of me, there's a Goddess just screaming to get out."
Virginia felt teary. God, she couldn't believe these tears of hers. Every time she turned around they were seeping out of her. How was it possible that she'd found these people? People who seemed to really care about her, accept her, and who asked her to come out of hiding so lovingly. What created people like these folks? Was it in the drinking water? No, couldn't be. She'd been exposed to the same small mindedness here as she had in every other place she'd been to. Still it amazed her, how she'd been drawn into some protective circle, surrounded by love and caring, and she wasn't certain anymore that she could break out, or that she wanted to. No she didn't want to. She wanted to stay inside.
"I can't imagine myself as a Goddess. Can't imagine any Goddess actually except for the naked woman I saw once in a Greek mythology book. Believe me, she wasn't anything like me!"
"Oh yes, she was. Let's see. What Goddess most resembles you," Leisha studied Virginia, making her feel silly and embarrassed.
"I'll guess that you may be a daughter of Persephone"
"Persephone. She's the queen of the underworld. Let's see... She was a carefree child who was kidnapped by Hades and forced to be his unwilling bride. She was miserable in the underworld and was finally rescued, but because she'd eaten some kind of seeds she wasn't supposed to, she had to return to Hades for one third of every year. Anyway, Persephone is pretty much considered to be representative of the young girl who doesn't know who she is or what her real strengths are. She wants to be a good girl, please others and live safely."
"It's not a very flattering description. I'm trying very hard here not to be offended," Virginia responded honestly.
"Oh, sorry. I don't want to offend you. I'm probably just trying to impress you more than I'm offering you any real food for thought. I guess what makes me think of Persephone when I think of you, is that she has such potential for growth and such vitality. She's just gotten battered along the way and needs to rediscover some of what she's lost."
Virginia sat quietly, taking in what Leisha had shared. Amazing, how deeply both Leisha and her mother saw into her. It frightened her, repelled her, and yet comforted and compelled her at the same time.
"I know you're not thrilled when I compare you to your mother, but I can't help being struck by how similar you are. Especially the fascination with stories you both seem to share."
"How could I not be fascinated with stories. I was raised on them. Almost every experience called for a story at one time or another when I was growing up. Story nights didn't just happen once a week, they happened all of the time. Each night when I was tucked into bed, when I hurt myself or did something wrong, it seemed like my mother always had a story. I never left them behind, I'm glad actually that I didn't. But I did manage to seek out my own stories, very different stories than hers. All of our lives are made up of stories I've decided. The question is, what stories are we going to tell ourselves, which will we hold onto and which will we leave behind."
Virginia couldn't answer her. She didn't know. But she was starting to wonder...
(The end of Chapter one)
Staff, H. (2008, December 31). Telling Stories, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2020, July 8 from https://www.healthyplace.com/alternative-mental-health/sageplace/telling-stories