The ocean wind sweeps up the steep, rock-strewn slope. It whistles, as it slices through the narrow spaces between boulders. It kicks up sand like a child having a temper tantrum. The grainy pebbles swirl through the salt scented air like a swarm of pissed off bees. There is so much violence down there where an endless ocean crashes suddenly, unforeseeably, into a wall of rocks and dirt. It is the passage of time in a life long lived, where the days and the years seem to be interchangeable, no one wave upon the ocean blue standing out from any of the others, until suddenly that life crashes upon the rocks. Then, each moment is treasured in the mind of the woman left behind. For her, now standing above where the ocean and the earth collide, every one of those long ago days stands out as an eternity unto itself. Each memory has its own musical score, has been edited into a beautiful scene, caresses a tear from her eyes and a quiet longing in her heart. Freed from the tides below, there is no threat that a memory will pull away from her, and yet no hope either that a memory will get near enough for her to touch or to taste. Yes, it is quite calm where the woman stands atop the slope, for the ocean swept rocks below her scatter away much of the wind. But the calm cannot mask the sorrow beneath her wrinkled, stooped flesh, nor subdue her old desire just once to touch and to taste what she lost so long ago.
Lucinda! Abigail Garrett calls up to her from the van.
The old lady standing over the ocean takes in a deep breath. She almost had forgotten the weight of the crockpot in her hands, while allowing her mind to soar across the ocean waves to this or that memory of her Commodore. Now, with those memories falling away like the sand beneath her shoes, the crockpot once more burdens her shoulders and drops her small hands to below her waist.
Lucinda! Hurry now! Abigail insists. It is Eunice’s turn to drive, and she is as blind as a bat after dark.
The old lady bends forward just enough to put down the crockpot. She is a sturdy woman, normally, but this afternoon the mental and physical strain of carrying this crockpot to the top of this cliff knocks her for a loop. Did she cook more than usual? She does not think so. She is conscientious about her old stew recipe, after all, and she prides herself in bringing the same amount out to the beach each and every time. Still, the ache in her lower back is much worse now than she recalls ever suffering in the past. Moreover, her heart trembles, like it wants to shed a tear. Sadness, not the crockpot, weighs her down, she realizes. It gnaws at her lower back and stoops her shoulders into a hideous shade of the beautiful and happy woman she had been once upon a time. It drags her nearer the grave with every passing season.
The old lady removes the top of the crockpot. She stands upright, takes a deep breath, and looks down at her lukewarm stew. The tomatoes mixed into the thick gravy redden the dish, so that at first glance it looks like meat chunks swimming in blood. Olives poking out from beneath the gravy are eyes that had been popped out from their sockets. There are cooked bones in there, too, for good measure. Oh, how the imagination runs wild when it is exhausted enough.
She thinks about her Commodore. He had had a finicky tongue, when he ruled her heart and her home for more than a half century of marriage; and yet he would have approved of this macabre dish as ‘befitting a hunter on the high seas.’ The Commodore had had such a Theodore Roosevelt complex that he had sported a coonskin cap instead of a traditional naval officer’s cover. He always found a way to compare a storm at sea to the Battle of San Juan Hill. When he took down a particularly nasty whale in one of his private maritime exploits, he told the press afterwards that he saw in that whale’s glare ‘the sinister eyes of J.P. Morgan.’ Sitting in their dining room alone, and dressed in his immaculate, starched Commodore’s uniform (sans the coonskin cap when indoors), he would have looked at this blood dish, rubbed his white beard, and exclaimed: ‘Bully!’
Why is she so sad, then? She adhered to the recipe as meticulously as she has every other time. She has no doubt the meat chunks are as ‘masculine’ as a hunted deer cooked over a fire beneath the stars. Indeed, she can imagine her Commodore finishing his stew, waving for the help to remove his dish, and then cutting one of his finest cigars. She can see that cigar fire flickering in his eyes.
Nevertheless, she cannot ignore the nagging voice of her long deceased mother; that voice of reason as much as instinct, which insists that this stew is not at all like the ones that she prepared before. This stew is all wrong, for she had made a horrible error in judgment when deciding upon what meat to roast.
Nonsense, the old lady mutters. I know my way around a butcher’s shop.
She did, no doubt, but does she still? There had been a time when all the other ladies looked to her for guidance. They would not dare put a sharp knife to a slab of meat without first seeing her nod her head in approval. Now, those same ladies, doddering biddies like herself, caution her against ‘rash judgment’ and urge her ‘to take her time’ in choosing between this or that steak. Yes, she tells herself that they are fools to question her; that in their old age they have acquired just enough wisdom to lose their capacity for blind faith. Nonetheless, deep down, she does not really believe that that is the case. To the extent that they have lost their blind faith in her, it is because she has lost her touch. A bit (maybe a lot) of that old magic is gone for no other reason than that she is old, tired, and too prone to shed tears. If there is any truth in that, then she cannot say for sure that she snagged the right choice of meat this time.
Moreover, does this not mean that the Commodore, in fact, will sense as well that something is wrong with the dish his beloved has prepared for him? If in life he had had a finicky tongue, then presumably his tastes are refined even more so now that he has hoisted his flag and his sail into eternity. If she knows anything for sure about death, then it is that death does not end life, so much as it drops the restraints on what we had been when alive. A happy man in life is that much happier when dancing atop the clouds in his own silly afterlife. An ornery man is that much more frozen in his solitude, when he understands just how grey is his own sad eternity. The Commodore had been more taciturn than joyful in life, as befitting his class, and his tongue had rejected a lot more than it had relished. Try as she may, the old lady cannot be sure that he will cut one of his finest cigars, when in time he finishes the stew she is about to serve him.
And if that happens, then maybe her Commodore will never return. He is a proud man, after all, and not inclined to suffer an old lady who can no longer hold up her side of the bargain. An old lady who slices the wrong slab of meat…
Lucinda, please, we must go, Abigail says.
Abigail does not shout this time, for she is much closer. The old lady had been lost in thought again. She glances to her right side. She is surprised to see that her friend staggered all the way up here to get her attention, for Abigail is not the kind to put sweat on her brow unless absolutely necessary. Poor Abigail is out of breath, and her kindly face is as red as a beet plucked from the earth.
The old lady nods as if to say, ‘I know, I know, I’ll hurry now.’ She takes in another deep breath, kicks the crockpot onto its side, and watches the stew fall over the side of the cliff. The waves seem to reach up for the meat chunks, the olives, the gravy; and in a matter of seconds, everything has been devoured but the sadness, the uncertainty, still lingering in her old heart. Whether or not her Commodore approves of the meal offered unto him, she staggers away from the cliff knowing that this time she experienced no cathartic release at all from her own pain. Indeed, she remains so bent over in her greyness that Abigail has to carry the crockpot, while the two friends return to the van waiting for them.
* * *
The Volkswagen van rattles down the scenic highway. Connoisseurs smile when the claptrap passes by them, for the late sixties bus with the psychedelic swirls painted on the sides calls to mind a much groovier world than the one we have nowadays. Drifters wandering down the side of the highway look up from their doldrums long enough to see white smoke slithering out from behind each and every one of the van’s many cracks. ‘Those silly hippies must be as high as a kite on a clear June day,’ the drifter will mutter before waving back at them.
For the Commodore’s Wives, as the ladies in the van refer to each other, the van is nostalgic in a manner that is much more bittersweet. This is the very same van in which the Commodore’s only son, Teddy, had been found dead one night in the summer of 1989. The police had ruled it suicide, based upon where they found the revolver relative to the entrance wound just above his right ear. The wives had had their suspicions from the start, but what could they say? The Commodore buried his son without an autopsy. He sat in the back of the rosary service without shedding a tear. He forbade Teddy’s name from being repeated aloud. ‘Let the dead bury the dead’ is all the Commodore said, and the look in his eyes the very moment he uttered those words made it clear no more would be forthcoming. The Commodore did not cut a cigar that long and dreary night.
Twenty years earlier, in the very different summer of 1969, the boy had been conceived on the same seat where he would be found dead. Likely, that is the last night the Commodore gifted to the world his quirky attempt at a smile. Legend has it that both times Creedence Clearwater had been on the old radio.
Maybe as a sign of respect for how the circle of life had played itself out inside this van, the Commodore’s Wives are dressed in black mourning dresses, and occupy their respective spaces as if seated in a hearse. Except for the lady behind the steering wheel, they suppress any inclination toward joviality. Here in this van, there is serious business afoot, even if the ‘serious business’ at this late hour consists only of turning out the lights before the eleven o’clock news.
Now, the smiling drifter would be correct in identifying the white smoke with marijuana. Mabel Garrett has been smoking ‘medicinal marijuana’ to stop ‘the shakes,’ as she refers to her migraines, since long before the phrase found its way into our popular culture. She always rests her considerable girth on the seat furthest from the steering wheel. She rests her left foot on the back of the seat in front of her. Though she insists that this is necessary on account of gout in her foot, the other ladies know better. Mabel is a queen, actually within one of her prior lives, figuratively within this one; and how better to express to the world (or at least to the other ladies in the van) her queenliness than to lounge on the backseat with her foot raised in front of her. Like a potentate reclining at the head of a royal feast, Mabel holds a smoldering joint in her left hand and a jug of warm milk in her right. Her jowls quiver in sync with the rhythm of the van. Only her eyes stay still, as they peer out from behind her pudgy white face and behold the world before her with regal haughtiness.
Mabel’s younger sister, Abigail, sits on the next seat up. If Mabel reigns, then Abigail suffers. She is the saint among the Commodore’s Wives, a frail and quiet lady whose little girl voice seldom commands attention. It had been very much out of character for her practically to drag Lucinda down from the top of the cliff. Even now, almost a half hour later, her face remains red from all that exertion. She reclines her left cheek against her sister’s bandaged foot. Though she hates the smell of dirty, old bandages, she finds real comfort in being close to the sister who had protected her from the boogeyman in the closet way back when. The Garrett Girls, Queen and Saint, share a bond that transcends the life that they had shared with the Commodore.
Eunice Rose sits behind the steering wheel. She is the baby in the bunch. Still a year away from collecting her first Social Security check, and gifted with enduring beauty and good heath, she is the one among the Commodore’s Wives who can be counted on to find whatever is good in a bad situation. This is quite remarkable, really, given that Teddy had been her biological son; but socialites born and bred along the Hudson do not have the luxury of a long and drawn out mourning. They are pampered in proportion to the refined beauty and the good cheer they bring to otherwise dreary cocktail parties. Eunice’s clear purpose in life had been to be first and foremost ‘the best guest,’ then, later, ‘the hostess with the most-ess.’ To that specific end, she succeeded above all of the others.
In the wild and wooly sixties, before those dreary cocktail parties, happy go lucky Eunice had been a naïve hippie chick from a prominent family upriver. She would be the Commodore’s ‘last hurrah,’ before he traded in his charm for old age. She gave him one last reason to smile, and he taught her how to love a man. The three other wives embraced Eunice almost immediately as a fun, if a bit flighty, addition to their coterie. Now, all these years later, they regard her still as a kind of ‘kid sister.’ She reminds them that, notwithstanding how their aged wrinkles have deepened, there is plenty of warm water in the pool of life.
Eunice’s one obvious weakness is her poor eyesight. She wears enormous glasses. Rather than detract from her beauty, her owl eyes (hoot hoot) actually make her seem even younger than she is. This is just as well; except when it is her turn to drive the van, and the hour is late. After all, the wellborn can keep a smile on their pretty faces in large part because they do not see. Ignorance is not bliss per se, but it allows for a degree of daffiness among the prettier girls.
Lucinda Erickson cannot remember what it is like to be ignorant and gay. She had been a beauty once (even more so than Eunice in her time), had had a delightfully infectious laugh, and is still the smartest among the wives. For her, though, life has been a gradual decline into greyness since she stood beside the other wives, and watched the Navy chaplain scatter the Commodore’s ashes to the sea. She still hears the lone trumpet wailing the Navy Hymn, like it is some sort of medieval variation on the Dies Irae, while her tears start to fall. Lucinda
had been the Commodore’s legal wife. She alone carries his surname. She alone will touch him on the day that the Commodore himself staggers out from under the waves to feast upon the stew. Until then, the world turns greyer with every passing day; and she senses herself slipping into the dotage of her winter years.
Eunice, dear, watch for the lights, Mabel urges from the back of the van.
Oh, yes, good idea, Eunice responds with a laugh.
Eunice swerves the van back into her lane. Seconds later, a truck passes while giving them the middle finger with its loud, obnoxious horn. The claptrap van sways side to side, until Eunice finally gets control over the steering wheel.
Well, that’s a doozy, Eunice says a bit more sheepishly.
I’ll say, Mabel says, after taking another puff on her joint. Almost made me chuck up my warm milk.
Eunice, I can drive, Abigail says so timidly she is not heard.
Mabel swishes the jug of warm milk beside her right ear. Looking up and to the side, she seems to hear a little voice inside the jug tell her that the milk tank is getting too low for comfort. She takes another puff on her joint.
Are we approaching a gas station? Mable asks.
No, Eunice says with a smile. But there’s a Babby’s up ahead.
Same difference, Mabel says. Guzzle one of their ‘Big Mouth Breakfasts,’ and you can fart your way back to town.
That’s gross, sister, Abigail says disapprovingly.
Do they still serve breakfast this time of night? Eunice asks.
So long as the neon’s still catching flies, Mabel comments.
Poor little things, Abigail says. Alive one moment, zapped dead the next.
And, anyway, Lucinda here needs something to eat, Mabel continues.
Are you hungry? Abigail asks the withdrawn lady in black beside her.
Lucinda has been staring out the window, since they left the beach. She sees Amanda’s small, innocent eyes staring back up at her. Amanda cannot say a word because of the gag in her mouth, but her eyes plead loud enough at the very end to conjure up a scream inside of Lucinda’s imagination. Amanda never transforms, even when the blood flows like a river out from her open neck. Her little girl face twists into a mask of fear, as would be expected, but never looks like the ghoulish green façade of a witch. Moreover, Lucinda never senses even a whiff of sulfur, never hears a defiant, cackling chuckle, and never intuits the dark soul of a spiritual gypsy slithering down the sink drain into hell. Nothing of that sort happens. By all appearances, anyway, Amanda had been a mistake; an innocent girl mistaken for a devil in drag by a witch hunter sliding into senility.
As if to confirm her fears, Lucinda sees her Commodore at his usual seat at the dining room table. He takes a bite of the stew. He spits it back into the bloody red crockpot. ‘Not much of a witch, is she?’ He snaps. ‘Needs salt, too.’
* * *
The Commodore’s Wives squeeze themselves around the booth. As usual, Mable takes up the lion’s share of the seat space, since she rests her bandaged, left foot on the seat cushion. Her low hanging boobs rest very heavily upon her ‘Aunt Babby and Friends’ placemat. Even the queen needs to keep her joint in the van, and so she clutches her jug of warm milk with that much more power in her grip. Indeed, she sounds a bit like Charlton Heston when on occasion she sneers, ‘Go ahead, honey, and try to remove my jug from my cold dead hands.’
Abigail sits beside her sister’s bandaged foot. Keeping a daffy smile upon her face, Eunice sits on Abigail’s other side. The result is a mousey, little saint in between a Big Bertha Royal and a Happy Clappy Socialite. There is something humorous about the scene, until one considers the glum, old witch hunter, who sits at the same booth, but apart from the others. There may as well be a black storm cloud over Lucinda’s head, as she wrings her hands together nervously on her ‘Connect the Dots’ placemat.
You’re supposed to have a bellyache after you’ve eaten breakfast, Mable teases the old lady across the table.
Leave Lucy alone, Abigail pleads.
Not till I see a smile on her pretty face, Mable remarks.
Why the pout-pout? Eunice asks with the tone of a Kindergarten teacher.
She did not transform, Lucinda whispers after an uncomfortable pause.
No, Mable insists. That is not true. You simply did not see her transform.
Eunice takes Lucinda’s right hand, and pats it. She stares into Lucinda’s eyes, and replaces her daffy socialite’s smile with one that is much more warm and sincere. Still, for all that, Lucinda remains very much alone in her disquiet.
It is okay you missed it, Eunice offers. Who wants to see a witch anyway?
All green and icky, Abigail remarks.
I did not miss anything, Lucinda insists.
Lucinda looks around the booth. All eyes are on her now. Maybe, she had spoken louder than she realized. Regardless, the other ladies look upon her like she has spoken heresy or gone berserk. Part of Lucinda’s psyche wants to crawl under the table, but a stronger part remains stoic in the face of their response.
Mable breaks the silence, finally, by taking a swig from her jug. She farts or burps. It is impossible to tell which. Abigail and Eunice glance back and forth between Mable and Lucinda, like they are about to watch a gunfight take place in an old, western town. Only Lucinda stays as outwardly stoic as before.
We all heard the whispering wind, Mable remarks.
Abigail and Eunice nod in approval.
Perhaps, we all think we heard the whispering wind, Lucinda says.
Nonsense, Mable says in disgust. We have been at this dance a long time. We may be a bit slower nowadays, but we haven’t forgotten the damned steps.
I am not so sure, Lucinda laments. I wanted so much to be able to cook a meaty stew for the Commodore before the next full moon.
Before the anniversary of his death, Abigail mutters.
Perhaps, I so much wanted to hear the whispering wind that I imagined it, Lucinda reflects. The wind had not whispered for the better part of a year. I knew that if I did not cook something soon enough, he would be gone for good. A man’s got to eat, after all, or he’ll hoist a sail for the next island girl he sees.
I repeat, Mable insists. We all heard the whispering wind.
But only I can make sense of it, Lucinda says. You are all afraid that I am slowing down, losing my touch, but will any one of you take the baton from my hand? Is it really fair that I alone must separate the cunning lies from the truth?
You’re the interpreter, Mable insists.
You too have the gift, Lucinda snaps back.
Mable recoils in absolute terror. She gulps the rest of her warm milk. She wipes milk off of her lips, and again either farts or burps. Abigail and Eunice at the same time look down and pray no one else hears Mable passing all that gas.
Upsets my stomach, Mable remarks.
What really bothers me is that I cannot tell if I am distraught, because I may have cooked an innocent girl, or because the Commodore may not find the supper to his satisfaction, Lucinda explains.
Amanda Wilson is a dead witch; Mable says like a queen issuing a decree.
Maybe, but maybe not, Lucinda counters. I just do not know. My reason, my moral certainty, all of that seems to have gone to hell in my old age. So tell me, sister wives, what am I to do? How can I clear out the dark fog in my head?
Too many questions before hotcakes are served, Eunice says with a daffy smile that aims to replace the tension with good cheer.
Yes, Abigail mutters. Best not to speak anymore.
Lucinda looks away in disgust. No one else says a word until the waitress returns with their orders. Even then, the hotcakes and syrup do not inspire very much in the way of conversation as each lady dines alone with her own anxiety.
* * *
Lucinda grapples with her nightmare. She moans like a woman in labor.
Then, just as suddenly as she had succumbed to that terrible dream, she opens her eyes and grasps rapaciously for the lamp beside her bed. Rather than find the switch, she tilts the lampshade to the side and nearly pushes the light bulb onto the floor. She almost reaches again for the switch, when she realizes that there is hazy light in her bedroom anyway on account of the television set across from her twin bed. There is also the weird murmur of audio turned down low; an ugly sound that calls to mind a man gargling with a mouth full of rocks.
She leans upon the headboard, retrieves her old lady reading glasses out from under her blanket, and watches the late night news show before her. She opens her mouth in stunned silence at what she next sees on her spotty screen.
On the boob tube is Handsome Handy Hart, the once dashing anchorman on the local ABC affiliate since about the time God blessed Methuselah with his long life. Now seventy something, jowly, and pickled pink, the anchorman calls to mind an octogenarian starlet still trying to dine out on her good looks. Even more disconcertingly, he has the same glib grin on his fat face, and speaks with the same old fashioned radio announcer’s voice, no matter the news story that he reads off of his teleprompter. Handsome Handy Hart is about as ‘Hollywood’ as they come around these parts; and even if it is obvious that he is very much passed his prime, his plastic grin and his starched hair keep him number one in every timeslot in which he reads the news.
Lucinda is a fan like most everyone else, except this time the story grabs her heart and twists it into a knot. Even Handsome Handy Hart cannot raise her spirits, as he recounts how Amanda Wilson had been kidnapped a week ago this very day. Lucinda tears up, when they show a picture of Amanda dressed in her Winnie the Pooh pajamas. The little girl is smiling like there is nothing at all to fear in this world. There is a gap in her front teeth, because she had lost one of her baby teeth just the night before her momma took this heartwarming photo.
Handsome Handy Hart hands the report over to Bobbi Chu, a sickly thin, twenty something news correspondent with too much of a diva complex, given how much Clearasil she dabs onto her skin before the camera light switches on. Still, though preposterous in her own way, at least Bobbi Chu pretends to have some sort of emotional response to the stories she tells. Right now, she has on her ‘concerned look,’ while reporting in front of the Wallace Simp Government Building. The focus of her report is the rally that the missing person’s mother is hosting in this very same building tomorrow evening. Every Christian soul in the Redwood Township should show their support for the grieving mother by taking and distributing a stack of her handouts. Warm cookies and milk will be served.
Police continue to interview possible eyewitnesses, Bobbi Chu continues. To date none of the bystanders questioned seems to have seen anything at all…
Of course not, Lucinda mutters while wiping away a tear. Eunice may be a silly tease, but when it is crunch time my kid sister always delivers the goods.
Lucinda finds the remote control beneath her blanket. The look upon her face suggests an old lady discovering porn for the first time on her Zenith. She simply cannot handle what she sees and hears, and so switches off the program with a vengeance. With the television set turning cold, darkness envelopes the scene like a shroud over a corpse; and Lucinda settles in for a long, black night.
* * *
The grandfather clock chimes the sixth time, as Lucinda steps off the old and creaky staircase. She tightens the shawl around her chest, for down here in the living room there is a cold draft. The flickering candlelight on the oversized marble mantle tells her that there is a hole or a crack in one of her living room windows. Damned kids have been tossing rocks at her Victorian for generations, and every once in a while they score a point.
Remember to call Gus, Lucinda thinks.
Gus Gleason repairs and replaces windows in town. He is well recognized due to his very large frame and his ‘Gleason Glass’ ball cap. As one of the more talkative ‘Jesus Freaks’ around these parts, he has a reputation for staying long passed his welcome and trying his darndest to get his client to declare Jesus as his or her Personal Lord and Savior. Lucinda is fine with Jesus, but the fact that she is also fine with goddesses, druids, and nymphs does not quite sit well with the local practitioners of religious sobriety. Gus cannot quite figure out the old lady in black on Deadwood Road, except he fears she may be a closeted Papist.
Lucinda walks up to the mantle. She sheds a tear, while staring up at the oversized painting of the Commodore above the flickering candle. True to form the old man is pictured in his full naval regalia and coonskin cap with a lighted cigar in hand. His expression is grim, sour, like he is about to go for his trusted Cat o’ nine tails. Illuminated dust mites floating before his bearded, aged face make his eyes sparkle. It is like the old man is coming alive in those dust mites; an old memory resurrected in everything that makes this room dead and musty.
Good morning, Commodore, Lucinda whispers, while wiping away a tear.
Lucinda walks to a side table. As always, there is a bottle of sherry next to a sanitized glass. She uncorks the sherry, and pours it into that glass just so. Her hand trembles from fear and shame that she may pour now too little or too much. Even the smallest routine tasks seem to be great mental strains this day. Is this senility? Or is this guilt because deep down she knows the wrong she did?
Lucinda places the glass of sherry on the mantle beside the candlelight. It seems to be half full, as always, but how can she be sure? If indeed the devil is in the details, then he is also in the smallest mistakes. Make even the tiniest errors in calibration, and the Commodore’s ship never again docks at her shore.
Then again, she may be damned regardless of the care with which she is performing her duties. Surely, if she shed the blood of the innocent, then she is done. The fog of uncertainty will harden into despair. The darkness will gnaw a bit more at her soul each and every night, until there is nothing left of her, but her shade cast into hellfire. A dreadful thought, to be sure; but as the icy draft strikes her downcast face, and flickers the candlelight, she has no mind for joy.
Just before she falls into complete despair, Lucinda feels her white fluff muffin Bichon standing beside her left foot. She looks down at Happy. He looks up at her with his pink, doll like eyes. There is something peculiar in his gaze; a hint of madness, maybe even diabolical violence, which he keeps in reserve for the right occasion. She does not fear him, but she fears what he may do to that unfortunate soul that, for whatever reason, stumbles into his canine crosshairs.
What about the soul that stumbles into my crosshairs? Lucinda mutters.
Happy paws at her left thigh. He does not provide her an answer; but he does provide her a diversion, which is almost as helpful. She can set aside for a moment the worst of her thoughts, while she goes into the kitchen to feed him.
* * *
Lucinda wrings her hands nervously, while sitting at her kitchen table. It is the Hour of High Tea, sometime between four and four thirty, and yet there is so much cloud cover outside that the world seems already mired in dusk. The iced droplets on the kitchen window suggest that it is only a matter of minutes before the first snow flurries of the season start to fall. Winter comes early and stays late in this country town, except that this time, in the back of her greying mind, Lucinda fears that next Spring will be a stillborn birth. Winter will sweep over the corpse of that stillborn Spring, and reign triumphant unto a bitter end.
She glances down at her cup of Earl Grey. The tea is cold, dead, like the murky dark water in a still swamp. Beside the tea is her half eaten sandwich. It looks strangely grotesque now, perhaps because the cucumbers poking out from in between the two slices of white bread have dried into something that seems not quite edible. When left untouched for too long, uneaten food appears much more likely to twist the bowels into painful knots than to appease the stomach.
There is a slight rattle against the front door. Lucinda thinks that maybe it is the wind swirling up from the earth. Nevertheless, when seconds later she hears the very same rattle, she knows that there is something more here than a testy breeze. She stands up, slowly, wobbly, like she had been asleep. Her fluff muffin Bichon stays where he is, but he follows her haggard steps with interest.
As she approaches the front door, she feels that icy draft that has turned her living room already into a meat locker. She had not had the stomach to call Gus Gleason earlier. ‘Giving her heart to Jesus’ is never a favorite topic, but on this long and miserable day it is altogether unacceptable. Rather than patch up the hole herself, she has chosen to wallow in the cold death. Maybe, she wants to punish herself. Maybe, she is losing her fragile mind. The line that separates an ascetic from a psychotic is lost when sadness weighs too heavily on the soul.
Lucinda opens the front door. Abigail is there. She smiles slightly, while holding up a homemade crumb cake.
If I knew you were coming, Abigail begins to sing the old fashioned tune.
I’d a baked a cake, Lucinda finishes the verse with just a hint of a smile.
‘Course I’ve got it backward, since I’m the guest here, Abigail remarks.
Not to worry, Lucinda says. Come on in out of the cold.
Lucinda takes the crumb cake out of Abigail’s hands, and steps back into the foyer. Abigail crosses the threshold, and pulls back the black hood that had covered her forehead down to her eyes.
You’re in time for high tea, Lucinda remarks, as the two ladies step into the kitchen. I’ve got more in the kettle.
I don’t know, Abigail mutters nervously. I think, maybe, this day calls for something stronger.
Really? Lucinda asks with a raised eyebrow.
Well, just a little stronger, Abigail mutters, while removing an old bottle of whiskey from within her black coat. Goes well with crumb cake, if I may say.
Lucinda stares at Abigail in astonishment. The crumb cake is not at all a surprise, but a bottle of whiskey? Is Abigail coming out of her shell, like she did yesterday when fetching Lucinda from the cliff? If so, then why now the subtle change in Abigail’s temperament? Or maybe these questions do not matter, and Lucinda simply should drown her sorrows for a while in all this liquor and sugar.
Lucinda takes the bottle of whiskey, pours some into her tea, and finds a glass for Abigail. She manages a slight grin, but she moves in the slow and tired manner of a person burdened with sorrows.
Abigail fetches the dessert plates, the utensils, and the long cake knife. She is a frequent enough guest that she can move about Lucinda’s kitchen as if it is her own. Nevertheless, although familiar, she is never confident. She goes about her business with her eyes cast downward in the manner of a lowly maid.
For some time, the two friends eat and drink together in near silence. It is an especially good crumb cake, but the whiskey really hits the spot this cold, dark, and dismal afternoon. The snow flurries outside gather up strength as the minutes progress into hours. The last hints of sunlight elongate the two friends’ shadows into long faced gnomes. The gnomes linger, even after they have been made invisible by the darkness of night. They linger not as something seen, but as something felt; the dreariness beneath the surface of what the friends leave unsaid between them. It is as if death is each woman’s shadow.
The grandfather clock chimes six times. The sound is so sudden against a backdrop of near silence that the two ladies almost fall from their small chairs. In this respect, the whiskey helps them. Rather than fall to the kitchen floor in the manner of Humpty Dumpty, they instead grab the edge of the table and let the tremor pass through them. Indeed, their first thought is that they had been hit by an earthquake; an eschatological implication not at all lost on the ladies.
Oh my! Lucinda says after the room stops spinning.
Packs a wallop! Abigail says with a slight chuckle.
Lucinda almost joins with Abigail’s chuckle, but then she recalls the late time. Lucinda bolts up from her chair, like she had been stabbed suddenly by a pair of red hot tongs. Happy, Lucinda’s Bichon, scurries out of her path in time.
Abigail follows Lucinda into the living room.
There, she sees Lucinda hunched over the side table. Lucinda is pouring cognac into a snifter. Her hands tremble horribly from fear, as the Commodore looks down at her from his framed perch above the mantle. His sadistic glare is that much more spiteful in the flickering glow of the candlelight. His eyes seem ready and willing to burn through Lucinda’s soul, if she makes even a tiny error when pouring out the vintage drink. Abigail knows all too well the sheer power of the Commodore’s glare. After all, he has scolded every one of his four sister wives at one time or another, as gentlemen of his finer class are inclined to do.
Lucinda walks from the side table to the mantle. Keeping her eyes down the whole time, she places the half filled snifter upon the mantle, like she is an old priestess approaching an altar. She manages not to spill the cognac, though she trembles like a wet rabbit in a trap. She does not relax, even after stepping back from the mantle, and so Abigail rushes forward to put her arm around her.
The two ladies stare up at the Commodore. Lucinda starts to cry, though she is careful not to make a sound. The Commodore never liked it when one of his sister wives carried on like a weakling bawl baby. He would remind them in his stern whisper that Teddy Roosevelt never bawled when taking San Juan Hill.
Come on, Lucy, Abigail urges. Let’s go.
No, Lucinda responds. I cannot. The Commodore is unhappy.
You didn’t spill anything, Abigail insists. Now, let’s go back.
You don’t understand, Lucinda says. I fed him the meat of an innocent…
No! Abigail insists. You fed him Amanda Wilson…
An innocent girl, Lucinda laments.
No! Abigail shouts. A witch!
Lucinda turns to face Abigail head on. She grabs Abigail’s shoulders, like she wants to shake the devil out of her; but after a while, it is clear that she is using Abigail’s frail body to hold herself up. Lucinda knows that without holding onto her friend she will drown under the waves of her own confusion and fears.
I need to go to the rally tonight, Lucinda whispers after a while.
I don’t understand, Abigail says.
Yes, you do, Lucinda insists. Discernment. I need to look into the eyes of Mrs. Wilson. See if there is a hint of a witch’s brew in her pupils.
But it does not work that way, and you know it, Abigail insists. The curse can skip up to thirteen generations. So even if Mrs. Wilson’s as clean as a dead man’s whistle, it doesn’t tell you anything about her daughter. Now, let’s go to the cupboard and find us another bottle, ‘fore we’re both taken by the shivers.
I need to go, Lucinda says. Even if I must go alone.
Abigail relents. She puts her hands on Lucinda’s shoulders, and looks at her friend square in her eyes. This is uncharacteristically bold on Abigail’s part.
Sister, if you go, then I go, Abigail remarks. Don’t have a clue what we’ll find in her eyes; but whatever is in there, we’ll see it together.
Thank you, Lucinda whispers.
The two sister wives leave the living room. They each feel the cold draft upon their faces, as they gather up their hooded coats for the weather outside. They look once more into each others’ eyes, before stepping out into the night.
* * *