This is a working draft of a novel that I am writing. I appreciate any feedback you might offer. Please know that this draft is changeable. I post after several rewrites, hoping that the posting will spur the forward progress of writing. No part of this may be reproduced or shared in any way except to share the website access information. Thanks for reading. I will post new chapters as they evolve.
A stubborn gathering of Pinon Pines stood watch on a distant ridge, like shaggy chess pieces, each occupying its square of rocky earth. I watched the afternoon sun move alongside the car. It was already hot in April, baking southern Colorado lowlands while distant shiny meringue peaks hung on to their snow. I had put over 1,000 miles between me and my faithful old Paddy, my house, my job. And away from Conner, who was surely still coping with his own confusion and regrets. I was driving at 70 miles per hour away from my life.
Like the feeling that had forced a dawn pit-stop in Flagstaff 10 hours ago, my body’s need for food was dull but persistent. It annoyed me. After Mar and Mattie’s funeral people brought food to the house. I have never understood that practice. Seeing piles of food on our dining room table had caused me to run for the bathroom, nauseated, though I had nothing whatsoever in my body to expel. I have no coherent memories of anything in those hours or days. My beloved daughters, no longer alive. Conner and I were out that evening, about to be served our anniversary dinner, when we got the news. He told me later that my left hand had violently tipped a basket of fragrant Sourdough that had just been placed before me and my right hand had dropped a glass of wine cleanly, like a plumb line straight down onto the floor. I had no recollection of this. The next memory that I have been able to dredge up is the sight of our dining room table at home, casseroles and platters of pickles, cookies and punch. The funeral was over. This was the last leg of a journey that would soon end for everyone else. A journey that I knew would never end, for me. Even now, I think, how could anybody eat?
How is it that I could find myself driving to Colorado to face the same thing; to face the end of Gran’s life, a funeral, the table filled with casseroles? It was only the thought of my sister’s commitment that helped me hold my course. Eventually my hunger became undeniable. I gave in, drove into a roadside Carl’s Jr., not stopping the car to get out, but winding through to a marquee featuring pictures of burger combo meals surrounded by fat red lettering. A shake sounded good. French fries sounded easy; I got the large size, which turned out to be rather smallish. The shake was good, though. Vanilla malt. I drove on, watching the waning sun guild the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains. I had been on the road for 19 hours when I approached Colorado Springs. I remembered to look for the Nevada Avenue exit, but there was nothing about it that seemed familiar. I had not been back to Mountain House in more than 30 years.
Growing darkness engulfed the Audi as I turned into a finger-like extension of a larger canyon, along a rough-surfaced asphalt road that finally ran up to a gravel driveway. The property is in an old established neighborhood buried at the foot of Cheyenne Mountain. Most of the surrounding places were what one might call estates. My grandmother’s house, in which she had spent her entire adult life and I the early years of my childhood, was modest in comparison. The forest was its fence. There was no grand gate or entrance. Its two stories were dormered, the bulk of the house rambling, rustic, almost shabby. It had taken on a ramshackle, overgrown look, evidencing years of neglect. The outline of the house was blurred. Canyon walls muted the late afternoon light. In California, days in the middle of April were already stretching toward summer. Each would be longer, lighter, warming the ground, pulling up green. On the Front Range, everything still looked dead; crisp and colorless. Patches of dirty snow lingered in places where the sun did not penetrate. Night fell hard in the crevices of the mountain.
I fought the urge to turn around. Likely the evening on the Coast was lovely, I thought with an ever present pang of longing for home. An image of Bougainvillea came to me. Over the railing of my neighbor’s balcony, vines spilled fountains of magenta almost any time of the year. I never tire of that humble splendor; warm, earth colored tile, creamy stucco, and tropical foliage. Santa Barbara, I thought, as a hint of tears stung my eyes, is like a painting by Gauguin – Tahitian landscapes spangled with bold bright colors and cocoa colored people. Each spring I would take the girls on a drive up the slopes of Figueroa Mountain to luxuriate in the ocean of sweeping color moving in waves across hills and arroyos. Lupines and Poppies grow wild there, a veritable feast of slender stems and warm Saffron petals, bending in the breeze. I am a painter, by avocation; color and texture are my first language.
Mountain House did not look forbidding to me, but it looked rather desolate. It did not help that it was dressed, sides and rooftop, in weathered cedar. The trim had once been painted a sharp Navy. Now, washed-out gray shingles blended with faded blue window frames and limp sagging gutters. Only the light in the front windows looked alive. Darkness shuttered the canyon so that the glow from within the house seemed stronger. The light leaped bravely from two great picture windows overlooking a plank front porch that ran the length of the house. I spied movement inside. I stilled the Audi’s motor, pulled the emergency brake. In the middle of the porch, centered over three long stairs, a solid wooden door flung itself wide. For a minute, it seemed as if the house had opened itself, unassisted. My sister emerged then. Framed by the front door. Her shoulders shrugged against the sharp edge of mountain air, but her face beamed. She waved wildly, from the wrist, keeping her elbows close to hug her torso.
I gave the horn a short toot in reply. When I unbuckled and opened the car door I was surprised by the cold. I felt my mouth curve into a smile. Elizabeth. Lizzy. My sister’s tiny frame was erect and solid for all its delicacy. A warm welcoming smile shaped her rosebud mouth. Her face was calm, framed by tidy flaxen hair, bobbed like mine. She looked as lovely as ever, shivering beneath a gauzy shawl. I felt how different we were. “Mutt and Jeff,” is the way Dad had always described us. My copper cut is thick, almost ginger, while Lizzy carries a perpetual smooth smile, inscrutable gray-blue eyes beneath a halo of blond. We are well proportioned, each to our own self. Lizzy is small. I am tall. She is Dad, a female version. Her strength does not come from her height or frame; it comes from her heart. I am Mom. And Gran.
Heaving an enormous sigh, I gathered my emotional strength, along with a bulky Pea Coat rumpled on the passenger seat, and emerged from the car. Lizzy crossed the yard quickly. In one movement she became part of me, head fitted into the hollow below my shoulder. We did not speak. As quickly as I could, I maneuvered her loose, pointing to the rear of the Audi. I leaned into the driver’s side to pop the trunk open and then shut the car door. We each grabbed a suitcase to take back to the house. I left the trunk open. There were several pieces of luggage to retrieve. Once safely through the wide front door, I spoke. “Hello Lizzy. It’s so good to see you. You look terrific!” My voice carried through to the kitchen.
“Evie, is that you?” Gran’s voice projected around a corner. She sounded strong.
“Yes, Gran. Let me go out for the other suitcases. I won’t be a minute. Once I’m in I won’t want to go out again, I just know it.” I forced myself back into the night and returned with two oversized plaid bags, dumping them at the foot of the stairs with the others.
In the kitchen, a large-boned elderly woman sat in a wheeled chair pushed up to a plank trestle table. She was smothered in lap quilts. Her slippered feet were propped on metal footrests. Her smile was like mine, teeth showing, eyes wide. It was like looking in the mirror. I found it hard to believe that Gran was as sick as Elizabeth had made her out to be. I hung my coat on a chair back and leaned over her, hugging from behind. Moody feelings rose from deep within me. I recognized so much of myself in this woman, the sound of my voice came low and vibrating, like guitar strings gently strummed. “Oh, Gran, I can’t believe I’m really here.” I rocked her gently, eyes closed, drawing in the soapy scent of the old lady.
When I opened my eyes, I was shocked to see thin milky skin shrunken against the bones of my grandmother’s hand. It was almost transparent. In that moment I became aware that the weight of my embrace might be crushing the old woman. The texture of her body and hair melted into something insubstantial. She sounded like Gran, the Colorado legend of her youth, but she had changed. I suddenly understood her very real fragility. I had not seen her for more than two decades. The last trip Gran had made to California, she had been as spunky and physically strident as ever. I stumbled through memories, captured in the nostalgic times that one cherishes. I had a few pictures of Brigit Paxton, sent with Christmas Cards over the years. They were mostly pictures of groups, small against the overwhelming backdrop of mountain peaks or rocky scarps. The woman had seemed as unchanging as the mountains themselves.
I lived with Gran and my father at Mountain House as a child. My mother left us when I was a toddler. She took my sister to live with a rancher in the hot northern California country somewhere east of Yreka; it was a long way from anywhere, off the grid. The separation was less a shock to me than to Lizzy, I guess because I was so young. Letters from my big sister used to arrive regularly, through the first several years. Dad read them to me. Even a young child could hear the pain in my sister’s words. I never saw my mother again.
For a long time, Dad and I stayed with Gran, but eventually my father must have felt he had to move on. We camped a lot, temporary homes. We wound up on the Pacific coast, living on a boat that my father restored. On land and sea I was a Gypsy with him, mostly home-schooled, brilliant if you would believe him, and driven to settle. When the time came for me to make my way in the world of adults, Dad put in harbor at Santa Barbara so that I could attend the university there. Even before my anticipated graduation, Dad was planning his next migration. I knew I could not bring myself to leave. I was determined to stay in Santa Barbara. I waited tables on the pier in the harbor, applied to graduate school to earn a Master’s in fine arts, painted boats in the harbor, Channel sunsets, Spanish tiled rooftops, and craftsman bungalows.
The summer before my final year I caught the attention of one of my art history professors. He was no Humbert, even though he is 12 years my senior, and I was no under-age Lolita, but in some similar mystical way, he could not resist me. I, being a motherless child, could not resist that. The courtship was secretive. Such things can be scandalous. The romance exhilarating, perhaps because of this. An intellectual to the core, Conner Paxton also dabbled in sculpture and painting. The artist in me savored the artist in him. We shared aged Cabernet while I modeled for him, draped in silk and tulle, my long, lean, nude body made into a still-life on a ratty velvet fainting couch in his Eastside studio. He modeled for me, too, and I rendered him like a Roman God. We made love after office hours on the desktop in his windowless university office that had no lock on the door. This seemingly quiet and serious man captured the adventurous soul in me. He was so unexpected. He was a leader who beckoned me to follow, and so I did.
When it came time for me to accept a teaching job in Los Angeles, he could not let me go. We got married on the beach near the university, our music the mournful chiming of Stork Tower, heedless of tar patches and the pungent salty scent of the estuary. He owned a house on California Street, at the foot of the famous Santa Barbara Rivera. It was a glorious place, an idyllic space for a pair of bohemians – one bedroom for sleeping and two that we transformed into studio spaces. A loft above the carriage house became the perfect professor’s office, with one round window at the front and skylights that opened to welcome sea breezes. I found a teaching job locally and took to the life as if born to it. Conner and I quickly settled from furtive desktop sex to Sunday morning breakfasts on the patio, rubbing bare toes under the table. I felt my restlessness lie down and thought I wanted for nothing more but my Gypsy spirit pestered me. I turned the prospect of becoming a mother into my answer. With a child, I thought, I would feel truly completed. When it was revealed that my adventurous soul blessed me with twins I rejoiced. Here was living proof of my uniqueness. My twin girls, my first grade students, and my art wholly absorbed me. Conner continued his placid contented pace and so became like a lovely picture frame, just the right tone and weight, to anchor the portrait of my own wild life. He was there, all around me, but not in the painting. I counted on him being there but was seldom really with him. He seemed to accept this. I don’t think I even realized it. I was fully absorbed.
When the girls drowned, their lives ending without warning, without reason, my life seemed to end as well. Then Lizzy called to ask for help. I could scarcely recall what Gran looked like let alone feel close to the woman. I had given only occasional thought to Brigit Adams. This person, the only real mother I had ever known, had slipped into a parallel universe; a story book figure that cut live Christmas trees every year, spent summers riding a mule into steep terrain, for fun, and wouldn’t recognize the sound of the ocean curling onto Pacific sand but could hum the songs of the wind soughing through Ponderosa Pines. I conceded now, almost involuntarily, that I hardly knew this woman who I so resembled.
Lizzy put Gran to bed rather early. I was exhausted, truly ready for sleep. I gathered my luggage. As we shuffled the big bags along, Lizzy’s hushed whispers revealed the gravity of Gran’s situation. She was matter of fact about the details. Congestive heart failure. Only a matter of time. Making her as comfortable as possible. So important to have family around now. It troubled me to think about it. It troubled me to think about anything to do with death. I longed for the confidences to end. I longed for sleep because this was the only time I truly found peace anymore. It occurred to me, as we began to lug the suitcases up the stairs, that we might have installed me in the bedroom next to Gran’s. Instead we were bound for a small room tucked into attic space where I had slept as a child. I kept my voice low. “I don’t want to sleep in the dormer.”
“Oh, Darling, I’m all set up in the downstairs room. I can hear Gran from that room so much better.” When Donny comes to stay the weekend, we need the big bed. The third bedroom is set up as a day-room, a parlor of sorts. She can’t stay in her room all day. The living room is crammed with couches and big chairs. We cleared out the other bedroom to make a pleasant space, east-facing windows for morning sun. Not much to bump into. All of the things she needs are right there.” My sister’s face was placid. “You can have my room after I leave.” She continued her dogged climb until she reached the landing at the top. I followed her and stopped short of the door to the dormer room, dismayed at the prospect of sleeping in a narrow trundle bed, but she pushed the short door open, crossed the room, and thumped the bags onto a low window seat. Two faded velvet cushions were displaced by the luggage and fell to the floor. I bent to retrieve one of them and held it to my heart. No dust. No old smell. Just soft worn velvet, once the color of eggplant, trimmed in piping of the same material. Behind the window seat, double hung glass panes sank deeply into the angles of the ceiling, dull with darkness. Lilac patterned chintz curtains hung motionless on either side, like a mat framing a picture. Lizzy hugged me and then left without further comment.
I slowly surveyed the room. I am not given to fear of dark corners, but this room felt unsettling. The walls were not straight. The space was hemmed in by creases of darkness. I remembered having that same feeling as a young girl. It took one zip of the smaller suitcase to find flannel PJ tops and bottoms, printed with Scotty dogs. Conner thinks I like things decorated with Scotties because of Paddy. I like the softness of the flannel, and the pink color, even the cute black pups, but I would rather he had chosen sapphire blue satin, or pale pink sheer polyester. He doesn’t really know about these things. It doesn’t matter, I thought. When I go to bed most evenings he is rarely there to see me. He prefers to stay up later; coming to bed after I am asleep. I have come to believe that this way there is little chance that he will need to do more than pat me on the arm before settling into regular breathing and slumber. I shook off the feeling of aloneness. Such a change from the days of scandalous love. Even before the girls were lost to us, romance seemed to have evaporated. Now, I am lost to him. My professor is lost to me and I am here, lost to him, I thought. And Gran needs me. No sense in brooding over things I cannot change.
I pulled my jeans and sweater off, hastily donned the printed flannel top, and then tucked the drawstring bottoms under my pillow. I folded back a stack of several quilts and slid into bed, bottomless. The mattress was narrow and firm. My skin came alive against cold, crisp, cotton sheets. My legs separated like scissors, luxuriating in the evenly distributed weight of the quilts. It seemed to take no time at all to realize warmth. My cocoon was perfect. I missed my dog, but was grateful for the absence of Paddy’s heavy head, the way he shoved up against my legs, restricting movement. Sleep came quickly.
I was woken by a shard of light passing slowly across my face. A strikingly bright moon had risen. It penetrated the room. I squinted and then moved my face into shadow so that I could more easily see in the darkness. It seemed that everything around me was better illuminated in the moonlight than if the bedside lamp were on. The entire room was glowing.
My throat felt parched and so I pulled my legs out from under the covers and swung them over the side of the bed. Water. I ought to have brought some upstairs. Now it seemed imperative to fetch a glass. I kept my eyes on the window. I was struck by the ethereal beauty of ink-black branches silhouetted against a milky sky. Conner would love this image, I thought. There was a time when I know he would have wanted to paint this. As my feet reached for the floorboards, my heart lurched. I realized that I was not touching the floor, but some other thing. I quickly pulled myself back into bed and searched the dim space below. Butterflies flooded my vision. It took me a minute to understand. These were part of a pattern, evenly distributed over negative space, large stylized butterflies. Gingerly, I reached with one finger to touch the surface. It was a quilt. I thought that one of the quilts from my bed had slipped off onto the floor. When I tugged at it, trying to pull it back up, I realized my mistake. The blanket was tightly tucked around a long low mattress. A pillow lay at one end. A doll that I immediately recognized, with long curly red-brown hair, was pushed into the pillow. It had a tiny dolly quilt covering its small body. I crawled to the end of the bed, climbed over a low brass rail, and then found the light switch and flipped it on. Amazing! Next to my bed was a trundle, on wheels. With a one-footed shove, I pushed it back under my bed. I fished my PJ pants out from under my pillow, slid into them, and quietly descended the stairs.
As I tip-toed past Gran’s room I heard a clock from somewhere within. A glass of water was easy to find and fetch back to my room. I shut the short door behind me and padded softly across the floor, only to find the trundle once again exposed, ready for a little sleeper. I am a practical person. The slanted floor was obviously to blame. I again stowed the trundle underneath the bed and then pulled the largest of my suitcases to the floor, propping the trundle in place. “It won’t go anywhere tonight,” I thought, and determined to put rubber cups under the wheels in the morning. I picked up the velvet purple pillows, plumped them into the space where they had been on the window seat, and returned to bed.
It was harder, now, to go to sleep. I thought about the trundle. The doll. I fought to keep thoughts of Mar and Mattie away. No good. My mind considered how convenient it would have been to have such a trundle for her girls to sleep over at Gran’s. Mattie would never go for the low bed. Mattie would insist on the high up bed, like Lizzy always had when she had slept here, and Marie would take the lower berth gracefully. Mar was always the graceful giver. Mattie took charge. I wondered, for the thousandth time, if Mattie had begged to go with her cousin’s friends to Henry’s Beach that night. She must have decided to go. If Mattie had not wanted to go along, no amount of cajoling from the teenagers could have moved her out of her house. Mar would have asked a parent first, if she had wanted to go. Actually, she wouldn’t have had to ask. She would have known it was the wrong thing to do. It must have been Mattie who had dared, sneaking out after bedtime to listen to the older girls talking, eyes shining at the thought of being taken along with them and her cousin, Abby. What an adventure! So like Mattie. But not one of them had a car. There had been no practical way to pick up June, the sitter, and the twins. I thought, again, that if I ever discovered the teen who had agreed to take them Grunion hunting that night, I would strangle him. It must have been a boy. Only a boy would be so casual. Borrowing a car that belonged to his father, no doubt. Not willing to fess up, ever, because he shouldn’t have had the car in the first place. Out on a lark with Abby’s friends. Bonfire on the beach. Silver Grunion jumping everywhere. Abby said that she didn’t remember who drove. She couldn’t tell anyone what had happened. It hardly mattered. By the time she realized that the girls were missing it was already too late.
I convulsed with sobbing, just thinking about it. It never stopped happening but it didn’t last as long that night. I was worn out. I pictured my girls in the morgue, faces swollen with salt water. I could see them arranged, so lifelike, in matching coffins. I simply couldn’t erase the images and it stretched me thin. I lay on my pillow, exhausted. I kept looking at shapes and spaces in the room, suddenly feeling my childhood all around me. My eyes stared at the captivating image of the moon, taking up the whole of the window pane. Something seemed to move beneath the velvet cushions on the window seat. In spite of luggage stacked on the area, the hinges of the window seat seemed to make a small noise. The luggage did not move. The cushions did not move. The wooden seat did not lift, but a vague image of it seemed to move through the cushions and everything stacked on top of it. I stopped breathing. A child in a pale blue dress with a white pinafore materialized, sitting on the floor in the center of the room. She rose to her feet and climbed into the dark space that was the cabinet beneath the window seat. Her hair and eyes reflected moonlight. She stood up, inside the cabinet, and gazed into the depths of the space below her. And then, as she began to lower herself into that space, she vanished.