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Delta Ballou sat bolt upright in bed, shaking and sweating, the familiar sickening panic washing over her. Something had roused her--a noise. She inhaled deeply, trying to regulate her breathing, trying to shush the pounding of her heart.
Delta might not be alone in the world, but still she felt it--every day, every waking moment. Especially every night, before sleep overtook her, lying there in the dark with his side of the bed cold and untouched. She always stayed up too late these days, dragging herself reluctantly to a few hours of fitful sleep, only to awaken groggy the next morning and discover that it hadn't been a terrible nightmare, after all. That her husband really was dead. That she was, at the age of forty-seven, a widow.
She had been annoyed with Rankin the morning of his death, exasperated over some real or imagined slight--she couldn't remember now what it was. Something minor, no doubt, something utterly unimportant in the cosmic scheme of things. But at the time it had seemed sufficient cause to snub him, to refuse to kiss him properly as he went out the door.
As usual, he had not taken offense at her irritability. Instead he gave a benign laugh, kissed her cheek as she turned away, and told her he loved her. His civility only exacerbated her peevish mood, and she had railed at him for ten full minutes after he was gone.
Strange how the qualities that distinguished her husband as a minister were the very things that aggravated the hell out of her. He was so . . . good. Generous, understanding, compassionate in the face of anger and opposition. Gracious amid stress, poised to listen to anyone who needed him.
Delta, on the other hand, "did not bear fools gladly."
Or at all, her husband jokingly amended.
It was true. When she and Rankin had met and fallen in love, she had shared his passion for peace and justice, had taken his hand and sung "We Shall Overcome" with a soul-deep conviction that change was just beyond the horizon. But he had a serenity about him that she had never managed to achieve, a patience with human shortcomings and failures.
By all accounts, Rankin Ballou had been an extraordinary man. In both his work and his life he blended spirituality with social conscience, weathering criticism over his stands on equal rights and fair housing and a multitude of other injustices. His persuasiveness and passion made a difference in people's lives. He spoke the truth. He protected the weak. He lived by what he believed, died by it.
Died with God's name on his lips. The very thought of it infuriated her. . . .
"Delta?" Cassie's voice came to her, low and anxious, through the bedroom door. "I heard you yell. Are you all right?"
Delta looked at the clock. It was ten till seven. The sun had barely risen, and beyond the slatted blinds she could see the faint rose-hued wash of dawn.
She pushed the flame of anger down, banked it against the back wall of her chest. She held still, not breathing, hoping her sister would go away. She hadn't wanted to leave the parsonage she had occupied for almost twenty years and finally made her own. Hadn't wanted to crowd her belongings into her little sister's garage and live in this travesty of a guest room, decorated in blood red and mildew green as if designed by one of Satan's more flamboyant henchmen. But she hadn't any choice. Other people's lives went on, even if hers had stopped. Her daughter, Sugar, had gone off to college. The new pastor had arrived, moved his family in, and begun the process of trying to fill Rankin's shoes.
"It's only temporary, Delta," Cassie had said. "Until you're ready to find a place of your own." And Delta had thought, You're damned right it's temporary.
That had been five months ago. Five months of fitting herself into the busy lives of her younger sister and her brother-in-law, Russell, and her six-year-old niece, her namesake Deborah, whom Russ called Mouse.
"Delta, I'm coming in."
The door opened a crack, and Cassie's head appeared at an angle, as if detached from her body. She edged into the room, followed by Mouse in footed flannel pajamas and the golden retriever Grand-Nanny, two generations removed from the original Nanny, who had belonged to Delta and Rankin when Sugar was just a baby. Mouse crawled onto the bed and snuggled up next to Delta. The dog jumped up and laid her chin across Delta's feet.
With the warm little body crowded up against her side, Delta's anguish and rage flared up again. She thought of Sugar, now eighteen and beginning a life of her own. Rankin would never experience the joy of seeing his girl become a woman, get married. He would never hold his grandchildren, would never--
He knows, a faint voice inside her whispered. He sees.
Delta shoved the assurance away. The promise of heaven, of another life, gave her no comfort. Time healed nothing. God's presence was an illusion. She wanted Rankin back. Here. Now.
"We're going out to breakfast, Aunt Delt," Mouse said, butting her head against Delta's shoulder. "And to the Disney Store. You come too."
Delta regarded the child, who had Russell's olive skin and brownish hair, but Cassie's narrow chin and startling blue eyes. Objectively speaking, her nickname fit her perfectly, but Delta wasn't about to admit that to Russ. "I don't know," she hedged, then tweaked Mouse's nose. "Don't you have to go to school? Doesn't your mom have to go to work?"
Mouse giggled. "It's Saturday, Aunt Delt."
"Ah," Delta said. "I forgot."
Cassie ran a hand through her short-cropped blonde hair, sighed, and fixed Delta with a come-on-snap-out-of-it look. "Come with us, Delta. It'll be fun. We'll do some shopping, maybe catch a matinee. You know--" She grinned at her daughter. "Girls' day out. Just the three of us."
"I don't know," Delta repeated.
"Suit yourself. It'll be an hour or so before we leave, in case you change your mind. Russell's got a golf date. There's chicken salad for lunch if you want it." She glanced at her watch and motioned to Mouse. "Let's go, honey."
Mouse gave Delta a pleading look and slid off the bed.
The door shut behind them, and Delta looked down to see her hands gripping the blanket as if daring someone to drag her out of bed and back into life.
Delta sat at the small desk in the guest room and sorted through the mail Cassie had brought to her. There wasn't much. Junk mail--ads, unsolicited catalogs, mostly.
For a moment she fingered the large bulky envelope from Publishers Clearing House. You may have already won ten million dollars.
Delta snorted. What could she possibly do with ten million dollars, besides pay half of it to a government she didn't trust and set up a college fund for grandchildren who hadn't yet been born? What did normal people do? Take an around-the-world cruise? Buy a gas-guzzling SUV? Accumulate stocks, houses, boats, diamonds?
None of that appealed to her knee-jerk sense of justice. It was hard to break a habit ingrained by twenty-five years of standing up against power systems that encouraged personal greed and oppressed the little people. Hard to forget that it was all woven of one fabric--big business, racism, sexism, poverty, warmongering. From the early days in college, when she and her friends had sung at voter registration rallies, she had gone on to marry a man of deep social conscience and embraced other issues--fair housing, food banks, help for the homeless, environmental concerns, human rights, women's rights, domestic abuse.
Rankin called it "walking the way of Jesus."
Theoretically, it sounded good, noble, the right thing to do. But did the outcome have to be so damnably predictable?
She sighed, ran a hand through her hair, and kept on sorting. There was a newsletter from the Human Rights Campaign and a renewal notice from the ACLU, both in Rankin's name and forwarded from the parsonage. She really ought to notify them of Rankin's death and the change of address, but every time she thought about him, she felt the phantom pain of the severed limb, nerves hanging loose from the joint so that the least current of moving air brought fresh excruciation. Every time she wrote deceased next to his name, a little more of her own soul died.
She was forty-seven years old. What was she supposed to do now? Start over? Become the merry widow, begin dating, kick up her heels? She had her master's degree, of course, and most of the coursework toward her Ph.D. She had taught some lit classes off and on over the years. But most of her energy and attention had been taken up with the church.
She hadn't resented it, not then. Not consciously. But she sure as hell resented it now.
"God," she groaned into the empty, silent house.
Not a prayer. Not a supplication. She wanted nothing to do with God, with the church, with the expectations of sacrificial living. She had sacrificed enough, thank you very much. She was done.
One final piece of mail caught her eye. A manila envelope on the bottom of the stack, addressed to Delta Fox Ballou in a loopy, flourishing handwriting. It had been sent to the parsonage and forwarded on.
She considered the logo in the upper left hand corner: a large scrolling W, with Mississippi College for Women superimposed across the middle, and below, in smaller print, Alumnae Office.
Probably a plea for money, Delta thought. She received mailings from the college every six months or so and a thick four-color newsletter once a year. As always, it would go in the trash largely unread, but she pried up the flap nevertheless and took out the sheaf of papers inside.
Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Homecoming, the header of the first page read. Class of 1969. Delta let out a short laugh, which even to her own ears sounded mirthless and empty, the rustle of a sudden wind over dead leaves. She was about to toss the whole thing on the junk mail pile when a handwritten note at the bottom of the page arrested her attention.
Please come, the note said in that same loopy style. Please say yes.
Delta sat back in her chair and scrutinized the cover page more carefully.
Our twenty-fifth reunion is coming up soon, and even though we haven't seen each other in ages, I can't seem to get you out of my mind. I'm on the Alumnae Board this year, and part of my job is to contact people about the reunion and anniversary banquet.
I remember our time at the W and how the Delta Belles made those years so special. Surely you recall those wonderful concerts, how everyone loved the group and the music and the . . . well, the life those songs represented.
And so I am writing with a request. I think it would be wonderful to get the Delta Belles back together to play for the anniversary banquet. It wouldn't have to be anything elaborate or formal. A few familiar tunes, just for old times' sake.
Enclosed you'll find plans for the weekend, which is scheduled for the third weekend in October. Hope to see you there.
There was an address somewhere in Tennessee, two phone numbers. And then the handwritten postscript. Please come. Please say yes. The letter was signed Tabitha Austin Black.
"Well, I'll be darned," Delta muttered. "Tabby."
Tabitha Austin's face swam up from the depths and hovered before her like a relentless ghost. By now she was probably dumpy and showing her age like everybody else, but Delta's memory insisted on the younger version. In her mind's eye, Tabby was still fresh and beautiful, with long lustrous red hair and that ubiquitous effervescent smile.
Yes, she remembered Tabby. She remembered the Delta Belles. But it didn't matter. The answer was unequivocally no. The Delta Belles were dead. Exhuming them was completely out of the question.
She fingered the edge of the letter and formulated a polite but resolute response to Tabby in her mind: It was sweet of you to ask, but I couldn't possibly . . .
With the internal refusal came a wave of relief, a lifting of tension Delta hadn't even known was there. That was settled. She'd send a letter this afternoon and be done with it. She pushed the reunion information and Tabby's letter off to one side of the desk and stared out the window.
But despite her best intentions, the ghosts rose up to haunt her. . . .
October came shyly to Mississippi, a virgin bride to the wedding bed, clad in golden silks and rustling sky-blue satin. One tree on front campus, however, had no patience for a slow and sinuous fall. There, near the tall iron fence that surrounded the college, a hundred-year-old ginkgo spread its massive branches overhead and shook its amber, fan-shaped leaves in a seductive dance, a teasing preview of the annual shedding ritual.
Chinese legend held that the ginkgo dropped all its leaves in a single autumn night, baring itself to the onslaught of winter with a bold striptease. According to the accompanying college lore, any girl who stood under the tree by moonlight and caught a ginkgo leaf in flight would find the love of her life before the ancient tree reclaimed its modesty and reclothed itself in spring.
Delta had little tolerance for legends and lore and voodoo spells contrived to trap a man. If she had been looking for a husband, she would have gone to Emory and hooked up with a med student who had both money and prospects. She wanted an education, and for that purpose, Mississippi College for Women was the best the South had to offer.
Still, the college lived and breathed such traditions. The Kissing Rock at the front gate had been worn smooth by the oblations of generations of students--virtuous young women who kept their lips primly closed and their tongues to themselves when saying good night to a gentleman caller but were eager enough to press their open mouths against the top of a mossy old boulder. It struck Delta as ironic that otherwise intelligent women could be so terrified of remaining "spinsters." But intelligent or not, when the ginkgo began discarding its leaves, every student in every dormitory was expected to drop whatever she was doing and bolt to the tree.
It was a glorious Saturday afternoon. On her way back to the dorm from the library, Delta ambled toward front campus and gazed up at the ginkgo tree. The leaves had gone from green to pale yellow. It wouldn't be long until shedding day, and even though she secretly ridiculed the legend and didn't give a second thought to meeting Mr. Right, any tradition that allowed for a midnight bonfire and the chance to be out after hours was just fine with her.
From the Hardcover edition.