She’d gone to bed with her shoes on, and not by accident. She’d deliberately climbed under the covers fully clothed and pushed her shod feet down between the clean sheets. Because she felt like it. Because she was mad at the world at large and whatever force passed for God in particular. Because it was the kind of thing an icon didn’t do. And Margaret Elizabeth Banning, otherwise known as Miss Li’l Bit, definitely qualified as an icon in her little part of the world. Which just went to show that if you lived long enough, any old damn thing could happen to you. At least it could in a place as lacking in a sense of humor as Charles Valley. Humor and memory. There probably weren’t five people left in town who remembered that in her youth, at six feet tall, with far more nose than chin and a father who was, to put it politely, different, she had been considered a disaster. Then she was the homely-as-a-mud-fence daughter of the local lunatic who couldn’t get herself a man if her life depended on it. Now she was an icon.
“That Miss Li’l Bit,” the locals would say, to visitors who’d come to Charles Valley to soak up its southern charm and visit its world-famous horticultural center, “she’s the real thing—Old South to her toes. She’s a Banning on her daddy’s side. They’ve been here since before the War of Northern Aggression, which is what we like to call it.” Pause to allow the listener to chuckle at adorable southern humor. “She still lives in that big old white house that’s been in the Banning family since her great-granddaddy bought it in eighteen sixty-eight. Runs it herself, does Miss Li’l Bit, just has that girl Cora come in to do for her twice a week. And she keeps up the Old Justine Gardens too. Well, they’re not the originals, you understand, but she redid them close to. The Justine family is famous in these parts. They owned a plantation that covered all of Lawson County until the family lost it during Reconstruction. Miss Li’l Bit’s great-granddaddy bought the big house and the gardens around it to keep it from going for taxes. The Justines were his wife’s people, cousins a couple of times removed. And Miss Li’l Bit, she keeps the gardens like they were back in the olden days. Why, she’s even got some magnolia trees that were put in a hundred years ago.” Pause for inevitable tourist response to quaint local eccentricities. “Yes, ma’am, I guess we Southerners do take our history real serious. And Miss Li’l Bit—like I said, she’s the real thing.”
Well, the “real thing” was lying like a lump under her blankets, wearing the skirt and blouse she’d put on yesterday morning, her support hose, and her second-best pair of Natural Bridge oxfords. Her admirers would be shocked. And if they knew what else she’d done in her time. . . . But she wasn’t going to think about that.
She hoisted herself up in bed so she could read the clock on her nightstand. The numbers were insultingly large, meant for eyes that were starting to fail, although of course the salesgirl who suggested it had not said so. Her nap had lasted forty-four minutes. Pleased, she turned off the vanquished alarm. She prided herself on waking before the thing went off, because no clock was going to tell her when it was time to stop sleeping. Especially not tonight. She was in control tonight. She had to be.
Slowly, she pulled herself out of bed, her knees giving her the hard time she’d come to expect. But she wasn’t going to coddle them. Tonight there was no such thing as aching joints. Tonight her body would have to perform.
The phone rang. “Yes, Peggy,” she said, too quickly to give the caller time to identify herself. Proving she was still in control. Staying a step ahead of the music.
“We’re here,” said Peggy. Her voice sounded tired, not too young for her age as it usually did. “Maggie’s in the cabin. I came out to call you from the car phone.”
“I assumed as much.” It was indulgent and needlessly showy to have rented a car with a telephone in it, and she’d told Peggy so when she got the foolish thing.
“Do you need me to come get you?” Peggy asked.
“No, I’ll be fine on my own.”
“It’s real cold out, Li’l Bit. Couldn’t you please drive?”
“I’ll have my flashlight, and I’ll take the shortcut over the ridge.” Impossible to explain how much she needed the short walk alone in the dark to collect her thoughts.
There was a weary laugh on the other end of the phone.
“What’s so funny?” she demanded.
“Maggie said you’d want to walk through the woods. She says when you’re alone in the woods that’s when you pray.”
That was total nonsense. She did not pray—not in the mealy-mouthed way most people meant—she never had and she never would. She left the praying to Maggie, who insisted in believing in her saints and Madonnas in spite of having a first-class mind and an excellent education.
Peggy continued. “That’s what we’ve been doing, Li’l Bit. We’ve been praying. Maggie gave me her rosary beads and we’ve been saying that prayer to Jesus’ mother. I never thought I could do it tonight, but somehow having those beads in your hands really helps. And it’s much easier praying to a woman; at least that’s how it feels to me. Maybe I should convert to Catholicism after all these years. What do you think?” She laughed again, and sounded close to tears. Too close.
“Peggy, how much have you been drinking?”
Pause. “Not more than usual. And Maggie’s sharp as a tack. She’s remembering everything. So if you’ll just change your clothes, the three Miss Margarets will be fine.”
“I wish you wouldn’t use that ridiculous phrase. It makes us sound like a Gilbert and Sullivan trio.” No need to address the issue of changing her clothes. Maggie and Peggy knew her too well.
“Li’l Bit, stop stalling. It’s not as bad as you’re afraid it’s gonna be.” There were times when Peggy could be unpleasantly clear-sighted. “Just get yourself over here now,” she said, and hung up.
Peggy was right. It was time to get on with it. Li’l Bit took a moment to steady herself, then marched into her bathroom, where she’d already laid out her clean clothes. Her freshly ironed clothes, thank you very much.
As she entered the bathroom, a dog the size and color of Gentle Ben heaved herself up from her resting place on top of the heating vent and came over, her long brush of a tail wagging happily. Automatically Li’l Bit reached out in time to save a box of tissues that was perched on the vanity before it went flying.
“Petula’s lights are usually on dim,” Peggy had said, when she conned Li’l Bit into adopting the half-starved mongrel, “but she’ll be a true and believing acolyte. You two need each other.” Peggy was ruthless when it came to finding homes for strays that were left at the shelter she had founded; she’d talked poor Maggie into taking three. Peggy named her dogs after performers she had admired over the years. Giving them a little pizzazz, was the way she put it.
“Not now,” Li’l Bit said to the dog. “I can’t take you for a walk. Go back to sleep.” Petula sighed and plopped back down on the vent. Li’l Bit picked up her comb and began to drag it painfully through hair she hadn’t touched in days.
It was so like Peggy to turn to the sloppy comfort of Maggie’s religion. Well, let them chant over their beads and confess their sins and beg for God’s mercy. Li’l Bit would not be joining them. She did not need mercy. And as for praying to God, she sincerely hoped she’d been right all her life and no such being existed. If one did, he or she had much to answer for.
Suddenly the comb became too heavy. She put it down and turned away from the mirror. Petula was still watching her. Li’l Bit lowered herself to the floor, ignoring the grumbling of her knees, and wrapped her arms around the dog’s neck, burying her face in thick black fur. But she was not crying. On this night she would not shed one tear.
Peggy got out of the car and looked at the cabin in front of her. In spite of her brave words to Li’l Bit, she needed a minute before going back inside. She leaned back against the car and looked up at the stars. She shouldn’t have teased Li’l Bit by bringing up the three Miss Margarets. They’d been called that for as long as anyone could remember, but Li’l Bit hated it. It was the idea of being lumped together that made her so mad. Li’l Bit’s fascination with her own uniqueness had always been a pain in the butt. Lately, some of the things she’d been doing were downright weird, like that trick of hers of going to sleep in her clothes. Maggie said it was a form of depression. Well, they were all depressed, and mad, and desperately sad too, but Peggy couldn’t see the point in letting yourself go. If anything, she’d been even more careful to keep herself together. She’d had her hair done early that morning before she and Maggie drove to Atlanta. But then she’d always been one for keeping up appearances. So often they were all you had. In her mid-sixties, she was still the perfect size six she’d been when being a size six meant something. She favored the cotton-candy shade of blond that had done so much for Marilyn Monroe’s career, fringed her china-blue eyes with black mascara, and accented her still-curvy mouth with a coral lipstick that was specially formulated not to settle into the cracks. No one had ever seen her wearing flats.
She forced herself to look at the cabin again. In the dark, the little house almost looked cozy. You couldn’t see the peeling paint and the weeds climbing up onto the porch. The old peach tree dying of neglect in the backyard wasn’t visible at night.
The cabin nestled at the foot of a curved ridge that separated Maggie’s thirty acres, the eighty-odd acres Li’l Bit owned, and the two hundred and sixty acres Peggy had inherited when she became the widow Garrison. Peggy, Li’l Bit, and Maggie split, not evenly, a pie-shaped piece of land that sat awkwardly in the middle of Highway 22. A dirt road connected the cabin at the center of the wedge with the highway. As was explained in the informative brochure provided to tourists by the Charles Valley Visitors Bureau, all this land had originally been the rolling lawns surrounding the Justine Great House. Back then the might of the family had been such that the road had been split to go around it. The configuration was kept when Highway 22 was put in decades later.
The lawns were long gone, as were the Justines. Over the years Maggie’s family had bought the piece she now owned, Li’l Bit’s people had acquired the chunk her house sat on, and the rest had been swallowed up by the Garrisons—as had just about everything else in the area. Much of the land between the houses was now a forest of wild pines and kudzu mixed with the remnants of old peach and pear orchards. All that remained of Justine grandeur besides Li’l Bit’s house were four huge live oaks, the last of a line of trees that once grew along the top of the ridge. Peggy looked up at them, ancient, silent witnesses to what she—what they all—would be doing that night. She shivered and scanned the ridge instead.
But there was no sign of Li’l Bit’s large frame emerging from the darkness. Why did she have to pick this night to go scampering through the forest like some outsized nymph? She had a perfectly good car; she could have driven like a sane person. The last thing they needed on this night was Li’l Bit with a broken leg. Peggy leaned back against the car, lit a cigarette, and tried not to want a drink. She’d deliberately left her engraved thermos (somehow it made being a lush better if your accessories were attractive) back at her house.
Maggie had had the electricity turned on in the cabin so a faint glow was coming from the shuttered windows, and the smell of the wood fire she and Maggie had laid in the fireplace was starting to perfume the air. Had the chimney been cleaned for this night or had Maggie been keeping it up all along? Even though she no longer owned it, Maggie still took care of the cabin. Peggy wished someone would tear the stupid thing down. She wished Li’l Bit would show up. She wished she could have a damn drink.
In the distance a dog started to bark. After a second, several more joined in. She sighed; they were probably hers. She had twelve dogs in residence at the moment. The Historical Society crowd was very upset with the way she let her darlings run free in the house, which was a Garrison home and therefore a shrine.
Once in the early eighties there had been talk about having the place turned into some kind of landmark, on the grounds that it was the largest log house in the nation, but the whole thing came to nothing when it was discovered that a country singer in Nashville had built a bigger one. So her babies continued to run the hallowed halls, scratching up the foyer with doggy toenails and periodically peeing on sacred heart-pine floors. A large wooden sign outside her home proclaimed it to be garrison cottage, a form of old-money understatement she had once found enchanting. Presidents and prime ministers had slept under that eight-thousand-square-foot tin roof; there were brass plaques on the doors of the bedrooms to prove it. Sonny and Cher, her two pit bull– husky mixes, slept in the room some ambassador from France had used when he stayed with the Garrisons in the fifties. The three-legged black Lab puppy she’d named Elvis swam in the pool where FDR had taken his daily exercise.
Peggy stubbed out her cigarette carefully in the dirt driveway. All they needed was a fire tonight. Funny to think that as ambivalent as she was about her home now—and there were days when she really hated it—there had been a time when she had wanted it enough to pay any price for it. Be careful what you wish for, children.
The barking trailed off. The cabin still loomed in front of her. And the night still stretched out ahead of them. It wasn’t right to leave Maggie on her own this long. She took a deep breath and started toward the cabin, then stopped. Just a few minutes more, she told herself. She lit another cigarette and looked up at the stars again.
Inside the cabin, Maggie closed the bedroom door behind her and moved into the living room. The important thing was to keep focused, she told herself. Just think about one thing at a time. And stay in the present. No wandering back to the past and getting lost in days long gone. There would be no escaping tonight, though normally she believed in it with all her heart. Escapism, denial, and the occasional lie were the Holy Trinity of survival as far as she was concerned. To hell with the psychiatrists. Let them live to be eighty-six, then they could talk to her. The fact was, she’d always been tougher than she looked. When you were not quite five feet tall, had never weighed more than ninety-seven pounds, and had a face that had once been described as doll-like, people tended to underestimate you—which was a big mistake.
She looked around the room, checking to see if she’d missed a dust ball or a spiderweb when she’d cleaned it. It was spotless. But it was all wrong, because it was empty. If she closed her eyes for just a minute, Maggie could see it the way it should be, with the things that belonged there. There were four kitchen chairs and a wooden table with a red linoleum top in one corner, a sagging bed that served as both a sofa and place to sleep rammed against the wall. Tossed over it, a hand-stitched quilt pieced together from scraps of denim, blue jeans, and overalls that had become too frayed to mend, and backed with old flour sacks; the antiques dealers who descended on Charles Valley every weekend would pay a fortune for that quilt today. A rag rug—also handmade—protected the precious wood floor, and dominating the center of the back wall was an old Philco cabinet radio purchased secondhand after electricity was installed in the cabin. Those were the things that belonged in this room. She could see it all clear as day, and she could hear the voices laughing. But she mustn’t let herself. Not now. Later would be time enough to escape. Now she had to be clear.
She moved to the window and looked out at Peggy standing next to the car. The poor thing still hadn’t gotten up the nerve to come back in. Well, it was only natural. She was the youngest of the three of them, and she hadn’t had as much time to toughen. Besides, Peggy never had been as strong as she and Li’l Bit were.
Maggie was feeling very strong tonight. She was a little light-headed, and her heart was fluttering. But given the fact that it had been broken, it was doing well to beat at all.
She pulled away from the window and looked back at the bedroom. It wasn’t empty. It was fully equipped.
When she first joined the Roman Catholic Church it was the Agnus Dei that attracted her, a mantra of forgiveness that seemed to her to be the heart of her new faith. The priests said it in Latin then, the majesty of the language giving it a power that was reassuring in those years when she had been so young and needy. The words floated through her mind now.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
“Lamb of God, You take away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.”
But would He? Or had they finally gone too far? The fluttering in her chest pushed up to her throat; the light-headedness became a roaring in her ears. Palpitations, she diagnosed, good doctor that she was. A reduction of stress was what she would prescribe. Her mind made a frantic dash for safety, away from this empty room back to the time when it had been the center of a home. Back to the time when two young girls rolled back the rag rug and danced the Charleston on the wood floor.
That was when it had all begun for her. That was the time that had made her different. Because she and Peggy and Li’l Bit were all different. That was why they had been able to do what they had done. And it was why, after so many years, they were able to do what they were going to do now. Maggie sighed and closed her eyes. It had all come full circle, and it was right to have it happen here in this cabin, where they had made decisions and changed lives. For the better, she prayed. Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
And now the circle was complete. Except for the one loose end they’d never been able to fix. Except for the girl.
“Maggie?” Peggy’s gentle voice yanked Maggie back from her thoughts. She blinked and saw Li’l Bit and Peggy standing in the doorway of the cabin. Peggy was looking like she’d love to run. Behind her, Li’l Bit was trying to be stoic and succeeding except for her eyes.
“Are you okay, Maggie?” Peggy asked.
She nodded. Of course she was. Now that they were together she was fine. “I was just thinking,” she said.