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A PLACE TO LAY MY HEAD
It began to rain just as the funeral limousine drove out of the cemetery, and all the way back into the city, the hard beating of the rain and the steady swish-swish-swish of the wipers ran counterpoint to my own dismal thoughts. A week ago, there had been four of us. Four Latimers. MotherJanet Latimerfragile and often ill, which is why I had given up the exciting work I was doing at the Art School, and come home to look after her; but alive and very precious, well worth the coddling and care to save her failing heart any stress. FatherPaul Latimerstill vital, still very erect and slender, his hair greying but his eyes as bright as ever and his voice strong and definite. And Brad, the way he had looked in his uniform as he boarded the train to Parris Island for basic training; just nineteen, so full of fun and laughter.
A tight little circle; a loving family, but not a smothering or stifling one. I'd been on my own for three years, until Mother's heart attack, and I would be again when she was stronger. Brad had always wanted to go into the Marines; there'd been a Latimer in the armed forces ever since the Revolutionary War. Oh, we had lives of our ownbut we had roots, too, and a strong, firm family. When Brad stepped on the train, the family wasn't breaking up; it was just loosening the apron strings; he'd go away from home as a gawky kid, as I'd gone away from home a shy teenage girl, and he'd come home a grown man, as I'd come home an adult, even a sophisticated woman, sure of the direction I wanted my life to take.
Only none of it had happened. Like a row of dominoes, as if we'd been set up for some idiot force to flick us with a finger, one after another, we'd gone down. It began with the yellow telegram from Brad's commander, and the words that had all run together in front of my eyes: Regret-to-inform-youyour-son-Paul-Bradley-Latimer-IVkilled-in-crash-of-training-helicopterand the name I never could decipher or remember. My first thought, and Father's, had been: Mothershe mustn't know yet. It will kill her.
It did. She came in while the thought was still clear on our faces and before we could get the telegram out of sight. She said, in a whisper, "Is it Brad?" and even before we could answer or try to delay or deny it, dropped, like a stone. In the emergency room they said she must have been dead before she struck the floor, while Father and I were still racing to pick her up.
Riding in a funeral limousine just like this, four days ago, Father had spokenalmost for the first timeof his own roots. Among other things, he said we used to be related to half of Massachusetts. All I knew about his early life was that he'd been born in a little town in New England, near the coast; and that he'd left it at the age of sixteen, for reasons he never discussed. I didn't even know the name of the town; but that day he'd said, holding on to my hand, "Sara, when I die, I want to be buried here, beside your mother. Don't let anyone talk you into taking me back to Arkham, no matter what anyone in my family might say."
"Your family? I never knewyou never mentioned anyone, Father."
"No, I didn't," he said. "I supposewell, I kept putting it off, year after year, telling you. I suppose, like most children, you just took it for granted that there were a few generations between you and Adam. I always thought there'd be plenty of timethat I'd go back some day. After Aunt Sara diedmy father's sister, she died seven years agoI always intended to go back some day and make my peace with all of themor as many of them as were still alive; they're probably all dead now. But I thought I'd give everyone time to forget I'd ever existed. And then it turned out that there wasn't any time."
I picked up the name. "An Aunt Sara? Was I named for her, Father?"
He smiled bleakly. "No, Sara," he said, "but I was in the Marinesin Japan, as it happenedwhen you were born. So I left it to your poor mother to name you, and of all the infernal names in the calendar, she had to pick Saranot that I'm blaming her, of courseSara was her roommate's name at college. But Sara wasthe one name I would never have given you!"
"Why not, Father?"
"Some other time," he said, and flinched. "No, not that. We've had a lesson in how little time any of us havewell, honey, let's put it this way. There has always been a Sara Latimer in our family, and none of them have been very happy, or very lucky. The first Sara Latimer was hanged for a witch, in Arkham, almost three hundred years ago. And ever since thenare you superstitious, Sara?"
"I don't think so. No more than anyone else." I said it quickly, not really thinking; I didn't worry about spilled salt, or walking under ladders, didn't cringe at the idea of black cats and didn't read my horoscope in the newspapersor if I did, it was only to giggle. "No, not at all."
My father had smiled, sadly. His face was lined, and it seemed suddenly that he had aged twenty years in the last four days. With a small shudder of terror, it struck me; he was past sixty. And now he was all I had.…
"I never believed in superstitions, either; nor in bad luck, or family curses, or any of that sort of rot. Exceptwell, I was born in Arkham, and brought up to all kinds of stories about our family's history, talk about family curses, especially all the various Sara Latimers and the way they'd all met with violent deathsoh, yes, that was part of it, too. I never mentioned any of it to your mother, and before you were born I gave her carte blanche to name you anything she liked. I sort of thought a little Janet would have been nice. But she picked Sarajust coincidence of course; but when I read her letter, there in HQ in Okinawa, I tell you, the cold chills ran up and down my spine."
"Strange," I said thoughtfully, "there are so many names in the world"
"Well, Sara is a popular name," Father said slowly, "but when I heard she'd chosen to name you Sara, it seemed to me it was like the old saying about lightning. They used to say, when I was a boy in New England, that lightning never strikes twice in the same place. But it does. It's even more likely to strike where it's struck before. Our old house on Witch Hill Road was at the very top of a hill, and every summer, almost every thunderstorm, lightning would strike there, usually the northwest corner of the house. After we had electric lights put in, when I was ten years old or so, it seemed as if every storm struck the transformer outside, and my father finally had the lights disconnected; so we went back to using lamps and candles. Said it wasn't worth the danger of setting the house on fire, just to sit up and turn night into day. As I remember, Aunt Sara was pleasedshe never did like the electric lights anyhow."
I, too, felt a small cold chill running up and down my spine. Lightning had struck twice in our family, indeed, already. And how could I count on it never striking again? "Is that why you never called me Sara when I was little? I was 'Sissy' until I went to school, and Sally after that, until I got into high school. Mother called me Sara, but you never did."
"That's so," he agreed, "the name stuck in my throat, so to speak. I'd gone so far to keep my daughter from being one of the Latimeruhfrom being a Sara Latimer," he amended. "And it seemed like Fate had just stepped in, no matter how I felt about it."
It was a gloomy enough conversation, it seemed; and yet, even to me, it was better than letting our minds turn backback to the cemetery behind us, where Mother and Brad lay side by side. It would be bad enough to go back to the apartment alone. Maybe I could persuade Father to come away for a few days; perhaps to revisit the family of which he never spoke. I said, as lightly as I could manage, "Don't tell me that all the Sara Latimers went to the deviland I don't believe in the devil. Not even in Arkham. After all, there aren't any witches, and haven't been for a couple of hundred yearseven in Arkham!"
"I'm not so sure," he said somberly. "Anyway, they were all a pretty bad lot. There are a lot of Latimers up that wayLatimers and Marshes, my mother was a Marsh. You're related to half of Vermont and Rhode Island. Respectable folks, all of them, mostly farmers, blacksmiths, a few parsons, now and again some girl who'd get away to normal schoolteachers college, you'd say nowadaysand come back to turn schoolmarm. Stubborn folks, too. Been me, I'd never have named another girl Sara after the first one was hanged out there on Witch Hill. But the old family BibleI used to look in it, when I was a kid, went back to the seventeen-hundreds or somethinghad a Sara every couple of generations, and just as often as a Sara turned up in the family, she'd mean trouble." My father was not even talking to me now; his eyes were distant, and his voice had taken on the remote up-country twang which he had educated himself out of decades before. He was thinking out loud, not telling me family history. "One, two of the Saras died real youngbabies in arms. But the rest, regular; Sara Jane Latimer; drowned, 1812. Sara Lou Latimer; died in childbirth, age sixteen, 1864. She ran off with a Confederate soldier. Sara Anne Latimer; killed by dogs, 1884. And one, Sara Beth, I don't rightly know just what she did, but they erased her name from the family Bible, and you had to be pretty wicked for that to happen!"
"No wonder you believed in the family curse," I said. "It does sound fairlyominous. What about my Aunt Sara, the one I wasn't named for?"
His face hardened again. "Your Aunt Sara," he said slowly, "was one of the worst. She made my father's life hell, and my mother's, and mine. When I told her I was leaving, and taking my mother with me, she told me I'd come to a bloody bad end, and I swore that I'd never set foot in the same state with her so long as I lived. And I never have. That's why"
The limousine's brakes screeched; I jerked forward, clutching wildly at the armrest. Then there was a huge, crunching, shattering, smashing sound, a scream from somewhere, and a terrible cry, and the world went out. The last thing I saw was my father's face, with blood slowly flowing down over an unmoving eye; then it, too, vanished.
When I came to in the emergency room of the hospital, they didn't have to tell me that he was dead. All through the hours of unconsciousness, the wordsalmost his last words, after allhad seemed to echo in my mind.
She told me I'd come to a bloody bad end…
All the Sara Latimers met a violent death…
The color of blood, the smell of it, the confused images of violence and savage death and cursing, made slow whirling pictures in my mind.
It turned out that there was nothing wrong with me but a mild concussion, an inch of skin scraped off my right leg, and assorted cuts and bruises; but my father had been flung, as the car spun, into the center of the expressway; two or three cars had passed over his body before they could stop. They advised me not to see his body, and they kept the newspapers away from me, in the hospital; but I saw a headline on somebody else's paper, COLLEGE PROFESSOR KILLED EN ROUTE HOME FROM DOUBLE FAMILY FUNERAL. I didn't read it; I just turned my face to the wall, and I let them bury him in a sealed coffin. And now, for the second time in a week, I was riding home from the cemetery, and the rain was falling on the graves of Paul Bradley Latimer III, Paul Bradley Latimer IV, and Janet Soames Latimer, and I was almost hoping that this funeral limousine would do the same stunt as the last one I rode in. What the hell! Lightning always strikes twice, three times, and all the Sara Latimers had met with a violent death and there was just room, out there, for one more damned grave.
The rain kept pouring down, and I stared gloomily out at the wet streets slipping by. The hard, burning pain in my head, half unhealed concussion and half unshed tears, throbbed on. The drive, in the front seat, drove with slow, meticulous care; I suppose he'd been especially cautioned not to let the lightning strike twice at his own place of employment. A macabre thought drifted into my mindwas he afraid they'd think he was drumming up more business?and to my own horror I heard myself giggle; the driver twitched and half looked around.
"You all right, Miss?"
I mumbled something noncommittal and hoped he'd think it had been a sob or that I was hysterical. Damn it, why shouldn't I laugh? My mother and father had laughed more than anyone else I'd ever known, and if they were anywhere and could feel anything at allnot that I had any hope of thatthey'd hate to see me sitting around crying. Could they know, or care, whether I laughed or cried on the way back from their funeral, or were the God-is-Dead crew right after all, and would they never know or care about anything for the rest of eternity?
Dismally, staring at the rain, I wished I had some kind of definite faith. I didn't even know what my father or mother had believed. Once my father had saidnot to me, but to a colleague at his universitythat he'd heard enough religion to make him sick, as a kid: that he'd turned allergic to it. Although full of good will for his fellow man, I never had heard him express an opinion, one way or the other, about immortality or the afterlife. My mother had taken us to Sunday school when Brad and I were little, but she almost never went to church herself, and seemed to have no particular commitment to it.
Not that this was particularly strange, in the circles we moved in; religion was the one thing nobody ever paid any attention to, and nobody seemed to feel the lack. I'd discussed it, a little, during my time at the Art School; most of my friends had been brought up without it, as I was, and although we didn't know quite what we did believe in, we knew what we didn't.
I could no more imagine either my father or mother, or Brad, sitting up on a cloud, with wings and playing a harp, than I could imagine them tossing in an old-fashioned pit of brimstone. Conventional hells didn't seem to make much more sense, in this century, than conventional heavens. I wished I could think of my family still existing somewhere, even if not in any conventional heaven; but I neither believed nor disbelieved. Quite frankly, I didn't know. And now, when I needed and wanted to know, there was nothing but an empty place inside.
The funeral parlor's limousine drew up in front of the shabby red-brick building where we had had our five-room apartment since Brad got too big to have his crib in my bedroom, fifteen years ago. The driver shielded me tenderly from the rain with an umbrella until I was inside the vestibule, and when I took out my key, unlocked the door for me.
"You'll be all right, now, Miss? You're not going to be alone? Listen, don't you have a friend you can call to come and stay with you?"
I reassured him, and watched him climb back in the limousine and zoom away. Poor guy, he was in a gloomy business. I pushed the elevator button and got out, used the inside key, and went inside, steeling myself to get through the bad evening that lay ahead. No, there was no one I could call to come and be with me. My high school and junior college friends were all married or moved away. The friends of the last three years were three thousand miles away, in California, and none of them had been close enough to come that farI hadn't written to any of them since I came back East. Not even to Roderick, because I knew I'd either have to marry him, or think up another good reason for not marrying him, this time.
The lights were still on where Father and I had left them on to go to Mother's funeral; he had said, "We wouldn't want to come back to a dark house." I swallowed hard again, and went out in the kitchen to make myself a cup of tea. It was bad, out there. Mother's blue-and-white smockshe hated apronswas still hanging on the hook behind the refrigerator. I'd done most of the housework, these last few months, but the doctor had warned me that she hated feeling useless, so I'd let her do anything light enough to put no strain on her heart. Her hand-crocheted potholders were hanging on the stove by the little magnets she sewed inside them.
Four Latimers and I was the only one left. Sara Latimer. None of them were very lucky. Why had my father left his home? I'd never know, now. He hadn't even finished his story about his Aunt Sara.
I filled the copper teakettle and put tea leaves in the pot, but when the kettle whistled, I realized that tea wasn't what I wanted. Tea was too much of a family ritualmy parents had both been coffee-haters, so that the family's panacea, like the chicken soup which had become a joke about Jewish mothers, was a huge hot cup of tea, liberally sugared and, when Brad and I were little, diluted with milk.
Whenever, as a child, I'd failed in an exam, come in wet and cold from skating, or depressed from a tiresome day, whenever we gathered in the kitchen before bedtime, the big old stoneware pot had been brought out, and Mother had said soothingly, "There, there, I'll make you a nice hot cup of tea and you'll feel better." I found myself on the point of another fit of hysterical giggles; there couldn't be an afterlife, or wherever she was, Mother would hear me crying, and whisper a ghostly "There, there…it's all right, Sara, you'll feel better after you have a nice cup of tea…"
Resolutely I poured the boiling water down the drain, walked into the living room, opened the sideboard and brought out a bottle of Scotch. It had never been opened; Dad had kept it for rare guests and had really liked tea better, or orange juice. I tilted a generous dram into the teacup I found still in my hand, tipped it up and drank. It went down, burning, then strangely warm and soothing. I poured another.
The doorbell rang. I jumpedwho on earth would be coming out now, in the rain? Carrying drink and bottle, I went to the door and opened it. Come on, lightning, strike three times, what the hell, maybe it's the Boston Strangler.
The mild, disapproving face of Mr. Patterson, who owned the buildingall five floors and ten apartments of itmoved from the cup in my left hand to the bottle of Scotch in my right. "ErMiss Latimer, if you have a minute"
"You've know me fifteen years, you can still call me Sara," I said carelessly. "As you see, I'm having a drink. Will you join me?"
He stepped inside. He kept on casting sneaky little glances at the bottle of Scotch. Did he think I was an alcoholic drowning my sorrows? But when I repeated my offer he shook his head. "Oh, no. No, thank you. No, too early for me, really. Look, I'm sorry to intrude on you at such a time"
"Is the rent due? I'd forgotten what day of the month it was. For that matter, I've forgotten what month it is."
"Oh, no. Not at all. I wouldn'tI meanno, but I supposeyou do know that the lease on this apartment is up at the end of this month? I don't suppose you've had time to make plans yet, butwill you be wanting to renew? I mean, a young woman, all alone, I mean, that is, a single woman"
I took pity on the tactless wretch. "It's all right," I said, as if I had been the one to blurt out the wrong truth at the wrong time. "No, I won't be wanting to stay here alone. I may be going back to the West CoastI only came back to look after my mother, you know, when she had that first heart attack. I don't suppose I could afford the rent alone anyway."
"Well, that's another thing," he said. "You know this apartment was rent-controlled under the old law, and now the controls have been repealed, I was figuring on someuhsome changes in the rent. Look, maybe we'd better talk about this some other time"
"No." I tipped up the teacup and finished the second shot of Scotch. I felt warmer now. "There are too many ghosts here." He looked startled, but why should I explain? Father's old bathrobe hanging on the closet door, Mother's blue-and-white smock in the kitchen, Brad's room still full of the model airplanes of his teen years. No way I could spend the next months living with them. "When do you want me to move?"
"No hurry. Oh, no hurry." He muttered and apologized his way to the door, pausing on the threshold. "I brought up your mail, Sara. I'll leave it here."
When he had finally blundered his way out the door, I picked up the sheaf of envelopes. A week's accumulation. A windowed envelope from the telephone company. And now, there were other bills. No, I couldn't afford to keep this place now. I walked into my bedroomthere were fewer reminders here than anywhere else in the house; if I closed the door, perhaps, things would seem a bit more normal. I started to pour a third Scotch; then, resolutely, recapped the bottle; there seemed no particular point in getting drunk. And I wouldn't shut the door and pretend Mother and Father and Brad were still out there, either. That could lead to a quick trip to the local booby-hatch.
In one corner of the room, an easel was set up, with a half-finished watercolor on the board. Just before I'd come home to look after Mother, I'd gotten my second contract to illustrate a children's book-the first had given me a modest reputation when it won a small but prestigious awardand the illustrations were less than half finished. I had been dawdling along, since the publisher was not in a great hurry and I didn't greatly need the money; now I did. My father had had an adequate salarybut no life insurance except a modest burial policy. My mother's long illness had eaten up most of his slender savings. After the hospital and funeral expenses were paid, I estimated that I would have less than two hundred dollars in the bank. This would take me back to the West Coast, but it wouldn't give me enough to live on while finishing the book. Could I finish it, and get paid, before the lease was up here? And how many more unpaid bills would come to gobble up what little was left?
I opened the telephone bill and scowled at the total.
Through sheer inertia, I went on opening the stack of mail. Handwritten notes, mostly addressed to my father; probably condolences from acquaintances of my mother. A bill from Con Edison, and another from Macy's.
A letter addressed to me, with a Berkeley postmark. Roderick, I thought, and laid it aside. I would not let my present moodsorrow, three drinks on an empty stomach, dark rain beating on the window-turn into lying to myself. I had never loved Roderick; I didn't love him now; our brief affair in Berkeley had been partly the workings of chemistry and propinquity, partly my own sexual curiosity. It had lasted almost four months; it had been fun; but even before Mother's heart attack called me back to New York, it was wearing thin. We had begun to lie to ourselves and each other; I had found myself too often exasperated by his grandiose plans for a year of study at the Sorbonne, his patronizing attitude to my own work"You're a nice little book illustrator, but I somehow don't think you could make it in the real world of Art." Even the sex hadn't been enough to smooth out the sudden, flaring quarrels; two or three times I'd found myself bored to death, suddenly demanding that he take me to bed because it seemed the easy way out of a dull evening, or a good way to ward off an endless wrangle about some trivial nothing. When our affair began, he had called me a witcha green-eyed witch. All the Sara Latimers were witchesand anyhow, before we broke up he was making that "bitch" instead of "witch." Were the Sara Latimers all bitches too? Well, one of them died in childbirth in spite of no recorded marriage, and another had her name erased from the family Bible, so they must have been what my mother would have called "no better than they should have been." I'd never talked to Mother about Roderick. Even today girls don't usually talk to their mothers about the men they're sleeping with. It's the one bad aspect of the new sexual freedom; at least if you are married to the man you can be honest with your parentsthey know you're sleeping with him and it gets taken for granted, which might be sort of nice.
Oh, damn Roderick Hartmann anyhow! Unopened, I tossed his letter into the trash.
When he found I was leaving Berkeley, it had made him flare into passion again, and he'd asked me to marry him, probably flattering himself that I was going away in order to give myself timeor as they said in Berkeley, "space"to get over our love affair. I hadn't told him the truth, and I felt flattered when he cried at the airport, putting me on the plane. Sara Latimer, bitch.
And now I was lonely, and I felt like I'd like to lie in his arms. (Or anybody's. Be honest, Sara; on a night like this, you'd go to bed with anybody halfway friendly and decent, just to forget the rain falling on those three graves. Don't con yourself into a situation like the one with Roderick again!)
Maybe I should call Mr. Patterson up for that drink again. Stop it, Sara! I admonished myself. You are neither a witch or a bitchyet!
After Roderick's letter was a long, legal-sized envelope. The return address gave the address of a church. Something to do with the funeral? No; the postmark was, of all places, Arkham, Mass. Condolences from a distant relative? After all, our family tragedy had made headlines, and New York papers got into New England. (And what was it Father had said that day?"You used to be related to half of New England.")
No, it was addressed to Paul Bradley Latimer, IIImy father.
Faintly glad of any distraction, I tore it open. It was dated somewhat more than a week before, and read as follows:
A search by our legal advisors has determined that you are the owner (and sole heir at law) to the house on Witch Hill Road, formerly the property of Miss Sara Latimer, who was, I believe, your paternal aunt and who died a spinster seven years ago. The house has been standing vacant ever since, and although we have tried to keep it at least structurally sound, it may be in considerable disrepair by city standards, though in her last days Miss Latimer did have modern plumbing installed at her own expense, which was considerable.
After the death of Miss Latimer, I expressed interest in purchasing the house in behalf of our church's historical society. As you know, the house was built in 1645, and is one of the oldest houses which have not undergone extensive renovation, and still has the original foundations, in this part of the state. However, I was informed that until a search has been made for any other remaining heirs to the Latimer estate, the house and land could not be disposed of.
I am now in a position to make you a definite offer for the house and the property on which it stands. As I presume you do not wish to live here yourself, I would appreciate an early reply and a meeting to discuss the immediate transfer of the title of the property.
Church of the Antique Rite
I read the letter twice, almost unable to comprehend. At the very moment where it seemed that I was penniless and without any resource of my own, suddenly I owned a houseeven one inwhat was the Reverend Mr. Hay's phrase?"considerable disrepair by city standards." But after all, what did a rural pastor really know about city standards? Furthermore, there was a buyer for it, ready to make me a definite offer on behalf of their historical society. I had never heard of a church having a historical society before. For that matter, the Church of the Antique Rite was a new one on me, too. I wondered if it was a fundamentalist's revival movement, or whether it was one of the various nut-cult religions, like so many that had sprung up in Berkeley and elsewhere during the sixties, whose main tenet was pacifism, and whose major raison d'être was draft-dodging.
My father, who had raised the American flag on Guam after a bloody battle against Hirohito's suicide squads, would turn over in his graveoh, God, how carelessly we use these clichésat the idea of the family home falling into such hands.
Strange; I had never heard of my father's Aunt Sara until the day, the very hour, of his deathand now I owned her house. Resolution was growing in me. I had been cut off, by a sudden, vicious lightning-bolt of Fate, from all the family and all the security I had. Literally, after the first of the month, I wouldn't have a roof over my head.
So I would go to Arkham. I could live in the house, and finish my book there. The place was in disrepairokay, if it was too bad, I could sell it, get an immediate advance of the money, and go somewhere else to finish my book. But I'd lived in student quarters in Berkeley, not to mention Roderick's studio, which he kept up, or rather didn't keep up, in the style of a hippie pad as he conceived such things to be. I could put up with primitive conditionswhat was it that father said? Aunt Sara didn't like electric lights? Maybe she didn't like indoor plumbing either. I had heard that some of these back-country types didn't like the idea of having the toilet (thinking of it as an old-time privy) inside the house next to the kitchen. Oh, well, I could put up with that too, for a couple of months.
It was a place to go. And perhaps, if there was a local historical society, the Reverend Mr. Hay could tell me something of my familyfinish the story which had been cruelly cut short by my father's death.
I did not recognize, then, the reason for my own sudden eagerness to have a place again, roots, a family history. I just knew that suddenly there was a place to go; from having no plans, no home, no future, I could think ahead again.
I went to the window, carefully removing the half-finished watercolorthank goodness it was dryand began dismantling the easel, ready to fold it and pack it away first thing in the morning.
Copyright ©1990 by Marion Zimmer Bradley