Hesper Dance, live-in caretaker of Peregrine's Rest, a graveyard founded in 1848, is a manic-depressive, introverted ex-librarian who seeks refuge from life's disappointments by communing with the dead. Her lifelong ambition is to see a ghost. Inadvertently aiding her in this quest is her new assistant, Quentin Pike, world traveler, adventurer, and mapmaker, and Lydia Webkin, a septuagenarian comic-book collector. Ghostly doings will ultimately unite Hesper and Quentin in romantic love, while Lydia, haunted by the spirit of a dead cartoonist with whom she had an affair 40 years ago, attracts evil in the form of twins: Argus and Audrey Malvin, a deadly brother-and-sister team prone to grave-robbing, counterfeiting and malice.
This offbeat entertainment is full of comic-book and cemetery lore, and Gostin spikes the spooky intrigue with deft approaches to the question of whether we are bound to our bodies, or whether something survives.
|Publisher:||The Permanent Press (ORD)|
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By Jennifer Gostin
The Permanent PressCopyright © 1996 Jennifer Gostin
All rights reserved.
This world is not Conclusion. A Species stands beyond — Invisible, as Music — But positive, as Sound — It beckons, and it baffles —
— Emily Dickinson
Hesper Dance, who understood most things about the cemetery, knew why the atmosphere was so turbulent today among the dead: the equinox would not let go of summer. The earth tilted on its axis, teetering drunkenly between seasons. Nothing, living or dead, could settle down comfortably.
The heat was uncanny. September 21st, and well over a hundred degrees, setting records. Outside the walls of Peregrine's Rest, Hesper had often heard people claim that they didn't mind this weather, that winter was coming too soon. They vowed to enjoy the sunshine while it lasted. She suspected that in private, many of these same hotbloods turned their air conditioners up to the limit. Others lay down naked behind shades pulled low and windows open wide to the sky, which was no longer blue, but a vast and shadowless yellow. Tempers snapped, hearts gave out, dogs went mad — and all weeks beyond the time when everyone had expected the first chill.
No one would visit Peregrine's Rest today. Those not kept at bay by the sullen heat would find that workmen had torn up Seven Mills Avenue just beyond the main gate, leaving the cemetery nearly inaccessible until they finished the repairs. To Hesper, the resulting isolation compensated for the grind of the jackhammers. Who would brave the torn up pavement on foot just to visit the long-dead of Peregrine's Rest? Those few dead who were remembered could wait a week, or a month, for their memorial wreath, their mumbled prayer. Hesper, the single official breathing resident, never invited company of her own. Today, she and the dead could expect to be alone together.
Which was how Hesper liked it best. Within the walls, even the equinoctial turmoil softened, like a noisy argument hushed while passing a sleeping child's room, only to be resumed full volume on the other side. She appreciated this relief; she was glad to be here where stones held promises, and hope waited in the shadows. On such days as this, when there was this quickening, this tension in the air, she wanted the acres of Peregrine's Rest to herself. Anything might choose to happen on such days.
Concentrating beyond the surface of the physical, Hesper noticed the heat only marginally. Her usual summer work clothes, a T-shirt and shorts, had clung to her since she'd put them on. Her hair sprang up messily, all waves and tendrils from the humidity, but she scooped it off her neck and pinned it under her wide-brimmed straw hat. She unlocked the storage shed, picked up her paint and basket of tools, and headed for the northeast quadrant, deep inside the cemetery.
There, evergreens overshadowed the monuments, which in turn contributed their own shadows to form an inviting double darkness. Today she was touching up the black paint on all the internal fences, sanding a little where the surface was chipped or rusty, then applying a fresh coat. Flecks of paint got into her eyes and speckled her skin; even in the shade she was sticky, but she pressed on. Peregrine's Rest boasted twenty-seven fenced plots, most of them with ornate Victorian iron grillwork. If she worked steadily, they'd all be sharp and black as wet ink strokes against the winter landscape.
When she finished the Carwithens' plot near Yew Avenue, she moved on to the Quinceys' at the intersection of Yew and Seraph Alley. She passed through a patch of sun so brilliant that it felt heavy, as if she were swimming in a boiling river, and not walking through weightless light. The jackhammers still rattled from far in the distance. Female squirrels, having lately given birth to their second litter of the year, barked irritably from above; swirling clouds of tiny gnats rose at her step; other insects chirped and hummed; birds added a dozen songs to the babel. But when Hesper reached the shade of the next building, a small Greek-revival mausoleum, the noise faded, as if sound and heat and light had multiplied each other. She put down her basket of rags and brushes with the paint can and inhaled the cooler air. She could not help speculating whether it wouldn't be even more comfortable underground.
The place where she stood offered a panoramic view of this side of the cemetery. Everywhere her eye fell she saw an angel, rows of angels, stone and marble, some with hands extended downward to deliver a benediction, some reaching toward heaven and eternity. Peregrine's Rest spread out over a swell of hilly ground above the town of Colonnade. Once, it had been the grandest cemetery in the county; now it was all but unused, a white elephant retired to perpetual care.
Her cottage stood just inside the cemetery wall, built of the same gray fieldstone in a style ornate with Gothic flourishes. Deep green wooden trim adorned the gabled exterior; ivy climbed its rough sides. Narrow leaded windows receded under eaves terminating in rain spouts that were not quite beasts or cherubs, but suggested both. The building looked more imposing than it was — the living quarters consisted of only five rooms, more than enough for Hesper.
The cottage had always belonged to the head caretaker. Once, a large staff had cared for Peregrine's Rest, but the chief among them had always lived on the premises, locking and unlocking the gates, supervising the gardening, watching over the dead at night.
When the cemetery was in active use, mourners assembled in a section of the house called the gathering room, which had its own separate entrance. That room had now been converted into the cemetery office, where Hesper spent many hours each week among filing cabinets, dusty ledgers, and the new computer, organizing records and answering mail.
She was the only employee now. She'd been hired two years before, six months after the departure of her predecessor, a man of eighty. This gentleman had at last, after many years of infirm and boozy effort, given up and retired to a pensioners' home, where he died. When Hesper took over, both house and cemetery were crumbling with neglect. Stones had toppled and not been set upright, graves had sunk, ironwork hung rusted and unrepaired. Coors cans, syringes, and Quarter-Pounder boxes, tossed and blown over the walls from outside, sank into the mud where they fell.
Slowly, she'd cleared away the rubbish, collected the withered, colorless wreaths, pulled weeds, tightened whining hinges. She clipped the grass where it crept out raggedly between paving stones, and reseeded where patches of lawn had worn away.
She found more than one mausoleum where candle stubs, filthy blankets, and empty bottles gave evidence of someone's having once set up housekeeping inside. Obscenities, love poems and crude drawings had to be removed from numberless flat surfaces. Some prankster had tarted up several of the female statues, painting their fingernails and toenails red, blushing their lips and cheeks pink, shadowing their eyes with a lascivious blue.
When Hesper had done all within her power, she wheedled the law firm that administered the cemetery's finances to hire a professional stone conservationist. He taught her how misguided drainage caused five- hundred pound stones to tip, and how their fall could be prevented. For days, a crane moved along the ground like some prehistoric creature, raising limestone, sandstone, marble, and granite. When all were resurrected, the expert taught her the right and wrong way to clean a stone. Hesper listened.
Next, she battled for and won the funds to hire a landscape contractor to revitalize the grounds. Burly, tanned men came each Thursday for several months, bearing rototillers, huge mowers, and other massive and expensive machinery. They soon noticed that Hesper, who appeared to them so pale, so reticent, could lift a roll of turf or a sack of fertilizer as deftly as they could. The men snickered and elbowed each other at first, but came to respect her physical strength.
She'd twist her mouth wryly and shake her head, negating the occasional rough compliment, and go on with her work.
Quickly, she learned the difference between a healthy tree and a blighted one; a flower that required full sunlight and one, like the violet, that flourished on northern exposures.
The grounds were now as they should be, a carefully preserved oasis in the midst of apartment buildings, shopping and housing developments, auto dealerships. Hesper loved it all, loved every cenotaph, every weeping willow, every shrouded cross. Everything depended on Peregrine's Rest.
The black paint she was using ran out around one o'clock. Keeping to the shady paths, she headed home for another bucket of it, and a quick lunch. As she turned onto Cider Lane, she saw (or almost saw, as had so often happened in the past) a flicker of motion, a parting of the blinding light. Had the sun moved? Had the whole fabric of the day rippled in the heat? The jackhammers, animals, and insects seemed to cease their din as if by consent.
A figure appeared out of the sunlight, walking towards her from the opposite direction. Hesper squinted against the glare that slanted directly into her eyes, straining to see, her every muscle tight with anticipation. Her entire body went cold. At last. Oh, at last. She made herself draw a deep breath. Alert. Attuned. Ready.
But no. She let the breath go in a shuddering sigh. After the initial drag of blood from her stomach, the disappointment registered in a painful rush. No ghost approached. She was facing only another woman, much older than she, but abundantly alive.
The woman wore a flowered cotton dress with a full, soft skirt, belted at the waist with a periwinkle-blue silk scarf. Her white hair fell in a long braid down the middle of her back. She had a lily of a face: pure. Hesper had never seen her in the cemetery before. The woman smiled and nodded. Hesper croaked a greeting in return.
As the woman passed, Hesper saw that she carried a stack of magazines under her arm. The outermost back cover called out in brash, primary colors. It showed an advertisement for Milky Way candy bars, in the green waxed-paper wrapper the Mars company had replaced decades ago. Hesper was taken back suddenly to her childhood. She remembered where she'd seen ads like that.
The woman was strolling out of the cemetery carrying a stack of old comic books.CHAPTER 2
My hero is man the discoverer.
— Daniel J. Boorstin
Quentin Pike (cartographer, explorer, and traveler extraordinaire) leaned against the front desk of the AutoTrip Travel Agency and gazed through the glass door into the parking lot. Glimmering waves of heat rippled up from the blacktop. Its grade rose slightly, then dipped. The view suggested deserts, maybe the Sahara, where a man might become lost and save himself only by his boundless knowledge of the land, the constellations, the scent in wind that led to water.
Quentin felt suddenly thirsty. To get a drink, he had to pass the poster-lined Customer Service cubicle where Paul, the agency owner, was making telephone reservations. Paul watched him, gimlet-eyed. Quentin drank some water, then returned to the front. Not much of a job for a man of forty-four, but this was the closest he'd come to making a living from his true talents. Superhighways and scenic routes weren't the uncharted territory he dreamed of, but they were better than nothing. He pulled out a stack of customer requests — vacation packages to be assembled and mailed, orders for guidebooks, inquiries about hotels — and began to sort them. Usually, when there were no patrons in the AutoTrip, Quentin liked to go over maps. How could he resist the shiny row of cabinets that held every corner, every inch, of the world? But lately he'd had to watch his step.
He resolved to be on his best behavior. AutoTrip members would get the clearest, most concise directions, the most direct routes, no matter what wonders they were just missing along the way. Anyhow, the summer traffic had died down, offering Quentin less temptation.
He finished his sorting and was mentally calculating the distance from the Auto Club door to the Continental Divide, when his first customer of the afternoon came in.
"Picking up a map package for Webkin," she said. "Lydia Webkin."
Quentin grinned at her. Seventy, he'd guess, with white hair as long as a girl's, braided nearly to her waist. Straight-backed, still graceful. Eyes so bright they looked lit from behind — and they matched the cornflowers in her dress. A beautiful woman once, Quentin thought. No, beautiful even now.
He was glad he'd been especially meticulous in preparing her map, which he found at once; it was the only one in Thursday's pickup file. "Need any help with accommodations?" he asked.
"Thank you, no; I'm not staying the night. The drive is under four hours, isn't it?"
"You can make it in three-and-a-half easy. No major road-work going on up that way, no special delays."
"That helps. I'm going to a sale. The early arrivals get the best selection."
Quentin glanced at a typed list of major fairs and conventions, found the one in that city on that date. Comic books and memorabilia.
"I used to collect comics," he offered as he handed her the map pack. "My folks threw 'em all out when I went away to college. Wish I had them back."
"Exactly why people collect. To get something, or more likely, some time, back." She tucked the map into a large straw bag.
Quentin glanced over his shoulder. On the other side of the office, two new customers slipped into a cubicle, a couple who either had been married so long that they'd grown to look alike, or were brother and sister, twins even. Paul was writing busily.
A cardboard Statue of Liberty, proffering New York City brochures, stood between Paul and his customers, and Quentin. By maneuvering a little to the right, Quentin could use the display to block Paul's view of himself and Lydia Webkin.
"If you wouldn't mind a little side exploration afterwards," he said, sotto voce, "I know of an unusual dealer of old books and magazines near Route 322. You take 100 south, then get on the turnpike west. This guy works out of his house. Might have comics."
The woman, picking up the Mata Hari tone, glanced over both shoulders and ducked her head slyly before asking for the address.
"I'll mark your map," Quentin whispered. He reached for it and deftly opened to the right page.
He was concentrating on his highlighting pen as the other two customers shook their heads and slipped out again, and Paul sneaked up behind him.
"Can I help you, Ma'am," the manager asked.
"Thank you, but this man has been delightful." She pressed Quentin's hand. "He's directed me on a treasure hunt." Like a breeze over a garden, she was gone.
Paul's mouth gaped, but shut with a smart pop almost immediately when a squeal of tires and bang of a car door called their attention to the no-parking zone in front of the window. Quentin recognized the man responsible, a Mr. Krebs, a customer from late last month. Mr. Krebs lingered in Quentin's mind because he'd seemed so eager to get the most from his vacation: a leisurely drive down the coast to Florida, a week there, then back. The man's two children, a girl of perhaps twelve and a younger boy, had sat on the leatherette couch in the waiting area. They'd brought a book to pass the time, from which the girl read aloud softly. Quentin remembered hearing snippets: Tales of Edgar Allan Poe, it had been. "The Cask of Amontillado." The boy's eyes had been wide, his lips slightly parted; once his sister had raised her eyebrows, and grimaced to him. They'd giggled, and turned the page.
Quentin had decided at once that these kids deserved a more memorable trip than the one Krebs had planned. He pretended to find something missing in the AutoTrip Vacation-Pak as he slipped it into its recyclable AutoTrip bag.
"Won't take a moment to fix," Quentin had said, sweeping it away. He'd unclipped the plastic spiral binder, removed the first of the perforated maps, the one which took the man from his home in Cockeysville to I-95, and replaced it with another. This one took him south down I-83 to Baltimore, where the heart of the city held Poe's tomb at Westminster Hall, then along to Amity Street and the Edgar Allan Poe House, where the author had lived with his consumptive child bride. Quentin tucked in a brochure about historic Baltimore, and another about US literary landmarks.
Excerpted from Peregrine's Rest by Jennifer Gostin. Copyright © 1996 Jennifer Gostin. Excerpted by permission of The Permanent Press.
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