Read an Excerpt
Gardner, Connecticut September 27, 1942
I want something of hers. There’s a teacup downstairs, the last one she used before she died. She didn’t finish her chicory coffee that morning, and what she left stained the porcelain in a faint ring. Her lipstick remains smudged in Red Letter Red along the rim. It’s been three weeks, and I still haven’t been able to wash it away. But I shouldn’t choose the teacup. Nothing fragile is going to survive today. “Aila?” Cass opens my bedroom door, her white blond hair pinned up in a plait, her wide eyes darker than normal. “Your father says I can come with you to the train station, but we have to leave in five minutes.” “I’ll be ready,” I say softly. “I would be more worried about Miles.” She nods and disappears back into the hallway. Her footsteps fall on creaking boards, and then the house returns to its solemn hush, so quiet you can almost hear the dust settle. As if we have all already left it. Five minutes. I go to my parents’ room. It’s been tidied since the last time I was here, the day of my mother’s memorial. Now the bed is made. All the flowers have been cleared away. Her vanity is free of her compacts and even the precious glass vial of Joy perfume she always displayed but hardly ever wore. I open her drawers, run my fingertips over her jewelry, but it’s all tangled and gaudy, and I want to leave it there, just as she left it. As if she could come in at any moment and clip on her big ugly earrings, as bright and jagged as suns. I turn to the bookshelf. It, too, has been sorted, but I prefer the way it used to look, when the books were all jumbled and wedged in at odd angles, threatening to fall onto my feet. My eye catches a large leather volume, its spine dwarfing all the others. I’ve never seen it before. I kneel down in front of it, my knees finding the threadbare place where the rug has worn almost through to the floor. I pull out the book and flip through the pages. They whisper against my fingers, thin and delicate, like moth wings. It is Shakespeare, a collection of his plays and poems, and my mother’s handwriting is everywhere in it, littering the margins and cluttering the white gaps between sentences in different-colored ink. The pages are yellowing, as if Mother has had this book for a long time. I wonder where it’s been hiding until now. An envelope is taped to the back cover. It is blank, and unsealed, and there is a note inside. “Aila! Miles!” Father’s voice rings out from the kitchen. “Coming!” I call back. The note was written recently; I can tell by the way her handwriting shakes, like it did when she was nearing the end. It says:
Stefen: You will find what you asked for within this. I will always love you. Your Viola
My attention snags on the two names. Because the first one does not belong to my father. And the second, though it is definitely my mother’s handwriting, was not her name. My mother was the other well-known Shakespeare heroine. The one who also died young. Juliet. “Aila!” my father calls again. This time it’s more of a warning. Leave it, I think. You don’t even like Shakespeare. And maybe I don’t want to know who this Stefen is. I put the book back on the shelf and decide that I want the teacup. It is my mother just as I remember her, safe and familiar, and it is still marked by her touch. I’ll bring it even if I have to hold it on my lap, cupped in my hands like a butterfly for the entire journey. I hurry down the narrow stairs, which seem to slope more and more to the right each year. I’ve never lived anywhere but this house—which we fondly call “the Tilt”—and I know just where to place my hand on the banister to keep my balance and where to step so the stairs don’t creak. When I reach the landing, I hear my next-door neighbor, Mrs. Reid. She’s in the kitchen with Father, taking final instructions for watching over the Tilt while we’re gone. She’s opening drawers and closing them, and I’m sure she’s the one who organized my mother’s books. Maybe out of guilt. “I’m sorry, again, Harold, that we aren’t able to take the children,” she says. I pause on the staircase, in the shadows. All I can see are her stockinged calves and the worn leather of her pumps, but I picture her lips pursing down, her white hair wispy and always looking as though it’s being swept heavenward by the wind. “With Earl’s health,” she continues, “I just didn’t feel that we could manage them both.” She means that she would have taken me, but not Miles. She doesn’t want to be responsible when he inevitably steals something or sets a fire. The creases in Mrs. Reid’s pumps deepen as she shifts her weight. “I thought someone else in town would surely be able to help, but . . .” “Well, thankfully, we’ve found other arrangements,” Father says stiffly. Then he turns away to yell again, but I appear in front of him before he can say my name. “I’m here,” I say. My eyes fall from Mrs. Reid’s overly rouged cheeks to her hands, where she’s been anxiously fiddling with something. A tea towel embroidered with green leaves—and my mother’s teacup, scrubbed shiny clean. I swallow. “I forgot one thing,” I say, turning and running back up the stairs. I touch my mother’s dresses one more time, hanging in neat, still lines in the closet, knowing they will be packed in storage or given away by the time I return. Then I grab the book of plays, stuffing it into my knapsack without another thought.
Father drives us to the train station in our mud-streaked Studebaker—he and Miles in the front and Cass and me in the back seat, my knapsack with the book in it lying heavy on the seat between us. “Think Mrs. Reid can handle the Tilt while we’re away?” Father asks. He smiles at me in the mirror and reaches over to ruffle Miles’s hair, but Miles just stares straight ahead. As we pull away, I don’t let myself look at the browning dahlias in Mother’s flower boxes. Everything is in motion when we arrive at the station, as if the air itself were anxious. Posters flutter on the walls, pigeons flap and peck, tow-white strands of Cass’s hair whip loose from her braid. She helped me set my wave this morning because I’ve always liked the way she does it best, but I can already feel it starting to fall. My dress clings to my legs, and my ankles are sweating inside my bobby socks. It’s unseasonably hot for late September. Cass and I step into the shadows of the eaves while Miles and my father purchase our tickets. I lean against a war poster that warns, “Telling a friend may mean telling THE ENEMY.” An advertisement over Cass’s head promises an “ALL-AMERICAN sugar with energy crystallized by the sun!” Overhead, the clouds swirl like soup. “You’ll come back soon,” Cass says. “You’ll write,” I answer. “I wish you could stay with me,” she says, tears brightening her eyes. She is my oldest friend, the one who climbed into bed behind me on the day my mother died and braided my hair until I fell asleep. The next morning, I found that she’d woven in her favorite ribbon, the cerulean one embroidered with flowers. The one she’d always planned to wear to our first school dance. “I wish I could, too,” I say. Being stuffed in a room with Cass and her three older sisters sounds better than the unknown ahead, even though I’ve always been a little frightened of Cass’s mother. Cass stares at the suitcase at our feet. “You’re not going to fall in love with some swoony out there and never come back, are you?” I squeeze her hand. “Maybe now Dixon Fairweather will finally realize what a dish I am.” She starts to cry-laugh as my father joins us on the platform, looking down at the newly purchased tickets in one hand and clutching my brother’s suitcase in the other. “Where’s Miles?” I ask, and my father glances up with the pained look of someone who has spent too long staring at the sun. “He was just here,” he says. Our train is coming down the tracks, its white smoke pillowing up into the sky. The brassy clang of the bell grows louder. “I’ll check the entrance,” I say, snatching up my bag. “Lavatory,” my father says. “I’ll take the staircase,” Cass volunteers. There are people everywhere in the depot, mostly women and children now that so many of the men have been plucked away to fight. I walk through the snaking line and peer out into the street, the heat and train bell in my ears, my heart quick and light. He is not there. I’m searching for the burnt copper of his hair, but on the way back to the platform I glimpse the tweed of his cap instead. Miles is sitting on the floor of the station, eating a half-melted Peppermint Pattie he must have hidden in the pocket of his shorts. I want to jerk his arm or at least rip the candy from his hand. Instead I stand and let my shadow fall over him. “Golly gee,” he says flatly. “You found me.” “Miles,” I hiss. “We were looking for you. Why did you run off?” I ask, although part of me wishes that he had actually gone far enough to make us miss the train. “Use your eyes,” he mumbles. “I was hungry.” “Use your head. You wreak havoc wherever you go.” You’re the very reason no one here was willing to take us, I want to say, but instead I offer him a hand up. He follows me, dragging his feet, back out to the platform, to my father and Cass. “Found him,” I say unnecessarily. I can tell that my father doesn’t want to yell at Miles in these last moments. He squints at us and picks up our suitcases, his broad, tall frame sharp against the sagging leather. He won’t leave until tomorrow, heading in the opposite direction. A plane to San Francisco. Then out to the endless Pacific. “It’s time,” he says. I embrace Cass first and try to think of the perfect words to say, but Father’s foot is tapping, his eyes never leaving the nearest conductor, and somehow Miles has managed to ruin even this. “Well,” I say, suddenly shy, “goodbye.” I take out one of my own ribbons and push it into Cass’s hand. Then I turn to my father. He’s shaved for the first time in weeks, and his cheek is so smooth I want to stay there for just a moment longer, to breathe in that smell of star anise and lather. I used to lie awake at night, fearing that he’d be called up in the draft. But now that it has happened, I know he will not die in the war—because my mother just died, and that will serve as some sort of protection around him, like a halo. This makes perfect sense to me. So I press my cheek against his one last time and then let him go. “It won’t be long before I’ll see you again,” Father says. Miles sets his chin but then drops his bag and throws his arms around our father in a hard hug. “It’s only temporary,” Father says. He swallows, his voice catching. He lets go of Miles and leans down to whisper in my ear, “My little elf.” Miles and I board the train, and Cass stands just below the window, tears streaming down her face. She’s tied my ribbon into her hair. As the porter loads my suitcase, its tag turns over like a browned leaf and I catch the swirl of my mother’s handwriting. I wave to my father, but he has already turned away. Now there is not a doubt left that I will see him again. This can’t be my final memory of him, his shoulders weighted under a sky the color of graphite, my reflection flickering and fading as I wait for him to turn back one last time and watch us go.
The train ride north to Sterling is four hours. I don’t mean to fall asleep, but halfway there I do. My neck has a crick in it when I jerk awake. Every dream is the same: the bright puffs of flowers around Mother’s bed; how still she is, her hands like marble when I reach up to touch them; and then the chill that echoes through to my bones until I gasp awake. For a moment I think we’ve missed our stop, but Miles is sitting across from me, sketching, and there’s nothing out the window but fields and sky. I reach for the hidden tip of my knobby right ear, a habit of childish comfort I’ve been trying to give up. I can tell that Miles notices by the way he smirks down at the notepad in his lap. His fingers guide various pencils over the page until the familiar curve of our mother’s headstone appears, wreathed with a rainbow of flowers. It’s all he draws lately, the same picture repeating, just like my dream. I wonder which one of us will stop first. “Are you hungry?” I ask, unwrapping the peanut butter sandwiches Mrs. Reid packed and handing a half-smashed one to Miles. The train car is almost empty now. We eat without talking, and when I tire of staring out the window, I pull out the Shakespeare book. The cover is thick, bound with burgundy leather. I flip through the pages, wondering where to start. There are pen markings under certain lines, and she’s written nonsensical notes in the margins, circling words like nose-herb and scribbling Sounds like Var’s . . . The play Twelfth Night seems to have the most markings. Some of the pages are bent, and the ink is smeared. I flip to the end again, but this time I ignore the envelope. The back cover is lined with velvet, and my fingertips leave patterns on it the way they would on a frosted window. And then I notice the smallest tear fraying at the corner. I glance at Miles. He is absorbed with drawing the yellow burst of a sunflower, so I pull on the cover’s thread. It comes away, and I realize it’s been sewn on in faint stitches. My curiosity catches like a white flame, and I work out the stitches with my nail, staring out the window so that I won’t draw Miles’s attention. When the flap is loosened enough, I slide the book back into my knapsack to hide it. Then I sweep my fingers into the opening. Even before my fingertips feel glass, I know it. There’s something hidden inside.