APRIL 2009 – NO. 32
The Feast of Stephen
The second selection by our new guest fiction editor, Abby Frucht
Hallie stood at the window watching the snowstorm as it crossed the river, whitening the broad reaches of marshland and ruffling the headwaters of the Long Island Sound. Even from the hilltop she could sense the margin of ice forming along the banks, chunking up, and pushing inward. Tomorrow, the ducks would be trapped in the small blue-breaks in the waxy looking surface, paddling in happy, senseless circles until the next thaw. In the herb garden the snow had already cottoned the armillary sundial and the tops of dried fennel and rue, obscuring the inscription: Light and Shadow but Always Love.
She felt a quick uphill flicker of hope that tonight might be cancelled. How luxurious instead to lounge around in slippers by the fire, sipping eggnog and bourbon in her parents' now clean and polished house. Her week had been furious with enterprise: dusting and mopping, shoveling the accumulating piles of old magazines, newspapers and books under furniture. There was the half-day skirmish with the Christmas tree, tacking up the obligatory mistletoe and holly — surreptitiously cracking open windows to clear the house of the quarantined musk of old people.
"Family is everything," her mother liked to repeat, but really, was it? The tall clock in the corner reported the half-hour and there followed the crumbling sound of a log giving way to the fire. A dull winter light fell across the worn Kangxi carpet, exposing a darned seam on the back of a sun-faded wingchair. As a town truck passed on the road below there was the optimistic chink of the snow chains and the scraping bellow of the plow. No, the party was on. Her Aunt and the cousins never cancelled. Fond of all expeditions, the boys would literally tramp down the ridge in snowshoes with Aunt Isabel in a jiggered-up litter rather than miss the annual Christmas Eve celebration.
Then she remembered with a rising gust of anxiety that Adam was coming. Adam Globnick the "adventure capitalist," they had dubbed him, married to her cousin Joan, was making a rare appearance.
On his and Joan's wedding day, in an oddly calm albeit sloshed moment of impulsive lunacy, she had made out with Adam Globnick in a back hallway of the dowdy old beach club. It would be years before she met Will. The foggy early spring afternoon had been cold with a steady misting rain. After about six champagnes too many, she had lurched out of the bunny-hop line, staggered off to find the bathroom and wobbled into a dimly lighted, unused corridor where she had tripped over a pair of stubby outstretched legs. Regally inhaling a hand-rolled Sobranie, a fifth of Johnny Walker Black stashed by his hip, Adam looked up, his expression one of cool regard. She had plunked herself down beside him, two tired refugees from the hurricane of gaiety in the dining room. Afterwards, she figured they must have spoken, although her memory on that score was wiped clean. The odor of mildewed canvas and Sea and Ski hung in the air and there was the feeling of her back pressed up against a damp bead-board wall. She still had a palpable sense of the messy contraband sweetness of their kissing and a vision of the wilted edge of his carnation flattened against her blue linen dress. In the end, she had tried to convince herself it was nothing more than her own flexible morality at fault, or a groom's grasping attempt at a last fling. Still later there would come a few uncomfortable flinches, but those were easily managed. Adam had even taken a liking to Will and eventually the four of them had attempted a weekend friendship that fizzled after a season or two.
Twenty-five years passed, the way they do, sometimes seeming like five and sometimes a hundred. Joan was now a highly regarded textiles curator at the Metropolitan Museum, influential social dragon, powerbroker of the arts, exalting in her beautiful children, her high-octane marriage and her ultra-hip downtown address.
They had been pals as girls, their entire relationship built on a shared passion for chocolate meringues, Davy Jones and sitting in dark closets with flashlights under their chins. But so rarely did Hallie see her cousin now, and the unbridled incident had happened so long ago, she felt only a guarded filial politeness for the stern successful middle-aged Joan and an ancient encoded, physical ache, if not exactly for Adam (that would be ridiculous) than for the days of her incautious youth. Word was, Adam had lost every hair on his once luxurious head and spent most days riding the Netjet between La Guardia and Narita International. Their little Connecticut backwater bored him, or so Joan said. More likely, she needed an excuse for Adam's persistent absences. The truth was, Adam had always had a soft spot for Hallie's mother, and Hallie could recall several afternoons when Adam and her father had happily chipped golf balls over the roof of the old barn.
"Hallie!" Her mother's voice startled her to attention. Cornelia was negotiating the descent down the narrow back stairway, her voice quivering with agitation, one treacherous step at a time. "Hallie? Are you there? Are you there? Hallie!" Hallie couldn't quite bring herself to answer, not yet.
"Probably outside with that damn horse. Always horses." A lull of reconsideration followed. Hallie could feel her mother calibrating the exact emotional frequency with which to bounce her next emergency transmission. "Hallie! I must get out there and shovel that walk. My sister will not like tramping through those polar drifts. Can you hear me?"
Hallie rose and trotted down the hall, turned a corner and found her mother examining the dining room with her perpetually cold hands clasped to her chest. Cornelia, or Neelie to everyone who knew her well, was a tall gracious woman whose animation had once suggested a physical beauty that never quite revealed itself in photographs or home movies.
"What can I do for you, Mom? What do you need?" Neelie, of course, never wanted to appear to need anything.
"Oh, Hallie, dear. There you are. I'm just on my way out the door to shovel the path."
"Mother, you're in your bathrobe. Why aren't you dressed? Aren't you freezing?" They all hated to bathe in the wintertime. Her father maintained the temperature of the drafty old house as if it were the speed limit, a strict 55. Funds were low. Doubling up on sweaters was policy.
"I'm just going to put a coat over."
"Your hair's still wet."
Her mother patted at the damp plant-like strands clinging to her neck and Hallie had a quick flash of standing in the shower with Will. Her face raised to the spray, eyes pinched shut. Damp tips of her razor-straight hair tickling her back. His hands slipping down her soap-slicked biceps; an unexpectedly visceral Polaroid of pleasure and pain.
Her mother pulled her flannel robe closer and straightened her back. "Goodness, who do you think did all this kind of thing before you came back home? You don't think he did, do you?" She pointed upstairs. "He never lifts a finger. Not for anyone."
Hallie pushed her bangs off her forehead and groaned. Her parent's frost-rimed marriage was a subject to be assiduously avoided. When she had arrived over a year ago, driven up the long steep drive, with the old horse in the trailer, she had promised herself, only a month or two, that's all. And now, look.
"I'll clear the path and get more wood. I'm going out to the barn anyway."
"That darn old horse is lucky to have you, I'll say."
Her mother had made it no secret that she considered horses, for any woman over the age of 39, to be an obstacle to meeting the right kind of divorced men.
"I won't be long."
"No, don't be. We have plenty to do in that kitchen before they get down here. And please change out of those mucking boots, they look silly with that pretty jumper."
Hallie nodded, smoothed the black velvet over her hip. There was no mention of her morning's labors — the chopping and stuffing, the trip to the bakery, the table, and the hors d'oeuvres. And every day, it seemed, the list grew longer. Soon she'd be running it all, and there was no way out. They needed her. She forced a smile and started to turn away.
"Hallie, one more thing."
"If in your travels, you happen to see my wedding band — I'm praying you didn't suck it up with all that vacuuming. I think it finally wore through. I've looked everywhere. Your father will be furious."
"Oh, Mother," was all she could manage. The psychological aspects of the lost wedding ring were more than she could deal with right now. "I'll search. I will."
Her mother neatly corrected course, raised her chin and took in the room. "Well, doesn't this all look gorgeous! What a job you've done." The long trestle table was set for eight, the centerpiece of Lady apples flocked with boxwood painstakingly arranged. A regiment of paper-thin wine glasses; pewter chargers and the good damask napkins fell into correct formation.
"You think?" Hallie shook back her hair, crossed her arms and rubbed at the sore spot in her elbow joint. She had a lingering, prehistoric weakness for her mother's approval on all matters of taste.
"Just beautiful." Hallie gritted her teeth as Neelie made one miniscule adjustment to the position of the ironstone compote. "There, perfect."
And then, as if Hallie had suddenly evaporated, Neelie turned vaguely away to stare at her own familiar outline in the gilt mirror above the sideboard. How comforting the room looked, she thought, with its pine floorboards as wide as four hands put together. Yes, there were the pretty Staffodshire plates waiting in a patient stack for tonight, a wedding present from some long-dead friend. Hallie had worked like a Turk getting it all clean and shining. Worked too darn hard, but didn't it look perfectly beautiful? If only Hallie didn't always point out her labors, making Neelie feel useless and feeble, an old woman who could have outworked any of them only a few years ago, but now had at best a precarious hold on her rooms and belongings, and wandered about taking inventory like a shopkeeper going out of business. She patted at the vulnerable little whirlpool of wet cowlick flipped up in the back, turned again to Hallie and then out to the bank of windows giving way to the snow-muffled herb garden beyond. "Just look at all that snow."
The low boxwood hedges arranged in Persian knots were crested with white, and the trunks of the oaks and maples bordering the yard appeared blue in the December dusk. Neelie froze and then gasped and limped to the window. "Hallie! I think I saw that fisher-cat again." She pressed her fingers to the sill. "He slunk along the stonewall into the woods. What an evil looking thing he is!"
Hallie raced to the window but the creature, if it had been there at all, had vanished.
"Ugly face. I looked it up. It's a cousin of the stoat." Neelie hugged herself and shivered. "You take a flashlight when you go out."
"I'll be fine." Hallie started for the back door. She had no intention of digging through the hall closet for a flashlight that would never in a million years work anyway.
She whirled around to face her mother. "What?" Neelie's anguished face went lax.
"I don't know … I …." She paused and gave an aimless little laugh. "I've forgotten what it was I wanted to say."
They held each others' eye and there passed between them a split second of terrifying comprehension, reminding Hallie of a particularly gripping movie she had seen as a teenager: Land of the Pharos, Curse of the Pharos, or some such thing, in which Joan Collins realizes at the very end that she's trapped inside the burial chamber of the giant pyramid slowly filling with sand.
Unshackled from the house, Hallie kicked the light dry snow in front of her in puffs. The stinging cold was delicious against her skin. She gulped the air and raised her arms, snowflakes sticking to her red-wool mittens.
The barn lay ahead, dark and mysterious, chapel-like, clouded in a haze of white. She deemed all buildings holy that sheltered live animals, considered them sanctified by innocent breath and trust. She brushed off the wooden latch and slotted it back. The door scraped an angel's wing across the white frozen ground. An aura of pulse and movement, the sweetness of hay and the heady tang of manure drifted out into the night. Inside, the horse snorted and stomped his hoof in the deep shavings.
"Jack, it's me." Her voice sounded small and indefinite — girlish. The old horse blew through his nostrils and nickered, stretched his long-arched neck over the stall door, an eager black silhouette. She yanked off a mitten and batted around in the dark until her hand closed on the string that pulled the chain on the overhead light. Jack threw his head up in surprise, and the light caught the spooky ocular depths of the old horse's eye. He craned forward, shook his forelock and nodded up and down. "Hello horse," she laughed. Pulling off the other mitten, she stood by his stall door and offered him half a carrot. He rubbed his handsome roman nose against her shoulder, tilting his large bony head until she cradled his throatlatch in the crook of her arm. She delighted in the weight and curve of his skull, the deep hollows over his eyes and the tickle of whiskers on the tapered muzzle against her palm. She scratched the dusty hair behind his twitchy ears and fluffed the star in the middle of his broad forehead with her thumb. A small sound in the hayloft — Nestor, the barn cat, jumping off a bale — startled him and cut short their usual greeting. "Oh you," she said, as he crow-hopped back in mock fright.
She performed her habitual reconnaissance for bumps and scratches that thankfully revealed nothing. She thought how fine he looked even in old age. A lot of bone for a thoroughbred, and slightly goose-rumped, he could jump the moon. They had routinely cleaned house in the junior jumpers in their prime. As she moved toward the stairs, the big bay horse whipped in a tight circle of anticipation, nickered again with more force as she disappeared into the loft. The floor was rushed with loose hay and slippery. She cried out when Nestor swished past her leg. The old cat mewed and she stroked his muscled back as he trotted beside her to the back of the loft where the wall of sweet green hay was stacked to the roof. Brushing away a cobweb, she grabbed several flakes from the open bale, peered down through the hatch at Jack's annoying habit of twirling just under the iron feed rack. She hated to dust his eyes with chaff. "Move!" she chided him. He danced sideways. The hay thumped into the rack, and the horse lunged forward and snatched at the timothy with his usual ferocity.
Then she heard the unexpected groan of the batten door crossing the snow again. She would kill her mother if she had come out in her bathrobe — really she would. The door, however, remained open, and the cold air continued to rush in. Someone who didn't know any better stood in the opening. "Shut the door!" she shouted.
"Hallie? That is you up there, I assume?" A load of snow slid off the roof as he shot the bolt back into place.
"I hope you don't mind, I saw the light on."
Adam. It was Adam Globnick, his voice as smooth and heavy as a python hanging in a tree.
He brushed the snow from his impeccably tailored shoulders and smiled up at her demonstrating his excellent teeth. He had lost most of his hair and what remained was salt and pepper, shaved close to his head. "Snowing like a bastard." He paused as if temporarily unsure of himself and laughed once, looked down at the ground and put his gloveless hands in his pockets. "So, how are you? Been a long time, right?"
She struggled to cut off her flirting instinct. She was, she thought, well beyond that stage in life, but had found nothing as of yet with which to take its place, nothing but a brusque neutered friendliness, despite which she could feel the blood rushing to her face. "I'm good. I'm well, Adam. Nice to see you."
"Long time." he repeated. "So, Jesus, what's new? I heard you're divorced. I'm sorry to hear that, Will was a first-class guy. What the hell happened? How'd you scare him off? Kidding." Despite his easy bravado, Hallie sensed something had changed. There was a fundamental weakening of animal spirit. If she were someone who believed in such things she would have said his aura had dimmed.
"Shit happens, right? How long has it been now, a couple of years?"
"A little longer than that, I'm afraid." Hallie looked away, made a business of putting her mittens on. "Why on earth aren't you wearing a coat?" she said. "You must be freezing to death." Christ, was everyone over 55 in this world going slowly and permanently insane?
"No, not really. Well, a little." He brushed at his lapel and glided over to Jack's stall. He leaned his forearms on the stall door and Jack rolled a wary eye in his direction but kept eating.
Her shyness overcome by a proprietary concern for Jack, she clomped in her rubber boots to the bottom of the stairs.
"How's the old guy?" Adam reached over and tapped the horse's flank with two fingers. Jack snorted and shivered the skin over his ribs. He had no small portion of arrogance himself. "Maybe you've heard. I've got a couple of nice stakes horses running out on the coast. Santa Anita."
"I didn't know you even liked horses."
"Oh, no, I like the racket. Always one for thrills, you know. "Hey, fella," he said softly. Jack sidestepped away. "Lotta fun. Lotta money. Lotta fun."
"Watch him. He sometimes bites."
"Thoroughbred, right? I seem to remember he was a hotshot back in the day."
"I bought him off the track, cheap. Wouldn't break properly from the gate."
"A swerver, yup."
"Old as Methuselah now."
"Jesus, god, that's old for a horse."
"He's getting up there," she shrugged.
"Aren't we all?" He laughed.
She tried to laugh too, but it came out as a scratchy choking sound.
"No, seriously, you look good, Hals, you do."
"Hey, would you mind, while you're there, checking his water bucket, it's in the corner by your elbow." He slid back the bolt and wiped his hand on the rub-rag slung over the blanket rack.
"You don't have to go in." He paid no attention and stepped into the stall.
"Looks to be full — not frozen either." Jack broke from his hay to give Adam several sniffs, after which he raised his head and lifted his upper lip and swished his long black tail.
"He likes me."
"He thinks you smell funny."
"You still jump him?" He stepped back into the aisle and pushed the stall door shut behind him.
"Oh, my god, no. His hocks are shot."
"Mine too." He telemarked and grabbed his knee.
They both laughed, but as their laughter trailed off, the barn filled with a long awkward silence.
"Hallie," he said finally, came to full stop paused and began again. "Joan and I …. " he gestured vaguely. "We've been having problems for a long time. Ha. Who hasn't? Am I right?"
She nodded — tried to look encouraging.
"I don't know. I'm sorry. The party tonight. But she pushed me. She had a couple of stiff ones and you know how she can be. Phew!" He paused again and kicked at a clump of icy dirt she had picked from Jack's hoof earlier that afternoon. "We're calling it quits. Isabel doesn't know yet. We're not going to tell her, not right away, the boys either. Jonah — he senses it. He knows. Ben, well, Ben is happy and oblivious as always. Lucky kid. He has Isabel's temperament. If it ain't happening to him, it just ain't happening."
"Wow. I ... I won't say anything. I promise." But she had a sudden glimpse of that long ago wedding, the scrollwork cake and the fleets of champagne glasses moving through the crowd, Adam's boisterous family's insistence that even Gus dance the Hora.
"Had to get out of Isabelle's freaking house."
Enormous and glassy, a Japanese display case, its white rooms strewn with colorful raw-silk pillows, Neelie's sister's house had appeared in a dozen magazines.
Another silence fell. There was only the steady, domestic sound of Jack chewing his hay, and the occasional drip of water into the aluminum tub under the leaky water pump.
"I guess I am getting cold," he said finally and patted his arms.
"Shall we go in? Mom is really looking forward to seeing you."
He nodded. "So, if it's a little weird in there tonight." He jerked his thumb toward the house, gave a self-deprecating laugh. "Ah, well."
They were standing in the narrow opening between the door and the stairs, and as she passed him he touched her arm so lightly she was unsure if he had touched her at all, but she turned and looked back at him. His face was tight with pain and he grimaced rather than smiled — stood there looking at her as if they were both waiting for something. She was suddenly angry and afraid. "You should have a coat," she blurted.
"I told you, my departure was sudden." He gave her an awful smile as she shut off the light. They stood in the dark facing one another. Jack gave a low shuddering whinny.
"Yes, he said finally, "I should have a coat." And this time he took her shoulders and drew her to him, her cheek pressed awkwardly against the damp gabardine wool of his suit jacket
He began again. "I've lost almost everything. No one knows. Not yet. In a week the papers will be full of it. And the crazy fucking thing is she thinks I'm having an affair, and jerk off that I am I'm letting her think I am, because the truth is, I want out."
She pulled not entirely out of his embrace. "What are you talking about?"
"Forget it. I just had to say it. I had to say it out loud — to someone." Something like a moan escaped his lips and he pulled her close again, his chin coming to rest a little painfully on the top of her head.
"Your hair's wet," he said. "You should be wearing a hat." And then he laughed a not so very nice laugh and pushed her away.
If he had gone on holding her she might not have been so angry, but he had let her go, left her standing there like a fool so she shoved him right back. "Why are you telling me this?"
"I told you. I — "
"This isn't fair. You're not fair!" She pivoted and ran. How dare he? How dare he confess to her? But she was hyper-aware of him following her, the snow creaking under his feet as he hurried to catch up. She could feel the release of adrenaline seeping into her veins. She stopped and waited.
He arrived at her side panting. "It's getting deep."
"Your poor shoes."
"I'm sorry. I had no right — "
She waved him off. They walked on in silence, their breaths rising and dissolving, snow fringing their lashes. She had forgotten all about the obstructed path and the firewood. When they neared the driveway she asked him how he had gotten there. Her father's ancient Volvo sedan sat alone in the turnaround, quickly becoming a small-humped-white hill.
"I hiked down the path," he said, and pointed off in the direction of the rock cliff made invisible by snow-heavy cedars.
"Like the Yeti."
Soon they were within shouting distance of the house, almost within the circle of light cast by the lanterns on either side of the French doors. They tramped though the herb garden where centered among the dead stalks of yarrow and calendula, the armillary sundial stood on its stone pedestal, the spherical contours flocked with snow. Adam stopped. For a split second, she thought he might change his mind and go, but he brushed at the snow on the sundial with his bare hand, revealing a piece of the bronze plate that bore the raised signs of the zodiac.
"I remember this thing," he said. "I looked at this once. It was summer. Man, a long, long time ago. Big yellow flowers around it like this. He showed her the size of the flowers with his hands.
The snow fell between them silent and fast. She noticed a smile barely curling the corners of his lips. His eyebrows looked very black, his skin was pink and glistening.
"Said some damn thing — light and dark — he cleared away more snow. "Ah ha!" He looked at her. "I'm right. So far."
He looked down for a moment in thought, looked up and said in a rush: 'Light and shadow, but always love!' That's it! Now how the hell did I remember that?" He made a snowball and tossed it at her. "Shit, that's cold!" he said shaking out his fingers and turning toward the house.
"Come in. Come in!" Neelie ushered them in through the French doors that opened onto a mudroom that housed winter coats on wooden pegs, a row of rubber boots and several tin garbage pails chock-full of birdseed and thistle. No one who knew them used the formal entrance at the front of the house. To save on the heat, her father closed off the front hall, his study and two upstairs bedrooms.
Cornelia raised her hands in delighted dismay. "Oh, Adam, it's so nice to see you. It's been such a long, long time. You look wonderful!"
Adam leaned over and gave her a rather solemn-dry peck on her sunken cheek. He's shocked by how much she's aged, Hallie thought.
"Ooh, your lips are cold! Where is everybody?"
"They're on the way down. I'm just the advance guard."
"Let me take your coat — oh, goodness, you don't have one!"
"It's not that cold." He rubbed his hands together, stamped the snow off his shoes and stepped into the room. "This place looks wonderful, as always. And the tree — Isabel doesn't have one this year — too much mess." He strolled over to the bushy blue spruce and began examining the ornaments.
"Hello, Adam!" Her father came in from the polar regions of the front hall carrying a ratty-looking leather-bound book. He automatically adjusted the thermostat before he entered the room. "Merry Christmas, or whatever damn thing we're supposed to say these days. Hell of a long time, boy. Where's Joan? Have a drink." Trying to disguise his limp, he hustled energetically to the step-back cupboard that served as a bar. "What are you drinking these days?"
"Still scotch, sir. Whatever you've got. What's the book?"
Gus turned the dark green hardcover over in his hands. "The Mushroom, Edible or Otherwise," by M.E. Hard, dated, 1902." He set the book on the dry-sink, and took inventory of the ranks of bottles. "We have it here somewhere, damn it, we used too — ah — here it is! This is the good stuff. You can taste the peat.
"How are you, Gus?"
"How the hell do I look?" Her father smiled grimly and pressed the highball along with a rumpled cocktail napkin bearing a Jack-o'-lantern into Adam's open hand. "Terrific suit," he said, what's that on your tie there, clocks?"
"Time zones, actually, hand-painted in Mashika, a little town right outside Tokyo." Adam wiped his fingers on the napkin and held the silk tie up for closer inspection.
"Never seen anything like it."
Hallie watched them from the corner of her eye. How insubstantial her father looked next to Adam Globnick. The cancer, now in remission, had winnowed him, hollowed him out like an old tree stump. His shoulders had narrowed, his oatmeal-colored sweater hung loose and spotted, his gray flannels, an attempt at formality, were peppered with moth holes and sagged in the back. Anger, alcohol and a kind of un-crushable curiosity were his only remaining fuels. His lately hatched interest in mushrooms was disquieting. The two men gravitated to the fire and stood gazing into the flames. Adam set his drink down on the mantle. "I hope you don't mind," he said, "if I take off my shoes? They're soaked."
A not unpleasant silence fell over the room as Adam settled into the wingchair and untied his shoelaces. The fire snapped; there was sound of her mother's disorganized bustle coming from the kitchen. As the aroma of roasted goose and pine boughs temporarily overcame the smell of damp and physical atrophy, a bright expectation began to gather and overtake her. And instead of feeling sorry for Adam and Joan, Hallie felt almost supernaturally awake. So much so, she needed to get a rein on herself.
While pulling apart dinner rolls, she turned to the kitchen window to see Adam's two sons, tall curly-haired and beautiful as archangels, striding through the snow with their grandmother between them. Isabel's platinum hair was crowned with a circlet of mink. She laughed like a showgirl every time the boys took her elbows and lifted her over the deepest drifts. Hallie could see Joan trailing behind them, head down, large red shopping bags in either hand, plowing forward like a Hessian in her long sheepskin coat and brown leather boots. The boys were rather mindlessly singing a carol: "Good King Wenceslas," and only the first verse, over and over.
"Mom, they're here!" Hallie raised her voice so her mother could hear.
"What? They're here did you say? Wonderful. Hallie, take off those boots, they look awful with that dress."
Gus began to shout from the living room, "They're here for Christ sake, Neelie. Your sister and her whole god-damned tribe are here!"
There was a lot of shouting and confusion; the boys knocked the snow off their feet. Joan immediately began instructing everyone: where to put the presents, how to hang up their coats and what time they would be leaving. She checked her watch as if the evening ahead were a particularly grueling marathon in which she had been forced to participate. Jonah continued to sing snatches of the carol, while Ben unveiled his grandmother from her lush sable coat.
Adam, still by the fire raised his glass in salute to his sons as they entered the living room. Joan energetically unwound her scarf. Gus patrolled the bar like an arthritic goalie, alert for incoming drink orders. They all clasped Neelie, one by one, until everyone had taken her in their arms and held her while she closed her eyes and smiled.
"How glorious to have you all under my roof for one evening!" she cried and took Jonah and Ben by the hand. "Come see the tree. My theme this year is silver!"
Her sons out of reach for the moment, Joan cruised to the bar in her full-length patchwork silk kimono. "Well, look at you," said Gus. "Quite a suit of lights, Joan dear — Merry Christmas."
"Happy Hanukah, Uncle Gus. Adam brought it back for me from Mashika, a little town just outside — "
"Terrific. Can I fix you up?"
"Boy, can you. A vodka martini on the rocks — a little lemon — if you will. Hello, Hals!"
Hallie stood in the doorway to the kitchen, smiling like an idiot, a large plate of chilled shrimp in her hands.
Joan raised her voice an octave: "I guess you've already seen Adam? I see he's taken his shoes off before entering the temple," she shot him a look. He smiled at her, raised his eyebrows and picked up his drink, deserting the fireplace to sit in safer territory by Neelie on the sofa.
Jonah, Hallie thought, looked worried. He had dark creases under his wide brown eyes and looked from one parent to the other as if he wasn't sure which one needed him most.
"So, Adam," said Neelie, who was a bit nervous with him sitting so close. "Isabel tells me you've been spending a great deal of time in Tokyo, on business."
Joan took a slug of her martini, snorted and looked over at Ben, who smirked and grabbed a shrimp as Hallie walked by. "Thanks Hals. Can we see Jack later? Jonah and I want to see old Jack."
Adam, who acted as if he hadn't a care in the world, had pulled a series of glossy photographs out of his pocket and was showing them one by one to Neelie, who couldn't see a thing without her glasses, but nevertheless exclaimed winningly over each shot: "Marvelous! Beautiful! How divine!"
Joan downed the rest of her drink and pushed her glass at Gus for another.
Isabel stood over her sister and narrated. "That's the little man who's building Adam his meditation room. He's flying west this spring to build me a pagoda in the new garden."
"Yes," said Joan, "Adam is getting very spiritual in his old age." She had raised her voice even more and everyone in the room looked her way. "He's made lots of new friends in Mashika, a little town — "
"Joan," said Adam, "Don't."
Joan looked thoughtful and took two more ladylike sips of her freshened drink, then set her glass too carefully on the gate-leg table next to the bar. "Don't what?"
Isabel fled her sister's side and whispered in Hallie's ear, "I think we ought to get dinner on the table, don't you?"
"Neelie. This table looks exquisite!" Isabel shouted down the long trestle table to her sister who appeared adrift in the conversation. Isabel always made a point of complimenting her sister's efforts. "Just beautiful. So simple and fresh." She tinged her wineglass with the blunt edge of her knife. "I propose a toast." Ben groaned. Dinner had been served and they were all waiting to eat. Isabel paid no attention, but lifted her delicate eyebrows and smiled her cover-girl smile. Her raised wineglass caught the candlelight and the dragonfly brooch pinned to her gray cashmere sweater glittered. "To my dearest sister, Neelie, who every year come rain, or shine, or snow — "
Ben cheered at the word snow and as if on cue, the windows rattled in their casements and there was the hiss of snowflakes driving against the glass.
"There's that wind," Gus said to no one in particular. "They said it would pick up."
"Order! Quiet!" Isabel pouted.
Gus ignored her. "You know, they say in 50 years, there will be no fish," he said, apropos of nothing. They all looked at one another uncertainly, Ben elbowed Jonah who squealed. Isabel cleared her throat theatrically and began again. "To Neelie, who every year puts on this marvelous party, bringing us all together under one roof, reminding us of family and friends, those present and those who have gone on ahead."
"Amen," said Jonah. Ben plucked a roll from the basket, slid it through the pool of gravy on his plate and took a bite.
"Is it any good, Gus?" Neelie seated at the far end of the table looked like a courtroom defendant awaiting the verdict. "How is it? Is it all right"?
Gus looked up and paused, his mouth taking on a sour, automatic unpleasant cast. "It's cold," he said. "Everything's stone cold." Neelie's chin buckled. Hallie looked down the table at her mother and their eyes met in a look of solidarity.
"But I'm used to it." Gus began to eat as if he hadn't said a thing.
Adam poured Hallie more wine. "Fortification," he murmured, "for the long haul," and he gave her boot a nudge with his stocking foot. A small deathly silence fluttered over the table like a pantry-moth. The candles guttered. Jonah looked at his new wristwatch, an early Christmas present from Isabel. "Twenty past," he said softly.
And then, as if Jonah had freed them from some weird spell of suspended animation, they all began to talk at once, laughing and sipping champagne and covering over the tracks of Gus's unkindness.
Soon, Joan's chin rested in her hand. She seemed consoled listening to Ben talk about the coming lacrosse season, as if the very mention of spring had a healing effect.
Hallie stood up. "How about dessert, everyone?"
Immediately, she began to organize the kitchen. Jonah piled plates next to the sink; she set aside the good silver that had never seen the inside of a dishwasher. She hit the button on the coffee maker. The Bouche de Noel was heavier than she expected; she'd better not drop it. Jonah's disappointment would be more than she could bear.
"Do you need a hand, Hallie, dear?" her mother called from the dining room.
"I've got everything under control, Mom." She almost laughed when she said it, because nothing could be further from the truth. She reached for the scissors kept on a hook above the dish drainer and there, almost invisible against the stainless steel of the sink, was the lost platinum wedding band. She picked it up and held it between her thumb and forefinger, marveling at its thinness. Her own ring she had chucked down a storm drain on her way home from the courthouse.
She walked to the window and placed the ring gently on the sill and touched the tip of her nose to the cold glass. She could just make out the herb garden smothered in white. The storm seemed to have let up for a moment, but the wind was whipping snow across the darkness beyond the edge of the lamplight. Then, she saw something, a flash of brown, too big for the fisher-cat. A doe perhaps, or the six-pointed buck her father was always blathering about. But then, under the wind she heard a long plaintive whinny, and she caught the dark form racing between the trees.
"Jack!" she heard herself shout, and there was the gurgle of the coffee maker just finishing up. She sprang from the kitchen, ran past the blur of panicked faces at the table, their shouts following her. "He's out!" she cried at them. "Jack's gotten out!" She thrust her arms into the sleeves of her heavy coat and thanked god she had never taken off her boots. "That damn horse," she heard her mother say. Hallie slammed the door shut behind her.
Overhead, the sky arched black and cold — pinpricked with glacial stars. The wind had driven the snow ahead of it and the full moon turned the frozen-buried world a freakish blue. Icy spray sheered off the ocean-like drifts and stung her face like bits of glass. She whirled around. Jack was nowhere to be seen. She screamed his name and stumbled toward the barn. The door gaped open, exposing a dark empty hole.
Inside, she grabbed a lead line off the hook on Jack's open stall door. In the distance, she could hear her name being shouted, and when she ran out of the barn, there was Adam wearing Isabel's sable coat, wading through the waist high drifts like some crazy half-human bear. The boys were behind him, and she could just make out her father in his wretched stadium coat staggering toward his buried car. Jonah and Ben in their bright puffy down parkas split off, running up the hill toward the cliffs. Ben shouted at the top of his lungs at his brother. "Come on — come on!" They sounded excited and bold as they disappeared over the rise.
Then she heard Adam shouting her name.
The wind shrieked and she doubled over and held her ears. When he reached her he caught her wrist. He was gasping from the cold. "It was my fault. My fault. I must have left the gate unlocked. I must not have bolted the door!" He had pulled on Ben's ski-hat, making him look absurdly young and frightened.
"Let go of me," she cried, yanking her arm away and struggling forward, making for the woods chanting the old horse's name. She had let Jack down.Let her attention wander. He who had carried her over every ditch and every fence. He for whom she cared as much as she had ever cared for any of them — as much care as she could muster for any one living thing. And he, all he had asked of her was consistency: hay, water, a clean stall and green grass in summer.
So little for so much.
"Jack!" she cried "Jack!"
He needed her too.
Then Adam caught up and passed her, his legs pumping up and down in his ridiculous shoes. He bellowed back at her, "I see his tracks! I see them!" motioning like some comedian in a silent movie to follow him into the trees.
"Go on!" she screamed back, but her words were ripped apart by the wind. She pitched herself against the gale and began to run hard. There were the deep hoof-prints, blue under the moon, winding off into the woods.
Branches struck out and whipped at them, but they were able to follow the crushed snow that Jack, traveling much faster now, had left in his wake. She imagined him galloping through the brush, his upright neck, his mane flying, nostrils wide open, blowing steam, as if he were rounding the clubhouse turn. He had been made for this.
The woods soon gave way to an open field, and beyond, she thought with horror, was the new housing development with its giant look-alike houses, its small, massed army of tractors and back-hoes. Bland street names like Aurora Way and Pine Crest Circle were trumping the funny old roads running east and west: Blood Street, Mourner's Hollow and Johnny Cake Hill.
Adam slowed and when she reached him, she grabbed at his arm, her numb fingers clutching a fist full of the slick brown fur. "Wait. Wait." She was panting hard, her face inflamed. The gelding's tracks swerved across the open expanse. She knew he was bucking and kicking out, having a fine time for himself, ecstatic in his freedom.
"Can you make it?" Adam, hunched over, breathless and wheezing a little, peered down at her. She nodded and pointed, "I'm scared he's going to hang himself up on that goddamn machinery down there." She sounded, she knew, exactly like Gus.
"I think I saw something — movement — over that way." Adam pointed at the herd of raw-half-finished houses rising up out of the snow.
"Let's go," she said, and they were off again in full pursuit.
On the other side of the field Adam and Hallie found themselves staggering beneath the skeletal palaces of Highland Estates. Around every corner, she wildly expected to find him standing in the lee, his sides heaving, his race over, his ears pricked, his velvet muzzle dusted with white, his expression slightly sardonic at all the fuss. After all, he remembered this now forbidden meadow and the wildflowers that grew there in spring and the taste of the rich summer grass. They called his name, a little dully now, and at last came to the circle of earthmovers, a crazy mechanical Stonehenge. The wind tore the snow off the ground and pelted their faces with ice and dirt. A piece of something loose somewhere, something metal, banged in the gale. Adam had taken her hand and she felt joined to him now by simple fear and exhaustion.
A great pile of excavated earth cloaked in white rose up before them. She broke free and ran ahead, circled the hill. In the distance a brown shape rose and fell against the world of white. Jack! She knew in an instant that the crazy old horse, galloping full tilt, had plunged into the shallow end of an unfinished swimming pool. The chrome handles of the ladder shouldered out of the snow and there was Jack, turned away from her, sunk up to his breastbone in white, his black tail spread across the snow like a wind-shredded banner. She came up beside him, crouched near his flailing head. When he saw her, he neighed. The sound tore the air like a scream and he snorted and lunged forward against the dense wall of white, tried to rear and then lunged forward again. "Whoa, boy, easy, easy." If he broke forward to the deep end, he was done for. They'd need an airlift to get him out. He would sink, right in front of her and die struggling for solid ground. She tried to touch him, to calm him, but he was just out of reach and he stretched his neck toward her, blasted hot hair through his distended nostrils. She prayed in hurried little snatches; there was no sign of blood. She quickly lowered herself over the edge and drilled her legs into the heavy snow, kicking hard to find the icy base beneath. Her knees through her wool tights ached with the hard-packed cold.
"Hold on, Jackie. I'm going to get you out!"
She was up to her hips in white, straining forward, her fingers at last coming to curl around the scarred leather noseband. With Hallie so close, the big horse lurched forward again, struggling to free himself. She could smell the hot sweet stench of his sweat and the hair on his neck was whorled and drenched. If only he didn't step on her, break her leg, or worse, one of his own. Where the hell was Adam? God damn it, he had vanished.
She reached up to stroke Jack's muzzle — a thick quivering vein pulsed in the curve of his cheek. "Easy." His breath was a blast furnace. His ribcage heaved and fell. "Ho, sweet boy. Stand, stand, stand, my good lad." Think! She had to slow down and think. Turning him was impossible. If she could get him to back out somehow — and she slung her arm around his chest, leaned into him with all her weight but he rammed up against her almost knocking her down. The wind moaned and the icy branches of the trees cracked overhead.
Then, out of the corner of her eye she glimpsed Adam charging back into the circle of tractors and backhoes, reappearing on the run with a shovel in his hands. He skidded to a stop — out of breath and delirious, tears streaming down his beet-colored face. He held out the tool with its icy, bright yellow handle. "I found this," he gasped. "We — we can dig him out!" She tried to shout yes but the muscles in her face had locked from fear and the cold. He glanced down at the snow and jumped. Her mind took a snap shot: man I love in midair, with shovel, fur coat flying.
Neelie who had been deaf to her sister's pleas to remain in the house stood in the herb garden clutching her old duffle coat and brushing her flying hair off her face. Her scarf was wrapped over her mouth to protect her sensitive lungs — her eyes watered in the driving wind. She remembered the night the feisty old welsh pony, Rookie, or was it Rory, had died of colic — wasn't it? In the middle of a dinner party for 14. She had slaved all day over a perfect, even if she did say so herself, beef Wellington, and had spent all night in the barn with Hallie and the veterinarian while her company got sloshed on Fish House punch and the dinner incinerated to a charcoaled ruin in the oven. He was good looking, the vet — longish brown hair and bedroom eyes. Kind. She remembered her floor length black-watch wool skirt and that wonderful wide belt with the big silver buckle. The vet, she couldn't remember his name, had flirted with her. Definitely. Yes, there were other men, other men who might have cared for her, she thought. She was lovable, so darn lovable. And here she was, what? An old, old woman, almost 82, God help her. Out on this godforsaken night, alone, doing what? What was she doing? What the hell was she doing? She looked up at the moon running off toward the horizon. Could one wish on the moon? Stars had been absent minded, practically useless, really. In the distance, on past the boxwood, she looked for something to appear, or rather to reveal itself. Something stunning would be nice, something that would mean something, like the time she had seen the Northern Lights in Kennebunkport. Something that would explain the reasoning behind the thousands of nights she had spent here in Gus's family's drafty old house. Not hers. Never hers, not really — except for this garden — her herbs and well-chosen perennials. She wished to see the fisher-cat, now, in all his glory. She wished to see him slink, black and mysterious across the whitened yard. That would be something to tell Hallie later on, even years from now, perhaps. Hallie, for whom she wanted everything, Hallie, so full of shadow, whom she loved so dearly.
Original artwork courtesy of Rob Grom.
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