Authors: Paul Lederer
ARAH DEFIED THE
moon with her waiting. It was a bitter moon. A pocked half-survivor in a terrible sky. But the moon around her was so much sadder. In the tall ancestral house beyond her, the vicious voices – filled with lost longings and ancient recriminations – continued their loud discussion. Here she lay against the sweet grass where the dew had not yet collected and thought of a silly, forlorn, and never-come dream.
The voices became too much after a while, so she rose, straightened her cotton dress, and walked along the rambling garden path, her hands behind her back. Frail reeds cast picket shadows across the loose earth of the old path. There had been roses here once, and the scent of summer clover, so warm to lie against, their white blossoms dotting the long green knoll. Now she walked through an emotional Stonehenge.
Back then, Poppsy had been a young ball of white fluffy fur bounding through the grass, foolishly chasing the meadow mice, its little pink tongue hot, small, and affectionate as it returned from its run. Now Poppsy stumbled around the yard – half-blind – its glorious ermine coat yellowed and thin.
Sometimes in the house above, the voices talked of getting rid of Poppsy; the dog was so much trouble – and anyway, what could be done with it after the house was gone?
They did not even know what they could possibly do with Sarah.
Poppsy was in the arbor as Sarah walked that way through the pale moonlight. The broken laths, strangled by dead vines, cast sad shadows across the dog’s body. Poppsy looked up mournfully as Sarah approached and sat beside the dog in the dirt. Moon shadows stained the earth where the sun had once shone on all the profusely blooming white roses. Sarah stroked the old dog’s scruff silently and looked to the sky. The arbor was one of her favorite places on the old grounds. Once she had been forced to take refuge there, when the moon was hidden by slathering clouds and the truculent rain poured down. But there had been the
scent of new-bursting roses and freshened sky and she had sat there for hours, before they came and found her and took her away to the dry and airless safety of their gray and rotting mansion on the hill.
Somewhere out there now, she could hear them yelling still. They never spoke, it seemed, but only shouted.
‘Sarah! God damn it, where has she gone now?’
That was Auntie Trish stomping back and forth along the veranda in her loose flowered-dress, her loveless, sagging face set with impatience. ‘She knows she’s supposed to come up to the house after dark.’
‘She’ll be along.’ And that was Momma, her voice a little slurred as always, sounding intimidated by her sister as ever.
‘I’ll go have a look,’ a man’s voice said. This was Edward: patient although exasperated; tall and meticulously neat in the gray suit he wore to court, to supper, to parties. Perhaps he wore it to bed?
That thought made Sarah smile faintly.
‘Sarah!’ he called loudly.
She rose lithely and started towards the house, reluctant as a child called in from play when daylight has been expended and evening must be spent among the grownups. Poppsy grunted and got heavily to its feet to follow. Sarah paused to pluck a single daffodil to carry back and, walking slowly so that the old dog could keep up with her, continued along the path, moving toward the somber house like some drifting naiad on a silver moon lake.
‘God damn it, why doesn’t she answer when we call?’ Trish demanded angrily, banging shut the screen door to the kitchen as she went back into the house.
From the stove, Sarah’s mother Ellen said, ‘You know she can’t talk, Trish.’
‘She could talk well enough when she was a baby, Ellen.’
‘That was a long time ago.’
‘People don’t forget how to talk!’
‘The doctor said.…’
‘She’s coming,’ Edward told them from his position at the window. He was a slim, dark, silhouette against the pale, dying moon. ‘I see her.’
‘Something has to be done about her soon.’ Trish opened the silverware drawer and closed it again with a rattle of utensils.
‘We know, Aunt Trish,’ Edward said with his patient smile. He walked to his mother and slipped a hand briefly onto her thin shoulder.
‘Well, yes, we
it,’ Trish replied with a shadow of mockery in her voice. ‘We’ve known it for a long time, haven’t we Edward? And yet nothing has been done about Sarah.’
Edward’s hand fell away from his mother’s shoulder. He touched his moustache and smiled vacantly. A gold chain glittered across his vest, his Phi Beta Kappa key depended from it.
‘She is my sister, my mother’s daughter,’ he said, as if imparting new information. His voice was weary with the repetition.
Ellen’s shoulders seemed to hunch and shrink as if there were shame implied in his words.
The room was silent and hollow. Trish sat heavily on her wooden chair, the legs expanding precariously beneath her bulk.
‘Don’t misunderstand me,’ she said. ‘God knows I have pity for Sarah; I know you both love her. But having said that, we’ve said nothing, solved nothing. The old house is rotting around us.’ She waved a pudgy hand toward the ceiling. ‘There are rats in the basement. I’ve seen them. This was a fine house when the Captain built it –
two hundred years ago
. But we’ve settled all of that,’ she added, clutching
the bodice of her dress with her knuckleless hand. ‘The property has been sold! We all agreed to it, did we not – even Eric.’ Her mouth tightened a little as she mentioned Edward’s younger brother. ‘It has already been decided, settled. Sold. We have to make arrangements to leave. We repeat this endless conversation as if it were not done. Everything has been settled … except what to do with Sarah,’ she finished with weary exasperation.
‘That is really Mother’s decision,’ Edward said faintly. He watched his mother without confidence. She sat folded forward in her chair, her hands clasped in bleak prayer, looking towards the door. They could hear Sarah’s light
on the porch.
‘It’s your mother’s decision, but she will not
. My sister is incapable of making decisions!’ Trish’s hand came down on the table with enough force to make the china and silverware jump. She waved both hands in frustration and looked skyward. More quietly, Trish said, ‘We have until the end of the month. No longer.’
Sarah had entered the house by the side door. They heard her footsteps along the hallway. Ellen glanced that way. None of them spoke until the girl had passed through to the basement. Aunt Trish continued to meet Edward’s dark eyes with her own as if Sarah’s quiet passing had added final weight to her argument.
Poppsy waddled in, its dry nose nuzzling Edward’s hand. Getting no response from him, the old dog moved heavily towards the stove to lie down with a moan of arthritic effort. Each of them watched the old dog’s labored movements.
They each heard the basement door open on its crooked hinges, the sounds of Sarah moving down the creaking steps into the darkness.
‘I’ll see that something’s done,’ Edward promised tiredly. ‘We must, Mother.’
Ellen rose and went to the stove with a distant, wavering, smile, which might have meant anything, and began serving their meal.
There was a smell of oily earth and ancient rot in the
. Old paint, and fertilizer bags that had split open; lime and rat poison. Rotted tomatoes from the last sweet summer harvesting. The leather and rusted steel smells of labors long done or never completed, or never begun.
Grandfather had once worked down here almost nightly, his old gnarled hands repairing, building things marvelous, useless, mysterious. Clamping things in the vice, working at metal objects with smooth-cutting files, drilling with his old hand-augers into a piece of oak or cedar, the chips rising clean and sharp from the twists of the blades. Squinting into the poor light of the single dangling light bulb as he soldered electrical wires, the pungent scent of hot flux around him. Or banging away with a ball peen hammer at a length of thin metal, whistling happily, cursing when the steel flew from the vice and then laughing at himself for losing his temper. His blue eyes always intent and unaware of Sarah watching him, so quiet was she. Then he would see her and pick her up, showing what he was doing, explaining in esoteric words quite meaningless to her. But his hands
were strong, and his voice was comforting no matter that he might as well have been speaking in a foreign tongue. And then from some secret pocket, he would bring forth a small treat for her, put her down again and return to his
labors; a brilliant alchemist working his craft.
Now, the bench where he used to work was a long, thick, oil-stained, slab of wood, drilled full of holes and still strewn with tools no longer bright and sharp, but rusted, dead, and useless. There are no ghosts, Sarah knew. Only death.
In the far corner, against the dark earth of the basement floor, three whitewashed stones lay precisely arranged. Sarah was not allowed to place them there, and they had been removed time and time again by Mother, Edward and Aunt Trish. But Sarah had found them and brought them back every time and finally they had given up in weary exasperation.
‘Let her have the damn rocks!’ Edward had said. ‘What difference does it make?’
One of the three rocks was for her, one for Daddy. And one, the smallest one – of course – was for Baby. Around the rocks all the dead daffodils lay strewn. Daffodils are
Sarah held a fresh daffodil in her hand now and she placed it carefully on Baby’s stone and sat down against the cold earth, her legs splayed out beneath her deep red skirt.
She had seen the family of field mice again that day. Poppsy had seen them too, but the old dog just watched them and didn’t chase other creatures these days; their small lives seemed to require study, not action. Sarah had
known where the mice lived for a long time, and she would lie in the summer grass for hours watching them come and go. Now many of them had gone somewhere. Maybe a hawk had eaten them, but she didn’t think so. She thought she knew what had happened. Sometimes she told herself the story she had made up about the mice. Now, as she sat at the secret place in the basement, she repeated it silently:
‘There is not room enough in the little mouse house for all of them, so White-ears has to go away, and then his sister, and then there is only one little mouse left and there is no grain to feed her and no one to take care of her. And she does not know where to go, and so she tries to find her dead baby and runs away to the moon with her handfuls of golden daffodils. And it is so sad. So sad because the moon is full and alone and so cold….’
She lifted her eyes to the top of the basement stairs where Aunt Trish stood in silhouette. Dark, she was, wide; but strangely insubstantial and vulnerable in a way Sarah did not understand.
‘Why do you have to go down there?’ Aunt Trish demanded. There was a faint echo of long-ago hysteria in her voice. ‘And you know it’s supper time.’
Sarah rose and went up the stairs, brushing off the back of her skirt. She silently passed Trish, smiling softly.
‘Why do you have to go down there at all, Sarah?’
Sarah paused and turned toward her aunt, her wide, deep-brown eyes questioning. Aunt Trish switched off the basement light.
‘Go and wash up to eat!’ She stood looking down into the depths of the dark basement for a moment, and Sarah heard her say with quiet vehemence: ‘Damn this house and everything it stands for! I’ll be glad when they tear it down. It wouldn’t bother me a bit if it burned to the ground tonight, so help me it wouldn’t.’
By the time she had washed, Sarah was late for dinner and so she ate at the table by herself. Edward had gone outside to smoke a pipe in the misty twilight. Sarah could smell his tobacco, cherry-scented, not much different to the tobacco Grandfather had smoked. The doctor said that the tobacco was what had killed Grandfather. The doctor had smashed his Chrysler into an oak tree and killed himself. She remembered Edward telling them that.
‘Finish up your supper now, Sarah,’ Mother said in her gentle voice. Mother was looking out the window at the fading light of day; she never seemed to really look at anyone when she spoke, Sarah thought. Not even her. Maybe she had when Sarah was a pink baby with huge eyes and reaching fingers like in the old pictures with Daddy, but Sarah didn’t think so.
‘Finish up,’ Mother said again from her distance. She turned toward Sarah, one hand going absently to her breast. ‘Tomorrow we’re all going to town. You and me and Edward. Won’t that be fine, Sarah? You don’t have to go to the doctor, I promise you. We’re just going to have fun in town. We’ll look in all the little shops along the beach and buy things….’ Her mother’s voice had risen briefly with subdued excitement. Her hand fell away from her breast
and her voice lowered to its usual neutral pitch. ‘Finish up. Early to bed tonight, and tomorrow Momma will buy you something pretty.’
Sarah rose and kissed her mother who turned her cheek slightly away as if in embarrassment, and Sarah went up the stairs to her yellow room. There, the window stood open to the night where gathering fog half-obscured the silver moon floating across the deep sky.
She undressed and stood before the smoky bureau mirror, its oval reflecting a woman of twenty with long, straight dark-hair of the hue called chestnut and gently swelling hips, firm, not ungenerous breasts. Hers was an inquisitive forehead with an even nose: a cameo head – some long-ago visitor had called it that – but there was a certain distantness not only about her eyes and generally inexpressive wide mouth, but also her entire ‘presence’ that confounded people. Usually they first thought her simply aloof (some said ethereal), but the simpler explanation Mother and Edward gave was easiest for most of them to understand and accept:
‘Sarah is mildly retarded, you know.’
Then, the visitors could relax and not have to wrestle with the enigma which was Sarah, but only murmur a few words of sympathy and continue their conversations.