فصل 23

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CHAPTER 23

Avery

Trent and I stand side by side gazing up at the ancient columns that line the perimeter of a decaying stone and concrete foundation. They stand like sentinels, military in stature, their feet lost in ivy and lush grass, their hats crowned with carved scrollwork and moss-hued cherubs.

A few moments pass before either of us realizes that Jonah has climbed the steps to investigate what must have once been a multilevel veranda. Rusted second-story railings loop along the columns high above our heads, binding them like faded strings of gold braid.

“Hey, come on back over here, buddy,” Trent calls to Jonah. The stones look solid, but there’s no way of knowing how stable this place is.

A plantation house once stood here, tucked on a gentle hill along the Savannah River not far from Augusta. Whose was it? Nearby, an icehouse and other outbuildings stand derelict, their burgundy-shingled roofs slowly decaying, broken timbers poking forth like severed bones.

“What in the world was my grandmother doing here?” It is impossible to imagine Grandma Judy—the woman who fussed if I came in from the barn with horsehair on my breeches and made the mistake of sitting on the furniture—in a place like this.

And every Thursday for years? Why?

“One thing’s for certain. Nobody would bother you here. I doubt if anyone still realizes this place exists.” Trent moves to the steps and reaches for Jonah’s hand as the little boy gleefully hops down. “Stay here by Dad, buddy. I know it looks awesome, but there might be a snake.”

Jonah stretches upward to see over the foundation. “Where a ’nake?”

“I said there might be.”

“Ohhh…”

I’m momentarily distracted by the two of them. They look like a magazine photo, the bright midday sunlight cascading through the old-growth trees and settling over them, highlighting their sandy-blond hair and look-alike stances.

I finally turn back to the remains of the house. It must have been grand in its day. “Well, judging by the fact that she used a cab rather than having her own driver bring her, she didn’t want anyone to know where she was.”

I want the truth to be that innocent, but I know better. It’s too much of a coincidence that May Crandall mentioned Augusta and my grandmother has returned here time and time again. This involves the two of them somehow. This is May’s place, I know it. Her association with Grandma Judy reaches far beyond working together on some tragic adoption story once upon a time.

“Looks like the road continues on down that way.” Trent motions toward the path we’ve walked from the gate. With grass grown up in the middle and seed heads bowing over the worn tire tracks, it barely qualifies as a road, but it has obviously been both driven on and mowed since last season’s growth. Someone was keeping this place up until fairly recently.

“I guess we should see where it goes.” But part of me—most of me—is afraid to know.

We start down the road, crossing what was once the lawn. Jonah lifts his legs high with each step, wading through the unmown grass like he’s testing waves along the seashore. Trent swings him up and cups him in one arm as the grass deepens and the path leads us into the trees.

Jonah points out birds and squirrels and flowers, making our trek seem innocent—a little nature walk with friends. He wants both his dad and me to comment on his finds. I do my best, but my mind is running a million miles a minute down the hill. Through the trees, I can see water. It’s sunlit, slightly ruffled by a breeze. The river, no doubt.

Jonah calls me Ay-ber-wee. His dad corrects him, saying, “That’s Miss Stafford.” Trent smiles sideways at me. “My family’s old school. No first names for adults.”

“That’s nice.” I was raised that way too. Honeybee would’ve grounded me to my room if I’d failed to properly use Mr. and Mrs. for grown-ups. The rule stood until I was out of college, officially fully grown.

Ahead, the path skirts what looks like the remains of a rusted wire garden fence. It’s so overgrown with trumpet vines that I don’t realize it’s actually delineating a yard until we’re almost on top of it. There’s a tidy little house tucked among red climbing roses and snowy-white crepe myrtles. Situated on a gentle hill above the river, it’s like an enchanted cottage in a children’s fairy tale—the sort of hideaway that would shelter a princess in disguise or a wise old hermit who was once a king. From the yard’s front gate, a boardwalk leads downhill to a dock that leans into the water.

Even though the gardens around the house are overgrown right now, they were obviously an elaborate labor of love. Arbors and benches and birdbaths wait beside carefully laid stone paths. The little house sits on short piers, prepared to withstand high water. Judging by the weathered wooden window frames and the tin-paneled roof, I’d say it’s been here for decades.

So this was my grandmother’s destination. It’s easy to imagine that she enjoyed coming here. This would’ve been a place where she could leave behind her obligations, her cares, her duties, the family reputation, the public eye—everything that filled those carefully managed appointment books.

“You wouldn’t know this was here.” Trent admires the little hideaway as we walk around to the front, where a wide screened porch peeks through the trees. Lace curtains hang inside the front windows. A wind chime sings the sweet, soft music of midday. Twigs and leaves on the steps confirm that no one has swept since before the last set of storms.

“No, you wouldn’t.” Is this May Crandall’s home, the place where she was discovered keeping company with her sister’s dead body?

Trent lets us through the crooked gate. It scrapes the stone path, protesting the intrusion. “Looks pretty quiet. Let’s see if anyone’s home.”

We climb the steps together, and he sets Jonah down on the porch as the screen door creaks its way closed behind us.

We knock on the door and wait, and finally peer through the lace curtains. Inside, a flowered settee framed with Queen Anne tables and Tiffany lamps seems out of step with the humble river cottage. Paintings and photos line the walls of the small living room, but I can’t see them clearly from here. At the far end, there’s a kitchen. Doors off the main room appear to lead to bedrooms and a back porch that’s been closed in.

I’ve moved to the other window to get a better view when I hear Trent trying the doorknob.

“What are you doing?” Glancing over my shoulder, I half expect sirens or, worse yet, a shotgun aimed our way.

Trent winks at me, a mischievous twinkle in his eye as the knob clicks. “Checking on a potential listing. I think somebody called me to do an appraisal of the place.”

He’s inside before I have the chance to argue. I’m not sure I would anyway. I can’t leave without knowing more, without finding out what’s been going on here. It’s hard to picture how someone in May’s condition could have lived this far off the beaten path.

“Jonah, you stay right there on the porch. No going out the screen door.” Trent casts a commanding look over his shoulder.

“?’Kay.” Jonah is busy picking up acorns that some squirrel must have spirited through the torn corner of the screen door. He’s counting them when I follow Trent inside. “One, two, fwee…seven…eight…fowty-fow.”

The count drifts away as I stand on the small rag rug inside the doorway and look around the room. It’s not what I expected. There’s no layer of dust, no gathering of dead insects along the windowsills. Everything is neat as a pin. There’s a definite sense of occupation, but the only sounds come from the wind chime, the birds, the leaves, Jonah’s whispery voice, and the call of a river bird.

Trent fingers an envelope that’s lying on the kitchen counter, twists to look at it. “May Crandall.” He presents the evidence, but I only half see it.

I’m focused on a painting over the fireplace. The bright sun hats, the crisply ironed sixties sundresses, the smiles, the golden curls lifted by the salt breeze, the laughter you can see but not hear…

I recognize the scene, if not the exact pose. In this one, the four women are looking at one another and laughing. The boys playing in the sand are gone from the background. The photo I found in Trent Senior’s workshop was black-and-white, and the women were smiling for the camera. The snapshot that inspired this painting must have been taken an instant before or after the other one. The portrait artist added the vibrant colors. There is no hue for painting laughter, yet the captured moment radiates joy. The women stand with their arms linked at the elbows as they throw back their heads. One of them kicks a spray of seawater at the photographer.

I move closer to the painting to study the signature in the bottom corner. Fern, it reads.

A brass plate on the frame titles the work: SISTERS’ DAY.

My grandmother is on the left. The other three, based on the story told to us at the nursing home, are May, Lark, and Fern.

With their heads tipped back and sun rather than shadow over the faces, the women really look like sisters.

Even my grandmother.

“That’s not the only one.” Trent pivots, surveying the room. Everywhere, there are photographs. Different decades, different locations, an assortment of frames and sizes, but always these same four women. On the dock by the river, their jeans rolled up and fishing poles in their hands; enjoying tea by the climbing roses behind this little house; in red canoes, paddles at the ready.

Trent leans over a table, opens a frayed black photo album, and leafs through. “They spent a lot of time here.”

I take a step toward him.

Suddenly a dog barks outside. Both of us freeze as the sound rushes closer. Toenails clatter up the porch steps. In four hurried strides, Trent is across the room and out the front door, but he’s not fast enough. A big black dog is growling from the other side of the screen, and Jonah stands frozen.

“Easy, buddy…” Trent moves forward, grabs Jonah’s arm, and shifts him back to me.

The dog raises its head and bays, then scratches at the bottom of the door, trying to cram its nose through the torn corner.

Not far off, some sort of engine rumbles. A lawnmower maybe. It’s coming our way. Trent and I have no choice but to wait. I don’t even dare to close the front door to the house behind us. If the dog breaks through, we’ll need an escape.

We’re like felons caught in the act. Actually, we are felons caught in the act.

Only Jonah, who’s innocent of any crime, is excited. I keep a hand on his shoulder while he bobs up and down, trying to see what’s making the engine noise.

“Oh…tractor! Tractor!” He cheers when a man in overalls and a straw hat comes chugging into view on a red-and-gray tractor of inestimable age. A faded two-wheeled cart rattles in tow with a Weed Eater and a few twigs inside. The sun slides over, dappling the man’s burnished brown skin as he pulls up near the gate and kills the engine.

On closer inspection, I see that he’s younger than his garb makes him look. Maybe about my parents’ age…in his sixties, perhaps?

“Sammy!” His voice is deep and demanding as he steps off the tractor and calls the hound. “You cut that out, now! Hush up! Come outa there!”

Sammy has his own mind. He waits until the man is almost within reach before obeying the command.

The stranger stops halfway up the steps, but he’s so tall we’re almost eye-to-eye.

“I help you folks?” he asks.

Trent and I look at each other. Clearly, neither one of us has planned for this moment.

“We were talking to May in the nursing home.” Trent is salesman smooth. He makes that seem like an explanation, even though it really isn’t.

“I— Is this is hers…her…her house?” I babble, making us look even more guilty.

“You got a tractor!” Of the three of us, Jonah has the most intelligent comment.

“Yes, sir, I do there, li’l fella.” The man braces his hands on his knees to talk to Jonah. “That there was my daddy’s tractor. He bought her when she was brand-new in 1958. I just come start her up when I get time, knock down the weeds around the farm, pick up the branches, and look in on Mama. The grandbabies love comin’ with me. I’ve got one over there right now who’s just about your size.”

“Oh…” Jonah is properly impressed. “I’m fwee.” He works hard to hold up the three middle fingers on one hand and fold down the pinky and thumb.

“Yep, Bart’s just about your age then.” The man agrees. “Three and a half. Named after his papaw. That’s me.”

Big Bart straightens back up, studying Trent and me. “You relatives of May’s? How’s she doin’? Mama told me her sister died and they had to take Mrs. Crandall off to the rest home. Said the grandkids put her in a facility all the way over in Aiken, thinking it’d be better if she wasn’t so close to home. Sad thing. She loved this place.”

“She’s doing as well as can be expected, I guess,” I tell him. “I don’t think she likes it very much there. After visiting her house here, I can see why.”

“You a niece or granddaughter?” He zeroes in on me. I can see him searching his mental catalog, trying to decide who I might be.

I’m afraid to lie to the man. No telling whether May even has a granddaughter. Bart might be testing me.

A lie won’t really solve my problem anyway. “I’m not…exactly sure, to tell you the truth. You said your mother lives nearby? I wonder if she might know anything about the”—the secret my grandmother was keeping—“pictures in the house and the painting above the fireplace? My grandmother is one of the women in it.”

Bart gives the cottage a clueless look. “Couldn’t say. Haven’t been inside in years, myself. Mama’s been the one to take care of the place here for a long time. Since before the big house got burned down by lightning in ’82, even.”

“Could we possibly…talk to her? Would it be too much of an imposition?”

He tips back his hat, smiling. “My mercy! Not a bit. She loves it when anybody comes to visit. Just be sure you’ve got time to kill. Mama can talk.” He leans back and looks around the edge of the cabin. “Did y’all walk down here on foot from the old house? There’s an easier route out right through there. Little driveway up to the farm lane. May kept her car parked in the garage by Mama’s place.”

“Oh, I didn’t know.” But that explains a few things, like the overgrown condition of the front entrance and the rough trail that led us here. “We walked in from the old iron gate.”

“Oh slap, you’ll have chiggers by tomorrow. Remind me to give you some of Mama’s chigger soap. She makes it herself.”

I immediately start itching.

“Y’all hop in my li’l box trailer there. I’ll give you a ride over to Mama’s house. Unless you’d just as soon walk?”

I look across the way, and all I see are billions of chiggers waiting to attach themselves to me and make me itch for all eternity.

Jonah is already vibrating in place and tugging his daddy’s pant leg and pointing at the tractor.

“I think we’ll ride,” Trent decides.

Jonah claps and cheers, seconding the motion.

“You come on then, young fella.” Bart opens the screen door, and Jonah reaches for him as if he’s an old friend. He swings Jonah into the air and down the steps, and it’s clear that Bart is experienced at this kind of thing. Obviously he’s a top-notch grandpa.

Jonah is in heaven when we climb into the little two-wheeled wooden trailer, which reminds me of the manure wagon the stable hands use at Drayden Hill. I even suspect this cart may have been employed the same way. Suspicious-looking substances bounce around underneath the pile of twigs. Jonah doesn’t mind a bit. He looks happy as a duck in a puddle as we motor through some underbrush at the edge of the yard and follow what is clearly a well-used trail, perhaps for a four-wheeler or a golf cart.

Our route runs away from the river, taking us to a rural road, where we turn in to the first driveway. The freshly painted blue house looks like the sort of place where an old farmwife would live. Chickens peck in the yard. A spotted milk cow lounges under a shade tree. Laundry flaps lazily on a multistrand clothesline. Sammy bounds ahead, barking and baying to announce our arrival.

Bart’s mother shuffles onto the porch dressed in a colorful muumuu, house shoes, and a bright yellow scarf. A matching silk flower adorns the fluffy gray bun atop her head. When she sees us in the tractor cart, she draws back and shades her eyes. “Who ya got there, Barthol’mew?”

I let her son offer an explanation, since I don’t have one. “They were over at Mrs. Crandall’s place. Said they been to visit her in the nursing home.”

The old woman’s chin disappears into the leathery, cinnamon-colored folds of her neck. “Who you say you is?”

I climb off the wagon before she can decide to have her son take us back where he found us. “Avery.” It’s only two steps onto her porch, and I hurriedly offer my hand to shake hers. “I was asking your son about the pictures and the paintings over at May’s house. My grandmother is in them.”

The old woman glances from me to Trent, who’s waiting at the bottom of the steps while Jonah investigates the tractor with Bart. A boy about Jonah’s size emerges from a nearby barn and runs across the yard to join them. Introductions aren’t needed, but they’re quickly offered. This is little Bart.

The old woman turns her attention to me again. She cranes upward and looks long and hard, as if she’s mapping the contours of my face, comparing them to something. Is it my imagination, or is there a spark of recognition? “Now, who you say you is?”

“Avery,” I repeat more loudly this time.

“Av’ry who?”

“Stafford.” I purposely haven’t offered that information until now. But I don’t want to leave here without answers, and if this is what it takes, this is what it takes.

“You Miss Judy’s daughter?”

My heart starts pumping so hard I can feel my eardrums pulsating. “Granddaughter.”

Time seems to slow down. I lose all consciousness of little-boy chatter, and tractor talk, and big Bart, and chickens clucking, and the cow swatting flies, and the endless song of a mockingbird.

“You wanna know ’bout that place next door. ’Bout why she go there.” It’s not a question but a statement, as if this woman has been waiting for years, knowing that sooner or later someone would come asking.

“Yes, ma’am, I do. I’d ask my grandmother, but to tell you the truth, she’s not doing all that well mentally. She can’t remember things.”

She shakes her head slowly, her tongue making a soft tsk, tsk, tsk. When she focuses on me again, she says, “What the mind don’t ’member, the heart still know. Love, the strongest thang of all. Stronger than all the rest. You wanna know ’bout the sisters.”

“Please,” I whisper. “Yes. Please tell me.”

“It ain’t my secret to tell.” She turns and shuffles toward the house, and for a moment I think I’ve been dismissed, but a quick glance over her shoulder tells me otherwise. I’m being asked to follow her inside.

Told to.

I stop just past the threshold, waiting while she opens the slant top on an oak secretary desk and draws out a dented tin crucifix. From beneath it, she takes three rumpled sheets of paper originally torn off a yellow legal pad. Even though they’ve been wrinkled and then straightened, they don’t look particularly old, and they’re certainly not of the same vintage as the pressed tin piece.

“I only took it fo’ safekeepin’,” the woman says. She hands me the tin piece and the papers separately. “That cross been Queenie’s, long time ago. Miss Judy write the other. It’s her story, but she never write the rest. They decide they all gon’ carry it to they graves, I guess. But I figure somebody might come askin’ one day. Secrets ain’t a healthy thang. Secrets ain’t a healthy thang, no matter how old they is. Sometimes the oldest secrets is the worst of all. You take yo’ grandmother to see Miss May. The heart still know. It still know who it loves.”

I look down at the crucifix, turn it over in my hand, then unfold the yellow sheets. I recognize the handwriting. It’s my grandmother’s. I’ve looked at enough of her daybooks to be certain.

“Sit down, child.” Bart’s mother guides me to a wing chair. I half sit and half collapse. The top of the page reads:

PRELUDE

Baltimore, Maryland

August 3rd, 1939

The date of my grandmother’s birthday and the place she was born.

My story begins on a sweltering August night, in a place I will never set eyes upon. The room takes life only in my imaginings. It is large most days when I conjure it. The walls are white and clean, the bed linens crisp as a fallen leaf. The private suite has the very finest of everything….

I float through time, tumbling back years and decades, moving through space to a hospital room in August 1939, to a tiny life that enters the world and leaves it in the same moment, to blood and grief and an exhausted young mother who sinks into merciful sleep.

There are the whispered conversations of powerful men. A grandfather who, for all his wealth and position, cannot save his tiny grandchild.

He is an important man…a congressman, perhaps?

He cannot rescue his daughter. Or can he?

I know of a woman in Memphis….

A desperate choice is made.

This is where the written story ends.

And where another story begins. The saga of a fair-haired infant girl who, if Georgia Tann’s sordid history is any indication, is taken from her mother immediately after birth. Falsified papers are signed, or perhaps the exhausted new mother is simply told that her child was stillborn. The baby is spirited away in Georgia’s arms, secretly delivered to a waiting family that will claim her as their own and bury their desperate secret.

The tiny girl becomes Judy Myers Stafford.

This is the truth my heart has been reaching for since the day I saw the faded photograph on May’s nightstand and was struck by the resemblance.

The photo in the nursing home is of Queenie and Briny. They aren’t just people from May Crandall’s remembrances. They are my great-grandparents. River gypsies.

I might’ve been one myself had fate not taken an unthinkable twist.

Bart’s mother moves to the space beside me. She sits on the arm of the wing chair, and rubs my back, and hands me a handkerchief as my tears flow. “Oh, honey. Oh, child. The best thing is to know. I always tell ’em, best to be who you is. What you is deep down inside. Ain’t no other good way of livin’. But it ain’t my decision to make.”

I’m not sure how long I sit there, the old woman patting and soothing while I contemplate all the things that kept the children of the Arcadia from one another. I think of the way May explained their choices: We were young women with lives and husbands and children by the time we were brought together again. We chose not to interfere with one another. It was enough for each of us to know that the others were well….

But the truth is, it wasn’t enough. Even the ramparts of reputation, and ambition, and social position couldn’t erase the love of sisters, their bond with one another. Suddenly, the barriers that created their need for hidden lives and secret meeting places seem almost as cruel as those of brokered adoptions, altered paperwork, and forced separations.

“You take your grandmother to see her sister.” A trembling hand squeezes mine. “They the only two left. The only two sisters. You tell them Hootsie say it’s time to be who they is.”

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