The lamp was off the night I’d burst in smelling smoke, when the old youthful woman sat up in the shaft of light from the hall.
“Aaron?” she’d whispered. Her outstretched arm shook, my mother looked terrified, like Kate’s shocked double. She held the gold gun two feet in front of her, eyes blinking.
My past returned in a rush as I looked down the barrel’s black eye the instant before death, seeing Aaron’s lined face, kind and polite old Aaron Winters who loved Delmus like a son and suffered from arthritis and with his divining rod found water but never never any oil—
“Aaron Markham?” Dolly’d said. “Is it you?”
“Mother, it’s me, Kyla—” I raised a hand to block the imminent shot.
Then time began to stretch out, there was nothing to worry about, this had happened before, like when you just missed getting in a wreck and everything got slow, the coming headlight and familiar fender, and you observed the unfolding near-crash from a distance.
“No, it’s mine! You can’t take the butterfly!”
“It’s Kyla,” I’d said. “I thought you were on fire.”
“Oh, Kyla,” Dolly’d said, lowering the gun, but only half way. “No, I had a cigarette.”
The next morning the string was tied to the lock. Dolly had hidden the gun, said it wasn’t loaded anyway.
Where was it? In the night table drawer?
“I forgot to turn on the lamp,” Dolly said from the dark.
I felt for the wall switch, found it and flipped it on.
Against the white pillowcase my mother’s face was mottled, streaked with powder. Her long, thick steel-colored hair needed combing. Holding her string to the lock, she was like a confused blue spider.
But she still had the profile I had studied as a child, memorized to keep like a cameo, as my mother sat at the end of my bed in my room at the Lawrences after she’d sent me away and she came to visit a Saturday each month.
“Here,” Dolly said, reaching and snapping on the lamp. The red and gold butterflies flew brightly at her Chinese collar buttoned at her throat. “You can turn the ceiling light off.”
With the oven mitt I set the plate down on the night table and slipped my fingers around Dolly’s wrist below the tight silk sleeve she’d never let me lift.
“The weather—” Dolly began.
“Shhhh,” I said, counting the frail beatings of my mother’s heart.
“The weather’s been funny, sort of makes you tired,” Dolly said. “Sometimes it makes me dizzy.”
Fifty-two, 53, 54 . . .
“And jumpy,” I said. “You’re fine.”
My mother sat up higher in the bed. “It’s the wind. Static electricity, ions or something. I read about it once.”
“There’s low pressure off the coast,” I said. “The door’s open for a storm on the raisins. Third year in a row.”
We sounded like contestants on “Queen for a Day,” the ’50s TV show where the three women told their sad stories. A dial with a needle—the Love-O-Meter—registered the crowd’s applause.
“Here’s your dinner, Mother.” I handed Dolly the warmed-over eggs. “Better late than never.”
“It’s nice to hear that,” Dolly said, looking up at me.
“What?” I said.
“‘Mother.’ I like that.”
“Isn’t that who you are?”
“Yes, but I like it.” She smiled and lifted her fork. “It’s probably just your nerves.”
“Being dizzy. You shouldn’t let it go. You should have it checked.” Dolly cut a dry egg with the side of her fork. “I knew a good doctor, in Acacia. Dr. Bennell. He graduated from Harvard. Or Yale?”
She frowned, looking up from her plate, as if maybe I could remind her.
“He played sonatas on the piano. Loved opera. He always joked with me, called me ‘Madame Butterfly.’”
I stared back at the gorgeous silver-haired woman I had known again for not quite four months, the fan rattling the scraps of newspaper tacked above her head.
“He wrote ‘Madame Butterfly’. Have you heard it?” She raised her chin. “‘Farewell fond sanctuary of romance and love—’”
I gazed at her black trunk like a magician’s chest against the wall, then the rhinestone-spangled dress folded like a blanket at the foot of the bed.
“Anyway, that was my nickname—”
“Great big house— In Acacia. Baylor says ten bedrooms—” Gladys, deaf Baylor’s wife, had said on the phone after dinner. “Called it the Butterfly House— He’s going to write about it, in his column, ‘The Way It Was’—”
Three pennies and the yellow book lay on the night table, next to the upturned mirror where Dolly’s picture stood beside the silver brush. She remained young forever, perfect as a movie star, the purple velvet draped low across her creamy bosom. The jeweled butterfly brooch shone pinned above her heart as she stood on the cliff above the sea.
Dolly’s chin was modeled from alabaster, full lips, perfect aquiline nose, her long golden hair thick and piled high, white-blonde where it caught the morning sun. Even in the sepia brown and tan, her large eyes looked emerald green, like Kate’s—
“I’d sit for hours beside him on the bench, just listening as I watched his beautiful hands—”
Summers Dolly wore the blue silk suit with blue-and-white spectator pumps and the hat with the blue veil and pheasant feather. In winter the pearl-gray serge with gray gloves and the fox stole around her neck, the fox’s eyes not dull buttons but flecked amber glass. How elegant she was when she pulled up in the big Cadillac outside the Lawrences house on those brief visits. I would hear the car and then race from the house crying, “Mama! Mama!”
“Not like Aaron’s, the night on the Ferris wheel at the Harvest Fair—”
Always Dolly brought presents wrapped like birthday gifts, skates or a doll or games to play, with a card attached: “To my darling daughter Kyla— how I love you so.”
“Franz Schubert and Chopin. The Nocturnes were his favorites— He was a surgeon you know—”
Sometimes I heard the Cadillac when it wasn’t there—after searching the bare street I’d drop back onto my bed, lifting up the black book I was memorizing for Sunday, that had fallen open to “Acts” or “Revelation,” some senseless murder or torment about to take place.
The picture on Dolly’s table stirred memories of a house of large rooms and darkened corridors, a piano playing classical music that wound its way upstairs around corners and along secret passageways. A long cushiony rug whispered “China” when you stepped on the gold-robed emperor and his red and green nightingale.
“On Alma Street, a line of big trees—” Gladys had said on the phone, deaf Baylor eagerly coaching her in the background before I’d hung up.
By the street grew five liquid ambars, and along the side of the house a wisteria vine reached two stories high so I could breathe the scent of its purple blossoms through my screen at night.
Had the house burned down, or been bulldozed to make way for a new development?
Maybe it was still there, right now, this second, the big trees even bigger, tall as the elm where the great-horned owl lived, the wisteria still blooming at the window.
I had never seen the house again or looked for it when for one reason or another—to picnic at Mooney Grove, by the statue of the dying Indian, or buy a present with Gold Bond stamps at the redemption center—I had passed through Acacia, just as I never tried to find my mother or contact her after the visits at the Lawrences ended.
“I’d hum a Strauss waltz and he could play it right off, tell me the title—”
Something had happened, maybe nothing more dramatic than my mother getting tired and bored with trying to raise a child alone. Mrs. Lawrence just said my mother had moved away, back East somewhere, her thin-lipped, hard-set mouth like Mrs. Watkins’ telling me that was explanation enough.
But that was a lie, all these years Dolly had been in Acacia, 30 miles away, Mrs. Lawrences old letter with my address ticking like a bomb in a dresser drawer that smelled of dust and lavender. Or orange, sweet and acid, veined with whiskey.
“We were great fans of Mrs. Roosevelt—”
On the wall above the headboard the clippings of Geraldine Ferraro that Kate had cut from the paper charted the summer’s decline, from excitement and hope to fear and uncertainty, to outright scandal and low accusation. Mafia. IRS. Husband’s finances.
“Bennell was an awfully good doctor. He delivered you.”
“Did he?” I glanced over at the phonograph and its single red record. Nat King Cole.
“He’d been in some trouble back East somewhere, got involved with an actress. His family turned him out, so he came out West. He wanted to marry me. It wouldn’t have worked out.
“You didn’t love him?” Mona Lisa.
“We came from different worlds.”
I stared up at the rusty stains on the rippled ceiling. Would it rain again, to ruin another raisin harvest? A second ago, was that the wind from the sea, the Pacific, in the elm?
“Those eggs were good,” Dolly said. “But next time, can you use just a pinch less salt?”
“Do you want a glass of water?”
My mother’s plate was clean. I’d forgotten to bring a drink. Kate had spilled the carton of milk at dinner, before she’d run out crying to stand alone in the barnyard, before she’d gone upstairs to dress for Eddie Dodge—
“No thank you,” Dolly said. “I’m finished.”
“You were hungry.”
“I didn’t eat much breakfast or lunch.” Dolly touched a kleenex to her mouth. “I’ve been sort of nervous. I felt a lot better, then not so good again—”
“Everybody’s keyed up,” I said. “Could you rest with all the honking?”
“You mean the white car? The one with the silver horse on the hood?”
“No. The farmers going by. Delmus’ party is tomorrow.”
Again I saw the station wagon with the black dice hanging from the rearview mirror, parked under the walnut tree, the dropped beer cans, the man in the red shirt undoing his pants to urinate against the walnut’s trunk, all of them laughing and looking up at the house where suddenly Dolly stood at her upstairs window.
“You say there’s going to be party? I don’t remember—”
I stepped to the window, reaching out to touch the glass, above the wrinkled sill where old rain had seeped in.
“Don’t worry,” said Dolly. “It’s not going to rain. I could feel it in my bones if a storm was blowing in.”
In the window I could see the string on the sheet by my mother’s hand. I was standing in this room because of her and Dr. Bennell, as Kate was alive because of me.
“Who’s my daddy?” I asked my mother once as she tucked me into bed. Dolly Mable smiled, pointing out the window screen past the drooping wisteria blooms like bunches of blue grapes. “The sun and moon. The stars and purple flowers. Is that good enough?”
How old was I then? Five? Six?
I realized how tired I was, I could feel it in my neck and shoulders, still hear the screech of the grinder as Delmus sharpened the knife for the pig in the morning, Mrs. Watkins’ peacocks’ cries and the shrieking howls of her Dobermans at every passing car or truck. I was almost too tired to even answer people, to not just say whatever came to mind. Slaphappy.
“No paper tonight?”
“I forgot,” I said to my mother’s reflection in the glass. Beyond the dusty pane Kate wandered somewhere down a vine row, on her way to meet Eddie Dodge. Mrs. Watkins had called, sure a burglar, maybe the Standpipe Strangler himself, was climbing down the side of the house. I’d said Delmus had to adjust the TV antennae and she’d said, “Oh, I thought it might be that boy who brought Mrs. Grayson, the one in the blue car.”
“It’s all right,” Dolly said. “You and I never get to talk.”
But we had talked, from spring through summer, on and on— About keeping the window and the door locked tight, about calling a doctor, Dolly’s drinking and smoking and her heart, Kate and how she had to prepare for school in the fall, about Dolly Mable remaining Mrs. Grayson, a family friend from Merced.
“Just about the weather— You know, ‘Today’s not so hot,’ or ‘Yesterday was cooler—’”
Ferraro and the Gold Lady, then the gun and the string—
In the morning when I’d asked for the gold pistol Dolly declared she didn’t own any bullets, she’d never fired a shot in her life, much less at a living person, it was a gift from an old admirer, really just a toy or bangle, a piece of pretty jewelry with the gold plate and the butterfly carved in the ivory, and anyway it made her feel safe, especially when Mrs. Watkins’ peacocks screamed and she thought it was the Strangler attacking a young girl.
Sun Damsel had collapsed, defaulting on the raisin payments, and my mother had comforted me, told me she could sell her house in Acacia.
Did Dolly really have a house? She’d never mentioned it again.
But Gladys had, on the phone an hour ago, as she spoke for Baylor, after Mrs. Watkins had called about the intruder—
“Are you still having those dreams?” Dolly asked. “Of all the birds?”
“What birds?” A blinking plane crossed the sky.
“One day last week you brought my lunch late. You said you’d fallen asleep at the kitchen table. Then you woke up suddenly when you thought you heard a bird screeching at you. I remembered what you said, when I saw that crow today.”
“I saw one too.” Its black feathers had glinted red and green and blue in the setting sun as Delmus pretended to shoot it with his knife, lifting the shiny blade from his grandfather’s sandstone grinder and aiming it like a gun.
“Black Raven,” he’d said, one eye squinting. “That was Sam Houston’s name, when he ran away to live with the Cherokee.”
“Maybe it was the same one,” Dolly said. “And I saw a dove, like in my poem, the one who used to roost in the tree, before the owl came. ‘When doves assume the branch at dusk, In shadows cool and murmurous—’”
A mourning dove, flying toward the blue gums, as I thought of Kate under the catalpa, my face against its trunk as Delmus sharpened the knife—
“You said your dream was about a condor,” my mother said.
I recalled it as one of the peacocks, the great beak open wide and the tongue bright red. Then it was Mrs. Watkins’ face. I’d dozed off at the table, over pictures of the poisoned birds at the Kesterson Refuge on the Bee’s front page, the dead malformed wet chick and the broken egg.
“I was thinking that in your unconscious—or subconscious, whatever the psychiatrists call it—you’re probably afraid it will go extinct.”
“Maybe you’re right.” The elm limbs sighed in the wind beyond the window, the leaves sweeping the shingled roof like a wash of rain. Now I was forgetting all my dreams. My mother had to relate them to me.
“They’ve got them in zoos, in L.A. Special breeding programs. I saw one the other day, on TV. They use hand puppets that look like condors. To feed the chicks. I’m sure they’ll survive. Like the quagga—”
“The extinct relation to the zebra and horse? They reproduced one of its genes this summer, at Berkeley. From a hundred-year-old skin they found in Germany.”
“Did they?” In the pane I could see the yellow book—Book of Changes—beside my mother’s picture.
Kate and Dolly looked more alike than either resembled me. Except for the absence of the scar at her chin where Delmus dropped Kate against the iron headboard when she was five—the young Dolly in the photograph could be Kate, dressed in the purple gown from the bed, with the butterfly pin and her hair put up. It made sense that they would like the same things.
The elm leaves blew, the climbing roses scraped against the side of the house, where Kate had climbed down the trellis to lie with Eddie Dodge, Dolly Mable’s one-day chauffeur, Mrs. Watkins had called to say so.
Yesterday I’d picked up the receiver and Kate had talked to Eddie on the phone, she said he was like Ramon, Dolly’s true love—
“You never told me how you liked living with those people up in Fresno.”
I looked again at Dolly’s reflection wearing the blue oriental gown. In the midst of a storm at sea she rested comfortably in the stateroom berth the captain had assigned her as an honored guest. She lifted the silver mirror to her chalky face while waves rose beyond her cabin’s porthole.
It was the first time she had mentioned the Lawrences.
“It was all right,” I said.
“I just wondered. You know, I fell out of touch.”
“The Lawrences?” They’re right here, I thought, in the elm leaves trying to touch the window. They’re as much here as my mother. “I hated them.”
The clothes they wore, how they held their bodies and moved their mouths to speak, the shapes of their heads, the way they combed their hair, the color of it like thin coffee.
“You did?” Dolly didn’t sound surprised, though she lowered the silver mirror.
Their scents. Mrs. Lawrence smelled like sour vanilla, her husband like wet sawdust. The food they ate. Grits and rhubarb. Milk toast. Turnips.
“Remember that movie, ‘Now Voyager,’ with Bette Davis? What her mother was like? They made me get baptized in the Kings River, I couldn’t swim and it was freezing, melted snow from the mountains. I thought I was going to drown, the preacher held my head under and wouldn’t let me breathe. I swallowed water—”
My voice sounded like a child’s with that rising despairing whine that was the echo of the real complaint. Which was anger. Which was loss. Why don’t you love me?
“They couldn’t have any children,” she said. Her image set the mirror on the night table.
“They didn’t deserve any.” Now Dolly looked at me, at my face in the window.
“Are they still alive?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t been up to visit this summer. Mrs. Lawrence was sick the last time I saw her. Heart trouble.”
“Too bad.” Dolly reached for the yellow book on the table.
Was it? In the little white house on Walnut Street—down from Washington School and his bronze bust watching from the alcove above the double doors—my room had been just as I left it.
“Did you ever read about Confucius?”
Kate bounced on the bed where I had lain awake at night, devising complicated plans of escape. It was always Mother, how to get back to Mother, all the time. Once when Dolly had come for a visit, I asked her why she had sent me away. Dolly had got upset and Mrs. Lawrence frowned at me as my mother left the room and hurried out to the car.
“‘The wind is part of the process, the rain is part of the process.’”
When Kate got older I visited alone, as a duty, walking up the brick path between the cruelly trimmed tree roses—like that first day, after Dolly had driven off, when I ran into the unpaved alley to hide. I’d cried and cried, huddled down beside a black cat that kept trying to climb into my lap. Finally I let it, the cat purring and arching its back.
When I heard Mrs. Lawrence calling from the yard I went around to the front, up the walk and pushed the doorbell. Mrs. Lawrence answered and asked where I’d been, she was worried sick, that was Rule Number 1, never run off. Then she said it was my house too now, I didn’t have to knock. “Just be quiet. It’s lunchtime. Mr. Lawrence is praying in the kitchen before he goes back to work.” I started in with the cat in my arms and Mrs. Lawrence stopped me, gripping my shoulder. “Oh no,” she said. “That’s a stray. It has ringworm. Anyway, we don’t allow animals in the house.” I took the cat down the aisle of roses and set it by the curb. It kept trying to follow me. “Leave it be!” Mrs. Lawrence called. When I ran inside Mrs. Lawrence took me into the bathroom. She made me undress and take a bath with Castile soap as she watched. “Don’t forget behind your ears—” She leaned forward, afraid I carried lice or impetigo.
“‘The superior man abides in his room. If his words are well spoken, he meets with assent at a distance of more than a thousand miles. How much more then from near by!’”
I never felt comfortable in the house, anywhere I stepped Jesus had stood while He talked to Them. He was in all the pictures on the walls, either crucified or a long-haired movie star in heaven. The Lawrences said boys were evil and wouldn’t let me go out, not even to an afternoon ice cream social. I sat alone in the back yard as evening came on, plucking petals from one of Mrs. Lawrence’s yellow cabbage roses, saying to myself, “He loves us, He loves us not.”
As a grown woman I sat in the same musty living room with its bookshelf holding a single white Bible and a painted plaster cast of a woman’s praying hands with red fingernails—I remembered all the endless evenings of Bible study after dinner and the long, involved saying of grace when Mr. Lawrence came home inspired from building the new Sunday school. The old radio still sat against the wall, its round frayed black speaker like a dark mouth. The rule was I couldn’t play it unless Mr. Lawrence listened too, and then only certain programs—“Amos ’n Andy,” Father Coughlin’s tirades against the Jews, the spiritual section of “Grand Ole Opry,” Aimee Semple McPherson’s Sunday sermons from L.A.
For nearly 20 years—until the preacher died of the accidental barbiturate overdose in 1944—the Lawrences were tormented by the nagging mystery, Sister Aimee’s 1926 disappearance near Venice Beach—she was assumed drowned, the extended search claimed a member of the congregation and another diver who failed to find the body—
“‘The town may be changed, but the well cannot be changed. It neither decreases nor increases. They come and go and draw from the well. If one gets down almost to the water and the rope does not go all the way, or the jug breaks, it brings misfortune.’”
She emerged a month later from the Mexican desert at Agua Prieta, just south of Douglas, Arizona, with a tale of chloroform and kidnap. Sister’s mother produced a letter from “The Avengers” demanding $500,000 to ensure that Aimee wasn’t sold into white slavery—but when Sister was found she had grass stains on her shoes and wore her own dress and her mother’s watch instead of the bathing suit—
Could Sister Aimee really have faked her own kidnap to enjoy a sexual holiday with Kenneth G. Ormiston, the married and missing sound engineer from KFSG, who worked the broadcasts from Sister’s 5000-seat Angelus Temple? The Lawrences wondered.
“‘A shoal of fishes. Favor comes through the court ladies. Everything acts to further.’”
“I have to admit,” Mrs. Lawrence said in 1936, “a time or two I thought as much.” “So did I, looking back,” Mr. Lawrence said, staring straight ahead from his chair. “Still, it’s quite a shock. Just the question in your mind—” “Yes, it is,” Mr. Lawrence agreed. “Let’s pray for Sister tonight.”
Soon a Sunday morning the sermon was interrupted by the flash announcing Pearl Harbor.
“The world’s full of evil,” Mr. Lawrence said. “Yes,” said Mrs. Lawrence “there’s hardly any Christian people left.”
Just you and Mr. Lawrence, I thought, is that right? The whole world’s at war except you. Later he made a lot of money during the war, building the new barracks at Hammer Field where the fighter-bombers trained.
“‘Confucius has said of the great sacrifice at which the rites were performed, “He who could wholly comprehend this sacrifice could rule the world as though it were spinning on his hand.”’”
They hadn’t come to my wedding because it wasn’t a church wedding, a certain church wedding, Pentecostal or something, I couldn’t remember. Delmus didn’t want a preacher, just a justice of the peace and afterward a little party on the lawn. Aaron Winters and Larry Jones and their wives were there. Florence, Delmus’ mother. And his uncle, Baylor—
“How did you decide to be a nurse?” Dolly asked, setting the yellow book on the night table, as if she’d just finished the story of my childhood with the Lawrences.
“I wanted to be on my own. The war had started.”
“I paid for your schooling. I sent them a check for $300 every month.”
“They gave me $60,” I said. “I saved it for tuition and dormitory rent. That’s where I met Delmus, in the Veteran’s Hospital.”
In the dark the yellow roses looked white.
“When you were with the Lawrences?” Dolly asked. “Did you ever remember when you lived with me?”
“I used to. I used to wait for your car to pull up. Sometimes I’d think I heard it, but when I looked it wasn’t there.”
“I came as often as I could, until they told me not to come any more—”
“They told you not to come?” Now I faced my mother. “You wanted to come and you couldn’t?”
Dolly Mable nodded.
“Of course I did. But they didn’t want me to. Bad example, they said. Because I didn’t come didn’t mean I didn’t love you—”
A second more I watched her face, then again I turned away.
“Do you now?” I asked, looking at my mother in the glass.
“Of course—why do you think I’m here? The Gold Lady, the woman in the light, the one who looked like Ferraro? After that bad night? She told me to find you.”
My heart leaped again. I smelled the sweet perfume of wisteria and heard the music—Dr. Bennell playing Mozart, “A Little Night Music”—he was the one who sat at the piano!
But my longing was divided, even now, like something weighed down, bent in the middle. It always had been.
The wind blew, rattling the roses on the trellis, in the elm folding back the owl’s feathered horns. I watched my own shadowed face, waiting for an answer.
“‘That’s my Kyla,’ I thought, ‘I’d know her anywhere, from all the women on Earth or in heaven—’”
Her disappearance had left a bitter taste on my tongue. I had always tasted it, off and on all my life, in the Lawrences house, in the nurses’ dormitory, even now in my bed at night.
“When I saw you that morning all the years fell away. You were still my little Kyla—”
And what was that taste—that scent? Whiskey, or stale orange blossom from some old springtime sealed in a jar?
No, something else—their opposite. Something sharp, strong and bitter, but also salt, that went with a sound. Delmus remembered!
He hated it too, he’d described it to me before, a whole planeful of it, so you couldn’t breathe except on oxygen. It stung and burned and echoed in your ears. I’d finally identified it, the morning Delmus had to shoot the rabid coyote in the barnyard. Gunpowder.
“Why’d you send me away?” I asked.
“First tell me more about the Lawrences—”
“The Lawrences were going to leave me their house. Then one day they said no, they were going to leave it to the church. And their life insurance. And my life insurance, they had a policy on me. They bought it from the deacon, a crippled man who rolled on the floor and spoke in tongues. He taught Sunday school and said the Devil was everywhere. He called him the Big D and said his breath smelled like oil smoke.”
“For him, I guess it was,” Dolly said. “You know, when I was coming up here, with the boy in the car, I saw a sign that scared me.”
“With Eddie Dodge?” I waited.
“Yes. I saw an advertisement for Lemas Honda in black letters, ‘Honda’ going one way, ‘Lemas’ the other, in a big black cross.”
“Why was that scary?” I lifted a finger, dragging it down the window at a slant.
“I kept thinking it meant something else, like an anagram. Like that game ‘Spill and Spell’? Gods—dogs. You know. Then it changed and I felt better.”
“What do you mean it changed?” I crossed the line to make an X.
“Lemas Honda,” Dolly said. “Salem had no—”
“Witches,” I said. “When I saw your blue car this spring—when it pulled into the yard—I had happy thoughts, of the way things used to be—”
“Did you? So did I! That’s why I came. I mean the Gold Lady told me to come, when she stood by the bed, but I knew she was right. We had fun, didn’t we? Dr. Bennell and you and I. Remember Mr. Hayes?”
Dolly leaned forward eagerly.
“I’ve got to call and see if my house is okay. I’ve got things there I couldn’t bring with me.”
Great big house— In Acacia. Baylor says ten bedrooms—
Dolly’s fox stole rose on quick paws, bushy tail flashing through the night, amber eyes shining as it trotted down a vine row for the blue gums with Kate’s red dress in its jaws.
“Do you remember my china, the Wedgewood with Windsor Castle? I’d like Kate to have it someday.”
We ate at the table with linen napkins and silver and she talked to Dr. Bennell or “Mr. Hayes” while I imagined I lived in the china’s brown castle, in the highest tower room with the window, below the blowing banner and I could see all the world, I could see everything before it happened.
“After you sell your house?”
“I can, like I said,” said Dolly. “There’s a man watching it for me.”
“No, somebody older. His name’s Hack. He owns the Chevron station. I could have him bring up a few things. I’ve got the deed. I need to call him, give him the combination to my safe.” She reached for the night table’s top drawer. “Before I forget—”
“You’ve been talking to Kate all summer.”
“Once in a while she stops by.” Dolly lifted a note pad.
“This and that. Lots of things.”
“No, not about me.” My mother shook her head firmly, holding the pen. “The campaign, how Ferraro is doing. Things in the Fresno Bee. Early history.”
“What early history?”
“Joaquin Murrietta. Sometimes Sontag and Evans. Larry Jones’ old book. Did you know my father knew them, before they robbed the Central Pacific?”
“You don’t talk about Eddie?”
“No— Just about Joaquin.” My mother watched me now. “Why should we?”
“I just wondered.” I looked out the window, past our double reflection. “She doesn’t talk to me.”
“I haven’t seen her for a couple of days. That’s all.”
“I told her not to bother you,” I said.
“She’s no bother. I love when she visits. She just says hello. We chat a little.”
Eddie, tonight was the best—
Through the shut glass, from the eucalyptus grove I could hear coyotes yipping, ready for the night. Like Dorothy in the forest on the way to the Emerald City, now Kate walked in the blue gums—
“There’s always something interesting, in National Geographic. Like the quagga—”
I rested my forehead against the cool window. The trees frightened me at sundown, when they turned to a black iron ship towering above the flat ocean of purple vines. Like in “Wizard of Oz” a few white, tall trunks stood out from the edge of the grove, sometimes something white flickering at the top of a high turret, the open outstretched underwings of a big bird of prey.
“I tell her what the Valley was like, when I was a girl—”
And once a year a thousand turkey vultures circled half a mile above the trees. It was a stop on their migration route, though where did vultures migrate, and why? Home for crows and hawks, especially owls, in the evening the blue gums echoed with the massed voices of sparrows, robins, in springtime greedy starlings returned from stripping an orchard of young plums.
“Would you would believe there were rabbits, thousands and thousands, and coyotes everywhere and once my father roped a badger?”
At dusk in winter across the bare vineyards long flocks of blackbirds dipped and swerved like snapped black sheets as their leaders made for the grove. The trees were planted 60 years ago, perfectly in rows, like some giant’s weird orchard, 20 acres for blue gum furniture and lumber, after the World War I timber scare.
“Did I mention the time my sisters and I went to Santa Cruz on the train?”
But the forest went uncut—the wood was twisted, no good for building—and grew 200 feet tall, shading sections of vineyard that starved for lack of light and wilted from the oil leached from the blown pungent leaves.
“We’d never seen the ocean and we each tasted the salt water and spit it out.”
A man named Flowers leased the grove and turned turkeys loose inside, morning and evening you could hear their roar. The closer you got, the louder they got, until at the chicken-wire fence you could see the white birds moving through the shadows. Just before Thanksgiving, the noise diminished. By Christmas it had ceased. Flowers had a female cocker spaniel that was always in heat and drew packs of dogs that went in after the turkeys. Firing shotguns one morning Flowers and his partner shot six of the neighbors’ dogs.
“We watched the waves roll in and out and Bryan? He said it was the moon that did it and we laughed and splashed him with water.”
One afternoon when he was pruning in the plum orchard, Delmus heard a dog yelping. Delmus got down from his ladder and climbed the fence and found Kate’s fox terrier Mike in a snare. Kate’s dog was too small to hurt, much less kill, a 30-pound turkey. Delmus wanted to go talk to Flowers but I wouldn’t let him. A week later, like Toto, Mike ran scared into the yard, with a piece of paper tied to his collar. The note said, “Go feather your nest!” and I never knew what it meant or who sent it.
“We rented wool suits, the five of us girls, and tossed a big shiny ball.”
The blue gums sometimes appeared in my dreams, always mysterious, foreboding, full of hidden cries, gliding prehistoric birds, and shadowed people living unaware of one another, blue smoke going up from red campfires in front of hobo huts made all of branches and silver leaves and bark fitted every which way. Once, with Delmus, before we were married, I ventured in a few steps where the light came down in long white strings, magnified, and I reached up and gripped one with my hand, trying to grasp the bright cord. The birds’ calls sounded unafraid, disrespectful of man, wide swooping wings overhead, hawks changing towers. I smelled the acrid dust, the thick floor of stale leaves littered with years of droppings.
“And Bryan swam so far out we got afraid the sea would take him and made my father call him to come in—”
Then somewhere far off, as in a real forest, I heard the roar and whoosh and concussion of a fallen limb, the crackle of rabbits and unknown animals clambering about the slash. A quail trilled and with two fingers Delmus peeled from the broad smooth trunk the long sheaf of bark like parchment—
I opened my eyes. “Are you ever afraid you’re going to die?”
“Did I tell you about Bryan, in the war?”
Dolly’s surprised reflection began to smile.
“No,” she said. “Not with you taking care of me the way you do.”
“I mean the idea of death.”
“I don’t dwell on it,” Dolly said, glancing back at her note pad. “Why do you ask?”
“I just wondered.”
“It depends who you are,” Dolly said. “For some people it’s one way, and for other people it’s another. That’s been my experience. I’ve known people so devout they wouldn’t lick a stamp. And then when the time came—all the time they were saying, ‘When I get to heaven, when I see Jesus’—they went to pieces. And others—hard-drinking, hard-living men like Joaquin—they’d just laugh, as if it were a joke.”
“It’s not a joke,” I said.
“No, it’s no joke.”
“And everyone dies alone,” I said.
“That’s right, Kyla. Everyone.”
Dolly lifted a hand that held the pen. “In the midst of the multitude, you still die alone. I guess you could say it’s the ultimate democracy.”
She sounded like Delmus. A philosopher. With her white hand in the air she could be posing for a sculptor.
“Why did you really come here to live?” I asked.
Another plane crossed the sky, its wing and taillights a little constellation, blinking red and green, stop and go, the way Delmus’ B-29 might have looked, if they hadn’t made them fly in the dark. Or his friend Brawley’s bomber, the Evangeline, before it exploded and the engine shard crashed through Delmus’ turret and branded his arm.
“I wanted to be with my daughter. With my family,” Dolly said. “Is there something wrong with that?”
The plane turned, lifted a wing, now there was only one light. Maybe it would land in Fresno, on the blue-lit runway.
“Do you want me to leave?”
“No,” I said. “Not at all.” As I said it, I realized it was true. “I think it was meant that you come to stay. Just like it was meant for me to go live with the Lawrences.”
“No— That was something else that came up.”
“Don’t you feel it?” I said. “We’ve been together in this room all the time.”
“I don’t think I follow you—” She wrote on the pad.
“Think about it. Each place you ever were was where you were supposed to be—so you were always there, in a way.”
Dolly didn’t answer.
“It’s hard to explain,” I went on, remembering the lines of spiders’ silk stretched across the vineyard at morning and evening when the sun was low, aiming like a gun. “It’s my own idea. It’s as if everything were connected, like some network. Like a web. At the center, where all the lines meet, there isn’t any time. There never was.”
“I don’t know. I’d have to think about it. I’ve had a lot on my mind. What with the election—”
“Sure. This is where it ends, or begins, depending on how you look at it.”
Again I put my hand against the glass.
“I guess that’s where faith comes in. Faith that a rose didn’t make itself or grow by accident. That’s what Delmus said.”
“Kyla—Don’t open that window.”
“Why? You could smell the roses then.”
“Just don’t. I don’t want to.”
“I’m not,” I said. “But why? It’s nice and cool outside. There’s a sea breeze.”
“Just don’t do it, it makes me upset.” Dolly raised herself up in the bed in the window.
“I’m not going to,” I said. “But what are you afraid of? I know it’s not the rain.”
As I spoke, already I regretted my words, but it was too late:
“Are you scared your soul will fly away?”
I saw my mother’s blurred reflection wrench around as it shoved its hand under the bottom pillow. Now I knew the secret hiding place.
The gun glittered gold in the light. All along I had been waiting for it. I’d wanted my mother to point the derringer.
“‘Wait a little longer, till your little wings are stronger, / Then, then you can fly away.’ Remember that? You used to read to me. About the little bird leaving its nest?”
“Kyla, don’t stand by the window.”
“Who is Aaron Markham? Why were you afraid of me, that night you thought I was him?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Was he my father? Did he make you pregnant, then leave you, the way Eddie’s going to do Kate? Or was it Ramon?”
“Oh no, not Ramon—”
My mother lurched forward and snatched the purple dress and brought it to her breast.
“He was Joaquin Murrietta, in another life, before he became a movie star, Domingo Esquivel, the first Zorro. Ramon found his treasure, when Aaron hypnotized him by Cantua Creek, where Captain Love and the posse rode him down with Three-Fingers Jack—”
In the light the rhinestones twinkled and shone like 50 sparkling eyes.
“You can tell me, what’s there to lose now?”
“Don’t say those things, Kyla.”
“Shoot,” I said. “Go ahead.”
It was Kyla talking, not someone standing safely just outside my body. Or someone inside who wanted to die—
When I smelled the smoke, it would be like incense, like wisteria. At the last minute I’d remember everything.
All my life there was something I’d forgot.
“Kyla, come here, don’t stand by the sill. It makes me nervous, the gun might go off.” She held the dress and the gun.
“I thought you said it wasn’t loaded.”
“It isn’t. I mean I don’t remember.”
“I’m not afraid,” I said.
“Don’t talk that way.”
“What would you like to talk about?”
“Anything, the weather— Just don’t open the window. Or talk about Aaron. The Harvest Fair. I don’t want to. You don’t understand. It’s too upsetting.”
“The weather’s changing,” I said, turning to face my mother, who met my gaze for a heartbeat and looked away. “Bones or no bones. The neighbors are calling, your friend Mrs. Watkins who gave Kate the sex book and found her red dress her Dobermans tore from the line. And Baylor, Delmus’ idiot uncle. The whole county knows who you are.”
Her greens eyes looked into my gray eyes, searching for something familiar, then her head dropped against the purple dress.
“By now half of Lemas knows,” I said. “Isn’t that what you wanted? You’re famous.”
“No one knows,” she said. She put the gun down on the sheet. “I’d know if they did.”
“The way you knew Ferraro was going to win the nomination? ‘She and Mondale are sure to beat Reagan, before he drops the Bomb!’ Or how it’s not going to rain? The Gold Lady wouldn’t let it? No, I don’t think so. I’m afraid for once you’re wrong. This time they all know about Dolly Mable.”
My mother turned her head. “You don’t know Ferraro’s going to lose—”
“Kate knows, doesn’t she?”
“How could she?”
“Eddie Dodge knows. I know Kate talks to him on the phone. Or you told Kate yourself. You’re together all the time. It’s all right, you can say whatever you want. You want me to tell her?”
“No, there’s no point. You don’t know everything anyway. You don’t understand. It wasn’t my fault—”
“You’re right,” I said, ignoring the sudden regret in my mother’s voice, still wanting to hurt her more. “I don’t know. I don’t remember. I don’t know anything.”
“You’re better off,” Dolly went on, looking down at her hands that held the faded velvet. “That’s why I sent you to the Lawrences. I’m sorry—about everything.”
“Are you really?”
“Yes,” Dolly said, “Sorry I ever brought another person into this terrible world—”
“You don’t mean that. Kate wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for you.”
Then, before she could answer, my voice getting higher:
“Just think! She wouldn’t have met Eddie Dodge. It was you who brought them together. Congratulations! They’re together right now, in your blue Cadillac, parked by the ditch! Can you picture that?”
I moved to the night table and picked up Dolly’s fork and plate, then looked down at the gun with the flying butterfly cut in the ivory handle.
To the point of threatening murder she was terrified of something or someone, maybe just the peacocks, it was wrong to taunt her about the closed window. She was old and ill, half crazy, even if she looked like a younger pretty sister.
“No more needles,” I’d heard her murmur, her face turning on the soaked pillow in the heat. “No more ink—”
I started to reach out and touch her blue shoulder, to tell Dolly I was truly sorry, that I felt dead on my feet, I didn’t know what I was saying, I didn’t mean it.
Mother, please forgive me, I know your heart’s not strong. You can keep the string if it makes you feel better. I’ll just take the gun, for safekeeping, the smell of gunpowder doesn’t agree with Delmus and me—
Anyway, it’s all water under the bridge, now Kate has to figure it out, it’s her own life to live.
But I didn’t. I couldn’t if I wanted to, Life or Death.
I turned, letting my mother lie there, with her head bowed against the rhinestones. On the sheet beside the gun was the fallen note pad—X’s and rows of lines like a broken tic-tac-toe, and a few scribbled words: Zorro’s Mask, Silver Heart, Ramon’s guitar
Her hand gripped the string.
“Would you close the door?”
I wanted to whirl and strangle her, grab her neck with both hands and squeeze, harder and harder until her face turned younger still and it was Kate—
I had to do something or my head would come off—I would go out to the pump in the field and throw the lever, drink and drink from the tin cup hanging from the chain at the standpipe, run to the barn and lift the bale and swallow Delmus’ bottle of whiskey, every drop, rip Mrs. Watkins’ sex book to shreds, the one she’d forced on Kate out by the mailbox. I’d flood the vines, wake Noah from his drunk and drown Eddie Dodge, open the gates to free the horse and the doomed pig—
If I got that far, if she didn’t fire the gun.
I wouldn’t run or hide, fall and roll under the bed.
Kyla, Kyla roll under the bed!
“Kyla, please close the door.”
“I’m going to,” I said. “Gun or no gun. I’m going to close it tight, for a favor, and then you can pull the string.”
“You’re welcome. Now you’ll be safe—like a little moth in a snuff box!”
Like in “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” the man’s soul batting in the little square of wood with a few scraps of torn paper—
But already I was gone—slamming the door against her cry and no shot going off, the lock clicking back—up the hall and starting down the stairs where nothing ever changed, where there was no weather, Kate never left the house, my mother Dolly Mable never arrived. “One spin of the wheel,” Delmus said as the grindstone turned beneath the knife. “Safer to go to Reno than make raisins every year—”
Here Delmus and I would always be in love among ivy wallpaper where it never rained, away from the Lawrences in Fresno. And little Kate would run into the house so excited, calling me to come look.
There was young and handsome Delmus, leading Kate’s prancing new pony up the drive, white socks and a matching blaze on its forehead.
I could lie down to sleep on the stairs, see the high slanting ceiling rising above me like the nave of a church, where God always was, like the Lawrences said. He never moved, he was always here, asleep.
I dropped the plate in the sink and went back into the living room and picked up my knitting from the coffee table. I turned on the TV, the rain-interrupted baseball game starting again, the grounds crew rolling back the tarp through the light drizzle, as quickly I interwove the two strands of red yarn to stop the rain.
One strand stood for my love and one strand for my hate that had once been my fear, I’d weave the two, hoping what resulted would be something I could live with.
It wasn’t working right, I kept expecting the band to play, some celebrity to sing the National Anthem, and I put the needles down and took up my embroidery, holding the wood circle with my oven mitt and sewing with one hand.
“‘Many men will leave the earth on the wings of the butterfly,’” Dolly Mable told Kate as I passed in the hall with fresh sheets. “‘And when you die you will know, the Butterfly will fly off to the stars. What a marvelous death!’”
“That’s what Dr. Bolger said, when the beautiful girl woke up in San Francisco, in Aaron Markham’s great house by the sea—”
Once I thought I heard someone outside the window screen as the vine canes blew in the wind. The Standpipe Strangler?
I didn’t look up, not even when I heard gunshots rippling across the vineyard, someone shooting rabbits at night as they froze in the pickup’s headlights.
“We begin bombing Russia in five minutes,” Reagan had joked over an open mike the other week, Delmus said.
My free hand worked quick as a wing, like an expert’s, the needle flying through and back and through again leaving new lines of bright color.
I might have been Betsy Ross sewing late into the night, stitching not a butterfly sampler I’d worked on for a year but a brand-new flag I’d finish by morning, for some wonderful new country that had never been discovered—
Nels Hanson grew up on a small farm in the San Joaquin Valley of
California, earned degrees from UC Santa Cruz and U of Montana, and
has worked as a farmer, teacher and contract writer/editor. His
fiction received the San Francisco Foundation’s James D. Phelan Award
and Pushcart Prize nominations in 2010 and 2012. Stories have
appeared in Antioch Review, Texas Review, Black Warrior Review,
Southeast Review, Montreal Review, and other journals, and are in
press at Tattoo Highway and The Milo Review. Hanson lives with his
wife, Vicki, on California’s Central Coast.