They say the day Goodie Lowrey’s husband died thousands of crows converged on Jacob’s Creek, blackening the noonday sky and drowning out her screams in a tumult of wings and incessant chatter. They say only the crows bore witness to the curse Goodie placed on Agnes MacAllister and that they have carried the secret for these two hundred years. They say any man foolish enough to fall under the spell of a MacAllister woman deserves his fate.
Maggie MacAllister tries not to listen to what they say, to the whispers as she walks past, to the nuance of their words that turn a nicety into an accusation, but a walk through the family cemetery is all the proof she needs that they might be right.
One for sorrow, two for mirth,
Three for a wedding, four for a birth,
Five for silver, six for gold,
Seven for a secret not to be told.
Eight for heaven, nine for hell,
And ten for the devil’s own sel’.
M. A. Denham, Proverbs and Popular Saying of the Seasons
Ghosts of winter fog swirl from the windshield as Maggie negotiates her way down the tunnel of slash pines lining her driveway. Only the rumble of gravel beneath her tires dares to disturb the night's silence.
She lets the car roll into the parking circle, switches it off, and gets out. Hugging her coat close, for several long moments she stands as frozen as the landscape all around her. Instead of heading toward the front door, she walks in the opposite direction, over to her old friend, the live oak that has stood sentinel by the MacAllister home for as long as anyone in Jacob’s Creek can remember. Tonight, it stands alone in an inflexible world of black and gray, its frosty leaves shimmering silver in the South Georgia moonlight. So many times when she was still a child, this tree was her refuge from all the ugliness in life, but since she's grown older, she seldom comes here because the ugliness in her life hasn't gone away, but her ability to avoid it by climbing into the crown of this venerable oak has.
She leans against the trunk, taking strength from its mass and longevity. From that spot under the tree, she can see a soft, white light shining from her momma's bedroom window, shining like the full moon. It pierces her heart with the cold understanding that before too long that light will be extinguished.
As if dealing with her momma’s imminent death isn’t enough, Maggie knows that everyone in town is talking. They’ve all heard or told some version of the story, of how the MacAllister family curse is taking another one, and thereby setting an example for all sinners and evildoers. They choose to believe that her momma is being punished, ignoring the reality of the matter that her cancer has metastasized.
But then again, reality never seems to matter in small towns like Jacob’s Creek. For Maggie’s neighbors, fact and fiction merge into a fable delicious in the telling, perhaps because the hardship has fallen on someone else.
She stretches an arm across a low hanging limb, leaning in and gripping the rough bark until her palm aches, until the desire to climb, to hide away from what the future holds all but overwhelms her. She pushes the fear down, swallows it, and refuses to let tears come. Now isn't the time for self pity.
At the front door, after scuffing her shoes on the mat, she stops, and holding onto the doorknob, rests her forehead on the frosty glass, letting the icy pain numb her mind. When she opens the door, the house’s warmth embraces her, drawing her in. She strips off her coat and then glances into the kitchen. The scent of something savory wafts from a big, cast iron pot on the stove, something heavy with garlic and basil, making her stomach growl with the realization that she hasn’t eaten anything of substance since breakfast.
Allison, the hospice nurse, made dinner. The woman is a blessing and a curse. Having a hot, hearty supper ready, again, when she gets home is a convenience that far outweighs all the inconveniences of Allison.
Maggie’s mouth waters with the anticipation of whatever is simmering in the kitchen, but checking on her momma comes first.
Before she can climb the stairs, Allison is talking to her, from the landing at the top. “Your mother’s asleep—” she says in a loud whisper “—getting some rest after a difficult day.”
No hello. No how was your day? No are you okay? Nothing like when Momma would meet her at the front door with a smile and a hug, and something delicious waiting in the kitchen.
“I was able to get a few saltines and some chicken broth into her, and I turned her, about an hour ago. It wore her plum out.”
At the top step, Maggie stops. “Is—“.
Holding up a hand as a police officer might, “Hang on,” Allison says. “I gave her another round of meds. A little early, you know, but she was in such pain. Well, I don’t think it will hurt anything, now will it?”
“Such a sad thing.” Allison runs the police hand across her upper chest, massaging her collarbone. “It must be a torment, just knowing. During one of her little naps, she kept mumbling something, but I couldn’t make it out.”
Maggie takes that last step, onto the landing, and not wanting to appear rude by just pushing past her, leans against the banister. Yes, Allison is a blessing for all the things she does, but her lack of social skills grates after a long day.
Just to get her comments in, Maggie speaks faster than normal. “She’s taking an awful lot of drugs. I’m sure she was just having a bad dream.” In her head, Maggie’s Granny Rose criticizes: she shouldn’t be left alone with a stranger all goddamned day.
“I can tell you, it sure had me spooked—” Allison goes on hemorrhaging words “—her crying out in her sleep and all those nasty birds, just sitting on the window ledge.” She shakes her head, takes a breath. “One of them was even tapping on the window.”
“But never mind about all that,” Allison says. “You come on downstairs and have something to eat.” She reaches out, grasps Maggie’s arm. “I fixed some soup today, an Italian-style chicken loaded with vegetables.” She pronounces it I-tal-yan. “It’ll make you feel better.”
Maggie pulls away. “Where’s Liz?”
“Oh Lord, that poor girl.” Allison shakes her head, again. “What a terrible, terrible thing for a teenager, dealing with death and all. My heart just breaks, and you can see how much she loves her Gram. Anyway, she liked my soup, ate two bowls of it. And bread. She must have a hollow leg or something, to eat that much and never put on a pound.” Allison runs her hands up and down her ample mid-section. “I sure wish I could do that.” She pauses, letting her hands drop. These blessed moments of silence are too far and few in between. “She’s asleep now too, on the chair by the bed. I wouldn’t let her on the bed. I know she’s a sweet girl and all, but your mother doesn’t need all that jostling around.”
“Momma doesn’t mi—“
“Oh, and this morning, a Mrs. Watkins came by to—”
Maggie catches snippets of Mrs. Watkins this and Mrs. Watkins that, but doesn’t care to know the most recent gossip. She’s sure the real reason for Suzanne’s visit was to get all the details, all the enticing tidbits to take back to her friends.
“—stay long.” Allison continues. “Although, she did bring by a lovely, coconut cake and some flowers. I put the cake in the icebox.” She holds out an arm. “Come on, now. Let’s get some food in you before I go. Maybe even a slice of that cake. It sure looks scrumptious.”
“I’m okay,” Maggie says, her words curt and absolute. Allison should know that Momma comes first. “Why don’t you head on home. I’ll take over from here. Take the cake with you.”
Just tired enough to snap if she’s not careful, Maggie says, “Please.”
“Okay, if you’re sure. Your mother should be good for the night. But if she needs them, I left her pills on the nightstand.” There is another moment of silence, so unlike Allison, but when Maggie refuses to engage in any more of her one-sided conversation, Allison says, “Okay, then. I’ll be back in the morning, but if you need anything before then, anything at all, you just call me, you hear.” She heads down the steps, stops, and says, “You be sure and eat something. You need to keep your strength up.”
At the head of the stairs, Maggie waits as Allison putters around far too long in the kitchen, opening cabinets and the refrigerator, waits as she puts on her coat and then leaves, waits for the snick of the key in the lock.
“Thank goodness,” Maggie says as she walks into her momma’s room.
“Is she—” her momma whispers.
Maggie knows that her momma tries not to sound as bad as she feels, but the words rattle from her chest. Just the sound of it makes Maggie’s chest hurt.
“You’re safe.” Maggie draws her hair back with one hand, leans over her momma, kisses the top of her head, and then smiles.
Maggie’s eyes mist as she watches silent tears run down her momma’s now shrunken face. Her knowing, hazel eyes are the only feature that hasn’t been ravaged by the chemotherapy, the only feature left that resembles the image Maggie holds in her head.
Maggie thumbs a tear from her momma’s sunken cheek. “Now, what is that all about? I don’t look that bad, do I?”
Momma shakes her head. “No,” she says, “you have always been—” she stops, coughs against the back of her hand, catches her breath “—beautiful. Always will be.” Patting the bed, she says, “Get up here. Lizzie girl.” Another round of coughs leaves her scowling. “Let your mother. Have the chair.”
Liz eases up on the bed, snuggles down beside her, and then kisses her shoulder. “Love you.”
“Love you too.” Momma’s words come out in a rough whisper. “Both of you.”
Maggie drops down into the rocking chair. “Were either of you bad girls asleep?”
“Playing. Possum,” Momma says.
“Yep.” Liz says. “We tricked the awful Allison.”
At this moment, Maggie wants to hug Liz for all she’s worth, just for the smile her comment brings to her grandmother’s face. The complicity they share makes the moment feel normal. Grandmother and granddaughter banded together against the world, and Allison.
Maggie wishes she felt that bond with them. With either of them.
“Besides, I’ll have plenty of—“ Momma gasps for breath “—time to sleep, after…” She lets the words trail off. Maggie knows what she means without her having to say it, knows that everyone in the room is wondering how many days are left.
Their cat, FatMan, waddles from under the bed and jumps up on it. Her momma squinches up her eyes, but doesn’t complain about the pain the dip in the mattress must cause her. She reaches out blindly to pet him, and he obliges by stretching beneath her palm, then curling up at her hip.
“What day is it?” Her momma’s words are little more than a murmur, almost inaudible above the roar of FatMan’s purrs.
“Saturday,” Maggie says.
Maggie pauses, searching her memory for the day of the month. Every day feels the same. “The 22nd, nearly Christmas.”
“Yule. Tonight. Is Yule.”
Maggie sighs. “I have the rest of the year off, thank goodness.”
“Help me turn,” her momma says. “I need to see you.” She tries to push herself up, but sags back down. She takes a deep, ragged breath. “Easier to talk. That way. Plus, plus, I’m not. Not having to stare. At the ceiling.”
Without so much as a word, Liz eases off the bed, moves FatMan, and then she and Maggie pull her up into sitting position. Liz plumps the pillows. She and Maggie have become accustomed to this ritual. Her momma’s face flames red, and Maggie suspects it’s not just from the effort of moving, that she’s embarrassed. She’s always been the caretaker in the family, and now she’s forced into the role of dependant.
The two of them are as cautious as possible, their hands firm but fearful, as if she might break if they push too hard, but even as gentle as they are, all the pushing and pulling needed to get her settled into a comfortable position dislodges something in her chest, and the coughing starts all over again. Maggie can almost feel the fiery bile rising in her momma’s throat, blistering the already enflamed tissue.
Her momma motions with her hand toward the nightstand, and Maggie holds out a cup and straw so that she can take a few swallows of water. For the moment, the tiny sips seem to quell the rawness in her throat, and the coughing subsides.
Liz takes up her place behind her Gram, spoons her frail body, while Maggie returns the cup to the bedside table and then settles into the rocking chair again. She rests her cheek in her palm, then takes a deep breath, letting it out in a long sigh.
They stay like that for a while, lost in their own thoughts, for so long that Maggie hears Liz’s soft snores coming from the bed.
“You awake?”Momma whispers.
Without looking around, Maggie nods her acknowledgement. She stares at the window, at the night-blackened panes of glass.
“Yes.” Maggie sighs.
“Did I ever tell you? Did I tell you? The Yule story? The one about the.” She takes a deep breath. “The battle between. The Oak King.” She coughs. “And the Holly King.”
Maggie says nothing, still gazing at the window.
“Margaret Erinn. You’re. You’re ignoring me. Like you did. When you were a lassie.”
Maggie kicks off her shoes, stands up, and grabs a quilt from the foot of the bed. “I had a long day. That’s all.”
“I’m sorry, Magpie.”
“You didn’t make it difficult.” Her voice is low, and she says the words with such effort that she hopes her momma doesn’t realize that she’s trying not to cry. She has never been happy displaying her emotions. After all, crying and feeling sorry for herself isn’t going to help her momma or Liz.
“What then?” Maggie swaddles herself in the quilt and then settles back down in the rocker, facing her momma, just like when she was a little girl—a wee lassie, as her momma would say. Maggie draws her feet under her. Safe and warm. In Momma’s rocking chair, in Momma’s bedroom.
“Sorry. For leaving you alone.”
“You’re not going anywhere. Not just yet.”
“I have. So much.” Her momma stops, takes a deep breath, as if searching for the words. “I want to share. With you.”
“You need to save your strength.”
“What you need to do is rest.”
“No. What I need. I need more…” Her momma rests for a moment and then continues, “I need to tell you things.”
“Momma, please.” Her words terse, Maggie turns back to the window. “I don’t have the strength for one of our discussions.” Even as the words leave her mouth, Maggie berates herself. She needs to be more understanding, to listen, and to pretend, if necessary, to agree.
“You need someone.” Momma reaches out her hand. “Someone for you.”
“I have you and Liz.” Maggie leans over, takes her momma’s skeletal hand in hers, opens her palm and kisses it. “That’s all I’ve ever needed.” Her voice catches, but she bites her lip.
“But there. There’s a price.”
Maggie tries to create an exaggerated humor in her voice. “Really, Mother, how melodramatic.”
“Maybe you’re right. To stay single.” She takes a deep breath. “To avoid. The curse. I had so. So hoped that. That Thomas would break. Would break the curse.” Another pause, her breath ragged. “I loved him.”
“And he loved you. But it was an accident, Momma. He was in a car accident. Those things happen.”
“What about Mother? Her four. Four husbands before she. Before she was sixty.”
“As mean as Granny Rose was, she probably killed them all. I wouldn’t put it past her to have knocked them off when she got tired of them.”
“She didn’t have. Didn’t have it easy. Having Bree for a mother. They sent her to. To boarding school. Before she was six.”
Maggie’s never heard her momma take up for Rose.
“Only came home. Because of the war. And Daddy was. Daddy, he was a mean bastard.”
“Well, there’s a good reason to never get married.”
“What am I going. To do with you?”
The room goes quiet, and Maggie wonders if maybe she should try to find someone, someone to share her bed again. But when could she date? She doesn’t even have the time to keep up with everything she has to do now. And then there’s Liz. It’s too dangerous bringing an unknown man into their lives. In her head, Rose laughs. Always the prissy little girl. So what if she does find someone, a man she loves, only to have him die in the prime of life like her daddy? She shakes her head. For a moment there… She reminds herself that the curse isn’t real.
“Sometimes,” Momma says. “When I close my eyes. I feel young again. Healthy. And Thomas. He’s still alive.” She coughs. The spasms force her to clutch Maggie’s hand, her free hand gripping the sheets for purchase. “And you’re happy.” This time the coughing goes on for so long that Maggie wonders if she should call the paramedics, but it subsides. Maggie pats her momma’s hand, and takes a deep breath.
“I wonder.” Her momma squeezes Maggie’s hand, gently this time, in return. “Sometimes I wonder if that is what. What death will be like. Do you think Thomas. Will Thomas be there?”
“Momma, you should save your breath. Talking tires you so.”
“Talking is all. All I can do, anymore. Please don’t. Don’t take that away. From me.”
Maggie bites her lip again to stem the tears, but says nothing. For as long as she can remember, telling stories has been her momma’s gift to those around her, fables filled with rich, detailed accounts of gods and monsters, of love and curses. She can weave a tale from Spanish moss and moonlight that will make a young girl’s heart resonate with yearning. Or weep with anguish. Her coastal-Georgia roots add a dark sweetness to all her narratives, one that stains her stories with sorrow like a drop of molasses dissolving in warm butter.
“Do you think?” her momma says. “Do you think there’s a heaven?”
“I don’t believe in some angry, old, white guy sitting on a cloud up there judging me for wearing the wrong shade of lipstick, if that’s what you’re asking.”
Her momma smiles—Maggie hopes it’s from her remark—and then motions for more water. Without getting out of the chair, Maggie curls around and grabs the cup. She leans forward and holds the straw to her momma’s lips.
“If there’s a god,” Maggie says, “and I have my doubts. Then if it—and I do mean it, not him—if it is concerned about what books I read or what I wear or what swear words I use, then it doesn’t have enough to do.”
Her momma closes her eyes, takes several short sips before gesturing that she’s done. “In my mind. It’s a safe place. A peaceful place. The Christians, what do they say? A peace that passes all understanding. I hope so.”
“I hope so too,” Maggie whispers.
“I’m going to—“ she looks at Maggie “—to miss you. My little magpie.”
Maggie’s chin quivers, and her heart feels as if it is being ripped asunder. Something in her momma’s voice, in its genuineness, has always had the ability to break a heart as easily as mend it.
“What if there is. Nothing after this?” Tears pool and then flow into the wrinkles around her momma’s eyes.
“Please, Momma, let’s not do this.” Maggie squirms around in the rocker, and finally settles in again. This is how she will remain for the rest of the night, folded up in her momma’s quilt in that chair. Taking advantage of every minute left. “It is Yule, after all.”
“People used to be. Afraid, you know. What if the sun never rose.”
“But now we know better.” Maggie’s stomach growls. She’ll eat tomorrow, after Allison returns to torture everyone with her incessant chatter. And her scrumptious food.
“It’s still worth. Celebrating that renewal.”
“Celebrating will have to wait until next year, when you’re feeling better.” As if saying it will make it true. “We’ll have a party. An all night party, and we’ll wait for the sun to come up.”
“There won’t be. A next year. Not for me.”
“Stop it, Momma.” Maggie runs her hand through her hair, and turns her face back to the dark window. Instead of reflecting a mirror image of the room, she sees herself and Liz sitting in the family graveyard, but she can’t figure out what’s going on. They both look like they’re in their pajamas, and Liz’s head is… her hair is gone, but they’re resting against a headstone, wrapped in a quilt. She jerks her eyes away, looks at her momma. “Please, just stop. I don’t want to dwell on the negative.”
“But there’s not much—”
“Please don’t.” One tear escapes and runs down Maggie cheek as she tries to contain the deluge waiting behind her eyes.
“It’s true,” her momma says. “The crows. There have been more. And more every day.” She closes her eyes again. “On my window sill.”
Maggie frowns. “Don’t be silly. They’re just birds.”
“No. Not just birds. They’re.” She reaches over and squeezes Maggie’s hand. “They’re waiting.”
Brushing the dirt from her hands, Maggie leans back onto her heels and examines the results of the morning’s undertaking. It seems that no matter how many weeds she pulls, they somehow manage to choke out the herbs and flowers. Since her momma’s death, they have taken over the garden and flowerbeds.
Pulling her t-shirt away from her moist chest and belly, she uses it to blot the perspiration trickling down the sides of her face. Good thing Liz didn’t see that. All those lectures about being proper and lady-like would wash right down the drain. She grimaces at the smell rising from the fabric. Momma always said Leos have an affinity with the sun and the heat. Not buying it, Momma. This Leo reeks of sweat. It is hot out here. And it’s only June.
She looks around, frowns. Doesn’t look like much for a Saturday morning’s work. With Momma gone, everything takes so much longer and isn’t half as much fun. Maggie never put any stock in loneliness, until now. Momma would have made the morning fly by, talking to the plants and apologizing to the weeds for disturbing them.
Maggie planted no annuals this year, no time for that. A few of last year’s perennials are fighting hard against the suffocating invaders, pushing back against the shallow-rooted Yellow Oxalis, against the Spotted Spurge tossing its seeds to the wind, against the Bermuda grass sending runners beneath the garden surface, spreading its tendrils like gossip.
A crow swoops down, missing her cheek by inches and startling her such that she almost falls face-first into the pile of weeds.
She shoos at it, but it pays her no attention. Instead it yanks on a worm wiggling in the loosened soil. Its feathers shimmer in the morning sunlight, a malignant green on black as it tosses its beak back, devouring the worm, and then it cocks its head to stare at her, its eyes funereal and questioning.
Shaking off the shiver skittering up her spine, she berates herself for being so silly. It’s just a damned bird.
The screen door creaks as Liz pokes her head out. “You out here? I got the stuff all ready.”
In the kitchen, Liz slumps back into one of the oak chairs that have been in their home since anyone can remember, her neck resting on the top rung. A towel and cut-off Levis her only attire, Liz sits with as much patience as any fifteen-year-old can.
Like her mother and grandmother and every other MacAllister woman before her, Liz has thick, curly hair, hair that gives new meaning to the word unruly. Every one of them coppery redheads, well, until today. Today, Liz is going pink.
With the hardwood floors cooling her bare feet, Maggie walks to the table, double checks that there are enough towels spread around to protect the floor, table, and chair from receiving the same harsh treatment as Liz’s hair.
Maggie’s beloved kitchen fireplace is cold today. Even at this early hour, summer days in Jacob’s Creek are far too hot for a fire, and she silently gives thanks, once again, that she lives in the era of gas stoves and air conditioning. She can only imagine what it was like for Agnes and Jacob, two hundred years earlier, building their first house and working the fields in the sweltering South Georgia weather, Agnes wearing long dresses and lots of under clothing, Jacob in his wool kilt.
Spread on their ancient claw-foot table lay all the instruments needed to complete this rite of passage, and as she combs out Liz’s hair, their two cats, FatMan and LittleBoy, inspect everything on the table, marking and nudging all the instruments of modern torture.
“You ever going to get married, Momma?”
“Haven’t found anyone I want to spend my life with.” Maggie slips on a pair of rubber gloves. She knows where this conversation is leading. “Well, except you and your Gram.”
As she pours the two bottles of solution in the mixing bowl, a peroxidey-chemical cloud diffuses into the air around them. She wrinkles her nose and then uses her forearm to rub the burn from her eyes.
LittleBoy squinches up his eyes, jumps from the table and runs from the room.
“Yeah, go ahead, run,” Maggie shouts. “Some of us are willing to endure a lot for beauty.”
FatMan, not nearly as athletic, just turns his back to them.
Never one to be put off, Liz continues, “What about, you know, what about my father?”
Maggie resists the urge to growl. She shouldn’t get frustrated and take it out on Liz, but this question comes up far too often.
“Sit up straight.”
“You know,” Liz says. “I figured out a long time ago he wasn’t some Scottish elf prince.”
“Selkie.” As Maggie stirs the colorants together, the brown solutions spiral into a cherry-red alchemical goop.
Liz says nothing, but Maggie gets it, understands she’s frustrated from the set of her shoulders.
“I said he was a selkie,” Maggie says. “That I fell in love with a selkie, that he couldn’t remain in human form forever. So, he left me and returned to the sea. It’s an old Scottish fairy tale.”
“If you want me to do this, you need to sit up.”
Liz pulls herself up straight and then shifts, wiggling around as if the chair’s uncomfortable.
Maggie takes a deep breath, pushing down the anger that builds every time she thinks of him, even after all these years. She shouldn’t take it out on Liz, but sometimes when Liz holds her head just right, she can see him. In Liz’s eyes and smile, she can see him.
Maggie taps the top of Liz’s head. “Stop moving around. I don’t want this stuff all over me.” She takes the bowl of goop in one hand, scoops up some of it and touches it lightly to the part in Liz’s hair.
“Just didn’t work out, sweet pea.” Maggie coats one of Liz’s tresses with color. Why can’t Liz see her as strong or independent? No, she’s sure Liz thinks she was slutty back then, that maybe Maggie doesn’t even know who her father is. After all, it was the end of the free love era. “It’s a long story better left for another day.”
“You always say that. I’m not a kid anymore, and I don’t believe in stupid fairy tales. I’m almost sixteen. I deserve to know.”
Deserve. Maggie clenches her teeth to keep from screaming. Deserve? Does she get that from him, that sense of entitlement? He used that word a lot. He deserved anything he wanted, just for being him. But people don’t always get what they deserve. No ma’am. If people got what they deserved, that bastard would be skewered on a pitchfork, roasting in an especially hot part of Hell right now.
Again with the wells and the pushing. “Stop it,” Maggie says. “We barely put your Gram in the ground. And now, now that she’s gone—“ Maggie slaps the brush into the bowl. “I don’t need this from you. Not right now.” Immediately sorry for her flash of temper, she takes a deep breath, and making a concerted effort to sound composed and conciliatory, she says, “Sorry. I’m sorry. I’m just really tired these days. Your Gram carried a lot of the responsibilities around here.”
Silence settles between them for several long minutes as Maggie applies more color.
“I miss her too, you know,” Liz says.
At those words, Maggie blinks back tears that threaten her composure.
“I know you do.” She walks around the chair and faces Liz, making eye contact for an instant just to let her know everything’s okay. “I know.” She bends forward, touching up the places she’s missed around Liz’s face.
“We should do your eyebrows too,” Maggie says. “Should I do your eyebrows?”
“Run upstairs, dab some Vaseline on the skin around each eyebrow. And bring me a couple of cotton swabs.”
While Liz is gone, Maggie paces the kitchen, berating herself for getting angry and for taking it out on Liz. It’s not her fault. Lord knows, she’s the innocent one in this whole mess. But how can she tell her daughter? They didn’t even call it rape back then. If a girl went to a guy’s apartment, she was asking for it. So how can she tell her teenage daughter she went willingly to his apartment because she was already in love with him? Because she was stupid and naive. Because she believed his rhetoric. Because she wanted to feel pretty and special for once in her life and because everyone knows that girls who date their college professors are pretty and special.
When she hears Liz on the stairs, she forces herself to smile. If she pretends she’s happy often enough, maybe even she’ll believe it.
The sight of Liz with Vaseline glopped around her eyebrows brings a genuine smile. “I said dab some on, not the whole jar.”
After handing Maggie the Q-tips, Liz plops down in the chair.
“Lean your head back.” Maggie rolls one end of the swab in the dye, and then using tiny strokes to avoid getting Vaseline on it, she dots the dye onto each of Liz’s eyebrows until each hair is saturated.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t be here more,” Maggie says.
She steps back to make sure she got the dye applied evenly. “But we were both lucky your Gram was here.”
She drops the swab into the bowl and then sets the bowl on the table. Stepping behind Liz, she kneads the coloring into Liz’s scalp, gently pulling her fingers through Liz’s thick, curly hair.
“Aren’t you lonely? What with Gram gone, and all?”
“Yeah, I miss her. I do, but I’ve got you.” As Maggie searches for spots that have missed the punishing dye, her eyes mist, but she blinks the tears away. Again. It’s been nearly six months since they buried her mother, and she still wants to cry, sometimes for no reason, even at stupid TV commercials. She should be dealing with this better. It’s not like she can burst into tears every time someone mentions her mother.
“Well, I’m not going to be around forever, you know,” Liz says.
Maggie tugs a strand of hair under the pretense that she’s found a tangle.
“Ouch.” Liz raises her hand to touch the spot, but Maggie bats it away. Liz turns, very likely for effect so that Maggie sees her smirk. “Pulling my hair out won’t change anything.”
“Jacob’s Creek isn’t exactly over flowing with eligible men.”
“Well, if you…” Liz says. “I’m just saying maybe if you looked for someone.”
Maggie draws her fingers through a tangled mass of hair.
“Ooowaah.” Liz leans away. “Stop doing that.”
“That really was a tangle.”
“Okay. I give.” Liz lets out a big, dramatic sigh. “Be an old maid.” She draws her arms across her chest, venting a hmmmmph sound. “See if I care.”
“Don’t worry, honey.” Affecting her best little old lady voice, Maggie says, “I got a plan. When you’re gone, I’ll get me a few more cats, fifteen or twenty, maybe.”
Dropping the old lady voice, Maggie says, “Seriously Liz, you don’t have to worry. I’m okay. I have you and work and the house.” She never realized how much Momma shouldered. Just trying to keep up with the housework is exhausting, but if she doesn’t stay on top of it, the place starts looking like the aftermath of a hurricane.
“And the book. That’s more than enough to keep anyone busy.” She pauses, pleased that Liz cares enough to ask, even if it is awkward for both of them. “But, to be really happy, I probably need a few more cats.”
“What about Desi’s dad?”
“Does he like cats?” Even though Liz’s looking away from her, Maggie grins with self-satisfaction. Teasing Liz is one of her only pleasures these days.
“Momma, be serious.”
“No, you be serious,” Maggie says. “I know she’s your best friend, but that doesn’t mean I should date her father.” She wants to mention that every single woman in Jacob’s Creek—even some of the married ones—are after him and that she’s not going to get in line, but she doesn’t feel like belaboring the point. Not to Liz who has enough self-confidence for both of them, Liz who would assume that if she were in that situation, she’d be at the head of the line, not the back of it.
“Don’t you think he’s good looking?”
Maggie sighs again, this time big and dramatic, a Liz-like sigh.
“It could happen,” Liz says.
“You never know.”
“Okay, how about we double date? You know, you and Rowan, me and JD.”
“Eeewwh. Eeewwwwh. Eewwh.” Liz stresses the sounds just long enough to startle FatMan from his doze. He folds his ears back, jumps from the table, and waddles from the room.
Following FatMan’s lead, Maggie almost puts her hands over her ears, stopping short when she glimpses the cherry-red stain covering her hands. “Okay. Okay. Stop that. Please.”
Looking sideways at Maggie, Liz scowls, but says nothing.
“And what about the curse?”
Liz glares at Maggie, frown lines distorting her face. “You don’t believe in that stuff.”
“One of these days, your face is going to freeze that way.” She nudges Liz’s shoulder with her elbow. “Hold still. I’m almost done.”
“So you really think there’s a curse?”
Maggie uses her most sarcastic tone. “Would you really want to do that to Desi’s father?”
She twists Liz’s hair until it looks like a thick rope of red licorice and then pulls the miserable, plastic, lunch-room-lady hat over it. “Okay, then. You’re done. Wash it out in about forty-five minutes.”
Maggie shoos Liz from the kitchen.
She strips off the plastic gloves, washes her hands, and then pulls out a couple of garbage bags, double bagging all the leftover goopy tools. After every countertop has been wiped down, she sweeps, until not one grain of sand or hair, neither human nor cat, is visible.
Once she’s sure everything in the kitchen is sparkling clean and in order, she washes her hands again, then pours herself a large glass of iced tea and heads for the porch swing for a short break.
At the front door, she sets her glass down and pauses at the foyer mirror. Wondering when the dark circles got so bad, she rubs under her eyes. Pulling out the chopsticks holding her hair in a loose knot, she shakes it free, letting it fall all around her shoulders. A closer inspection reveals a few more gray hairs. For half a second, she considers coloring her hair too and then nixes the idea. Too much up-keep. Besides, shiny, new, non-gray hair won’t change the haggard face underneath.
Grabbing her tea from the foyer table, she scolds herself for setting the sweating glass on bare wood. Hoping it won’t leave a ring, she wipes up the water with her shirt tail. As she reaches for the door, she catches sight of the chopsticks. The muscles in her chest constrict at the sight of them lying there on the foyer table. She opens the door, tells herself she’ll put them away later, but that tightness in her chest stops her. She takes the chopsticks to the kitchen and convinces herself it’s just the need to stay on top of the clutter, that having everything in its proper place keeps things from getting out of hand.
On her trip back through, before heading out to the front porch, she scans the front room, looking for things out of place, clothes—clothes that Liz just dropped here or there, because that girl can be such a slob—needing to be put away, pillows needing to be plumped, furniture needing to be straightened. Once she’s sure that everything’s perfect, she joins FatMan and LittleBoy on the porch as they bask in the late morning sun.
She was standing by the porch rail just like this on the summer afternoon the two cats showed up. They walked right up to her as if invited to dinner, looking like they had just stepped out of a Steinbeck novel. One enormous and clumsy, and not nearly as mentally acute as his smaller, wiry companion.
But Momma wanted to name them FatMan and LittleBoy, after the atomic bombs dropped in WWII. Because cats are like that, she said.
In a sunspot, FatMan lies on his back, paws in the air, in a position that looks hard to come by considering his substantial girth.
LittleBoy, a yellow tabby, more agile than his brother, joins Maggie as she settles on the swing. She pays little attention as he climbs into her lap and nudges her hand for strokes. She gazes off toward the bend in the creek, watching the water flow away to the ocean, listening to the bottles clinking against each other in the oak tree.
Momma hung those bottles in the tree like wind chimes, said the sound keeps the evil fairies away.
But not the crows. Two crows rest in the limbs of the oak, oblivious to the noise. Their rough caws draw Maggie’s attention. She searches her memory to remember an old rhyme Momma taught her. One for sorrow, two for mirth. Mirth may be too much to ask right now, but a little happiness would be welcome.
Maggie leans forward, brings LittleBoy to her chest, rests her chin on his head. Swallowing her sorrow, she forces down the tears that have been threatening all morning. She tries to hide it, God knows she tries to hide it, but when she’s alone, when she’s not distracting herself with the minutiae of everyday life, the grief comes and with it comes the horrors her momma lived through those last days. In the end, she prayed for her momma to die, for the suffering to stop. These days her grief makes her wonder whose suffering she wanted to end, her momma’s or her own.
One of the crows caws again, as if reprimanding her for sitting around feeling sorry for herself while there’s work to be done.
“I know. I know.” Yelling out those four words takes her energy, so that when she continues, the words come out in a whisper. “You’re not telling me anything I don’t already know. So hush. Just hush.”
They ignore her, continue to reproach her. They’re right. She should be doing something productive. She should be at her desk, editing or researching or filing. She should be writing. She hoped writing the book would banish some of these ghosts, but even though she writes all the time—nights and weekends—the ghosts hover, drinking in her energy, draining her.
Still she pushes on, has to. Writing the book will give them some financial stability.
Cancer and death are expensive items, paid for in more ways than she imagined, and finances are more tangible than feelings. If she tries hard, she can ignore the sadness that wells up in her, but she can’t ignore the bills. So, instead of selling the house, she used Liz’s college fund. County agricultural agents don’t make a lot of money, even ones with a horticultural degree. If this book sells, they’ll be farther ahead than they are right now.
And what a source of gossip it’s become. The Jacob’s Creek gossip fest broke into full force as soon as word got around. Sadly, no one in Jacob’s Creek will read it, but everyone will have an opinion on it. In their own politely, malicious ways, they’ll revel in the thrill of it, whispering to each other how another MacAllister has taken the left-handed path away from the righteousness and goodness they all possess. They’ll conveniently forget that Maggie doesn’t believe in witchcraft.
But this book will help pay the bills, and that’s all that really matters.
“You in there?” A wet-headed Liz leans in, pokes Maggie’s forehead with a finger, surprising her from her thoughts. “You looked like you were somewhere else, somewhere far away.”
“Turn around, let me see.”
Liz pirouettes, coming full circle to face Maggie again.
“It looks better than I thought it would. It really does. Your Gram would have said you look like a pixie. A pink pixie.”
“Cool. I love the eyebrows too. Thanks.” She leans against the porch rail, using one hand to shield her eyes from the sunlight. “It’s hot. What’re you doing out here?”
“I thought I heard you talking to someone.” Liz nudges FatMan with her toe. His size makes it difficult for him to regain a standing position, but he somehow manages, then waddles a couple of feet to another patch of sunlight only to fall over in that way that overweight cats have of laying down. Gravity overcomes grace and form at a certain mass level.
“Were you talking to the crows?” Liz drops down beside her on the swing, pushing it into motion with her foot. “Never mind, it was a rhetorical question.”
“Now, where’d you learn a word like that?” Maggie gazes at the crows while stroking the sleeping LittleBoy.
“What’s that you always say? ‘Smarter than the average bear.’”
LittleBoy merrows, stretches, and then settles down on Maggie’s lap.
Maggie strokes his head. “I don’t know any bears that use the word rhetorical.”
“I heard it from the crows, okay.”
When Maggie gives her a puzzled look, Liz says, “You’re not the only one who talks to them.”