The Mirrors (part twenty-two)
The implements Brasher used to steer his craft were a single oar with no lock, and a pole. Charmante stepped in and squatted, propping her elbows on the sides. Carolee and Marian were in the same undignified case. There was no clean, dry spot to ease yourself into a sit.
“I’ll man the prow,” Veronica said. “And jump out with that rope when we find a place to tie on. I hope you’re a strong rower, William.”
“The only problem is, can I reach from side to side without falling overboard.”
“Going out,” Carolee said, “the current should carry us dovetail to the beach. That’s how the island is situated…”
Brasher’s boat struck the deeps. Close to capacity, it bellied, riding low for comfort. Charmante’s trailing fingers touched water.
William laid the oar across his knees. To think of another thing besides drowning, Charmante said, “Have I seen Saint Hubert before and never knew it? I used to come down this way fishing with my father. A long, long time ago.”
“You were picturing a sea island, something like that? Coming along the road, you might well never notice. My grandfather let alone all the trees on the shore, for privacy…and of course to stop erosion. Which, speaking of, the river’s taken the little channel that ran the side across. There was a time, if the water was down, you could just step over. All scrub forest and swamp, not even a road going south. I suppose we were brave…”
Carolee’s playmate had been her cousin, and one or two whose parents worked at the house. These children were not friends, but small guardians, toting the lunch basket, the fishing rods and bucket…sent along for that reason. They leapt onto the soft, rocky mud where snappers basked, dragged themselves by the roots of trees to a knoll of pine, and a lean-to shelter she and Charleton had built. The cousins did not play boy games or girl games, but a fantasy, a savage kingdom where ghosts were raised, condemned to servitude as the price of visibility.
“Grandfather, I think, put all that in our heads. He would call us in by the library fire, and try to terrify us with fairy stories.”
“And what were angels to you, in your games?”
“You gave Charleton a little porcelain angel.”
“Oh, much later. You said you came here fishing, with your father?”
If the shim had opened its crack, Charmante might have asked what she wished to know…what had been poor Charleton’s tragedy? Or when, to noticing eyes, had it shaped itself? Was he not a happy child?
“A man in our neighborhood owned a horse he’d hire out for jobs, or just for getting places. Daddy would set me on the saddle in front of him. Carolee, that was your cousin who let my father work at the clinic.”
Until the year his going away became the end…
No more the glamour of travel and return, her father’s familiar absence. A sort of stupidity. Charmante could charge herself with this and forgive. For being sheltered, terribly poor, thought richer than others, knowing nothing of either condition, of what adults fretted themselves over day long—money. Her father had attended the medical school he could, had worked at jobs in Tennessee to live.
But now and then tips, untied earnings, tempted him to greet his little girl bearing prizes. Before the riot, Charmante had seen fabulous things: Yellowstone, Niagara Falls, Indian chiefs in full regalia, cowboys on horseback, caves with tinted pink and blue stalactites.
“Spell that word,” Daddy would tease.
She could, and could tell him these hung from the roof, not like the others, stalagmites…and she could spell that word too.
He turned to her mother, then, mischief in his smile, because Mother had said, “Oh, that’s crazy,” when the stereoscope came back from Nashville. Every neighborhood child had been in their kitchen, looking at the picture show. Biding time, every adult.
“Girls don’t need to be riding bicycles.”
Her mother had said that, as well…and possibly to want one was wrong, money wrong. Not many children on their street had bicycles. She would have lost it, a rough boy taken it from her…
But one summertime Christmas came a celluloid doll, with wiry red hair, dimples, blue eyes painted in a saucy roll. Her dress was stiff papery velvet, green with a yellow sash. Her name (she had told Charmante) was Sandy. Sandy bounced across the bedspread in her white buckle shoes, lording it over her ragdoll comrades.
Neither the doll, nor the people in the pictures—the man and woman dwarfed by a giant redwood, the survivors of the Johnstown flood, posed before a house intact and upside down—had dismayed Charmante. They were magic, these beings. They were of some grand world out there. Her mind hadn’t expected their lily skin to stand for anything.
Bored while her father sat dozing, asked to keep an eye on the cork so he needn’t keep an eye on her, she would edge away looking for turtles…or run up the road spinning and giggling, fighting a cloud of mosquitos. Or tiptoe into the pines, far enough to bang a stick on the trunks, her grandfather’s remedy for bears.
She hadn’t thought of this time as the only time, all there would ever be. Or known that the grand world belonged to Dumains and Robacks. It was true in some way…her father had died for those people.
Brasher’s boat smacked an underwater stob.
“Don’t dunk me, William.”
“I apologize, ma’am.”
A little byplay, a little conscious gallantry. But Veronica was sporty with everyone. Charmante noted only that she noted this, and a non-jealous woman would not.
“Miss Roback, that’s the place I’m aiming for?”
“Yes, but I hadn’t thought about…trash. Don’t try anything that doesn’t feel right to you.”
William said under his breath: “Uh huh.”
(2020, Stephanie Foster)