You drive up the dirt road between the old oak trees. It’s October, so I guess it must be raining. Maybe there’s a wind blowing too, leaving yellow leaves on your windshield. You scan your surroundings keenly on the way, check the mirrors for signs of life, but find none. There are no neighbors here, no Sunday strollers. It’s only you two and the dirt road, the leafy forest around you, ancient trees with wide trunks and gnarled bark, coiling roots and branches.
The road ends right at my porch, so that is where you’re coming to a halt. You park the car by the empty henhouse and give my humble home a long, hard stare. Janus, you step out of the car first, maybe you take off your sunglasses or tussle your thinning hair. Penelope, you purse your lips and shield your eyes from the sun with your hand, even though it’s cloudy. Your high heel sinks into the soggy ground, catches yellow strands of wizened grass and, maybe, an old and tattered hen feather.
Neither of you says anything I think, not at first. You just stand there for a while, looking up at the three-story building; the multitude of windows, some square, some round, the flaking paint in a light shade of lilac. She’s a magical house, but she isn’t pretty. She’s like an overdone birthday cake gone stale, old frosting sliding off the edges. The apple and cherry trees that flank her on both sides have long since ceased blooming and touch the walls with black, spindly fingers. This time of year they serve mostly as the home of spiders. In the windows, you see sheets of old lace and heavy drapes of bottle-green velvet.
Janus, you shake your head, give your sister a telling look, and mumble under your breath: “Crazy Aunt Cassie. I never knew it was this bad…”
You step gingerly onto the porch then, unsure if the old boards will hold your weight. Janus, you take the key from your pocket. My solicitor gave it to you this very morning with a sheet of instructions. Maybe he laughed a little when he gave it to you, apologized even, saying something along the lines of “The old lady went a little soft before she vanished.” He doesn’t like me much, Mr. Norris. The feeling is in every way mutual.
You are good kids, however, so it would never occur to you not to follow the instructions that I left you, and that is why you are at the house, carefully crossing the deck of my porch. The lock on the front door gives in to the key with a clicking sound, and the door itself swings open on creaking hinges. Penelope wrinkles up her nose at the scent of old and musty, thinly veiled with lavender and thyme, that greets you when you step inside.
In the hallway, you look upon rows of hats and coats and shawls, hanging from hooks on the walls. They are horribly outdated—old woman’s clothes. Penelope smiles when she gazes upon straw hats with flowers and wax fruits attached to the pull. Her soft fingers with the dark red nails swiftly touch the handle of my black umbrella, the yellowing lace of a shawl. Even when young I had vintage tastes.
Janus doesn’t dally. He swiftly strides further inside, takes it all in: the black painted stairs to the next floor, the dusty chandelier with three dozen prisms, the open kitchen door that gives you a glimpse of the black-and-white-checked floor. Penelope’s nose wrinkles up again when she imagines cupboards filled with stale food, but not to worry, Penelope, I have taken care of all that.
At this point, I think, your tongues are less tied:
“Sure could do with a dusting,” one of you, I’m guessing Janus, says when you enter the parlor, his hand resting lightly on my champagne-colored sofa. Penelope walks straight to the bookcase that runs from floor to ceiling, her red nails trailing old spines. She is a librarian, after all, and books are like honey and cream to her. Down on the floor, her high heels leave marks on the dusty floorboards.
“Where is her study, then?” Janus looks around the room, the sheet of instructions crumpled between his fingers. It says to go to the study, but you, poor hatchlings, don’t know where that study is, so you are left there, standing, looking around the room. Hoping for some sign or clue to point you in the right direction.
“These are her books,” Penelope says, having found the row of pink-backed novels on their special shelf.
“How could a childless widow write so much about romance and love?” Janus comes up behind her—maybe.
Penelope shrugs. “Fiction is sometimes better than reality, don’t you think?”
“Perhaps.” Now he shrugs. “I still think it’s strange, though.”
“I think it’s even stranger that she wrote about such romantic things, considering—”
“What she was accused of. If we believe it to be true.”
“That was a very long time ago.” Janus doesn’t want to think about all that. Such things are messy and uncomfortable, and he is a very neat boy.
“Come on, then,” says Penelope, “let’s find this mysterious study.” She will be craving a cigarette at this point, be eager to get things over with so she can attend to her vices. She knows better, of course, being a modern woman in an aging body, but not even the dreaded forty can make her quit her beloved cigarettes, wrinkled skin or not.
Back in the hall, there is only one door left to try, and lo and behold, it’s the study in there; my large oaken desk—not so polished anymore, typewriters hidden beneath thick plastic covers, a chunky old laptop, and windows framed by velvet drapes. Behind the desk is a wide wicker chair, heaped with hard pillows in green silk, matching the hand-painted wallpaper where vines dance like charmed snakes, sprouting fat and glossy leaves. Penelope is instantly taken, trails the vines with her fingertips.
Janus’s gaze travels further, and takes in the pieces of wood, roots, and pebbles littering the windowsills; the taxidermy viper mounted on the wall, scales like hard nails, black eyes peering. He sees all the glass jars filled with dried flowers, sometimes a dead moth, sometimes a rock, lined up neatly on the shelf behind the desk, and then, at last, he sees this: a stack of pink paper, typed out by yours truly, lying there like a marzipan cake, all ready to be sliced and eaten. Neither of you look at the room after that. Your eyes are glued to this pink shape.
“There it is,” one of you says.
“That must be it,” says the other.
Janus’s hand reaches for it first, Penelope’s red nails follow quickly. Both of you read your names on the top sheet. Penelope lifts it away.
And now, here you are. You’re standing in my study, holding this story in your hands—the last one I’ll ever tell. That means I’ve been gone for more than a year and that my whereabouts are still unknown, as that was my agreement with Mr. Norris. Within these pages is the key to unlock my last will and testament, the secret word that will make Mr. Norris open that thick manila envelope and tell you how rich you’ve become. If you can’t find it, there’ll be no prize and my money will go elsewhere.
It’s a drag, I know. But sometimes the world is just cruel. And you do want to know, don’t you? Want to know if those stories your mother told you are true. If I really killed them all. If I am that mad.
This is the story as I recall it, and yours now too, to guard or treasure or forget as you please. I wanted someone to know, you see. To know my truth, now that I am gone.
How everything and none of it happened.
I have sometimes been asked why I remained in S— after the trial. After the man you knew as Tommy Tipp died. It would have been so easy then, to slip away and move somewhere else, to a town or a city where people didn’t know me. A clean slate was what Dr. Martin prescribed.
A fresh start.
Of course, I didn’t particularly like staying in S—. All the eyes staring when I walked down the street or bought ground beef and carrots at the grocery store. My name had been on everyone’s lips for months, my face gracing the front pages. If they didn’t know me before, they certainly did by then. But I had reasons, as you’ll come to understand.
And things weren’t quite as they seemed.
Tommy Tipp was not what you think he was.
I know you liked him, he was always good to you children. I remember him taking Janus fishing and spinning with Penelope on the lawn. You picked him flowers once, do you remember, Penelope, those daisies and bluebells you gave him? Even your mother warmed to him, eventually. Told me how happy she was that I had finally found “an ounce of happiness,” that I was “settling down”—even with Tommy Tipp.
They were mystified, I think, Olivia and her friends, and Mother too, as to why Tommy Tipp chose me. He was dashingly handsome in a dangerous way with a shock of blond hair and very blue eyes, body lean and skin tanned. He was the man all the women in S— dreamed of at night while lying in their husbands’ arms. He was at the center of that guilty, sweet lust they could not curb, no matter how respectable, how well adjusted and successful, they were. Tommy Tipp could ignite a fire in virgins and widows alike. Married women were his specialty; they cost him very little both in effort and in risk. Before he met me, he made a business of it, sleeping around for gifts and favors. He was a champion of secret daytime trysts, every one of the women thinking herself the only one. We all knew he had been to prison, of course, that his past was littered with battery and theft. S— is a small town. But who doesn’t love a redeemed villain, an angel with the alluring taint of sin? I never was so blind, never wanted him for being dangerous; I already had a dangerous lover—already knew the taste of sin. No wonder the ladies were cross, though, when his gorgeous body was found in the woods.
But I’m moving too fast, we’re not there yet. A lot of things happened before that.
* * *
One thing you must know: I was never a good girl.
Never like your mother, all compliant and soft. She reveled in praise, that one, twinkled like a star when someone told her she did well. I was the awkward older sister, ungainly and thin where she was soft and round. Olivia’s hair shone like polished copper, mine was wavy and brown. Her skin was like milk, mine marred by freckles, but a sprinkle of pigments makes no bad girl, of course, it runs deeper than that, runs in the blood. Some of us are just born wrong.
Your mother would have told you we were never close. How we were never the same, she and I. Especially after the rumors and, of course, after the trial, she was eager to forsake me.
I remember it differently, though. I remember summer vacations spent at the seaside, small golden anchors pinned to our chests. I remember looking through the glass-like water in shallow ponds, teasing crabs, collecting seashells. I remember sand between our toes, sweet ice cream melting on our tongues. I remember cake on the porch, fat pieces of fruit embedded like jewels in the sponge. The setting sun before us bleeding a golden light that turned her hair into a coppery river, turned her milky skin a darker, softer shade.
I remember the dolls we got one Christmas morning; pale skinned and black of hair. The home we made for them under the dining room table; white walls of tablecloth, eggcups as goblets and silken pillows as thrones. Medieval princesses both. We picked roses in the garden and adorned their hair, wrought thorny stems as crowns, and had our brother, Ferdinand, serenade them with his recorder, which he played with zeal if not delight.
I remember laughing together, like sisters.
I remember that, and more.
Olivia would tell you it never happened.
Maybe she’s forgotten that it did.
Copyright © 2020 by Camilla Bruce