An open letter to the people of F—
I will openly state for the record that I had absolutely nothing to do with the death of Elena Clover. Despite our differences, no one could be more shocked by what happened to her than me. I had known Elena since we were girls, and though we later grew apart, she always kept a very special place in my heart.
I honestly think it is completely unfair that I’m being accused of this, as I have never been anything but an asset to this town, giving freely of my time and energy, especially in regards to the town archive and my extensive historical research. To have this taint to my name is a disgrace, and you should all know better! Don’t think that I don’t hear your whispers, or feel your eyes upon me as I venture the streets of F—. I know what you are saying. I hear it like a snake in the grass, a quiet slithering, barely there, but lethal all the same. You should all be careful. We have a sorry history when it comes to gossip and rumors in this town, and we should all have learned our lesson by now: not a single wagging tongue is innocent when the witch goes down the well.
In the spirit of full disclosure, and in the hopes of stopping the rumor mill, I have opted to write this letter with the aim of sharing all that I know about Elena’s return to F—, and what happened between us over the summer. I swear I won’t hold anything back, and feel confident that you too will be convinced by the end of it that the villain of this piece (if one there must be) is Elena herself, and not me. Even if things got a little heated and a smidge out of hand between us, that hardly leaves me with any responsibility for what happened to her later. I will tell you what I know, and then I hope the accusations will be firmly put to rest.
The story is a long one, so I will post it in installments here on my Facebook page and on www.ilsbethclark.com. I’m also in discussions with the editor at the F— Daily, in the hopes of having a shorter version of the account printed there. As I said, I have nothing to hide, and it is truly heinous that I’m even forced to take these steps, but no one is safe when the rumors spread—just look at poor Ilsbeth Clark! It is a shame that it has come to this, but I see no other way of quenching this unpleasantness. It is unfair to Elena’s memory too, as she’s no longer here to have her say, but I’ll do my very best to be fair in my recounts, and tell everything just the way that it happened. I will prove to you all that my hands are clean and that Elena’s death has nothing to do with me.
If you would like to read more about the terrible consequences of rumormongering, I suggest you read my novel, Ilsbeth in the Twilight, available from the bookstore on Main Street, at the town library, or from my website: www.ilsbethclark.com.
Signed copies are available on request.
As I mentioned in the first installment, I had known Elena Clover for years. The first time we met, I was a girl of ten, and Elena was one year younger. It was the same year that her uncle, John, bought the summerhouse that’s situated on the grounds where Nicksby once sprawled with its many acres of land.
I know the summerhouse is much admired in town, some of you call it “the castle,” but I assure you, it is not. It is an architectural anomaly with its multitude of widows of various shapes and garish tints, its gross tower and tasteless spire. How John decided upon that ghastly shade of arsenic green for its outer walls is anyone’s guess, I suppose.
Elena always claimed that her uncle was an artist, but I never saw him do anything remotely artistic. Mostly he spent his days by the lake with his fishing rod or in the kitchen with his old radios, tinkering with their innards, hoping to bring one to life. Elena’s paternal grandfather came from money and was a judge before he retired, so I guess “Uncle John” could spend his time thus without having to worry too much about the bills.
That first summer, Elena had arrived with her mother and brother to help John get the house in shape. It had stood empty for a time by then, and the walls were rotted through in some places. The paint (a simple white at the time) was flaking, and the plumbing left much to be desired. I remember they had to pee outside for the first three weeks of their stay.
As most of you already know, my father’s farm was located just a five-minute walk from the summerhouse, with the properties separated only by an old wooden fence that grew a multitude of lichen. While Nicksby still existed, cattle had been crazing on the land between us, but since it burned, the woods have taken over, and there’s a stretch of dense forest there now, rife with pine trees, oaks, and firs.
And the well, of course. The well is there too, badly neglected and almost forgotten, a silent witness to history.
It didn’t take many days from the summer guests’ arrival before the sounds of other children playing had me venture through those woods to investigate. I was at that time a lonely child. As most of you are aware, both my legs needed surgery after a car accident when I was eight. This required me to stay in the hospital for long stretches of time, and move around on crutches. I didn’t spend much time in school and didn’t see many children, besides my older sisters. The only other girl my age who lived in our neck of the woods had sadly disappeared the same year, likely kidnapped by her biological father. I had not been very close to Flora, but felt her absence all the same. That summer was also the first time since the accident when I had neither casts nor steel screws spiking out of my legs, having just recovered from the last procedure. Though I did not walk well yet, I managed to move around.
I remember being restless, and eager to experience something else. Something that was not the farm with its squat little house and a barn filled with lowing cows, the endless wheat fields, or the reek of manure. I wanted to see people who were not my mother with her tired face and drab clothes, my father with his dour expression, or my tittering sisters, already halfway through puberty by then, with glossy lips and ridiculous clothes, not at all concerned with a little thing like me. People who were not doctors, nurses, or physiotherapists with insistent and hard, kneading hands.
I think I was hungry for joy.
Elena had that in abundance. Back then, she was a coltish girl with golden skin and a freckled face. Her hair looked like wheat that had ripened in the sun, and every time she washed it, her mom helped her braid it so it later fell down her back as a crimped sheet of gold. The first time I saw her, she and her younger sister, Erica, were out on the unkempt lawn drinking raspberry lemonade from straws. They had brought out a set of wrought iron furniture that had once been white but had since turned a shade of pale yellow. The chairs and table rested on some flagstones under a gnarled old cherry tree, and the girls sat on seats of iron leaves with the pitcher of lemonade between them on the table. The sun was very bright that day, blazing from a pure, blue sky. Elena wore denim shorts over a red swimsuit, while her sister had donned a blue T-shirt and jeans. Erica had a purple bucket hat perched upon her head, hiding most of her chestnut curls from view.
I remember that I thought the two of them looked glorious, as cut from a Botticelli painting, for no other reason but that their newness gave them a special shine. These were city kids for sure; I could sense it just from the way they sat, or the way that they laughed, all loud and carefree in the wildflower-studded grass.
I didn’t dare to approach them. I was scared stiff by the worldliness of those two. When Erica whipped out a handheld game console, I thought that I should die. My parents could never afford such luxuries. I stood among the blackberry brambles that edged the garden and just drank in the sight of them until their mom, tall, slim, and freckled like Elena, came out and called them back inside, tempting their bellies with spaghetti. Then I limped back home again.
I never told Elena I was there that day.
That same night, I remember staring at myself in the cracked mirror over the bathroom sink for a good long while. I wondered why my hair looked so drab and lanky while hers was such a halo, why my skin was pale and not blessed with any freckles but just some unflattering splotches of red. I remembered her long, lean legs under the shorts, and thought of my own: weak and marred by angry scars. I don’t think I felt jealousy, per se; it was more of a reflection on how unjust the world could be. I didn’t think badly of Elena because of it, rather I was powerfully drawn to her, and the next day I went back to the summerhouse. I wasn’t merely curious anymore, but it seemed vitally important to connect with this girl. I’m not sure why I felt that way, but I did.
Perhaps I wanted to see if some of her dripping beauty would transfer onto myself, as if just by being near her, the golden sheen would coat me, too.
I found the sisters working that day, or pretending to, anyway. Erica pushed the lawnmower around. It was an ancient thing with no engine; rust bled through the green paint. Elena stood by the table, emptying dead greenery from old flowerpots into a black plastic bag. She had tied a kerchief with a strawberry print over her hair to keep the draft from playing with it and blowing it into her eyes. She wore a pink T-shirt over the denim shorts that day, it was a nice one with puffed sleeves and heart-shaped buttons running down the chest. I immediately wanted one, and tried to picture what it would look like on myself.
The weather was cooler that day, though still warm, and the sky was a pale shade of gray, yet Elena still seemed to shine before me, and I remember thinking how unfair it was from my spot among the brambles.
Copyright © 2022 by Camilla Bruce