The Doves of Hartleigh Garden23 min read
A girl of thirteen once owned Hartleigh Garden. Her four years as proprietor witnessed wars of silverfish and centipedes beneath her ballroom floor, mold that dripped down the wallpaper like strings of pearls, rats in the cellar among shattered wine-bottles and decaying wood. She could repair nothing; she spent all her meager funds on food and the wages of two remaining servants. Cook spoke to her, even helped move her heirlooms – paintings, threadbare velvet furniture, a brass lamp – to the side where she lived, the dry side. She and the old gardener tried to pull the weeds from her family’s graves, but each time the doves would flock. They perched atop the rock markers and bobbed their heads, blinked their garnet eyes, tangled their scaly feet in her hair. She did not like the doves.
She thought society had forgotten them, long since the quarantine passed, but one day a lawyer came, a widower: Mr. Gideon Frost. He spoke with a voice warm as Cook’s oven, and she caught him gazing at her as she read the countless legal documents. Every week thereafter he returned, soon bringing nothing but his own good nature. He loved the house, and her too, so she married him that spring. Renovations began. Rats no longer crawled in the corners, and fresh paper brightened the walls. The dry side of Hartleigh Garden became a proper place for them, and his son, and their daughter: me.
She relinquished our birthright for love, so she told me as she combed my hair – or tied my pinafore, or watched over my lessons.
Books Mama selected from the old library taught me to read, dusty things with cracked leather bindings and foxy-flecked paper of ivory cream. Their scent reminded me of rain. Watercolors decades-old enlivened my ink drawings. Among irises grown wild I perfected my curtsey, and all our handkerchiefs bore my embroidery.
“A Hartleigh girl ought to have a governess,” she often despaired upon hearing my atrocious French, but blood must prevail. Mama was certain. My beauty and refinement one day would impress some handsome, rich man, as had hers.
I wanted to marry Owen, but I could not since he was my half-brother. Each summer saw his return from school and sunshine on our garden adventures. We created stacks of drawings. Mine were of fantastical flora and fauna whose inspiration bloomed in our neglected flower beds. Owen chose to illustrate real animals, labeled from wildlife books he found. Though a squirrel or his dog Felix might win a sketch, the birds filled most of his portfolio.
He had a way with birds.
Robins would sing to him, and he would whistle in return. Owen knew every bird’s song. Wood warblers lit upon the trees like scoops of butterscotch ice cream, and skylarks and sparrows freckled the lawn. A heron investigated brackish puddles. And the doves, the doves loved him best. He cooed; they cooed. He tipped his head; they tipped theirs, curious. When he stretched his arm, they landed upon it, tails hanging beneath as though Owen himself had wings. They only landed on me when I brought them breadcrumbs.
“Why do they like you better?” I would ask.
“Because you stink something awful,” he always said, and then I stuck out my tongue.
Our doves were grey and speckled and barred, with iridescent necks that puffed when they perched. My favorite was one of the few white ones; I called her Pearl. “There used to be more whites,” Owen told me as we sketched, sitting on the dovecote floor. “Probably your ancestors bred them that way. For show instead of eating.”
“I’d never eat Pearl. Why aren’t there more like her?”
“Natural selection,” he said, and then he explained Darwin for me in pictures.
Sunlight haloed the dove on his head; the cote had been built with several tiny square windows – for decoration alone, since a raised cupola up top granted the birds their liberty. Hundreds of them lived there, a home as old as Hartleigh Garden itself. The walls bore regiments of holes, in which chicks nestled with their mamas. We heard their little cries. Dried white ordure clung to the rafters, built layer upon layer like stalactites; when I breathed, the heady musk caught in my throat.
One day I spun upon the potence, holding the ladder as I propelled myself around the cote’s interior. But the old wood cracked, and I fell against the stone wall to an angry chirp and a whisk of feathers. Cook bandaged the scrape on my elbow, and then she told Mama its origin.
“You let her in the dovecote? Horrible boy.” Owen crossed his arms, as he always did when Mama scolded. “It is filthy in there, the air is terrible –”
“It’s not,” said Owen.
“I want my Marjorie nowhere near those dreadful pigeons. She will catch a disease.” She pressed her lips to the top of my head. “When your father is wealthy again, we will tear that old thing down and have flowers in its place. You will like that, Marjorie.”
I said I would not, but she had left us then. The fragrance of her musty lace dress lingered on my skin.
Papa’s first wife adored birds. She kept them in gilded cages shaped like pagodas, a host of them dangling from the ceiling: cockatoos and finches, canaries and parrots. Owen remembered nothing else, and when I asked Papa about her, he grew sad. I wondered if he had loved her more, if she had been prettier than Mama, though I knew that was impossible. “She looked like Owen,” he said. “He has her nose, and her eyes.” He smiled then, to hear me call Owen’s nose beaky, and he agreed.
“Are we poor?” I asked. I had wondered on that, too.
“Not very. We have food and clothing, and a lovely place to live.”
He said as much to Mama, every time she sobbed over our house. She beseeched Papa for renovations; her catalogue of faults stretched endless, from the finicky water closet to the rats’ return. The damp side encroached upon the dry, she knew from the mold in her best sitting room, and she swore the garden walls sank further into mud each day. Her family deserved true headstones, not just rocks. “And those damned pigeons,” she said.
I heard them, watched them from underneath the door. There was a wider space where the rats had gnawed.
“Sophie,” he said, petting her hair, a cloud of fine curls the color of brown sugar, and kissing her cheek. “Sweet Sophie, Owen’s school –”
“I care nothing for Owen’s school.”
“He will attend university and become a great naturalist,” Papa continued, all calm, “and what of Marjorie’s dowry?”
“Hartleigh Garden is Marjorie’s dowry. It is her rightful inheritance.”
Before I caught the rest, Owen pulled me to a window. Outside a squirrel and several doves fought for seed I had scattered earlier. We raced to study them closer, as quickly as Mama’s sadness danced from my conscious thought. Yet later I worried.
The next summer Mama tried working in the garden. She confined her ministrations to the plots nearest the house, and she coaxed rheumatic Mr. Lewis into helping her. A compost heap coalesced by the damp side, weeds and kitchen waste piled high. I feared her gaze would shut our cozy studio, but Mama’s delicate constitution had her inside every hour, sipping lemonade or baking with Cook.
Owen and I retreated to the cote, and Felix too. Though the doves atop his head plucked through his fur in search of seed, Felix whined but once. The whips of his long tail, however, sent birds aflutter to the rafters.
While Owen drew me, I tried to hold my body still. I cupped a fledgling to my chest; pinfeathers pricked through my dress. Another dove preened on my shoulder, shimmying his beak along knobbled pink toes. They fidgeted but did not fly away, not until he closed his sketchbook. He grinned and tugged my braid. “I’ll copy it in ink and color it for you on my best paper.”
“I want it on my wall, next to the painting of Mama’s great-great aunt.” Delphia Hartleigh, the profligate’s daughter, wore a red kerchief and two pretty white doves, and she fed several more outside the cote.
“That one is pretty,” Owen said. “I hardly recognize our dovecote there, it’s so clean.”
“I like it better now. All the moss between the stones, and all the ivy.”
“You should draw it sometime,” he said. He gently pinched a bird’s neck and smiled at its happy trill. “Maybe in winter too, with the snow. I don’t get to see it then.”
“I will.” I paused, and then continued, softer, “Mama won’t tear it down, will she? She can’t.”
“Oh, Jorie, of course not. Papa won’t let her. And then I won’t let her either. When I –” He stopped when he saw my expression.
“It belongs to you, too,” he said. “I’ll tear down the damp side and build an aviary. We will study birds together.”
Indignance quivered behind my ribs. “You’re not a Hartleigh. You’re a Frost.”
“I am, as are you.”
“I have Hartleigh blood. You don’t.” I rose. “Hartleigh Garden can’t be yours,” I said, and I stomped into the sunshine. I forgot to check for Mama. After railing at Owen, who did not pull faces at me as usual, she sent him to his room to languish birdless for a week. I thought it served him right, until I imagined a piteousness of doves pecking at his rust-locked window. How sad he must have been.
I did not entirely forgive him until, after his imprisonment, he slipped a drawing and a note of apology under my door. The portrait spoke more than his words: a girl in a blue dress, with beribboned brown braids, and a bird – my favorite Pearl – held close. He had made me as lovely as Miss Delphia Hartleigh.
Papa came home from a City visit that autumn, bearing sugar: a bag of brown for Mama and Cook, and a covey of treacle toffee for me. While he continued work, I lingered in his study; I had missed his scent, the spice of dry leaves, and how he hummed as he read.
“These are about Hartleigh Garden,” I said. I pointed to a fanned sheaf on the carpet.
He glanced down from his desk. “They are.”
Sticky candy remnants coated my fingers, and I licked away their sweetness as I asked, “Why does Owen think he will have it?”
“Such is the law, pet. But it will always be your home,” he said.
“I s’pose.” Cascades of ivy, spiraling stairs eroded soft, the damp side’s flooded beauty, the Hartleigh family crests upon our tarnished silverware – all held my blood. Only the doves belonged to Owen. “Mama says it’s mine.”
“Your mother.” Papa sighed. “Dear pet, you must know. She lived here alone for a very long time, dwelling on somebody else’s memories. She grew up hearing about grand balls and garden parties, perhaps from her grandparents, but she herself never saw anything like. Do you long for balls and parties?”
“No. I want Hartleigh Garden how it is.”
“As do I.” He reached to stroke my hair. “Do not tell your mother, but renovation would be useless. The foundations were built poorly. They are sinking. No amount of money can save this house, so shall we tear it down and build anew?”
“Quite so. We will let our home age in peace, with you and Owen as her attendants. You in particular, pet.”
“Does that mean I can live here always?”
Papa smiled, gentle and slow, like candlelight blossoming in a dark room. “Of course.”
Three years later, instead of university, Owen went to war. Papa brought the news; though I begged, Owen knew his duty. His school friends had joined too. When he embraced me in the foyer, I presented him with a watercolor of our dovecote. Around its walls clustered birds, not only doves but robins, and sparrows, and an eagle too.
“I worked all night to finish it,” I told him, “and I used the last of my green.”
“Color me impressed,” he said. “It’s beautiful, Jorie.”
“And on the back I wrote useful phrases for you, in my very best French.”
“Then I hope they’ll ship me to France,” he said, ruffling my curls as an older brother ought to, but I saw the sadness tugging at the corner of his mouth.
I followed him outside to Papa’s motorcar, and my vigorous waving startled a cluster of doves on the eaves. Felix barked as feathers scattered; I wound my arms around his neck and hushed him. Until the willows engulfed the car’s squat black body, until I no longer heard its creaky sputters, until Mama called me for lessons, I waited.
Owen’s promised letters came, though before he grew accustomed to the censors, they unfolded skeletal with scissor-cuts. Papa posted my return letters at the nearest village, and I filled them with tales of his doves and sketches of imaginary specimens. They spread giant wings or nibbled on fruit with impossible, s-curved beaks. Owen thanked me; he saw few birds, wherever he was.
And Hartleigh Garden decayed. Spring snowmelt drowned the wine cellar; barrels lurked like crocodiles in this new subterranean lake. The displaced rats moved up. Dust coated the stair rails, a grey blanket that rendered the wooden angels senseless. When Mama attacked with a feather duster, it rose in a billow and settled somewhere else. In summer the mosquitoes bred even within the house, worse than years before, and though I tried not to itch, scabs pocked my arms. I cracked my window for air, and I fed the doves scraps of crust. They fluttered wilder, more restless each week. Autumn saw the death of Mr. Lewis; he caught a chill and never recovered. Papa and I buried him in a corner of the garden – away from the Hartleighs, Mama insisted. Cook then left too, since we needed her wages for peat.
Mama wept, more than she had for our gardener. Papa wrapped her in his arms and consoled her. I passed them as they sat with each other on the stairs, and then listened from my room.
“We will live, Sophie. We have enough.”
“You don’t understand. This – this in all my life is the first time I’ve felt truly poor.” She sobbed.
“We don’t need servants. You have always loved to cook, and Marjorie can learn too.”
“But I already clean, and cooking – I only played at it. I baked desserts, for heavens’ sakes.”
“We will manage. You’ll see.”
Mama and I tried. We used Cook’s recipes, and we concocted vegetable soup from our garden produce, raspberry jam from jars of preserved fruit, and meat pies from Papa’s village groceries. I refused to eat any chicken, so Papa instead returned with mutton and beef. Since roasting meat troubled Mama, as she said we lacked the proper instruments, we boiled it in stews. All Hartleigh Garden, the stones and the flaking wallpaper, the paintings and the antique furniture, all inhaled the rich scent and grew glossy with its flavor.
Mama wanted more expensive goods, venison or imported tea, but Papa still saved for Owen’s university. “Why, for such an indefinite future?” Mama often pointed out. The water closet begged repair, moths infested our books and clothing, and mildew inched upward from the wine cellar swamp. But I knew. Papa hoped Owen’s ambition would draw him back to us, would save him from the trenches. To think about his future seemed to ensure he would have one; he had written for the first time in months, in October, that he had been badly wounded. When I told Mama, she raised her eyebrows. If he never returned, she said, Hartleigh Garden would be mine. She treated me like it was.
I had found scarce time to visit the dovecote, as a lady of the house ought not expose herself to such dreadful birds. Mama busied me with dancing lessons, or arithmetic, or French, and I practiced pinning my hair into a coiffure. I escaped only when she fell into one of her ill humors. Though I attempted to draw, to win the doves’ affections, loneliness sighed through my bones.
One afternoon I heard a motorcar, and I thought Papa was home until the engine rumbled once more. A glance out the schoolroom window showed me a farm truck rounding the corner, soon out of sight amidst a tangle of branches.
“Gideon!” Mama called when the door opened. Then: “Oh.”
I flew down the stairs, anticipating – in spite of the letter – his fresh aftershave and an embrace like to suffocate me with its strength. Once I reached the foyer, I stopped. Owen balanced a crutch under his right arm; the other dangled lifeless in its sleeve. His left leg ended in his knotted trousers, tied below his knee, and a scar like burning sugar burst across his left cheekbone. I edged toward him, until his grin encouraged me to fold him in a hug. He smelled like medicine.
“I left the rest of it in Belgium,” he said, gesturing to his amputated leg. “Hope you don’t mind, Jorie, but it was too much of a bother to keep.”
“Why are you so hoarse?”
“Because I smoked too much in the hospital,” he teased.
“I’ll not play nursemaid,” Mama said. Her lips had tightened into a scarlet line. “Marjorie, you will help him upstairs.”
“Neither of you are strong enough,” he said. “I’ll stay down here.”
“Can I take him to the kitchen, Mama? It’s warmest there.”
She sighed. “If you must.”
Owen lurched forward, a stiff-legged stork, and I wrapped my arm around his waist. When he reached the kitchen, he sank into a chair. He thanked me for the tea I poured, and he explained that he had wanted to surprise Papa and me. For months he had lain in hospital beds, a series of them from Belgium to France to England. “Father already visited me in the City, but he has to stay on business – so I hitched a ride to see my little sister.”
“And the doves.” One tapped on the window, and then another.
“And the doves,” he said.
He could still draw. Sometimes I fled Mama to find his crutch tossed aside, his back curled over the kitchen table, his pencil busy. While we cooked our meals, I would peek over his shoulder. War pervaded every line, sadness every shape, but he never spoke of it. He recreated Continental landscapes and the stray dog his troop adopted, native plants and portraits of his friends. Though his damaged arm bothered him – he longed for two hands to balance his sketchbook – the doctors said if he practiced each day, he might regain its use.
On a day when Mama sequestered herself in her room, I dared to smuggle doves inside. I poured the three birds out of my sweater, and Owen smiled. They lit on his shoulder and head. “Stop that,” he said as a grey nibbled his ear.
“More wanted to come, but they’ll see you soon.”
“Provided I get better at walking. Here, Jorie – hand me my sketchbook.”
Doves strutting across the table, doves combing my hair through their beaks, doves bobbing their heads with liquid grace, doves gathering at the window to watch. Real birds eluded me, but they behaved for Owen.
I fetched my own paper. I decided I would draw him.
Red burned between squares of peat, erupting from the top in skeins of orange flame – he gazed upon the fireplace while I perfected his profile. He had turned without a thought. I concentrated so intently upon my drawing, how the underside of his nose tapered to his lips and chin, that I did not hear Mama’s footsteps. “Don’t move,” I said.
“What is this?” I turned. Her nostrils flushed pink and raw, delicate, like the rim of a teacup, and her mouth crumpled into a frown. “Marjorie, go to your room,” she said.
“Mama, I’m sorry. I’ll take them back outside.”
Owen squeezed my shoulder, so I left for a spot on the stairs. My stomach simmered, bubbles rising, bursting, and I clutched it, pressing my cheek to the banister. I stifled a sneeze at the dust.
“How dare you. How dare you.” The slap echoed. “How dare you let those pests into my house, into my kitchen. You have been nothing but a wicked influence on my Marjorie, always pushing her into this – to this bird nonsense.”
“It is not nonsense.”
Mama’s fury overwhelmed my silent cheer. “I should have destroyed the pigeon farm when we had money. Watch them, watch their disease-ridden little claws scurry over my table. We eat our food here. Get off!” Wings thrashed while sobs welled in her throat. “Do you mean to sicken the both of us? To have us die of some filthy thing your pets carry?”
“All I see is a decrepit building that needs tearing down,” he said. He was angry, that was all. “It’s half-flooded and mildewed, to speak of disease.”
A frantic edge danced in her voice. “Hartleigh Garden does not belong to you,” she said. “It never has, and it never will. Not a drop of Hartleigh blood in you. You don’t deserve this place any more than the rats.”
“Oh for God’s sake –” A clatter of wood upon stone.
“I wish you’d died out there, in those trenches. I do. I don’t know what your father sees in you. You are a lazy, selfish lout and an utter waste of money. Without you – I – it would have been lovely, that’s what.” He groaned. “My Marjorie and I – my family, we would have respect appropriate to our standing. We are Hartleighs.”
I covered my ears so I would hear neither Mama’s ragged cries nor Owen’s coughs. My legs ached to carry me away – would I intervene in the kitchen or retreat to my room? I chose the latter. I slammed my window so the doves dispersed, and I wept alone. Soon my appetite beckoned. Mama and I ought to make dinner, and Owen ought to eat. Tea and food would herald normalcy.
When Mama’s thin breaths became audible, I paused on the stairs, and again at the kitchen doorway. She stood trembling, and tears glassed her eyes. Though she stepped to block my view, I saw. Owen’s chair spilt him across the floor, his body languid as molasses. The doves plucked at his clothing. “Mama, what did you do?” I whispered.
“I’m sorry. I never meant to harm him. I lost myself and – I, I cannot move him. Your father, oh, Marjorie, I don’t know what to do.” She sank against the wall.
Three pairs of claws pricked my scalp as I ran outside, and I scarcely noticed the wind fresh upon my face. Once I reached the dovecote, I hugged my knees to my chest and immersed myself in redolent feather dust and dung. A live canopy wheeled above my head, squalling and shrieking and knotting their feet in my hair. Frantic wings smeared my tears into damp patches and soon beat them cool.
They continued through the night, our doves, and sleep refused to touch my eyes until morning, when they settled. I watched the squares of sun steal over wood and stone; their snails’ minuet lulled me into a drowse. Mama would scold me soon, I expected. She would stand in the doorway and call out, and I would not answer.
The shadow colors changed from indigo to lavender-grey. Felix nudged his way into my arms. The doves stood sentinel upon the rafters.
How sad he must be without his birds.
The summons came when clouds dimmed the light. “Your father is home,” she said. “Please, come to dinner.”
I knew I ought to eat; hunger nestled in my hollow stomach. And Papa, he deserved no anger. After I bid the animals a reluctant farewell, I combed the crust from my hair and donned a clean dress. Lavender soap wove through the herbs, the thyme and savory and basil from downstairs. I dawdled and stared at my shoes, but my parents expected me.
Papa, having near emptied his bowl, soaked his bread in the broth. Though she ate none, Mama forced a smile when he complimented her stew. I fed my body spoonful after automaton-rigid spoonful, but I wanted only to drink in Papa’s resonant voice.
“What is the matter, pet? Perhaps this news will cheer you – Owen plans to return home soon. He is at a City hospital.”
“Is he well?” Mama turned her gaze to me, her forehead puckered, her lips pursed in a wordless plea. For Papa I stifled the other, true questions scalding my throat.
“As well as he can be. I ought to warn you, pet, his injuries look dreadful,” he said. “But thank heavens, he is healthy.”
“Good,” I said.
“The dog, Marjorie,” said Mama after a long pause. “Stop him barking. Please. I have a headache.”
I excused myself.
The sun set behind pastel marzipan clouds. Moss furred the stones of our garden walls, and ivy stretched up from the mud to wink in the light. Gold and green washed every dormant plant, I noticed, as I walked toward the damp side and Felix. His bays stretched long with the breeze. When it tossed the branches, they caught my eye – not bud tips, but a host of doves. They perched in lines, quiet and still, like grey-garbed dragoons. Hundreds of heads tracked my progress across the garden.
I shivered through my sweater, and I no longer looked. “Felix,” I said. He greeted me with a whine. “Felix, hush.” The soil sucked at our feet and paws.
He led me to our pile of refuse, once the compost heap. It crawled across the lawn, a sludge of vegetable scraps and spoiled meat, laced with glass shards and dingy washrags. A mushroom spread its cup over swarming ants while flies flickered from one course to the next. I tried not to breathe the stench: damp earth corrupted into rot.
He barked. “What’s wrong, Felix?” He tugged at something, a piece of fabric, and my shoulders tensed. A knot fell into strips, revealing a soiled white bandage. Then the dismembered limb rolled to a level stretch of waste. I grabbed Felix’s collar and hauled him away. He was a bad dog, I said, a bad, bad dog.
My insides revolted. A thought occurred to me, and my dinner met the ground. What had Mama done? I closed my eyes to stop more tears, while around me the garden grew dark and cold. When I once more slid into my seat, I glared at her, but she said nothing. Papa asked me whether I felt ill. I nodded.
Mama brought me warm tea, later, when I had buried myself in bed linens and quilts. Her kindness continued, as did my silence. She gathered the last of our brown sugar and allowed me alone to bake the cookies; she convinced Papa to buy me a new watercolor set in the village, and paper too; she postponed half of our lessons until distant autumn; and she did not forbid the dovecote. “She cannot win me back,” I told the doves as they watched me draw. My subject puffed her white neck and cooed.
The morning birdsong soon returned. I recognized the robins and the warblers, and I glimpsed their cheeky bobbing tails from my window. I tried to illustrate them since rain confined me to the house. Days of it churned our front pathway into mud, stripped our willows of their flower crowns. When leaves began to unseat the remaining petals, Papa left for the City. He had written the hospital with concern, but the reply told him they discharged Owen weeks ago. Again he wrote, and a third time. The worry would tremble in his hands every night at dinner.
“Please,” Mama had begged him. “Please, for Marjorie.” My name at last convinced him. The water closet was repaired, and our beds were swathed in sheets of mosquito netting. Each morning I woke to a pale cloud speckled black with struggling insects.
While Papa was gone, Mama’s new headstones arrived. I almost pitied her, to see her stroke her parents’ names, her brothers’ and sisters’, and stifle her tears. “Your Aunt Philomena sang arias,” she told me, “and your Uncle Alistair played piano. We sold it, though. And Cecilia made the loveliest pictures.”
“Owen did too,” I said.
“These are your family,” she said. “Hartleigh Garden belongs to them, and to you. You will help me, Marjorie – please.”
She steeled herself to face the doves, hoping my presence would stay their intrusion. But they watched. We pushed the first stone into place without trouble; as it settled, it squeezed water like melted chocolate from its foundation trench. More doves flocked to the trees, and Mama scowled. “Go away.”
After the third, a shower began. The doves ruffled their feathers, plunged their beaks into their downy chests, yet still fixed their gaze upon us. I ignored their curiosity. Hair soon clung to our cheeks in curled wisps, and our clothes dampened into discomfort. Though I asked, Mama refused to stop. “Don’t go,” she implored me. “The pigeons, they’ll –”
“They will what, Mama?”
“Attack me, or – or – I simply do not like them there,” she said. She struggled to shove the headstone upright; her arm and a haze of rain obscured the inscription. “They don’t like me either,” she added, and the stone slipped from her grasp. Bones cracked, the crunch of shelled walnuts.
Once inside, we peeled away her boot and stocking. I propped her ankle on the bedstead, brought tea to still her writhing, dabbed water on her mangled foot. The skin swelled taut, and upon it flourished a bouquet of watercolor bruises. Mama insisted I find a doctor, or Papa, or both, but the weather forestalled any village visit. As the roads flooded, so did Hartleigh Garden. Water from the damp side lapped at our hallways and seeped under my scrap-wood barricade, and dull green flecks climbed the doorjambs like pigment-soaked salt. Our stones purpled dark in the wet, the color of Mama’s foot as it worsened.
Papa arrived home, and then again with a doctor, who administered morphine and penicillin injections. He could do nothing else for the gangrene. Mama wailed and whispered hallucinations through the fever. I would not bear it. Rain dripped through the dovecote cupola, birds huddled in their nests, but I found my bed in a dry stretch of dirt. When Papa ducked inside and told me Mama had passed, I tried to weep.
He continued to investigate Owen’s disappearance. Highway robbery, he thought, and murder – smugglers once frequented the county. His body might be found, preserved in a peat bog. I let him believe it, since he so treasured Mama’s memory. Two years of rain and snow and fertile marsh life wore her headstone, and the other pale immigrants, into softer, greyer shapes. Owen’s memorial was to be with his mother, in a City graveyard; Papa traveled to see it placed, and I sent with him a wild iris and a drawing of a dove. He had invited me, but I would have felt dishonest. I knew his bones, the ones I could find in the vast pile of waste, rested beside the dovecote.
Cooking and cleaning occupied my time, even with Papa home, but I spent my spare hours with the doves. They would now answer when I cooed. If the sun shone, I opened the windows for them. They rode on my shoulders while I swung a mop over the floor, or chopped carrots, or painted illustrations of the house and grounds. So the gentlemen found me, sitting on the front porch with brush in hand, a dove atop my head. They told me Papa had died in the hospital, of influenza. I had assumed as much; one of the men drove his motorcar. After they departed, in their own sleek mud-spattered vehicle, I did cry, but not for long. I had my chores.
A girl of seventeen now owns Hartleigh Garden. For three years she has faced scavengers: silverfish and centipedes, lawyers and brokers in tidy black suits and bowler hats. They urge her to sell her property, but she refuses. Her village grocer understands; he spares her a smile whenever she arrives, for his sister used to be the Hartleigh cook. The same boy always helps carry her purchases to her father’s motorcar. She might marry him, she thinks, if he loves the house as much as he enjoys winking at her.
She cannot stop decay, so instead she finds its beauty. Insects shape ornate textures in the damp side’s woodwork, strata of curves airy as sponge cake. The mold thrives in every room, and she recreates its lacy patterns in her sketchbook. She cares for the garden; it supplies her food. When she cannot keep plants alive, she checks for blight, but she allows the benign fungi to fruit. Every day she marvels at the spilled-batter slime mold’s journey across the garden wall. Though weeds unfurl over the rest of the lawn, she pries them from her vegetable plots and her family’s graves. As she pulls, the doves tilt their heads, curious, and line themselves upon her arms.
Perhaps the lawyers and the brokers and even the grocer worry that she lives alone, but she does not mind. She paints, and every day she thinks:
I am alive. And Hartleigh Garden is mine.