Margot Hawkes stood on the hill beside her Aunt Edith’s open grave and looked across the lowered coffin to the grey-haired man reading poetry. She was trying not to listen, because she loved her aunt, and because they were the saddest poems she had ever heard. They had her on the verge of hysterical tears. One more poem would do it. And the fact that tears were streaming down his face while he read on and on in a quavering voice and the old people gathered around him kept breaking down one after another, didn’t help.
Margot bit the inside of her cheek as a distraction and wondered, How could this have happened? Three days ago she had been breathing the scorched, barren air of the Saudi Arabian desert. She and her sister had boarded a plane expecting Aunt Edith to be waiting for them, expecting Susan to live with her and finish high school while Margot went to college. But when they arrived, Claudia picked them up and drove them to Edith’s funeral on this hill where everything was so green and alive. It made no sense.
Most of the people gathered by the grave seemed familiar, but Margot couldn’t quite place them. The man reading poetry was one she should know, she was sure, as was a young marine in dress blues who stood not far from him. Audrey and Claudia and Laraine had worked for her Aunt at Threads and had introduced themselves. But it had been ten years since she left…
And then, as she scanned the crowd, a twisted face she wished she could forget jolted her memory. Mrs. Edmonds, with her withered arm and her half-ruined face, stared back from across the grave. Bonnie’s mother. Her eyes mirrored Margot’s shocked recognition.
She hates me, Margot thought.
A stone angel on a monument stood behind the mourners. Its wings were raised, perhaps to give shelter to the sleepers beneath the sod. Perhaps it sheltered Bonnie. Her grave must be here somewhere.
Like many things in Schenectady, the angel was carved in the style of classical Greece, and Margot suddenly remembered her Aunt Edith telling her the statue wasn’t an angel at all: it was a winged victory, a Nike. Margot had looked at its feet and asked why it wasn’t wearing sneakers. Aunt Edith laughed but didn’t explain what was so funny. She said it was best to let people think the statue was an angel, but she wanted Margot to know it wasn’t.
The memory, comforting as it was, caught in Margot’s throat and brought more tears to her eyes. She missed her aunt, who had been kind to her, who had kept in touch by letter and telephone all the years they were apart, who had never forgotten a birthday or Solstice or Equinox. Although, at the Winter Solstice, Edith had always said, “Tell people it’s a Christmas present.”
A breeze passed across the angel’s unmoving stone wings and rippled the grass. It tugged at the silk fabric of Margot’s shirt, a gift from Aunt Edith that had traveled from Schenectady to Saudi and now back again.
The breeze flowed between the tombstones and beyond, passing among the clustered houses of the living. Margot wondered what it felt like to live with a cemetery in your backyard, to sit at the breakfast table and look out on tombstones.
“Margot?” Susan’s hand clenched hers. Margot felt an impulse to break free. You’re supposed to break a drowning person’s grip, that’s what swimming teachers always said, or you’ll both go down. Susan was going to get her stuck here in Schenectady, keep her from ever going to college. But since she loved her sister, Margot clasped her other hand over Susan’s and felt the cold fingers relax in her warm grasp.
The poetry reading was done. People were tossing flowers onto the coffin, already covered with a blanket of white carnations whose scent rose in the warm air. A bumblebee hummed among the carnations below ground. Margot feared it would be buried with the flowers, but the bee suddenly shot up into the sunlight and flew away.
The three women from Threads smiled reassuringly at Margot. Audrey, the tallest, large-boned and always serious, stood holding Laraine’s hand on one side, Claudia’s on the other. Claudia, bosomy and matronly but with a gypsy flame of red hair, reached across to grasp the free hand of Laraine, who was model-sleek with hair black as a crow’s wing.
The three women’s clasped hands glowed as if lit from within, and a tickle of apprehension fluttered from Margot’s throat to the base of her skull. She looked at her own hands and they, too, glowed like alabaster over a candle flame. Fearing this was the warning sign of a migraine, she concentrated on seeing the flesh of her hands, the curve of bone and nail, until she drove the light away. Aunt Edith had told her seeing the light was a gift, but the migraines were such a punishment Margot preferred to do without the gift.
Audrey stood clasping Laraine’s and Claudia’s hands in an expression of solidarity. With Edith gone, she felt bereft, and assumed the others felt that way, too.
Why had Edith left them? How could it have happened?
She knew it had something to do with those girls. The younger one was soft, like her mother, and didn’t matter, but Edith had always insisted that Margot had talent. Yet Edith had sent her away all those years ago, and now she had summoned her back. The silk blouse the girl wore was proof of that. Edith’s handiwork.
Why now, when they were so unprepared? Laraine was no replacement. She thought she was, thought they had held her back unfairly, but the problem was in Laraine herself. A minor talent with a high opinion of herself, Laraine wore a sense of entitlement like the rags of a princess disguised as a servant, but she had no concept of the responsibilities required of her.
Could the girl be the answer? Light shone from her hands in a true sign that she had potential, but she seemed to be concentrating on putting it out. And there were veins of gold in her aura, the mark of a troublemaker. She had to be watched. They’d have to get closer, probably to both girls. Judging from the way they clung to each other, the younger would be the way to the elder.
That was a job for Claudia.
Margot saw that the grey-haired man had closed his book and was fumbling it into his pocket. As people began to leave, a woman sedately dressed but with a face bright with makeup took his arm and smiled up at him. Another woman, clearly competing for his attention, grabbed his other arm and the trio moved slowly down the hill.
Mrs. Edmonds, with the help of a cane, moved tentatively toward Margot. She looked as though she wanted to say something, but paused, glanced at the women from Threads, and turned away. Margot, glad not to have to deal with a scene, with recriminations, fully justified though they were, watched her leave.
Susan reached into Margot’s bag and pulled out a tissue. “I don’t know why I’m crying. I don’t even remember Aunt Edith,” she said, drying her eyes.
“Twenty eight hours on a plane is enough to make anyone cry, even without a surprise funeral at the end of it,” said Margot.
“Where are we going to stay now?”
Margot shook her head. “I’ll call dad.”
“You poor girls. This must be such a shock for you,” said Claudia, coming toward them with outstretched arms. Margot was pleased to see that the light had gone from Claudia’s hands.
Claudia enveloped Margot in a cushiony embrace, then hugged Susan. “Your aunt was so looking forward to your coming. She was so proud of you.” She took a step backward but kept a plump hand on each of the girls. Her eyes were soft and brown as a Guernsey cow’s, and she seemed ready to offer them milk, cream, butter. “You’re both so tall. How old are you now?”
“Susan’s fifteen and I’m nineteen,” Margot said.
“Almost grown up, but not quite. Come back to the house now and rest and have something to eat.” Claudia nodded toward the black limousine waiting at the entrance to the cemetery.
“Thanks, but I want to stay here for a bit. I can walk to the house later,” Margot said.
“Are you sure, dear? Do you know the way?”
“I think I remember. Walk downhill to the river, follow Front Street to the statue of Lawrence the Indian, and turn there toward Riverside Park. The house is at the end of that bit of road.”
Claudia was still shaking her head doubtfully, so Margot added, “I’ve got migraine warnings. I need to be alone and sit quietly.”
Claudia tilted her head to one side and her jet earrings swung in a small arc. She had a wide mouth that seemed to smile in repose, and her mild brown eyes regarded Margot with concern. “What form do the warnings take?” she asked.
“I see lights, mostly around people.”
“But Susan doesn’t?”
“We’ll wait for you. It’ll be another twenty minutes, anyway, of talking to people before we can leave. But I’m taking Susan to the car with me. She looks worn out.”
Claudia put her arm around Susan, enveloping them both in her black shawl. Susan gave a brief, lost glance backward as Claudia drew her down the hill. Margot felt she was losing her sister, but that was silly. She’d see her again in twenty minutes. It was Aunt Edith she’d lost, and she did remember her and had been looking forward to seeing her again.
Margot sat on the iron rail of the fence surrounding the Hawkes’ plot and searched her bag for her vial of cafergot. She shook out a pill and swallowed it dry.
“Are you all right?”
She looked up at the sound of a man’s voice. The young marine was standing in front of her, hat in hand. He had a square face, straight nose, blue eyes: recruitment poster material, although his hair seemed long for a marine.
“I’m fine,” she said, wondering whether it was his job to go to funerals. “Did you know my aunt?”
“You don’t remember me, do you?”
“I’ve been away from Schenectady for a long time,” she said, but he did seem familiar. He wasn’t much older than she was. He’d have been a teenager when she was here before, but… She noticed the green square with a gold palm tree and crossed swords among the ribbons on his chest. “You were in Desert Storm?”
“George Pendleton,” he said, holding out his hand. “Your father invited us over a couple of times, all of us from Schenectady and some of our buddies.”
Margot stood and shook his hand. “I do remember you. You brought chocolate.”
He smiled. “Melted chocolate. Saudi sure is hot. You were just a kid then.”
“So you’re still in the corps?”
“No. I’m going to college now, SUNY Albany. But I’m in the reserves, so I still wear the uniform for…” He waved his hand toward the broken ground. A couple of men were standing around with shovels, but nobody seemed to be doing anything. “So how is your father?”
“He’s fine. He’s still digging up oil in Saudi.”
“He didn’t come back for the funeral then?”
“No. Are they waiting for us to leave?” Margot said, nodding toward the workmen. “They don’t want to shovel the earth in until we leave, is that it? So we don’t hear the sound of it hitting the coffin?” Her voice and hands were shaking and she willed them both to stop.
“Do you need a handkerchief?” George said, searching his pockets.
Margot realized she had tears on her cheeks. “No. I never cry,” she said, wiping them away with her hand. “It was such a sad service. Who was the man reading the poems?”
“My Uncle Byron. I told him not to read from Housman.”
“Is your uncle a poet?”
“No, he’s a painter. He was a close friend of your aunt’s. That’s why ‘Bredon Hill’ had everybody crying.”
Margot got the pack of tissues from her purse and blew her nose. George probably was embarrassed and longing to get away. Dad would certainly be gone by now.
George was looking at the cemetery. “It’s nice here. Peaceful.”
Some little white clouds had strayed into the perfect sky and were moving quickly, like sheep searching for the herd. Their shadow passed over the monuments and statues.
“Yes. Aunt Edith used to take me up here and show me the tombstones. I’d like … I’d like to find where Bonnie Edmonds is buried.”
“The Edmonds plot is this way,” George said, leading her toward it. As they moved away from Edith’s grave, the sound of clods of earth striking the coffin followed them.
Bonnie’s tombstone was pink granite with an insert picture of her above her name and dates. There was a vase of fresh flowers on the grave.
“Only eight years old,” said George. “Did you know her?”
Margot looked at the smiling child, a front tooth missing, her hair in tight braids. “She was my best friend.”
“Her mother was here today.”
Margot shivered and took a step backwards.
“I have to go,” she said. “They’re holding the limo for me.”