Authors: Graham, Janice
Reviews & Accolades
"Graham is an astute chronicler of sentiment and motive... (her) dexterous storytelling pulls at the heartstrings."
– Publishers Weekly
"Lyrical...Firebirdtells us what we want to hear about true love transcending life and death."
"Firebirdis the debut of a major writer. A tender and beautifully written adult love story."
– Mary Higgins Clark
"Firebirdwill leave you burning for more."
Also by Janice Graham
The Tailor's Daughter
Romancing Miss Bronte
(as Juliet Gael)
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Copyright © 1998, 2013 by Janice Graham. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions.
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To my cherished friends, Tom and Nancy Baker
Firebirdwas originally published in 1998 by Penguin, Putnam. The advent of eBooks has given the author the opportunity to bring it back to life, and she has consequently made significant revisions to the text, with the idea that she's improved a little as a novelist over the years. She's developed her characters more fully, and she's polished the purple prose, although the author feels that eliminating it altogether would take away from the book's heartfelt sentimentality and originality. The story remains the same.
So far as we know, no modern poet has written of the Flint Hills, which is surprising since they are perfectly attuned to his lyre. In their physical characteristics they reflect want and despair. A line of low-flung hills stretching from the Osage Nation on the south to the Kaw River on the north, they present a pinched and frowning face to those who gaze on them. Their verbiage is scant. Jagged rocks rise everywhere to their surface. The Flint Hills never laugh. In the early spring, when the sparse grass first turns to green upon them, they smile saltily and sardonically. But as spring turns to summer, they grow sullen again and hopeless.
Death is no stranger to them.
—JAY E. HOUSE
Philadelphia Public Ledger (1931)
Ethan Brown was in love with the Flint Hills. His father had been a railroad man, not a rancher, but you would have thought he'd been born into a dynasty of men connected to this land, the way he loved it. He loved it the way certain peoples love their homeland, with a spiritual dimension. He had never loved a woman quite like this, but that was about to change.
He was, at this very moment, ruminating on the idea of marriage as he sat in the passenger seat of the sheriff's car, staring gloomily at the bloodied, mangled carcass of a calf lying in the headlights in the middle of the road. Ethan's long legs were thrust under the dashboard and his hat brushed the roof every time he turned his head, but Clay's car was a lot warmer than Ethan's truck, which took forever to heat up. Ethan poured a cup of coffee from a scratched metal thermos his father had carried on the Santa Fe line on cold October nights like this, and passed it to the sheriff.
They looked over the dashboard at the calf; there was nowhere else to look.
"I had to shoot her. She was still breathin'," said Clay apologetically.
"You did the right thing."
"I don't like to put down other men's animals, but she was sufferin'."
Ethan tried to shake his head, but his hat caught. "Nobody's gonna blame you. Tom'll be grateful to you."
"I sure appreciate your comin' out here in the middle of the night. I can't leave this mess out here. Just beggin' for another accident."
"The guy wasn't hurt?"
"Naw. He was a little shook up, but he had a big four-wheeler, comin' back from a huntin' trip. Just a little fender damage."
She was a small calf, but it took the two men some mighty effort to heave her stiff carcass into the back of Ethan's truck. Then Clay picked up his markers and flares, and the two men headed home along the county road that wound through the prairie.
As Ethan drove along, his eyes fell on the candy-pink hair clip on the dashboard. He had taken it out of Katie Anne's hair the night before, when she had climbed on top of him. He remembered the way her hair had looked when it fell around her face, the way it smelled, the way it curled softly over her naked shoulders. The thought helped him forget about the dead animal in the bed of the truck.
As he turned off on the road toward the Mackey ranch, Ethan noticed the sky was beginning to lighten. He had hoped he would be able to go back to bed, to draw his long, tired body up next to Katie Anne's, but there wouldn't be time now. He might as well stir up some eggs and make another pot of coffee because as soon as day broke he would have to be out on the range, looking for the downed fence. There was no way of telling where the calf had gotten loose; there were thousands of miles of fence. Thousands of miles.
* * *
Ethan Brown had met Katherine Anne Mackey when his father was dying of cancer, which was also the year he turned forty. Katie Anne was twenty-seven—old enough to keep him interested and young enough to keep him entertained. She was the kind of girl Ethan had always avoided when he was younger; she was certainly nothing like Paula, his first wife. Katie Anne got rowdy, told dirty jokes and wore sexy underwear. She lived in the guesthouse on her father's ranch, a beautiful limestone structure with wood-burning fireplaces, built against the south slope of one of the highest hills in western Chase County. Tom Mackey, her father, was a fifth-generation rancher whose ancestors had been among the first to raise cattle in the Flint Hills. Tom owned about half the Flint Hills, give or take a few hundred thousand acres, and, rumor had it, about half the state of Oklahoma, and he knew everything there was to know about cattle ranching.
Ethan had found himself drawn to Katie Anne's place; it was like a smaller version of the home he had always dreamed of building in the Hills, and he would tear over there in his truck from his law office, his heart full and aching, and then Katie Anne would entertain him with her quick wit and her stock of cold beer and her soft, sexy body, and he would leave in the morning thinking how marvelous she was, with his heart still full and aching.
All that year Ethan had felt a terrible cloud over his head, a psychic weight that at times seemed tangible; he even quit wearing the cross and Saint Christopher medal his mother had given him when he left for college his freshman year, as though shedding the gold around his neck might lessen his spiritual burden. If Ethan had dared to examine his conscience honestly he might have eventually come to understand the nature of his malaise, but Katie Anne had come along, and the relief she brought enabled him to skim over the top of those painful months.
Once every two weeks he would visit his parents in Abilene; always, on the drive back home, he felt that troubling sensation grow like the cancer that was consuming his father. On several occasions he tried to speak about it to Katie Anne; he ventured very tentatively into these intimate waters with her, for she seemed to dislike all talk about things sad and depressing. He yearned to confess his despair, to understand it and define it, and maybe ease a little the terrible anguish in his heart. But when he would broach the subject, when he would finally begin to say the things that meant something to him, Katie Anne would grow terribly distracted. In the middle of his sentence she would stand up and ask him if he wanted another beer. "I'm still listening," she would toss at him sweetly. Or she would decide to clear the table at that moment. Or set the alarm clock. Mostly, it was her eyes. Ethan was very good at reading eyes. He often wished he weren't. He noticed an immediate change in her eyes, the way they glazed over, pulled her just out of range of hearing as soon as he brought up the subject of his father.
Occasionally, when Ethan would come over straight from a visit to Abilene, she would politely ask about the old man, and Ethan would respond with a terse comment, such as "Well, he's pretty grumpy," or "He's feeling a little better." But she didn't want to hear any more than that, so after a while he quit trying to talk about it. Ethan didn't like Katie Anne very much when her eyes began to dance away from him, when she fidgeted and thought about other things and pretended to be listening, although her eyes didn't pretend very well. And Ethan wanted very much to like Katie Anne. There was so much about her he did like.
Katie Anne, like her father, was devoted to the animals and the prairie lands that sustained them. Her knowledge of ranching almost equaled his. The Mackeys were an intelligent, educated family, and occasionally, on a quiet evening in her parents' company when the talk turned to more controversial issues, such as public access to the Flint Hills or environmentalism, she would surprise Ethan with her perspicacity. These occasional glimpses of a critical edge to her mind, albeit all too infrequent, led him to believe there was another side to her nature, one that could, with time and the right influence, be brought out and nurtured. Right away he had recognized her remarkable gift for remaining touchingly feminine and yet very much at ease around the crude, coarse men who populated her world. She was the first ranch hand he had ever watched castrate a young bull while wearing pale pink nail polish.
So that summer, as his father lay dying, Ethan and Katie Anne talked about ranching, about the cattle, about the land; they talked about country music, about the new truck Ethan was going to buy. They drank a lot of beer and barbecued a lot of steaks with their friends, and Ethan even got used to watching her dance with other guys at the South Forty, where they spent a lot of time on weekends. Ethan hated to dance, but Katie Anne danced with a sexual energy he had never seen in a woman. She loved to be watched. And she was good. There wasn't a step she didn't know or a partner she couldn't keep up with. So Ethan would sit and drink with his buddies while Katie Anne danced, and the guys would talk about what a goddamn lucky son of a bitch he was.
Then his father died, and although Ethan was with him in those final hours, even though he'd held the old man's hand and cradled his mother's head against his strong chest while she grieved, there nevertheless lingered in Ethan's mind a sense of things unresolved, and Katie Anne, guilty by association, somehow figured into it all.
Three years had passed since then, and everyone just assumed they would be married. Several times Katie Anne had casually proposed dates to him, none of which Ethan had taken seriously. As of yet there was no formal engagement, but Ethan was making his plans. Assiduously, carefully, very cautiously, the way he proceeded in law, he was building the life he had always dreamed of. He had never moved from the rather inconvenient third-floor attic office in the old Salmon P. Chase House, which he had leased upon his arrival in Cottonwood Falls, fresh on the heels of his divorce, but this was no indication of his success. His practice had grown shamefully lucrative. Chase Countians loved Ethan Brown, not only for his impressive academic credentials and his faultless knowledge of the law, but because he was a man of conscience. He was also a man's man, a strong man with callused hands and powerful legs that gripped the flanks of a horse with authority.
Now, at last, his dreams were coming true. From the earnings of his law practice he had purchased his land and was building his house. In a few years he would be able to buy a small herd. It was time to get married.
Ethan pulled the string of barbed wire tight and looped it around the stake he had just pounded back into the ground. The loose end of wire smacked him across the cheek near his eye and he flinched. He caught the wire with a gloved hand and finished nailing it down, then he removed his glove and wiped away the warm blood that trickled down his face.
As he untied his horse and swung up into the saddle he thought he caught a whiff of fire. He lifted his head into the wind and sniffed the air. But he couldn't find the smell again. It was gone as quickly as it had come. This was not the burning season; perhaps he had only imagined it.
He dug his heels into the horse's ribs and took off at a trot, following the fence as it curved over the hills. The copper-colored grasses, short after a long summer's grazing, stood out sharply against the solid blue sky.
From the other side of the fence, down the hill toward the highway, came a bleating sound.Not another one,he thought. It was past two in the afternoon, and he had a desk piled with work waiting for him in town, but he turned his horse around and rode her up to the top of the hill, where he could see down into the valley below.
He had forgotten all about Emma Ferguson's funeral until that moment when he looked down on the Old Cemetery, an outcropping of modest tombstones circumscribed by a rusty chain-link fence. It stood out in the middle of nowhere; the only access was a narrow blacktop county road. But this afternoon the side of the road was lined with trucks and cars, and the graves were obscured by mourners. The service was over. As he watched, the cemetery emptied, and within a few minutes there were only the black limousine from the mortuary and a little girl holding the hand of a woman in black who stood looking down into the open grave. Ethan had meant to attend the funeral. He was handling Emma Ferguson's estate and her will was sitting on top of a pile of folders in his office. But the dead calf had seized his attention. The loss, about $500, was Tom Mackey's, but it was all the same to Ethan. Tom Mackey was like a father to him.
Ethan shifted his gaze from the mourners and scanned the narrow stretch of bottomland. He spied the heifer standing in a little tree-shaded gully just below the cemetery. To reach her he would have to jump the fence or ride two miles to the next gate. He guided the mare back down the hill and stopped to determine the best place to jump. The fence wasn't high, but the ground was treacherous. Hidden underneath the smooth russet-colored bed of grass lay rock outcroppings and potholes: burrows, dens, things that could splinter a horse's leg like a matchstick, all of them obscured by the deceptive harmony of waving grasses. Ethan found a spot that looked safe but he got down off his horse and walked the approach, just to make sure. He spread apart the barbed wire and slipped through to check out the other side. When he got back up on his horse he glanced down at the cemetery again. He had hoped the woman and child would be gone, but they were still standing by the grave. He didn't like the idea of chasing the calf right past Emma Ferguson's gravesite while her family was still there. Nor did he like the idea of having an audience if his mare should balk and send him flying into the barbed wire. But he had to get on with his day, so he settled his mind and circled his horse, moving her into place for the jump; he paused to focus on the fence, then with a cry he dug his heels into her flanks and she thundered down the hill. At just the right moment, he felt her pull her forelegs underneath and with a mighty surge of strength from her powerful hind legs sail into the air.
* * *
The woman looked up just as the horse appeared in the sky and she started. It seemed frozen there in space for the longest time, a black, deep-chested horse outlined against the blue sky, and then hooves hit the ground with a thud, and the horse and rider thundered down the slope of the hill only a short distance from the cemetery fence.
"Maman!"cried the child in awe."Tu as vu ça?"
The woman was still staring, speechless, when she heard her father call to her from where he stood by the limousine. "Annette!"
She turned around.
"Let's go," he ordered in a pinched voice. It was his annoyed voice. She'd kept him waiting. Over her mother's grave, she'd kept him waiting.
Annette took one last look at the black casket.Good-bye, Mama. I won't be back. I'm sorry.She clasped her daughter's hand and they walked together to the limousine.
Often father Colt would say when we urged him to leave Kansas with us, "I had as lief lay my bones in Kansas as in any other place"; and so it has come to pass. But to think of a death in Kansas, in that wild though beautiful country—to be laid away in a rough box, in a grave marked only while the mound looks newly made, away from all kindred and friends who would drop on it a tear or plant on it a flower, seems to me horrible in the extreme.
—MIRIAM DAVIS COLT
Went to Kansas, Being a Thrilling Account of an Ill-Fated Expedition to That Fairy Land and Its Sad Results (1862)
The six-year-old had been following with fascination the horseman's pursuit of the fleeing calf. He'd roped and missed, and roped and missed again, and as the mortuary's limousine pulled out of the cemetery she squirmed around and got up on her knees to watch from the back window. She had a little girl's love of horses and she'd been riding in a pony club since she was five, but this was another world, a world she knew only from the pages of illustrated books and old American movies. When, on the third effort, the rider finally landed the rope around the calf's neck, she bubbled with excitement and poked her mother's shoulder.
"Maman! Il faut que tu regardes ça!"
"Sit back down and fasten your seat belt," thundered her grandfather.
The little girl turned baffled eyes to her mother, eyes suddenly extinguished of all joy, and with painful remembrance Annette recognized herself in those eyes.
"She's just excited, Dad. She's never seen a cowboy."
"Fasten her seat belt. It's the law."
"We're in a limo in the middle of nowhere. What can happen?"
"Don't argue with me, Annette."
That old anger surged up and began to consume her.Mustn't let it,she thought.Let go of it. We'll be gone soon.She gently resettled the little girl and tightened the belt, pinning her to the dreary boredom of the limousine's interior. Laughter banished, joy crushed.
"I wish you'd teach that child some English," grumbled the old man.
"She knows English, Dad."
"Then why don't you speak it with her? It's just plain rude, always talking in French like that."
"I'm sorry. It's habit." To Eliana she said, "Let's speak English, honey. So your grandpa can understand. Okay?"
"Okay," Eliana said.
Annette didn't like being alone with her father. She feared him. Her mother had always been there, protecting her from his rages and softening his rigid severity with her sweet smile, and now Annette instinctively put her arm around her daughter and drew her closer, and then she felt guilty because her father looked so profoundly sad and isolated on the other end of the wide backseat. So much tension between them. Impossible to ignore it. Coming back here always brought up disturbing emotions; she had thought that by fleeing, she would leave those feelings behind.
She gripped her daughter's hand and stared out the window at the wide expanse of sky and the swiftly scudding clouds, and tears stung her eyes. She couldn't deny the unique beauty of this land, but it also provoked an inexplicable anxiety in her. On the way to the cemetery they had driven past a few ranch houses built out of white limestone rock quarried nearby; these alone had withstood the violent elements throughout the past century. Everywhere else were signs of men and women who had struggled and failed, who had gone on, or back, or just died. Abandoned houses with their plaster walls caved in, their wooden beams splintered and decayed. Abandoned machinery and cars. Abandoned graves.
Two or three weeks, she reminded herself, that would be long enough. Just to make sure her father was squared away. Then they would be on a plane back to Paris. A city circumscribed and fortified, where children played and families strolled in formal fenced spaces; where broad-leaved chestnut trees and beds of lilies and purple wildflowers offered enclosure and security, far away from this terrifying empty space, where there was nothing but prairie forever and ever.
She was always drawn back to this part of the country, obligated and duty-bound because her family was here. Apart from her parents, she never kept in touch with any of them. When her first recordings had been released, she'd received all kinds of congratulatory notes from cousins and the like. Later, when her life had been shattered, when her fame had receded and she'd withdrawn from public view, no longer receiving the international accolades that had been flung at her during her performing years, her warm, well-wishing cousins no longer clamored to see her when she was home, and her family ties narrowed. Only her mother and father bound her to this Wonder Bread–land. And now her mother was dead. There was only her father. She had always hoped he would go first so she could have her mother back again. For years she'd held on to that hope. Now the loss of the illusion was beginning to dawn on her, and she felt like she was mourning something she had always yearned for and would never have.
The reception at Nell Harshaw's was a strain on Charlie Ferguson. The death of his beloved wife, who had put him at the center of her world, had left him estranged from both man and God. He had never dealt particularly well with death. As a minister, the calls he was obliged to make to families of the deceased were always brief and terse, like Charlie, and buffered with scripture. He would leave them outdated pamphlets about dealing with death, promise his prayers, then hurry away. As a child, Annette assumed this was the way it was done. But when she grew older and moved out of the dark shadow of her father's influence into a world where men of God at times showed great compassion and mercy, she began to wonder why he had ever chosen such a profession. If Charlie was appreciated as a man of the cloth it was not for his sermons, which, like his house calls, were dry and short, or for his sense of humor (he was a sadly humorless man), and certainly not for his selflessness or warmth, but for his ability to raise and invest money for his church. Charlie liked to think of himself as God's business manager. When it came to the material world, Charlie worked miracles. He was a dedicated fund-raiser, an ingenious entrepreneur and a shrewd investor; he refurbished sanctuaries and expanded properties, and still the church coffers grew. The church members recognized this genius in him and so forgave him his inadequacies in the more traditional roles expected of him; they came to hear his dull sermons and prided themselves on how their church was financially sound.
But the people who surrounded him this afternoon were not Charlie's church members. Upon retirement, Annette's parents had left Wichita and moved to Cottonwood Falls, where her mother had been born and raised. The people there knew Charlie only as the man they had seen for the past five years, and so his genius escaped them, and Charlie Ferguson felt very, very alone.
Annette recognized this as she watched him try to mingle with the townsfolk. She saw how he struggled to hold himself together, how he fought back the tears that were so foreign to his eyes, how the muscles in his face were so contorted from the effort that he looked quite unlike himself. She saw how it upset him when Nell Harshaw took Eliana in tow and walked her around the house, introducing her to everyone. The friends and neighbors who gathered that day had never seen Emma Ferguson's one and only grandchild. Nell and the others fawned over her and their eyes followed her around the room. Charlie was ignored, thrown over in his crotchety old age by a little girl who did not at all worship him the way he had always wished his grandchildren would. Indeed, the child was shy and distant with him and always deferred to her mother. He had always been the center of attention, and the woman who had devoted her life to him was gone, and there was no one to replace her.
The entire town of Cottonwood Falls flowed through Nell's modest home that afternoon, bringing enough food to feed a tribe. Eliana fell asleep on Nell's bed, and at the end of the evening they laid her on the backseat of Charlie's car, next to the Pyrex dishes of tuna casserole and the pasta salads and chocolate chip cookies, and drove home.
Annette carried her daughter into the house, got her into her flannel nightgown and tucked her into bed. The room was poorly heated, and Annette removed her sable-collared coat and covered the child. The little girl shivered and pulled the fur collar up around her face.
"It smells like you," she murmured.
"Go back to sleep, precious," Annette said, and kissed her. Eliana opened her eyes.
"Everybody kept staring at it."
"I heard a man in the kitchen at Nell's. He was making fun of it."
Annette smiled gently and smoothed back her daughter's hair. "I suppose I shouldn't have worn it here."
"It's out of place."
"You wear it all the time at home."
"Yes, but this isn't home. And I'm sorry that man made you feel uncomfortable. That was not very nice of him."
"I'm glad you wore it. I love it."
"So do I. When I wear it I feel very safe and warm."
"That's the way it makes me feel too."
"Are you sure you want to sleep alone? Wouldn't you rather sleep in my bed?"
"No. I like this room." She snuggled down into the fur collar and whispered,"Tu es si belle, Maman."
Annette kissed her soft cheek, and the child's eyelids closed, and within a few breaths she was asleep.
* * *
Annette took a shower and washed her hair, and with her head under the water she broke down and cried, where no one could hear her. When she finally came out, her father was sitting at the kitchen table, counting out his weekly dosage of vitamins and medication into a pillbox. More than once he dropped a pill into the wrong slot, and then, with trembling fingers, would clumsily try to retrieve it. She noticed how his hands had aged since she'd last seen him. As she pulled up a chair to sit down with him, she accidentally jostled the table and two red pills rolled onto the floor. The lines around Charlie's mouth tightened.
"I'm sorry," muttered Annette as she leaned down, but Charlie impatiently pushed her arm aside and picked up the pills, meticulously dusting off each one with a napkin.
"Floor's dirty," he mumbled.
"Let me help you."
"Are your hands clean?"
"Yes, Dad, my hands are clean."
He told her how many to put in each slot, how many blue ones and white ones and green ones.
"Your mother always got the coffee ready before she went to bed. It's on a timer," he said when they had finished.
Annette prepared the coffee and kissed him good night on his whiskered cheek.
"I love you, Dad," she whispered.
"That doesn't change anything," he said harshly.
She thought she knew what he meant: that loving didn't help the pain. It certainly didn't defeat death.
* * *
For a long time she sat on the edge of her bed in her nightgown, listening to the strange sounds the wind made and hoping it wouldn't wake Eliana. After a while she got up and went down the hall to check on her. Charlie had referred dismissively to this small, cramped room as her mother's sewing room, although the sewing machine had been shunted into a corner and looked as though it hadn't been touched in a long time. Now, it was her mother's upright piano that held pride of place; the keyboard was open and music had been left on the stand as though she might walk in and sit down to play at any moment. Beneath a curtained window was the ruffle-skirted daybed where Eliana now slept. Annette suspected her father never came in here. He must surely have disliked it. It spoke too eloquently of all the things he had tried to crush in his wife, interests and hobbies that had stolen her attention away from him, things he had assumed were gone and dead but that somehow, in later years, had re-emerged with sudden vigor.
The walls and surfaces were covered with photographs of Annette and Eliana, framed press clippings from Annette's performances as solo violinist, photographs of her shaking hands with the Queen of England and the Israeli prime minister. There were postcards Annette had sent from cities around the world, which her mother had proudly framed. There was an old movie poster of Rita Hayworth inAffair in Trinidadthat Annette had found in London and mailed to her, although at the time she wondered where her mother would be able to hang it without a prolonged battle with her father, and another she had found in Munich, an equally obscure film of Humphrey Bogart's, entitledSirocco.Then there were photographs of her mother's idols, the divas Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland and Kiri Te Kanawa, whose voice sounded so much like her mother's had once.
Annette sat on the piano bench in the dark, listening to the wind and thinking of her mother's sweetly scented body lying alone in the cold ground in those lonely hills. Suddenly she was seized with anxiety, and in a flight of morbid fancy she imagined her mother's spirit trapped here.It's this damnable place,she thought. She'd heard stories of earthbound souls, and believed there were many things in the realm of the spirits that we could not know. So she went to her daughter's bed, knelt and hastily crossed herself, then, in a muffled voice, half-aloud, she offered up a single prayer: that her mother's spirit would not be bound to this land; that it would come away with her, away from this place, and be free. She crawled into bed under the blankets and the sable-collared coat and curled up next to Eliana. She found her daughter's hand, soft and warm, and held it in her own.
Annette lay quietly listening to the Kansas wind. When she was a little girl it had terrified her, screeching and moaning around the house at night like a devil from hell, a faceless, deadly wind that could level the land. The white people who settled here had never given it a name: the naming of winds had disappeared with the Indians. She remembered a story she had once read about an aboriginal people shooting at the wind with their guns and beating at it with their brooms, and she thought their behavior wasn't so strange after all.
She tried to sleep but every time she closed her eyes she saw her mother's grave. She wanted to see her alive, coming toward her with her arms open wide, freed from her father's control, free to turn her love elsewhere. Once again came the sad realization that this would never happen. Outdoors the wind rose to a piercing whistle, and she turned her head to look at her daughter, hoping the child wouldn't be awakened.Must get you away from here, precious. Away from these banshee winds.Nothing frightened Annette so much as the thought of being trapped and dying here.
After a while she imagined she was hearing music. It sounded faintly like a Schubert Lieder, one of her mother's favorites. She lifted her head from the pillow and listened carefully, thinking perhaps her father had turned on the radio in his room, but she couldn't locate the source.
The music soothed her and for a moment her grief was lightened. From time to time the wind would halt to catch its breath, and the music in her head would fill the silence. As she drifted off she imagined a presence in the room protecting her and her child from the world beyond, and at last she fell into a deep, dreamless slumber.
Outside the wind dropped, quite suddenly, and the night was cold and still.
Jerry Meeker could pound in a fence stake with a few blows and bring a stubborn horse under control with a single jerk on the lead, but he was having serious trouble getting a wide leather club chair up the narrow stairs of the Salmon P. Chase House to Ethan's office. Ethan was at the top and Jer was holding up the bottom, straining so hard his face had gone red and his bright blue eyes were swimming in tears.
"Set the damn thing down," gasped Ethan.
"Can't," whispered Jer through clenched teeth.
"Just set it down."
"Keep goin'," grunted Jer.
Ethan took another step, and then another, and finally his heel touched the flat landing at the top of the stairs.
"Okay, buddy, we're here."
"Damn, this's heavy," said Jer as he wrangled his end up to the landing and then collapsed into the chair. "Nice, though." He fingered the brass studs. The leather was very smooth. "Why didn't Tom want it?"
"Didn't have room for it." Ethan wiped his brow with his sleeve. "Come on, let's get it in my office."
"I ain't movin' yet, pal," said Jer.
"You're gonna have to. I'm expectin' that French lady any minute now."
"You mean Emma's daughter?"
Jer rested his head on the chair back and his eyes fell on the plaque that hung next to Ethan's door. Nothing identified the place as a law office; there was only one word—Wordsworth—and below that, a framed quotation by the poet that read:
Where are your books?—that light bequeathed
To Beings else forlorn and blind!
Up! Up! and drink the spirit breathed
From dead men to their kind.
Jer didn't read much, just an occasional magazine, and he had always found Ethan's office a little strange for an attorney. Inside the spacious attic office were walls of books, many of them having nothing to do with law. It was Ethan's sacred domain, and although Jer didn't understand it, he honored it and held his tongue.
Jer looked down at his stomach. There was a dark blue patch in the middle of his shirt where his sweat had soaked through the denim.
"Well, I guess the sight of me sweatin' like a hog won't make much of an impression on her, will it," he said, slowly getting up. "So I'll move. Just for her sake. Not yours."
"So, I'm supposed to be makin' an impression on Madame, am I?"
"Why didn't you go to the funeral?"
"Actually, I did make an appearance. Sort of."
"What d'ya mean?"
"I'll bore you with it some other time, pal. Come on, we gotta move this thing. You ready?"
"Yeah." Jer squatted and positioned his hands underneath the chair. "She's a mighty pretty lady. You'd like her."
"I doubt it," Ethan said as they lifted the chair together. "She probably has one of those little yappy poodles with bows in its hair."
The office door, which was never locked, swung open as Ethan backed into it. "You doin' okay with your end?" he asked.
"Yeah. Just take it easy," answered Jer.
"Beats me how any relation of Emma Ferguson's can have anything in common with a bunch of little Nazis with no balls," said Ethan as they slowly inched the chair through the doorway. He rambled on, "You remember the time they tried to put French crepes on the menu down at Hannah's? It was on a Saturday night. Old Burt walked in, all spruced up in his good overalls, all clean and pressed, and then he sat down and picked up the menu. He took one look at the Saturday Nite Special and said, 'That goddamn cook's full of crap.' And then he slapped down the menu and walked out. Burt's never been back to Hannah's since."
It was perhaps the physical exertion, or just Ethan's remembrance of the look on Burt's face, but mirth got the better of him, and his voice rose in a boisterous laugh that came straight from the heart. He laughed so hard his breath came in little snorts and tears streamed down his face. It was not a mean laugh, for there was not a mean bone in Ethan Brown's body, but he was a Kansan and his prejudices were deeply rooted in a proud and stubborn conservatism.
"Better put this down before I drop it," said Ethan, his shoulders heaving in the throes of laughter. He swept his hat from his head and wiped the tears from his cheeks. When he looked up he saw Jer, who had turned suddenly quiet, was gaping at something over Ethan's shoulder. Ethan swung around.
In his office stood a slender dark-haired woman. She wore black gloves and a black fur-trimmed coat and black high heels. Her soft brown eyes mirrored utter disbelief. She had been reading a book,The Collected Poems ofW. B. Yeats,which Ethan had left lying on his coffee table.
"Excuse me," she said quietly. "I'm looking for Mr. Brown. The attorney."
"I'm Ethan Brown."
The look in her eyes cooled. "I'm Annette Zeldin. Emma Ferguson's daughter. We have an appointment this morning."
"Yes, of course," boomed Ethan. With a nervous gesture he patted down his hair and put his hat back on. Then he remembered his manners and took it off again and slung it onto the coat rack.
"I'll see ya around, Ethan. Good day, ma'am," Jer said, and disappeared out the door.
"Yeah, thanks, Jer," Ethan called after him. He turned back to Annette Zeldin and stepped forward, extending his broad hand to her, mustering an amiable smile. "Ethan Brown, attorney at law." It was the greeting of an easygoing, confident man—a style he used with folks out here, and they loved it. Annette wasn't the least bit softened; she hesitated, then kept him waiting a moment longer while she laid down the book and removed her glove, and only then did she shake his hand.
"Sorry to keep you waiting. I didn't see a car outside."
"You walked? Well, ma'am, if you're going to be doing any walking around here you'd better get yourself some comfortable shoes."
He said it with his usual hearty smile, all friendly and good-natured, but he was immediately sorry because he knew from the moment he set eyes on her that she wouldn't take to men like him.
She dismissed the comment with a half-smile and then turned an admiring glance to the floor-to-ceiling books that lined his walls. "At first I thought I'd walked into the city library," she said.
Ethan nodded. "You did. Best darn library in the county," he replied proudly.
"You are a lawyer, are you not?"
"Indeed I am."
"You might want to put a sign on your door indicating as such, Mr. Brown. Or do you only practice law as a hobby?"
His smile widened.Touché,he thought to himself.What do you expect? Running off at the mouth about the French and you know damn good and well she heard every word.
"I apologize for that, ma'am," he said sincerely. "Should have told you. Everyone around here knows me by Wordsworth." He gestured to a chair facing his desk. "Please, have a seat."
Ethan sat down behind his desk and began sifting through a stack of files. He was acutely aware of her presence. She had a measured and formal kind of elegance, but there was nothing contrived about it. It was natural, almost regal. She made him feel awkward,plebianwas the word that came to his mind, and he couldn't concentrate and couldn't find the damn file.
"I'm very sorry about your mama. She was a lovely lady. We'll miss her."
"Thank you," she replied curtly.
Having found the file, Ethan leaned back in his chair and leveled a gaze on her.
"Your mother left you some property."
"Yes. I'd like to sell it."
"Are you sure about that?"
"Ma'am, you might want to reconsider. It's a real choice piece of land. Matter of fact, I recently bought the property adjacent to it on the south. The old Norton ranch. Some of the best grazing in the Hills. Value just keeps going up. Good place to raise a kid, too. You could continue to lease it out and make a nice little income. Or—"
"Mr. Brown," she cut in, "I want to sell it. I intend to buy a house in the south of France."
"Ma'am, take my word for it. This kind of land doesn't come up for sale but once in a lifetime. People hold on to it. Pass it down from generation to generation."
When Annette replied it was deliberately and patiently, as you would speak to a child, and it swept over her how she had tried so hard to explain this to her father for years, using these same words, this same tone of voice.
"Mr. Brown, I understand the land is valuable, which is why I want to sell it. I will never live on the land. Nor do I wish to pass it on to my daughter. I've made my home in Paris for seventeen years. I intend to grow old there. And be buried there—in my fur coat and my high heels, if at all possible."
He started to laugh, but the look in her eyes stopped him cold. It was a polite way of saying that if she had a choice between hell and here she would choose hell.
The absolute opposition of their lives was clear to both of them at that instant. It ballooned upon them like an epiphany and had the remarkable effect of making them instantly aware, however painful and unwelcome it might be, that they were staring at another human whose very identity was built upon a construct that was hostile to their own self.
Ethan smiled, a kind of respectful acknowledgment of the subtle antagonism between them.
"I'll be glad to take care of it for you," he said quietly.
"The will's pretty straightforward. But we'll need your father's written consent before you sell."
"Why? My mother left it to me."
"Under Kansas law the surviving spouse has a claim to half the property. I urged your mother to let me deal with this before hand, but I think she was a little reluctant, with your father still alive. She didn't seem to be worried, though. Said your father knew her wishes, so I'm sure he'll honor them."
Ethan closed the file and tapped it on his knee. "I'll get the consent forms drawn up and send them over to your house tomorrow morning. And we won't have any trouble finding a buyer for your land, I promise you."
Annette stood and Ethan rose and came around the desk to shake her hand. He towered over her, and she noticed the clean smell of his starched shirt and judged him married although he wore no wedding ring.
On her way to the door she paused and glanced down at the book of poetry on the coffee table.
"Does anyone around here read Yeats?"
"Oh, a few of us starved souls do," he answered.
Then, his ego got the better of him, and in a gentle and expressive voice, he recited:
"When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face..."
He picked up the book and offered it to her. "You keep hold of that 'til you go," he said. "I don't charge for the poetry, just the prose."
"Thank you, Mr. Brown," she said warmly; it was the first time he'd seen her smile. "I'll make sure to get it back to you."
When she said good-bye, her eyes left him thinking he had, for a brief moment, impressed her.
After she left, Ethan dictated some notes to his secretary, Bonnie, then quickly closed up his office and headed for the Mackey place. Annette Zeldin had made him feel extremely uncomfortable. He thought if he could get out to the stable and saddle up his horse, he just might shake it off before it got under his skin.
* * *
That evening at the South Forty Ethan sat alone in the booth, watching Katie Anne dance. He had avoided his buddies at the bar and chose to sit quietly with his beer and reflect upon the events of the last few days. Getting his hands on Emma Ferguson's property was a dream come true. He should feel as though all was right with the world. Happy. Contented. He felt none of these things. What really annoyed him was that Mrs. Zeldin kept intruding upon his thoughts. He was relieved when Jer slid into the booth next to him.
"So, what'd you think of her?" asked Jer.
"It was like sittin' on barbed wire."
"Serves you right."
"She's nothing like her mother. Pretentious and cold as ice."
"I didn't think so. I talked to her at the reception at Nell's house. I liked her," said Jer quietly.
"You can't be real."
"What d'ya have against her?"
"Vichy and de Gaulle, for starters."
"Okay, so you hold a few grudges against the French, but you can't condemn her for making her home there."
"That's the point. It was a choice. That says something about her."
"Why're you gettin' all worked up about this?"
"I'm not all worked up."
Jer shrugged. "Okay. So you're not worked up."
Ethan took a long draw on his beer. "I was thinkin' about asking Katie Anne to marry me."
Jer burst out in a broad and long laugh. "I knew there was somethin' naggin' at you."
Ethan looked up to see Katie Anne approaching him, her soft brown hair curling in damp ringlets around her face the way it always did after she had worked up a sweat on the dance floor. She was very appetizing then, her face flushed, her own scent mingling with the light floral perfume she wore.
Jer saw her coming. "I'm outta here," he whispered, and slipped away.
Katie Anne slid in next to Ethan on the booth and ran her hand up the inside of his leg, and Ethan forgot all about Mrs. Zeldin.
"Hi, handsome." She grinned. "Will you go get me a beer?"
"I can't," he answered gruffly. "Not unless you want me to embarrass myself."
She took a sip of Ethan's beer with her free hand. "I'll just drink yours," she said teasingly.
"How about April?" he asked.
"For our wedding."
Katie Anne grew still, but Ethan didn't notice; he was trying to catch the attention of their waitress.
"If we have the light winter we're expecting, the house should be finished by then," he continued.
She removed her hand from his leg.
"What's wrong?" he asked.
She began to play with a lock of hair at the back of her neck, winding it around her finger. "Are you really serious about it this time?"
"What do you mean?"
Katie Anne hesitated before replying. "You keep finding reasons to put it off."
"No I don't."
"This is the third time this year we've talked about setting a date." There was an edge of exasperation in her voice.
"We discussed it, but we never actually set a date. So you can't say I put it off."
She turned away from him. "Whatever," she mumbled.
Ethan hated that expression. It made her sound juvenile and not very intelligent.
"I just want us to have a house of our own," he reasoned.
"We've been living together for over a year. Why do we need to wait until your house is built before we can get married?" she asked.
"I want things to be right."
"Things can never be right enough for you," she answered. She turned her back to him and watched the dancers.
Ethan was silent for a long time.
"I sure didn't think this would turn unpleasant," he replied after a while.
"Is it unpleasant?" she said, her back still to him. Her voice sounded odd and he wondered if she was crying.
He shook his head in confusion. "I don't understand. I ask you if you want to get married in April, and you get all worked up about the past."
"Because I don't trust you," she said, wiping away a tear.
The waitress brought their beers. Ethan took a long swig of his. Katie Anne's sat untouched. Finally, he put his arm around her and pulled her close to him. She laid her head on his shoulder and whispered, "April would be perfect."
Mealtime had never been an enjoyable part of the day in the Ferguson household, and the misery of those childhood moments crept over Annette as she picked at her green beans. Charlie lifted his eyes from his plate and cast a severe glance at Eliana. Annette unconsciously stiffened.What is she doing wrong?Annette wondered.What could she possibly be doing now to annoy him? After all these years it seemed as if nothing had changed. He merely had to turn his gaze on you and you squirmed, she thought. He was doing it now to Eliana. Annette could tell the six-year-old sensed her grandfather's pall of disapproval and that she disliked him for it, but—thank goodness—there was no air of anxiety about her; she didn't fear him.
"Eliana, put the salt back in the center of the table, where everyone can reach it."
Ah, that'swhat's annoying him, thought Annette as she took the salt and set it in front of her father's plate. Charlie, silently vindicated, went back to his dinner.
Eliana carefully wiped her mouth and looked up at her mother."Est-ce que je peux aller jouer au dehors?"she asked.
"In English, sweetheart."
Eliana gave a sigh of boredom. "Can I go play outside?" she repeated.
"Yes. Take your plate to the sink."
Once Eliana was playing in the yard, Annette could relax. But her appetite was gone. She put down her fork and waited patiently while her father finished. His teeth were bad and he chewed slowly.
"Brisket's tough," he said, pushing his plate away.
"I'm sorry. It didn't cook long enough, I suppose."
"Your mother's brisket was always good."
"Are you finished?"
She rose and carried the brisket to the kitchen.
"I saw the attorney today," she said. "Did he send over the consent forms?"
"Yeah. But I'm not going to sign them."
She closed the refrigerator door. "What?"
"I don't want you to sell that land."
"You'll just take the money and fritter it away."
Annette came back to the table and sat down. She looked him calmly in the eye. "You've never changed your opinion of me, have you? After all these years. You still don't trust my judgment."
"Not where money's concerned, I don't."
"I have plans for that money."
"I don't want to hear it, Annette."
"Why are you doing this? Is it to keep me here?"
"This is a good place to live, with good people. It just isn't good enough for you, I guess."
"Why are we having this discussion?"
"You could teach music. In El Dorado, or Emporia. Someplace within driving distance. That's what your mother was always hoping. She never pressured you. Didn't want to make you feel guilty."
"You still have to control her, even when she's gone. You can't even respect her dying wishes."
His voice rose angrily. He'd once been a handsome man but fury turned him ugly. "We worked and saved all our lives, Annette, and I'm going to make sure you don't waste what little money we leave behind."
Charlie rose abruptly from the table and with palsied hands he carried his plate to the sink and rinsed it, then meticulously stacked it in the dishwasher. He dried his hands on the dish towel and went into the living room, settling into his recliner and clicking on the television. Annette took the rest of the dishes to the kitchen and emptied her uneaten dinner into the garbage disposal.
Annette sat in Ethan Brown's office with her hands quietly folded in her lap listening to him apologize. If she had ranted and raved, Ethan would have been able to retrieve some of his self-respect. But her silence only provoked him to more effusive and transparent verbosity. Finally, disgusted with himself, he fell silent.
When at last she spoke, her voice was quiet and controlled. "Mr. Brown, I'm very disappointed in the way this has been handled. I was told you were one of the best civil-law attorneys in the state."
"I don't know about that, ma'am. But I know I care a lot about the folks around here."
"But I'm not from around here, and you don't like me, do you?" she said. He started to protest, but she stopped him. "The point is, if you cared about my mother's final wishes you would have handled this differently. My mother had nothing to leave me except this land. She was not rich. She left me great wealth, of course, but not in material things." Her voice caught in her throat. She stopped to regain her composure. "My father and I have never gotten along well, and I'm not going to come back here and take care of him."
"Is that what he wants?"
"Not really. But he's frightened now and he'll be very lonely. He's strong as an ox and in good health, but who's to say what will happen to him with my mother gone."
"I want you to know I did try to persuade her to get his written consent when the will was drawn up. But she didn't want to. I can advise my clients, but I can't make them do what they don't want to." He paused. "She was afraid it would hurt his feelings."
She stared blankly at Ethan for a moment, then looked down at her hands. "Yes," she said quietly. "That's the way it's always been."
"Can I make a suggestion?"
She looked up.
"Have you ever seen the house?"
"Let me drive you out there Sunday. You should at least take a look at it. Then we'll discuss how best to deal with Charlie. I think I'll be able to bring him around. I can be pretty darn persuasive when I need to be."
"And you'd like to buy the land, wouldn't you?"
He smiled broadly, a contagious smile, and said, "Maybe we can be on the same team after all."
* * *
Ethan felt very uncomfortable with Mrs. Zeldin and her daughter riding in his truck. He thought it was because she was wearing that damn sable-collared coat and the same black dress she wore every time he saw her.
"If you don't mind me asking, ma'am, do all Frenchwomen dress like you?"
She smiled. "It's the other way around, Mr. Brown. I've learned to dress like they do. Otherwise you don't get much respect."
"I suppose you're right. We Americans are a scruffy bunch."
"That pretty much says it."
"Don't women wear jeans in Paris?"
"The young ones do."
He wondered if she was inviting a compliment, but decided not; she wasn't the type to play trite games. He was acutely aware of her grace, the way she held her hands and her shoulders, the way her breasts moved when she sighed, how she sat with her legs intertwined at the ankles like little girls had been taught to sit in etiquette classes when he was a kid. Her dark hair was long and very feminine, and her face bore only the faintest touch of makeup. He knew how old she was, he had all the relevant statistics in her file, but only her hands betrayed her forty years. And her eyes.
Eliana, who was sitting between them, twisted around and stretched her neck to check on Traveler, Ethan's border collie, riding in the back of his truck, then she said something to her mother in French. Annette shook her head. Eliana looked wistfully at the dog again.
Ethan said, "She can ride in the truck bed with Traveler if that's what she wants. Perfectly safe."
"I'd rather she didn't."
"I'd slow way down. Don't you worry. I'm not about to throw that pretty little child onto the road."
Annette turned to Eliana and said, "Maybe on the way home."
Eliana smiled and said something in French, and her mother replied. Ethan didn't understand a word of it, but he was surprised by how sweet it sounded.
"Eliana, do you have a dog at home?" Ethan asked.
The child shook her head and replied that their dog had died when she was two and her mother didn't want to get another one.
"Because she doesn't want to have a big dog in the city."
"Why don't you get a small dog?"
"Mamandoesn't like little dogs," Eliana said. "They're yappy."
"Is that right?"
Ethan shot a quick look at Annette. She was staring out the window, trying to suppress a smile.
"She says we won't get a big dog until we have a house in the country."
"Well then," he said to Annette, "all the more reason to get this matter settled."
They reached the top of a hill and met with a glorious panorama. The low-flung Flint Hills were grasslands stretching as far as the eye could see. There was not even a telephone cable in sight. The nearer hills were still a lush wet green and the farther ones were muted, softer, fading into a purple-blue haze that shrouded the most distant hills. A few cottonwoods and oaks struck bright dots of orange and gold.
Ethan turned off the dirt road onto a gravel entrance, but after a few hundred feet there was nothing left except tire tracks overgrown with grass. The truck climbed a steep hill, and as they pulled to a stop underneath a cluster of cottonwoods Annette saw the old Reilly farmhouse. Although battered by the elements and overgrown with tall grasses, it had clearly once been a noble house.
Annette sat very still, staring at it. Eliana threw an uneasy glance at her mother and quietly reached out and took her hand. It was a gesture that struck Ethan.
"All that land out there, to the west. That's yours," he said.
Eliana nudged her mother out of the truck."Allez, Maman. Sors."
Ethan got out and whistled to Traveler; the dog sailed from the back of the truck and raced with Eliana down the gently sloping hillside.
"You've got over one thousand acres of this," said Ethan.
Annette was quiet for a long time as she gazed at the hills. Ethan had never known a woman who was comfortable with stillness. Katie Anne always seemed to be filling up the airspace with chatter or music or the television.
After a while Annette turned and followed him to the house. He unlocked the front door and she stepped inside. As her eyes passed over the rotted window frames and the uneven wood floor thick with years of dust, her thoughts turned to another house in a little village near Aix-en-Provence. It was only a three-acre plot but she had fallen in love with its small orchard of centuries-old olive trees. She and David had intended to buy it; she had convinced him it would be a balm to their tortured souls. It had been a time in their lives when they were in desperate need of a refuge, a place with no memories, where they wouldn't be haunted by murmurs and cries. But other things had happened, and the property was sold to someone else. In her mind she had seen her mother's land as a means to rebuild that dream; she had planned to sell this property and find something like that again, in Provence, where she and Eliana could go for the summers. The house would have thick stone walls, cool even in the summer heat, and high ceilings buttressed with dark, smoky beams. The smooth red terra-cotta floors would be worn by centuries of foot traffic. The grounds behind the house would be full of creeping thyme and olive and lemon trees, and they would eat there with friends on summer evenings on a patio flagged by bright red geraniums, at a long table sitting elbow to elbow, their bare brown arms still radiating the heat of sharp Provençal light, their faces wrinkled from laughter and too much sun.
The screen door banged in the wind and Annette looked around to find Ethan's eyes on her.
"It's still livable," he said. "And there's plenty of room for a big dog." He flashed her a broad smile. "If you should change your mind."
Annette softened a little toward him. His thoughtfulness was sincere, and despite their differences, she saw that he was earnest in his desire to please. She had a sudden urge to explain her dream to him, to convince him of its beauty and her longing for those things. But she remembered his prejudices.
Instead, she turned to him and said, "Where's your land, Mr. Brown? Show me."
Ethan took her outside and pointed to the south.
"See that tallest hill over there? That's Jacob's Mound. That's the boundary. This time next year I hope to have a little herd of my own grazin' out there." He turned back to the north. "Up there, all that land belongs to the Mackeys. Tom Mackey."
"They're big landowners, aren't they?"
"That they are."
"Aren't you engaged to his daughter?"
"Now, how'd you hear that?"
Ethan laughed pleasantly. "Doesn't take long for word to get around."
"Your life isn't your own in a place like this."
"I don't have anything to hide."
She smiled at him. "I imagine you don't."
They stood in the blustery wind, succumbing to the silence between them. Tall billowing thunderheads darkened the northern edge of the horizon, and the temperature was growing steadily colder.
"Rain's movin' this way. Where's your little girl?" asked Ethan.
Annette pointed to a gully below, where Eliana and Traveler were ambling along the dry creek bed. Ethan whistled and Traveler came at a run with Eliana racing behind.
"Dad's warming to your idea," Annette said. "About setting up a trust for Eliana with the money from the sale."
"I know you wanted unconditional consent, but he wouldn't budge on that point."
"I don't think he really cares if I live on the land. He just wants to have some control."
"Yeah. That's Charlie. We know him well."
"You'll make sure the trust is flexible."
"It will be very flexible. You'll be the executor."
"It's a decent compromise. And you can buy me up and then you and the Mackeys will be one big happy family."
"So, no house in the south of France."
"No, but one of us will have his dream come true." She smiled without a trace of bitterness. "I'm happy for you."
"You'll get a fair price."
"I intend to, Mr. Brown. For my daughter's sake."
She looked away and fixed her attention on the approaching rain clouds.
* * *
That night Annette dreamed of the house in the Flint Hills. Her mother was there, mingling with the guests from her funeral, and she looked so lovely and everyone was so happy to see her. She was welcoming them to this old house, built by her grandfather, inhabited by three generations of Reillys. All of them were to take a look around, stay as long as they liked. There were plenty of bedrooms, they could spend the night if they wished. So enraptured was she to see her mother again, risen from the grave, Annette gave no more thought to her dream of a house in Provence.
It was Ethan who made the arrangements for Eliana to ride later that week. Jer had only one horse that was trained for dressage, a small Arabian named Big Mike—named for his heart, not his size. Jer knew next to nothing about what the horse could do, and he was a little skeptical until he saw the child in the saddle and saw how well the horse responded to her. Jer was already a little awestruck around Annette, which may have had something to do with the fact that he occasionally listened to classical music and had once seen her picture on the cover of a CD when he was looking for a Mozart violin concerto at a music store up in Kansas City. Only there, in a suburban mall, among anonymous shoppers, did he allow himself these guilty pleasures. He had never made it known to his friends in Cottonwood Falls that he had such taste in music, not wishing to expose himself to Ethan's—or anyone else's—ridicule.
"I got that horse for next to nothin'," said Jer as he leaned against the corral next to Annette.
"I was afraid he might be too big for her. But she doesn't seem to think so."
"I ain't never seen that horse so damn mellow, excuse my French." He said it without thinking, and was genuinely embarrassed. Annette smiled and let it pass.
"He does seem gentle," she said.
"He was trained to do dressage, but he got passed along to me and I've just kept him around for the heck of it. To be quite honest with you, I've never seen him do this. He's eatin' it up. He loves it."
"I suppose it seems silly to you, doesn't it? Out here horses have a practical function."
"Well, yes, they do. But to get these animals to obey you, whatever you ask 'em to do, sure ain't silly."
"I doubt if Mr. Brown would agree with you on that."
"Ethan and I don't always see eye to eye."
"I find that reassuring," she said with a smile.
* * *
True to nature, Charlie nitpicked every detail of the trust agreement. He wanted to act as trustee, which meant only he could approve disbursements from the funds; but eventually Ethan managed to talk some sense into the old man, and it was agreed that Ethan would act as co-trustee with Annette. A resolution that said a lot about the attorney's gift for gentle persuasion, as well as his trustworthiness, and gave Annette cause to like him, in spite of herself. She may have found him stubborn, bigoted, and lacking in imagination, but she never questioned his integrity. Finally, his initial offer for the property was so generous that Annette didn't have the heart to negotiate, and the deal was settled, signed and notarized.
The day before she and Eliana were to leave, Nell Harshaw called and invited Charlie to dinner, "to get him out of your hair," she confided to Annette over the phone. "Give you a little time to yourself before you go."
As soon as Charlie's car pulled out of the driveway that evening, Eliana, who had been watching through the curtains, raced through the house to the back room where her mother was packing.
"Maman, il est parti!"
Annette threw back her head and smiled with relief.
"Put on some music, precious."
* * *
They ate dinner that evening in the sewing room. They spread a tablecloth on the floor and made a picnic with fried eggs and bacon and biscuits that Annette had whipped up from some Bisquick in the cupboard. They drank 7Up out of crystal glasses Annette had sent her parents for their fortieth wedding anniversary and pretended it was champagne. They set a place and filled a third glass for Emma, and Annette sneaked sips from it, pretending it was her mother's spirit who was dining with them. They put on all her mother's old LPs, all the great divas, recordings of Joan Sutherland and Maria Callas, and they played games. In short, they had their own little wake.
After dinner they worked on the puppet figures Eliana was making from cutouts in a coloring book, and so intent were they on their play and their singing (Annette was listening to Violetta's heart-wrenching plea inLa Traviatafor the third time, much to Eliana's annoyance), they didn't hear Charlie come back until their door opened and they looked up to see him glaring at them from the doorway.
"I'm going to bed now. Keep it down, will you?" he said. His voice was tight.
"I'm sorry, Dad. I didn't know you were home." Annette quickly rose and turned off the old record player. "How was your dinner?"
"I didn't eat much. Nell isn't the best cook in the world."
"I can fry you some bacon and eggs."
"I'm not hungry." He hesitated in the doorway. There was such unhappiness in his eyes and it broke her heart.
"Are you okay?" she asked.
"Of course I'm not okay."
"Did you take your pills?"
He started to shut the door.
"I'd like to take some of these recordings with me. Would you mind?"
"Don't ask me to make those kind of decisions now. That's not being fair."
"But you never listen to this music."
Charlie's bloodshot eyes burned with tired rage. "They're still her things and she left all her worldly possessions to me. After I'm dead you can do as you damn well please with them."
He turned and slammed the door.
She and Eliana sat still for a moment, hearing nothing but the pinched timbre of his voice echoing in the air. Then, their gaiety wilted, they wordlessly picked up their clutter and got ready for bed.
Annette sat on the edge of the daybed and leaned down to kiss her daughter good night.
"Maman,I'm going to miss Mike."
The horse. Of course. Annette smoothed back her child's soft hair.
"What about the ponies you ride at home?"
"Oh, they're nothing like Big Mike. I've never ridden a pony like him before. He does everything I ask him to do and if I make a mistake he doesn't get upset with me. He's—" She broke off with a huge yawn.
"Honey, you can tell me all about Big Mike in the morning. It's time to go to sleep now."
Annette kissed her again and stood.
Eliana said, "I don't think it would be so bad to live here. As long as we didn't live with Grandpa. Then we could have a dog, or two dogs, and I could ride Big Mike every day. Maybe Jer would let—"
"Honey, we're not going to live here. It's out of the question."
"I think it'd be fun."
"Wouldn't you miss your friends?"
After a pause Eliana answered, "My real friends are you and the horses."
A storm came through Cottonwood Falls that night, unleashing its fury upon the plains. A Kansas storm is quite a different thing from the gentle rains that wash down the gray stone facades of Paris each winter. Carried by fierce winds, the rain slashes at the flesh like cold knives; it whips under umbrellas (which are of no goodly use; most Chase Countians never carry them) and climbs inside windbreakers and jackets, circulating with such ingenious mobility that one might think the powers of gravity momentarily suspended. Just after nightfall the temperature dropped below freezing, and on came a sudden rush of hail, pummeling the earth with dull thuds, clattering against glass and metal with a ferocity that sent all living creatures flinching and cowering into shelter. After the hail the wind returned, and lightning and thunder rocked the hills late into the night.
Annette crawled into bed with Eliana, but the child slept through it all. As Annette lay there listening to the storm, her eyes remained fixed on the piano, and sometime very late, well after midnight, she heard once again that achingly beautiful music she had heard her first night there. This time the strange harmonies elicited no surprise and little curiosity, for deep in her unconscious, where intimations of immortality reside, that place from which she drew those nameless forces that lent genius to her work, she knew what she was hearing. Nearing the mysterious oblivion of sleep, her powers of critical thought at a low ebb, angels ushered the music into her soul. As she slept, it brought her the message it had been sent to bear.
Annette awoke at dawn and lay there quietly with an arm around her sleeping daughter. She was going home today and the idea filled her with relief. In less than twenty-four hours she would be stepping off the plane in Paris, and already she longed for the gentle, dreary gloom of its gray skies. The winters she had often bemoaned, with relentless clouds hanging low, penetrated only by a wan chilled light from dawn to dusk, now appealed to her with all the charm of a flawed but great lover.
She found her father in the dimly lit kitchen preparing his breakfast. He had slept poorly because of the storm and was ill humored and not to be tampered with. Annette couldn't bear any more of his sour moods, thought she'd rather do without breakfast than be in the same room with him, so she patted him on the shoulder and went off to bathe and dress. Then she awoke Eliana and herded her through her morning routine. Charlie, still in his bathrobe, sat in his lounge chair reading the newspaper until Annette tactfully reminded him that they needed to leave shortly. As Charlie folded up his papers and neatly rearranged them in a pile next to his chair, Annette noticed how slight his shoulders seemed. He had always been sensitive about his shoulders. She touched him gently on the arm.
"Dad?" she asked softly.
He looked up. His eyes were rimmed in red.
"I won't be long," he said. He patted her hand, then shuffled off to his room.
Despite all her efforts, they were late getting out of the house. Eliana ran off to say good-bye to Bubba, the neighbor's dog, and came back with her shoes caked in mud. The shoes had to be removed and washed, and Annette had to bring the suitcase back inside and dig through it for clean tights. Meanwhile, Charlie insisted on taking an important long-distance call from a member of the board of the Kansas Conference of Methodist Churches. All of which made Annette so anxious she went outside and lit a cigarette. Now, at the moment of her departure, she could see the place with a more benevolent eye. As she leaned against Charlie's old Buick, shivering in the cold and smoking, she looked around, thinking it really was a very picturesque town. Much prettier than the one she had grown up in. There was a slight air of distinction about the place, owing in part to the fact that it had been the county seat back when that meant something to the growing population of immigrants. An imposing slate-roofed Victorian courthouse made from huge limestone blocks stood at the top of Main Street, which consisted of two blocks of the functional and the whimsical, notably a hardware store, a coffee shop, a single-pump corner gas station, a small independent grocery store (Cottonwood Falls boasted no fast-food restaurants or chain franchises), an ice cream parlor with a gazebo in its courtyard (Nell said they had just installed an espresso machine that summer), an art gallery owned by a local landscape artist (her daughter owned the ice cream parlor) and a 1930s movie house that opened only during the summer and school holidays. The street dead-ended at a park looking out over the Cottonwood River and the falls from which the town took its name. Behind the courthouse spread the residential properties. Though none of the houses was grandiose, many were authentic turn-of-the-century Victorian and maintained proudly by their families. The people who lived in Cottonwood Falls manifested a particular fondness for the town; unlike Strong City just opposite them on the river, which had stolen the county seat when it won the battle for the railway line, the town was not loaded with conveniences. What it did have was charm, although she was pretty sure the Chase Countians never thought of it in that light.
Finally, Charlie emerged from the house, and as Annette went off to look for Eliana once again, Charlie rearranged the suitcases in the trunk to his liking and started up the car.
They were all the way past Strong City when Annette remembered the book.
"Dad, stop. I've got to go back."
"Back? What for?"
"I forgot a book."
"It's a book the attorney lent me. I have to return it."
"Forget it. He won't care."
"I'll take it back to him."
"I don't know where I left it."
"We're already late. You're cutting it short."
"Just go back, please."
Charlie made a U-turn in a driveway and they drove back to the house.
Annette scoured the house for the book. She turned over pillows on the sofa, got down on her hands and knees to check under beds, looked on top of the refrigerator, pulled furniture out from the wall to check behind it, and as she rushed frantically about she began to grow alarmed.This is absurd,she thought.Compulsive and absurd. You'll miss the flight.She knew she should stop searching and get back on the road, but she didn't. She could send him a book of Yeats' poetry from Paris. A rare edition, perhaps. She could write him a profusely apologetic note. She could call him long distance and explain. But none of these alternatives, once contemplated, altered her momentum. The longer she searched, the more obsessive she became. She returned to the same places she had looked before; she dug through Charlie's piles of newspapers and magazines, which hadn't been touched for weeks; she looked in places where she knew the book would not be found.
Charlie honked his horn a few times, then he sent Eliana in to get her mother.
She found Annette sitting quietly in the sewing room.
"Maman!What are you doing?"
Annette looked up and at the sight of her daughter a great peace washed over her. She smiled.
"Go. Go play outside in the mud."
A smile crept over Eliana's face.
"Do you mean it?"
"Yes. Tomorrow we'll buy you some mud boots and jeans."
Annette heard her shouting the glorious news to Charlie before she sprang off toward the backyard. Then she heard the car door slam, the screen door slam and the slow purposeful steps as her father approached. She looked up at the old man in the doorway. He wore a peculiar expression of wariness mixed with hope; Annette had never seen him look quite like that.
"I'll change my ticket. We'll stay through the holidays."
"So you'll be here for Christmas."
"If that's okay with you."
Charlie looked at her and nodded. "You should stay until spring. You don't want to miss the spring. Prettiest time of the year."
"On one condition: you'll quit complaining about my cooking."
He gave her a rare smile. "I'll bring in your bags."
"I'll come help."
"No, that's okay. I'll do it."
Annette found Ethan Brown's book in her suitcase, where she had packed it by mistake.
That afternoon Annette enrolled Eliana in school and the following morning she walked her daughter four short blocks to the two-story brown brick building where the child would attend class that winter.
In Paris Annette and Eliana's morning walk to school had always been one of their favorite moments of the day. The smell of freshly baked bread, the swishing sound of straw brooms on the wet pavement, the sight of venison and rabbit and quail hanging in the window of the butcher's at the end of the street as Christmas approached—all these things delighted their senses. Eliana never failed to notice the Hindu woman working in the kitchen next to the pizzeria, steam billowing out from the ground-level window onto the sidewalk, her dark arms moving ghostlike in the white vaporous clouds through which Eliana would sometimes catch a glimpse of her dark face and the vermillion tikka dotted on her forehead, just between her eyes. Eliana was a little afraid of the woman, who never looked up and never smiled, who seemed to live in a hot, slaving world where there was never any rest and never any joy. Farther down the street was the small pastry shop that made Annette's favorite prune turnovers. A bell on the door would tinkle as they entered, and from the back would emerge an immaculately dressed lady who'd greet them with a formal"Bonjour, mesdames."They rarely ran into other customers in the shop, nevertheless the refined, delicate pastries carefully arranged under glass were always gone by the end of the day. Appearance, orprésentation,was a virtue in France. In the hierarchy of virtues it came much closer to God than hygiene. Eliana preferred apain au chocolat,which they generally bought at the family-run bakery on the next block. There was always a line, morning and afternoon, and the mother and daughters flew from task to task with the precision and efficiency of a finely crafted engine, slicing baguettes, wrapping loaves, whipping together pastry boxes and securing them with bright ribbon in a flurry of skilled motion that seemed bred into their hands. The bakers, the fishmongers, the waiters were all proud professionals, and they looked upon their clients with an eye of equality if not condescension. The pride they took in the aesthetics of their work made buying a loaf of bread a pleasure, and Annette had grown accustomed to these things.
No such pleasure this morning, she thought sourly as she walked along the sidewalk with a tight grip on her daughter's gloved hand, all buttoned up and battened down against the raw wind. Annette noticed more than one car or truck pulling out of garages to drive a few short blocks to school, with sleepy children staring at her and Eliana through mud-splattered windows. She left her daughter in front of the school and watched as the little girl marched bravely down the walk to the entrance, wearing her new pink backpack, ponytail swinging gaily from side to side, betraying none of her nervousness.
Annette was waiting in the same place that afternoon when the dismissal bell rang. She spotted Eliana in the onslaught of children and waved. As the girl approached, Annette saw she was on the verge of tears.
"Precious! What's wrong?" asked Annette as she crouched low and looked into her face.
Eliana shook her head and whispered,"Pas maintenant."
Annette took the child's hand and they walked stoically through the crowd of children streaming toward the waiting cars and trucks in the street. Annette squeezed the little hand, and Eliana responded with a squeeze of her own, that simple way they had of communicating, in silence, in secret, their understanding of each other.
"How about some ice cream on this smoldering hot day?" asked Annette. "I've been dying to try out that ice cream parlor. Or we can go home and have hot chocolate."
Eliana looked up at her mother, a smile eclipsing the gloom in her eyes. "Can I have a chocolate milk shake?"
"So you like the idea of the ice cream parlor?"
"Good, because I've been dying to have a chocolate milk shake too."
"Thanks,Maman," Eliana said, and she pressed her mother's gloved hand to her own tearstained cheek.
They found the ice cream parlor closed, with a sign on the door saying, "Gone to Lunch: Back at 1:00," but since it was already three o'clock, they decided to walk up the street to Hannah's Cafe.
They opened the door to a noisy, smoke-filled diner that smelled of old cooking oil and fried onions. As they stepped inside, the noise momentarily subsided and heads turned toward them. The customers were all men, many of them regulars who gathered this time of day to play cards and talk, and their stony stares made Annette feel like an unwelcome intruder. But there was nowhere else in town to go, and the café was warm, so she firmly gripped Eliana by the hand, marched her past the men and settled them into an empty booth at the back of the café.
A waitress with arms that sagged like taffy barreled out of the service door, loaded with orders, and as she passed their table she paused, thrust her right hip at them where a menu projected from her pocket and said with a wink and a nod, "Take a menu, girls. Be with you in a sec."
"Now," said Annette to her daughter as she laid the menu aside. "What happened?" She reached across the table and stroked her daughter's cheek. The little girl's eyes were still red from crying.
At that moment a second waitress with long bleached hair burst into the room tying an apron around the waist of her snug, short uniform.
"Sorry I'm late, Bea."
"Yeah, sure," answered the taffy-armed waitress. "Get those ladies in the corner, will ya? I'm swamped."
"Go on," Annette said in French. "Tell me what happened."
"They called me a frog."
"They said it was because we ate frogs' legs. And at recess all the girls started hopping around to make fun of me. No one was nice to me. One girl came up to me at first, but then the others made fun of her too and called her a frog lover, so she wouldn't play with me, either."
Annette's eyes clouded, and she reached for Eliana's hand across the table. "They're ignorant, sweetheart. They know nothing about the world beyond these hills." Annette tried to explain how ignorance bred suspicion, and suspicion bred fear and hate. They spoke softly, but it was clear that the customers had gone quiet and were straining to overhear. The two men in the booth opposite stared at them with the unguarded curiosity of spectators watching animals in the zoo.
The blond waitress had stopped to chat with some young men at the counter.
"Patti," Bea scolded as she charged across the café carrying stacks of dirty dishes. "The ladies. Get those ladies!" She shook her head as she disappeared behind the swinging doors.
Patti shuffled to their table, counting on her fingers. "Six months. Six months 'til my birthday." She seemed to be talking to her order book as she pulled it out of her apron pocket. "I was supposed to get married on June first. But that's off."
Bea reappeared and Patti turned, calling across the floor to her. "I don't know what to do with the band. I've already paid for them. I guess I could have a party. My mother's birthday is May thirty-first."
Bea walked up to her and whispered emphatically in her ear, "Patti, take the goddamn order."
"What can I get for you?" asked Patti finally.
"Two chocolate milk shakes, please," said Annette.
"Sorry, don't make 'em."
Annette thought for a moment, then opened the menu and ran her finger down the deserts. "You have ice cream."
"Vanilla, chocolate and strawberry."
"Do you have chocolate syrup?"
"But you have milk."
"Then do you think you could put some milk and chocolate ice cream in a glass and mix it up? Would that be too much trouble?"
"We don't have a mixer."
Annette gave her a tight thin smile. A smile that she would have liked to wrap around the woman's neck.Don't be like your father, now. You're acting exactly like him.
Eliana, keen to her mother's sensibilities, was watching with pleading eyes. "It's okay,Maman.I'll just have a Coke."
The waitress heaved an impatient sigh. "You want more time to make up your mind?"
"No," said Annette, closing the menu and handing it back to her. "No, I don't want more time. I want a chocolate milk shake for my daughter."
"Well, lady, I can't make it for you."
Annette glared at the waitress, this Patti with the black roots, the fake nails, the safety pin that fastened her dress where the second button should have been. Patti from the same hostile world as the cold-staring old geezers and the children making fun of her child. She stood, grabbed Eliana's hand and spat contemptuously,"Vous êtes tous des pauvres cons!"
Annette tossed her black sable-collared coat over her arm and stormed out with her child in tow.
The ice cream parlor was now open, but Eliana was so humiliated she refused to go in. They walked home, got Charlie's car and drove into Strong City to the supermarket, where they bought two half gallons of ice cream, some chocolate syrup and milk, and Annette rode the grocery cart down the sloped parking lot with Eliana in the basket. Annette laughed so hard she nearly peed in her pants and Eliana completely forgave her mother for the scene in Hannah's Cafe.
Others, however, were not so forgiving. Patti Boswell was Katie Anne Mackey's best friend, and by the end of the day Ethan Brown had been told the entire episode, slightly exaggerated. Ethan, however, who thought Patti a dolt, silently laughed while pretending righteous indignation to his fiancée. He made a mental note to ask Annette Zeldin what she had said to them in French.
Katie Anne wanted to be married in white leather pants, a white fringed shirt and a white cowboy hat, but her mother would not hear of it. Consequently, Katie Anne talked of nothing else. Ethan was quite used to tuning her out on such occasions, and when they walked into the South Forty Friday evening and looked up to see Patti waving to them from the bar, Ethan knew what was in store for him. He stomped the snow off his boots and looked around for Jer.
"Said he had a date," volunteered Whitey, who was leaning against the bar next to Patti.
"You're kiddin' me," replied Ethan.
Whitey was Katie Anne's regular dance partner. Ethan, who disliked few people, disliked Whitey. The fact that his slight five-foot-seven frame moved with sprightly agility around the dance floor and that he was particularly fond of white dress shirts with his jeans made Ethan suspect a touch of fey in his character. He had told this to Katie Anne and she had laughed at him, accusing him of jealousy.
They got their beers and joined their friends, already seated at a booth in the corner. The guys argued K.U.'s chances of going to the Orange Bowl that year; the girls talked of Katie Anne's wedding. Ethan, being a K.U. alum and Katie Anne's fiancé, was partner to both conversations, and he slid easily in and out of each with the same agility Whitey displayed on the dance floor. Ethan was a fine conversationalist. The same man who impressed his clients with his breadth of legal knowledge and the state politicians with his persuasive and articulate arguments against federal management of the Flint Hills also was at ease in the superficial and limited arena of conversation that flowed around this same booth every Friday night at the South Forty, where trucks outnumbered cars six to one in the parking lot and country-and-western music was only a little less sacred than the word of God.
But something unusual happened this evening: Ethan became acutely aware of the tedium of the conversation. Something hovered in the air, a cloud of discontent that had been growing since the evening he had asked Katie Anne to marry him. The thought of committing once again to married life had a strange effect on him. He found himself growing irritated with Katie Anne over little things, the things he normally tolerated with humor. He had always been a master at hiding his more unseemly emotions behind his twinkling brown eyes, but tonight those eyes wandered around the room with a bored, unsettled gaze. When Katie Anne asked him what was wrong, he answered that he was looking for Jer.
"Jer's got a date," she reminded him.
"I wonder with whom."
"Can't you say 'Who with?' like other people?" she teased, and dived back into the sea of chatter.
A man more in tune with his feelings might have suspected that his discontent had as much to do with the specter of Mrs. Zeldin as with anything else. Like all men of his culture and upbringing, even the ones of exceptional intelligence like Ethan, he viewed women like Mrs. Zeldin with a faint air of contempt. Women's liberation may have altered their social condition but it had very little effect on the way most men in these parts viewed women. Those like Mrs. Zeldin—sophisticated, talented and successful—did not tread the earth with a light step.
Consequently, when Ethan looked up and saw Jer approaching their booth with Annette Zeldin at his side, the earth trembled.
"Oh, shit," hissed Patti. "He better not bring her over here. He wouldn't dare do that."
"Sure he would," countered Whitey, who was eager to meet the acclaimed terror.
"I won't sit at the same table with that bitch," snarled Patti. "If he brings her over here..."
They approached slowly, stopping to chat with Jer's pals, who sidled up to him, eager for an introduction to the beautiful stranger. Ethan was struck by Annette's ease and graciousness as Jer introduced her to one man after another. She wore a loose, silky white blouse unbuttoned provocatively low and tucked into a black slim skirt that, although not as short as the swinging dance skirts worn by Katie Anne and Patti, molded her hips and thighs and accentuated the sensuality of her slow, unhurried movements.
Jer seemed to be under a spell. He guided Annette through the crowd to their table with a tender protectiveness he normally reserved for his animals. Ethan caught his eye and threw him a "What the hell?" look, which Jer pretended to ignore. He eagerly introduced her to everyone at the table. Annette smiled warmly at Patti, and if she recognized her from the restaurant she gave no sign of it. Patti, however, was not so gracious. When Ethan asked them to move down to make more room in the booth, Patti, suddenly engrossed in low conversation with Katie Anne, pretended not to hear. Jer settled the impasse by seating Annette on the bench next to Ethan and drawing up a chair for himself at the end of the table. There were furtive glances and whispers, then, with an abruptness both rude and obvious, Patti hauled her partner out to the dance floor, and Katie Anne tugged at Ethan. Ethan, however, staunchly refused to budge.
"You know I never dance," he replied audibly to Katie Anne's strident urging.
"Well, you can do it this once."
"Dancing with Patti."
"Then stay here with me."
"I will not," she whispered emphatically in his ear. She rose and stormed off. Jer, who had been looking around for their waitress while the exodus had taken place, turned back and noticed the nearly empty table.
"Where'd everybody go?"
Ethan gestured to the dance floor.
"Oh," Jer mumbled. "What'll you have to drink? I'll go to the bar to get it," he said.
"Whatever you're having," replied Annette. She smiled warmly at him, which only aggravated his nervousness.
"Be right back," he said.
Annette and Ethan sat stiffly in each other's presence for a moment. Neither of them wished to remark on the unpleasant incident that had just transpired. Ethan felt some kind of apology was in order but he normally dealt with unpleasantness by ignoring it. As such, he found himself at a rare loss for words. Annette finally broke the silence.
"Jer's offered to give Eliana riding lessons."
"Jer's a good man."
"Yes, he is."
"I was a little surprised to hear you'd decided to stay."
"Just until spring."
"I bet that made Charlie happy."
"I think it did."
"It must have been a tough decision."
"It wasn't, not really."
"If things get a little slow for you, you know where to find the local library."
"I haven't forgotten your book," she said apologetically. "I need to return it."
"There's no rush. But you might want to come in and apply for a card."
Annette wasn't sure if he was joking, and her confusion drew a laugh from Ethan.
"What's so funny?" asked Jer as he sat down and placed a beer in front of Annette. Annette, who didn't like beer, smiled and thanked him.
"I've got her thinking my office is the town library."
Jer grinned. "Hell, Ethan's got more books than Strong City. Only he don't lend 'em out." Jer shook his head emphatically. "Gettin' a book out of Ethan's harder 'n pullin' a tick out of a mad dog." Annette stole a questioning glance at Ethan, who was examining the sticky rings on the table. "Ethan got his Ph.D. from Yale. Had one of those big scholarships. What d'ya call it?"
"Fulbright," mumbled Ethan.
"He got an offer to teach at Berkeley."
"Teach what?" asked Annette.
"Nineteenth and early twentieth century English and Irish lit. The poets mainly," offered Ethan, finally warming, but only reluctantly, to the conversation.
Ethan nodded and returned her smile. "And Yeats." It was the first time their eyes had met since that moment on the hillside several weeks before.
They were both silent. Ethan played absentmindedly with his beer glass. Annette stared at the back of someone's head at the table in front of them. Jer, who misinterpreted their silence as animosity, searched for something to say and came up blank.
"And did you?" asked Annette.
"Did I what?"
"Go to Berkeley."
Ethan shook his head. "I was homesick."
"So he threw it all in and came back here and went to law school at K.U. Finished in... how many years was it?"
"You were homesick?" asked Annette.
"What was it, two years instead of three?" pursued Jer.
"I was homesick."
"Wasn't it two years?"
"Two and a half."
Ethan was so acutely uncomfortable he seized upon the first thought that rattled through his brain.
"Would you like to dance, Mrs. Zeldin?"
Annette opened her mouth to refuse, but hesitated and then said very softly. "I would, thanks."
Jer watched them move onto the dance floor with a relieved smile. He was glad to see them warming toward each other. He had been a little afraid to tell Ethan about his date, knowing how he felt about her.
Once on his feet, Ethan's senses returned to him. He took Annette by the hand and she followed him to the DJ's booth, where Ethan exchanged a few brief words with his friend. As they moved onto the floor the music suddenly segued into a slow dance.
"There. That'll make it a little less painful for you," said Ethan as he took her in his arms. Annette laid her hand on his shoulder. Underneath the wool flannel shirt was hard muscle. It had been many years since she had felt such strength in a man. His heat was tremendous. She felt it float over her as he wrapped his arm around her waist.
"You don't dance and you don't lend books," she said, rather more soberly than she had intended. She looked up into his face.
He replied, not as lightly as he would have wished, "That's right, ma'am," and tightened his arm around her.
* * *
Ethan was saved from the consequences of his rash behavior by a series of fortunate incidents. At just the moment he and Annette rose from the table to dance, Katie Anne and Patti left the dance floor for the ladies' room, and when they came out Whitey caught them in the hallway and proposed they all go over to the Denim and Diamonds, where Whitey's favorite band was playing. By the time they had reached an agreement, Ethan was back and sitting alone at the table and Jer was dancing with Annette. Ethan left with Katie Anne and the crowd. Later that night his thoughts kept winding back to the image of Annette and Jer together, and it struck him that he was jealous.
Despite his exposure to more cosmopolitan tastes at Yale, Ethan had never been able to overcome his prejudice against classical music. Once returned to his native soil, he felt no more compunction toward pretense, and he grew stubbornly reactionary in his tastes. It was undoubtedly a long-overdue response to all those moments of forced appreciation of something he was just not akin to.
Ethan's change of heart came in an odd and unexpected way. His attic office looked down onto the house of the Winegarner family, whose boy had been severely burned by fireworks in a Fourth of July accident. After two years of painful plastic surgery and rehabilitation, the boy could just begin to use his hands and arms. He was still confined to a wheelchair. On sunny days his mother, who had taken over his education as best she could, wheeled him into the backyard, where she read to him and helped him with lessons made out for him by a teacher who came in from Council Grove once a week.
One Friday in late November Ethan noticed Mrs. Zeldin entering the house with her violin. She returned the following Friday at the same time and left, as before, an hour later. The next morning Ethan ran into Mrs. Winegarner in the hardware store. Mrs. Winegarner, although younger than Ethan, had always reminded him somewhat of his own mother. This was perhaps because he often watched her hang her wash on a clothesline strung across the backyard as his mother still did, or perhaps because of her stoic silence and refusal to complain of life's hardships. He hesitated to ask about the visit from "that Frenchwoman," as the town had taken to calling Annette. To his surprise, Mrs. Winegarner brought up the subject herself.
"She's giving Matthew violin lessons," she said quietly. Her mouth looked as though it wanted to smile. Ethan had rarely seen her smile. "I'd heard she was giving lessons. I didn't think she'd be any good with kids. I'd seen her around town and she always seemed so unfriendly."
She looked through the trays of wing nuts as she spoke, trying them on a bolt she had taken out of her handbag.
"Here. Let me help you with that," said Ethan.
She watched in silence as Ethan fitted the proper size for her.
"And is it working out?" he asked.
She looked away, trying to hide the emotion on her face.
"You know what she did?" She looked back at Ethan; tears glistened in her eyes. "The first time she came, she just talked to him. She told him about a famous violinist who's in a wheelchair, I don't recall his name..."
"That's it, Perlman. And she told us about how he's so loved and admired by everyone. But that wasn't what—" She stopped and rubbed her nose with the back of her hand. "She brought her violin along. And she played for him." Mrs. Winegarner looked up into Ethan's eyes as though she were trying to articulate the most profound secrets of the universe. "It was..." She stopped.
"Go on," said Ethan gently.
"Oh, it sounds silly."
"I'd never heard anything so beautiful in all my life. I've never heard anyone play the violin like that before. And when I looked over at Matthew, he had this look in his eyes that I've never seen. I can't describe it... it was like he was... in heaven. Listening to the angels."
She took a deep breath and then went on.
"You know what he said after she left? He said, 'Mama, this music makes me want to live.' "
She was desperately trying to hold back her tears, and she looked around her to see if anyone was watching, then dug into her handbag for a tissue.
"She brought him a violin, one she'd rented for him. And she taught him the names of all the parts and how to care for it, and the names of the strings." She turned away from him to blow her nose. "Well, I shouldn't go on. I must be boring you."
Ethan laid his hand on her shoulder. "No, you're not."
"I was very wrong about her. She's awfully patient. And she seems to strike just that right note with kids. You know what I mean?"
She took a deep breath and smiled. "We bought Matthew a new CD player. He can't seem to get enough of his music."
Ethan walked her to her car and with uncharacteristic spontaneity she hugged him. She laughed and said she hoped Katie Anne wouldn't mind.
The following Friday Ethan had it in his mind that he would run some errands in the late morning, and he thought he just might time his departure to coincide with the end of Matthew Winegarner's violin lesson, but as Mrs. Zeldin was on the front porch saying good-bye to Mrs. Winegarner and he was hastily pulling on his coat, his phone rang. He ignored it and rushed down the stairs, but Bonnie caught him at the reception to tell him it was Mrs. Peters, who was in hysterics after learning that her husband, deceased as of Thursday evening, had donated his body to the medical center at K.U. Ethan's good sense got the better of him, and he returned to his office and took the call. From his window he watched Mrs. Zeldin walk down the street, her violin case in her hand.
December was a tumultuous month for Ethan. The foundation for his house was laid, and because the weather had continued to be mild, with only a few cold spells and one brief snow, he was able to start construction. Katie Anne set the date of their wedding for April 23, and the preliminary guest list totaled 430 guests. Ethan tried to stay out of it as much as possible, but whenever there was a disagreement between Katie Anne and her mother, he was dragged in to cast the deciding vote. At first he tried to give his honest opinion on things, but he soon learned the best strategy was to side with his fiancée. However, all this was no more than petty and worrisome; Ethan's real tribulation began one evening when Paula called from California just as he was leaving the office to say their son, Jeremy, had run away from home.
When he got home, he found Katie Anne on the telephone in a heated dispute with the wedding planner. Even after hanging up she was so self-absorbed that he couldn't bear to open up to her Jeremy. So he began grilling the steaks and had a few beers while she made more calls, and only when they sat down to dinner did she notice his mood and ask if something was wrong. When he told her what had happened, she paused, holding her fork in midair, and said sweetly, "Oh, honey, I'm so sorry. But you know he'll come back. It's just a phase," and went on to ask him if his sister would be able to come in from Abilene for the wedding shower.
That's when the nagging began to come back. The same uneasiness that had stayed with him for so long after the death of his father. He recognized it instantly, like an old injury that flares up with a sudden change in the weather, but this time he had nothing to hide behind. He remembered the way Katie Anne had treated his father's illness and death as a minor disturbance, and his instinct told him to expect little depth of understanding where his son was concerned. She was no longer a distraction for his pain but neither had she become a balm.
Ethan sat up late into the night watching basketball on cable. He called Paula twice to see if she had any news, but the second time she was so angry and full of hurtful accusations that he didn't call again. He got online and checked flights but didn't book anything. He hated his indecisiveness and came to the conclusion that he was not only an absent father but a downright bad one. That all he was really good for on earth was raising cattle and drawing up deeds.
The next day, Ethan had to drive into Wichita to take care of some business at the courthouse. He was lost in his thoughts, rehashing old arguments with his ex-wife, and he missed the turn onto Third Street and ended up on Central. The avenue took him past Saint Mary's Cathedral, where he and Paula had been married and Jeremy had been baptized and had taken his first communion. He hadn't driven past the Cathedral in years, and the fact that he'd fumbled his way down here on the tail of all the present turmoil struck him as more than coincidence. Whatever had brought him here, whether destiny, God or just plain lack of attention, he was struck by the fortuitousness of the incident. He pulled over to the curb and parked.
His thoughts took him back to a letter his father had written him not long before he'd been diagnosed with cancer. He had written, "Ethan, I hope you'll find a way to return to the Holy Mother Church. I'd like to think you would do this in my lifetime. But you're a stubborn kid and I can't think you'd ever do anything like this because your dad asked you to do it. Besides, I really wouldn't want that anyway. You need to find your own way back."
Ethan had never answered the letter, and his father never mentioned it again. Sometimes Ethan thought that if he had answered that letter, perhaps this guilt wouldn't be bothering him now.
Looking up at the grand stairs and majestic portico, he longed to believe that there was something beyond those doors that could help him with the weight of the wrongness of his life, and so he got out of his truck and followed the sidewalk to the entrance.
The old familiar ritual seized him as soon as he entered, and as he dipped his fingers into the marble font of cool water and touched his forehead, he felt a stillness invade him. He genuflected, slipped into a row and kneeled, folding his hands in prayer the way he had done thousands of times as a child. As a boy he had often wondered how to pray in those silences. He used to drive one thought after another from his head because it was too selfish or not what he thought God wanted, until his mind had become tired with chasing away all those bad thoughts and he had given up and fallen into the cant, which always made it so much easier for him. But now there was no cant, no priest telling him what to pray, no words for him to climb up to heaven on, and he sat in the bright, sun-gloried silence, and let the calm steal into his mind.
He wasn't expecting answers, just a little peace, and he found it in those few moments on his knees in submission to something he didn't understand despite all his schooling. After a while, he said a little prayer of thanks and rose to leave. As he did so, a woman who had been kneeling at the front stood also. When she turned and came toward him, he recognized Annette Zeldin. She saw him and smiled warmly.
"Mr. Brown," she said as she approached.
"Don't forget your hat," she said, smiling, and took it from the pew where he had left it.
"Thank you, ma'am."
Then she did an extraordinary thing. Instead of going on her way, she took his arm and gently leaned on him as they walked silently together down the long aisle toward the door.
Outside, at the top of the steps, they paused. She released his arm and Ethan turned to her and asked, "What's the daughter of a Methodist minister doing in a Catholic church?"
"I converted right after Eliana was born."
"Why'd you do that?"
"To annoy my father."
At first he thought she was serious, she had a dead-sober look on her face, then she broke into laughter. It was the first time he had seen her laugh.
She quickly changed the subject, asking him questions about his house and the wedding plans. She said she was in town to do some Christmas shopping and run some errands, but she was having trouble finding the repair shop where she had left her violin last week.
"I forgot to bring the address with me. I thought I could find it again."
"What's the name of the place?"
He led her to his truck and pulled out a chewed up telephone directory from underneath the seat. He flipped through the pages.
"Here it is. Three-twelve North Ellis."
"Hop in. I'll drive you. It's not far."
Annette couldn't make it into the truck with her tight skirt, and she laughed as Ethan hoisted her up.
"I'm just not made for this kind of life," she said as he closed the door for her.
"Sure you are," he answered as he got in. "The clothes are the problem. Not the lady."
* * *
A bell tinkled over the door as they entered the antiques shop and a voice from the back called out, "Be with you in a minute. I'm working with some glue right now. Can't leave it."
It wasn't really much of an antiques shop. There was very little furniture, only a buffet and a few worthless tables and chairs. Everything in the shop was covered with dust. Along the back wall were shelves filled with violin cases.
After a moment a very thin and grizzled old man with bent shoulders, whose skin and clothing were covered with the same gray dust that covered his shop, appeared from the back.
"Mrs. Zeldin!" he cried, and came toward her, wiping his hands on his apron. He spoke to her in a language that sounded to Ethan a little like German. He disappeared and returned with a violin case which Annette opened. She removed the violin, examined it, and after a brief exchange, she paid him in cash. He chatted away to her as he followed her to the door and held it open as they left.
"Was that German you were speaking?" Ethan asked as they walked away.
"Yiddish," she replied. "He's a holocaust survivor."
Ethan was ready with another question, but she sidestepped it and said to him brightly, "I'm starved. Have you had eaten?"
"I could do with some lunch. What sounds good?"
"Crêpes?" she teased. Then she added, "Just take me wherever you normally eat."
When they reached his truck and he opened the door for her, she hesitated and finally said, "I'm afraid I'll need a lift again." He offered his arm, and this time he made no attempt to avert his eyes from her legs when she stepped up.
They settled on a Sonic drive-in that took Annette's fancy as they drove by. She thought it would be fun to eat in the truck and have the waitress serve them on a window tray. "We had these drive-ins when I was a little girl. I thought they'd disappeared," she said, and he laughed and said she had indeed been gone for a long time. Ethan, who was always beset with moral indigestion when he ate anything but beef, was content. From the moment she'd leaned on his arm in the cathedral, the former awkwardness between them had been swept away. Their conversation flowed easily now, and Ethan found her an eager listener. She asked him questions about cattle ranching, and he talked at length about the soil of the Flint Hills and bluestem grass, its special properties that made it unique in the country, on par with the renowned pampas grass in Argentina that fed the beef she ate in France.
Ethan got a kick out of the way she handled the chili dog. She set it on her lap and used a knife and fork, cutting it up, bun and all, into bite-sized pieces.
"You've gone quiet on me," said Ethan.
"Hmm," she replied as she dangled a greasy onion ring from her fingers.
Ethan finished long ahead of her.
She was peering out the window at the menu. "I think I'll have a chocolate milk shake."
Ethan pressed the button and ordered it for her.
"So, tell me, how'd you learn Yiddish?"
"My husband was a Hungarian Jew, but he grew up in Antwerp."
"Is he still in Paris?"
"No. He conducts the Dallas Philharmonic now."
"Well, there you go. Another reason to stay around. Eliana's closer to her dad."
Annette's quick look told him he had stepped into forbidden waters. "Eliana doesn't ever see David." She paused, looking out the window, and said, "There's no need for her to."
She looked back quickly at him and her eyes held his in a gentle pleading look. "You mustn't judge me by that. It's not as it seems."
"I don't get to see my son much," he said after a moment.
Annette looked surprised. "You have a son?"
"Jeremy. He's fifteen. He lives in Los Angeles with his mom. She moved out there after we got divorced."
"That's a dreadful place to raise kids. Especially when they reach their teens."
The chocolate milk shake came. Ethan passed it to Annette and she took it and stirred it slowly with the straw. There was a long, hovering silence while Ethan stared at his steering wheel.
"He's run away from home," he said suddenly.
"Oh, Lord, no." She lifted her head and looked into his eyes, and Ethan blurted out all his misery. He was not accustomed to talking about himself, but Annette Zeldin's eyes were never more focused than when he spoke to her about his son.
"When Paula said she wanted to move out west, I didn't like the idea. But she wasn't happy here. And that wasn't good for Jeremy, so I agreed. It was hard for me to get away to see him and he didn't like coming here on his summer holiday. He complained that he was bored, so I'd try to get him outside with me, riding the herds, things most kids would like. But all he wanted to do was sit around on his computer playing games or talk on the phone to his friends in LA. We'd fight a lot, so he quit coming. Except at Christmas. Probably because I spoil him rotten with everything his heart desires. And it's too cold to work the land, so he can stay at home and play with his latest electronics. Now he feels like a stranger to me."
He went on to tell her about how the unsettled business with his father had come back to haunt him, and when Jeremy ran away all he could think of was his father.
She urged him to go to California.
"I wouldn't be able to do anything. I don't know who his friends are. I don't know where he hangs out... nothing. Anyway, Paula's already tried all that. She thinks he's with a friend but the friend's not talking."
"It doesn't make any difference. You're not a detective—you're his father. He needs to know you're out there looking for him. That's what's important."
"So you think I should go?"
"I think you should get yourself on the first flight available."
"Yeah, you're right."
"If anything bad should happen to him, you'll regret it the rest of your life."
Ethan studied her dark, luminous eyes, and saw in them all the intense emotion he had so assiduously trained himself to avoid. He noticed her milk shake. She hadn't touched it.
She looked down at the shake, as though she'd forgotten it was there.
"Yes," she said softly, and passed it to him to leave on the tray.
Even the silence between them as he drove her to her car was free of the discomfort of their previous moments together; it was a different kind of silence, a suggestive silence, a fallow silence, preparing their hearts for the germination of thoughts and feelings to come. It was a silence that linked them in ways they didn't yet know, or even guess, with a bond that was not palpable, yet felt as strong and assured as a touch, a kiss.
Every Friday after Matthew Winegarner's violin lesson, Annette Zeldin dropped in at Ethan Brown's office. Ostensibly she came to borrow his books, although she'd read many of them already. Initially, their friendship seemed to be rooted in this mutual love of literature, but the seed of trust that had been planted over a melting milk shake at the Sonic drive-in was buried much deeper than Tennyson and Yeats. Jeremy had returned home the day after their conversation and Ethan had immediately called Annette to share the good news. Ever since that day, he had begun to play with the idea of bringing Jeremy to live with him. He hadn't spoken about it to Paula or to Katie Anne; he wasn't eager to wage those wars quite yet. He did speak freely about it to Annette.
"I think it's a wonderful idea," she said, sitting in his office, flipping through the pages of Cather'sGreat Short Works."Any place is better than LA. And you need to get to know each other." She laid the book next to her violin and looked up at him. "Do you think Paula would go for it?"
"Frankly, I think she'd jump at the chance. Jeremy's the problem. He'd have to give up his basketball. His friends."
Annette got up and poured herself another cup of coffee.
"Have you talked it over with Katie Anne?"
"Not yet. But it won't be a problem."
Annette shot him a look over her coffee cup. "You're a dreamer, Mr. Brown."
* * *
That night he brought up the subject with Katie Anne. Katie Anne, who never for a moment imagined that Ethan's mind was on anything except the wedding, stared at him in frozen horror for a long minute, then rose without a word and went into the bedroom. Ethan knew she wanted him to follow her but he loathed these histrionics, and since he stubbornly refused to follow the scenario, he was repaid in kind. After a few minutes of silence he heard her on the phone with Whitey making plans to go out dancing. Finally, reluctantly, Ethan went to find her. She was thrashing around in her closet.
"Damn, where's my red skirt?"
"We need to talk about this."
She rummaged through a pile of clothes at the foot of their bed. "I don't know what there is to talk about. I mean, how can anybody be so... so dense as to think I'd want to spend my honeymoon with a very difficult fifteen-year-old boy."
"We've been living together for almost two years. It's not as if we haven't had time alone," he replied. "And he wouldn't move here until school's out. So I don't know where you got this idea that he'd be coming along on our honeymoon."
She had a sudden urge to slap him, for his stubborn, bullish refusal to understand. "I'll try to say this tactfully: I honestly think it would be a very bad way to start out our marriage."
"Are you saying I have to choose between my son and you?"
"Ethan, the two of you fight all the time! And you've never seemed to care about getting on better with him, not until this incident. I just think it's so damn unfair to me!"
Damn it, I did care, but I just couldn't talk about it to you.He couldn't say it before and couldn't now. So he stonewalled and stood there with his hands on his hips and his jaw clenched.
She turned her back to him, unzipped her jeans and slid them down her hips. Then she tugged her sweater over her head. Ethan was acutely aware of every curve of her back, the sharp angle of her shoulder blades, the ripple of her muscles as she wriggled out of the tightly knit clothing. Her thick dark hair caught in the sweater and he watched her struggle, momentarily trapped. Ethan approached and slipped a hand around her waist and up to her breast, and the struggling ceased. He could feel the tension that ran through her into him. She stood frozen, waiting, while he unfastened her bra, letting it hang from her shoulders. He touched his lips to the back of her neck and felt her shudder. With his eyes closed he cupped her breasts in his hands; he explored the delicate details of her body with his fingertips; he listened to her breath and the little whimpering sounds she made. And he smelled her, the feminine odor of her sweat mixed with a lingering trace of perfume. He moved closer and pressed her against the wall.
Moments later when she cried out his name he barely heard her; her voice seemed far away, remote, distanced from that dark, mysterious thing that gripped him so steadfastly.
He didn't bring up the subject of Jeremy's moving in again. He didn't really need to. Jeremy wrote him a stinging letter saying he didn't want to spend Christmas with them this year, and Ethan's hopes of growing closer to his son came tumbling down. The next Sunday, instead of rising and whipping up his traditional breakfast of scrambled eggs with sausage and homemade hash browns, Ethan quietly got dressed while Katie Anne was still sleeping and drove twenty-eight miles to Council Grove to attend mass. Annette Zeldin was there, as he had anticipated. When he walked in and kneeled behind her and her daughter and poked her in the back, she turned, and when she saw him she broke into a grin.
"Ah, my prayers are working."
"Don't tell me I'm in your prayers."
"Of course you are."
They didn't speak to each other throughout mass, except when Ethan whispered a comment about the soloist's resemblance to Kermit the Frog, which made Eliana giggle. Annette threw him a warning glance and he was quiet after that, but Annette was acutely aware of his presence.
What he had not anticipated was Katie Anne's reaction to this new habit of his.
"You're not goin' all religious on me, are you?" she said from the shower the next day. Ethan was shaving at the time and the question caught him at an awkward moment, while he was looking closely at his reflection in the mirror. It made him take the question a little more seriously than he might have had he been, say, making breakfast or cleaning his boots. He paused, inspecting his cheek for bristles.
"I mean, you're not gonna make me become Catholic or anything like that, are you?"
"'Course not," he mumbled. "But you're welcome to come with me."
There was a loud thud when she dropped the bar of soap, then a litany of curses as she chased it around the tub with her foot. "I take it you're not interested," he said.
* * *
Nonetheless, when she saw he intended to make a regular habit out of what she had thought was merely a seasonal twinge of conscience, she began to complain in earnest. Their Sunday mornings were now disrupted by Ethan who got up early; by Ethan who wasn't there to make Sunday-morning love; by Ethan who made his ritual breakfast closer to noon, by which time she wasn't hungry, having already eaten while he was out.
But for Ethan it was worth it. Dealing with Katie Anne's grumbling was a small price to pay for the inexpressible comfort he experienced every week sitting with Annette, Eliana between them, on a pew near the back of the little church in Council Grove. There was something undeniably familial about it, and at times he found himself wishing Jeremy were with them. Ethan, who generally noticed children only if they were behaving badly, found himself a victim, like many others before him, of Eliana's buoyant enthusiasm. She invariably drew him into a conversation about horses, and her face took on an ethereal quality, as though gravity were turned on end and some great joyous power were being exerted on her, charging her every look and gesture, lighting her eyes and tugging at her mouth in an all-out determined effort to lift her up.
At first he was concerned that his presence beside Annette might make tongues waggle, but Council Grove was just far enough removed from Cottonwood Falls to keep them out of range. Annette came this far to mass to avoid the inevitable gossip that would plague Charlie if it were known that his daughter and granddaughter were faithful Catholics. Ethan, on the other hand, divorced, engaged to remarry, estranged from the church, was drawn to this little enclave by its renegade spirit. The priest was an old Irishman who had long since pruned himself of his stern ways and had mellowed into a witty, self-deprecating and deeply loving old buzzard whose deafness seemed particularly acute in the confessional. In all, Ethan liked his Sunday mornings. He soon began to look forward to them.
* * *
The worst complication about December was Christmas. Christmas baffled Ethan. He was a deeply caring man, but he was also tight with his money. His gifts to others were thoughtful, practical, greatly appreciated, but always slightly off target. He never seemed to get it quite right. Lacking the spontaneity of his romantic poetic idols, he gave sides of beef to his parents and sheepskin-lined gloves to his girlfriends. He'd given flowers only once in his life, to Paula on the occasion of his son's birth, and things like perfume and chocolates and jewelry seemed tarnished by a vague notion of self-indulgence, something close enough to sin so that, hovering in his unconscious, it steered him clear of such luxuries with the same moral determination that kept him ever faithful to a slab of beef on his plate every night (fish and chicken be damned). Ethan's father had raised him on the proverb "He who feasts will never be rich," and Ethan took the maxim to heart. He worked hard for his money, and the first year he earned a six-figure income, he celebrated by taking Jer out for a beer. Jer ordered a Chivas but Ethan stuck to his Bud.
In the days of consumer debt and gluttonous overspending, Ethan was a dinosaur. He had $10,000 stashed away in a catastrophic medical fund, a nice chunk in a college fund for Jeremy, and he made generous yearly contributions to his retirement account. He had taken out a loan for the construction of his house, but he had been ready with a hefty down payment; the land had been purchased outright in cash. Except when traveling Ethan operated without the benefit of credit cards, and apart from his soon-to-be-finished house he didn't have a penny of outstanding debt.
Katie Anne, sitting on her own family fortune, took little interest in Ethan's money. She was used to his frugal ways by now and his miserliness annoyed her only around the time of her birthday and Christmas, when her expectations ran pretty high. This Christmas she was expecting an engagement ring. She had given up waiting for Ethan to take her into Kansas City to look for diamonds, and she had driven in with Patti and narrowed down her selection to a half-dozen gorgeous stones at two different jewelers.
Three days before Christmas Ethan called Jer in a panic.
"Pal, you've gotta do this for me."
"You're crazy. If Katie Anne finds out, she'll be madder 'n hell."
"She won't find out. She's already got it narrowed down so whichever ring you choose will be fine. You can tell me exactly where you went, who sold it to you..."
"This isn't like you, buddy. You don't pull these kind of tricks. Why don't you do it yourself?"
"I've got too much work to do."
"You're afraid you're makin' a mistake, aren't you?"
It was the closest Jer had ever come to psychoanalysis, and the startling effect of this straightforward cowboy reading between the lines of Ethan's muddled inner dialogue jolted Ethan into silence.
He replied after a long hesitation and his voice was unusually high, as if someone had him by the balls.
"Well... will you come with me at least?"
"Sure. I'll come with ya."
Ethan picked him up an hour later and they reached the Plaza a little after four o'clock. In the first store, Ethan glanced cursorily at the rings Katie Anne had chosen and listened impatiently to the salesman's pitch as he carefully withdrew each ring and replaced it, habituated after long years of selling a product that was generally not purchased in a hurry. On the way to the second store, Ethan proposed they stop somewhere for a beer.
"After you buy the ring," Jer said firmly. He looked down at the square of paper in his hand. "Take a left here. Should be right down this street.... Yeah. There it is. Tiffany's."
While the jeweler brought out the rings Katie Anne had selected, Jer's attention was caught by a display of gold necklaces.
"Pardon me, ma'am, but do you have any Saint Christopher medals?" asked Jer.
"Yes, we do," said the jeweler as she set out the three rings for Ethan to examine and turned to help Jer.
"What do you want with a Saint Christopher medal?" asked Ethan.
Jer ignored him and watched as the mild-mannered woman gently removed a display of medals and crosses.
"It's for a lady," he said very quietly. "Needs to be small. Something feminine."
She selected a finely crafted solid-gold medal and arranged it on the black velvet cloth before him.
"Who are you buying this for?" demanded Ethan as he stepped up behind him.
Jer turned and whispered in his ear, "Just go buy your ring and leave me to my business. Okay?"
Ethan only pretended to admire the rings; he was listening to Jer. The transaction was done quickly. The medal and chain were priced at over $900, but Jer forked it out in cash and quietly slipped the box in his pocket.
"No, thanks, ma'am. Don't need a bag."
The jeweler turned back to Ethan and held up the first ring for him, describing the cut and quality of the stone, but Ethan cut her short, pointed to the largest of the three, a carat-and-a-half perfect marquise solitaire, and said, "I'll take this one."
Without missing a beat the jeweler quickly returned the other two rings to the cabinet. "Would you like to put this on a credit card, sir?" she asked.
"Yes, ma'am," Ethan answered.
As Ethan signed the receipt, he noticed the price and his expression froze. With tax, the ring was $23,700.
"You have impeccable taste, sir," said the lady. "That's a very fine piece of jewelry."
Her commendation might as well have been a condolence, because Ethan was having a serious panic attack as they walked back to the truck in silence.
"What the hell have I just done?" Ethan groaned as he stabbed the key into the ignition.
"I'll tell you what you've done. You've made Katie Anne one very happy lady," Jer answered. "She deserves it after puttin' up with your shit for three years."
Ethan felt like his best friend had abandoned him.
Neither he nor Jer mentioned stopping for a beer, and they drove directly back to Cottonwood Falls. They talked about cattle and ranching, and no more was said about engagement rings. Ethan didn't have the courage to ask about the Saint Christopher medal.
Christmas at the Mackey ranch was a tradition that Ethan thoroughly enjoyed. Family and friends converged from all over the state, always to be received with gracious hospitality. Betty Sue Mackey greeted uninvited guests with the same warmth she lavished on her next of kin; she gladly squeezed in an extra plate and rounded up another chair. Tom Mackey, dressed in his hallmark Santa suspenders, a crisply starched white shirt and brand-new jeans, moved around the house filling champagne glasses and telling jokes, and by the time they sat down to eat, everyone was infected with his exuberance.
This year the big news was Katie Anne's engagement, and her marquise diamond was the star of the show. She flashed it at everyone, throwing glances at Ethan that were so full of tenderness and pride that he found himself quietly commending himself for the purchase, a feeling due in part to the effects of the champagne. His greatest disappointment was that Jer was not here. Jer had been invited to Annette's for Christmas dinner but said he'd stop by later in the day for a piece of Betty Sue's pecan pie. Early in the evening Ethan found him in the kitchen, sitting by himself at the table piled with empty serving dishes, eating the double slice of pie that Betty Sue had put aside for him.
Ethan laughed at him. "Didn't you get enough to eat over there?"
Jer swallowed his bite of pie and jabbed his fork in the air. "I tell you, that lady's one helluva cook." The fork dived into the pie and he snapped the next bite into his mouth. Jer waggled his head in lieu of words until he could speak intelligibly. "Except for this weird stuff she put in the turkey. Chestnuts, I think she said."
Ethan noticed the glow on Jer's face.
"Looks like you've had a fair share to drink, haven't you, buddy?"
Jer nodded. "Wine," he mumbled. "Had French wine with the dinner."
"Must have been good, judging from the way you're lit up."
Jer stabbed his fork at Ethan and gave him a loose smile. "You've never tasted anything like it, I swear. Annette drove all the way to Kansas City to get it." He paused, stared at the pie, momentarily reflecting. "Hell, I don't even like wine. And before I know it, here I've gone and had three glasses." He suddenly burst out in a bellow of laughter. "Shit, that was good stuff," he commented, as though still in a state of disbelief.
Jer scraped up the last crumbs, then rose and poured himself a cup of coffee.
"Well, we sure missed you over here, pal," said Ethan, and he sincerely meant it. Jer sat back down next to him and took a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket. He showed the pack to Ethan. It was squat and blue with the outline of a winged helmet printed on the front.
"Look what she gave me." He drew out one of the cigarettes. They were short, fat and unfiltered. Jer grinned. "That's what I like about that lady. Hell, she's the first woman I've met in years who hasn't started lecturin' me on quittin' smoking."
"Well, maybe she just doesn't love you like we do." Ethan shook his head sadly. "They'll kill you, Jer."
"Maybe," Jer said, holding it under his nose, sniffing the tobacco. "Maybe not. Maybe I'll get kicked in the head by a horse."
He lit one up, took a gulp of coffee, leaned back in his chair. "I thought I'd ride out tomorrow and help you with the fencing on your new place."
Jer had never been one to fret much about life, but neither had he ever shown much enthusiasm about anything. The contentment that shone on his face that evening, smoking his Gauloises and drinking his coffee, was as close to beatific as he had ever come.
* * *
The Sunday after Christmas Annette and Eliana were late to mass and Ethan didn't see them until the service was over. Annette was buttoning her coat when he caught up with them outside but he got a glimpse of the tiny gold medal against her black sweater.
The comment that escaped Ethan's mouth was so unexpected that it seemed spirited out of him.
"Morning, ma'am. And a belated merry Christmas. Nice necklace." A startled look appeared in Annette's eyes for only a second, then it passed, but Ethan blushed solidly all the same.
"Merry Christmas to you too, Mr. Brown."
"Ethan, look!" Eliana waved a child's white cowboy hat and fixed it proudly on her head. "See what Jer gave me for Christmas?"
"Well, don't you look pretty!" He got down on one knee and said, "How about a ride?"
"Hop on," he said, and he turned around so she could climb onto his shoulders.
Ethan jogged off over the grass with Eliana squealing and giggling. After a few turns around the lawn he circled back to meet Annette as she waited at her car.
"I hear you had one darn good Christmas dinner."
Through Annette's mind flashed the uneasiness, the tension that had sat upon them all that afternoon like an ugly, squat devil. Her father had disapproved of her purchases, the wine, the endives, the imported Roquefort, even though she had paid for everything herself. He scowled at her throughout the entire meal, but mostly it was the child that annoyed him. Eliana giggled and draped her napkin over her face; Eliana interrupted him when he was speaking; Eliana took a large second helping of potatoes and left them uneaten on her plate. While he was saying grace Annette had stolen a glance at his face and wondered how such a soul, so intolerant of human frailty, so scornful of childlike behavior, could possibly have any communion with God. Then they had sat down, and even the pretense of good cheer as they passed their plates and praised the meal could not lift the pall that hung over the table. She ate only a few bites of turkey and drank some wine, and she tried very hard to protect Eliana from her father's wrath and to keep Jer and Nell engaged in easy and pleasant conversation, and to defuse her father's anger whenever she heard it rumble in the distance. Sometimes she would look up and see her mother sitting in the rocking chair in the living room, and when she did, the ugly devil squatting in the middle of the table would disappear.
"Yes," she said to Ethan as she unlocked the car door. "It was a nice Christmas."
"Hey, hold on to that hat," he said to Eliana. "We're dismounting." As he lowered her to the ground and waited while Annette settled her in the booster seat, he watched Annette's expression; she seemed sad, and he couldn't figure it out. But there was a lot about her he couldn't figure out.
"Will you be in your office Friday?" she asked as she started up the engine.
"Good. I'm glad. I'm looking forward to it." Through the open window, she added in a low voice, "I could use a friend."
"You got one, pal."
Ethan turned toward his truck and as they drove away he heard Eliana call out, "'Bye, Ethan!"
* * *
On Tuesday Annette took her mother's old Buick into Strong City to have some work done on it, and she was late picking up Eliana from school. When she arrived the children had already been dismissed and the grounds were empty.
The school was quiet; not a single child trailing in the halls, classrooms locked and dark.Where are you, precious? Where have you gone?Panic seized her and her heart began to pound as she hurried toward the principal's office.
"I'm looking for my daughter, Eliana Zeldin," she said abruptly as she entered the office. "Do you know where she is?"
The startled secretary looked up. "I think everyone's gone. Did you try the classroom?"
"Let me ask Mrs. Walters." She rose and tapped on a closed door, then opened it and spoke softly.
A moment later the principal emerged from her office. "I remember seeing Eliana leave the building, Mrs. Zeldin. But we had a little problem, a couple of the boys got in a scuffle on the bus and we had to bring them back inside and call their parents, so I'm afraid the teachers who supervise dismissal were a little distracted. Nevertheless, if someone had seen her waiting, they would have brought her inside and called you."
Annette used the secretary's phone to call home; she let it ring and ring but no one answered. Then she called Nell. Nell had been home all afternoon but hadn't seen Eliana.
Annette hurried out of the office and raced down the hall.She slipped on the waxed linoleum floor and nearly fell, and she was angry with herself because she knew she was on the verge of breaking down.How can you help if you break down?In the car, her hands were shaking so badly that she had difficulty fitting the key into the ignition.
And then it began again. The cries. She knew it would. She could tell it was coming on. She mashed the accelerator to the floor and the car skidded away from the curb, kicking up sand and dirt behind her. It was very important that she stay calm and alert, that she slow down and look around for clues, anything that might help the police.
A light rain had begun, and she turned on the windshield wipers and slowed to a crawl, looking down every side street as she drove through the neighborhood. When she reached the end of her block she could see her backyard. Was that Eliana there?In the rain. Why would she be outdoors in the rain?No, it was just the hedge, a dark shadow in the gray drizzled light.
She parked in the driveway and raced to the front door, calling her daughter's name as she threw it open. Her father had gone to Emporia for the day to a trustees meeting, and the house was dreary and silent. She went through every room but Eliana wasn't home.
Annette was cursing herself for not buying a cell phone while she was here. Why would she need a cell phone in a place like this? For a few months? Stubbornness, that's what it was.Just like your father.She found some paper and scribbled a note:Looking all over for you. So sorry I was late. Where are you??? If you come home, don't go out. Wait for me.She tried to tape the note to the front door but the tape stuck to the roll inside the dispenser. She fumbled with it, picked at it and held it up to the light trying to find the end. It was cheap tape. Her father always bought the cheap, generic brands.
Angrily she hurled the dispenser across the room, then she laid the note on the carpet in the middle of the floor. Annette didn't have a clue where she'd left her umbrella, so she turned up the collar of her coat and headed down the street in the cold rain looking for her daughter. She'd walk every inch of this damn town to find her. She'd walk into the dark hours, through the night and all across the county if that's what it took.
By now the cries had returned, incessant, startlingly clear, not at all like something imagined. It was frightening how clear they were. It was raining heavily now.
* * *
Ethan looked up at the sound of footsteps running up the stairs. Bonnie knocked loudly, then threw open the door.
"Ethan! Come quickly!"
Ethan shot up and followed her but she was ahead of him by a flight of stairs, and when he got to the second landing he saw her at the foot of the stairs with Mrs. Zeldin.
Annette's hair was dripping wet; her coat was drenched and the sable collar matted with rain. She turned haunted brown eyes up to him, and the sight of her coming to him in need and despair wrenched his heart.
"Bonnie, do we have any blankets?" he said as he rushed down to Annette.
"I think I have one in the trunk of my car."
"Go get it."
He put an arm around Annette and helped her up the stairs. Her skin was like ice and she was shivering violently.
"She's gone," gasped Annette.
"My daughter. She's gone."
His warm touch, his protective arm around her seemed to release the tension in her, and she stumbled up the last few steps into his office.
When he helped her out of her coat he saw that the rain had soaked through her black silk blouse to her skin. He grabbed his sheepskin-lined jacket from the coat rack, slipped it over her shoulders and guided her to a chair. Bonnie appeared with a blanket, making profuse apologies about the straw stuck to it, and Ethan wrapped it around Annette's legs. He pulled a twenty-dollar bill from his pocket, thrust it into Bonnie's hand and told her to go across the street to Carl's Liquor and get a pint of whisky.
After she left Ethan pulled his chair to Annette's and sat down, taking her hands in his. They were icy and he gently pressed them between his own.
Her body was shaking convulsively and her teeth were chattering.
"Take a deep breath, then tell me what happened."
She nodded, inhaled deeply and looked up at him. "I was late picking her up. She wasn't there. Nobody saw where she went. She's not at home. She's not at Nell's. I've looked all over."
"Annette, this is Cottonwood Falls. Kids don't just disappear..."
"It can't happen again, can it?"
"What do you mean?"
She looked away.
"What do you mean?"
"Could she have gone over to play with a friend?"
"Nobody's ever invited her to play. I wouldn't know who to call."
"Doesn't she have riding lessons after school with Jer?"
"Thursday. Jer picks her up on Thursday. This is Tuesday."
Ethan thought for a moment, then rose and found his cell phone on his desk. He called a number and while it was ringing looked over at Annette. Her eyes were hanging on him.
"Jer, buddy. Hey, you haven't seen Eliana this afternoon, have you?"
He listened, a smile of relief washing over his face. He nodded reassuringly to Annette.
"Yeah, well, I guess she didn't get the message. We've got one worried mom over here."
Bonnie showed up with the whisky just then and Ethan motioned for her to set it down. She threw him an inquisitive look and quietly left.
"Yeah, sure. I'll tell her. Thanks, Jer." He hung up and turned to Annette.
"He said he called yesterday and left a message with your dad. Jer won't be home Thursday. Said he'd pick her up today instead. I guess your dad forgot to tell you. Jer has her working in the indoor arena. He'll bring her home in about an hour."
Annette stared at him blankly.
"She's okay. Nothing to worry about."
Ethan poured some whisky into a coffee mug and when he turned around to her she had her hands over her ears.
"The music," she said. "I can't stop the music."
Ethan set down the mug and gently peeled her hands away from her face.
"There isn't any music."
He held her hands tightly in his for a long moment. Then he picked up the mug again.
"Go on, drink."
This time she took it and drank a little.
"What were you doing out in the rain like that? Why didn't you just drive over here?"
There was terror in her eyes.
"This is about something else, isn't it?"
She nodded faintly.
"What happened, Annette?"
Ethan waited patiently. She took another long drink of the whisky and waited while its warmth began to swim through her veins. It calmed her and she reached for his hand and squeezed it.
"Thank you," she whispered.
Her touch electrified him. He closed his eyes for a second and when he opened them again her hands were back in her lap, clasping the mug.
"It's a long story," she said.
"I have all the time in the world."
As she began to talk about the tragedy she had kept buried for so many years, the last wall between them crumbled. Until then neither of them would have acknowledged that they were falling in love; but love had been waiting for this moment, like some souls eagerly await their appointed hour of terrestrial birth, knowing full well it means renunciation of harmony and peace.
Annette was only twenty-three and David Zeldin was over forty that evening when he settled her on the sofa in his Tel Aviv apartment on the top floor of a high-rise overlooking the Mediterranean and told her about his childhood in a concentration camp. His boyhood, which he had described without a trace of sentimentality, reminded her of the grotesque events in a Jerzy Kosinski novel. Then he spoke to her of Jerusalem; he talked about the city the way a man speaks of a woman he loves passionately; he spoke of Hebrew poetry, of arid rocky hills, of deserts and olive groves, of waging wars and song.
She returned to her hotel later that night after he had made love to her and lay awake thinking how he had shattered her world. She thought about the contrast between this country and the comfortable Kansas town where she had grown up, a town defined by order and hygiene, self-righteousness and congeniality; how she had left it behind and set herself adrift among others who, like her, had left behind a great and painful wound. Knowing that home would never be home again. She had toured Europe and played in major cities throughout the United States, and in every city she asked herself,Could I live here? Could I be free here? Could I be happy here?And on she had drifted, until she came to David Zeldin's bed and knew one night of intimacy with an extraordinary man. When she walked onto stage the next day and saw him waiting on the podium, smiling at her, she knew where she belonged.
David was six when he was torn from his mother's arms and herded to the children's barracks in a Polish concentration camp. His mother had fought so fiercely for him that she nearly dislocated his shoulder before the Nazis finally clubbed her unconscious. He never saw her again. Three years later, when his camp was liberated by the Russians, he had no family, no homeland, and no language. The kapos had beaten him whenever he spoke Yiddish or Dutch, and so the only words he comprehended were the hate-drenched German commands he had listened to with fear and humiliation for three years. For weeks after that he lived in the streets, eating rotten garbage and sleeping in rubble, until a priest found him and sent him to an orphanage in France.
It was two years before David learned his father had survived Auschwitz, and in 1948 father and son emigrated to the newly independent Zionist state of Israel, where David's father remarried. Even the Nazis, however, couldn't bash the boy's brilliance out of him—neither his linguistic aptitude (by the time he was at university he spoke seven languages) nor his gift for music. It was his American stepmother who took him out of the kibbutz every Saturday and into Tel Aviv for his violin lessons, an operation that remained clandestine for many years because there was no money to be spent on such luxuries. David kept his violin at the home of a math teacher in the nearby village of Ashdod, and every day after school he walked seven kilometers into the village, where he practiced, then seven kilometers back to the kibbutz to work the rest of the afternoon in the dairy, mucking out the milking stalls. He skipped practice only on holidays and on the day his sister, Simi, was born.
When she was eight months old Simi was massacred along with seventeen other children in a terrorist raid on the kibbutz nursery. Shortly thereafter his family left the kibbutz and moved to Tel Aviv; at that point David's lessons were no longer kept secret from his father. His first composition was an achingly mournful lullaby dedicated to his baby sister.
When Annette met him he was finishing his season in Tel Aviv before taking up the baton as conductor of l'Orchestre de Paris. Although his career was established, personal fulfillment had escaped him. He was forty-three, divorced and childless. The morning he greeted Annette at the airport in Tel Aviv and escorted her to his car, intimations of a future began to trouble him. These thoughts were nurtured during the week as they rehearsed Mendelssohn's and Sibelius' violin concertos, as their music began to meld into a uniquely beautiful expression, and with it their hearts and souls. David had never seen an artist respond so fully and passionately to his direction, and he drew from her one inspired performance after another. The morning after their first night together, which was the day of their final matinee performance, she approached him onstage, and he saw in her countenance his own personal messiah. He took her back to his apartment after the performance that afternoon and they made love again, and as they lay there in the faded light of dusk, sharing a single cigarette, listening to the waves rushing onto the beach below, they both believed in happiness.
The next day he drove her to the airport and Annette changed her ticket so that she could stay with him another week. The week turned into three, and she stayed to help him pack his books and paintings and watched as the movers crated up his furniture for the move to Paris. After the apartment was emptied, they took David's car and toured the Negev, and they flew to Athens, where they planned to spend a few last days together before David went on to Paris and she returned to New York. On their third day in Athens they were married by an American naval chaplain. A week later they arrived in Paris as husband and wife.
Although arrogant and inflexible by nature, David recognized his happiness as a rare gift and he strove to grant his young wife the esteem and recognition she merited. His task was facilitated by Annette's ability to detach herself from a past she had always considered ill fitting. She shed her native skin and emerged the creature she was always meant to be. The limited French she had learned as part of her training soon became her dominant language; she argued in it, made love in it, and dreamed in it. And the uncomfortable memories of her childhood receded into that part of her brain where the English language sat dormant. Now the only English she heard was that spoken by South Africans or Londoners or the Irish, and she gradually took on those expressions and intonations until she sounded more British than American. Only when she spoke to her parents on the telephone did she unconsciously revert to her Midwestern drawl.
When Violette was born to them four years later, Annette, who was a vibrant twenty-seven, took it in stride; David, then in his late forties, was profoundly altered. David Zeldin was an intensely cerebral man. Yet some nurturing instinct emerged in him with the birth of his daughter, and his immense love for her transformed him completely. For four years Annette had been trying to get him to cut back on his two packs of cigarettes a day, to no avail, but the day after Violette's birth he quit smoking cold turkey. His nights, which had always been sleepless, were now a bustle of activity. A deep, visceral envy arose in him as he watched Annette nurse the infant, and when, after four months, she started the baby on formula so she could do a short European tour, he eagerly took over the night feedings. If the weather was pleasant he would come back early from rehearsals, command Maria, their Portuguese nanny, to ready the pram, and stroll off with his baby down Avenue Victor Hugo to the park, where he would sit among all the mothers and nannies, gazing lovingly into his daughter's pale blue eyes as he rocked the pram in gentle, rhythmic motions, humming bars from Mozart or Strauss.
He had always been a frugal man, and his tastes were simple. Now he wandered through toy stores querying salesclerks about the suitability of certain toys, learning how this game or that toy would assist in child development, how the brain would be stimulated or the motor skills enhanced, and then he would come home with a pale blue stuffed bear because it matched the color of Violette's eyes. Whatever gift he brought home, however small, always delighted the child. It was as if the infant still saw with her soul, and she saw into his heart and loved him for his pain, for his starved fatherhood, for his butchered youth. All the things he had lost were mourned in this passionate celebration of Violette's birth, and parenthood became the most important thing he had ever done.
When Violette was not yet one year old, Annette and David were invited to Israel as guest artists with the symphony orchestra for a special performance to celebrate the opening of the new School of Music at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Some of the greatest classical recording artists of the day would be performing. Since Violette's birth, David had turned down any engagement that required travel outside of Paris, but this opportunity tempted him. It would be his first trip back in five years. He was not the type of man to succumb to nostalgia, but he found himself lying in bed in the early morning recalling the physical beauty of his homeland; he missed the tightly-knit society, the hardships, even the dusty, oppressive khamsin that blew its dreadful winds for fifty days. When Violette awakened at night he sang her back to sleep with old Hebrew songs.
He felt strongly that the baby was too young to travel, but he wouldn't leave her behind, even in Maria's care. Annette, knowing the trip would do him good, begged him to reconsider.
"It's not as if we're taking her to rural Siberia," she argued. "You have so many friends there. We'll have good medical care. And we'll take Maria with us."
But Maria refused to go. She was old and dreaded planes and she was frightened of the war, she said. Annette tried to explain to her that there was no war, that it was no more dangerous than Paris, but Maria would only shake her head and pound away at the dish towels with her iron, muttering to herself in a peasant Portuguese that even David couldn't understand.
Annette didn't give up; she longed to return to the place where they had met and become lovers, and she knew that David was looking forward to showing off his wife and baby to his old friends and colleagues. Determined, she put out word through their friends that she was looking for an au pair to accompany them, and after several interviews she found Magda, a young Argentine woman who had raised her five younger siblings and came highly recommended by the Australian ambassador to the OECD. Finally, David relented.
He insisted on flying them all first class, although the non-stop flight was only a little over four hours. At takeoff the baby began to cry. She repulsed Magda's efforts to soothe her, mashing her little fists into the young woman's face, trying to squirm away. She stretched her little arms across the aisle, grasping frantically for her mother and father, squirming to free herself from those arms coiled around her so tightly. Even after they had reached cruising altitude she continued to cry, and finally Annette broke down.
"Magda, give her to me. She sounds like she's in pain. It must be her ears."
As soon as they arrived at their suite at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, David called in a doctor. Yes, she had an ear infection. That was why she had wailed and fussed and sobbed so. Violette fell asleep then, driven into deep slumber by exhaustion, and Magda assured them it would be all right, that they could go off to their cocktail reception and not to worry.
In the back of the taxi, dressed elegantly in black, bathed and perfumed, they reassured each other with observations about Magda's maturity, her poise. She had never been ruffled, even during the nerve-wracking flight; she seemed much older than her twenty-one years, but that came from the experience of handling all those younger siblings. She was from a good family, her father mayor of a small town in Argentina. If an emergency should arise, she would handle it. She knew where to find them. The concierge had been alerted.
They were happy that evening. It was spring and the air smelled of warm, rain-fed earth. During the taxi ride home, Annette draped her long bare leg over David's and took his hand and ran it up the inside of her thigh. At the reception he kept noticing how beautiful she was, how motherhood had rounded out her body, added fullness to her hips and breasts, and when they returned to their hotel room that evening and found Violette sleeping peacefully and Magda reading quietly they slipped away to their bedroom and made wide-eyed, brutal love to each other. They did things they had never done before, things they would never speak of later but would suggest to each other by a brief word, a glance or a touch, things that bound them to each other in silent lusty pleasure.
The next day Violette was fussy, and when they returned from rehearsal she was running a high fever. They called in the doctor again, who reassured them that the antibiotics would soon get it under control, that they were not to worry but should keep her cool. Annette had the crib moved out of Magda's room into theirs, and, dressed in her long black gown, she bathed the baby continually during the hours before they left for the concert hall. She kept Magda running back and forth for ice, for fresh cloths, for dry towels and clean diapers. She refused to leave until the last possible moment.
David sat with her; his anxiety was as great as hers. Violette's eyes seemed a darker shade of blue, and he told himself this was his imagination. She was awake, and she would slowly turn her darkened gaze to him, then back to her mother. It was a meaningful gaze, he thought. She wanted them to read something in her feverish eyes.
"I think we should call the stand-in conductor," he said after a glance at his watch. "I'll stay with her."
Annette was stunned. "That's crazy. It's too late."
"Vranskä's ready to step in. I spoke to him yesterday. He can do it. He's been assistant conductor for two years and knows the program by heart."
"You didn't tell me you spoke to him."
"I don't have a good feeling about this. I don't like leaving her alone. You go on. You're guest soloist."
"But this isn't just about me. It's about us performing together."
"I know. But she's more important."
"Darling," Annette said, reaching for his hand, "I'm worried too. But you heard the doctor. The fever will pass. Magda just needs to keep her cool. There's nothing we can do that Magda can't."
They both turned to look at the young woman, who stood in the doorway with an ice bucket.
"I've seen this before," Magda said reassuringly. "So many times, with my little brothers and sisters. She'll be all right."
David hesitated a moment and then said, "You'll call the doctor if there's any change for the worse? Even the slightest change?"
When they went to kiss the baby good-bye before they left for the concert hall, Violette was quiet. She sat up and gripped the side of the crib, and her darkened eyes silently followed them as they gathered their coats, their music, Annette's violin. Her eyes rested solemnly on their faces as they gave last-minute directives to Magda, and then closed the door.
Annette didn't have time to call until intermission. Despite her anxiety, she had played well. Her remarkable powers of concentration had carried her through. She was playing before a tough audience of peers and critics, and she had moved them, swept them into Barber's tender, mournful world and locked them there until the end. The final notes were followed by a deep silence, then a cannonade of applause. David smiled at her from the podium, his brow shiny with perspiration.
They had told Magda to expect their call shortly after nine o'clock. She answered immediately, in a whisper. Yes, Violette was sleeping. Her fever had gone. All was well.
The Sibelius concerto on the second half of the program that night had always been Annette's favorite piece, but since she had met David it had acquired a very personal significance. She had performed it with the Tel Aviv Symphony under David's direction when they first met five years before, and tonight she expected his love to be the signature inspiration as it had been every time she had performed it since then.
Instead, she found the piece sang of her daughter. She didn't have the time to rationalize this, and if she had, she would've found it strange, for there were moments when the music soared into an ominous delirium and the orchestra whirled along with her in a great pounding gallop, spinning the air into plaintive frenzied motion.
Backstage after the performance, David and Annette were showered with attention from David's old friends, who were eager to meet Annette. David, usually so restrained, drank a glass of champagne and held his wife's hand.
* * *
When they returned to their room that evening, Magda and their child were gone. Within minutes of David's call the King David Hotel was invaded by detectives from every branch of service. There was a stealth about their manner of operation that underscored the urgency of the affair. Guests and employees were interrogated; a scenario was pieced together. Magda had left the hotel around 9:20 p.m. with the stroller, which was found abandoned on a side street several blocks away. Residents were interrogated. And then nothing. There were no witnesses. Nothing to lead them anywhere. Just the abandoned stroller. Their lives stopped there.
David made calls well into the early-morning hours. Then, when Annette fell asleep on the sofa, he went out on the streets. Jerusalem was a quiet city after dark. All the excitement, the nightlife, the cafés were in Tel Aviv. Jerusalem seemed to be weighted down by prayer. The Jews, the Christians, the Muslims, all fighting over the land, supplicating their gods. During the day it was such a beautiful city, tantalizing, full of light, but at night it became a solemn place. Laughter sounded offensive, like blasphemy.
David stood at the spot where the police said they had found the stroller and glanced helplessly around him, willing the street to give up its silent knowledge. Once he heard a baby's cry cut through the stillness, and he followed it down the street to a block of buildings, but by then it had ceased.
The ransom note they were awaiting never arrived. No demands were made, no communication was ever attempted and there was never a trace of Violette or Magda. The police followed leads that dead-ended and plumbed sources that came up empty. After two weeks of anxious, terrified waiting, all the while suffering the intense scrutiny of the press, David and Annette returned to Paris.
The last night she spent in the King David Hotel, Annette dreamed of wandering through an oppressively dark, filthy place with many rooms. In one of the rooms she found a baby lying on the cold stone floor; she picked it up and held it, but it wasn't hers; then the baby disappeared and she was the one lying there on the hard stone. She lay there all alone, unable to utter a word, grieving for her parents.
She awoke to a heavy sadness, and her heart exploded with a silent wail so desperate that even the angels cried.
Ethan Brown rose and went into the bathroom. He poured the cold coffee out of his mug and rinsed it. He took a deep breath before returning to his office.
Annette Zeldin was leaning back in her chair, taking a long drag on the cigarette she had just lit. It had been months since she had smoked.
"I'm sorry," she said, peeling the blanket off her legs. "I forgot. You should have said something. I'll go outside."
"It's raining," replied Ethan.
"I don't mind."
She took the ashtray he held out to her and leaned back in the chair.
Ethan didn't care much for Scotch, but he poured a couple of fingers into his mug and took a drink.
Annette was calm now. His coat had slipped a little and there was an illusion of nakedness about her. He got up and went around behind her and quietly pulled the coat over her shoulders.
"Ethan, the authorities believe she was stolen for adoption. I have to believe that. That's the only answer. Not a day goes by when I don't pray for her. Every night and every morning the first thoughts that run through my head are prayers for her. I pray she's in a family, a good family. Someone who loves her. But then at times I have this feeling, this gut feeling, that something went horribly wrong. Sometimes I read stories in the news about the horrible things people do to children and infants... sick people..."
"Stop it, Annette. You can't think like that."
"I know. But then, I begin to think it's an illusion. The idea that she's happy and healthy somewhere with loving, kind parents. Perhaps the truth was ugly and sick. And here I am living my life believing a lie."
"It's the only way to stay sane."
"It tore the heart out of our family. She was our heart and soul, and she was gone."
She told him how David had wanted another child. Right away. But she only wanted to keep moving. She took any engagement she could get. She would go anywhere in the world. She found respite from her misery only when she was performing. And she looked for her daughter everywhere. In every country, every city, she approached the consulates and embassies. She took pictures of Violette with her. She located authorities and filled out papers, wrote letters, opened investigations.
Steadily, quietly, their marriage fell apart. When they were home together, an inescapable emptiness blanketed their conversations. Overnight, it seemed, they became strangers. As suddenly and inexplicably as they had become lovers. A year after Violette's disappearance, David filed for divorce.
"David never uttered a word of accusation. I was to blame and yet he never blamed me."
"You weren't to blame."
"But I was. He had an intuition and he was right."
"Only in retrospect. You couldn't have known."
"I believe sometimes we know things outside the scope of conscious awareness. David rarely talked about feelings, but he had strong intuitions. Perhaps he picked up on something about Magda. I don't know, but I should have trusted him that night. And I didn't."
It was in Johannesburg that she was asked to perform Sibelius' violin concerto again. When Ernst Rodine saw her, he hardly recognized her as the same woman who had played with his symphony several years before. When she took her place onstage he noticed the pencil-thin arms as she raised her instrument to her chin, the sunken, empty eyes, the raw smile. During the first part of the performance, the shoulder of her black satin gown kept slipping, and backstage during intermission he found a safety pin and pinned the top tighter for her. With an embarrassed laugh she told him she had dropped two dress sizes and had already had the gown altered once.
When they returned to the stage and he lifted his baton, he saw Annette suddenly turn to look at the audience. And she was a breath slow on the pickup. Then he noticed the way she was holding her head, as if she was listening for something beyond the music.
Annette first heard it in the seconds of silence preceding the opening chords. Faint but distinct. From that moment on she played mechanically; her bow ripped across the strings as if wound up by a malicious spirit, and with her entire being, detached, she tuned her ear to the sounds beyond her own music and listened. Then, early on in the allegro, she heard it again. Her heart leapt. From his podium, Ernst threw her an alarmed look. She was picking up tempo. He tried to catch her eye but she wouldn't look at him. During a pause, she listened again, intently. Her acutely trained ear searched the audience, the balcony, and her eyes swept the shadowy faces in the deep cavernous hall before her, but she knew the cry didn't come from this place. Then came her solo. She watched her fingers and her bow flying over the strings but she heard not one note of the music she played; she heard only the sound of her baby's piercing cry. She remembered all the times she had heard that heart-wrenching wail, and the ways she had rushed to calm it. The way she had brought the baby to her breast, hurriedly, eagerly, fumbling with the buttons on her blouse, her nipples taut, warm and full, barely able to hold back their milk. She remembered looking down at Violette's eyes, bright and alert in the middle of the night as she rocked her and sang to her. She remembered those eyes. Their lightness, their intelligence, their inarticulate knowledge. But now the cries wouldn't cease. There was nothing more she could do. So she listened, and she played on.
Her cries turned to long staccato sobs and her heart fluttered as rapidly and perfectly as a bird's. Her lashes, heavy with tears, closed upon her blinded eyes. Then her tiny hand released its prisoner, her delicate body shuddered and her heart ceased to beat.
The orchestra had stopped. The musicians were staring at her in disbelief; the first violinist had tears in her eyes. An embarrassed murmur passed through the audience and someone coughed nervously. The conductor's hands hung defeated at his sides. In the back of his mind he marveled that she was still going on, at a tempo none of them could match, a delirious speed, and yet she was playing brilliantly.
Suddenly she stopped. She lowered her violin, and her bow slipped from her hand. It clattered to the stage, drawing a collective gasp from the audience. She raised her eyes and took a step toward the conductor, her hand outstretched for help, and then she collapsed.
* * *
Annette fidgeted with the silky blue binding on the blanket.
"I heard her, Ethan, as clearly as you hear my voice now, I heard her. Why it was given to me, that awful punishment of hearing her suffer, I don't know." She looked up at him. "Everyone thought I was hallucinating. Perhaps I was. But I believe she's at peace now."
Ethan poured a little more Scotch in her mug and held it out to her.
She told him how the doctor in Johannesburg had put her on medication and advised a rest cure; several days later she flew to Montreux, Switzerland. Her hotel room had a small balcony overlooking Lac Léman and the Alps, and she would sit there and read, wrapped in blankets against the chill, steeping herself in long, ponderous works by Flaubert and Tolstoy. She read voraciously and through the power of words was able to keep the ghosts of her own life in abeyance. She lost herself in stories that were situated in worlds and times vastly different from her own.
Music was conspicuously absent from her life. The hotel was old, elegant and purposefully lacking in technology. The rooms had no Internet, and she asked the management to remove the television monitor. Aided by drugs, she slept soundly, and she rarely recalled her dreams. She wrote no letters; writing would mean reflection, which she couldn't bear. However, she kept a journal, where she recorded her daily activities—the books she read, what she ate for dinner. She noted her walks in the mountains, her morning excursions by bus into Montreux, where she purchased more books and browsed through the open-air markets; she noted her afternoons at a café with an open terrace overlooking the lake, where she read newspapers and drank tea, and no one noticed her.
Then, after three weeks, one Saturday morning she woke up restless. She dressed and went down into the town for her coffee instead of taking it in her room as she usually did. It was still very early and the café in Montreux was deserted. She gazed out over the splendid blue lake, at the blue mountains rising above the far shore, and for the first time in her life she experienced a pang of wanderlust. Purpose had always guided her movements, and ever since she could remember, music had been her purpose. Nothing had ever appealed to her for its own sake but only through its relationship to her music. When she left Kansas it was to study at Juilliard in New York. When she traveled it was to perform. Music had even been central to her marriage. But for over a month now she had not lifted a violin, or listened to a recording, or attended a concert. She had shut music out of her life as she had shut out David. It was the last link to the nightmare, and the nightmare was just beginning to fade.
What took its place that morning as she looked out over Lac Léman was a curious excitement about the unknown. An urge to venture without a purpose to guide her. She walked to the train station and paused in the main hall to read the schedule of departures. As she stood there, a train pulled in and a rush of travelers streamed past her and began to board. She waited a moment and then struck out down the platform. Her heart began to pound, and on an impulse that felt wonderfully reckless, she climbed aboard. The train was crowded, and she maneuvered down aisles, around passengers fussing with their bags and looking for seats, crossing through car after car until she came to a first-class carriage and found an empty window seat. Her heart was still beating wildly when the train began to glide out of the station. The platform slid away, and the town sped by. As the train curved around the lake and she caught sight of her hotel perched on the side of the mountain, an exhilarating sense of freedom hit her. She suppressed a smile at the thought of all her belongings back at the hotel room, at the maid who would turn back her bed that night, at the small, round table in the corner of the dining room that was always reserved for her, which would be empty this evening.
They were just out of Montreux when the conductor came down the aisle checking tickets.
"I'm afraid I don't have one," she said a little giddily when he asked for her ticket.
"You'll have to pay a fine," he said curtly.
"That's quite all right."
"Where are you going?"
"Where's the train going?"
She frowned. "I didn't really want to go to Geneva. Does it make any other stops?"
"Vevey and Lausanne," he whipped back, annoyed.
"Is that all? It doesn't go any farther?"
"This is a regional train, madame."
She hesitated. "You said it stops at Lausanne?"
"Oui,madame." Politeness sharp as a beak.
"Lausanne will be fine." She smiled and added, "Thank you."
When she had paid, he tore off her printed receipt and gave it to her. It slipped from her hand and floated to the floor, landing at the feet of the young man opposite her. He picked it up and returned it to her with an amused half-smile.
Annette turned toward the window, intent on enjoying the scenic beauty, but the young man's reflection in the glass drew her attention. He was resting his chin on his hand, his deep brown eyes fixed intently on the passing landscape, his long, slender fingers absentmindedly tapping his lips. He wore a leather jacket over a crisp blue shirt and there was an air of elegance and good manners in his gestures; he was young, she thought, perhaps twenty. On the seat beside him lay a copy ofThe Economist.
As the train sped along the lakeshore, she found her imagination dwelling on him. It became a momentary obsession, an amusement; wondering about him, imagining herself with him. The idea tickled her and made her smile to herself. When he got up to put away his magazine, she stole a glance at him. Neither of them pursued conversation.
As the train was pulling into Lausanne, the young man took an umbrella and a small leather bag from the overhead rack and made his way down the aisle. Annette waited in her seat, and she caught him glancing back at her just before he passed through the door. When she got off the train she looked around for him, but he had disappeared into the crowd.
She made her way to the exit. The air was damp with the threat of rain, and she stopped beneath the canopy and looked across the Place de la Gare to the fountain and a block of boring modern buildings with windows the color of the overcast sky. She was hungry and she didn't even have an umbrella, and she didn't have the faintest idea where to dine or what there was to do. She felt suddenly very lonely and a little frightened. How silly. Taking off on a lark. Gloom clouded her thoughts and she longed to be back in her hotel curled up with a book. She thought perhaps she might eat something in the station and then take the next train back to Montreux.
Suddenly he appeared beside her.
"Excuse me," he said in English, a little shyly and very respectfully. "Can I help you?"
She gave him a smile of delight. "Hello," she said.
Her warmth put him at ease. "Hello," he replied. "I was sitting opposite you..."
"Yes, I remember."
"I thought perhaps you might need a recommendation for a hotel." He seemed a little embarrassed. "But now I see you don't have a bag."
His eyes were very dark and very bright. A lock of wavy brown hair fell over his forehead and he swung it back with a toss of his head.
"Thank you," she answered. "I would."
"I can direct you to the hotel where our family stays when we're in town. It's quiet and well managed."
"I'm sure it will be fine."
"It's not far, just up the street. Do you mind walking?"
"Not at all."
He was an engineering student and he had come to Lausanne to meet his mother, who would be arriving the next day from St. Moritz. Annette gave him her maiden name and told him she was on vacation.
She didn't see him again until that evening when they both dined at the hotel, and he sent the waiter to invite her to his table for coffee. She found him to be mature, very well bred, intelligent and gracious in his conversation. Over cognac they energetically argued politics, and they were the last ones to leave the dining room. On the way up the stairs he slipped his hand into hers. She found his decisiveness reassuring, and she didn't hesitate when he drew her into his room.
She never saw him again after that night. He asked for her address in Paris but she wouldn't give it to him. He seemed hurt. She was surprised to find herself crying as she took the early train back to Montreux the next morning.
Three weeks later she learned she was pregnant. She didn't react with elation as she had with her previous pregnancy. Instead, a wonderful serenity settled over her. She named the baby Eliana, which in Hebrew means, "God has answered me."
* * *
When she had finished talking, they sat quietly for a long while. Ethan didn't know what to say. And she looked so tired.
He leaned forward and kissed her. A light came into her eyes.
Annette was holding on the line for Ethan when he walked in the front door of the Salmon P. Chase House the next morning. He plodded leisurely up the steps with feigned casualness, ignoring Bonnie's look. He closed the door to his office and picked up the telephone.
"Ethan?" Her voice was bright.
"Mornin'," he answered. His heart beat rapidly.
"Ethan, can I still get in that house? My mother's old house?"
"Sure. I haven't done a thing to it."
"Would you mind terribly if I... if I went out there sometimes?"
"Not at all. I keep it locked, though. There's still some stuff up in the attic. There's not anything your mother cared much about. Things for a garage sale, she said. She didn't want to bother moving it. But I always kept it locked anyway."
"Could I come by and get the key?"
"Anytime. I'm here."
* * *
She entered his office dressed in jeans and wearing her sable-collared coat. Ethan thought she looked like a movie star but all he said was, "Lady, you could use a good old sheepskin-lined parka."
"You're such a cowboy," she teased.
"So what's all the excitement?" he asked.
"I can't tell you. If I do, it might go away."
"Come on now, you're not superstitious."
"No. But I get very nervous when good things happen."
She smiled and took the key he held out to her.
* * *
Annette enjoyed the drive to the old house. Even the bleakness of the winter landscape didn't seem to oppress her, and as she slid the key into the lock and opened the front door of her mother's family home, it struck her that she was falling in love with Ethan Brown. She hurried inside to get away from the cold February wind blowing at her back. A wind that shrieked around the corners of the house. It was a terrifying sound. The wind never sounded this way out on the open plains, only when it was confronted with an obstacle of some sort, a dwelling, a shelter, something built up in the midst of the vast emptiness.
She closed the door behind her and laid her violin case on the dusty table, then she carefully removed the instrument. As she tuned it and tightened the bow, thoughts of Ethan crowded her mind. She marveled at how a man like him could be fulfilled in a place like this. And yet she could imagine him nowhere else. He could have been a partner in a prestigious law firm or taken his place among the academics at Harvard and Yale. Instead, he collected books and read them late into the night, when his pretty girlfriend was asleep, enjoying communion with minds like his own in silence and solitude.
She began to play, and gradually the wind ceased its roar. The demons withdrew into silence, and music calmed the land.
* * *
Just that week Ethan had hired a couple of guys to help him tear down the fences that bordered Emma Ferguson's property. It was a long, slow process, and stray wire was always a potential hazard to the animals. Ethan thought it was about time to check on it, so the next day he rode out to visit the property. He finished a little before noon, and he thought he just might ride over to see if Annette Zeldin was at the farmhouse.
He reined in his mare at the top of Jacob's Mound and looked down at the old Reilly house. How many times had he ridden by the place over the years, glancing at it without so much as a passing thought for its past or its future? He saw only the land and its place in his scheme of things. When old man Norton died and his ranch went up for sale, Ethan saw a chance to realize his wildest dreams. He bought the Norton place, knowing that all the Mackey land would go to Katie Anne, and if he could ever get his hands on Mrs. Ferguson's little strip of prairie that cut like a ribbon between the Mackey land and his own, then his cattle would have access to the richest and biggest holding of bluestem in the state of Kansas.
Now this strip of land was his and Katie Anne would soon be his wife. He had what he'd always wanted. But as he looked down at the weathered old house, he realized his dream had shifted on him.
He pressed his heels into the horse's flanks and rode at full gallop down the hill.
When Annette heard the sound of his boots on the porch she stopped playing and lowered her violin. She waited for him to knock, and when he didn't she called for him to come in. Ethan opened the door hesitantly and removed his hat. She was smiling at him and he thought her eyes looked different, happier maybe, but he wasn't sure.
"Don't stop," he said quietly, a shade embarrassed. He sat down at the table and set his hat next to the violin case.
She began to play again. He listened and gave himself up to the sweet sound.
When she had finished, he sat motionless with his hands folded between his knees and watched her place the instrument back in its case.
"Wow," he said, awestruck.
"I'm out of practice."
"Could have fooled me."
"I have some hot coffee in a thermos. You want some?" she asked.
"I've only got this one cup."
She poured some coffee and passed it to him. As he took the cup he commented on her gloves.
"I thought those things went out with Charles Dickens."
"We wore them quite a lot in Europe. Places like Prague and Budapest. The concert halls were never heated."
He reached for her hand and turned it over, examining the glove. He grazed the tips of her naked fingers with his thumb and desire swept through her.
"Are you going to make a habit of this?" he asked.
"Coming out here in the cold and serenading my cows."
She replied brightly, "I'm planning on it."
"Then I guess I'd better call the electric company and have them turn on the juice."
"You don't need to do that. I've rehearsed under worse conditions."
"I'm not competing for first place with the worst. I'll call them this afternoon."
He was still holding her hand.
"You said you were rehearsing," he said.
"That means you're going to start performing again."
"Was that your secret?"
"Headed back to the big time?"
"I hope so."
"The good old talking cure. Maybe Freud was on to something after all."
"I don't know if it's as simple as all that."
"I know it's not."
Her hand had settled in his, comfortably, without restraint.
"But you're right," she continued. "It did change things. This morning I called my old booking agent in London. I didn't know if I was still worth anything. She seems to think I am. She's going to line up some engagements for next winter. I told her I wanted to stay in Europe. I don't want to travel far. Places I can do in a day or two. I can take Eliana with me."
As she spoke her face came alive, and it struck him how emotions danced across it like cloud shadows across the plains.
She added in a low voice, "Thank you, Ethan."
"Anytime." He paused and then said, "What was that you were playing?"
"Beethoven's violin concerto."
"I wish I could've heard you in concert."
"Maybe you will, one day."
He laughed. "You won't get me across that ocean."
"How can you be so sure?"
"I'm not sure of much, but of that I'm sure." He shook his head slowly. "It's a pity, though. I would've liked to have been there in the audience, applauding like mad. You're a pretty amazing woman."
"You're a pretty amazing man."
"I'm just a cowboy."
"I think the phone lines are still working. You want the phone connected?" he asked.
"Not necessary. I have a cell phone now. I bought one for Eliana too."
"Can I have the number?"
"If you'd like it."
"You wouldn't mind if I called?"
"I was hoping you would."
For a long while they sat without speaking. They stared silently at their intertwined hands, heads lowered, their faces close.
"I love you," he said softly.
She grew very still. He couldn't see her face.
He lifted her chin.
"Look at me."
A smile trembled on her lips.
"You can't do that," she whispered.
"Can't do what?"
"You can't love me. I can't love you."
"It's too late."
* * *
After that day Ethan rode out to see her several times a week, and in those bleak, bare surroundings they looked upon each other with new eyes. There were only the one table and two hard wooden chairs. And her violin stand with her music. She said she liked the acoustics of an empty room. So when they were together they sat in straight-backed chairs and talked about reviews of films they wished they could see, about articles Ethan had read inTheNew Yorker,about Annette's father and Ethan's mother, about medieval mystics, andThe Ascent of Man.And when Ethan could bear it no longer, he would lean across the table and kiss her, or stand and take her in a long, tender embrace. And then he would leave.
Ethan didn't know how to patch up his feelings so that they fit into his life, and he knew it was wrong, but he told himself she was leaving, and then he'd get married, and life would just go on as planned. Neither of them planned on heartbreak.
He continued to attend mass, and as he kneeled beside Annette every Sunday, he thought it sadly ironic that this woman, whom he should not be loving, was bringing him closer to the God he had abandoned. At times he thought that if Annette had been with him at the time of his father's death, if he had been able to turn to her instead of Katie Anne, he would have something to hold on to now, rather than this vague, shifting guilt that fogged his conscience whenever he thought of the old man.
Both of them carried on as if nothing had changed between them. Responses to Annette's comeback were overwhelming, far beyond her modest hopes. Her winter schedule was already shaping up with guest performances in Lyons, The Hague, Heidelberg, and Munich, and her agent was pushing her to start as early as October.
Ethan began to focus on the details of his house. Evenings he and Katie Anne would sit down at the kitchen table with catalogs and samples to discuss countertops and cabinet finishes, carpets and color schemes. They rarely disagreed, and for the first time in their relationship she began to feel like he was making her a partner in a future life. Admitting her to his sacred place, his house. At the same time, his lovemaking became more urgent, more passionate, and afterward he was more reflective. Sometimes in the night he'd get up, and she'd find him in the living room reading poetry. She'd go to him and drape her arms around his neck, and he was always loving and affectionate to her, but she sensed a sadness that hadn't been there before. She knew better than to badger him, but she couldn't help but think something had changed, and her instincts told her that Annette Zeldin had something to do with it.
Ethan got a cold blast of reality one evening while playing pool with Jer at the Beto Junction Truck Stop. It was late at night and the empty beer bottles stood in a row on the windowsill behind their table. Ethan was doing most of the drinking. Jer had wanted to quit much earlier, but Ethan had begged him to stay, so Jer kept his buddy company. Besides, Jer had a few things to say. Things that had been weighing on him. This was as good a time as any to bring them up.
Jer chalked his stick and leaned over the table.
"Six ball in the side pocket," he said. He made the shot and walked around to the other side of the table. "You're gonna get yourself in deep, deep shit if you let this thing go on."
"What can I do, pal? You're on a roll," Ethan said.
"That's not what I mean."
Jer hovered over the seven ball, calculating his next move.
"What're you talkin' about?"
"You know what I'm talkin' about. Don't play dumb ass on me." Jer bent down to eyeball his next shot. "Unless you're so shitfaced drunk right now you really don't know."
The balls cracked and the seven ball dropped into the corner pocket.
"Are you fuckin' her?" Jer asked.
Ethan laid his cue across the table and bent down to look Jer in the eye.
"Don't even use that word in the same breath with her."
Jer peeled Ethan's stick off the table. "Yeah, I don't much like the sound of it, either." He sighted down his cue. "But I guess I got my answer."
Ethan tore Jer's cue out of his hands and slammed it down.
"You've got nothin'. Don't mess with me, Jer."
His friend glared back at him. "You can't make enemies around here," he said. "You make enemies with Tom Mackey and you're dead meat. You're a canner. You won't have a friend in all of Chase County. And you can't survive out here without friends."
Jer put up his stick and took his coat and hat from the rack. As he buttoned his coat he said, "Katie Anne's been askin' questions. She ain't as blind as you think."
After Jer left, Ethan sat at the counter drinking coffee with the truckers. But the coffee was only to warm him and give him something to play with. He didn't really need it. Jer's comment about Katie Anne had triggered something in his brain, releasing a flood of adrenaline and darn near drowning him in sobriety.
When he got home Katie Anne was asleep, but there was a note on the kitchen table:Daddy called. Just wanted to make sure you hadn't forgotten about tomorrow. He'll pick you up at seven.
Ethan liked working cattle with Tom Mackey. He liked the man, envied him his down-to-earth simplicity. If ever any esoteric or abstract thoughts entered his mind, Tom wrestled them to the ground. He dealt in numbers, in deeds, in blood and dander, hide and meat. He set his mind to the objective necessities of livestock, the branding and vaccinating and castrating, the feeding and moving. When Ethan was riding the range with Tom Mackey he was able to laugh at that other side of himself that sat up in his office late at night reading Rilke and Yeats. He stole a glance at the man now and wondered what reveries ever passed through his mind, and what he'd done with them.
"There he is," said Tom Mackey, pointing to a big black Angus bull staring at them.
"You're not figurin' on sellin' him, are you?" asked Ethan.
"Hell no. Old Paco's the best breeding bull I've ever had."
The two men slowly eased their horses through the herd, scattering the cows.
"I'm gonna give him away."
Ethan felt his horse shudder.
"Give him away?"
"Well, I figure now you've got your fencin' finished on Emma Ferguson's property I could go ahead and give you your wedding present. I want you and Katie Anne to come out here tomorrow and cut fifteen cows outta this herd and put 'em to pasture with Old Paco on your place."
Tom reached over and slapped Ethan firmly on the back.
"Welcome to Chase County," he said.
* * *
Katie Anne said she wasn't feeling well the next morning, so Ethan cut the cows with Tom and one of the Mackey cowhands. They drove the small herd back over Jacob's Mound and at the top of the hill Ethan thought he could hear the faint strains of a violin in the distance. But he kept his eyes fastened to the cow rumps and would not look toward the east. His heart pounded in his chest like the horses' hooves pounded the dry winter ground, and he laughed a strangled, miserable laugh when he thought of Ulysses lashing himself to the mast. Tom Mackey heard him laugh and looked at Ethan and grinned. Ethan was drowning in guilt.
He spent the rest of the day on his property. The house was nearing completion, thanks to the unseasonably warm and dry winter, and Ethan poked around the construction site, inspecting tiles and moldings and insulation and anything else that could possibly need his attention. By the time he got home, Katie Anne had already gone down to the main ranch, where they were to dine with her parents.
Tom Mackey was unusually voluble that evening. He had just taken delivery on a new Cessna, and when Ethan arrived he opened a bottle of champagne he'd chilled just for the occasion. Ethan didn't particularly care for champagne but he drank to keep Tom company and to muddle his brain. Katie Anne looked especially pretty. She had gone into Strong City that afternoon to have her hair cut and her nails done, and she threw shy, seductive smiles at him when her parents weren't looking. It reminded Ethan of the evenings they had spent together when they first met.
During dinner Ethan drank too much champagne and Katie Anne drank nothing at all. He got the impression she was watching him, and the more he drank, the more uncomfortable he became. He listened to Tom talk about his basic training as a pilot during World War II out at Luke Field in Arizona. How the guys used to fly their little propeller-driven Steerman planes out over the desert in 125-degree weather. How they would buzz the saguaro cacti, flying so low they'd make the tall gangly things sway. Tom Mackey was his savior. His father. Tom wouldn't abandon him.
He glanced over at Katie Anne. She hadn't eaten much. She was scratching at something on the tablecloth with a pale frosted pink nail. He looked away, back at Tom, because he was acutely aware of the muddle he felt as he looked at her. Damn. What would he do without Tom?
After dinner Ethan glued himself to the old man. They went into Tom's office to look over the prospectus on the new Cessna and Katie Anne stood in the doorway, watching them. After a moment she walked over to where her father sat and wrapped her arms around his neck.
"Guys, I'm tired. I'm gonna take my Jeep and go on home." She glanced at Ethan. "You mind, honey?"
He looked up at her and found himself trapped in a gaze of startling transparency. Like she could read his mind. He looked quickly away.
"I'll take you home," he muttered, and started to rise.
"No," she answered quickly. "Stay with Dad." She kissed her father's cheek. "You guys look like you're havin' fun."
Tom Mackey patted his daughter's hand. "You feelin' okay?"
"I'm fine. Just tired, that's all."
"You sure are lookin' pretty tonight."
"Thanks, Daddy," she whispered.
* * *
After she left, Ethan had a hard time focusing on his conversation with Tom. Betty Sue made him down several cups of hot coffee before she let him drive home.
When Ethan walked up the front steps to the guest ranch the lights were off, but he saw a ghostly flicker from the television set in the bedroom and he knew she was still awake. He was just hoping to get through another night. One night at a time. He'd get through this.
He undressed and got into bed next to her.
"You want me to turn this off?" she asked.
"What is it?"
"I don't know. Some old movie."
"Who's in it?"
She shrugged. "I don't know."
The remote control was lying on her stomach. For a long time he watched it rise and fall with her breathing.
He wanted to take her hand; he wanted to say,I can't do it. I can't go through with it.
Instead he said, "I'm sorry about this evening. I had a little too much to drink."
After a long pause she asked, "Do you want to watch this?"
She picked up the remote control and turned off the television. Then, without a word, she pulled the blankets up around her neck and rolled over with her back to him.
Ethan lay staring at the dark ceiling for a long time, then he turned his back to her and tried to sleep