Alice at heart, p.17
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       Alice At Heart, p.17

           Deborah Smith
 
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  “If you want to believe in them, you have to risk destroying them.”

  “I want to believe in them. I want to believe in you, too. And in me. I insist on finding islands of faith in my life.”

  “You will, I promise you. Help me.”

  She raised a hand, let it fall. Swore testimony. An answer. She would help him find the truth if it could be found, but at the moment she wished they’d never met. She disappeared beneath the water.

  Griffin watched for a long time, tracking the arching progress of several dolphins that followed her. She went toward Sainte’s Point.

  His heart sank.

  She was going back to her sisters.

  Speak to the dead and the dead shall awake and listen. Memory is life.

  As a girl I read that sentiment in some frayed novel of gothic philosophy I checked out of the Riley library. But I spoke to my mother often as I swam in the town’s lake, and if she heard a single word, I never knew. I finally decided because I had no memories of her she would never answer, and I quit trying. Now I wondered if she hadn’t waited all these years to speak through my heart, in choices and moralities and complex longings and extraordinary family bonds she had bequeathed me when she took an extraordinary man, Orion Bonavendier, into her young body.

  I have given you your father’s family. Don’t turn away from them.

  I stayed out in the ocean for a long while today, watching from a distance as Griffin sailed back to BellemeadeBay. If he felt me nearby, he let me own my privacy, but I think he knew. He fears I hate him for threatening my idyllic new life and the women who have done so much for me. The dishonor is that I will search for the truth beside him, but I won’t stay by his side if he tries to condemn them. If they are guilty, I cannot stay by them, either.

  For the first time in my life, I understand the true bonds of kinship. Its oaths are universal; nations have usurped them. Liberty, justice, all for one, and one for all. Like healers, I search for simplicity in the most profound sentiments. But first, do no harm.

  I want desperately to do no harm.

  I swam to the island’s bay side and climbed out of the water at a calm inlet hooded by forest. I still wore Griffin’s sweater, a heavy, soaking weight I could not bear to take off. I stumbled along a well-kept path until I suddenly stepped upon a beautiful marble dais, easily ten feet in diameter, set flat atop a knoll. I pirouetted in wonder, studying that strange marker in the edge of the woods. Abruptly, I faced the mainland and halted with a moan. The dais made a perfect viewing spot for Randolph Cottage. With my unusual eyesight, I could make out the cottage’s peaked, shingled roof easily, far across the placid bay, and even see Griffin’s white-trimmed sailboat at the docks.

  Oh, Griffin. Griffin. You think you’re ugly, and you believe I’m beautiful, and neither is true.

  As if in response, the cool, rose-carved stone brought a shiver inside me, forlorn in its loveliness, kind in its encouragement. I moved off quickly, as if I might be lured to stay and talk about him if I weren’t vigilant. Talk to whom? As I hurried away, I glanced back with the peculiar sense that I could almost hear a woman’s whisper, a voice I didn’t know.

  Was it Melasine, a human creature beyond belief, echoing through the stone as she made her lonely, aged treks God knew where?

  Was it Undiline, betrayed by her own kind, her own family?

  Was it my own mother, begging me to avoid her doom?

  Had the voice touched me with her hands when I was at the Calm Meridian?

  Whoever you are, I don’t want to hear you. I only want witnesses, not more advice. I raced through the lush forest to a shady glen I had already come to know well. An enchanted place. The Bonavendier cemetery. There the giant oaks drape their mossy arms over fine mausoleums and monuments engraved with the Bonavendier crest. The interment of my kind—I have begun to think of them that way—is one of the most beautiful sites on the island. Water bubbles from a natural spring enshrined in a gray coquina fountain. The sunlight seeps, like luminescent freckles, through oak limbs wider than my body. Short, squat palms rattle their fronds in the slightest salt-stung ocean breeze. A mist rises from the fountain as the spring air cools the day; in the late afternoon, the quiet blue light of the gloaming sets the place apart in time. One sandy path leads back through the woods a quarter of a mile to the island’s bayside banks, from which I had come. Another leads to the ocean and the mansion. The souls of Bonavendiers rest, not between heaven and earth, but between heaven and water.

  Where do I fit in? Who has seduced me more, my sisters, or Griffin? I sat down on a marble bench upheld by pediments of web-footed men, dusted sand from the webbing of my feet, tucked the tail of the thick sweater around my thighs, then waited with my head up, my back squared, and my hands clenched together in my lap.

  My sisters came as quickly as I expected. Half-sisters, I reminded myself.

  “I should pull out your recently unmown hair, you precocious brat,” Mara said in a filthy tone, and as no idle threat. She strode from the forest along the path that went up-island to the mansion. Her dark hair was tangled amongst rich silver combs atop her head, and a snugly fitting suit of rose silk gave her an almost Asian look. Her eyes were the ocean on a cold day, and she poured off waves of fury. “How dare you call Lilith to come here as if she’s your servant? Now that you’ve shed your dewy virginity, are you convinced you’re the new queen?”

  “That’s enough,” Lilith said, arriving with a calm stride, her silver hair plaited in interwoven circles around her shoulders, her lithe body outlined in a smooth periwinkle-blue shift with a gold belt around her waist. Pearl rushed up behind her, huffing and disheveled, red hair dangling in wavy streamers from a thickly bound knot, a dark-green maillot hugging her torso, a scarf of delicate hues fluttering like a skirt around her hips.

  My half-sisters, as always, made a stunning sight. I stood and faced them, using every ounce of the courage I’d garnered in my life. “I have a very simple question, and I thought it best to ask it among the souls you honor.” I hesitated, then added quietly, “Did you kill Griffin’s parents?”

  Mara and Pearl gasped. For a moment, I could have sworn the wind rose and a chorus of shocked Bonavendier spirits sang protests to me. But Lilith regarded me with calm resignation. “That,” she said quietly, “is for you to decide.”

  Pearl began to cry. “Does it have to be this way, Lilith? Can’t we just tell her what a terrible tragedy it was?”

  “No. This is a test we all must face if we are to be true sisters beneath the skin. I could tell you the facts, Alice, but telling is only telling. I want you to decide it for yourself. You have the power to do that—and to help Griffin do it, as well.”

  I gave her a begging look. “If there were extenuating circumstances, old feuds, a rash decision, an accident—I can forgive any of that. If you want me to be a full part of this family, then trust me.”

  “It’s not a matter of trusting you, my dear. It’s you, trusting us. And trusting what your own heart will tell you about us. And about Griffin.”

  Mara found her voice and lunged at me, shaking both hands. “Ingrate! Weakling! Troublemaker!”

  Pearl grabbed her arm. “Don’t hurt her! She’s just a child! She still thinks she has to defend herself against the world, and that includes even us.”

  Mara shook her off and glared at me. “You expect us to live by the ridiculous rules of your dirt-poor ideas! You’re not one of us, and you never will be. You have the talents but not the spirit. And Griffin is no better.”

  I gave her a look that stopped her in her tracks. “My expectations, Mara,” I said evenly, “are of honesty, integrity, and a fair hearing, just as I’m giving to you-all. If my kin have killed people, I deserve to know it. And since you are distant kin to Griffin, as well, he deserves to know it, too.”

  “He deserves? You deserve? What have you ever done to deserve anyone’s respect? Whine and hide and run and sneak up on people. Take gifts and kindness but give
back treachery.” She whipped toward Lilith. “Now is there any doubt why you couldn’t hear this timid little bastard singing to you all these years?”

  Lilith slapped her hard. Mara stepped back, laying a hand along her assaulted cheek, giving Lilith a look of utter shock, grief, and humiliation. None of the sisters had struck one another before.

  Pearl sobbed, “Oh, it hurts me, too,” and covered her face.

  Silence stretched out. Birds had stopped singing, and even the distant surf seemed to whisper. I waited. I waited to no avail. I felt as if I’d been led to the edge of a cliff. I bowed my head. I felt bereft, outcast, alone already. “I cannot in good conscience continue to live here while I collaborate with Griffin, or expect you to extend your hospitality to me any longer. You’ve been most kind. I would like my old clothes back, please, and if Barret will take me and my belongings to Bellemeade, I’ll—”

  “Do you wish to leave us?” Lilith asked. I looked at her for a moment, saying nothing but speaking volumes. She heard me and nodded. “Then please, dear Alice, don’t go. I am not angry with you in the least.”

  “I don’t want to betray your goodwill.”

  “You won’t. You haven’t.”

  “I’ll throw you to the sharks if you do,” Mara said.

  “Oh, Mara, hush,” Pearl cried. Then, to me, “I don’t want you to go, either. We’ve only just found you. We want to believe in you as much as you want to believe in us.” Pearl began to sob dramatically.

  “Stop that wailing,” Lilith ordered.

  The harsh words might as well have been another slap. Pearl’s head jerked up. Both she and Mara stared at their older sister in clear surprise.

  “We’ve indulged ourselves for far too long,” Lilith told them. “Believing we can keep the outside world away, that the old feuds have honor and the old sorrows must continue to define us. But the world is changing, my dears. Alice and Griffin are the future. And I intend to give them that future.”

  She turned her back to them and looked at me. “If you are one of us at heart, you’ll learn the truth out there.” Lilith nodded toward the ocean. “You and Griffin, together.”

  I felt my heart fall through my chest. I couldn’t imagine how any of us were going to escape without pain.

  “Don’t make any mistake about it, I want Alice to stay here, too.” Mara gave me a sharkish smile. “Where I can watch you. Or are you too much a coward to stand up under my scrutiny?”

  That settled it and saved enough face for us all to agree. I was not sure whether I was being coerced or seduced by Bonavendier spirits who might or might not have my best interests at heart. My mother’s memory told me to stay, but, then, she had died for loving the Bonavendiers. “So be it,” I said.

  My own oath.

  I was with Griffin tonight. Not in words so much, but in the deep current that carries passion, that reflects living shapes and sensations, that outlines life and calls life to it. I lay in my sumptuous bed at Sainte’s Point, my hands going over my bare body with feverish want, touching myself for him, lifting myself to him, spreading and softening and soaking the sheet beneath my thighs with the fluid of desire. I was guilty and angry and manipulative, but, then, so was he. I could feel every move of his body, every tortured emotion.

  His back arched.

  I’ll make you believe what I know is right, I whispered.

  You can’t. Don’t try. Yet, he sent back waves of arousal.

  I felt his startled reaction, then gave him my agonized pleasure. I won’t betray my sisters.

  You’re mine. I’m yours. Don’t betray us.

  The image of my fingertips over his face came to me. In the air just above his skin, I traced his jaw, touched the scar on his cheek, floated my forefinger lightly above his lips. He shut his eyes, groaned again, and our sorrowful desire merged us.

  I halted my hand, trembling. It’s no use. Leave me be, and I’ll leave you be, too.

  I wish it were that simple.

  Then I have to touch you. I have to try.

  For Gods sake. Please.

  I cried.

  I am ashamed, so shaken of what I’ve done with Griffin and to Griffin—who is a threat to my new family and new life—that I lie here at Sainte’s Point, still crying.

  He whispers inside me, I’m only sorry for your tears.

  Leave me alone with them, is all I can manage.

  And he kisses me goodbye.

  Mysteries made worried songs in Lilith’s mind, unspooling old fears and sorrows, old mistakes, bitterness, regret, the deepest loves and losses. She felt immeasurably sunken by concern over Alice and Griffin as she wrote in her journal. Forces have been set in motion. Strong currents are merging.

  Alice asked her in private, “Were you out at the Calm Meridian with me? Was Mara? Was Pearl?”

  “No, none of us,” Lilith answered. “Why?”

  But Alice only shook her head.

  Lilith went down to the beaches and stood gazing out beyond the surf, singing.

  Are you out there?

  Tell me what to do to save my family.

  Your family, Melasine.

  19

  At the risk of insulting those Water People who believe Landers cannot possibly share our legacy, I must point out that if the sea is the mother of us all, then we must all be, at heart, both Water People and Land People.

  —Lilith

  Honor, kindness, and revenge. And I will always take revenge, Mara thought grimly, as she exited a private car driven by one of the Tanglewoods, then made her way down a cobblestoned alley behind a street of Savannah’s most exquisite historic mansions. Moving with stealth and confidence, she fitted a stolen key into the lock of an elaborate courtyard gate and let herself inside C. A. Randolph’s private garden.

  She had never claimed to be anything other than her family’s enforcer. She stood in C.A.’s garden and began to sing to him softly, her voice perfect and haunting. He walked into the garden.

  Mara posed as deliberately as a geisha beneath the flowering dogwoods and old jasmine vines of a house so fine General Sherman had commandeered it for himself and his favorite colonels during the occupation of the Civil War. The house stood in the midst of the city’s historic residential district, on a boulevard hooded by oaks and washed in the murmurs of fountains.

  C.A. had never been able to put aside the whisper of water, and Mara’s effect flooded his veins now. He hid a tremor behind clenched fists. “All these years,” he said, “I’ve pictured you standing here, and I’ve pictured myself telling you to get the hell out. How did you get a key?”

  “I have keys to most of these old homes. I’m a welcome guest in certain circles.”

  “A pickpocket. Sad.”

  “You made me swear to stay away from you. I always have. But you never said a thing about leaving your house alone. I’ve slipped into your home on many occasions. Studied your books, your belongings, the things you use to mollify the emptiness in your life. I’ve lain naked on your bed sheets, and I think you know it. Haven’t you made love to your lady friends with my perfume in your senses? Oh, those must have been glorious nights for the poor, ordinary creatures.”

  His silence and the look on his face confirmed every word she said. His expression turned to stone. “I can’t imagine why you’ve gone to the trouble of watching me since I’m one of many you’ve used and deserted.”

  “I do have a certain curiosity about you—and a certain admiration for your refusal to settle for the ordinary, after me. I find it fascinating that you’ve never married.”

  “Is your own life so full of happiness that you have the gall to pity mine? You fell in love with me, and you never counted on that. You wouldn’t lower yourself to admit it. So you ran. Ran to New York—and married some web-footed bastard you never loved.”

  “How dare you. How dare you.” She raised a trembling hand to her throat.

  “You didn’t love him,” C.A. repeated. “And he knew it. That’s why he was always
trying to prove himself. You didn’t want him to buy his own small plane and learn to fly, but he did it anyway. Flying—the one thing that frightens you—that’s what he did, to impress you. And when the two of you had children, as soon as they were old enough he took them up, too, because he—”

  “Do not speak of my children! Do not! I would never stoop to torment you with such private and dear—”

  “I grieved for your children.” C.A. put a fist over his heart. “When the plane went down with your husband and children, I hurt as if they were my own children, Mara.”

  She swayed, struggling to maintain the facades that protected her. “Lilith told me you wanted to help. But it’s not my way to accept—”

  “So you secluded yourself at the island and wanted no one to care about you. And you’ve gotten worse every year since.”

  “We Bonavendiers grieve for our losses in the water, alone. I have my own brand of honor.” Her voice broke. “And kindness.”

  “Then what do you want from me now?” He kept the courtyard’s centerpiece between them. It was an anchor from a long-lost Randolph ship, one the Bonavendiers had been accused of sinking. Tendrils of spring grapevine had begun to wrap their delicate fingers around the iron, as if the earth, not the water, claimed all Randolph vessels.

  Mara became so somber he felt alarmed. “I want your promise that you’ll tell Griffin the truth when he asks you about Porter and Undiline.”

  “I don’t want my godson ruined the way Porter was.”

  “You know what happens when a Bonavendier is determined to find something in the water. Alice will help him dredge up the truth, C.A. And when that happens, you had better be there with us, for Griffin’s sake, because that is where he will be ruined—by the ugly truth. And you’ll have to admit what you know about his father and mother.”

  Slowly, C.A. walked to a teakwood bench weathered oyster gray. He sat down with a bowed head. “God help us all,” he said.

 
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