Dahti Blanchard

It always started with the circle of women. Usually they were surrounding an ancient tree whose topmost branches were decorated with a necklace of stars while a full, pregnant moon looked on. It would have been a lovely scene except that a sense of terrible urgency hung in the air as the women sang a chant that was impossible to hear. Suddenly, as men in long robes approached, the circle broke and became a snake, threading its way to the waves crashing on the nearby shore. Holding hands and still chanting, each woman followed the next, disappearing beneath the waves. As the robed men began to run, a pounding heartbeat thundered from the opposite direction. It was a horseman, with cape and long hair whipping behind him. His mouth formed a silent scream, but the only sound that could be heard, that was felt, was the pounding of the hoof beats racing to the water’s edge. Just before the men from either direction could reach the unbroken chain of women, the last woman in line looked up at the horseman. With tears in her eyes, but still chanting, she raised her free hand in a gesture that somehow conveyed love, sorrow and farewell all at once. Then she too disappeared beneath the sea. Now there was sound, deafening sound. It came from the crashing of the waves and the rage of the robed men. But above it all came the rhythmic thundering of the hoof beats and the anguished cry from the horsemen’s lips, “Rose! NO…”

I echoed that scream, “No…!” until I sat straight up in bed, my heart pounding. I forced myself to come awake. Not again?! I’d had that same dream three times now and as frightening as it was it made no sense to me. I wasn’t even in it!

Throwing back the covers, I swung my feet to the floor and then sat with my head in my hands as I waited for my heart and breath to return to normal. Deciding that a glass of water would help, I reached for the lamp switch – but there was no lamp there. That brought me fully awake. And then I remembered where I was.

I had only been in this house for two days. It had belonged to my mother, a woman I had never known. On the day of my birth she had kissed me goodbye (or at least so I had imagined) and handed me over to some official who had seen to it that the proper forms were filled out and filed safely away before my new parents could claim me. Until the day of my fortieth birthday I never knew who my birth mother was. When I was eighteen my adopted mother tried to help me find her, but was told that my birth mother wanted no contact and I didn’t pursue it. Although she never admitted it, I thought Mom was actually relieved. My adopted father had died when I was sixteen and I was their only child. Mom wanted to do what was best for me but I thought she was secretly afraid of losing me if I found my birth mother. I understood that after having my own daughter and divorcing her father. I had tried very hard not to make Rowan feel torn between her father and me, but it was not easy. Now that she was nineteen and no longer living with either of us it still wasn’t easy.

Mom died suddenly when I was thirty-nine. I had barely gotten over the shock and was still working on my grief and loneliness from losing her when I received yet another shock. On the afternoon of my birthday, which I was spending as quietly as possible with Rowan and her partner Keisha, the mailman delivered a certified letter. It seemed that though my birth mother had wanted no contact with me, she had known all along who and where I was. She too, had just died, of heart failure, and had left me all her possessions. These included a small sum of money, a 1986 Jeep Cherokee, and her house in upstate New York. I was now the owner of a two hundred year old, five bedroom house in a tiny town near the Canadian border. My first thought was to sell it. No, that was my second thought. My first thought was: Why in hell did this woman who wanted nothing to do with me leave me a house that had been in her family for two hundred years? Then I thought to sell it. It was Rowan who talked me out of it.

“Mom, at least go see it first! Aren’t you curious? You might have relatives you don’t know about. It might be a really beautiful house and you could live there. You were the one who said now that I’m not here anymore you’d like a change. Didn’t you tell me that you needed a change of scene to get through your writer’s block? You haven’t written or illustrated a book for a while. This might be a new source of inspiration.”

“It might be an old rundown heap of a house,” I told her, “and need huge piles of money to repair it.”

“It might,” she agreed dryly. “Or it might be haunted or it might be painted the wrong color. Or, it just might be a place that you love. At least find out. After all, you probably spent time there in your mother’s womb. Maybe it’ll be familiar. Wouldn’t that be weird?”

“I’ll think about it,” was all I would give her. The truth was I was afraid of it being familiar. This was a home of a family that hadn’t wanted me. What if the house didn’t want me either? It wasn’t part of who I was. That wasn’t true. It was part of me. I couldn’t get past that fact. Then I had the first dream.

It happened that very night. It was so vivid and strong and seemed to come out of nowhere. It came again a week later, and not knowing why it was so, the dreams caused me to make the decision to go stay in the house for a time, and as I told Rowan, “We’ll just see what happens.”

So here I was. Two days in the house, with mixed emotions, confusion, only a slight relief from the writer’s block, but no more dreams. Until now.

I walked carefully across the room and flipped the light switch on the wall by the door. Looking around the room, I spotted my faithful laptop, and felt instantly better. Maybe I hadn’t produced a whole lot of work on it lately, but it was a familiar old friend. The house had not seemed familiar to me at all, but I did take a surprising liking to it right away. Sort of like a new acquaintance you hope will become a good friend, but you don’t yet know what to say to each other.

As soon as the lawyers had taken care of the details, I bought a plane ticket before I could chicken out. Before I knew it, I had sublet my apartment in Seattle and threw a small party to say goodbye to my friends (who all thought I was crazy- but that was okay because I thought I was crazy too). I assured my agent that this temporary move would stimulate my creative juices, and then I was gone. I knew it was important for me to be by myself when I first saw the house, so I convinced Rowan, who was dying to check it out, to wait a month before she came to visit. That would give her and Keisha time to earn some more summer money and still have two weeks to come to New York before returning to college.

On the first Monday in August I flew into Syracuse and drove the one hundred miles north to Newbridge. I had made arrangements to lease a car, and was glad to have the time to get used to the new scenery before my first encounter with the house. New York State was definitely different from the Pacific Northwest. I felt as if I was in a different world.

I had little trouble finding the town. Though the population was only about 2500 people, the area was peppered with even smaller towns and they were clearly marked on the map I had bought when I picked up the car. There was certainly no feeling of coming home as I drove past the first houses of Newbridge, but neither was there the feeling of dread I now realized I had half been expecting. Parts of the village were very old. A few of the freshly whitewashed houses spoke of generations of loving care. Other parts were fairly new, with double-wide trailers predominating. Though in its early days it might have been, this was no longer a wealthy town.

I drove past an old three story brick building with a sign in front proclaiming it to be the Newbridge Central School. Two blocks on was the library, which shared a building with the First Federal Savings and Loan. Somehow the name of the bank struck me as funny – could there actually be room for a Second Federal Savings and Loan in this little place? And if so, what might it be sharing space with?

I forced my thoughts back into place as I crossed a short bridge over a narrow, rushing body of water. A plain wooden sign informed me that it was the Oswegatchie River. I’ll have to look up the history of that name, I told myself and vowed that one of my first ventures out would be to the tiny library. I had been used to doing my research at the Seattle Public Library. Looking for what I needed in a library the size this town had to offer would certainly be an adventure.

It suddenly struck me that I was here – in this place I knew nothing about but now owned a home in. No, I reminded myself, not a home – simply a house. I had the address, but not a clue to where the street might be. Right after the bridge I arrived in the real business district: one curving street with a post office, a drug store, two restaurants, a hardware store, a small grocery and a gas station. Assuming that gas station owners and attendants know everyone, I pulled the car in and up to the first gas pump. I was about to get out to pump my own gas, but before I could open the door a young man with short, dark hair and stained coveralls stuck his head near my window.

“How much would you like, Ma’am?” He was wiping his greasy hands on an old handkerchief, and gave me a detached, but friendly smile.

“Oh, fill it up, please,” I told him. Then I got out of the car and followed him to the pump. “I was expecting to get it myself,” I laughed. “I’m really used to doing that where I come from.”

“Oh, where is that?” he asked.

“Seattle. I’ve lived there most of my life, but I’m actually going to be staying in Newbridge for a while. I’ve inherited a house here and I thought I’d come stay in it for a time.” I was shocked to find myself babbling. What in the world was wrong with me? Just come right out and ask him if he knows where the house is, I thought. “Actually, I was hoping you might tell me how to find the house. I’ve never been here before but I have the address.”

Brian (I assumed that was his name since it was embroidered over his breast pocket) looked a bit interested at this. “Sure, what is it?”

I had it committed to memory and told him, “34 Maple Hill Road. Do you know it?”

Brian nearly dropped the pump handle. “The old Whitney house? You inherited that?”

“That’s it,” I assured him. “Is there something wrong?”

He merely shrugged and then gave me a lopsided grin. “No, sorry. I was just a bit surprised. Tess Whitney died a few months ago and nobody’s been there since. I just didn’t know she had any relatives left. Except Toby, of course, but he hasn’t stepped foot in there in all the years I’ve been alive and I don’t expect he wants to now. But I guess you know all that. So you’re related to Tess, huh?”

I was now feeling a bit uncomfortable, but curious. I didn’t want to talk to a stranger about Tess Whitney – my mother – at this point, but who was Toby? “I’m sort of a long lost relative,” I fudged. “But I’d like to meet Toby. Does he live around here?”

“Off and on,” Brian said. “He travels a lot. I don’t think he’s here right now. That’ll be $15.”

“Thanks, Brian is it?” He looked perplexed for a minute and I thought I’d made a stupid mistake assuming that was his name. Who knew how many attendants shared Brian’s coveralls?

“How did you know?” He seemed almost frightened, but when I pointed to his pocket he laughed. “Oh right, I forgot it was there. I’m actually wearing my own coveralls today. Here, let me get you change and then I’ll draw you a little map. You can’t miss the house. It’s the last one on the road and there’s only 2 others before it.”

I drove away with a piece of paper that contained a small map and a large grease stain, sitting on the seat beside me. It did the job, however. Within ten minutes time I found a badly weathered wooden mailbox with letters I could barely read – but they were just visible enough for me to know I had found the right address. The driveway was not long, but was lined with tall maple trees that obscured the house from the road. As I came to the end of the drive I had my first view of the house. I don’t know what I had expected, but this wasn’t it. The house itself was at least as weathered as the mailbox. No paint had been applied to its exterior for close to one hundred years was my guess, but there was something very appealing about it nevertheless. It was a fairly large box shaped building. Several huge paned windows gave me hope that there would be plenty of sunlight shining through. There was no trim or decoration except for the door. It had been painted a wonderful shade of red with interesting designs and symbols of many colors on top. It should have looked out of place but it didn’t. I found myself eagerly scrambling for the key a lawyer had sent me, and, climbing out of the car, I gave a brief glance to the Jeep parked next to my rental as I headed to the door. The house was surrounded by a meadow, which in turn was surrounded by trees. All along the walkway and lining the front of the house grew a profusion of herbs. They were obviously planted with great care and fit perfectly with the house. Despite myself, I was charmed. As I pinched a leaf from a plant that gave a pungent lemony smell, I realized these plants had probably been tended by my birth mother. For the first time, I caught myself thinking of her as a real person, and wondering what she had really been like.

I became aware of an unusual pair of eyes peering at me through the leaves of a tall plant. One eye was blue, one green and as I squatted for a closer look I saw that they belonged to a long-haired, tan colored cat. It looked almost as weathered as the house. “Who are you?” I asked it. It didn’t come forward at the sound of my voice, but neither did it retreat. “Do you belong here? Have you been fending for yourself all this time? If you decide you want to share the place with me, we might be able to come to some arrangement.” I looked expectantly at the animal, but it didn’t seem inclined to acknowledge my generous offer, so I left it there.

The stairs up to the porch seemed sturdy enough. I quickly unlocked the door and gave it a push. I expected a spooky little creaking sound, but that didn’t happen until I stepped over the threshold. The floorboard creaked again as the cat bounded past me and stopped in a doorway, looking back at me. It apparently had decided to take me up on my offer after all. Either that, or it felt it owned the house and was trying to decide if it should share with me or not. I left it to ponder its own thoughts and began to explore.

There was a coating of dust and a few cobwebs here and there, but it was otherwise a tidy looking house. The door opened to a hallway with an oak stairway leading to the second floor and a closed door to the left. To the right and past the stairs were more rooms. The doorway the cat had stood in led to a living room that held a sofa and 3 chairs, an old piano and a huge bookcase. The wooden floor was partially covered with a threadbare Oriental carpet, and on the walls hung two framed copies of paintings by Maxfield Parrish. There were squares of darker wood where other paintings had obviously hung, but were nowhere to be seen now. On the inside wall was a stone fireplace with a large mantle, which was empty except for two brass candleholders.

A door from the living room and one from the hallway both led to a dining room with a large wooden table and eight chairs. A built in china cabinet held dust covered dishes.

At the end of the hallway, next to the dining room was the kitchen. There was no doubt that this had been one of Tess’s favorite rooms. It was large and old fashioned but had an almost cheerful atmosphere, even after months of being left alone. Dried herbs and flowers hung from the rafters and jars of herbs and spices still covered the wooden countertops. “The woman liked her herbs,” I muttered to myself as I ran a finger across the dust covered chopping block. The cat meowed agreement as it made its way across the floor to a spot by the refrigerator. It looked at the two empty bowls there and then at me, and meowed again. Well, that answered that question. This was undoubtedly Tess’s cat. “I’m sorry,” I told it. “I wasn’t expecting to have a housemate so I don’t have any food for you.” Though it was a pretty scruffy looking cat, it definitely wasn’t skin and bones. Either someone else was feeding it or it had fended well for itself in the months since Tess’s death. I knew I would have to make a grocery run before too long and decided I’d pick up some cat food too. “We’ll have to have a name for you if you’re going to stay here with me,” I said as I leaned over and tried to place my hand near enough to let the creature get used to my scent but not so close that it felt threatened. “I can’t call you Cat – since that’s my name too. Spelled with a K, mind you, and it’s short for Katrina, but it would be just too confusing to have two Kats, don’t you think?” Apparently it had no opinion on the subject, so I left it sitting silently by the empty bowls and continued to explore the house.

The closed door at the foot of the stairs opened to an artist’s studio. I stood in the doorway without moving for some time, taking in the fact that Tess had obviously also been an artist. I had known practically from my first memory of my adopted mother reading what became some of my favorite beautifully illustrated children’s books that that was what I wanted to do when I grew up. My adopted mother, who professed not to have a single artistic bone in her body, nevertheless encouraged my prolific output of childhood artwork and made sure I had instruction as soon as I was old enough. To find that my birth mother was also an artist was somewhat of a shock.

I pulled myself back from my thoughts and looked once more at my surroundings. This room was not tidy, by any means, but it was wonderful. It was the largest room so far with several windows to let in plenty of sunlight. There were canvases, brushes, jars and rags strewn everywhere. A half finished portrait of a young woman sat on an easel. I didn’t stay in the studio for long. I was afraid that this was where I would find what might be left of my birth mother’s spirit, and I wasn’t ready for that yet. I quietly closed the door behind me, but I knew that I’d be drawn back here before long.

The stairway produced fewer squeaks than I would have expected, and I stopped on the landing at the top to look out the window. There was a small barn and a fenced pasture. Neither looked as if they had been used in a very long time. The hallway was narrow with three bedrooms on one side and two on the other. Four of them were sparsely furnished, but the fifth was filled with colorful and comfortable looking furniture. There was another stone fireplace here and I realized I was directly above the living room. The bed was made, but the layer of dust everywhere made me hope there was a utility room with a washer and dryer that I just hadn’t discovered yet. I would need to wash the bedclothes and then this, I decided, would be my room while I stayed in the house.

At the other end of the hallway I discovered one flight of stairs leading upward and a narrow set leading back down. At the bottom I found the hoped for washer and dryer in a utility room which led back into the kitchen. Suddenly, I realized I was both hungry and tired and so would put off tackling the third floor – which was most likely an attic – until later. I made a run back into Newbridge to buy groceries, and after feeding myself and the cat, I did wash the bedclothes and laid on the bed for a short nap. My body, however, ignored the concept of short. I woke early the next morning to find the cat curled against my back, my clothes and hair rumpled, but I was oddly relaxed for sleeping in a strange house.

As I started to get up from the bed, the cat casually hooked a claw into the back of my blouse. “You can let go right now…whatever your name is,” I told it, struggling for something to call it. It hung on for a moment more, obviously not wanting me to think it would follow any instructions I might give it. Then it let go and turned the other way, the better to ignore me. As it turned I got a good enough glimpse to tell it was a female. Now that that was established I decided it was time to come up with a name. “I told you my name. Now, what’s yours? Let’s see, how about…” Suddenly a name popped into my head. “Minette?” I had no idea where the name came from, but the cat turned back to look at me and meow once before turning her attention to the delicate art of washing her paw. “Minette it is,” I said and then got out of bed, the better to ignore her.

I started the second day in the house wide awake and with even more curiosity. Who was this woman who had given me up at the beginning of my life and then had left me the remnants at the end of hers? I had a suspicion I’d find some of the answers in the studio, but since I still wasn’t ready for that I decided I would explore the attic right after breakfast.

As I sat drinking coffee in the kitchen, sunbeams flooded through the windows, enticing me out into the actual sunshine. I picked up the coffee cup and headed out the door to sit on the back step. Minette trotted along beside me, but continued on down the step and went off to perform whatever catly duties were on her agenda. I sat, took a sip and then looked around at the back yard. The grass was high, but even this was tidy. The fenced pasture covered a good deal of the area, but there was also open meadow leading to the line of trees. I became lost in thought enough that I didn’t even notice the woman emerging from the trees until I heard her speak.

“Mother!” There was a bit of exasperation in her voice. “Mother, are you here?” I was too surprised to say anything and just observed her instead. As she came closer I could see she was somewhere around my age, probably a little bit older. Her slightly graying, black hair was tied back with a rubber band and her jeans and blouse appeared clean, but worn. Two thoughts struck me about her: she looked like someone who was used to hard work, and she seemed vaguely familiar in that way that some strangers do. Then she saw me. At first she seemed frightened, then astonished, and then… I’m not sure. She tangled one hand into her ponytail and the other she wiped along her jeans, as if to clean it. Then she continued toward me.

“Hi, excuse me, I’m…, who are you?”

“I’m Katrina Benson. I’m…, I’m the new owner of this place.”

The woman looked at me for a minute. “For just a second I thought you were Tess. I mean, you don’t really look like her up close, but she used to sit here on the step when I was young and…,” she did a doubletake. “You’re the new owner? You’ve bought the place?”

“No.” I hesitated. I wasn’t sure how much to say. “I’ve inherited it. I never met Tess but she, um, left it to me. Are you my neighbor?”

“I’m sorry. I just never expected to see anyone here, other than my mother. Yes, I am your neighbor.” She held out her hand and as we shook she said, “My name is Rita Lawrence. Our house is just through the woods, and my mother slips off sometimes and since Tess’s death I usually find her over here. I don’t know why – I don’t think she and Tess ever got along. Maybe it’s just because they were the same age and knew each other all their lives, that Mom has a hard time knowing Tess is gone.” Rita took a breath and then went on. “I didn’t know Tess had any relatives left. Are you a long lost cousin?”

I was surprised to find that I had formed an opinion of this person so soon, but I had. With little to base it on, I found that I liked her and hoped we could be friends. I also realized that here was a source of knowledge I might tap. Rita had known my mother probably all her life.

“Not exactly. Would you like a cup of coffee?”

“No thanks,” she said, but she did come sit on the bottom step. “I used to sit here with Tess sometimes when I was little. She had horses and she’d let me help feed them and sometimes ride them and then we’d sit here and talk about them. I was horse crazy then.”

I felt a twinge of jealousy and then told myself how ridiculous that was. I’d had a wonderful mother and father. No horses though. “This is a bit awkward, I guess, but Tess Whitney was… she was my mother.”

Rita’s jaw dropped and then closed again. “What?”

“It was a surprise to me too. She put me up for adoption right after I was born and I never saw or heard from her again until a couple of months ago I was notified that she’d died and left me this place. All my life I knew I was adopted but I didn’t know who my birth parents were or that my mother knew where I was. I still don’t know who my father was.” I stopped speaking suddenly, amazed at myself for telling this stranger so much. Neither of us said anything until the cat appeared and pounced at something near Rita’s feet.

“Minette!” Rita exclaimed. “You gave me a scare.”

“What did you say?” My voice was barely a whisper.

Rita looked at me oddly. “I said the cat gave me a scare. Have you met her yet?”

“Her name… it’s Minette?”

“Yep. Tess has had three Minettes that I know of. All from the same line of cats too. She had other cats with other names, but I guess she really liked this name. Minette is the only cat she had for the last four or five years though. Are you all right?”

I collected myself and smiled at her. “Sure. Minette is an interesting name. She seems in pretty good shape to have been by herself since Tess died. Did you or your mother take care of her?”

Rita laughed. “Not my mother. They hate the sight of each other. Well, maybe that’s a little strong… no, it’s not. They really don’t like each other. I’ve been feeding her. She sneaks over to our house once in a while but mostly I’ve brought food and left it in the barn here for her. Have you gotten near her yet?”

“Gotten near her?”

“Yeah, she doesn’t take to people much. She loved Tess, of course, and she tolerates me, but she’s pretty independent.”

“I guess I should be honored then. She came right in the house with me yesterday and slept with me last night.” I didn’t want to sound like I was bragging, especially if this woman was attached to the cat, so I added, “I don’t know how well my clothes are going to fare though, she did grab my blouse this morning when I moved before she gave me permission.”

Rita’s laugh pealed across the yard. “You should be honored. Most people can’t get that close to her. She obviously took a liking to you.” Minette must have been listening because she rubbed against my leg as if emphasizing Rita’s words, and then bounded back across the yard before I got cocky enough to think she liked me too much.

“This seems so strange.” Rita’s voice was quiet but she looked directly at me. “Tess never said a word about… about having had a daughter. But, if she put you up for adoption I guess she wouldn’t. My mother must not have known or it would have been blabbed all over town.” Then she seemed to have regretted her words. “I’m sorry Katrina. I didn’t mean that to sound rude. But I just never thought of Tess as someone else’s mother.”

“That’s okay,” I reassured her. “Most people call me Kat, by the way. I hope you’ll do the same. It sounds like you were pretty close to Tess. I had a wonderful mom who died this last year. I miss her a lot. I still don’t know exactly how I feel about this whole thing. Finding out that Tess apparently knew where I was all along and then leaving me this place. In some ways it feels pretty bizarre and I’m still not sure why I decided to come here. I hope this doesn’t feel too awkward for you.”

Rita looked at her hands. “Why should it feel awkward to me?”

“Well, it really does sound like you were close. You knew her well and I didn’t know her at all, and here I am. It feels pretty awkward to me.” I smiled a bit to soften the words.

“Obviously I didn’t know her as well as I thought I did or I would have known about you, right?” Rita also smiled but I sensed a tinge of sadness. “I did love Tess and I miss her. My relationship with my mother has never been exactly… easy. Growing up I escaped to this place a lot. My mother was never happy about that, but I was always glad Tess was here. I’m sorry you didn’t know her.”

“I’m not sure if I’m sorry about that or not. I don’t know why she gave me up. And, if she knew who and where I was, why didn’t she ever contact me? I know it’s irrational, but sometimes I find myself being angry at this woman I never met. And I don’t even know what she looked like!” I fidgeted with my coffee cup and then laid it aside. “And now here I am babbling all this to you when I’ve just met you. I’m sorry.”

Rita smiled again. “Don’t be,” she said. “This place just sort of does that to you. I babbled a lot to Tess all the years I came over here. And I’m sorry. I don’t mean to make you feel bad about how well I knew… your mother.”

“Maybe we should both stop apologizing. I’m really glad to meet you Rita. I’m hoping you might be willing to help me get to know who Tess was. It’s great to have a neighbor to talk to.” I stood up and glanced into the house. “I spent a little time yesterday exploring the house but didn’t get to the attic. Want to come look it over with me?”

She looked back the way she had come and then shrugged. “I was looking for my mother, but obviously she’s not here. She’ll be okay. I guess I could come in for a little bit.”

“Is your mother sick?” I wasn’t sure how to politely ask if her mother was suffering either physically or mentally.

“No,” Rita sighed. “Lately, it seems like her mind wanders a bit and then she’ll disappear. Sometimes I find her over here walking around, but most of the time she’s just sort of hiding out at home. I shouldn’t say this, but, even though I want to know she’s okay, I think it’s a relief for both of us to find some space from each other. I came back to live with her and take care of her a couple of years ago after I got divorced, and it looks like some things never change. Know what I mean?” I wasn’t sure that I did know, but I didn’t tell her that as she followed me through the door.

I knew that, no matter how well she might know it, I couldn’t, for the moment, share Tess’s studio with Rita. The rest of the house seemed fair game though. “I’ve been everywhere but the attic,” I told her. “Have you been up there?”

“A few times when I was young. I love old attics – there’s usually so much in them around here that goes way back. I don’t remember Tess being much interested in showing me any of the old things from her family though. From what I remember her attic was fairly neat and organized. I was surprised at that the first time I saw it because ours is anything but. And my mother was always telling me about each little item we came across in ours – she was always proud of how long her and my dad’s families had been here. I think it was the one interest she and I shared.” Rita was quiet for a moment and then added, “Tess’s family… your family… must have been here just as long. She just didn’t talk about it like my mother did.”

“Well, let’s go see what’s there.” When I went back to the studio I had to be alone. I was afraid that was where I would really have to confront Tess. But in the attic, where there might be a barrage of memories stored up by this family that was mine and yet not mine, I didn’t mind having company. We made our way up the first flight of stairs, down the hallway and to the second flight which, I now saw, ended at another closed door. Going first, I struggled with the hard to open door, and when I finally managed, I saw that Rita was right. This was an uncommonly tidy attic. It was a good sized room, but for some reason not as large as I had imagined it. There were several trunks and things that had been common in years gone by, but would be considered treasures now; at least I knew they would be in Seattle. I noticed two large spinning wheels, butter churns, wooden buckets, and three sewing machines from different eras before I stopped trying to take it all in at once. There was a lot to explore here – but it was stacked so neatly. Tess and I definitely hadn’t had this in common. I could relate much more to the one place in the house she seemed to be able to just let herself go – the studio. As I looked around, something struck me as more odd than how tidily the objects were placed. It took me a moment to figure out what it was.

“Rita, look at all this stuff, and yet, there’s hardly any dust up here. Isn’t that weird?”

Rita took her hand from a stack of books on an old table and looked around. “You’re right,” she replied. “Maybe it’s just airtight and not much dust gets in. There are cobwebs on the ceiling, see?”

“Do you think Tess came up and dusted this stuff? It seems a bit odd. I don’t think I’d…” We both froze as we heard the stairs creak. Suddenly I laughed and said, “I’m going to have to get used to the sounds here. Minette makes a lot of noise for a cat.” I turned to the door to invite her highness in, but the words stopped at my lips. Standing in the doorway was a short, thin, older woman with bluish gray hair, who was wearing a faded green, polyester dress and a black scowl. I was sure I knew who she was immediately and felt a decided twinge of sympathy for Rita.

“Mother, what are you doing here?” Rita walked to the door, but moved back as her mother stepped in.

“Funny, I thought I’d ask you the same thing,” her mother said pointedly.

For a moment, Rita reminded me of a guilty little girl, as if this was something that had happened often in her life. Then, she seemed to shake herself loose. “I came over here looking for you, but I found Kat instead. Mom, this is Kat Benson. Kat, this is my mother, Harriet Sloan.”

“Pleased to meet you, Mrs. Sloan.” I smiled at the woman and waited to see how she would reply. I didn’t think she looked all that pleased to meet me.

“How do you do?” At least she seemed to be going for civil. “Are you a realtor or something? This place isn’t for sale you know.”

“Yes, I know. I’m the new owner.”

Harriet was silent while she took this information in. Then she asked, “How can you be the new owner?”

“Mom, she inherited it. Tess left the house to her.” I noticed Rita had inserted herself between her mother and me, almost as if she were trying to protect one of us. But which one? Surely she couldn’t be afraid I would hurt her mother. And that frail little woman couldn’t possibly hurt me. I had a good seven inches and many pounds on her.

“So, are you one of her witch friends? If you are, you’ll go to Hell right where she is now, unless you repent.” Ah, the acid tongue. Perhaps Rita had been trying to protect me from that. Poor Rita looked very embarrassed. She needn’t have worried. I found her mother a little entertaining. I thought it best not to let either of them know that though.

“No, Mrs. Sloan. I’m not one of her witch friends. In fact I never met Tess. I may have other things to repent, but right now that’s not one of them.” I suppose I shouldn’t have been flippant, but it slipped out.

“Who are you then? Why else would she leave you this house?” You could practically see the old woman’s brain whirring as she tried to piece something together. It suddenly struck me odd that I thought of her as an old woman and yet I thought of Tess, who Rita had said had been the same age as her mother, as a stately middle-aged Miss Rumphius type. And I was obviously progressing in seeing Tess as a real person if I was acquainting her with a favorite children’s book character. Rita snapped me out of my reverie.

“Mom, please. It’s not our business. Let’s leave Kat to what she was doing and go home. I’ll make you some tea if you want.” Rita was definitely trying to steer her mother out the door, but Mom wasn’t buying it.

“You seemed to be real cozy with her for it not being our business.” Harriet looked at her daughter and then at me. Her face went pale and she pointed a finger at me. “Wait a minute. You can’t be.” Slowly, she walked around me. As she looked me over her eyes kept returning to my face. “You don’t look much like…” She looked at Rita accusingly and then back at me. “Are you her daughter?” she whispered.

That certainly startled me and I glimpsed a surprised look on Rita’s face also. “Yes, I am,” I finally said. “As I said, I never met her though.”

“Mom, you knew about Kat?” Rita’s surprise deepened.

“I knew she had a baby,” Harriet spat. “I didn’t know what happened to it though.” The accusing look returned as she turned back to Rita. “How long have you known about it? I suppose Tess told you all about it.”

“No, I just found out when I met Kat.”

Suddenly, Mrs. Sloan seemed to become a whole different person. “I’m sorry,” she said to me. “Tess and I were not friends, as you can probably tell. As a good Christian woman I certainly didn’t like some of her ways. But that’s no reason to take it out on you. Will you be staying here long?”

The switch in attitude took me so by surprise it was a minute before I could reply. “I… I don’t know yet. I’ll be here for two or three months anyway. I don’t know after that.”

The switch didn’t seem to surprise Rita nearly as much, but she was now firm about getting her mother home. “Okay, Mom. I’ve taken enough of Kat’s time. Let’s go, and we can talk to her another day.”

Rita escorted her mother back down both sets of stairs and then as I stood on the back steps, Mrs. Sloan turned to me again. “Call me Harriet, dear. Why don’t you have tea or coffee with me sometime? Rita can fix it for us and we can have a nice little chat. Maybe you’d like to come to church with us Sunday?” Then she turned and walked slowly toward the place in the woods that I had seen Rita emerge from. Rita looked at me just long enough to whisper, “There’s more to tell you. I’ll come by again, if that’s all right?” Then, before I could answer she turned and hastened after her mother.

Whew, I thought. That was interesting. I did want to find out more of what Rita had to say. Harriet had known Tess all their lives, but I didn’t think I could trust whatever she might tell me about her. And what in the world had made Harriet dislike her so? Ah yes, I remembered… she had implied that Tess was a witch.

I assumed that Harriet had somehow decided that Tess really was an evil, spell-casting, not just on Halloween witch. Whether she used it as an excuse to explain something that had happened between them in the past, or because her “wandering mind” assigned that role to my birth mother, I didn’t know. That there were other kinds of witches, I knew because A. I lived in Seattle, and B. Rowan had been interested in all things Wiccan since the age of fourteen. Though I had to admit I didn’t really know much about small, rural towns on the east coast, it seemed unlikely to me that someone of Tess’s generation who, as far as I knew, had lived all her life here, might be a Goddess worshipping, card carrying witch. I dismissed it all from my mind and made my way back up to the attic. Eventually Minette found me there and sat on an old cushion as she watched me paw through piles of family artifacts. I spent most of the rest of the day discovering antiques that would fetch a dandy price in a Seattle store, but had been, for the most part, simply the every day tools of several generations of one family. I had known only one set of my grandparents. My adopted mother and I had both been only children, and Aunt Amelia, was my father’s only sibling. Family heirlooms had not been a major part of our lives. The history in this attic alone boggled my mind. Curious as I was, however, I suddenly felt like an outsider spying on someone else’s family. The thought made me momentarily furious, but at who? My birth mother? Myself? Or all the people who had used these things and just by the very fact of living had made my life possible? The heat, the history in the room and my thoughts were all beginning to make me feel claustrophobic. I decided I would finish exploring this part of the house another day. Without thinking, I picked up Minette and, leaving the attic, I closed the door behind us. The cat, I swear, looked surprised, but made no protest and I scratched her ears before setting her down to maneuver the stairs on her own.

After eating a light dinner and taking a walk part way into Newbridge and back, I tried to work on an outline for a story and then gave up and went to bed. I was tired and went to sleep easily, but my sleep was far from peaceful. That was when I awoke for the third time from the dream of the circle of women.

© 2008 Dahti Blanchard
Design by Panharmonicon