Authors: Anne Rivers Siddons
Tags: #Family Secrets, #Georgia, #Betrayal, #Contemporary, #North Carolina, #Fiction, #Romance, #Family Life, #Literary, #Marriage, #Camps, #General, #Domestic Fiction, #Love Stories
After the good-byes and the plans to meet again and another too-hard, too-long hug from Finch’s father, Crystal and Finch
got into the car and ghosted down the drive and back down Habersham Road. It was true dark and smelled of honeysuckle, and
a few of the huge houses had lit windows, but the purring of the motor was the only sound that broke the sweet autumn night.
They rode in silence until they turned back out onto Peachtree Road again and the world flowed abruptly back around them.
“Well,” Finch said, taking her small, warm hand in his. “What do you think?”
“About what?” she said carelessly, hugging herself in secret glee. No matter how it had started out, this night was hers.
“Oh, everybody. You know. The house…”
“I thought it must be like living in the Taj Mahal,” she said with a rich little hill of laughter in her voice. “What happened
to your mother’s leg?”
“Oh… she fell off a racing camel in Kabul. It was a long time ago. I’m still not sure where that is.”
Crystal threw back her head and laughed, a throaty little laugh of sheer exuberance with a sort of purr in it. In a moment
he joined in, hugging her hard. She knew he had no idea under the sun why she laughed but loved the laughter
anyway. And she knew that when they got home, before they went into her father’s house, Finch would ask her to marry him.
She knew that as surely as she knew that the sun would rise the next morning, or that the night would follow.
And of all the scenes from the jeweled, faultless tapestry of her life that unrolled before her, this was indeed her finest
But she did not know that.
bout an hour and fifteen minutes above Atlanta, on State Highway 575, a smaller road, Talking Rock Road, cuts east and up
into the ragged edges of the Blue Ridge Mountains. These are old mountains, among the oldest on earth, and they have been
gentled by aeons of weather so that their peaks, though high, are rounded, voluptuous, instead of jagged like the newer, more
savage, and often still-smoking mountains of the West. You will not drive long before you come to Burnt Mountain, the last
of that dying chain, a great, wild excrescence that did not go gentle into the good night as its sister hills did but raged
against the dying of the light.
Burnt Mountain is high, smoke blue from far away, a wild disgorged green when you are upon it. Its right flank, facing the
distant bowl that holds the city, is gentler, the spiraling road open to wide vistas and scenic overlooks and friendly little
lanes leading off through the woods to undoubtedly even
friendlier places. For the first part of your ascent, the hollows and the foothills themselves are drowned, throttled in virulent
seas of kudzu. It has taken houses, barns, cars, whole farms, a few telephone poles. Even these toy topiary habitats are beautiful,
in a surreal way, if you don’t think of them as ever having harbored life, ever having been slowly strangled by the inexorable
The left slope of Burnt Mountain is an almost sheer drop of shale and gravel ledges and great green cliffs to the valley floor.
In that valley robust signs of human enterprise—gated communities, tiny strip malls—flourish. If human life flourishes up
on that slope of the mountain proper, there is very little sign of it.
It was to Burnt Mountain that Finch Wentworth brought his bride, still in her car-spilling souffle of seed-pearled white satin,
for their honeymoon. They were headed for a small colony of old cottages in an enclave called Burnt Cove that rode the ridge
of Burnt Mountain down to an icy little blue inlet of War Woman Lake. Burnt Cove had been the wilderness retreat for a small
number of Atlanta families for many generations. There had always been Wentworths in the Cove, Finch said.
“Is it private?” Crystal asked when he told her about it, envisioning gates mounted with carved eagles and a discreet log
sentry house. Beyond it, bridle paths and a low stone clubhouse.
“Jesus, no… or I don’t think so, anyway,” Finch said. “It’s just kind of always been the same bunch of people. I don’t guess
all that many new people would appreciate the Cove
now. It’s seen better days. But I’ve always loved it. I used to come here with Dad a lot when I was a kid. You know I told
you it’s not fancy, honey, but it’s all I have time for in the rest of Christmas break. Later on, in the summer, I’ll take
you anywhere you want to go. Mexico, the Caribbean… anywhere.”
“The Piedmont Driving Club?”
“Food’s awful and the nearest wildlife are the mosquitoes on the tennis court.”
He laughed, liking it that his new wife was relaxing enough to joke about the lares and penates of his privileged life.
A gravel road dipped down into the hollow that sheltered the approach to Burnt Cove. The road wound around a kudzu-garlanded
shack—”caretaker’s place,” Finch said—and past a small, canted white board church. Its bare, swept yard had a hand-lettered
sign that read:
Holiness Church of the Pentecostal Fire.
“Isn’t that great?” Finch said, looking over at Crystal. Her face was blank.
“Is that where y’all go to church?” she said finally.
“Well, no,” he said, looking closer to see if she was still making jokes. It was impossible to tell.
“It’s just an old mountain Pentecostal church; I’m not sure who goes to it. I’m sure of this, though: Whoever they are, they
holler. It’s been there as long as I’ve been coming up here. I just kind of like it.”
“We could have gotten married there,” Crystal said, and this time she was smiling.
He laughed aloud with relief. “Oh, right. That wedding would have blown the roof right off old Holiness.”
“It was pretty, wasn’t it?” Crystal said dreamily.
“It was spectacular,” he said.
The little gray stone Methodist church in Lytton sat on the corner across from the post office. It was as old as the town,
well over a century. Crystal had fretted when her mother insisted on having the wedding there.
“It won’t hold half of Finch’s friends and family,” Crystal said. “And everything inside is all dull and…
And Reverend Lively snorts when he inhales.”
“It won’t look dull and old when I’m through with it,” Leona said. “And Reverend Lively won’t have enough to say to snort.
Besides, a woman is
married in her own church. Where were you thinking of having it, the Piedmont Driving Club?”
“Well, the Wentworths go to St. Philip’s Cathedral in Buckhead….”
“You would be laughed out of Atlanta,” Leona said, and that was that.
True to her word, the Methodist church looked neither dull nor particularly old on the day of the winter solstice, when Crystal
Thayer married Finch Wentworth. It looked, as Caroline Wentworth said privately to her friend Ginny Hughes, “like a Christmas
sale at Rich’s. A good one, of course.” The old wooden pews were garlanded in pink poinsettias and the altar was forested
with them. Ruby the florist had almost lost her mind rounding up enough pink poinsettias to satisfy Leona Thayer.
“They all go to Sears and Kmart,” Ruby said aggrievedly. Leona persisted, and the church billowed in a froth of pink, accented
with fragrant evergreen boughs and garlands of smilax. Before the altar great crystal vases held huge, blooming magnolia boughs,
their green leaves shining in the light of hundreds of flickering white tapers. (“And if you think it’s easy to find blooming
magnolias in December…,” Ruby huffed.)
As a nod to the festivity of the season, Leona had tucked sprays of holly here and there in the greenery and woven tiny twinkling
white lights through the altar magnolias.
“Where’s the goddamn Santa Claus?” Big Finch groused in Caroline’s ear, none too softly.
But the church glowed in the winter dimness and smelled of candle smoke and cedar, a really lovely smell, and Gladys Abbott
on the ancient organ did not produce a single wheeze or squeal. When Crystal swept into the sanctuary on her father’s arm
in many yards of pearl-seeded white satin, carrying calla lilies with a few chaste holly berry stems, a great sigh rose to
the eaves and hung there like a cloud. She looked, Finch thought, truly angelic, a vision of Raphael or Fra Angelico. Crystal
had been born for this moment. In her chaste bridal glory she had moved even herself to tears, before the full-length mirror
in the dressing room. They floated down the aisle on white rose petals strewn by her sister’s youngest child, finger in nose,
and ten bridesmaids—fellow cheerleaders and her two married sisters, one vastly pregnant—turned incandescent faces to her.
Their holly-green velvet gowns drifted just so. Beside and behind Finch, his best man and
groomsmen, most of them prep school friends, looked black and white and elegant, and stunned. The tiny tuxedoed ring bearer,
looking like a grotesque munchkin, dropped the ring and wailed, but it was retrieved in one neat swipe by the best man and
slipped onto Crystal’s finger as if fitted for her, which of course it was. The Reverend Lively did not snort when he pronounced
them man and wife, and when Gladys Abbott boomed out Mendelssohn the church bells pealed as if to salute a new millennium.
And so they were married.
There was no reception.
“Let us give you one when you get back,” Caroline Wentworth said. “You’re both worn out and you really don’t have much honeymoon
time. I promise we’ll pull out all the stops.”
“Where?” Crystal asked, envisioning once more the Piedmont Driving Club, with flowers and candles, all eyes on her.
“Surprise,” Caroline said, smiling.
So it was that when they drove over the small, rattling bridge that spanned the inlet and into Burnt Cove, Crystal was still
in satin and Finch in his tuxedo. In their bags, in the trunk of Finch’s father’s Mercedes, there were only jeans and slacks
and sweaters and boots, because, Finch said, Burnt Cove gave new luster to the word “casual” and it would be cold. Crystal,
however, had tucked in some velvet pants and a long wool skirt, for the club. Just in case.
But there was no club. In fact, there was no sign of life in any of the rambling old houses that crowned the ridge nestled
next to the long meadow that ran down to War Woman
Lake. They were faded board and batten or age-scummed stone, and the trees leaning close in around them lifted straggling
bare fingers to the steely sky. No chimney spouted sweet wood smoke. There were no cars.
Crystal looked over at her husband. Husband…? He was grinning with pleasure. She composed her face into a smile of anticipation.
“Is it just us?” she said.
“Probably. Nobody much comes for Christmas. But there’ll be some people up afterwards, over New Year’s. There’s always a holiday
hunt. Are you sure you really don’t want to spend this Christmas with your folks? I know what we said, but…”
“Oh no,” she said, squeezing his arm. “I want this Christmas to be just Mr. and Mrs. Finch Harrison Wentworth the Third.”
She got her wish. The Wentworth house sat near the top of the ridge, looking far down on other houses and the muddy road and
the frigid gray lake. It was large and sprawling, painted a weathered green almost indistinguishable from the moss that clung
to its roof. Dead vines that would be luxuriant in the summer snaked up its small entrance porch and onto the steeply sloped
roof. Behind the house the crest of Burnt Mountain beetled darkly against the wide, empty sky. A cluster of small buildings
and sheds were scattered among the saplings behind the house. For one horrified moment Crystal thought one of them might be
an outhouse. But then she saw that the windows were cheerfully lit and smoke curled from the stone chimney, and reason prevailed.
“This looks cozy,” she said.
Finch got out of the car and came around and helped her out, and swept her up, satin and all, and carried her up the steps.
Sharp spits of sleet hit their faces.
“Poor baby.” He smiled into her hair. “It looks like six miles of hard road in winter. All the Cove does. But it
cozy. You’ll see.”
There was a swag of fresh cedar on the back door, tied with a bright red satin ribbon. And the kitchen, when he carried her
in and set her down on her high satin heels, shimmered with warmth and smelled like heaven. A battered copper kettle on the
equally battered stove simmered and sang. Crystal breathed in cloves and cinnamon and other spices, things that spoke of the
mysterious East, and smiled in spite of herself.
“Russian tea,” Finch said. “I don’t really know what’s in it, but Corella makes it every Christmas. She and Mother were up
several times this week, and she came back up today to fix us some supper. Oh, she’s not here now; she and Osgood have gone
to Macon to see their kids. But I’ll bet there’s plenty of food in the fridge. Come see the rest.”
Shadows leaped on the high living room walls, cast by the roaring fire in the great blackened stone fireplace and the lit
candles set around the room. They were great, leaping things that seemed alive; the light didn’t extend to the corners or
the ceiling. There was a threadbare but once good Oriental rug on the floor, worn through to the boards in places, and sofas
and chairs slumped around the room, none of the fabrics discernible in the dim light. Big islands of tables and trunks and
benches and—Was that a piano?—loomed, and the walls were hung with what seemed to Crystal to be many kinds of violins and
fiddles, plus a moth-eaten deer’s head, forested with antlers, over the fireplace.