Read Burnt Mountain Online

Authors: Anne Rivers Siddons

Tags: #Family Secrets, #Georgia, #Betrayal, #Contemporary, #North Carolina, #Fiction, #Romance, #Family Life, #Literary, #Marriage, #Camps, #General, #Domestic Fiction, #Love Stories

Burnt Mountain (7 page)

BOOK: Burnt Mountain
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She had not been happy about that at first…. “You mean live at your school? With all those children?”

“It’s on another floor entirely. You wouldn’t necessarily see a single student; most of them are at home for the holidays,
anyway. And besides, it’s your school, too, now.”

“My school…,” she had said slowly. “My school…”

She had not thought of Hamilton Academy in those terms before.

“We’ll decide when we get there where we’re going to live,” he said. “I expect Mother and Dad will have some ideas about that….”

Buckhead bloomed full and living in Crystal’s mind. Of course. Somewhere in Buckhead, near the big house on Habersham Road.
Why had she ever worried about that?

“Let’s go, then,” she said, jumping out of bed. The floor did not even seem cold to her bare feet.

“What should I wear?”

“Oh, honey, anything. Something warm. They said it hadn’t gotten above freezing down there in two days.”

When he locked the door to the cottage in Burnt Cove, Crystal got into the car and did not look back. She never did, all the
way down the winding, treacherous road to the interstate. She would never in her life remember the snow on Burnt Mountain,
though my father would speak of it often as one of the most beautiful sights he had ever seen.

It was early dark, with light snow still falling silently, when they turned off the highway below Atlanta onto the smaller
one that led up to the big wrought-iron gates of Hamilton Academy. The road home, so familiar to Crystal, was a strange snowscape,
another country, rather eerie. Lit houses made holes in the darkness, but it was hard for her to identify them in the blue
dusk. Only the one arch over the gates, with
Hamilton Academy
chiseled on it, was familiar. Once inside the gates, the road that led up to and around the school was dark and blue and
white, punctuated only by occasional streetlights, and the lit mass of the school itself seemed small and far away. My father
did not pull up to it but continued on the road around it, and beyond.

“Where are you going?” my mother said, wiping at the windshield and peering out. She saw nothing but darkness. Darkness and
snow.

He smiled and continued on.

The road ended at a pair of stone gateposts that had once held an elaborate wrought-iron gate. The gate was open, and the
pair of iron lampposts on either side of it were dark. A
wrought-iron fence stretched away on either side of it, marking off a yard that could not be seen.

He stopped.

“This is the old McClaren place,” she said, looking at him in puzzlement and annoyance. “What are you doing back here? There’s
been nobody in this old heap since that old lunatic died; I can’t remember how long it’s sat empty. It’s falling down.”

He smiled again and tapped the horn. The world bloomed into light.

The lamps lit, soft, yellow, snow collared. The long, straight drive down to the house flowered with lights; ground lights
studded its border, the overhanging great trees, into uplit statuary. Torches and flambeaus had been set along the way, flickering
on the snow, dancing off the drifted limbs and the smooth white gardens beyond. At the end of the drive a great three-storied
Greek Revival house stood, its flat roof a field of shining white, its twin chimneys sending blue curls of smoke up into the
night. Its four white Corinthian columns were twisted with greenery and its three black iron balconies draped with more. Every
window shone with light, many with candles, and the massive oak front doors were open. Each wore a great Della Robbia wreath
with fruits and red ribbons. From the car Crystal could see that the house was thronged with people.

It was a beautiful house, classically beautiful, shining with health and love, looking every inch as the old man who built
it had envisioned that one day it would.

Crystal opened her mouth, but no sound came. My father put his hands tenderly on either side of her face and kissed her on
her open mouth. There were tears in his eyes and on his cheeks.

“Mother and Dad have spent the last few months doing all of this,” he said. “It’s furnished, too. It’s your wedding present
and your Christmas present all rolled into one. And it’s your wedding reception. Don’t you remember? They promised you it
would be special. Welcome, my baby. Let’s go home.”

He opened the door on his side and people flowed out into the night, people in long gowns and tuxedos, holding glasses aloft,
smiling and cheering and calling out.

These next things I know: I know that my father’s heart reached out to the house in sheer joy, for he loved it always. And
I know that my sister, Lily, still barely joined cells in my mother’s womb, reached out to it, too, for she also loved River
House, as my mother but no one else called it. Maybe not as our father did, but in her own way. Even I, so long yet to be
even dreamed of, but there, in him and in her, disparate cells waiting to become me, certainly must have held out arms-to-be,
for the house was for a long time my one true haven and my home.

I did not try to see my mother’s face. At that moment, I quit trying at all. I could give her a honeymoon, but neither I nor
anyone else could give her a home.

CHAPTER 4

B
y the time I was toddling at warp speed round the house, it had lost most of its look of unearthly, radiant white perfection
and was no longer a castle out of a fairy tale. It was still a beautiful house; even now I know there was none lovelier in
Lytton and few anywhere else that I have seen. But it was by then only and always a house. It had been much lived in, and
it bore its scars nobly.

There was a chunk out of one of its columns where Lily had smacked it, demonstrating her backswing to some smitten calf or
other… there were always several mooing around us. One of its first-floor French doors had been smashed when the Steinway
baby grand my mother had ordered for the living room missed its point of entry and the original old lintels and panes could
not be duplicated. The new window, as it was always called, was fancy enough but always looked, as my father said, like a
Band-Aid stuck on a wedding cake. During
a Christmas reception for the entire school, two middle schoolers had set off cherry bombs on the second-floor balcony, and
though the great smears of soot could be cleaned and painted over, the surrounding stucco was left perpetually pitted, as
if peppered by a thousand BB guns.

And there was no way under heaven the scuff marks and handprints on the front doorsteps and doors could be contained. Hamilton
students banged in and out of the house regularly, despite stern warnings from their teachers. The boys adored my father,
and he them, and most of them thought the big house where their president lived was part of the school.

This drove my mother wild. One of my first memories is of sitting at the supper table while Nellie, our family’s long-suffering
and indispensable maid, led a fourth grader back to campus after he had come shouting in to show my father a badly squashed
toad he had found in the driveway.

“When are those little monsters going to learn that it’s
our
house?” she cried. “It’s not the McClaren house, like everybody in Lytton calls it, and it’s not the Hamilton House or the
President’s Residence, not to mention the Prez, like that entire blasted school calls it. It’s the Wentworth house. Can’t
you get that through anybody’s thick head over there?”

“Probably not, by now,” my father said mildly, smiling at her. “What difference does it make? We know whose it is. And in
a way, it is part of the school. I sort of like that they feel that way about it.”

He excused himself to go and wash the mortal remains of the toad from his hands. I looked up at my mother. I was still in
the bunny-painted high chair that had been Lily’s, but it
could scarcely contain me. The next step would be a regular chair with a pile of books on it.

“Is this really our house?” I said.

“Thayer Wentworth,” my mother snapped. “Of course it’s our house. Why on earth would you think it isn’t?”

I thought perhaps I was edging close to the boundary between my mother’s soft side and that other side, where every hard-edged
thing from annoyance to displeasure and far beyond that dwelled. I always knew I had bumped the boundary when she called me
by my whole name.

“That boy said it was the school’s,” I said.

“What boy?” Her voice was growing crisper, and I began to plot my escape route. Out of the chair, hang a quick right through
the kitchen, out the back porch and down the stairs, and deep into the half acre of manicured greenery that was our back lawn
as it ran down to the river.

“That boy that comes to see Lily,” I said.

My mother gave Lily, who at twelve was a pastel sketch of what my mother had become as an adult, a complacent look. She was
lovely as a fledgling and, as Nellie frequently muttered, “as spoiled as sour milk.” This day Lily only lowered her eyelashes,
not speaking. Mother knew which boy I meant. He was mouthy and slick and his parents ran a dairy farm. He was dead meat in
this house, even if he did not know it yet.

“That boy doesn’t know what he is talking about, as usual,” Mother said.

“Well, I thought we lived in it because we all went to the school,” I said.

“Nobody in this house goes to that school but your
father, and that’s because he’s the president. And besides, we run that school, not the other way around. Girls can’t go to
it anyway. It’s just for boys….”

“Lots and lots of boys,” Lily murmured, a small smile calling out the lone enchanted dimple in her left cheek. I had it, too,
but to me it only looked as if someone had poked a pencil in my cheek.


Lily
…,” my mother began.

I made my escape. I had reached the back porch before I heard my mother calling after me. I put on speed and bumped into my
father, who was ambling toward the kitchen drying his hands on a towel.

“Oops! Where’re you going, pocket rocket?” He smiled at me.

“Mama’s gone over on the other side,” I said.

“Is she mad at you?” he said, still smiling but not as broadly.

“I don’t know. Either me or Lily or Lily’s boyfriend. The one she always says has cow dookie on his shoes…”

“Oh, that one,” my father said, and sighed. “Well go on and make your exit. I’ll talk to her. She may be right about Lily’s
swain, at that.”

“Don’t you like him?”

“Oh, I like him all right,” my father said, not looking over his shoulder. I could hear the laughter in his voice, though.

“But you can’t have cow dookie in the house, can you?”

I pattered down the steps and into high June on the river, buzzing with faraway insects and trilling with birdsong and smelling
of wild honeysuckle from the river woods and cultivated blossoms from our garden, and fresh-mown
green grass. I twirled around three times on my bare feet and toppled over into the cool, damp grass, head back, face tipped
up to the sun, eyes closed under its gentle fist. It seemed to me at that moment that every atom in my body stretched itself
up toward the sun, that my blood sang with the air and the running river, and that I would forever be as happy as I was at
that moment.

“What you don’t know ain’t gon’ to hurt you,” Nellie always said.

I would have occasion to remember that later, many times.

But for that brief, indelible interval between babyhood and first grade it was absolutely enough for me to be what my father
called a mini-comet, blazing around the house and garden trailing fire from my head.

From the beginning it was actually painful for me to be still for very long, and my mother gave up chasing after me and dragging
me out of trees or off the small muddy cliffs down to the river and hired a young black girl—Lavonda, Nellie’s niece—for the
position of Thayer keeper. Lavonda was perpetually smiling and sweet tempered, adept at her given task, had the IQ of a ten-year-old
and the sleek, chocolate voluptuousness of a Harlem dancer. I absolutely adored her, and, I think, she me, because our minds
ran along the same vivid, flowery fairy-tale track. I loved her stories of the terrible duppies who would drop down on you
out of the trees at night, and the ha’nts that could only be kept at bay by painting your front door blue, and the various
wonderful things you could make out of graveyard dirt. She listened, enthralled, to my lisped accounts of the Greek and Norse
myths that I so loved, which my father often read to me. My mother thought they were not fit reading for a child, but he said,
“Nonsense; they’ll give her all the magic she needs.”

“Why does she need magic? She’s got to live in the real world just like the rest of us.”

“That’s why she needs magic. Some people need it more than others. The real world is not going to be enough for Thayer.”

He had continued to read me the shining, shifting, bloody myths, and I continued to tell them to Lavonda. On the whole she
got the best of the deal. She taught her smaller siblings never to be afraid when it thundered; it was only Old Thor banging
around Asgard with his hammer. On the other hand, when I painted our front door blue (as far as I could reach) it wasn’t comfort
and accolades that I got. My well-deserved reputation as a troublesome child was born early.

BOOK: Burnt Mountain
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