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 (8 page)

BOOK: Burnt Mountain
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I never thought my beautiful mother disliked me. Not then and even now, not really. I know now that what she felt for me was
kind of a despairing puzzlement. There was not a thread in my entire fabric that seemed to come from her, or any other woman
she knew.

My sister, Lily, was Mother in miniature, and there was a deep understanding between them even when Lily was behaving her
worst. Lily’s small sins were smearing herself with my mother’s makeup, ruining her pretty satin shoes clomping up and down
the stairs in them, giggling and flirting at school chapel services, throwing tantrums because she was not allowed to wear
her pretty Easter outfit to school. Things that my mother might deplore but understood in her
deepest heart. Lily was a wellborn and beautiful little girl. Mother had been one of those things herself, at least relatively.
She only had to look over her own territory to find the words that would best chasten Lily.

“Take those off. Nobody likes a little girl who makes herself gaudy and cheap. You won’t have a beau to your name if you don’t
stop that. I don’t want to be ashamed of my pretty daughter.”

But that would not have worked with me, and Mother knew it even if she did not know what would.

“Do you want everybody to think you’re a wild thing with nobody to bring you up right?” she said once, when I had stripped
down to my underpants and smeared my chest with red mud and was creeping through the boxwood maze dragging my father’s kindling
hatchet after a sniggering Lavonda.

“Who are you supposed to be now?”

“I’m Smee. He scalped people in
Peter Pan.
He didn’t cut off your whole head, though, just your hair. I don’t think that sounds so bad, but the way Lavonda’s carrying

My mother launched a long, level look at the capering Lavonda and Lavonda straightened herself into seemly erectness and stood
there, a veritable statue of biddability, her enormous breasts straining at the old Atlanta Braves tee shirt she wore.

“Take her inside and wash that mud off of her, Lavonda, and put Mr. Wentworth’s hatchet back where it’s supposed to be. And
go in through the basement. I don’t want anybody from the school to see you.”

“Yes’m,” Lavonda said sweetly, and my mother turned
and swept back into the house, trailing a cloud of Casaque behind her. She had come a long way since the days of My Sin.

“She sho’ smells good,” Lavonda said.

“It comes out of a bottle,” I said.

“Well, I know that. I just wish I had a bottle of that.”

“I’ll get you one. I know just which one it is. She’s got more than one of them. You just better not let on where it came

“You think I’m dumb?” Lavonda sniffed. “I ain’t gon’ wear it here. I’m gon’ wear it to ‘vival tonight. J. W. Fishburne’s mama
makes him come every night, and I’m gon’ sit right behind him and fan my perfume at him. He’ll notice me then, I betcha.”

It occurred to me, even in my half-naked red mud days, that if J. W. Fishburne hadn’t noticed her bazonkers by now he must
be blind, but I said nothing. Bathed and dressed again, I ran into my mother’s bedroom and swiped a half-full bottle of Casaque
and gave it to Lavonda, and she swished home that afternoon with a heart full of hope and roughly a half a year’s salary in
her cotton tote bag.

“I don’t know where that child gets it,” I overheard my mother say to my father that night. The heating register in my upstairs
bedroom was directly above the one in the downstairs sitting room, and through it, for most of my childhood, I heard all manner
of things that I don’t suppose would have ever been said to me.

“Certainly not from me or my mother, and she’s absolutely nothing like Lily. If you had a sister, maybe…”

“I have Mother,” my father said, “and from what I know of her when she was little, I know exactly where she gets it.”

“I simply can’t imagine Caroline ever—”

“Taking off her clothes in the backyard? Chasing people with a hatchet? You’d be surprised.”

“I would indeed,” sniffed my mother, and that was the end of the affair.

But still, I got my share of hugs and sweet-smelling cheek kisses, and she always read me a story and tucked me into bed at
night. The stories ran more to “Jack and Jill” than
Peter Pan
, but I could count on my father for literary excitement. I loved it when my mother read to me, loved it all: the one lit
lamp and the shadows leaping up the walls, the silky hush of the bedclothes when she drew them closer up under my chin, the
rising and falling lullaby of her voice. My mother always had a beautiful voice. Lily has it, too.

When I started first grade, in the little Lytton elementary school my mother had gone to, and her mother before her, my mother
had become the legendary hostess she seemed born to be and we had parties large and small at our house almost weekly. Many
were for the school: alumni and trustees and faculty and very occasionally, say at Christmas or Easter, for the entire student
body. I never tired of them: house shining and smelling of flowers and furniture polish and wonderful things cooking in the
kitchen, the dining room spread with beautiful things, iced and decorated and parslied, the big Rose Medallion punch bowl
that my grandmother Wentworth had given Mother ringed with camellias and smelling
faintly of bourbon or gin and clinking with icebergs of tiny cubes, and most of all my mother, in something floor sweeping
and bare shouldered, eclipsing every other woman in her house.

Except perhaps when my grandmother and grandfather Wentworth came, as they sometimes did. My grandmother Caroline drew eyes
like a living flame. She always dressed simply, though her pearly shoulders might be bare—I think now that she tried never
to outshine her daughter-in-law—and her copper hair, only slightly darker than mine, was always piled on top of her small
head. She frequently wore a pair of dangling amber earrings that I coveted with all my heart. They matched her eyes perfectly.
They were usually her only jewelry, but they gave her the appearance of being clad in a queen’s ransom of precious stones.
My mother would sometimes tighten her mouth at the sight of her, and I once heard my mother whisper to my father, “Those earrings
are barbaric. How she dares, at a little party for a boys’ school—”

“And yours, my dear, are brushing your shoulders.” He smiled at her. He must have been aware by then that his wife was searingly
resentful of the mother who did not ensconce her son and his family in the heart of Buckhead, but I truly don’t believe it
ever bothered him. He could have done little about it, anyway.

I liked first and second grades, I remember, though it seemed strange to me that there could be another school besides Hamilton,
the one that so dominated our world. My father went there every day and often on weekends. My mother’s very life was circumscribed
by it. My sister, who
at fifteen could have stepped out of the pages of
magazine—that was her bible—drew virtually all her suitors from it. And I was in and out of it almost every day because I
would regularly break my mother’s rule and escape Lavonda and dart across the front lawn and around the road’s curve into
the sweet, chalky dimness of Hamilton. It was, to me, simply another and larger part of our house. Invariably a long-suffering
teacher would corral me and lead me by the hand to my father’s office, or even home, and I would get the Hamilton-is-out-of-bounds
lecture again. It made no sense to me and I never remembered it. Hamilton Academy was where my father was. Therefore, so would
I be.

He died when I was nine years old and just beginning fourth grade. His father died with him. It was a brilliant iron-blue
October day and my father and grandfather had driven up into the edge of the mountains above Atlanta, not far up Burnt Mountain
from Burnt Cove, where my parents had spent their honeymoon, to look at the summer camp Edgewood, on the flank of the mountain,
where many Atlantans had sent their children for generations. My father had summered there and thought that it might make
a good summer adjunct for the school. I don’t know what they decided. On the trip home my grandfather’s stately old Bentley
missed the hairpin curve at the first scenic overlook and soared up and out into the blue air and into the valley below, where
the suburbs of Atlanta began. Whatever their decision, Edgewood never became a part of the Hamilton school. I suppose it would
have been impossible, after the accident.

It happened while I was at school, and they told me when I
came clattering into the house with an armful of pastel drawings. We had been reading
Tom Sawyer,
and my drawings were full of a chalky, heroic Tom, whom I liked, and a stunted and squinting Becky, whom I did not. I was
already yelling and waving the drawings in the air for Lavonda to see, but it was not Lavonda who came out of the kitchen
to meet me. It was my grandmother Caroline, customarily elegant in a jade suit.

“Grand,” I shouted, “look what I—”… and stopped. Her face was blotched and swollen, and tears ran down her cheeks.

I stared, terror rising in my throat like bile.

“Come here, darling,” she said in a wet, rough voice, and held out her arms. I flew into them. I dug my face as hard as I
could into her soft woolen shoulder. My own tears began. Whatever it was that could so twist and smear my grandmother, it
could only be beyond bearing.

I don’t remember what she said to me. I couldn’t seem to hear her clearly. I pulled back and stared into her face for a long
time, registering the tracks the tears had made through her mascara and the soft rose blush on her cheeks. The rest of her
face was bone white, and her lipstick was bitten away from her mouth so that only a ragged rim of coral remained, outlining
her lips. They were as white as her face. The amber eyes were dull and red and swollen.

Suddenly I couldn’t remember who she was and broke away from her and ran into the kitchen, sobbing and hiccupping. Nellie
was there, sitting on the kitchen stool with her face covered by her work-gnarled black hands, but my mother was not.

“Where is my mama?” I sobbed. “Where is my daddy?”

“Oh, baby, you come here to Nellie,” she said, reaching out for me, but the silver snail’s track of tears down her furrowed
face frightened me even more, and I turned and ran up the stairs two at a time, stumbling, weeping. My mother’s bedroom door
was closed, and when I hammered on it my sister’s thin, high voice called out, “Go away! You can’t come in here now!”

My mother cried out something to me, but by that time I was back down the stairs, dodging my grandmother, and out the door
and across the front lawn running for the school as hard as I could.

I burst in through the front door and down the short hall to my father’s office. I jerked the door open and stood in the doorway,
gasping in great swallows of air. A man sat at my father’s desk, his head down, talking on the desk telephone, but he was
not my father. I did not know this man. He looked up and saw me, and his face blanched, and he rose and made as if to come
around the desk toward me, but I was frightened of him, too, and turned to run back home. My grandmother’s arms closed around
me again. As she led me from the school I heard the man say, “We’re so terribly sorry, Mrs. Wentworth.” But I did not hear
what she said in return. Outside, on the still, sunny lawn, a man was lowering the flag to half-staff.

“Why is he doing that?” I croaked to my grandmother. It seemed to me that if only people would stop doing strange things the
day would right itself back into its proper fading after-school somnolence.

“He’s doing that for your daddy and your granddaddy,” she said. “To show respect for their memories.”

Her voice was still trembling, but it was stronger.

“I want my daddy. I want him to come home right now. Where is he?”

She stooped down so that she was kneeling in the gravel of our driveway and put her hands on my shoulders and looked into
my face. I saw as if for the first time how very much like her my father looked.

“Thayer. He isn’t coming home. He and your granddaddy died. I told you that. Their car ran off Burnt Mountain. It was very,
very quick and it couldn’t have hurt them at all. But your daddy can’t come home anymore. You mustn’t think he will.”

I cried all that afternoon, lying on my bed with my flowered comforter drawn up over me and my grandmother’s arms tightly
around me. She pressed her face into my hair, but she said very little. Sometimes she rocked me, and sometimes she hummed
into my ear. Once she sang, so softly that I could scarcely hear her, “This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius, the age
of Aquarius, Aquar… ius….”

It was years before I considered what a strange song it was for my grandmother to be singing to me on the day of my father’s
death and how even stranger that she, who had lost both a son and a husband, could comfort me while my mother and sister clung
together in their prostration and could speak to no one, could see no one but each other.

Life changed of course, after that, but not so much as it might have. My father’s substantial endowment from his grandparents
came to my mother, and we stayed in the beautiful old white house by the river, and Nellie and Lavonda and
the grounds people stayed on with us. Once I overheard my mother saying to one of her friends who had come to make a condolence
call, “At least we still have the house. That’s a great comfort to me, and I know it is for the girls. I can’t think how terrible
it would be for them if we’d had to move.”

But I wished we had moved, wished it with all my abraded heart. Our house was terrible beyond words to me without my father.
Everywhere I was used to seeing him was a howling, empty space. After a while I grew actually afraid of those spaces and would
not go into them. I would not watch television with my mother and Lily in the big den. He was not there, but his books were,
shelves and shelves of them reaching from the floor to the ceiling, and they all seemed to me to be threatening to spill over
and engulf me. I would not eat dinner in the dining room. Eventually we all took our meals at the smaller table in the breakfast
room, and my mother never ceased telling me and others what a willful child I had become. I absolutely refused to even pass
the door to my father’s study, and soon that door was closed and never reopened.

BOOK: Burnt Mountain
6.07Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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