A life beyond words
A chilly Peace infests the Grass
The Sun respectful lies—
Not any Trance of industry
These shadows scrutinize
— Emily Dickinson
stared at the ceiling in silence. Although it was so dark I don’t think it could really be called staring at all. More like tilting my chin up in that direction.
My room was cold and quiet, the moon casting eerie shadows through my window over the things that, at thirteen years old, I held dear. My china doll, my stuffed bears, my book collection …
“Alcyone,” a voice whispered.
I gasped and jerked my head toward the door.
Mama stood by my bed, clad in a milky-white nightgown, her long, dark hair falling down her shoulders. She held a finger up to her lips.
“Come on, Allie,” she whispered, grabbing my wrist gently. “I want you to see the stars.”
My heart still thumping, I followed her down the hallway, my bare feet pattering on the cold wooden floor. The moon shone on the clock by the staircase. 2:52.
I rubbed my eyes groggily. “Where are we —”
Mama halted in the doorway of the kitchen, the moonlight illuminating her from the back.
“Close your eyes.”
I did, and let her lead me out the little door until I could feel the damp grass between my toes. I shivered at everything I could feel and sense: the chilly air, the chirping crickets, the dewy earth …
“Open them,” Mama commanded, lowering her hold from my wrist to my hand.
I did, and the first thing I saw was heaven, the way it was meant to look from earth.
Millions of dazzling stars were strung across the sky above us. Twinkling and dancing and
. My heart skipped a beat.
I knelt on the ground beside Mama and stretched back to see as much of the sky as possible. It just seemed to go on and on, covering the fields around us with a sweet and heavy blanket.
I tilted my head and racked my brain for words to describe it.
Eerie … dreamy … alluring … enthralling … breathtaking
“The moon is distant from the sea,” Mama murmured, “and yet with amber hands, she leads him, docile as a boy, along appointed sands.”
I turned to look at Mama. She was staring at the sky, a strange look on her face. She was so beautiful … so light and delicate.
I was confused. “Mama,” I whispered, “we aren’t at the sea.” I’d never been to the sea, and I was quite sure she hadn’t been in many, many years.
Mama’s lips upturned in a little smile. “That was Dickinson.”
She reached over and stroked my cheek. Her eyes had a far-off mist. “One day you’ll understand, Allie. One day you’ll be a great writer too.”
“Is that what you want of me?” I whispered.
Mama nodded slowly, stroking my cheek. “Yes, my miracle. I want you to write and I want you to be happy.”
I longed to ask more questions, but Mama was so peaceful that night I rolled back around and stared at the stars in silence while Mama sang softly in French. I painted in my mind the sweetest dream of a lifetime spent gardening the stars.
Mama had a beautiful voice. It was high and clear. When she sang it sounded like dozens of little tinkling bells. I used to lie awake in bed and listen to her play the piano and sing from the foyer until my eyelids slid down and shut.
For the last six years, it had been the two of us, just like this. I was born when Mama thought she was already an old woman: 1925, the year she turned forty-seven. She always called me her “miracle baby” as a result.
All Mama and I had were each other. Mama said that the world was full of people — and people are full of evil. She told me there was no one and nothing you could trust but where you come from and who you are. We didn’t talk to those evil people. We kept to ourselves and spent our time keeping busy.
I heard a meow from across the yard. “Daphne,” I whispered, holding out my hands for my little orange kitten. I held her close and whispered in her little feline ears the names of the different constellations. “And that one right there is Taurus — it holds the star Alcyone, just like my name. See, Daphne?” I yawned, smiling. Daphne purred and settled her head on my stomach. I stared at my namesake. “I’m a star, aren’t I?”
The moon began to grow hazy and dim as my eyelids started to drop. Mama rubbed my back with one hand and sang to herself as I drifted off to sleep.
Saturday was window-washing day. I was in charge of the downstairs windows, and Mama took care of the upstairs.
I wrung my cloth in the water and created swirly marks on the windowpane. I sighed and let the rag slide down the glass, leaving behind a soapy trail.
Upstairs, I could hear Mama belting out the words to her favorite opera. I rocked back and forth on my heels as I scrubbed the kitchen windows, swishing the rag along with the song.
The doorbell rang.
I dropped my washcloth and ran to the door, pausing to fix my apron and hair. “Who is it?” I called.
“Sam Carroll,” came the muffled response.
My shoulders dropped.
. I opened the door and frowned. “What do you want, Sam?”
Sam grinned, handing me a bouquet of wildflowers and a little wrapped parcel. “Happy birthday, Allie.”
I sighed. “My birthday isn’t until tomorrow.”
Sam continued to grin, oblivious to my irritation. “I know. But we’re going out of town to visit my aunt Rachel, who lives right on the seashore where you can actually go out and swim and everything, and we won’t be back for three weeks, so I thought I’d give you your gift today.” He took a deep breath before handing me the parcel, grinning all the while.
I tried to smile back. Now, don’t get me wrong. Sam Carroll wasn’t a creep or bully or anything. It’s just that he was … well, he was
, for goodness’ sake. I’d only known him for forever and he’d only followed me around for even longer. For nearly fourteen years I’d endured Sam’s freckled face and wayward brown hair and adoring blue eyes.
I was kind of sick of him.
“Thanks, Sam,” I said, trying to shut the door.
“Alcyone!” Mama called from upstairs.
I grimaced. “Yes, ma’am?”
“Who’s at the door?”
“It’s just Sam Carroll, Mama!”
“Oh.” There was a pause and then Mama was at the door behind me, smiling at Sam. “How lovely of you to drop by, Sam.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Everly.” Sam pulled his hands out of his pockets and blushed. “I was just dropping off Allie’s birthday gift.”
“How lovely.” Mama stroked my hair and smiled at me. “Alcyone, dear, did you thank Sam?”
Why does she insist on calling me Alcyone whenever company’s around? She never does it any other time
. I forced another smile. “Thank you, Sam.”
“Won’t you stay for tea?” Mama asked, wiping her dirty hands on her apron. “We were just about to take a break and enjoy some cookies in the garden.”
“Thank you,” Sam said, following us into the house.
I glared at Mama’s back as we walked through the hall.
“So, Allie, are you turning fourteen?”
. I glanced at him out of the side of my eye, annoyed because he was interrupting my glaring. “Yes.”
“Are you having a party?”
I frowned at him.
With what friends?
Mama led us out into the garden, where a little table was set up with three chairs.
As if reading my mind, Sam asked, “Who else were you expecting?”
“You,” Mama said simply, turning back into the house to get the pitcher of lemonade.
Now that we were alone, Sam pulled out my chair and then sat down next to me. Daphne pranced up and rubbed her head against Sam’s leg, and he leaned down to stroke Daphne’s furry little head. I turned my glare to her.
Daphne purred and playfully swatted Sam’s hand. Sam laughed. “Hey, watch it!” He sat back and looked around in wonder. “Your garden looks amazing.”
It was amazing, of course.
That’s what generally happens when you have an unsociable, fantasy-prone mother
“Thank you,” Mama said, shutting the screen door with a bang. “The roses bloomed nicely this year, didn’t they? Alcyone tended them. I didn’t touch a single bud, I swear.” She smiled at me as she served us lemonade, and I noticed she’d gotten out her best pitcher. I stared at her hands. They were white and smooth, seemingly untouched. I propped my chin up.
How does she keep her hands so pretty?
Suddenly one of them began to shake. Mama put down the pitcher with a thud and crossed her hands behind her back. She was shivering, though, and she turned her head.
Sam nodded, picking up a giant cookie. “The roses are beautiful.”
I glanced across the garden and studied my work. I’d decided long ago to plant nothing but pink and white roses, winding down the garden path and up the old white trellis that shadowed the little gazebo where Mama was married.
Beside the gazebo was a little pond of goldfish surrounded by lilies and guarded by a weathered stone angel. On the other side of the garden were four thin stone pathways, lined with colorful flowers, all leading up to a cushioned little bench.
“Your garden makes my little bouquet seem puny, Mrs. Everly,” Sam said, popping a blueberry into his mouth.
“Well, it took years of hard labor to get it this way.” Mama beamed and looked over her garden.
And an extremely devoted daughter
. I took a bite out of my cookie, washing it down with a sip of lemonade.
“I wanted to create a place where the fairies could play,” Mama said softly, still gazing over the flowers, now with a distant look on her face. “Where nothing could go wrong.” She twisted her empty ring finger.
I exchanged a glance with Sam, a little embarrassed.
“Mama, would you please pass the cream cheese?” I interrupted.
Mama snapped out of her daze. “Of course, darling.”
“These are wonderful cookies,” Sam said through a mouthful of food. He gulped and smiled.
“Thank you. It was my grandmother’s recipe. She used it during the Civil War.”
“Oh?” Sam dabbed his mouth with a napkin.
Uh-oh. Here we go with the Battle of Atlanta
. I sunk in my seat. The one thing she had to be able to remember perfectly.
“It was the Battle of Atlanta. In 1864,” Mama began, gazing at the sky. “The summer had been unbearably hot. My grandmother thought it would never end.”
I grabbed another cookie and ran through different musings in my head, tuning Mama out. I suppose I should have bailed out Sam and changed the subject, but at the moment I didn’t feel in any rush to assist him at all. He’s the one who got her started on that long story anyway.
I twisted the ring on my pinky finger and thought of words to describe Sam.
Annoying … nosy … bothersome … dopey …
“And then he …” Mama paused, a confused look on her face. Her brow tightened as she concentrated. “He …”
Sam frowned. “He did what, Mrs. Everly?”
Mama squinted up at the sky. “I can’t … I can’t remember.”
I glanced at her. “It’s okay, Mama. Don’t strain yourself.” I sat on my hands, resisting the urge to get up and wrap my arms around her.