Read Perdita Online

Authors: Hilary Scharper

Perdita

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Copyright © 2013, 2015 by Hilary Cunningham Scharper

Cover and internal design © 2015 by Sourcebooks, Inc.

Cover design by Amanda Kain

Cover image © Mark Owen/Arcangel Images

Sourcebooks and the colophon are registered trademarks of Sourcebooks, Inc.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems—except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews—without permission in writing from its publisher, Sourcebooks, Inc.

The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Apart from well-known historical figures, any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the
author.

Published by Sourcebooks Landmark, an imprint of Sourcebooks, Inc.

P.O. Box 4410, Naperville, Illinois 60567-4410

(630) 961-3900

Fax: (630) 961-2168

www.sourcebooks.com

Originally published in 2013 in Canada by Touchstone, a division of Simon and Schuster, Inc.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication data is on file with the
publisher.

You will wonder who we
are.

But that is getting ahead of the
story.

We can only say that it was through Marged that

the thought of Perdita came to
us.

To be sure it was a foolish and wonderful
thought.

Did we do the right
thing?

There are some of us, to this day, who disapprove of what we
did.

Yet there is not a blade of grass, a bird, or a cloud in these parts

who does not know of
Perdita.

It is the men and the women who live here—they do not know
her.

It is for them that this story is
told.

One

I was about to
knock, when I heard someone talking on the other side of the
door.

“You mustn't run downstairs like that!” a woman insisted. The vigor of her voice surprised me; I'd been told that Marged Brice was quite elderly and rather
frail.

Then I thought I heard a little girl's muffled
laugh.

“You'll frighten people. You wouldn't want to do that, would you?” This time the woman spoke more gently. “Come now, promise me that you won't.”

I heard a soft thud and then the sound of small feet pattering on the floor. What was a child doing in her room? Edna had said Miss Brice would be alone for the
interview.

I gave the door a few quick raps and then slowly pushed it open. “Hello,” I called out. “May I come in? It's Professor—it's Garth
Hellyer.”

There was no answer. I stood awkwardly in the doorway, peering into the dimness. After a few seconds my eyes spotted a shadowy figure in the corner of the room. A woman was sitting quietly in a wheelchair by a large window with her face turned toward the trees outside. She seemed to be stroking the screen lightly with her fingertips. A branch on the other side was tapping against the glass above her—almost as if it were trying to warn her that someone had entered the
room.

Suddenly she looked over at me, very startled, and reached into her pocket. She hastily drew out a dark-colored scarf, pulling it up over her head and then drawing it down so that only her mouth was
visible.

I took a step toward her when I felt something soft and sticky brush against my hand; a second later the door slammed
shut.

“Oh dear,” the woman murmured. “I'm so sorry. There are so many new people here, and it's a bit confusing for
her.”

“No need to apologize,” I said pleasantly, shaking off what appeared to be clumps of hair on my hand. “I'm well acquainted with Cookie. She's a very skittish cat and probably thought I had my dog with me. Actually, I almost did bring Farley up to meet
you.”

“Farley?”

“Yes, he's Cookie's canine counterpart at the Clarkson—very friendly and very spoiled by everyone here. Maybe I'll bring him up to meet you
sometime.”

There was a soft rustle of wind and then a light tapping sound as a bough rubbed against the glass. I pulled up a chair and sat down, laying my briefcase to one side. “How are you this morning, Miss
Brice?”

She appeared to be scrutinizing me carefully, so I let her take her time. It was hard to tell just how old she was, and I wondered how I might get her to remove the
scarf.

“They told me you would be coming today,” she announced after a short pause. “But I was expecting an older man. When Edna said you were a historian and a professor, I thought you would be in your sixties. But you—you couldn't be much more than
forty.”

“That's an excellent guess. As a matter of fact, I'm turning forty next
month.”

“Ah, then you're still just a young
man.”

I laughed and told her that I liked coming to the Clarkson because its residents often told me I was
young
.

“Oh, but you are young,” she asserted. “Your best years are still ahead of you.” She leaned toward me, peering intently at my face. “Why…you remind me very much of Andrew!” This time her tone was friendlier. “You're taller, though, like George. But dark,” she mused. “Dark like
Andrew.”

“Tall? Dark?” I jested, “Don't I get ‘handsome,' too?”

She eyed me for a few seconds and then nodded, placing a hand on the arm of her chair; I was struck by how long and supple her fingers
were.

“And you're a single man from what I'm told?” she
continued.

I couldn't help grinning—so she wasn't all that different from the other grannies at the home. Most of them were intensely interested in my matrimonial prospects. “Who's given away my secret?” I
asked.

“Isn't it true?” she retorted
icily.

“Yes, it's true. At the moment I'm still available. Can the same be said of
you?”

She let me wait a few seconds. “I'm afraid I must disappoint you. I might be single, but I'm certainly not
available
.”

“A disappointment, indeed,” I shot back, and watched her mouth curve into a reluctant
smile.

We sat there eyeing each other for a minute or so. Obviously she wasn't going to make this easy for me. “Miss Brice,” I began gently, “I'm here on behalf of the Longevity
Project.”

“Longevity Project? Oh, yes, they told me about it. About some group wanting to find the oldest living person in the
world.”

“Well, yes, although there's more to it than that.” I briefly told her about my research at the home and explained that I had been asked to follow up with her because Edna—the Clarkson's director—thought there had been some sort of mix-up with her date of
birth.

“There's no
mix-up
,” she told me calmly. “I have my birth certificate. I just didn't want to leave it downstairs in that office. I have it
here.”

“May I see it, please?”

She hesitated and then reached into her pocket, this time taking out a letter-size envelope. “I know all about your interviews with war veterans here at the home,” she said, handing me a yellowed sheet of paper. “But the main thing is that Edna said I could trust
you.”

I looked down and saw that I was holding the birth certificate of a person named Marged Granger Brice, born November 13, 1878. The document had been issued by L'Église Sainte-Anne in
Montreal.

“Whose birth certificate is this?” I
asked.

She looked at me steadily. “It's
mine
.”

I did a quick calculation: the birth certificate had been issued one hundred thirty-four years
ago.

“There must be some mistake,” I started to
say.

She laughed and lifted up the edge of her scarf; clearly she was enjoying my confusion. “I told you—you
are
young! Imagine being my age. But, of course, my circumstances are somewhat
unusual.”

“Unusual?” I echoed. “‘Unusual' would be an understatement if you were one hundred and thirty-four. Miraculous would be more like it. The average life expectancy for an adult female in Canada is between eighty and eighty-two years
old.”

“Oh, I was eighty ages ago.” She waved a hand airily. “That was in—1958, I believe. I remember because I met the prime minister that year—Mr. Diefenbaker. Such a gracious
man…”

“Miss Brice, I might be young in your eyes, but I certainly wasn't born yesterday. Now, whose birth certificate is
this?”

“Professor Hellyer—” she addressed me crisply, straightening her shoulders and beginning to
bristle.

“Please, call me
Garth.”

“Garth,” she continued, even more crisply. “That is
my
birth certificate.” Then she folded her arms and pursed her
lips.

She began to tap the arm of her chair impatiently. “You'd like me to remove this scarf, wouldn't you? All right, then, let's see if I at least
look
one hundred and thirty-four years old!” Without any warning she abruptly pushed her scarf back from her
face.

For a few seconds I was
speechless.

“I'm sorry,” she murmured contritely, keeping her eyes lowered. “I don't mean to startle you. It's not what one might expect, is
it?”

I hardly knew what to say. I had interviewed dozens of elderly people, some of them well over a hundred, but I had never seen anything like her face before. There were several prominent seams that ran down each of her cheeks, but the rest of her face was literally bereft of wrinkles. Her skin appeared tautly stretched, giving the impression of polished stone. As the light from the window cast soft shadows across her features, Marged Brice suddenly seemed made of marble…but a warm, subtle, tractable
marble.

“Don't ask me to explain it,” Miss Brice was saying as I tried to stop myself from staring at her. “I looked very much like one of those apple-faced dolls for a brief period, but then my wrinkles steadily began to disappear. By my one hundred and thirty-first birthday, they were all gone, and since then my face has remained remarkably smooth.” She ran a finger lightly across one of the deep furrows by her mouth. “I haven't lost my character lines, though—but I rather like them.” Then she pushed her scarf farther back, releasing an astonishingly thick mane of glossy white hair that came to a soft point in the middle of her
forehead.

“The only things that haven't changed are my eyes, not in one hundred and thirty-four years. I can still see perfectly—well, almost perfectly. They're not an old woman's eyes, are they?” She lifted her gaze proudly to
mine.

This time I really did gasp. For several seconds I was unable to look away from two very beautiful, piercingly blue eyes. It almost seemed as if a soft light were revolving deep inside her head and casting searching beams of a luminous blue out at me every few
seconds.

“No, they're not at all like an old woman's eyes,” I repeated awkwardly, even admiringly. What was it I could see in them? Their vividness fascinated me, but I could also discern a lively intelligence in their expression. And an innocence, too. Yes, there was an open vulnerability in her eyes, despite Marged Brice's apparent
reserve.

She smiled, evidently very pleased with my reaction. “George called my eyes a Great Lakes blue. But they're not always quite this bright. My eyes always grow brighter with the phases of the moon, and then they fade.” She looked away. “That is Perdita. She does it. I don't know why she does it, but you've caught my eyes at their brightest because tonight's a full
moon.”

I just sat there, silently trying to estimate how old she might
be.

“You do understand, don't you, Professor Hellyer?” she continued apologetically. “I really do have to keep this scarf on hand. It's not because I'm hopelessly old-fashioned. I'm more worried my eyes will scare the people here. I had to do it at my home, too, although my nephew Gregory never minded. But I certainly don't want to frighten any of the staff at the Clarkson.” She drew her breath in quickly and returned her gaze to the trees outside. “I didn't frighten
you
, did
I?”

“Garth,” I reminded her and assured her that I wasn't at all frightened—just surprised. I fumbled around, telling her that one didn't usually meet women—of her age—with eyes quite so intense
and—

“Yes, of course. You needn't explain. I've been around elderly people, too. But you see, it's not really me who does it. It's Perdita.” Miss Brice sighed deeply. “I know it might sound odd, but I wish I could just age as a normal person does. I used to enjoy the brightness of my eyes and watching my face change from year to year. But I've been ready to die for a long time now. I've even resolved to die, but I just don't seem to be able
to.”

“Aren't
able
to?”

“Oh, I dearly want to pass on.” She gripped the sides of her chair. “Especially now that I have no home. It would make Ava and her son very happy if I died. In fact, I'm sure they wish for my death. What is it you say when you want something in a hurry? ASAP.” She frowned, and I saw a look of deep distress ripple across her face. “Believe me, I'd oblige her if I could, but there's no one who will take Perdita. And I cannot leave
her.”

It was the third time that she had mentioned the name. “Miss Brice, who's this—?” I swallowed, the words catching strangely in my throat. “Who's Perdita?” I asked, forcing them
out.

We both looked up to see the trees bending and twisting in a sudden commotion outside her
window.

“Please, I would prefer that you call me
Marged.”

“Marged—who's
Perdita?”

She continued to stare at the trees and remained
silent.

I stole a glance at my watch. I hadn't expected this, but I would give it just one more try. “Marged, could we go back to your date of birth? Do you happen to have any other documents with you? Say your health card or something along those
lines?”

“My health card!” She looked at me in utter astonishment. “Do you think that Ava would leave me with anything like that? They took everything! Ava's lawyers are very clever people, you know. You won't find a record of me anywhere. Not even you—a historian—even you won't be able to find anything!” Then she began to twist her hands together
fretfully.

“Maybe I should come back another time.” I started to get up from my chair, thinking that I'd better get more background information from
Edna.

“No!” she cried out, and then immediately calmed her voice. “It's not that I don't want to help you, or your Longevity Project. It's just that my situation sometimes frustrates me. I don't want to be the world's oldest living person—truly I don't! But I can't help it.
I
just
am
.”

“That's fine,” I said
soothingly.

She gave me a very hard stare. “But that's not why I wanted to see you, Professor
Hellyer.”

“You wanted to see
me
?”

“Perdita,” she called out gently. “We could try again. Perhaps we could try again with
him
.” I heard a faint, rustling sound behind me and turned, but I saw
nothing.

For the third time I asked, “Who is this Perdita you keep
mentioning?”

Miss Brice shook her head and put a finger to her lips. “Wait. You're too impatient, Garth. I must do this at my own pace.” She motioned toward her bed, and I was surprised to see my World War II trilogy sitting on her night table. “It's wonderful writing,” she said softly. “I think you might be able to help me—just as you helped all those war veterans tell
their
stories.” She reached forward and took the birth certificate back from me. “But this time—this time I'll go one step at a time. I'll go more slowly; that way there will be less
danger.”

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