Authors: Jaclyn Reding
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #General, #Contemporary
All day, even as she was surrounded by the residents of the town, Libby had felt utterly alone. She’d been lonely before. Living on her own in a city the size of New York where most people didn’t know their neighbors did that. Yet she’d never felt as alone as she did now.
Growing up an only child, Matilde had always made certain Libby had never felt the isolation of it, keeping her busy with reading or baking or repainting the kitchen a different color, as she had done nearly every year of Libby’s childhood. There must be at least fifteen different shades beneath the current sunny yellow.
Matilde had been so much more than a mother to her. She had been Libby’s best friend. Libby had never realized, had never once considered what her moving to New York must have done to her mother.
Mrs. Phillips had said.
Yet Matilde had never made Libby feel guilty for having gone. It was as if she had known, had understood Libby’s need to try her wings and fly. Matilde had taken whatever she had been able to get, those random weekends, those rushed phone calls whenever Libby had been particularly buried in her work, and she hadn’t raised a fuss even when Libby had had to cancel her last visit to attend an estate sale in upstate New York instead.
Had she known then? Libby wondered, reflecting back on that not-so-recent phone call. Had her mother somehow sensed they would never see one another again? She remembered that her mother had sounded breathless when she’d answered the phone that day. When Libby had questioned her, she’d waved it off with the excuse that she’d been in the cellar and had hastened up the stairs to catch the phone, rushing, it turned out, to learn that her daughter wouldn’t be coming to see her that weekend.
Oh, God ... why? Libby closed her eyes as she felt, truly felt, her heart splintering inside her chest. Why hadn’t she just taken the time to make the drive?
She had always intended to make it up to her mother, take her to Boston for the symphony and dinner in the North End. It had been one of their favorite outings together, a mother-daughter date of Mozart and Antonio’s spinach manicotti. But somehow the days had turned into weeks, and Libby just hadn’t been able to get away. She was just always so damned
working until late, burying herself in her work, getting home at an hour when she feared she might wake her mother if she called. She’d even tried to give her mother her old laptop, the one she’d used before Mr. Belvedere had bought her the more up-to-date model for her work on the road, thinking they could keep in touch by e-mail more easily.
Her mother, however, would have none of it.
“A person writes a
Isabella Elizabeth, using pen and paper and proper postage. A letter is composed, with rhythm and thought, like a piece of music. E-mail is nothing more than fast-food correspondence. A takeaway window sort of way to dash off a few lines, using as few words as possible and even fewer thoughts. It’s detached. It’s impersonal.”
She had been so very, very right.
It was dark when Libby finally got up from the rocking chair and walked the length of the wraparound porch to the screen door. She closed her fingers around the latch and found a small sense of comfort in its familiar, strident creak as she opened the door and headed inside. She went to the kitchen to make a pot of tea, taking the time to use loose leaves like her mother always had, not her usual quickly steeped muslin bag of whatever happened to be handy. She chose her mother’s favorite tin from the tea rack, a blend that she had sent to her from London each month, and even heated the Brown Betty pot with a dash of boiling water before adding the leaves and filling the pot to steep, just as her mother had taught her.
Libby opened the cupboard and started to reach for her favorite mug, a clunky oversized thing emblazoned with an image of the Statue of Liberty. She had sent the mug as a gift to her mother shortly after she’d moved to New York, but Matilde had never used it and it had become Libby’s mug whenever she visited. This time, however, her fingers fell short of it, and Libby reached underneath it instead to one of the dainty porcelain cups and saucers painted with bright flowers that her mother had always insisted upon using for tea.
Libby gave in to a smile as she splashed the steaming orangey-brown brew into the cup, remembering how she used to heckle her mother about the cups whenever they would have tea.
“Teacups like this are for decoration, Mother. Or collecting. They should be on display on a shelf, not used for drinking. They hardly hold more than a sip.”
Matilde had simply shaken her head, her eyes lifting heavenward behind the round lenses of her reading glasses. “ ’Tis a far sight more proper than that basin of a thing you insist upon drinking from.”
Setting the saucer and cup, and its matching pot, on a tray, Libby walked carefully up the curving stairwell to her bedroom. She stopped before opening the door, and after a moment’s hesitation, continued down the hall until she had reached the door to her mother’s bedroom.
Libby had only to nudge the panel with her knee and it swung easily over the polished hardwood floor. She stood for a moment in the doorway, staring at the room that was awash with the moonlight coming in through tall, gossamer-curtained windows.
Her mother’s lilac scent wafted over her, welcoming her. How many times had Libby spent the night in that tall four-poster bed with its pristine white linen duvet that felt just like a cloud when you slipped underneath it? On stormy summer nights, and sometimes in winter with the fire glowing in the bedroom grate, she had come tiptoeing inside, more often after her father had died when she had been just seven. They would sit together, Matilde and Libby, and Matilde would brush out Libby’s dark hair, back when it had been long and straight and pulled back in its usual ponytail.
It was after she had moved to New York that Libby had had it cut to her shoulders—a city-girl hairstyle for a city-girl life. But instead of sleek and fashionable, Libby’s life was more suited to alligator clips with pencils stuck in at odd angles. She kept her hair styled simply, parted on the side and tucked behind her ear in a manner that had it flipping up under her chin whenever she was bent over the pages of a book.
The tea set clinked softly as Libby crossed the room. She set the tray on the folded coverlet that stretched across the foot of the bed. It was a high bed, made all the more so by the thick feather-filled pillowtop that layered the mattress. Libby used the small bed step and sank slowly into the down-filled covering. She lay there for several quiet moments, letting the softness embrace her, staring at the ornamental trim on the ceiling as through the open windows she heard the sea tide break softly on the shore beneath the house. Instead of comforting her, however, the sound only made her realize how silent the house now stood.
Libby clicked the bedside lamp on, taking up the teacup for a quiet sip as she eased back against the feather-filled pillows. She had changed earlier that evening out of her black suit into her favorite flannel lounging pants and oversized Boston College sweatshirt. She had pulled her hair up into an unruly knot of a ponytail and had removed her contact lenses from eyes that were red and irritated from crying, wearing her wire-framed eyeglasses instead.
She could imagine her mother at that very moment, sitting at Heaven’s tea table, shaking her head in dismay. Libby had a dresser drawer full of crisp linen nightgowns that her mother had given her every Christmas, but somehow they had always been too pretty, too pristine for her to wear. Libby vowed that as soon as she returned to her apartment she would start to wear them.
She finished the tea, poured another cup, but she wasn’t tired. She should be exhausted, having slept so little in the past week as she’d made the arrangements for her mother’s funeral service and burial, and then met with the family lawyer, John Dugan, to discuss the details of the estate.
Even he had suggested she might sell the house, thinking it would make a fine B and B. The truth was, Libby didn’t know what she was going to do with it. It was a big place, with some five acres of land that ran down to its own private stretch of shore. Her father had bought it for her mother as a wedding gift, to replace the home she’d left behind in Scotland, and Matilde had loved the house, even naming it in the old Scottish tradition, Thar Muir—Across the Sea. If Libby sold the place, the land might be broken into lots, divided up, and developed. A boat jetty with kayaks and sailboards would overtake the shoreline. Condominiums would replace the grand oaks and maples whose leaves now blazed with fall color.
Restless now from the conflict of emotions that came with her thoughts, Libby reached for the drawer in the nightstand in search of something to read. Her mother had always kept whatever book she was reading there, and Libby smiled to herself as she recognized the weathered leather cover of one of Scott’s Waverley tales tucked away inside.
It was from a set that Libby had given her mother for her birthday just a few years earlier, a complete centenary edition collection that Libby had found at a Hudson River estate sale. This particular title was
one of her personal favorites, and Libby opened the book, looking for the usual ribbon that marked Matilde’s reading place.
But it wasn’t a ribbon pressed between the heavy vellum pages. It was an envelope ...
... an envelope addressed to Libby, written in her mother’s hand.
My dearest Isabella,
began the letter she found inside,
if you are reading this then I am well and truly gone. I have felt it coming some time now, not in my physical health, just a sense of knowing, which is why you find this letter here, waiting for you. Please don’t despair over my passing. I have had a full and wonderful life, blessed with so much joy. My dearest joy, my daughter, has been in having you.
The page began to blur, clouded by Libby’s tears. She blinked, took a breath, read on.
With my passing, the time has come for me to tell you something of a family secret. Do not be angry that I did not choose to share this with you before now. In time, you will understand. If you will look underneath the lamp on my nightstand, you will find a key. The box that the key will open is contained in my armoire, on the very bottom, behind my slippers. It is my gift to you. Look closely at what it holds, and I promise everything will become clear to you. Just know that I love you more than I ever thought it was possible to love. You are the very best daughter a mother could ever hope for, my dearest Isabella Elizabeth.
Libby’s hand trembled as she set the letter aside. She sat for a moment, just staring at it, feeling as if she had stumbled into a dream. Finally, she slid off the bed and lifted the lamp. She found the key just as her mother had written, waiting underneath. It was a small key, the old-fashioned skeleton type, the sort they used only for decoration anymore or in late-night mystery movies.
She walked to the tall mahogany armoire, opened its double doors. Her mother’s blouses and skirts hung neatly inside, crisply pressed, with tissue paper separating each one. Surrounded by her mother’s scent and the whisper of her last words, Libby knelt and searched the bottom of the compartment, reaching to the very back of it, behind her mother’s row of slippers until her fingers found the shape of what felt like a small wooden chest.
Libby pulled the chest out, looked at it in the light. It appeared to be very old, made of a dark wood and carved with the symbol of two thistles entwined. Libby ran her fingers over the carving. She knew that design. It was the same symbol her mother had always stitched onto the handkerchiefs and tablecloths she had worked while rocking on her porch.
Libby took the key, fitted it inside the lock. She turned until she heard it click, then slowly lifted the chest’s lid.
Her breath caught when she saw what lay waiting inside.
A large, rounded crystal, about the size of a small walnut, was tucked against the box’s silk lining. It was attached to a long silver chain, and Libby lifted it to watch the stone dangle in the lamplight. Despite its unusual shape, the stone sparked, seemed to grab the moonlight, reflecting a misty, milky blue. It was a most remarkable thing, the way the stone seemed to hold the moon’s light deep inside.
Libby slipped the chain over her head and let the weight of the stone hang around her neck. As it nestled against her chest, the light seemed to reflect, change, warming to a soft pink.
But how could that be when moments before the stone had shone blue?
The time has come for me to tell you something of a family secret,
her mother’s letter had said.
It is my gift to you. Look closely at what it holds, and I promise everything will become clear to you.
But nothing was clear. Nothing at all.
Libby searched further inside the chest and found what appeared to be a photograph, black and white and tucked beneath the tattered cloth where the stone had lain. She picked it up. A man, his handsome face smiling toward the camera, stood leaning against the trunk of a tree. His eyes were light, his hair dark, and his smile lifted higher on one side than the other. He looked familiar somehow, but Libby didn’t know why. She knew she had never seen him before.
She turned the photo over. On its back was written simply, “Wrath Village, Scotland.”
Libby sat back, studied the man in the photo. Who was he? Why had her mother left her such a mysterious gift?
Matilde had rarely spoken of her life in Scotland before she’d come to America. Whenever she did, it was only to say that there was nothing to tell, that she’d left for the promise of a better life. Once, when Libby had been in the sixth grade, she’d been given an assignment at school to draw a “family tree” with the names and dates of her parents, her grandparents, her great-grandparents. All of her classmates had had full, abundant trees with many branches filled with photographs of brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and grandparents stretching back for generations. Libby’s tree, however, had only resembled the sad little tree Charlie Brown had chosen in the
Christmas cartoon, with only three branches; one for her, one for her father, Charles Hutchinson, and one for her mother, Matilde Mackay.