We Have Always Lived in the Castle (8 page)

“That
impossible
woman.” Constance put her head back against the couch and laughed. “Ill bred, pretentious, stupid. Why she keeps coming I'll never know.”
“She wants to reform you.” I took up Mrs. Wright's teacup and her rum cake and brought them over to the tea tray. “Poor little Mrs. Wright,” I said.
“You were teasing her, Merricat.”
“A little bit, maybe. I can't help it when people are frightened; I always want to frighten them more.”
“Constance?” Uncle Julian turned his wheel chair to face her. “How was I?”
“Superb, Uncle Julian.” Constance stood up and went over to him and touched his old head lightly. “You didn't need your notes at all.”
“It really happened?” he asked her.
“It certainly did. I'll take you in to your room and you can look at your newspaper clippings.”
“I think not right now. It has been a superlative afternoon, but I think I am a little tired. I will rest till dinner.”
Constance pushed the wheel chair down the hall and I followed with the tea tray. I was allowed to carry dirty dishes but not to wash them, so I set the tray on the kitchen table and watched while Constance stacked the dishes by the sink to wash later, swept up the broken milk pitcher on the floor, and took out the potatoes to start for dinner. Finally I had to ask her; the thought had been chilling me all afternoon. “Are you going to do what she said?” I asked her. “What Helen Clarke said?”
She did not pretend not to understand. She stood there looking down at her hands working, and smiled a little. “I don't know,” she said.
3
A change was coming, and nobody knew it but me. Constance suspected, perhaps; I noticed that she stood occasionally in her garden and looked not down at the plants she was tending, and not back at our house, but outward, toward the trees which hid the fence, and sometimes she looked long and curiously down the length of the driveway, as though wondering how it would feel to walk along it to the gates. I watched her. On Saturday morning, after Helen Clarke had come to tea, Constance looked at the driveway three times. Uncle Julian was not well on Saturday morning, after tiring himself at tea, and stayed in his bed in his warm room next to the kitchen, looking out of the window beside his pillow, calling now and then to make Constance notice him. Even Jonas was fretful—he was running up a storm, our mother used to say—and could not sleep quietly; all during those days when the change was coming Jonas stayed restless. From a deep sleep he would start suddenly, lifting his head as though listening, and then, on his feet and moving in one quick ripple, he ran up the stairs and across the beds and around through the doors in and out and then down the stairs and across the hall and over the chair in the dining room and around the table and through the kitchen and out into the garden where he would slow, sauntering, and then pause to lick a paw and flick an ear and take a look at the day. At night we could hear him running, feel him cross our feet as we lay in bed, running up a storm.
All the omens spoke of change. I woke up on Saturday morning and thought I heard them calling me; they want me to get up, I thought before I came fully awake and remembered that they were dead; Constance never called me to wake up. When I dressed and came downstairs that morning she was waiting to make my breakfast, and I told her, “I thought I heard them calling me this morning.”
“Hurry with your breakfast,” she said. “It's another lovely day.”
After breakfast on the good mornings when I did not have to go into the village I had my work to do. Always on Wednesday mornings I went around the fence. It was necessary for me to check constantly to be sure that the wires were not broken and the gates were securely locked. I could make the repairs myself, winding the wire back together where it had torn, tightening loose strands, and it was a pleasure to know, every Wednesday morning, that we were safe for another week.
On Sunday mornings I examined my safeguards, the box of silver dollars I had buried by the creek, and the doll buried in the long field, and the book nailed to the tree in the pine woods; so long as they were where I had put them nothing could get in to harm us. I had always buried things, even when I was small; I remember that once I quartered the long field and buried something in each quarter to make the grass grow higher as I grew taller, so I would always be able to hide there. I once buried six blue marbles in the creek bed to make the river beyond run dry. “Here is treasure for you to bury,” Constance used to say to me when I was small, giving me a penny, or a bright ribbon; I had buried all my baby teeth as they came out one by one and perhaps someday they would grow as dragons. All our land was enriched with my treasures buried in it, thickly inhabited just below the surface with my marbles and my teeth and my colored stones, all perhaps turned to jewels by now, held together under the ground in a powerful taut web which never loosened, but held fast to guard us.
On Tuesdays and Fridays I went into the village, and on Thursday, which was my most powerful day, I went into the big attic and dressed in their clothes.
Mondays we neatened the house, Constance and I, going into every room with mops and dustcloths, carefully setting the little things back after we had dusted, never altering the perfect line of our mother's tortoise-shell comb. Every spring we washed and polished the house for another year, but on Mondays we neatened; very little dust fell in their rooms, but even that little could not be permitted to stay. Sometimes Constance tried to neaten Uncle Julian's room, but Uncle Julian disliked being disturbed and kept his things in their own places, and Constance had to be content with washing his medicine glasses and changing his bed. I was not allowed in Uncle Julian's room.
On Saturday mornings I helped Constance. I was not allowed to handle knives, but when she worked in the garden I cared for her tools, keeping them bright and clean, and I carried great baskets of flowers, sometimes, or vegetables which Constance picked to make into food. The entire cellar of our house was filled with food. All the Blackwood women had made food and had taken pride in adding to the great supply of food in our cellar. There were jars of jam made by great-grandmothers, with labels in thin pale writing, almost unreadable by now, and pickles made by great-aunts and vegetables put up by our grandmother, and even our mother had left behind her six jars of apple jelly. Constance had worked all her life at adding to the food in the cellar, and her rows and rows of jars were easily the handsomest, and shone among the others. “You bury food the way I bury treasure,” I told her sometimes, and she answered me once: “The food comes from the ground and can't be permitted to stay there and rot;
some
thing has to be done with it.” All the Blackwood women had taken the food that came from the ground and preserved it, and the deeply colored rows of jellies and pickles and bottled vegetables and fruit, maroon and amber and dark rich green, stood side by side in our cellar and would stand there forever, a poem by the Blackwood women. Each year Constance and Uncle Julian and I had jam or preserve or pickle that Constance had made, but we never touched what belonged to the others; Constance said it would kill us if we ate it.
This Saturday morning I had apricot jam on my toast, and I thought of Constance making it and putting it away carefully for me to eat on some bright morning, never dreaming that a change would be coming before the jar was finished.
“Lazy Merricat,” Constance said to me, “stop dreaming over your toast; I want you in the garden on this lovely day.”
She was arranging Uncle Julian's tray, putting his hot milk into a jug painted with yellow daisies, and trimming his toast so it would be tiny and hot and square; if anything looked large, or difficult to eat, Uncle Julian would leave it on the plate. Constance always took Uncle Julian's tray in to him in the morning because he slept painfully and sometimes lay awake in the darkness waiting for the first light and the comfort of Constance with his tray. Some nights, when his heart hurt him badly, he might take one more pill than usual, and then lie all morning drowsy and dull, unwilling to sip from his hot milk, but wanting to know that Constance was busy in the kitchen next door to his bedroom, or in the garden where he could see her from his pillow. On his very good mornings she brought him into the kitchen for his breakfast, and he would sit at his old desk in the corner, spilling crumbs among his notes, studying his papers while he ate. “If I am spared,” he always said to Constance, “I will write the book myself. If not, see that my notes are entrusted to some worthy cynic who will not be too concerned with the truth.”
I wanted to be kinder to Uncle Julian, so this morning I hoped he would enjoy his breakfast and later come out into the garden in his wheel chair and sit in the sun. “Maybe there will be a tulip open today,” I said, looking out through the open kitchen door into the bright sunlight.
“Not until tomorrow, I think,” said Constance, who always knew. “Wear your boots if you wander today; it will still be quite wet in the woods.”
“There's a change coming,” I said.
“It's spring, silly,” she said, and took up Uncle Julian's tray. “Don't run off while I'm gone; there's work to be done.”
She opened Uncle Julian's door and I heard her say good morning to him. When he said good morning back his voice was old and I knew that he was not well. Constance would have to stay near him all day.
“Is your father home yet, child?” he asked her.
“No, not today,” Constance said. “Let me get your other pillow. It's a lovely day.”
“He's a busy man,” Uncle Julian said. “Bring me a pencil, my dear; I want to make a note of that. He's a very busy man.”
“Take some hot milk; it will make you warm.”
“You're not Dorothy. You're my niece Constance.”
“Drink.”
“Good morning, Constance.”
“Good morning, Uncle Julian.”
I decided that I would choose three powerful words, words of strong protection, and so long as these great words were never spoken aloud no change would come. I wrote the first word—
melody
—in the apricot jam on my toast with the handle of a spoon and then put the toast in my mouth and ate it very quickly. I was one-third safe. Constance came out of Uncle Julian's room carrying the tray.
“He's not well this morning,” she said. “He left most of his breakfast and he's very tired.”
“If I had a winged horse I could fly him to the moon; he would be more comfortable there.”
“Later I'll take him out into the sunshine, and perhaps make him a little eggnog.”
“Everything's safe on the moon.”
She looked at me distantly. “Dandelion greens,” she said. “And radishes. I thought of working in the vegetable garden this morning, but I don't want to leave Uncle Julian. I hope that the carrots . . .” She tapped her fingers on the table, thinking. “Rhubarb,” she said.
I carried my breakfast dishes over to the sink and set them down; I was deciding on my second magic word, which I thought might very well be
Gloucester.
It was strong, and I thought it would do, although Uncle Julian might take it into his head to say almost anything and no word was truly safe when Uncle Julian was talking.
“Why not make a pie for Uncle Julian?”
Constance smiled. “You mean, why not make a pie for Merricat? Shall I make a rhubarb pie?”
“Jonas and I dislike rhubarb.”
“But it has the prettiest colors of all; nothing is so pretty on the shelves as rhubarb jam.”
“Make it for the shelves, then. Make me a dandelion pie.”
“Silly Merricat,” Constance said. She was wearing her blue dress, the sunlight was patterned on the kitchen floor, and color was beginning to show in the garden outside. Jonas sat on the step, washing, and Constance began to sing as she turned to wash the dishes. I was two-thirds safe, with only one magic word to find.
Later Uncle Julian still slept and Constance thought to take five minutes and run down to the vegetable garden to gather what she could; I sat at the kitchen table listening for Uncle Julian so I could call Constance if he awakened, but when she came back he was still quiet. I ate tiny sweet raw carrots while Constance washed the vegetables and put them away. “We will have a spring salad,” she said.
“We eat the year away. We eat the spring and the summer and the fall. We wait for something to grow and then we eat it.”
“Silly Merricat,” Constance said.
At twenty minutes after eleven by the kitchen clock she took off her apron, glanced in at Uncle Julian, and went, as she always did, upstairs to her room to wait until I called her. I went to the front door and unlocked it and opened it just as the doctor's car turned into the drive. He was in a hurry, always, and he stopped his car quickly and ran up the steps; “Good morning, Miss Blackwood,” he said, going past me and down the hall, and by the time he had reached the kitchen he had his coat off and was ready to put it over the back of one of the kitchen chairs. He went directly to Uncle Julian's room without a glance at me or at the kitchen, and then when he opened Uncle Julian's door he was suddenly still, and gentle. “Good morning, Mr. Blackwood,” he said, his voice easy, “how are things today?”
“Where's the old fool?” Uncle Julian said, as he always did. “Why didn't Jack Mason come?”
Dr. Mason was the one Constance called the night they all died.
“Dr. Mason couldn't make it today,” the doctor said, as he always did. “I'm Dr. Levy. I've come to see you instead.”
“Rather have Jack Mason.”
“I'll do the best I can.”
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