Starting Over

My room has a gold framed photo of the Wish Fulfilling Healing Buddha sitting above the desk. I smile up at it, extending arthritic fingers. “Okay, here you go Buddy, give it your best shot.”  

I booked three days at The Land of Medicine Buddha Retreat Center in Soquel California. The LMB, as it’s called is an oasis of conscious people, organic food – lovingly prepared, Tibetan teachers and kind actions. It is also a hospice care facility and day school for children.  

Yesterday was a day for self-indulgence, an attempt to repay my body for the herculean effort I demanded while moving, lifting, packing, not sleeping, having primal scream anxiety about pulling up Portland roots, seeing too many clients and driving twelve hours from Hillsboro to Santa Cruz. My body forgives me now, but it took a two hour massage, acupuncture treatment, thirty laps in the pool, a sunbath, meditation and a relaxation tape. That’s how much I owed! 

I will stay in Los Angeles with my son this week-end, then go to San Diego where I’ll have a room in a house of musicians, with no idea where I will find a home of my own. I only know that I could not find the place I wanted sitting in a little house in the forest in Oregon, so off I went, like the fool card in the tarot, carrying few belongings and lots of trust and faith. 

Feelings of liberation washed over me as I drove away from Oregon – a sense of celebration, like a prisoner released after a forty year sentence. Vast open landscape, mountains, and a horizon full of possibility brought elation, as music by The Supremes danced in my ears. I found myself smiling as feelings of deliverance burst through my senses. Sun-warmed shoulders through an open roof anchored my gratitude. 

So why did I stay so long? I was paralyzed by love. Love of friends, home, clients and my daughter, but most of all by Isabella, my heart. Her entrance into my world twelve short years ago froze my attention, making me determined to be fully present for each breath of her young life. But now I’ve left. I’ve done it and it’s not because I love them any less, it’s that my body and spirit were rapidly crumbling in an environment I had outgrown long ago. 

These thoughts sit gently on my mind as I look into a redwood forest, a sanctuary that grows green and lush outside my window. The grounds have meandering paths, prayer wheels, bamboo chimes, a wish fulfilling temple and open meadows, but there is a warning to beware of mountain lions. If you see one, the pamphlet in the guest house reads, pull your jacket up over your head and try to look bigger than you are. Then they won’t hurt you.

That won’t be hard for me now, because I feel lots bigger and more myself than I’ve ever been.

 

Getting Around

 

We each had a horse growing up but it was not a pet, it was transportation. With five kids and a full time business, my folks were not about to transport each of us around. If we wanted to go somewhere, we hopped on our horse and disappeared. Cars in those days were approached the same way. They were something to hop on, but not necessarily in.

I used to wait for my uncle as he turned the corner on his way home from work. He never slowed as I raced his car, leaping at top speed on the running board. We visited and smiled through the open window traveling the last mile together, while I sucked in dust and the smell of tobacco from his cherry wood pipe. On warm summer evenings, we took my parent’s car down country roads with my brothers, sisters and friends lounging across the hood and trunk, hands behind our heads like a pillow, starring into open sky and tree branches. A license didn’t matter, we were in the middle of nowhere. Most of us learned to drive sitting on pillows so we could see over the steering wheel.

When my cousin Rip came home from the Navy, he built himself a car out of old parts. It was his Merry Oldsmobile, held together with bailing wire. It had no roof and no floor at all, so passengers had to hold their feet up when he drove. I used to love watching the road ribbon by underneath us.

Then in boarding school there was the unforgettable Monsieur Le Gurre, our French Instructor straight from Paris. When his Citroen finally arrived in the rolling hills of Vermont, he took our entire class outside to admire it. “Come, come, I will show you,” he said in barely understandable English. “I will drive you all!”  Twenty students piled on the hood, the roof and what little trunk there was. The rest stood on the bumper, overflowed the backseat, the front and hung from the windows. It was a sight one does not quickly forget. Unfortunately, the headmaster was watching and quickly dismissed Monsieur Le Gurre from future duties, but not before a spin around town.

As a young mother, I thought nothing of putting my kids in the boot of the car, their feet dangling over the bumper, tree branches propped inside to hold the trunk open. They sat together on a blanket and had a good old time watching the woods go by. I’m sure they sucked down plenty of exhaust, but didn’t seem the worse for it. I remember one couple waving scolding fingers as they passed, but I paid them no mind. What better time could a kid have?

Now, when we near the road to my house and my granddaughter wants to stand on the passenger seat, her upper body shooting up through the sunroof, hair flying in the wind and arms outstretched, I say, go for it! A big smile spreads across her face, and I know in that moment that she feels alive and engaged with life, not strapped in and confined.

Watching her embrace the wind reminds me of a couple I counseled a few years ago, who denied their parents access to their children because the parents took them around the block without seatbelts on. “They were irresponsible and can’t be trusted with our children.” I sigh, knowing that their parents, like myself are products of another era.

DEQ for the Soul

You wanna keep going down the road of life? We need to make sure you’re not giving off too many toxic fumes or polluting the air around you. To keep living and breathing, you’ll need to show up at DEQ for the Soul. 

Yep, that’s what I want to invent, a compulsory process for purifying the spirit, which would begin at ten years of age and continue every ten years thereafter – an inescapable commitment for everyone drawing breath. 

Let’s send make-believe Margaret through first to give us a peek at the process:  

Margaret has been doing this for awhile, so she is not at all nervous, in fact she’s been counting the days since her purification notice arrived in the mail. She eagerly visits the center, stepping into a white cloud-like substance, which provides a feeling of deep calm and homecoming, a sense of being completely and utterly safe. She begins to breathe into her belly and with each breath becomes more and more relaxed. There is a full length mirror on the wall, where she can watch all negative experiences and memories detach, like shingles lifting from an old roof in the wind. All pain, abuse, damage, suffering and darkness stored in her body are raised, cleansed and returned to the world as light. All memory of anguish erased. 

When extraction is complete, Margaret walks away from the center in bare feet, restoring and renewing her place on the earth and her belief in the sacredness of all life. Healing waters wait beyond, the surface shimmering like diamonds, each drop of light, a piece of her soul essence that has been hunted, harvested and brought back from early trauma, to be reunited as love and life force. As she tiptoes into the water, releasing her body to float on the surface, the fullness of her spirit moves back through the pores of her skin and into the core of her being. When she once again feels completely in love with life and all that is, her papers are stamped and she is free to return to the world for another ten year cycle. 

What a different place this world would be if we could manage such a simple thing.

Ritual – Page 27

 

The days are short and cold, dragging on in the claustrophobic ways that winter days do.

I am not sure what to do with myself when left alone for so long. Marko goes into Halstead to mend shoes and repair cane chairs each morning, spending afternoons at the White Hart Inn with a glass of ale and lively conversation. He returns home in an uplifted mood, his booming laugh and eager accordion music a salve for my heart.

Luca leaves at dawn to sharpen saws and help the granary keeper unload cargo from the ships coming up the River Colne. He comes home tired, smelling of barley and wheat, but rarely complains. He is determined to save money for his marriage to Tarnia, beaming whenever he mentions her name.

Even Angelina leaves each morning to sell the roses and poppies she’s fashioned from scrapes of velvet. She shivers outside Saint Andrews in a too thin coat, offering her goods to the ladies of the parish, gold colored jewelry woven in her long black hair.

When they return, I hear rosy-cheeked stories about Avon and Mila amusing themselves by throwing snowballs and racing between headstones in the rear of the church. Angelina is frugal, but often stops at the tobacconist to buy a treat for Marko and the confectioners for candies at weeks end.

My offering is a rich meaty stew that wafts from the stove, and the willingness of my hands to sew what I can for the next day’s sale. We have all agreed that I hide from view, fearing misunderstandings between their people and mine.

Once or twice a week I visit Matruska (mostly from boredom) who has taught me how to dye wool in large vats of rainbow colored hues made from plants, leaves, roots and berries. She is at ease in my company and generous with her wisdom, but I do not embrace her in the same way. I worry that too much of her company might catapult me into other realms from which I can not return, my current tether to life feeling gossamer at best. I dare not tug upon it, lest it break all together.

Instead, I spend day after day alone in my own company, often strolling over the hillside with the aid of my blackthorn stick. Time feels expansive and lazy during these walks, like the emptiness of it could go on forever. This unfamiliar spaciousness opens my spirit to all that I see and greet, be it tree, stone or wind. A sense of limitless time affords a kind of delicate joining with all that surrounds me.

When I forget myself I become the breeze, the snowflake and the melting ice on the pond, but when I inhabit my body there is a restless discomfort difficult to describe. It is like my spirit is in the wrong place or I’m wearing a shoe that belongs to another or I’m holding something in my hand that repels and yet I can not put it down. I feel completely at home and I don’t feel at home at all. Worse yet, my mind has neither answer nor comfort for such a dilemma. I simply endure, continue my midnight rituals and hope one day it will pass.

Soon, I tell myself, the hedgerows will be fragrant with honeysuckle and I’ll be that much closer to finding my way home. Until then I will continue to pen my letters and offer them to the night, trying not to expect too much nor yield to disappointment, since I’ve had no other contact since the revealing of his name.

Some nights, as I read my letter, I can feel my husband’s presence, as if he stands near my shoulder. But lately it’s as if I read to myself alone, his spirit being occupied elsewhere. At these times, a great anxiety builds in my chest making it difficult to breath, and I speak even louder, desperate that he hear me.

“Jonathon dear, please do not forget or abandon me, for hope of finding you is all that I have.”

Ritual – Page 26

Angelina waits up for me, offering oat cakes and fermented whey, relishing a woman’s time without men or children. I bound up the steps, busting with zeal, anxious to tell her of the night’s discoveries.

“I know his name, my husband’s name.  It is John, Jonathon. He came to me in a vision that was not a vision but a visit. I saw him for a fleeting moment standing before me and I remembered. I am beginning to remember!”

Angelina pulls me into her arms in the sisterly embrace I’ve come to know so well, and I can smell her goodness and strength.

“My senses have changed,” I tell her, my hair wild and knotted from the wind.

She listens to my tale, smiling.

“Soon you will remember everything, and find your way home, and I will be happy for you. And I will be distressed to lose my sister and friend. Life is pushing you forward with its own hand. It seems you have little choice. Each day you become a woman of greater power, like Matruska.”

The thought of it alarms me. “I will never be like Matruska – an old woman living alone in the woods? I do not want that life. That is not mine to have. I do not want visions. I want to depend on things being predictable.”

The room feels deliciously warm as I remove my boots and hang up my coat.

Angelina laughs. “Life is not predictable. Your accident and training have opened something in you, something the rest of us do not have, the gift of seeing, and once opened it does not go away.”

“But,” I protest. “I will never sit by midnight fires again or hold the kestrel feather. Once I am home I want to put this all behind me.”

She sips the fermented whey, slowly, measuring her words. “Who you have become will not leave, Maya, but can serve you in ways you can not yet imagine. These gifts are an embodiment of the divine mystery, allowing you to look behind the mask of appearance to see things as they really are. They allow you to see to the heart and to bring influence into being that can inform your life.”

I remove the rest of my winter clothes, slipping a soft yellow tunic over my head, the warmth and weight of it welcome against my skin.

 “You have been like an instrument out of tune,” she continues, “each day moving closer to your truest tone. You will find, as I do, that your new sound has many variations and rich hues. Do not be eager to dismiss it.”

Angelina leans against one wall of the caravan, smelling of honey and cabbages, and I against the other, a blanket thrown across our legs.

“And what of you, Angelina? What will you do when I find my way home?”

“I will do as I have always done, serve my children and my family. I will spend the morning cleaning, drawing water, building fires, finding herbs and preparing food. I will look at the sky to see what the clouds look like, listen to the voice of the wind, the songs of the birds and count how many trees have lost their leaves. If we are near a town, I will sell my dried flowers or work in the hop fields, and in the evenings there will be stories and songs. But through it all, I will think of you and the joy you have brought into our lives, secretly wishing that you had been free, able to stay and marry my Luca.”

We laugh from our bellies. Angelina loves Tarnia but finds her blistering temperament and controlling ways as difficult as I do.

The web of sleep pulls at us as Angelina gets up to leave. “Rhiannon is a great queen, a Goddess from Wales often appearing in the night as a white horse or stag. She is a muse standing between the gates of death and rebirth. She will guide you home and feed your creative spirit, if you ask.”

My creative spirit. My thoughts turn to painting and then to Edwin as I drift off to sleep, wondering how his betrayal will find its way into my life.

Ritual – page 25

 

It is a bitter January. The forest is dense, a black frost in the hills, but I have committed to keeping a midnight vigil. Matruska’s acknowledgment of my husband has awakened a longing in me and a knowing that I can reach his spirit. She has given me instructions, and a gift of the falcon’s feather in its ornate box.

My spot is just ahead, a small circle of stones in a clearing. A lone hazelnut tree at the crest of the hill marks the location, its frozen branches shining like jewels to light my way.

Snow begins to fall as I approach, a few flakes at first, then wind-driven eddies swirling around my boots. The air is bright and cold as I raise my chin to a black sky, allowing each flake to fall softly and gently against my face, like heavenly kisses.

“Hello, me dear,” I say aloud. “I am back.”

I have made this pilgrimage every night since November and will continue to make it until spring.

I kneel, reaching into my bag for brushwood, matches and an oil cloth to sit on, my open fingered gloves allowing freedom.  The wind blows against my hand as I shelter a match, bringing brushwood to life, then lift the latch on the wooden box. The falcon feather and plant dyes have allowed me to pen correspondence to my husband, careful calligraphied words, which seem to waltz across the page of their own accord. They are to be read and burned at midnight, when the portal between worlds is most open.

 My stockings are thick and warm but can not repel the icy draft. I shake from cold, moving closer to the fire, as I bring the feather to my lips, then slide it through an opening in my coat and beneath my bodice to rest against my heart. My movements are patterned, each learned act an offering of desire. I position myself, arms extended to the sky, ready to begin.

 “Spirit of the Falcon, take the words of my heart, born of your winged body, to the heart of my husband, that he may know that I live and seek him. Deliver my message each night as he sleeps, renewing our love and instilling hope in his dreams.

My letter is tucked beneath a square of wool at the bottom of the box, the paper fragile against the night. I kneel to retrieve it, ready to offer my words to the fire, when a noise pulls my attention – a rustling of bushes, followed by the icy sounds of crunched undergrowth. Something is near, coming closer. I am immobile, waiting, as a stag steps from the woods, his velvet antlers raised. We are both still, looking at one another through falling snow, his breath making snorts of fog near his nose. I close my eyes and when I open them again, everything seems bigger and cleaner, as if I can suddenly see with more clarity. My body begins to tremble, as a familiar dizziness blurs my vision, and the land swirls disturbingly around me.

When I look again, the face of the stag transforms into that of a strong intelligent man, the pelt of the deer becoming chestnut hair. In a flash he steps toward me, fully human in tweed jacket, a disoriented, lost gaze in his eyes. I see into his world for just a moment and he into mine. He stands alone on a bitter night, nursing grief and twisting a diamond wedding ring in his hand. He calls a name I can not hear, as the image fades.

 Snow falls on silence. “John,” I say aloud. “Jonathon?”

Ritual – page 24

Matruska covers my hand with her own, an aloof November moon beaming full and indifferent.

“Let me see what I can bring forth,” she says, closing her eyes.

Time passes slowly as I wait, beginning to chill from the night. Her face looks pained and her brow furrowed as she speaks.

 “You have a dark anguish of absence, having to do with a child, a son. He is waiting, wanting to come into your life but can not come through the man you knew as your husband. It is not possible.”

“So,” I interrupt. “I do have a husband! You can see him?”  My heart throbs with excitement, an elation I have not felt.

Matruska is slow to continue as if pulling information from the stars that are just now coming out.

“I see the shadow of a man alone who grieves from the bottom of his soul, believing you are dead. He is lost now, moving from place to place without purpose.”

“Please,” I beg, grasping her hand. “What else can you see?”

Matruska quiets herself again, waiting for images.

“I see another man, a traveller, who enters your body to bring forth a son, then walks away, which is as it should be.”

I am put off by her suggestion, finding it crude and impossible.

“Do you not comprehend? I seek my husband. What can I do to find my husband? Please use your sight for that. If I am married surely our love would flow into one another to create a child. How can you suggest I leave his bed?”

Matruska’s mood darkens. “Let me become your ally, Maya. You must calm yourself and listen with an open spirit. Seeing into the future, into someone’s heart and mind requires being truthful. What is seen may not be to your liking, but must be said. Please, child, I can only help if you allow me to.”

I am heated and tense. “Then help!”

“There is no leaving what is not there,” she challenges, referring to my husband’s bed. Now! Listen to me carefully. On the first day of May there is purification on the mountains and hillsides. Cattle will be driven between bonfires to bring us luck. At that time the triple Goddess will be near the earth; maiden, mother, crone. It is her medicine you need to mend what is broken, until then you must wait. Spring and Beltane will bring clarity and gifts.

I get up, wrapping my shawl around me, wishing for Angelina and Marko to take me away. Being with this woman is suddenly too much. I feel exhausted, too opened and much too seen.

As I make my way back to the house, there is a stirring deep within, another remembering making me dizzy. I drop to the earth, shaken, holding back tears, feeling the touch of Matruska’s hand upon my shoulder.

“Forceful energies are moving through you, Maya. Do not try to stop them.”

I am angry. “It’s too much,” I protest. “I want them to stop!”

The face of a young boy enters my vision as I stagger to my feet. It is a face I know, a face from a dream, his body glowing, eyes overflowing with light. I look at him, finding myself in his eyes.

“Mother,” he whispers, before the image fades, and I know I must do it. I must give him life, whatever the cost.

Ritual – Page 23

I lay on a narrow bed in a darkened corner of Matruska’s house, the flicker from a single candle our only light.

“Rest Maya,” she tells me, “and breathe into your belly, while I gather friends from unseen places.”

I watch from the corner of my eye, a little nervous, not knowing what she means, as Matruska picks up a large spiral shell.

“Water spirits,” she calls, as if coaxing them from their fluid depths. “Come!” The sound of the shell is horn-like and haunting, the reverberation filling the room. She stands in squirrel skin slippers, her sapphire blue eyes closed under white lashes. After a moment she places the shell in the west near a bowl of scented water. 

Matruska’s eyes reflect flames as she faces the south, holding a handmade torch in the embers until it blazes into life. “Fire spirits, come!” She says, waving the torch around the room, as if burning away an unseen darkness that lives near my essence. When she’s finished she flings the remaining bundle into the fire.

A cold winter breeze blows her long white hair as she faces east, throwing open a window. “Wind spirits, come!” She commands, then walks with a determined gait toward a box perched on a shelf above the hearth, retrieving a single feather from a kestrel falcon. It is bound in leather and decorated with small pieces of bone. Matruska waves it over the length of my bed, securing it over my heart with a piece of jasper.  

“Earth spirits, come!” She continues, taking clay from a bucket and smearing it on my forehead, hands and feet. “This is your daughter, Maya, who needs your help. Now is the time to be with her.”

 Matruska stands in silence feeling the difference in the room. Even I can sense the power of it and the shift in my body. Gooseflesh rises all over me, like little fingers of truth, as I acknowledge that we are no longer alone.

“Breathe from your belly,” she tells me, going to the sink to wash her hands.  “Your answers are there.”

She retrieves a steaming black rag from a pot on the stove, placing the warm cloth over my eyes.  “Rest,” she laughs, reaching for a lute.

“The spirits love poetry and music. We must appease them before they will help.”

The timbre of the music is at once resonant and piercing, then mellow and breathy, the effect lulling me to a quieter inner place. 

I wait and breathe, listening to the lute and her words of instruction, lingering in darkness between worlds until my vision begins to alter.  To my surprise, there is an opening, an image appearing, as if immerging from a fog.

“What do you see?” she asks. “Something has come.”

“Yes,” I answer. But speaking is a great effort. I am in one world and she asks me to report to another, I am not sure I can do both. I reenter the scene, endeavoring to share  the vision.

“I feel a man’s arms around my waist. He holds me close. There is mystery and impassioned breath on my neck.  His lips are ripe and full.”

“Let him speak to you,” Matruska instructs. “and listen carefully to what he says.”

I breathe back into the scene. In my mind we sit together on the side of a hill. There are others there, women, but at a distance.

“Can you help me?” I ask the man. He looks deep into my eyes, as if knowing me, then turns his back and walks away. I yell after him. “Do not go, I beseech you!”

“This is auspicious,” Matruska says. “You have seen a face. Ask if he is your husband?”

I do not feel that he is, and yet, there is something there, something compelling and indefinable. His eyes are dark and penetrating, looking through me as he answers.

“I am the father of your child, but your husband is another.”

I bolt from the bed, ripping the cloth from my face and feather from my heart, its anchoring stone tumbling across the floor.

“This is not working,” I tell her. “This is wrong, this is all wrong.”

She moves to my side, calming me.

“Come away now, into cool night air and tell me what happened.”

I am embarrassed, not wanting to share. She leads me outside, down a narrow path and onto a forest swing beneath barren wisteria vines.

What happened?

Jonathon Attwood – page 22

 

I sit on the balcony of the Gentlemen’s Club, black coffee in hand, thinking of the future, not wanting to be home. The day is frigid, my fingers red with cold, as muffled voices from inside make me feel less alone. Small puffs of breath fill the air with each chilly exhale, a visual reminder that I am still among the living.

I reach in my pocket feeling her diamond ring, remembering the day we married. But the warmth of the moment is immediately overridden by the scavenger’s words, forever burned in memory.

“Yep, she were dead all right, cold and gone. Don’t know what happened to the body but weren’t me who moved it. Would never disfigure the dead, knowing that Holy Mary, Mother of God would bring a curse down on me and mine.  I’d say the river rose after we left and washed her out.”

The door swings open, an unexpected burst of warm air.

“Attwood, old fellow,” Baron Dorchester exclaims. “There you are. Why on earth would you be outside on a day like this? You’ll catch a chill. Come inside and have a brandy. We could use your opinion in our venting.”

“And what would that be about?” I ask, ready to be pulled away.

“The men who think they have a credible claim to the status of Gentlemen simply because they’ve been given the right to vote. Can you imagine, men who earn an income through working wanting to join a Gentleman’s Club? Last month we had a lawyer apply and even a portrait painter, the last chap claiming he had business with you!”

 The audacity of the gesture angers me. “I can assure you, Baron, that I have no acquaintanceship with portrait painters. I blame the reformation act, which has many men believing they can be enfranchised members, where I would strongly recommend they establish clubs of their own.”

“That was my opinion as well,” the Baron says, thumping me on the back. “When will you resume your obligations in Parliament and what has become of the Manor after that dreadful business with your wife?”

I don’t feel ready to discuss my affairs but find no escape.

“Albert has closed Yorkshire Manor, remaining in the butler’s quarters. Perkins and a few stable lads continue to tend the horses. A single parlor maid remains and has placed dust covers over the furnishings. The manor has been officially secured and I question whether or not to keep it. I had hoped Lady Attwood would find her way back one day but now I must face the truth. As for parliament, that remains unresolved.”  

I think privately of my duty and responsibility to England, but lack capacity for the things I once valued. I imagine the red leather benches in the House of Lords, and the impassioned opposition between Labour and Conservative parties, the very heart and soul of England, the blood of my ancestors, and yet not a single beat of my heart allows me to return. I am a shadow of a former self, a stranger in my life.

“I imagine Baron, that I will take an extended leave, in the hope that far-reaching travel may set me right.”

 

Jonathon Attwood – page 21

 

A great pounding startles me awake, unrelenting and insistent. 

Newspaper crinkles against my face as I rise, attempting to traverse the room. I unlatch the door feeling dazed and provoked, wishing for the first time that Julia was still employed to handle such unpleasantness.

“Excuse me sir, sorry to bother you.”

A bobbie stands before me in high collared tunic, pulling a notebook from his pocket.

“Lord Attwood?  I am from New Scotland Yard with orders to escort you to Whitehall Place. If you would come with me please.”

I brush sleep from my eyes, not sure if I’m dreaming. Then, my mind clears, a burst of optimism opening in my heart.

“Do you have news of my wife?  Have you found her?”

He is reluctant to speak. “It would be best to discuss this at the station.”

How dare he! “Officer, I must know. Has she been located? Is she alright?”

He takes a step forward, removing his helmet. “It is not my place,” he says, yielding to my insistence, “but I can tell you, that there was a fine piece of police work done by our men near Fleet Street yesterday. If they had not been on their toes, our suspects would have slipped right out of London.

Our men in the west end have been tracking a shady but seemingly harmless character by the name of Gavin McFlannery, who was accompanied by his wife, Maggie, since they made a sale of questionable items last month in Liverpool, items way above their station, if you know what I mean? The couple was nabbed attempting to sell a women’s ring of precious gems, which we believe may have belonged to your wife.”

“And?” I ask.

The policeman is feeling proud now, willing to entrust even more details of the investigation.

“They have admitted to taking that and other items from a dead woman in early spring near the River Derwent. We need you to come to Scotland Yard to identify the ring. It won’t take much of your time.”

A dead woman. His words pierce my heart, backing me into the room to sit down. “Are you sure she was dead?”

He follows me in, standing rigid in winter greatcoat and shiny black boots, a whistle suspended from a brass chain on the second button of his tunic. There is a moment of quiet when he realizes he may have divulged too much.

“These are things to discuss at Scotland Yard, Sir, but yes, dead. That is what the man said, that was his justification for stealing the goods. His wife, who was with him at the time, concurred. We need you to identify the jewelry and a few other items of clothing. We believe from the fullness of their pockets, that other belongings must have already been sold.”

I look around at the chaos in the drawing room, as if seeing it for the first time, the reality in his words striking a severe blow.

“Has the body been retrieved?” I ask, feeling numb.

He is formal again. “You’ll need to accompany me to the station.”

“Yes, of course, of course,” I mutter, wondering what to bring.

The policeman waits, folding his hands on his dutyband, unaware of the anguish he’s delivered, while I grab a stack of official papers, confused, thinking I may be required to stop at the House of Lords when I finish, as if I were going out for afternoon tea.  What was it Lord Higgins said? They needed my vote to block Ireland’s home rule and something about the regulation of movable dwelling for the gypsies. Surely delay is best,  for if Ireland is granted home rule, who would be next and what would become of England’s power?

I sit at the table in front of a cold fireplace, paralyzed, legislative papers in my hand, my body and thoughts motionless.

The officer breaks the silence, his words hanging in the air as cold as the room. “You may want to begin with muffler and overcoat, Sir. There is a stern wind blowing.”

Jonathon Attwood – Page 20

“You must eat something, Jonathon. You can not go on like this.”

Lord Higgins stands over me like a well-intended monk, his curly red hair coiling around the edges of his bowler.

 “You have done everything you can possibly do, and now it is time to attend responsibilities. It has been six months with police searching night and day and an advertisement in every paper in England. If she were alive she would have been reported. It is hard to face John, but her body must have been carried away in the river, and washed out to sea. It’s simple logic. The horse was dead. The coachman was dead. How could she have survived?”

How could she have survived? I ask myself the same thing every day as the scene plays in my mind again and again, like a bad dream I can not escape: the mangled carriage, the open empty eyes of the coachmen, the broken gouged carcass of the horse, all bloody and lifeless in an avalanche of tragedy, all laying in a wet mass of mud and silt. I am possessed by the image of rain dripping from the brim of my hat as I surveyed the scene, like tears falling from the sky, acknowledging the end of my life. 

But there was no Ivy, no sign of Ivy anywhere. I have taken a leave of absence from parliament, intending to continue my search but find I am weighed down by depression and grief.  

My head rests in my hands as I watch Lord Higgins pace around the table, his good intentions beginning to grate on my nerves.

“And another thing, you must employ Julia again, even if she does remind you of Lady Attwood’s absence.  Constantly shuttered windows and an untidy house is not a sign of health or leadership. You have responsibilities John, to your country and community. Admit that Ivy is dead. Have a service, grieve and get on with your life. It is time.”

He turns before leaving. “I will pray for you John.”

I smirk. Save your prayers, for the devil has my soul now. I follow like a good host, but only to lock the door behind him.

The sofa looks inviting and I am tired. No need to remove shoes or shirt, just close my eyes and melt into a dream beyond this troubled place, but the night brings no relief. Night after night I bolt upright in cold sweaty clothes, hearing her call my name, hearing her tell me that she is still alive. I kick over a stack of newspapers as I pass the table, grabbing one in my hand, as if squeezing it hard enough will reveal her location.

“Where are you my love?” I yell into the empty room, pleading through tears. “Please, forgive me for not being with you and come back to me. You can not be dead, can you? Could you really be gone? Has my grief brought me to an insanity I can not contain?”

Gypsy Life – Page 19

Our wagon bumps up and down over seldom traveled roads as I look into a bright November sky. I tally the months since they took me from the river bank calculating four and a half.  Little Mila and Avon play with a single tin soldier on the floor, as Angelina continues to knit. We travel now to Essex to meet Matruska. I am apprehensive, tossing in my sleep last night, unprepared to hear what she might discover. What if she can tell me where I belong? What then? This family has become my heart. Can I rip myself away for an unknown future?

I clutch my gift which is simply painted, but improved by borrowed strokes of Edwin’s mastery. The touch of it brings the warmth of his parting embrace and remembered words of encouragement. He was distracted when we left, busying himself with packing and shipped the portrait he completed of me to an agent in France. I am edgy and tense as we stop near a thicket, an uneasy feeling pulsing in my belly.

“Matruska no longer travels,” Angelina tells me. “She has settled in the grove. We will make camp one mile north, returning to get you before dark.”

Angelina sees the fear in my eyes and covers my trembling hand.

“It is better to know, my friend, then to wonder. Take what gifts she can give you for the sake of those who may love you and all that’s been lost.”

I leave my walking stick in the wagon, needing it less and less, and descend the stairs, stroking the horse’s neck as I pass. “See you soon girl,” I say, stalling for time. She turns to me, hoping for a piece of carrot, but I have nothing. The wagon pulls away as I stand frozen and conflicted at Matruska’s door. I do not announce myself or knock, having an overwhelming sense of crossing a threshold that may change my life.

“Hello there Maya. Word of your visit has reached me.” Matruska yells her pronouncement from the forest, buckets of potatoes weighing heavy from each hand. “Come inside and sit down. I have made us some soup.”

The smell of Irish soda bread wafts from a wood burning stove as Matruska places her buckets in a cool corner. Herbs hang overhead, creating a ceiling of foliage which permeates her home with scent.  

“First we eat,” she says pulling out a chair. “Then we visit. Then we read.”

Matruska is smaller than I imagined with hair more white than grey, and a sinewy body I would have judged frail, if I’d not seen her hoisting potatoes like buckets of dust. A loom sits in the corner near embers of fire, a woolen cloth waiting on the warp.

“What have you brought me?” She claps her hands together like a child, excited.  “What gift do you bring?”

I untie the string that holds brown paper against the painting, letting it fall away. My floral canvas is revealed. She looks pleased as she cleans her hands to reach for it, but as her fingers touch the frame, she stops, alarmed, flailing her arms and pulling brusquely away.

 “What is it?” I ask, feeling crushed. “Has my gift displeased you?”

Matruska sits down looking ashen and electrified, the fallen painting askew on the floor. She is silent, staring at the canvas and then at me.

“There is betrayal in this work. A man’s hand. A man has betrayed you. Someone you trust.”

Gypsy Life – Page 18

We set up an easel near the sea with Edwin looking very not traveller-like in white linen suit, wide-brimmed straw hat and camel polished shoes. He seems cheerful and excited to be teaching.

“Every pure and refined pleasure for which a person acquires a relish, is to that extent a safeguard against a low and debasing lifestyle. Horace Mann said that, and he was correct. In learning to paint my dear, you will save yourself from the possibility of a debased life.”

Romany children play near the water, while their mothers gather wood scrapes, jackets and shawls sheltering them from brisk ocean air. An invigorating wind billows in the giant sails of ships traveling near the harbor, but doesn’t dislodge the canvas. Edwin will not paint today, but instruct.

“The artistic and aesthetic experiences are inseparable. Since you have a strong visual sensitivity I believe you will make a good painter.”

He shows me how to hold the brush and palette, having already arranged colors for me to use. “Look, there are late blooming roses. Begin with those. Be the master of your brush, meticulous but bold.”

Edwin has prepared and textured the canvas, which awaits my first efforts. I make a mark, which is just a mark, nothing more than crude round circles where flowers should be. I enjoy the feel of the brush and the sight of vibrant hues on my palette, but fear I’ll make nothing of value. Edwin, sensing my thoughts, moves behind me, placing his hand over mine, lending his mastery. Miraculously, short confident strokes become petals, a recognizable image. He takes his hand away as I mimic his movements. I am encouraged, beaming at my beginner’s ability.

He chuckles; walking to the side of the canvas, then surprises me by obstructing my stroke.

“These hands bare scars but are not the hands of one who labors.”

He holds my hand prisoner, slowly caressing my skin, as if studying something out of view, then withdraws, walking quickly away. I continue to dab petals into being as he throws his hat to the ground, leaning heavily against the trunk of a hawthorne tree.

“Do you mean to tell me that you have absolutely no recollection of your former life at all, nothing?”

He picks up last weeks conversation like it was only seconds ago. I pause before answering, caught off guard.

“I feel something when you speak French, but it’s not a remembering, more a distant knowing. Yet there is one voice I hear that speaks with a lilt as I drift off to sleep, but that is more nightmare than memory.”

Edwin buttons his jacket against the wind, the moisture in the breeze curling his beard. “Discount nothing,” he demands. “All is of value at this juncture. Continue. What is it? What do you remember?”

I feel embarrassed and awkward, the moment unnerving. The dream recurs in the dim shadows of my mind and feels dangerous to speak of, as if words alone could bestow a power to harm me. We stand together in silence as he waits and I gather courage. I look away from him and begin.

“It’s a disembodied man’s voice I hear, accompanied by the smell of a recently oiled knife. I can almost feel his breath on my face as he chatters indifferently about cutting off my fingers.”

Edwin gasps. “Oh my dear, surely that is only a dream. I’m sorry I brought it up. I did not mean to distress you. Perhaps one day something will come of a pleasant nature. Until then, you are safe and can busy yourself by posing for me and establishing rudimentary skills.”

Edwin’s attention is drawn to a seagull playing in currents of ocean air.

“Such a shame no one had heard anything about an accident or missing woman when I went to Kent. But rest assured that I will continue my inquiries on your behalf. Perhaps there will be something printed in The Times. Until then, dear one, you are wise to stay with the gypsies and far from view.”

There is strangeness about Edwin but I’ve come to trust him, and am grateful for his efforts.  

“How fortunate I am to have befriended you, Edwin. Thank you.”

Gypsy Life – Page 17

 

“It’s time, isn’t it?”

Angelina sits next to me, our campfire shooting sparks into the night. “It’s time to find your people. The gorgio painter, Edwin Augusto, knows how to read and move freely among the outsiders. We could send him into the tavern with ten pence for ale to see what can be uncovered, but you must confide in him first. Then there is Matruska, the best reader among us. We pass her caravan in three weeks time. She uses her sight, cards or the lines of your palm. Surely she can find something to light your way. Make a gift for her, an offering and it will go well.

I find myself eager to know and yet, oddly afraid. A question burns in my throat which finally blurt out.

“How is it that Edwin is accepted among you but I am not?”

Angelina becomes serious as she tends my question. First, Edwin has traveled with us before. He is a man with a family and is not missed by his community. And second, you are accepted among us. How could you feel otherwise?”

Angelina dips a rag in warm water, swiping at Avon’s face as he darts by, an invitation to chase in his smile. She shakes her finger and her motherly head, brimming with love for her son, then returns to our conversation.  “Is it Tarnia?”

I will not tell her that Tarnia ‘accidently’ smashed into me on my way from the sea, knocking me face down in the dirt, nor will I repeat her taunting remarks, but I will speak of it.

“If she could stop hating me, I could explain that I am no threat to her, and that Luca is fully hers. Really, how could I start anything without knowing if I am married or not?  I told her I wanted to discuss this, and she seemed willing to listen, offering to have me by for foxglove tea, but I have heard nothing.”

Angelina roars with laughter. “Have you over for tea, is it? Then you can be lucky she has not come by, since foxglove is poison when made into tea.” She falls sideways with amusement, but I do not find it funny.

She counsels me as she steadies herself, gaining composure.  “Try to avoid her. Tarnia has a fierce temper but would not harm you. Come pick lavender with us this week and watch me sell from the wagon. Here is my song:

Will you buy my sweet lavender, sweet blooming lavender? Come buy my pretty lavender, sixteen bunches a penny. 

─̶

I seek out Edwin to confide my story and ask for his help. His children play near the wagon, as his ladies, Athenia and Wren clear away the evening meal. We talk into the night, devising a plan.

I turn to leave, realizing I’ve forgotten something. “Oh, can you teach me to paint something in one month’s time? I need a gift from my own hand to offer a seer.”

 As Maya walks away, Wren whispers in Edwin’s ear.

“You know who she is. All of England is searching for her. Why do you keep it a secret?”

Gypsy Life – Page 16

 

I sit at an angle, one arm draped over the back of a chair.

Your gaze must be consistent,” Edwin tells me. “Try looking at the pot on the wall, like it is a handsome stranger.”

“Where did you learn to paint?” I ask, smiling at the pot.

“One never stops learning to paint, my dear. But I began at the Tenby School of Art, attended Slade in London and studied independently in Paris, but my greatest advances came during an unexpected convalescence.  I suffered a fall from a horse at thirty-two and found the time I spent bound to the house invaluable.”

Edwin sits on a stool to paint, one thumb sticking through a hole in a wooden palette, holding both the oblong board and additional brushes. The rim of the palette is covered with a rainbow of hues, which he sparingly retrieves to mix at the center. I am fascinated, but my body has begun to ache.

“Is Luca your young man?” he asks.

The question makes me uncomfortable. “No. He is promised to another.”

“Would you like me to give you some lessons when we have finished? I sense an artistic interest and a visual sensitivity, perhaps one afternoon when the light is right, we could walk to the channel.”

I feel suddenly out of my depth. “No, thank you. I should be getting back.”

“Ah, be still my dear, one moment more and I will promise to stop prying into your life. I can only do so much from memory, so will need to have you sit again before the week is out.”

Only forty-five minutes has passed, but my body is tired. I try to be patient while wanting to bolt, both energies swirling within. My breathing deepens as my eyes well with tears. I must find my way back to myself, I reason, where ever that is. I can not live among strangers for the rest of my life. I must try harder. I must force something into memory. Surely something is there, if I concentrate, implore and push it to the surface.

The force of my feelings become explosive.  “I really must go now. Please hand me my walking stick at once.”

Edwin puts down his brushes, wiping his hands on an already soiled cloth. He helps me up, placing his arm around my shoulder, then leads me to the canvas. “What do you think, my dear? Is it a good beginning?”

I am stunned at the image peering back at me. It is far from complete, but holds an essence of myself astonishing to witness. The likeness looks wise but calm, radiant, distressed and bewildered. His swift fluid strokes are unafraid of vibrant color, leaving me spellbound and absorbed.

This jolt of realism sends me stumbling out the door into a shade-less afternoon. I make my way to a remote corner of the beach, take off my clothes and bathe, floating belly up in salted water.

Gypsy Life – Page 15

Luca stands before me, eyes closed, lost in music. The slow draw of his violin bow, reaching into my soul, awakening and stirring feelings without name. I am transported, in tones of melancholy, sweet, anguished and hushed. I surrender to each exquisite note, feeling my heart rend with every stroke from his bow, then without warning, an accordion joins him, abruptly changing tempo. The music climbs toward the sky, fast and buoyant, as dancers burst onto the open field swirling and laughing. He opens his eyes now, smiling at me, the cheerfulness of his face and good spirits of the evening comfort me.

“Love! Love the music but do not love the man.” A woman stands in front of me deliberately blocking my view. “Luca belongs to me.”

The woman has a thin orange scarf holding back long hair, its carroty color falling against an off-shoulder blouse. Hoop rings adorn her ears, spangled necklaces cover a bulging chest. I have trouble seeing her face as she is backlit by fire but see a flash from a jeweled anklet near her hem. “You are a gorgio. How do you come to be here?”  Her hands are placed firmly on her hips.

Angelina approaches with Marko and the children, lines of worry on her forehead. “Ah Tarnia,” she says. “I see you have met Maya.”

“Who is this gorgio,” she demands. “What have you done bringing her here?”

Marko steps between us, instinctively sheltering me as Angelina explains.

“I don’t care,” shouts Tarnia, her fiery temper towering above Angelina’s gentle voice. “Bringing her here puts us all in danger. We are already called wild and dangerous, thieves, witches, baby snatchers and worse! Our very existence is illegal. They break our arms and blame us for being crippled. Would you have them come upon us with bayonets and kalashnikor to kill us as we sleep, for stealing a red haired gorgio?”

Marko takes Tarnia by the shoulder, pulling her away, speaking to her calmly under his breath. Her eyes dart back at me in warning. “If you don’t get rid of her I will!”

Luca motions me forward to watch him step dance but the chill of Tarnia’s company sends me walking in another direction. I hear the clapping of feet on wood and slapping of legs as the men begin, but I need to leave such festivities.

It is dim but the wagons are well lit, beautifully and brightly painted. I run my fingers along their carved sides, admiring the glint of gold leaf on the border. It is very different then ours, which has been painted green to be less noticeable in the woodlands.

“Do you like the artwork?”  

A male voice seems to come from nowhere. “Oh, I did not mean to startle you. Allow me to introduce myself. I am Edwin Gates from Wales, traveling with my wife, mistress and seven children. We live in Provence, between Arles and Marseille much of the time but the area is changing, and not for the better. I feel the need to travel with the gypsies now, to refresh my spirit and my art.”

He hesitates studying me from head to foot. “Forgive me, Madame, but you are not Romany.”

I search his eyes, wondering if he could know me, if he could hold a missing piece of my identity, but am quick to dismiss such foolishness.

“What kind of art do you do?”

He moves closer now, his features shadowed by moonlight. His eyes penetrate as if looking for truth. His cheeks are rosy and full, framed by the grey of his hair and beard. A white shirt lays open, covered by another with tiny buttons running the length of its silkened brown fabric. I guess him to be a man of sixty years.

“I am a painter. I sketch in oil and do figure drawings. I enjoy portraiture which has been both praised and condemned as extravagant. Those who like me, compare my work to Matisse, those who do not, call me une bête sauvage. Do you like the impressionists?”

Une bête sauvage, a wild beast. The words are not English yet recognizable. There is something familiar about this man. His talk of art finds a home in me, as do his forays into another language. “I don’t know,” I tell him, tripping over my words. “I don’t know if I like Impressionists or not.”

Edwin Gates looks through me, his thoughts forceful and private. “Then let me show you my paintings, and when we have finished I will paint you.”  He lifts his hand, placing it on my chin, then turns my face slowly to the right. “Yes,” he repeats. “Come tomorrow and we will begin. Let the others pick lavender. I can already see the colors I will mix to catch the depth of your emerald eyes.”

I hear Luca and Tarnia arguing, as I make my way to the wagon under a star-filled night.

Part 2 – Gypsy Life – Page 14

 

Marko, Angelina’s husband, walks to the porch hiding something behind his back.

“Close your eyes, Maya, and hold out your hand.”

I do as I’m instructed, a smile creeping across my face. “What is it?”

I hear the creak of wooden steps as he ascends each one. His fingers rough and callused as he opens my hand.

“Oh, Marko, it’s beautiful, truly beautiful!” A blackthorn walking stick with gnarled bark and deep red hue sits naturally in my palm. Marko takes a worn cloth from his pocket, wiping his brow from the heat of afternoon sun, clearly pleased with his work.

“I found the wood at the edge of the forest; air dried it these last few months and inscribed a rune at the end of the stave. Today it is finished.”

I look at the end of the wood seeing a single line with two smaller lines meeting at the center. It looks like a little tent sitting sideways on a straight line. “What does it mean?”

“It is a symbol from the ancient ones meant to protect the bearer on dark and lonely roads.”

My smile fades. A gesture that comes too late, I think, but say nothing.

“Try it,” he insists, pulling me to my feet. “Angelina is by the water with the little ones, gathering clay to bake our dinner. Go and surprise her.”

I have used my injured leg as an excuse to hide for months now, feeling unsafe and unsure about everything, but mostly about myself. I dress in other woman’s skirts and shawls, my hair cascading around my waist, while Angelina wears a headscarf or diklo to show she is married. I search my mind for any trace of partner or married life, but find nothing. Is there someone missing me? I wonder.

I make my way down the stairs, slowly and cautiously, the walking stick supporting every move.  I am wary and vigilant, but find this new support allows a level of self-assurance I did not expect. Marko sees my grin and radiates with pleasure. He smells of sweat and wood smoke, as I hobble past.

We are in the south now at Somerset, near an estuary. Black horses with white faces and long white manes pull our wagons from place to place at night, often surprising me with a new location in the morning. I am told we move because others are not friendly, which I find difficult to understand.

The path meanders through a clearing in the woods that opens to the sea, where narrow-billed sandpipers stand on twigs probing for dinner, unbothered by the mud-slinging antics of Angelina’s children.

“Look,” says Angelina, pretending there is nothing unusual about seeing me away from the wagon. “The children have found eggs for our breakfast.”

My walking is stilted but steady, the ocean breeze a healing balm. I close my eyes, letting a salty wind kiss my face as Mila, Angelina’s youngest, runs to me, holding up two speckled eggs. Avon follows her, holding his own. They have apples in a basket and hedgehogs for dinner, which I stare at in disbelief.

“How will you remove the prickles?” I ask.

She waves her hand in the water, washing away the mud, dries them on her apron and walks to my side. “We bake it in the fire. When the hardened clay shell is removed, the prickles come off. The meat is delicious. I’ve herbs of agrimony and sorrel to go with it. Come, I’ll show you. Tomorrow we go to Kentish to meet other travellers. We will pick lavender, play czardas, share stories and step dance. It is time you met other Romanies.”

I totter along next to her, the children dancing round trees as we go. “It’s good to see you mended, my friend,” she says, threading her arm around my waist. “Now, it is time to recover your smile.”

Mistress of the Manor – Page 13

I wake in a narrow space with a bowed roof, having no idea where I am. A red accordion hangs on a peg, smiling at me with long teeth in ivory and black. I am sore and need to move, but searing pain stops me, every muscle in my body is throbbing and tender. What has happened?

Sunlight streams through french doors near a porcelain washbasin and pitcher. The smell of fir and camp smoke fill the air. I move my hands to my eyes, finding them scarred and beaten. I lay in the quiet of the room, listening to myself breathe, my senses open and raw. Music plays at a distance, guitar. It is lively, there is laughter. I close my eyes again, into the comfort of darkness.

Time passes, maybe a little, maybe a lot. The music stops.  I hear children yelling in words I don’t understand. An olive-skinned woman in a patterned headscarf pushes open the door. Her bodice is bright and gathered, a full blue skirt swinging below. She carries knitting needles and a length of yarn being made into cloth.

She speaks, as she tucks the knitting in a basket near my bed. I turn my head away, not understanding, but her fingers bring me back. They are nimble and soft as she touches my face.  “Hello,” she says in my language. “I am Angelina. I’ve been taking care of you. Do you remember what happened?”  Her hair is the color of midnight, with slumbering curls at rest near her forehead.

I search my mind and find nothing. “What do you mean?”

“You’ve been badly injured. Do you remember the accident? We found you by a river in the north, sleeping in the arms of death. That was more than two weeks ago. Now we journey to the sea, but can take you home when you’re strong enough or send word to have you met.”

I am silent.

“I have burned the clothes you came in, saving the ribbons and beads. White is the color of death and mourning, inviting trouble. You could not get well in such clothes, even if they were not ruined. I’ve made you a nightdress in orange and we have plenty to lend when you are able to leave the bed. Who are you, friend? Who shall we find to take you home?”

I mull over her words like little birds that have flown through an open window. I’ve had an accident. I don’t belong here. Where do I belong? She gives me questions without answers.

“What is your name?” She asks again.

I gaze into the arched wooden roof and then out the window. “I don’t know.”

“Angelina!” A man pokes his head through the double doors, a hat sitting crooked over raven black hair. His feet are bare and dirty, his shirt loose fitting with bright flowing sleeves. He and Angelina speak in their own tongue. When they  finish, he turns to me.  “Ah, the mystery woman is awake at last.”

He comes to my bed, gently lifting my fingers. His mustache tickles as he kisses the gash on the back of my hand.  “So, you are with the living again.” His eyes are deep and kind.

“This is Luca,” she tells me. “He is my brother, the one who carried you here.”

Angelina gets a silver brush from her dresser and begins stroking my hair. Its auburn color falls to my waist, feeling odd and strangely separate. I view it like it belongs to another.

Something urges me toward gratitude but I say nothing. My mind is clear like an open sky. There are feelings and impulses, but words hide, coming slowly, with hesitation.

“There are others to meet,” Angelina tells me, “but only when you are ready. For now we will name you……Maya.  And one day soon, you will leave your bed and remember, telling us who you are and where you belong. For now, you will rest and heal, as I cook quail and pirogo for our dinner.”

A bright green apron hangs outside the door, on a small covered porch. Angelina grabs it, drapes the fabric around her waist, and descends wooden stairs.

“And I go into Cheshire to mend chairs and sharpen saws,” adds Luca. “But first, I’ll bring coffee to clear your mind and pick a jar of bluebells for your spirit.”

Mistress of the Manor – Page 12

The coat is expensive. Take the coat; it’s lined with rabbit. That will bring a fine price when I goes to London. Don’t just stand there, unlace her boot. The other is wedged in the carriage.  A bit of elbow grease will mend these good as new.

Ah Gavin, they’re so bloody, turns my stomach.

Hurry! Strip her to petticoat and drawers. She’ll have no use for them, dead as she is. Did you find her pouch? She’s bound to have one, unless it tumbled down the hill. My, my, she must have been a proper lady, what with all the custom-mades on her back. Oh, never mind. ‘Tis here, in the fold of her skirt. The embroidery’s ripped and the clasp bent but it will sell. So now what do ya think? We have gloves, perfume, handkerchief, powder, half sovereigns and five pounds. The fine queen herself is smiling up at me. ‘Tis a good day indeed. Strip her down, Lil. We best be goin’.

No. I won’t take stockings or garters. She’ll need something to cover her when they take her away.

But look you, at the beadwork and ribbons on the sleeve of her petticoat. It would bring a fair price. And on this long-fingered hand, a sapphire and diamond ring! It’s swollen in place but a swift cut with my knife will take finger and all.

Gavin, leave her or the devil will have your soul. Come away now, before night falls. We’ve more than we can carry.

I’ll have his ring Maggie. It’s worth a king’s random. She won’t be missin’ a finger where she’s gone.

All right then, get me some river water and I’ll coax it off, ya greedy mutt. But don’t be cuttin’ on the dead, Gavin McFlannery, or you’ll be bringin’ a curse down on us all.

─̶

My eyes open into darkness. I’m cold, shivering. I want to cover myself. I want to rise and be warm but am too far away. My body feels heavy and dense, my thoughts disconnected. I am hot, burning with fever. I am icy and tired. I melt into a dream of rolling hills and heather. The wind is gentle as I walk with my dark-eyed son. We’re laughing, chasing a goose for mid-winter festival. The days are short now and the sunlight weak. We pray to Father Christmas to give the sun back its power, but it does not return. The wind is no longer mild. It bites my flesh. I search for gloves. Where are my gloves?

I hear the crunch of a boot near my ear, and whispers in a language I do not understand. There is a woman’s voice, a gasp and muffled crying. Strong male arms lift me from the earth, causing pain beyond bearing. A blanket covers me. My son is still wandering. Where is my son? I’ve lost him.

─̶     

It’s been a week. She seems no better.

Give her time, Luca. Her wounds are deep and her forehead hot. She has suffered much. She is responding well to the smoked leaves from the blackberry. They’ve reduced her fever and inflammation. Now I need the penicillin in spider webs to lie over the lesions of her head and twine to bind her leg, as she will want to move when she comes back to us. When that is finished, bring me rabbits and plenty of vegetables. Build up the fire and we’ll make a stew.  She can not chew, but a broth will warm her body.

Mistress of the Manor – Page 11

 

Rain batters my face as the coachman unlocks the carriage door. I can tell by his distressed look that he and Albert are in full agreement about staying at the manor.

He stands close, yelling through the gale. “I’ve harnessed the white Hungarian stallion, Madame. His breeding is the best for the weather. We’ll take only one steed today.”

The coachman is dressed entirely in black, as am I, almost like we’d planned it.

Wind whips the hood from my head, churning my hair. The lavender pick comb I had so carefully positioned has blown out and completely disappeared – long uncontrolled curls reel around my head, temporarily blinding me.

The coachman continues shouting. “Our journey will take us over the Howardian Hills and round the bend of the River Derwent, a precarious passage on a good day. You’ll need to sit very tight, Madame, gripping the sides. I expect an uneven and arduous passage.”

The coachman struggles to close my door against a forceful gust. I step inside, the sound of the latch clicking shut behind me. The ferocity of the weather does not go unnoticed, violently shaking the hinges of the door. The storm has become worse, the animals have been sheltered and outside tools put away. We pull from the yard, cautiously, under a blackened sky.

The carriage moves slowly, swaying in the wind. The gentle clop of horse’s hooves that normally comforts me, have been extinguished. Instead, we travel for twenty long minutes to a sound like howling coming from the moors, a reverberation I find both worrisome and alarming. I’d cover my ears to block it but require both hands to steady myself.

I should have stayed home. I know that. Pride stopped me, and the need to assert my will above Albert’s, but now reality has hit and the perilous consequences of my naive decision. What have I done?  My heart pounds in my chest. We’ve gone too far to turn back. I close my eyes, searching for answers.

“Dear God in heaven, if you are there. Forgive my foolishness and calm this day. I fear I have put us all in danger.”

The carriage rocks from side to side, tipping in the wind.

“Hear my plea. Make this journey swift and safe. I have been unwise and thoughtless. Forgive me and I shall never be so impetuous or hasty again.”

Forty minutes pass. I am white from exhaustion. I lift the side curtain, barely able to glimpse the river. We’ve made it safely across the hills but the bend in the road is sightless. Surely we are out of danger, as no others would be rounding the bend on such a dark and treacherous day. I lift both curtains, shifting away from the river, anticipating a glimpse of Crambe, hoping we’ve come that far.  

But instead of spires from the hamlet, my ears are pierced by terror. The Hungarian stallion rears, squealing in horror as he attempts to avoid an avalanche of rock plummeting from the cliff’s rim. Jagged edges dig into his body, gouging his flesh. The stallion bolts, running wildly from the road. I watch in horror as leather driving reins fly past my window and the coachman’s shrieking body sails into the ravine.

I am immediately flung into space, lurch with arms extended toward the ceiling and then slammed against the door, my forehead opening into a geyser of blood. The coach is dragged on its side, rolling and twisting, being pitched against trees and rock as it careens the bank toward the river. I scream into nothing as time slows and just as quickly turns to darkness.

─̶

 I am cold when I wake and sore, my body anguished with pain. I crawl slowly in twinged torture through a buggy window, viewing a scene of devastation. There are rocks, an angry river and a fallen white horse. I wear a torn coat and single laced boot. My hands appear bruised, smelling sour. I inch toward the animal, hugging his body for warmth. I am black, he is white and we are both covered with earth. I watch a river of red flow from his body, as I close my eyes to welcome sleep.

Mistress of the Manor – Page 10

I wake in an empty bed, my mood made worse by morning drizzle. The wind picks up, howling. Showers turn to blowing sheets of rain before breakfast. What does one do on such a dismal day but nurse disappointments? I could read by the fire, or do needlepoint but feel oddly restless and unsettled.

John left abruptly for London yesterday afternoon, alarmed by rumors of legislation to tax wealthy landowners. This unpopular measure will surely fail in the heavily conservative House of Lords, but attendance of all members was paramount to curtail possible consequences. The manor feels large and cold without him.

I sit at the vanity brushing my hair, the green of my eyes starring back, as if searching for answers. Perhaps we should have bought a villa in France. Art is so alive there and the weather predictable. No, I tell myself. John would never leave England, not even for the summer. His loyalties are too deeply rooted. I place my brush on the table, coil my hair, choose a lavender pick comb and fasten mounds at the crown of my head. My mind is racing now. How shall I begin my education? What shall I do with the loneliness of the day?

John’s book, Descartes Theory of Ideas, sits on the arm of his leather chair. I finger its worn binding. Yes, I decide, feeling inspired. I’ll read  René Descartes and surprise him. We’ll discuss theories over tea when John returns. I tuck my feet under the warm folds of my nightdress, open the book and begin.

All knowledge comes in three categories: authority, sensory experience or reason. We take sensory images to be like the material body but we can never know if the material world is like the sensory experience we have of it, because we can never compare these mental experiences with the world itself. This is a Cartesian Conundrum. To know if the world is like our sensations of it, we would have to know the world directly to compare our sensations with the material bodies.

Perhaps I won’t read after all. Such a dry intellectual turn of words would surely send me to an early grave.

Ducks with opened wings splash in a raging stream outside the window. They’re foraging for insects and splattering mud. The gardener’s cap shields his face as he digs near hydrangeas, and the groom steadies a herd of mares returning from the bridleway. Everyone is at work despite the weather – and I suddenly realize that work is my answer as well. I’ll use the day to make a studio in the attic and ready art supplies. My spirit brightens as I imagine painting in the garret’s natural light, positioning an easel, and the installation of shelves to house paints, books and canvas. I pull the servants cord with renewed excitement.

Albert enters looking gaunt. A moment of calm passes between us as I make a mental note to have his uniform tailored to fit his declining frame.  His service can not be faulted, and yet a smug quality in his smile puts me off.

“Albert, please inform the coachman that I’ll be leaving for the hamlet of Crambe in twenty minutes. I’d like him to ready the carriage.”

Albert is not quick to move. “May I ask what takes you into such turbulent weather?”

It is not his place but I will answer. “I am in need of project supplies.”

He pulls at the cuff of his white glove, firelight emphasizing the shine of his balding head. “Are you sure Lady that the supplies you need are not already in the storage room? The housekeeper and kitchen staff do an excellent job of… ”

“Do not question my orders! Have a carriage ready in twenty minutes.”

“Of course, my Lady, it’s just that the weather is not fit for travel. Horses are easily spooked in this gale. In my experience, once mid-day darkness sets in, things can only get worse. Perhaps one of us could go in your stead, and if it is not urgent, travel could be delayed until the storm breaks.”

“That is enough Albert. I’m sure you would not dare question the orders of Master Attwood. I’ll expect my carriage at two o’clock precisely, without footman or traveling maid. A single coachman will suffice. You’re excused.” 

Mistress of the Manor – Page 9

Sculptures stand like guards outside Mr. Whidbey’s formidable entry. They are violent displays of conquest chiseled in marble. A corner lamp post illuminates features of angelic warriors’ towering above winged devils. They stand on either side of the door, swords raised, each alabaster foot placed firmly on the ebony of a demon’s belly. The sky is heavy, threatening rain.

A young man with several art cases exits, as my coachman prepares to knock. I am at once announced and admitted, first into a darkened hallway and later into a large open room, where an aged Mr. Whidbey sits on a handcrafted chair.

“Ah, Lady Attwood, welcome,” he mumbles, remaining seated. Sit down and tell me about your previous studies and what prompts your womanly fascination with art?”

Mr. Whidbey is shielded against the cold by a long velvet jacket, his arthritic hands extending below its flowing sleeves. His eyes are half-closed from age and indifference. I study him, wondering where to begin.

“My husband has recently acquired Yorkshire Manor and I find myself with time to pursue refined pleasures. I have studied elocution, literature and French and consider the study of art part of a good education. I have been especially taken with the works of the American painter, Mary Cassatt and similar renderings by Berthe Morisot of Paris. I have fondness for impressionists and prefer the skill of portraiture to landscape.”

Mr. Whidbey looks at me as if nursing a toothache. “Did you know when I was a lad that a landowner, such as your husband had the right to bed local women?”

I am stunned into silence. “No sir, I did not.”

“Fortunate for you, that law was repealed.  You live on the moors, you say?”

I am baffled by his questions. “Yes. Yorkshire Manor is on the moor. My husband has a few thousand acres, with forty of those occupied by peasants.

Mr. Whidbey seems lost in reverie. “They say abandoned mine shafts sound like someone crying when the wind whirls and whistles though the moors at night. And if such a place had been known at the time of Napoleon, that the island of St Helens would never have served as a prison.”

I feel heat flush my cheeks and anger well in my chest. “You have come highly recommended, Mr. Whidbey. How do you suggest we begin instruction?”

The old man’s beard sprays fanlike from his chin, barely moving as he mutters his reply.

“To speak frankly, Lady Attwood, you appear a dabbler in art, and it is my hope to discourage such students. My studies are for the serious apprentice only, requiring a committed lifestyle. If you were such a person, you would spend the first six years of your instruction drawing, first from plaster casts and later from live models. You would later attend lectures on perspective, geometric design and the human form. The color and paint you seem so fond of are held back for at least seven years. Given your circumstance, I would recommend, like Renoir, that you begin by painting China. Surely you can find a group of similarly stationed women to join you.”

“You insult me, sir. How dare you?”

My ring catches the beads of my handbag in my haste to leave, breaking a thread, and sending hundreds of tiny charcoal glass gems across the floor. I stand holding only its silver clasp and the satiny fabric beneath.

“I will see myself out. It seems I have wasted both your time and mine. Good day Mr. Whidbey!”  

I step into the rain, fighting back tears, while knowing there is truth in his words. I do not wish to spend six years drawing, or go through the grueling ordeal of apprenticeship. I simply long to put color on canvas, to smell it, feel it on my fingers and move it about in all its sensual pleasure. I ache to make portraits so rich with vibrant hue and life, that they defy mortality.

The coachman opens the carriage door as Sonia leans forward, extending her hand.  “When shall we return, Lady Attwood? Will your education be daily?”

“Yes,” I tell her. “My instruction will be daily, but perhaps not here.”

Rain drips from the tip of the angel’s sword as the horses move from the curb.

Mistress of the Manor – Page 8

Lady Higgins has already delivered two fine sons to her husband, so her future and the future of their estate are secured. She sits across from me looking young, innocent and weary, her clothes more function than fashion. A collar of lace sits high and protective around her neck, as she displays a ring Lord Higgins bought from the Ural Mountains in Russia, which looks impractical and not at all her taste. It’s a Siberian faceted beryl, which sits aloft her delicate finger like a small mountain.

“Lord Higgins, what took you to Russia?” I inquire.

“I went as a representative of the Church of England and also for my own intellectual curiosity.  There is a great deal of unrest in Russia these days. Factory workers and mill workers are striking to defend their rights and elevate their moral and religious status. But this is not well received by the current Tsar. A Father Gapon is leading the revolution against the Tsar’s autocracy by cooperating with radicals. There is bloodshed and I fear the worst from the regime.” He pauses, looking troubled. “But this is not appropriate dinner conversation. Forgive me. What of you, Lady Attwood?  I hear you’ve engaged an art teacher near Scarborough.

The parlor maid removes the saddle of mutton and roasted potato, renewing the cleanliness of the tablecloth with a crumb knife.

“Mr. Whidbey comes highly recommended,” I answer. “I will begin my studies on Monday. Sonia, my ladies maid, will accompany me to town. I am eager to commence my studies, having recently viewed new paintings by women from France, working in a new impressionist style. They are intimate and emotive, a genuine inspiration to the craft.”

Lord and Lady Higgins disapprove of my pastime, thinking I should busy myself with affairs of family instead, but say nothing. Awkward pity hangs in the air, as potent as the lemon-rosemary from the roast.  When the room can bear the hush no longer, Lord Higgins yields. “I’m sure you’ll produce lovely landscapes, the blessing of your gender freeing you from the menial tasks of grinding color and reproducing a master’s work.”

John wipes his mouth, picks up his goblet and begins twisting the stem. “Ivy is interested in painting portraits,” he replies. “Her interest lies in human elements, more than the out of doors.”

Lord Higgins stiffens. “Obviously that is out of the question when there can be no life drawing for reasons of decorum, and portraits can not be accurately painted without classes in anatomy.” He begins to soften, turning his gaze toward me. “Have you considered the convent, Lady Attwood? The sisters there do wonderful work copying manuscripts. Many are very artful. That might be better suited to your character.”

John stands, his napkin folded on the plate. “Shall we have dessert in the drawing room?”

Lord Higgins rises, walks to his wife and waits in back of her chair. John continues. “Lady Higgins, would you honor us by playing the harpsichord?  My wife tells me you play very well.”

I study Lord Higgins in the mirror above the fireplace. His jaw is set, his shoulders slightly slumped and his hair, red and curly. His sideburns run full and crimson, falling beyond his ear, nearly squaring the set of his mouth. His collar stands stiff and white against a black dinner jacket, more vicar than lord.  His appearance is youthful and earnest, despite his worldliness. I memorize his appearance, daydreaming of painting his features on wood to match his unyielding views.

 

Mistress of the Manor – Page 7

 

On the walk home I can think of little else, nearly forgetting to fill the trug with flowers. My legs are weary and I’m anxious to get back. I see a shortcut past grazing sheep and decide to take it. They stop to stare, as if they know what I’ve done. I walk faster, wondering how much I should tell John, or if I should tell him at all. He would surely send the constable to have the caravan removed, and the idea of batons and billy clubs swung by helmeted police makes me tremble. And what of my behavior?  

 I can see the brick and slate roof of the stables from the crest of the hill and an outline of the grounds keeper planting young trees. John stands near the door, laughing at the playful antics of a young border collie, his face obscured by afternoon shadow. Managing thousands of acres appears to agree with him, much more than the closed houses of parliament. He looks up and waves, moving quickly in my direction. 

“What on earth happened to you, Ivy? Did you fall? Your clothes are soiled and your hair’s a fright.” He bends forward picking a rowan twig from my collar. “Are you all right?” I look at him, suddenly knowing I’ll say nothing. “Better hurry and change. Lord and Lady Higgins have sent a calling card. I’ve asked the cook to prepare lamb.” 

 Albert waits inside the front door. “Welcome home Madame. Shall I have the maid draw a bath?”

I am breathless with fatigue. The aroma of julienne soup wafts from the kitchen.

I nod to Albert, heading toward the stairs, while stealing a quick glance at the dining room. The table has already been laid with brocade cloth, and the sideboard prepared with serving dishes and silver. I have stayed away too long. 

I sit in the bath, mentally preparing the evening ahead. Lady Martha is young and talented, though oddly plain. I’m sure she’ll share her musical skills to provide evening entertainment. Mendelssohn would be nice. I’ll place a concerto on the music stand. Then suggest neapolitan cakes and compote of cherries for dessert, ordering Albert to the cellar for Madeira wine.

I forcefully lather soap against my facecloth, not realizing what I’m doing until it escapes, splashing into clouded water. My hand is empty now and upturned. I step out of time, tracing the lines of my palm as the burgundy-cloaked woman had. She saw something there, a kind of recognition of my essence, a moment without words when she looked into my soul, as if identifing a secret. But what did she see? If only I knew.  

I towel off, spending a moment with my reflection in the mirror, wondering. What would it feel like to be naked out of doors, to feel wind and water directly on ones skin? My mind begins to imagine the warmth of sun on exposed flesh and the tender touch of peach-colored lips on the nape of my neck. I wake from my reverie, alarmed. Have you completely lost your mind?

Mistress of the Manor – Page 6

“Put me down at once! How dare you handle me! Do you know who I am? I am the wife of Lord Jonathon Attwood, whose title comes directly from the King. This is my husband’s land you are trespassing on and I can have you hung…. or worse.” 

To my astonishment, he does not put me down.

“Well, my lady, it looks to me you are more snoop and spion then majesty? How do you answer for that?”

“Put me down sir and I will explain.” He persists in holding me above the earth, his echoed laughter filling the wood. I turn in desperation, see a piece of exposed shoulder and sink my teeth into it. He yelps, dropping me abruptly. I claw the ground, attempting to scurry away with no thought to trug or tools. He reaches, yanks my arm and drags me back. 

“Not so fast, Miss high and mighty.  Lady of the land or not, you have explaining to do.”

He is right. I am momentarily shamed at my voyeurism.  “And you do not?” 

We sit on the ground. The women stand at a distance, transfixed. The man seems young, perhaps my age, with sable hair in need of combing. His brows are full, his eyes dark and brimming with mystery. A slight mustache sits below a strong nose and perfectly formed lips, the color of peaches. He is silent, waiting for me to justify myself, but social position forbids it. “I am obliged to tell you nothing.”

 “And how do I know you are the lady of anything, hiding behind rowan trees like a common spy.”

I am humbled, believing I owe an explanation. But how do I explain a fascination with a life so foreign to my own? I am silenced by bewilderment and the unknown. I sit searching for words as the large woman covers her nakedness with a burgundy cloak, walks towards me and lowers herself to the earth. She strokes my arm the way a sister might, as reactions of trespass and alarm mix with an emotion of comfort. Her foot is encrusted with dirt, traces of mud staining her toes. Everything about her makes me uncomfortable and yet her company compels. She turns my palm face up, running her index finger along each line. She too is silent, studying something beyond my grasp, then begins to speak.

 “Ea este nici un pericol pentru noi. Ea nu este spion.” 

I look at the man. “What is she saying?”

He leans forward, his breath hot against my neck. “She tells me that you are no danger to us. That you are no spy.” 

The woman stops speaking, her eyes fixed on mine, as if understanding a secret. She lingers, then lowers her head, and begins again. This time she recites for a long time as I wait and wonder, growing impatient.

“And now,” I ask? “What is she saying now?”

The man rises, moving down the hill toward an ornate caravan.

“Go home to your husband,” he says over his shoulder. “We will meet again.”

Mistress of the Manor – Page 5

I step down from the wagon where the woodlands begin, waving Perkins back to the estate. I have my trug, cutting shears and a meager lunch in tow. I’ll wait to gather flowers until I’ve walked to the water, exploring as much of the area as possible.  A narrow path takes me downhill where butterflies flit around a toppled gate, lighting on mounds of violets. Their wings are beautiful and transparent, pulsating in bursts of movement.

The day is warm and the air fresh. Being outside invigorates me, reminding me I am alive. I tell myself that I must walk daily to get away from the damp environment of the 400 year old manor, where every room requires a fire on the warmest of days.

The path bends to the right, leading me through a family of beech trees. They crowd together with smooth grey trunks, their light green canopies creating an astonishing cathedral-like impression.  They grow tall in competition for the light, having lofty crowns and few lower branches. Squirrels play in the health-filled ground below.

I walk for an hour before resting, then lower myself to the earth, removing a crust of bread and cheese from the corner of the trug. I eat, pausing to breath it all in; the smells, the shafts of light moving through broadleaf branches, the feel of layered earth beneath me. The woods seem to animate as I still myself. Life previously unnoticed teems around me; a fuzzy caterpillar moves from a decayed leaf near my finger, a single moth darts near my knee, and something deep inside, that did not know it was weary, begins to relax.

Even my hearing seems to have deepened, as I notice distant sounds of lapping water beyond, and also voices, women’s voices. I rise, wiping soil from my skirt as I tread softly in their direction.

The voices are closer, speaking a language I do not understand. I walk cautiously until I see them, two women beneath a grove of birch and rowan trees. I gasp, hoping I am not heard as I trespass on this highly private scene. 

A large woman stands with her back to me, a single drape covering the top of her legs. The rest of her body is pale and fully exposed, her hair tied in a raven black knot. Her physique is sensual and muscular, falling in soft ripples along her back. She holds out a hand to the other, as if protesting something. The second woman is still clothed. She sits on the earth, having removed one stocking only. It lies white against the dirt. Her full golden skirt and low slung blouse have yet to be removed. She pulls back her hair, fastening it with a linen tie while glancing up at her friend. They are clearly meant to bathe without interruption, interference from garments, or the likes of me.  But I do not leave. I am captivated by the complete freedom and femaleness of their behavior. I feel I’ve stepped into a living painting by a great Flemish master. How I envy their carefree lifestyle and open ways. 

A twig snaps. I turn to look as a forceful arm snatches my waist from behind, lifting me into the air, my feet dangling helplessly in space.

Mistress of the Manor – Page 4

 

 

Our journey to Yorkshire is uneventful but my first night is not. John sleeps beside me, soundly, but I toss all night. First, from the strangeness of the place, the unfamiliar bed and then from a breeze that stirs the ceiling canopy. A glass of midnight port settles my mind, but as soon as I close my eyes, I fall into a frightful dream in which Perkins, our new groom, lifts me onto a large white stallion. I am dressed in black, as if for a funeral but travel unaccompanied. When I reach the gravesite the horse becomes ill, collapsing at my feet. I am left alone with the linen-wrapped corpse. I lean forward as the corpse sits up, her head turning to sawdust, her breasts dripping milk. I extend my finger, slowly collecting the sticky white substance one drop at a time, feeling an overwhelming urge to taste it, but before it nears my mouth, a shadowed figure springs from the woods, splashing bold colors of red across the white of my horses fallen body. 

I wake startled and breathless, missing the comforting sounds of our London home. No, I tell myself. I refuse to have my first day at the manor spoiled by a senseless dream.

Sun lights the room through small diamond-paned windows as I dress and go into the great hall to find John. The hall is a large rectangular room twice as long as it is wide, with a fireplace big enough to stand in at one end, and a full bank of windows to the south. I sit at the bay window, watching geese waddle past, and find myself missing my cat. My decision to leave Miss Tabby with Julia was correct, because she is a dreadful traveler, but I miss her company and her warmth at the foot of my bed.  

Albert, the butler, stands before me, looking as old and formal as the house. He is used to serving the Viscount, not a youthful married couple. I find myself wondering how well we’ll get on. 

“Excuse me, Madame. Master John is in the library. He’s asked that breakfast be served there.”  The great hall is made for entertaining. I find sitting alone a bit forlorn and am happy to be called away. I walk down a hall of gold-framed paintings and heavy crimson tapestries to the library. John is already settled near the fire, his head buried in account books.

“You’re becoming a late sleeper.”  He gets up as I enter, an on-going recognition of respect.

“I suppose I am,” I smile, not wanting to reveal the terror of last night’s dream. Its meaning remains unclear, but the fright of it makes me quiver.  

“There is so much to be done here.” John furrows his brow, rolling a gold pen between his fingers – a gesture of heightened concern I’ve come to know very well. “I’m afraid I’ll be occupied most of the day. Do you mind being on your own? I know it’s unfair but I’m finding that many of the fences between tenant dwellings are in need of repair, allowing swine to run free. Many of the banks have been left unplowed and dues have not been collected. The current overseer must be replaced immediately and let go without reference.” 

I dance around the desk, bouncing into his lap. “It’s okay,” I whisper, draping my arms around his neck. “We’ll have other days. I’ll have Perkins take me to the edge of the wood to collect flowers. I’ll spend the day exploring and then walk back.” 

John gathers my hair in his hands, gently kissing my forehead. “Be careful my red-haired beauty. I would not want to lose you out there.”

Albert enters unannounced, his silver tray reflecting rays of light against dark-hued walls. There is something about the man I don’t care for. His manner is too stiff and his countenance flat. Or perhaps I’m just missing Julia and the familiarity of her service.

 

Mistress of the Manor – Page 3

The clock strikes one. Mrs. Eckhart rises to leave. I hear Julia greeting John by the front door in the same moment, and am glad for his return. But the squeaky floorboard and subtle click of the lock in John’s study tell me he’s made a hasty retreat. I smile, knowing he is shielding himself from Mrs. Eckhart’s inquiries and continued conversation. She is droning on now, asking me to contact a distant cousin who lives in Leeds. I decline. “I’m afraid I’ll be quite bound to the manor, Mrs. Eckhart, or I would be delighted. Perhaps another time.” Being civil is required of me, as the social representative of my husband, but sometimes, when I allow myself, I daydream of being too caught up in a society of painting or poetry to care.  

Mrs. Eckhart is safely out the door, down the stairs and helped into her carriage before John peers from the study. “Are we free to leave now?”  

God help me, I am hopelessly in love with my husband. At thirty-five he has just enough gray in his chestnut hair to afford an air of authority and distinction. His mind in sharp and clever, his stature tall, thin and fit. I run my hands beneath the tweed collar of his jacket pulling him close. I love the smell of him and the way my face fits in the warm nest of his neck. How is it, I ask myself, that after five years of marriage we have not a single child to show for our love?  These thoughts rise from a dark place in my heart, landing like a knife in tender flesh. I push them away.  

 “My dear husband,” I demand. “How can you be such a fearless advocate in the House of Lords and cower before the likes of Mrs. Eckhart?” 

He laughs. “In her majesty’s government reason and science dominate, which makes us ill prepared for ladies tea and gossip. Mrs. Eckhart, for all her finery, I believe would be just as comfortable attending a public hanging at Tyburn Gallows.” 

We are interrupted by a parade of porters coming to hoist trunks for transport to Paddington Station. They will be sent ahead and unpacked by attendants at the estate. Our London house will be closed and shuttered, with John living at The Gentleman’s Club when he returns. Unfortunately, affairs of government will require his return with regularity. Those are the details. But my mind has already arrived at our new home, where I imagine myself bounding into the countryside with the sole purpose of gathering grand bouquets of bog rosemary, wild heather and bracken. Our house will be awash in colors and aromas from the highlands, and in no time at all, if I am fortunate, I will learn to put those colors on canvas. 

A forgotten valise peers from the hallway, as I stroll toward the dining room. “Julia, come quick. See if you can catch the men. They have over looked one of John’s trunks.”

She hesitates. “Oh, I wouldn’t do that Madame. The men have already set out. To call them back would be unlucky.”

“Nonsense. They are still in range and must be held responsible for all items they were contracted to carry.”

Julia bounds down the walk, her apron catching the breeze, just in time to flag the men. They unwillingly rein in the horses. The biggest man is coarse with roughly sewn clothes. He gets down, makes a cross-mark in the dirt and spits in it. He is reluctant. The sound of Julia’s voice travels back to the door. “I told her that but the Misses doesn’t care. She wants you to come back.”

The men look at one another. “That does not bode well.”

They whisper among themselves. Begrudgingly, one of the smaller men walks in, picks up the valise and leaves, averting his eyes.  

John is making final arrangements for the servants in the parlor. I weave my arm through his, whispering. “The peasants are so full of superstitions; it is difficult to get anything done. I hope it is less so in the north.”

Mistress of the Manor – Page 2

Mrs. Eckhart is prompt, as always. She is elderly with only her daughter, a grandson and three nephews for company. A widow for sixteen months, she is still wearing the dark crape of mourning. 

Julia, our maid ushers her into the drawing room, a fire-warmed space full of gold framed paintings, grand piano and walls of leather bound books. Julia draws back heavy curtains, admitting the outside world. 

“Oh Ivy darling,” she says, extending a glove in my direction. “How I have missed you. And how charming you look in white cambric and lace. It accents the red of your hair and the green of your eyes. Have you found a new seamstress?” 

“Thank you Mrs. Eckhart. Allow me.” I pull out the chair nearest the fire, inviting her to warm herself. “My seamstress remains the same as yours, although I’m sure you use her less since the loss of your husband.”

“On the contrary my dear. She is in steady employ. This crimped and stiff texture is not easily maintained, nor the dull looking silk gauze beneath. Only last week I was carried up the stairs to her flat for a final fitting, a tedious affair to be sure. But enough of clothes.  Rumor has it, you’re off to the country this afternoon.” 

Mrs. Eckhart positions her parasol against her chair, sitting heavily down, as if releasing the weight of the world. Long sleeves drag over china cups as she plucks her handkerchief from its cuff, wiping her troubled brow. Her grieving period will be finished in eight months, but she is the type to continue in subdued shades of grey, Alfred’s death giving her a spotlight of attention she has long craved. 

“I hear dear,” she continues, “that you’ve bought an estate in a little hamlet in the north, one previously owned by the Viscount. I traveled that way years ago but must admit I am neither fond of sheep nor heather. I find the moors bleak in every season, preferring the bustle of London. Why ever have you decided to abandon us?” 

“My hope is to paint, Mrs. Eckhart, and I believe that country air and exercise will provide added benefits. I’ve already engaged a fine teacher who lives near Scarborough tower, a Mr. Whidbey.  His excellent reputation and references precede him. Of course, I’ll miss the society of London but will return in the fall, and be delighted to receive you at that time.” 

A steaming basket of cranberry scones with freshly churned butter is placed on the table, and to each of us in turn. Sweet efficient Julia is pouring tea as Mrs. Eckhart continues to talk; a pastry crumb unknowingly adhered to the side of her mouth. I listen, stealing glances at the grandfather clock, not so subtly willing that her departure be as punctual as her arrival.