Last Night on Findy Sickle Ridgeby Martha Taylor, soulcake[at]bellsouth.net
The Right Tools for the Job
Arthur let the car roll to a slow stop in front of Virginia Drake's house, and tried to decide how he felt about being home again.
Rain was pattering down, and mist lingered in the gray, dead forest beyond the lawn. He shut off the engine and sat for a few minutes more. He supposed he would have to do this sooner or later, and he might as well get it over with now.
He got out of the car and slowly crossed the lawn, his head bowed against the cold rain.
Arthur pulled his coat close around his throat. The new glass in the windows overlooking the balconies reflected the gray sky, the golden brown lawn, and the black wood beyond.
Bobbie Jay, what'd he do to you man?
Crows were fussing noisily in the woods, and all at once a dozen or more flew up, wheeling awkwardly against the wind and screaming their disapproval of Arthur's presence. He couldn't blame them. It was ridiculous to imagine he had any business being here again. The weight of his childhood in the home had been a heavy enough burden.
I'm getting me a souvenir.
His right thumb was aching in the cold, damp weather. He jammed his hands down hard into his coat pockets, wondering why he hadn't died that afternoon on the lawn. He saw their faces, remembered their hands on his body, the knife between them, opening him up, and freeing him to see Virginia.
That explained his survival. She'd never intended to kill him.
Arthur was amazed and a little embarrassed that it had taken him so long to understand. Especially since he had known all along Virginia Drake was accustomed to using violent means.
"But you're careless with your tools, Grandmother," he said out loud to the empty winter lawn, thinking of Zeke and Bobbie Jay and their families, and thirty years earlier, the cruelly deformed child born to Billy and Ida Burch, and going back even further, the strikers shot dead in front of the Toe String Valley Mines.
"And Grandfather too?"
He turned around slowly, as though expecting an answer. What he didn't understand was why, after bringing him to death's door, she had told him nothing. In the hospital, and later, in Myrtle Beach with his parents, he had thought it was his fault that she'd hardly spoken to him. If only he'd been stronger, if he'd brought the paints and the easel she'd asked for, she surely would have laid everything before him.
He didn't believe that anymore.
"What was the point?" He raised his voice a little. "Just to get my attention? To punish me for staying away so long? For not being married yet?"
It seemed a little extreme, even for her. Besides, he had finally been home then, exactly where Virginia had always wanted him.
Or perhaps it had been something else altogether.
Arthur stumbled back to the car, his head filling with new possibilities. He had done something to provoke enormous violence from the force that had once been Virginia Drake. The whole town seemed to understand that he was somehow necessary to the machinations she'd set into motion seventy years ago, but was it conceivable that he was a threat to them as well?
He drove around to the guest house and began unloading his bags. His heart was brimming with an unexpected feeling that he thought was something like hope. He'd never truly believed he was strong enough to challenge his heritage.
But maybe he'd been wrong to doubt his strength. After all, Virginia Drake's blood ran in his veins as well.
The effort of getting his bags into the cabin exhausted him. He left them piled up in the bedroom door and collapsed on the sofa, smiling a little at his hubris. Here he was prepared to take on all the darkness of the Sickle Ridge, but he wasn't strong enough to unpack his own luggage yet.
Never mind. He was right about this, he was sure of it.
He reached for the phone and dialed Charlie's number.
* * *
As soon as he pulled around in front of the house, the three big dogs came out baying, but Robin was waiting for him. She came out the front door and shouted, "Max, Honey Child, Lady, down!"
All three dogs dropped like a shot.
Arthur got out of the car with a grin. "I had no idea they could do that."
Robin hurried across the drive to him. "Well, they just have to know I'm serious." She gave him a hug and kissed his cheek. "I'm so glad you called us. It's wonderful to have you back on the ridge. Charlie's so overwhelmed he's made us dinner, if you can believe it. Come on in, it's too cold to stand out here catching up."
She ushered him in the front door. Arthur took a deep breath, feeling pleased and a little nostalgic Though he'd visited Robin's studio a few months ago, he hadn't been in this house since he and Charlie were boys. The furniture had changed, there were many more pictures on the walls now, and display shelves filled with Robin's glass, but the smell of the place, aging wood and plaster work, a basement that flooded every time it rained, and the full cedar closets in the bedrooms, hadn't changed at all.
And overlaying it all was the smell of hamburgers frying, green beans seasoned with bacon, and macaroni and cheese. Still Charlie's favorite meal, it seemed.
"Let me take your coat," Robin said. "Go on in, Charlie's in the kitchen."
He found him standing over the stove unwrapping squares of American cheese. "Arthur. Glad you could make it. Grab yourself a beer out of the fridge if you want. You like cheese on your burger, don't you?"
"Sounds great. I appreciate the invitation, Charlie. I hope you haven't gone to a lot of trouble."
"No trouble. Robin's been after me to have you over for months."
Robin came in the kitchen behind Arthur and got herself a beer. "Charlie," she complained mildly.
He raised his eyebrows at his wife and said to Arthur, "You're nothing but skin and bones. Didn't your folks feed you while you were staying with them?"
"How are you feeling?" Robin asked more gently.
"All right. Pretty good, really."
"I'm so glad. I don't think I've ever been so frightened in all my life."
"I am sorry," Arthur said solemnly. "You shouldn't have had to see that. I'm in your debt forever. Both of you."
Charlie wanted no part of this conversation. "You drive up from Atlanta this morning?"
"Traffic can get pretty hairy with all that construction on 75. Run into any problems?"
"No, it wasn't too bad," Arthur was just as glad to let it go. "I didn't leave till after ten and most of the morning traffic was cleared up by then."
"You were lucky. Listen, I hate to put you to work, but if you and Robin would set the dining room table, I think we'll be ready to eat here."
"Don't be silly, Charlie. Arthur, you sit right there. I'll set the table. It's no wonder we never have any company the way you treat them, honey."
Charlie looked innocently from Arthur to his wife.
"It smells wonderful," Arthur said. "We ate out practically every meal while I was in Myrtle Beach. It was getting to the point where I don't think I could have stomached one more radiccio leaf."
"You've got nothing to worry about here. If Charlie can't pronounce it, you're not liable to find it on our table."
After dinner Charlie turned on the game in the living room. Robin was talking about a show she was getting ready for in the spring, and the biggest of the three dogs had gradually insinuated herself into Arthur's good graces. He found himself absently patting Honey Child's head as he tried to frame the question he had come over here to ask. He thought he was sure of the answer, but the confidence of this afternoon was beginning to desert him, and if Charlie couldn't tell him what he wanted to hear, he didn't think he could bear returning to the wilderness.
Robin turned on a floor lamp, looking for a flyer about the spring show to give Arthur, and the light caught the gilt frame around a small oil painting that hung over the sofa. Arthur glanced at it, and then looked back. He stood up to get a closer look. "That's the orchard isn't it?"
Robin stopped looking for the flyer. "Oh, Arthur, I'm so glad you happened to see it! We've been wanting to ask you about that picture for years, haven't we Charlie?"
He nodded absently, more of his attention on the game than on Robin.
"I found it in an antique store ages ago. It's one of your grandmother's paintings, isn't it? I can't make out the signature, but that's definitely the orchard behind Drake House. See where the stone wall arches up over the stream there?" She climbed up onto the sofa and got the picture down, handing it to Arthur for his inspection.
"That's the orchard, all right. It probably is one of Grandmother's."
"She must have been very talented. I've really fallen in love with this little picture. We'd had it, oh, I don't know, for a year or two, before I noticed this in the trees. See? There's a figure there."
"Robin--" Charlie was no longer watching the game.
"What?" she demanded, startled by his sharp tone of voice.
Arthur held the picture close under the light, studying it. Robin was right. There was something under one of the trees, too small to make out with any certainty, just a few deft brush strokes suggesting a figure with a turbaned head. Arthur felt as though a jolt of electricity had gone though him. He was right, goddamnit, and he had been right all along.
"Charlie," he said suddenly, "Do you remember what my grandmother gave me the Christmas right before she died?"
"Hell yes. That was the year I finally stopped envying you for being such a rich bastard. Listen to this, Robin, this is what a screwed up old woman she was. Poor little Arthur'd had his heart set on a chemistry set. We both wanted one, but I knew I wasn't going to get it, because Dad had told me they were too expensive. I was already hating Arthur a little because I knew good and well his family could afford to get him a dozen. Anyway, I got over it enough to ride over there that afternoon or the next to see Arthur's, and you know what his grandmother had given him? A pickax. I didn't even believe him at first. I thought he just didn't want to share that precious chemistry set with me."
"A pickax?" Robin said incredulously. "You mean like a toy one?"
"No, full size. It wasn't even new. There was mud all over it, wasn't there? That seemed like the final insult. I never envied your family again after that Christmas."
Arthur sat down heavily on the couch, his heart thumping with vindication. "Dad and I were talking about that Christmas just before I left. He said Grandmother gave me a car for my model train that year."
"Really?" Charlie was doubtful. "He did have an incredible model train setup, Robin. It covered half the nursery. But you know, I think it was your Dad who gave you the train stuff every year, wasn't it? I know he was always more into that model train than you ever were. We'd be over there playing, and Arthur's dad would come up, and pretty soon it would be just me and his dad, and Arthur would be over in the corner by himself reading a book or something."
"But you definitely remember the pickax?" Arthur asked again. "Dad was so certain it never happened."
"Yeah, well, he may have convinced himself that it didn't happen, but your folks have always been pretty good at doing that, haven't they?"
"Arthur?" Winnie knocked again, more forcefully this time, and the front door swung open. She stuck her head in. "Hello in there. Anybody home?"
Lights were on, and she had seen a car parked in front of the cabin when she pulled in. "Hello?"
No one answered her. She stepped inside. "Arthur? It's Winnie. Are you home?"
A gas fire leapt above the ceramic logs in the fireplace. Breakfast dishes were stacked beside the sink, and the smell of toast and coffee still lingered in the air. She called again, and when no one answered, she made her way a little guiltily to the bedroom. "Are you home, Arthur? I'm sorry about just barging in. The door was open and I thought--"
Finding the bed made, she told herself nervously that there was no reason to be alarmed. Arthur was probably up at the big house or on the grounds somewhere. It was a clear, bright day, despite being so cold. Maybe he had gone for a walk in the woods.
And then she realized that there were sounds in the house, muted and rhythmic, echoing up from beneath the floorboards. A short, dry rasp, followed by a thud. Over and over again.
She froze, listening intently. Then she put down the file folder she was carrying and tiptoed back to the front door. She thought briefly about driving to the main house and calling the police, but that was certainly premature, no matter what had happened here before.
She followed the narrow path through the ivy to the back of the cabin, and found a door open, hanging uneasily on half-rotted hinges. A stark white light shone out. That light reassured Winnie. If something nefarious were underway, it was unlikely to be so brightly illuminated.
"Arthur? It's Winnie. Are you down here?"
"Winnie." Arthur came to the door with a shovel in his hands. "I didn't hear you drive up."
"I should have called first."
"No, not at all. It's wonderful to see you."
He was breathing heavily with exertion, trembling a little. He looked like he'd aged ten years since that day when Winnie had dropped him off in front of his vandalized house. His lined face was grimy, as were his forearms above leather work gloves that were so new and stiff he seemed hardly able to get his hands around the handle of the shovel, but he was grinning like a boy.
"Well, whatever you're up to, please don't stop on my account," she said, managing to smile back at him.
"It's all right. I was ready to take a break anyway."
"What in the world are you doing? Do you need any help?"
He stepped out of the doorway. "Have a look."
She looked. "Good Lord."
A strand of high-watt bulbs dangled from the ceiling of the dank little cellar. Bamboo pegs and lengths of twine had been used to mark off three-foot sections of the dirt floor. "What are you up to? It looks like an excavation."
"That's what it is."
"Are you looking for something? Or decide to pour a concrete floor down here?"
"It probably would be a good idea to put in concrete when I get finished. I'm sure it would help with the damp." Arthur laid down the shovel and eased the gloves off his hands. Winnie found herself staring at the scars and hastily looked away. "But the truth is, I'm looking for something. Come on. Let's go upstairs."
He led the way up the steep path and took off his muddy boots at the front door. "I think I'll make a fresh pot of coffee. Would you like some?"
"Only if you're going to be making it anyway."
"Just let me clean up a little." Arthur disappeared into the bathroom.
Winnie settled down at the breakfast bar, calling after him, "So what are you looking for? Am I allowed to ask?"
"Of course you can ask," he called back over the sound of running water. "But I honestly don't know. I won't know until I find it."
He came out with his hands and face scrubbed clean and got a bag of coffee beans out of the freezer. Winnie watched him for a moment, considering, then said carefully, "I suspect this little cabin was built on the foundations of the homestead that was here when Virginia bought the property. Does it look that way to you?"
"There was a house here? I had no idea. I always thought Grandmother wrenched this place single-handedly out of the wilderness."
"Reclaimed it single-handed, maybe. The original homestead was burned when Sherman came through, and nobody lived here again until your grandmother acquired the land."
"So these foundations could be what, a hundred and fifty years old?"
"Probably older. I'll bring you my research notes on the place if you're interested."
"Thank you. I am."
"Just let me know what you find."
"You're making me think, I ought to get someone in here who knows what they're doing. I couldn't tell fifty-year-old foundations from ones that are a hundred and fifty years old."
"You might want to talk to someone at UTC or call down to Athens. I'm sure you could find someone who'd just love to get a peek at this old place. Oh, and that reminds me, I almost forgot the whole reason I came out here this morning. Here." She retrieved the file folder she had left on the coffee table earlier and handed it to him. "This is to welcome you back to the ridge. It's nice to have you home again."
"Thank you. It's nice to be home."
"Arthur--" she hesitated, then went on briskly. "Arthur, I'm only going to say this once, and then I promise I won't mention it again. But I have to tell you, I don't know how I'll ever be able to forgive myself for driving off and leaving you here with those animals."
"Winnie. You couldn't have known."
"And I haven't had a very easy time forgiving you for letting me do it. I suppose you were thinking of the kids, but you had absolutely no right to make a decision like that without telling me. Nothing makes me angrier more than that kind of knee-jerk, hyper-macho, trying-to-be-the-hero--"
Arthur had to grin at that, and she snapped angrily, "Dammit, I'm serious. Getting yourself killed wouldn't have done anybody any good."
"I'm sorry," he said quickly. "But it wasn't like that. It was hardly a conscious decision at all."
"You don't have to talk about it," she interrupted. "I honestly don't want to know."
She shook her head. "So how are you feeling? You must be doing pretty good if you feel up to excavating a cellar on your own. Listen, Samantha's been driving me nuts asking to come up and visit you. If you don't mind, I thought I would bring her up one weekend when I've got the kids. Just for an hour or so."
"Please do. I'd love to see her." Arthur smiled. "She could help me dig."
"If anyone could get a lick of work out of that child, it would be you, Arthur."
He opened the file folder Winnie had given him. "So what is this?"
"Well, I know you're mostly interested in your grandmother's side of the family, but I thought you'd like to see some gossip about the Drake side that didn't make it into the official history of Riverbend either."
"What is it?"
"Bad news, in a way. I just hope you won't be too disappointed."
"Despite what your family has been claiming since before the Civil War, when I traced the line back to England, I couldn't find any evidence that the Drakes of Riverbend are descendants of Sir Francis Drake."
"I'll try to bear up under the crushing blow."
"You laugh, but believe me, I didn't dare approach your aunt or any members of the Historical Society with this. But I thought you, at least, would be interested in hearing your real family history."
She took the folder back and paged through the blurry reproductions from microfilm. "I don't know how much of this you already know, so stop me if you've heard it all before. In 1745 or thereabouts, your great-great -" she stopped and counted on her fingers, "great-great-grandfather Bellamy Drake came over the Cumberland Gap with a group of settlers who eventually founded Riverbend. He was the youngest son of one Nathaniel Drake, a minister in Providence, Rhode Island. Nathaniel's grandfather had emigrated from Devonshire in the 1690's."
Arthur smiled a little. "Wasn't Francis Drake from Devon?"
"So was Sir Walter Raleigh, but I'm sorry, Arthur. The Drakes you come from were cattle farmers, not naval officers or world explorers."
"The family is still respectably ancient, country squires with a family home maybe ten miles out of Exeter. It looks like they may well have been there since the Norman Conquest. They seem to have lived quietly for generations, avoiding politics and breeding cattle. And apparently they made an excellent cheese that was quite famous around the time of Elizabeth. There's even a mention of it in the royal housekeeping records."
"Well, that's something."
"I'm sorry, Arthur," Winnie seemed to be having trouble keeping a straight face.
"No, really, I much prefer ancestors who produced fine dairy products to marauders who made their fortune raiding the east coast of Africa, no matter how famous."
"I haven't even gotten to good part yet. You recall Nathaniel Drake, the Providence minister. It just so happens that he wrote a spiritual autobiography about ten years after his son Bellamy set off for Riverbend. The Acts and Mercies of God Made Manifest to His Disciples in the New World."
"That's the short version. Here it is." She indicated a copy of the cover page in her file.
"So you've read this?" Arthur was suddenly very serious. "Where did you find the copy?"
"UGA's library had it on microfilm. The bulk of it's pretty dry, I have to say. Mostly about the growth of his little congregation there in Providence, church politics, and so on and so on. Where it gets interesting is when he takes time out to reflect on the witchcraft hysteria that swept through New England in the 1690's. He was writing nearly half a century after Salem, and most of his contemporaries considered the witch trials a tragic error by that time. But not your ancestor Nathaniel. He writes very sternly that the possible excesses of that time shouldn't blind God's People to the reality of supernatural evil in their midst."
Arthur sighed. "Somehow I'm not surprised. It stands to reason my family would be in favor of burning witches."
"You're being unfair to poor Nathaniel. This is what he actually says." She ran her finger down a page of text and began to read. "'And what may be the design of Providence in permitting such things, I cannot say. Secret things belong to God. But my own household has been troubled with such divers and astonishing things as would shake the convictions of the most devout sadduccee, as groanings, and knockings, the grinding as of a millstone or the winding of a jack, and these things at all hours of the day and night, and continuing sometimes for weeks altogether, so that no one in the house, neither servant nor master, is granted rest.'"
Winnie took a breath and looked up. Arthur was sitting still as a stone, his face absolutely expressionless. "Arthur?"
"Is there more?"
"Arthur, are you all right? With your ghostbusting and everything, I thought you'd be tickled to hear about a family ghost."
"What else does he say?" he asked impatiently. He seemed to be making a conscious effort not to snatch the pages out of Winnie's hands. She closed the folder rather hurriedly and pushed it across the table to him. "There's not much more. You can read it yourself. He says the disturbances are accompanied by the appearance of a small animal, like a big cat or a badger, always coal black. Supposedly it had been well known around the family estate in Devonshire for generations. The locals called it the Drake galleytrot."
Arthur didn't open the folder. He crossed his hands over it and looked at Winnie. Before the silence could become any more uncomfortable, Winnie went on hurriedly, "Anyway, according to Nathaniel, his grandfather left England and came to the New World hoping to escape it. Nathaniel's own son fled even deeper into the wilderness because of it. I'm sure he means Bellamy Drake, the founder of Riverbend." She smiled hesitantly. "Almost makes you wonder if Bellamy was able to outrun the family galleytrot, doesn't it?"
"He wasn't." There was no humor in Arthur's answering smile. "Oh, Lord. And all this time I thought it was just Grandmother." He sat up straight in his chair, raking the fingers of both hands through his hair. "God help me, Winnie. What a hell of a pedigree."
Arthur lost his way twice, the second time ending up at the head of a driveway that was little more than tire tracks through the underbrush. Visible through the trees was an aging mobile home, and parked around it, a collection of cars and trucks in various states of disrepair. Arthur considered going up to ask for directions, but the loneliness and desolation of the place dissuaded him. He would drive back to the main highway and try to get his bearings from there.
As he was backing up, a mangy yellow dog appeared out of the woods, threw back its head and began to howl. A man stepped out of the trailer. Seeing Arthur, he waved generously and gestured for him to stop. The yellow dog remained by Arthur's car door, growling and breaking into hysterical fits of barking, the hair on its back standing up in a line. "Shut up, Boomer," the man yelled. The dog paid no attention until he picked up a rock and flung it at the animal. The stone pattered harmlessly off into the woods, and the dog turned tail and ran.
Arthur rolled his window down. The stranger turned and spit of stream of tobacco juice onto the ground. He turned back and said, "You're looking for the Clowry Farm, aintcha?"
"Yes I am. I guess I got lost."
"Hell it's not your fault. Ol' Moody can't give directions to save his worthless life. Half the folks heading out to the farm end up in my driveway instead."
Arthur wondered how many people were in the habit of visiting his great uncle's farm. "I'm sorry," he said. "You must get tired of that."
"It ain't no trouble. Lissen, now, what you want to do is go back the way you came, oh, maybe two, three miles. Not so far that you get back to the main highway. You recollect that li'l ol' branch you crossed on your way in? Well, when you go over that, start looking on your right there, and you're gonna spy a dirt road with no sign or nothing. That's the road you want to take. You go maybe a mile, two miles, and that little dirt road will fork. You want to take the left hand fork, the one that drops straight down so steep you'll think it's gonna drop you straight off the ridge."
Arthur nodded. "I think I was on that road a little while ago. I thought Mr. Clowry told me it was just another couple of miles after the fork, so I decided I'd gone the wrong way and turned around again."
The man cackled and spit another stream of tobacco juice. "Nah, you gave up too soon, that's all that was. It's a good five miles if it's an inch after the fork. Just keep on going and you can't miss it. Those gates Moody's got at the front of his place these days'll make you think you've hit the back door of Fort Knox."
The man broke off and peered at Arthur closely. "Damn if you don't look like you've got some Clowry blood in you. You any kin to old man Moody?"
Arthur smiled. "Is it that obvious? My grandmother was Mr. Clowry's sister."
"Well ain't that something. Who's your grandmother, son?"
"You don't say." The man shook his head, spit another stream of tobacco. "You must be Arthur." He stuck his arm in the car window and shook Arthur's hand vigorously. "Freeling Brooks. I hear tell Miz Virginia was quite a gal. Quite a gal." He stepped away from the car. "Mind you, when you see Moody, you tell him if he don't put up some goddamned signs so his own kinfolk can find the way to his place, then I will. And you can bet he won't like what they say, neither. Pleasure meetin' you, son."
With that he turned and stumped his way back up to the mobile home. "Thank you," Arthur called after him.
He raised his hand in mute acknowledgment, but didn't turn his head.
Arthur backed out of the driveway, turned the car around, and drove back the way he had come, finding the dirt road beyond the creek bed just as Freeling had described it. He took the left fork, following the muddy road as it descended precipitously down into a dark hollow. The terrain was evidently too rugged for the logging and wildcat mining that had scarred so much of Sickle Ridge, and instead of scrub pine and shaggy undergrowth, the forest on both sides was lush and deep. Nothing grew under the massive hemlocks but rhododendron with flat, shiny green leaves that glistened in the shadow. The floor of the forest was blanketed with pine needles, and visible through the trees on the downhill side of the road were gigantic gray sandstone boulders, deposited eons ago by glaciers. It was so quiet and peaceful that Arthur was almost tempted to stop the car and take a stroll through the forest.
Then, around another steep switchback, he pulled up short before a tremendous wooden gate. The gateposts were mountain stone pillars with pineapple-shaped finials of granite perched on top. Arthur got out of the car and pushed the gate open, thinking that this was somehow not what he had expected of Virginia's ancestral homestead. He drove through, stopped the car again and shut the gate behind himself. Fresh gravel had been spread thickly on the driveway. It crunched under his tires as he drove up a steep hill. He could see the house at the top, a modern barn-like structure with plenty of windows and a wide front porch There were flower and herb beds laid out on all sides, filled with the barren gray stalks of last summer's luxuriance. He could see stables beyond the house, painted bright red with glistening white trim, and beyond that, a fenced-in meadow that stretched down the side of the hill until it vanished into the woods. A complicated system of gates and pens led from the stables to the meadow, but he saw no sign of livestock.
Lovely as the farm was, Arthur was a little disappointed. He had been hoping, unreasonably enough, to find the home where Virginia had been born and raised untouched by the passage of time. He was realizing now that the original home was probably no longer in existence.
He parked in front of the house and got out of the car slowly, feeling the protest from his sore muscles. Excavating the apple cellar would have been a chore even if he'd been in the best of health. He paused to wrap his muffler more tightly against the brisk March wind. Turning towards the house, he found himself face to face with a bird as tall as himself.
Arthur froze, utterly astonished. One flat, avian eye blinked at him. A downy tuft of feathers grew atop an otherwise bald skull. The neck was long and supple as a flamingo's. The creature drew its head back a little, regarding Arthur critically, and Arthur had a sudden, vivid memory of a lush jungle world inhabited by tremendous beasts that seemd half bird and half reptile. The bird took a step closer, twisting its sinuous neck until its head was nearly upside down, and determinedly attacked Arthur's watchband with its wide, flat beak.
"Hey." Arthur stepped back quickly.
"That's Little Sister," called a voice from the direction of the stables. "She won't hurt you. She just wants you to scratch the top of her head."
He looked up and saw a man in overalls approaching, a pitchfork over his shoulders. Arthur reached out tentatively and petted the bird's bony head. The feathers were soft as down, the skull underneath impossibly fragile. "What--what is she? An ostrich?"
"Oh, no sir. Sister's an emu, born just this summer. Only a baby."
The other man thrust his pitchfork into the ground and stuck his hand out. "You must be Arthur. Glad you found the place all right."
"And you're Mr. Clowry?" Arthur said doubtfully. He had thought his great uncle was nearing seventy. This man seemed at least twenty-five years younger than that.
"No, no, I'm Buddy Varner. Sorry. Should have introduced myself. Moody's down at the nursery with his rhodos, as usual." Buddy rolled his eyes. "He'll be up in just a few minutes. He's as pleased as he can be about your visit. He's told me he hadn't seen you since you were a baby."
Little Sister pressed her head up against Arthur's hand, and then, in a crafty move, darted forward and grabbed at one of the buttons on his coat.
"Cut it out, girl," Buddy said, and shooed her off. She took a few awkward steps away, useless gray wings flapping in protest, and turned her attention to the rear view mirror on the passenger side of Arthur's car. Buddy regarded the ungainly creature with affection. "Gentle as a kitten."
"But a little big for the litter box, isn't she?"
Buddy laughed, and Arthur's attention was caught by a glimpse of ponderous movement in one of the stable doors that led to an outside stall. A tremendous brown head appeared. "Good Lord," Arthur said, as a camel lumbered out into the later winter sunshine. Unable to tear his eyes from the utter incongruity of the sight, he asked, "Is there more?"
"Only the one camel for now. Moody and I weren't sure how she would like the weather, but this is her second winter here, and she seems to like it just fine, don't you think?"
Arthur only nodded, at a loss for words.
"Come back this way. I'll show you something you don't see every day on Sickle Ridge."
Arthur had no doubt of that. Buddy led him around the stable and to the fence that bordered the meadow. Putting two fingers in his mouth, he whistled shrilly. Nothing seemed to happen for a minute or two, except Little Sister got tired of pecking at the tires on Arthur's car and came up, this time fixating on Arthur's shoe laces. He backed out of reach, and she regarded him with a blank, balked stare.
Then he spotted the sea of movement swirling against the dark backdrop of the forest. "What is it?" he asked faintly. Buddy just grinned. As the herd came milling up the hillside, Arthur finally recognized the blocky bodies and incongruously delicate heads. "Llamas?" he said, laughing out loud. There were fifty or sixty of them, and mingling with the herd at least a dozen more emu. "This is incredible. I had no idea."
Buddy smiled, satisfied. "It's damned ridiculous, that's what it is. No need to spare our feelings just because Moody's family."
"I don't know what to say. They're beautiful. But how on earth--I mean, how does someone get started raising llamas?"
"And why does someone get started. That's the real question." Buddy finished for him. "If you can believe it, Moody started raising llamas more than twenty years ago as a way to support his real love, growing those damn rhodos, and over the years it sort of took on a life of its own. He's talking about getting a pair of breeding ostriches next, but I'm not happy about the idea. An ostrich would as soon kick your head off as look as you. Not like Little Sister here." He scratched the top of the emu's head with his knuckles, making her feathers ruffle with pleasure. By this time the first of the llamas had reached the fence, and they stared at Arthur with wide, suspicious blue eyes.
"Tell you what, you want to just drive around to the nursery and hunt up Moody ourselves? It's just like him to get so engrossed he forgets all about what he's doing."
"If you don't think he'll mind the interruption."
"I told you, he's really looking forward to your visit. 'Sides, he'll be tickled to show off the rhodos to you. If you want to drive us, it's only a quarter mile down past the meadow."
"That's fine," Arthur said, still a little dazed by it all. He opened the car door for Buddy, and Little Sister stuck her head in, going for the shiny dials on the dash. Buddy shooed her away. "You see where the drive splits off behind the house there? Just follow that."
The llamas followed their progress in a leisurely way as Arthur drove. On one side stretched the sunny meadow, on the other, the dark wall of the forest. At the bottom of the hill the road turned sharply into the woods. It seemed much colder out of the sunlight. Arthur turned up the heater, and Buddy smiled at him. The road turned again at a deep gorge, following the edge of it deeper into the forest. Water splashed and tumbled down the rocks far below. "What a beautiful place," Arthur said.
"Here we go." Buddy instructed as they reached a clearing. A tractor was parked nearby in the shadow of a sandstone boulder that dwarfed both vehicles. Twisted evergreens with broad, flat leaves grew out of a crack in the boulder fifteen feet above Arthur's head. When he turned off the car engine, there was no sound but the water rushing through the gorge.
Scattered through the hemlock grove were half a dozen greenhouses inexpensively constructed from PVC pipe and heavy plastic. Beside them were nursery beds filled with unprepossessing seedlings, some mere sticks, others with a few black-spotted leaves.
Moody Clowry stepped out of one the greenhouses, his face wreathed with smiles. He was heavy set, with luxurious white hair falling almost to his shoulders. "Arthur!" he exclaimed. "You'll have to forgive my terrible manners. I was just about to drive up to the house to meet you, but I got so excited counting the buds on one of the new Carolinians I just lost track of the time. If we don't have a late frost like the one that killed everything last year, it's going to be beautiful this spring. Just beautiful. You'll have to come back to see it."
"I'd like that," Arthur said. "You have an incredible place here." He gestured to one of the nursery beds. "What are you growing? It doesn't seem like they would get any light down here."
"That's the whole point. It's the perfect climate for rhododendron."
"Oh," Arthur said, comprehension dawning at last. He grinned back at Buddy. "He told me you were growing rhodos. I just didn't know what that was."
Moody laughed delightedly. "It's good to see you, Arthur. Did Buddy tell you the last time I laid eyes on you, you couldn't have been anymore than six months old? It just doesn't seem possible that so much time could have passed. You're just back from California, ain't you?"
"A few months ago, yes."
"It was real nice of you to go see Ruby Mae. She doesn't get too many visitors. She was still talking about you when I saw her last week." Moody's expression turned serious. "I heard you had some trouble recently. You doing all right now?"
"And you got questions about Virginia. Come on back this way. There's something you'll want to see."
A wide path wound back through the hemlocks. Lining both sides of it were mature rhododendron, and at the end of the path stood a log cabin. The structure was windowless, and the only door was set high up in the wall, two large, flat stones serving as the steps. A split wood fence in crumbling disrepair surrounded the small yard. "Can you believe Mother and Father raised twelve kids here? Kind of makes you think, don't it?"
"I use it as a gardening shed these days. And it makes a real pretty backdrop when the rhodos are in bloom."
"A picture of it made the cover of The Quarterly two years ago," Buddy said proudly. "You'll have to show it to Arthur when we're back up at the main house."
"Now this, this is something special," Moody said, turning away from the cabin. "Look here at this, Arthur." He squatted beside one of the beds and indicated a struggling little plant with half a dozen leaves that looked to Arthur's untrained eye no different from any of the other seedlings. "It's a macrophyllum from Mineral Creek in the Cascade Mountains. A friend in the Western Rhodo Society sent me a cutting." He rocked back on his heels, smiling. "And if I live to be a hundred and five, I just may see it bloom."
Arthur looked back at the cabin, and tried to think of something to say about rhododendron. "They grow that slowly?"
"These along the path I planted nearly thirty-five years ago. Pretty things, aren't they? You know it was your grandmother first got me growing rhodos."
"I never knew she was interested in them. She loved her rose garden, I know, and the greenhouse was always full of flowers."
"I'd suspect rhodos were too common for her. She always had to have the finest things in life. And I guess she got them, didn't she?" Moody stood up slowly. "She was twenty years older than me, so I have to tell you, I never knew Virginia very well. She'd been married and widowed before I was even born. Course, she would come to visit every now again, usually just before Christmas, bring us a ham or a turkey, presents for the kids still living at home. But the visit I always remember was late one spring. She came all by herself, no chauffeur, and she said she just wanted to take a walk in the woods. Me and my older brother Chad tagged along. We followed the stream at the foot of the gorge for miles, it seemed like. I was seven or eight, just a little tike, so it may have seen longer than it really was. Finally we ended up at the prettiest little waterfall. The water had carved a perfectly round place out of the rock, just this still, crystal clear pool. There were cliffs around it, and a grove of ancient rhododendron, most of them twenty, thirty feet tall. I'm sure now they must have been maxima--they're all through the woods here, you must have noticed them driving down here--but I'll tell you something. These were in bloom, and as sure as my name is Moody Clowry, the trusses were just as blue as a summer sky, not a trace of spotting on the throat, not a hint of red or purple. Blue as a robin's egg."
He shook his head, smiling at the memory. "I didn't know what they were then, but I'd grown up in these woods, and even as a kid, I was damn sure I'd never seen anything like that before." He saw Arthur's expression of polite incomprehension and explained, "Maxima don't come in that color. The blooms are usually pale lavender, sometimes rose, or red, or white, but never that shade of blue. Just doesn't exist. Except, sure as I'm standing here, I saw it. As Buddy will tell you, I've never forgotten it.
"I tried over the years to find that grove again. Up until a few years back I would set out on a pilgrimage every spring, determined that this would be the year I found it. I don't need to tell you, I guess, that I never did, and somewhere along the way, wanting to find those blue maxima turned into--this." He spread his arms, indicating the greenhouses and beds. "That walk in the woods changed my life. I still don't know whether I should thank Virginia or curse her for it." He smiled wryly. "Anyway, Buddy's promised to make sure it gets named after me if someone finally finds those maxima after I'm dead and gone."
He looked at Arthur. "And that's about all I can tell you about my big sister. She was always such a grand lady to me, even traipsing through the woods that time. I don't suppose I said more than a few dozen words to her her whole life. She invited me up to the big house after you were born, but her health was starting to go by then, and she didn't even come downstairs to see us. You're living in Drake House now, aren't you?"
"Actually, it's rented out right now. I'm staying in the old servant's quarters. But I was wondering --" Arthur took a deep breath. "Would you mind if I had a look inside the cabin?"
to be continued