The foyer smelled of lemons and coffee. Peg clattered down the stairs on stick-like high heels, her necklaces scraping and clicking like prayer beads. Rayelle spun the tires as she drove off, sprinkling the front porch with gravel. Adelaide gripped my hand tightly and beamed. I squeezed back, unable to look away from the orange lipstick, the flared black skirt. Our aunt-turned-mother spread her arms in a winglike gesture and took me into a gentle hug. Each of my five senses stood on tiptoe. Adelaide stepped back, nearly toppling a Chinese vase, but Peg caught her and pulled her in.
“Such a lovely dress, Adelaide. You look so dramatic in black.”
Peg released her and she smiled at me. We were dressed identically. Adelaide tugged at the black pleats with sticky ice-cream fingers.
“Rayelle took us to lunch. I had chocolate ice cream for dessert.”
Peg smiled and held out her hands to us. Adelaide rushed in for another hug.
“I have chocolate in the freezer right now. Plenty for all three of us. We can walk off the calories after dinner.”
I watched Adelaide bury herself in Peg.
“I’ll take our things upstairs,” I said.
Peg swept Adelaide under her arm and led her to the kitchen. Leaving the telescope downstairs, I lifted our suitcases, both of identical weight, and carried them up to the “bird” room. The walls swirled with colorful songbirds, the bedspreads and canopies matched the birds on the walls, and tiny porcelain birds perched in two fake white birdcages, woven in elaborate wicker, as intricate as lace. I placed Adelaide’s suitcase on the bed next to the window. I liked the solid security of a wall to huddle against during hurricanes or quarrels. I inspected the closets for lost trinkets of other visitors, signs of life beyond Peg in the house, but I found only a network of cobwebs. Peg called me in her crystal-shattering voice, and I was quick to the stairs to silence her.
Adelaide peeked from around the pocket door to the kitchen, her face painted in milky chocolate.
“Peg made us a Bûche de Noël, and it’s not even Christmas!”
I followed her to the table where a partially-eaten chocolate log spread itself across a white platter. A candy bird perched on an icing twig. Adelaide slivered off a piece and handed it to me.
“And there’s chocolate ice cream,” she squeaked.
Peg busied herself with cups of tea, tiny plates for cake and spoons for ice cream. A tiny worm worked its way through my stomach, destroying my appetite. I watched the two of them gather utensils and plates and settle themselves at the table.
“Both of you favor my brother,” Peg said, “But I believe Vivian has a bit of her mother in her eyes. Dapples of brown.”
I hungered for more mention of my mother. I couldn’t remember her name, her face, her voice. No one in dad’s family knew if she was alive. She was a fog in my dreams. She could have been the woman with the tape measure at Dillard’s or the Salvation Army Santa helper with the bell. Whoever she was, I hoped she watched crowds wondering if one of those girls were Adelaide or me.
“I loved your mother, girls. I’m not like Rayelle with her nasty little comments. Your mother was…is…a lovely woman. She took good care of herself and never let anyone tell her what to do. She knew what was what and lived close to the bone.”
I yearned for Peg to give me words, images, something concrete. But she continued talking about the ghost mother, the fog.
“She kept to herself, but always had a nice thing to say. She lived in the world, very close to the things that mattered to her.”
I wanted to scream. I plunged a spoon into the melting chocolate ice cream. Adelaide stared at the floor, far away from all of us. We learned from Rayelle and dad that asking wouldn’t give us any answers. We’d just have to listen for them.
“She never gossiped. She never reveled in someone else’s misery. She was truly lovely.”
Peg took a long blink and scooped a forkful of cake into her mouth.
Adelaide kicked at the rungs of her chair and hummed. Time seemed to hang suspended over us. And I still had a year.
2005 Frances Badgett