Chapter 1: Finding
Your eyes are very dark. And sad. They're so sad. Why is that? What have You done that's so terrible? You're okay - what am I saying, of course You're okay. You don't have anything to be sad about. Cheer up. Dry those tears. Turn that frown upside down. You can do it. You can do anything.
So why are You crying? There, now You've got me doing it too.
Water. Tears are water. All around me is water, rising, slopping against everything. Rising inside of my lungs, choking me. Just like it was the last time. Oh, Mama. All that commotion, and I can't breathe. Cold, so cold.
A long time ago now.
How much has happened, how many births and deaths and givings in marriage, heartaches and headaches, love and laughter, wars and breakfasts. How much life.
Harriet's always telling everyone how much I love life. My daughter, don't blame me for the name; it was Robbie's choice. He laughed when I suggested Gert, my best friend in grade school. No, I'm serious, I said, and he laughed some more. Mother loves life, says Harriet. A wonderful woman, my daughter. I hope I had as much energy when I was her age.
Here she is now, standing beside You. Does she see You? Her mouth is open but she's not talking to You. She reaches towards me, huge white hands - she got them from Robbie too, along with the name. My hands are fine and delicate, pretty hands, my mother used to say. How could anyone mistake you for a boy, with such pretty hands, my baby? Pretty hands grabbing her veil, her big hat, her cambric handkerchief. Oh dear, I'm drowning again.
Harriet wipes my face. It feels nice. She says, There there, but I don't know where she means. This is a hospital, there's only here here.
Her hands are as cold as grade school. I used to get there before the teacher, who came in a cart all the way from Cobourg, six miles each way, almost two hours in the winter. I had to walk a mile down the Harwood Road to Precious Corners, and by the time I got to the schoolhouse I'd be frozen. A beautiful time of day, the sun rising over snow-covered fields. But cold. First one to school had to light the stove. The kindling used to smell of mice and dust. The fire was friendly and warm. Sometimes the boys used to throw each other's homework in.
Four years old and no daddy. He's off at The War, my mama told me. So was my friend Gert's daddy. He was a farmer too, like my daddy. Mama cried. So did Gert's mama. She had red hair and a face like a harvest moon. What's The War? I asked, but Mama wouldn't answer. What's The War? I asked the teacher. A terrible thing.
I stayed away from the school in the spring, to help Mama and Victor with the farm. Lettuces and cabbages and corn to plant and pigs to feed, until the pigs all got sick. Six years old and no school. The teacher would come by in the evenings, to tell me what I'd missed. She brought the newspaper with her. There's been a terrible battle at a place called Laos, she'd say. Or Gallipoli. All the places were strange sounding. Mama cried. The newspaper smelled like the inside of the teacher's coat pocket. Then the letter arrived from Ottawa, saying Daddy was coming home. He got sick just like the pigs, but they died and he didn't. Mama and I met him at the station in town, with all the neighbours. He hugged us and then limped over to talk to Gert's mama. She fainted.
The leg wound got better, but Daddy was different inside. He didn't care about anything any more, as if The War had taken out the part of him that minded. The seed corn came up too late, and the cabbages got holes in them, and he didn't mind. Something broke into the barnyard in the middle of the night, maybe a coyote, and took our chickens, and he didn't mind. My teacher died of the flu, and they closed the school until they could find someone else, and he didn't mind. For days and days he wouldn't get out of bed. Mama did her best with the harvest, and neighbours gave us help and meat, but the snow lasted a long time that year, and some days we had nothing to eat but cabbages and stale bread. We needed new furniture, Mama said so, and I needed new clothes, but Daddy said he didn't mind the table and chairs we had. And Rose looks fine, he said. He sat by himself at the dinner table, close to the bottle of poison. That's what Mama called it. His hair was grey.
I would have been ten when Victor broke his leg and couldn't get up. I saw him first and ran to the house for help. Daddy came with me to the barn, stood outside the stall while Victor flopped around in his stall. I was crying. Daddy watched for a long time, then went to the house for his gun. I stayed in my room, and Daddy fired four shots at Victor's head. I heard them. Horses have hard heads, you have to hit them just right. Victor would have told me that, later. Or do I mean Uncle Brian?
Is Dr. Berman in Your way? He's new. He has an odd first name Sunday, would it be - and he introduces himself by it. You could ask him to move, You know. Or You could blast him with the power of the worm that dieth not. I wonder what he's saying to my daughter. His teeth are very expressive.
Harriet is my daughter, Harriet Rolyoke. Not Zimmerman, as it could have been - poor Geoff, I can still see him on his knee in our front room, with his manicure and the tufts of hair poking out of his nose when he smiled. Not Bluestone, though she did seem to like him, and he had every reason to be grateful to her. Harriet Rolyoke. The name she was born with. I tried and tried, but there's no pleasing some people. You can't afford to pick and choose, I told her, not meaning to make her feel bad, but facts are facts and no boys fought over her the way they used to fight over me. Every day I see plain women with husbands, I told her. D'you want to end up all alone? She'd laugh and pat my arm. Even when she was young, she always seemed to be laughing at me. I may have a better sense of humour than I know.
Uncle Brian was the family black sheep and Daddy's big brother. His commercial success in Belleville and then Toronto, and the opportunities he talked about in the letters home to Gloucestershire, convinced my daddy to come to Ontario with his bride. Uncle Brian bought two second-class passages as a wedding present, and drove all the way to New York to meet us. He was a banker; all I'd have seen of him when we arrived was his lavender spats. The sound of his motor car - the first I'd ever heard - buzzed in my ears like the dying summer. I listened for it each time he came to Precious Corners to visit. I loved to ride in it, feeling the wind on my face, watching the world spin past faster than thought.
He visited less often after the bank took away his car and his salary and moved him to northern Ontario, but he was with us at the Port Hope station when Daddy came home from The War. The spats were grey by this time, and stained. Like Uncle Brian's success, I guess. By then I could see above his knees, to the lean hams and bony brisket beneath the threadbare woollen suit that no longer had a pocket watch to complete it, nor a diamond stickpin, nor a dangling white scarf, cashmere coat, or stiff Homburg hat.
The War had been hard on him too. Welcome back, he said to Daddy, shaking hands on the doorstep. His hands were bigger than Daddy's, and his nose was longer. He wouldn't stay to dinner.
I'm dying, aren't I. That's why You're here. That's why You look so sad - I guess mine isn't a beautiful death. That's what Mrs. McAllister used to say, Didn't so-and-so make a beautiful death. A sour long-faced lady, her husband George owned the mill in Harwood. She wore hats with flowers - carnations and purple larkspur, I think, unless I'm getting confused with what the flowers mean: pride and haughtiness. She used to ask Mama and me into her parlour for tea and little cakes while our corn was being ground. She didn't invite everyone, but Mama was English English, and that mattered in Ontario in the twenties. I don't know what I would have been. A polite little girl, I guess, and as clean as lye soap and scrubbing could make me, for all I was dressed poor. Was Mrs. McAllister's father really a concert pianist? She'd tell us that, pointing to the piano as a kind of proof, but I never heard it from anyone else. I asked Mama once and she said she wasn't sure, meaning she doubted it. You know the truth, of course. Maybe I will too, soon. A vicious lady, Mrs. McAllister, but kind enough to me. I wonder, was her death beautiful? I can't see it, somehow.
Uncle Brian had arranged a mortgage on the farm when he worked at the bank. Mama wrote to him for help the spring after Victor died and we couldn't put any crop in the field, but the letter came back inside another envelope. It was a surprise to see his gaunt, spare figure in the kitchen a few months later, to hear his voice, so like Daddy's, ask Mama if we could put him up for a while since he was out of a job, and maybe he could help out around the farm for a bit. Hello, Rose, he said to me, twisting his knuckles together. Mama didn't say anything.
Have a drink, said Daddy, pushing the bottle forward.
And so Uncle Brian came to live with us. A broken man, life trickling out of him like sawdust. Daddy didn't mind. He was a burnt-out shell himself, with gypsies camping inside his mind. My mother and I toiled with our heads down, fearful of what today would bring.
Lady Margaret Rolyoke was a thin dry woman, beautiful from a distance. A white orchid of a woman: exotic, colourless, odorless. The sort of woman men don't need. She was Lady Margaret because she was the daughter of a duke. Her husband was plain Mr. Rolyoke, Philadelphia Pennsylvania in the winter, Cobourg Ontario in the summer. You know, I still think about them. All the chances missed. Needless pain, prolonged until it ceases to matter, like a stone in your shoe that you get used to walking with, until you take it out and then you think, How could I have gone on like that? He's been dead for almost fifty years, and she for ten or more, and I'm still limping.
I knew the Rolyoke place before I went there to work. Everyone in Cobourg and Hamilton township knew the huge log palace, one of dozens of stately homes just a ferry ride away from Rochester, New York. The best air in North America, pure ozone, they said, optimal climatic conditions - I wonder if they really were. Cottesmore Hall, Hamilton House, Strathmore, Bagnall Hall, Heathcote, Sidbrook. Oh my. The names bring back a hint of vanished glory, like a whiff of old perfume clinging to a fur coat at the back of a closet. And all the grand homes needed seasonal attention from local plumbers and glaziers, butchers and fruiterers, gardeners and house servants.
I met Lady Margaret by accident. Mama would have spoken to her about me, but I'd never seen her. Early in the morning on my first day and I was trying to find the servants' entrance so I asked the first person I saw. Herself as it happened, taking a walk in the garden. I'm lost, I said, and she took me by the elbow - a curious gesture, more like a police officer than a friend - and led me around the far side to the very door. You must be the flower girl, she said. I was still in mourning for Daddy. When she saw the band she expressed very civil condolences. I hope you'll be happy here, she said. I ducked my head and she walked me into the back kitchen and told that bitch Parker to call Adam, and meanwhile to be especially nice to me. I was sixteen. Parker smiled and said, Certainly my lady, and the minute we were alone she slapped me spinning against the far wall.
Excerpted from Mystical Rose by Richard Scrimger Copyright © 2001 by Richard Scrimger. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday Canada, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.