Veronica's Garden

Rachel Creager Ireland on writing, living, the Flint Hills, and the Post Rock Limestone Caryatids

Tag: fiction

The Cartographer’s Daughters, Part IV

We conclude our story of the quiet sisters. Click to see Part I, Part II, and Part III.

An unusual spring snow provided one more opportunity for winter photography.

An unusual spring snow provided one more opportunity for winter photography.

 

The next day I was restless. I felt anxious, knowing my sister was going to leave, that she was going to do something forbidden, and that I didn’t know what it was. What if we had left some clue in our father’s study? At any moment he might find it and know that we had been there. What would I tell him? I’d never been a good liar, never been good at making up a story under duress.

Of course I couldn’t stop thinking about my sister. I was fantasizing about where she might be going, about going with her. I didn’t usually allow myself this luxury; I kept my mind present in the moment at hand. There were all kinds of mistakes to be made by not being mindful. There was important information that could be missed, even if I didn’t know what use it would come to.

Imagining her paddling down the river, though, I thought of the hazards of the river. I didn’t know what strange people might do to her, what dangers lay in cities, but I knew that even a person experienced in the ways of water could be injured. Her canoe could capsize, or she could get caught on a low-hanging tree. She could get cut by her knife or a fishhook. I went into the kitchen and made a healing salve.

I started with echinacea, for immune support, and comfrey leaves to speed healing. I added some essential oils for their anti-microbial properties. I went outside (in the daylight!) and found some tender green plantain leaves on the south side of the residence, protected from the coldest wind and deep snow. I cut some leaves from the potted aloes in the conservatory. I infused and filtered and mixed it all into a base of rich cocoa butter.

I knew there was no magic in the world, but I pretended I was a witch, or an alchemist. Wherever this salve touched my sister’s body, it would protect her from harm.

I made a fragrant herbal tea for my father, to cover the aromas rising up from the kitchen. He was at the desk, head bent down, forehead resting in one hand. He did not acknowledge my offering.

***

My sister smiled when I silently gave her the tin of salve. She opened it and held it to her face to absorb its fragrance, and she knew what it was for.

“Thank you.”

“I’ll miss you,” I said, simply.

“I too,” she replied. “It’s been a long time.”

I didn’t ask if she were coming back, or when.

I heard a distant low rumble. “Car.”

She looked toward the road, though it was out of sight from us. But then we could see the faint flicker of headlights through the trees. We held our breath. It could be anyone, for any reason. But it was unusual for cars to drive on this road, and as often as not, when they did, they were coming to our house, bringing men in dark suits who would go into the study with our father, to speak behind the heavy doors in voices too low for us to hear.

It wasn’t until after we had watched the lights move past, and on around the curve beyond the residence, that we let out our breath.

She finished wrapping her things into a bundle, and placed it in the front of the canoe. “If I had more time, I’d smooth the inside better. But I did have time for this.” She brought me to the front of the craft, to see a primitive rabbit carved into the wood. She had carved another into the freshly cut wood of her paddle. “She’ll be my talisman. I’ll be safe as long as I have her protection.”

I willed myself to believe it, even as I knew that there were no guarantees, no true protection anywhere in the world. But it would help me when she was gone, to think of rabbit magic surrounding my sister.

“Listen,” I said. There was another car. We looked at each other wordlessly. Two cars so close together was rare. Before its vibration had passed, though, the sound rose again. There was another vehicle behind it, followed by another. Something was happening. Not knowing what, my mind raced through possibilities. My father had found out we were in his study, or my behavior had been suspicious. Or maybe my sister had been watched since before she came here, and they were just now coming to get her, to take her away.

The way they had taken our mother.

“You have to go now.”

“Yes.”

We pushed the canoe into the water, slogging through mud until it was in water deep enough to float with her weight in it. My clothes would be covered in mud, but it couldn’t be helped. Just before the canoe caught the current of the river, my sister jumped into it, raising the paddle to balance the sideways jiggle. Settling down into the canoe, she looked back at me for a moment, then turned to the water ahead of her. The last I saw of her was her back, cloaked and hooded in black, as she steered herself into the current of the river. I watched her float away, as water swirled around my feet.

The Cartographer’s Daughters, Part III

You’ll have to excuse us. A short journey followed by the kinds of technical delays often associated with Mercury in retrograde have resulted in our failure to bring you the third installation of this story in a timely fashion. Well, here it is today. We hope it will prove to have been worth the wait. For earlier parts, see The Cartographer’s Daughters, Part I and Part II. For the final part, see Part IV.

Rowan's back

Of course I couldn’t sleep. I willed myself to lie still in bed, to breathe deeply and evenly. Finally I gave up and stood by the window, looking out over the moonlit lawn toward the woods. I planted my feet and stood still, so as not to cause the floor to creak and alert anyone. There was no movement save the stars in their silent advance around the invisible pole.

Then I saw her. She was a dark figure moving through the snow toward the residence. She was making a beeline for the french doors, not near any other entrance. From upstairs I could see that she would leave footprints that would shout out to anyone looking that someone had been here. What was she doing? How could she not have foreseen this?

I had assumed that the safest course of action would be for her to enter and leave without my presence. More movement through the residence would mean more potential for noise, for disturbing the sleep of our father, and greater loss if two were apprehended than only one. But now I felt I had to go down to her, to warn her about the footprints. I had no idea what she might do about them, but she must be made aware.

Moving soundlessly down the stairs seemed to take forever. I wondered if it would be dawn before I got there. But it was still night, and she was already in the study when I entered. She was in the same place my father had been earlier, looking over a large map.

“The snow,” I said in a low voice.

“Yes.”

“Someone will see the footprints.”

“It will snow again. They’ll be gone by morning.”

How could she know that, when I’d been watching the moon and stars for hours? I had no choice  but to hope she was right.

I came to her side. “Why do you need a map?”

“I’ll be moving a lot. I might need to run. The more I know in advance, the better I can protect myself.”

I’d forgotten not to ask questions. Her answer didn’t help, but there was nothing I could know that would change anything. I looked at the map.

I could see right away our own location, far from any cities, on a river, with a stream that entered at just such an angle. I could see the woods, the highway I always avoided, the towns and cities down the road. I could see other roads and other landmarks. I had always thought of maps as a way to be somewhere other than where one is now; I’d preferred to let it be enough to know my feet were on the earth, to let my senses tell me directly what was to be known. But now I could see so much more. Suddenly I understood the value of a map. It could show the greater view, and how everything was woven together.

My sister began to trace with her finger, as if to memorize the features shown on the map. But she wasn’t memorizing roads or locations of cities. With her finger, she was following the waterways.

Then I saw it clearly. Water was everywhere, seemingly scattered at random, but in fact more conducively spaced than any grid of roads. Water was by every city and town, but also in the remote places, in the mountains. Water moved through and into places where no roads went. Rivers, streams, canals, all could be a way to get to any place, and an escape route no vehicle could follow. It was as if there were a hidden network already in place, so ordinary that no one could see it.

Whatever subterfuge my sister was engaging in, water was the key.

I gasped a little when I saw it, then watched wordlessly as she studied. Finally she nodded to herself, as if satisfied that she had acquired the necessary information. She wrapped herself in her cloak, pulling the hood over her chestnut locks.

A heavy snow was falling, and her footprints were already disappearing. I locked the door behind her.

The Cartographer’s Daughters, Part II

We continue the story of these sisters, which we began last week. To read Part III, click here.

girls in rain

Maybe our sisters walked in rain like this, some time in the past.

The next morning I began baking as soon as Mrs. Horton had finished the breakfast dishes. I baked biscuits, a double batch. I’d give some to my sister and keep some in the house, in case my father noticed I was making them and wanted some for himself.

The kitchen was long and had east-facing windows most of the length of the room. The sun was brash in my face as I worked. In this room I always felt exposed. Anyone could be watching me, seeing me select the well-worn cookbook that had been my mother’s, which only I used. They could see me measuring the flour twice, rolling out two dozen biscuits? For a household of three? I was habituated to avoid being in the light.

While the dough was baking, I gathered together some dried fruits, mostly plums, which we had in plenty, but which my father didn’t favor. But I put in a few of the peaches and black currants as well. Black walnuts he wouldn’t miss, as he found the flavor to be of lower quality than imported English walnuts, and always thought it a waste of time to gather and shell them every fall. By then the biscuits were done, so I lay the things in a back corner of the pantry for later.

Not wanting to present an air of purposefulness, I spent the remainder of the morning and midday quietly upstairs in my room, only coming down for a brief lunch.

In midafternoon I felt brave enough to fry some seed cakes, with pumpkin and sunflower seeds. They would last longer than the biscuits, and provide protein and fat on otherwise lean days. I hoped fervently there would be few such days.

While I was rummaging through the kitchen closet for tins and baskets which no one would miss, my father heard my activity and called from his study.

“Are you making tea?”

“Yes, Father.”

In a few moments I entered the study carrying a tray with a pot of tea, two biscuits, and a small bowl of plum jam. The room was lit only by the yellowy light of a lamp over the table, but I knew without seeing the smoothness of the heavily paneled walls. I knew before hearing the way my shoes made a klip sound on the floor which was muted to a thum as I moved across the antique Persian rug.

He was standing at the broad table, several maps spread in front of him. His flaxen hair fell over his face, obscuring his eyes. I walked past the table to set the tray on the desk, and paused a moment, nervous. Could he feel my heightened state? I walked around the desk to the heavy, forest green velvet curtains behind it. I had to paw at the curtains for a moment to find the break. Finally I slid my hand into the opening, letting in a sliver of snow-gray light. The sun had given way to clouds.

“Why don’t you ever open the curtains, to let in some light?” I’d never divulged to him how much safer I felt in darkness, where I might find places to hide.

“Of course you know the ultraviolet rays are damaging to the maps. I always keep the light as dim as is tolerable to work in.”

“Of course.” The lock was right by my hand, it would be easy to turn it. But in such quiet space, every gesture could be noticed. Would he hear the click of the heavy mechanism disengaging? I turned, scraping my foot on the mahogany floor, and turned the bolt at the same time, in one awkward motion. I faced my father, no doubt with guilt in my eyes, but he wasn’t looking. He’d never raised his gaze from his maps.

I came to the table to see what he was studying, but before I could catch more than a glimpse, he said curtly, “Thank you. You may go.”

***

At dusk I found her crouching to light a small fire under a rabbit on a spit. She took my offered basket, and lifted the linen which wrapped the foods. “This linen will make good bandages, if I happen to need any.” Then, “Ah, biscuits. I’ll have rabbit and watercress sandwiches on homemade biscuits. Diners in the finest restaurants in cities would be pleased to eat so well.”

Though we’d always had more than adequate means, our mother had taught us how to live well with little. Survival in the wilderness was not why I feared for my sister.

“The door is unlocked.”

“Good.”

“How is the canoe coming along?”

“It’s coming. I’ll finish it tomorrow, and leave by evening. The moon will be bright enough to travel in the night.”

I had so many thoughts, and feelings too. I wanted her to stay. I wanted to go with her. I was afraid, terribly afraid, for her to come to the house. I was afraid for her to be in the woods. I was afraid for her to be in transit. I wanted so much to know where she was going, what she was doing. She said she would change things, but how? And how would a canoe be part of that? But it was understood between us that the less I knew, the better for us both. I didn’t ask any of these questions, and she didn’t volunteer any information.

I stood there watching her for a while, tending her little fire, turning the rabbit. She fed the fire from the growing pile of chips she’d struck from the log. The aromas of cedar and meat rose up, and it felt like home. I couldn’t remember ever having felt at home. I wondered if it were something I had had, long ago, before memory set in.

The fire was now the only light. Seeing the shadows, I felt a deep foreboding. “I should go.”

She looked up. “Yes.”

“I’ll come tomorrow.”

She nodded, holding my gaze for a breath. Then I left.

The Cartographer’s Daughters Part I

When Rachel’s sister Melora read about Rachel’s book, she wondered if one of the characters were based on herself. We’ll let you guess which one she was hoping for. Sadly, Melora doesn’t appear in any form in Post Rock Limestone Caryatids. But the question inspired Rachel to write a dream she’d had once, which was about Melora, and she thinks she’s pleased with it. (Though one never knows with Rachel, she’s likely to changer her mind tomorrow).

This story is too long for a reasonable post, so we’re going to serialize it. For part II, click here.

Rachel tried to get a photo that would evoke woods at twilight; however, there aren't any woods readily available. She couldn't catch a shot she liked, especially as she was in a hurry to get on with feeding her children dinner. But I've decided to show you this picture of a large gaggle of geese who flew overhead in the process.

Rachel tried to get a photo that would evoke woods at twilight; however, there aren’t any woods readily available. She couldn’t catch a shot she liked, especially as she was in a hurry to get on with feeding her children dinner. But I’ve decided to show you this picture of a magnificent gaggle of geese who flew overhead in the process.

The Cartographer’s Daughters

The best time of day to walk was twilight. Wearing all black, I could blend in with the elongate forms of the trees, stark against the snow in the bareness of winter. No colors could deceive me. There were only black, white, and the velvety indigo blue of twilit shadows. I felt safest in the woods. I could readily see any person who might be present to watch me. The constant flux of weather and the wide openness rendered it impossible that there could be hidden surveillance, not everywhere I could possibly go, and I varied my path daily. I walked as much as possible out of sight lines from the stately residence, which rose out of the woods like a tasteful monument to civilization.

Not that I did anything that could call attention to myself; I never did. But I carried a basket on my arm, for useful herbs, edibles, small treasures that might present themselves, whose nature I would not know until I saw them. I prudently carried water and perhaps a biscuit or some dried fruit, though I knew the woods well and could never be lost there.

My father was a cartographer, but the earth was my home, and I had no need of maps.

As I walked, I was always listening. I heard the crunch of snow under my feet. I heard the chip chip of juncos, and patting of little wings on snow and air. I heard the occasional plot of a bit of snow falling from a twig to the white-blanketed earth. If I froze, stilling even my breath, I could hear between the thumps of my heartbeat the scritch of a mouse below the snow, or the flick of a dreaming squirrel’s tail in a hollow tree.

On this day I heard a new sound. Or rather a sound not heard in these woods for many years, but one I could almost remember having heard once. It was rhythmic, and emanating from deep away from the residence, in the low spot by the stream at its widest, just before it runs into the river. The sound was too rhythmic to be natural, and, like a hawk surveying his territory, I was compelled to investigate.

The woods were denser here, and I didn’t often come close to the water. But I followed the chunking sound, which grew louder as I pushed saplings out of my face and stepped over the sharp, dead stems of hemlock. I knew by now that someone was working wood, here, in the remote, far from any settlement. Finally I saw her. It was my sister.

She was standing atop a large drifted log, wielding an adze, her long cloak pushed back over her shoulders out of the way. I could see her breath puff out in time to the swinging of the tool.

At the sound of my thrashing through the underbrush, she looked up, smiled, and hopped lightly off the log, laying the adze carefully against it. Her booted feet stepped through icy mud as she met me in an embrace.

“I knew you’d find me here.”

“You shouldn’t be here. You’re in danger.”

She pulled back and looked at my face. Her smile flickered and faded, but her eyes remained bright. “It can’t be helped. I’ll work as fast as I can, then move on. I know how to lie low.”

I grimaced reprovingly. “I can hear you half a mile away.”

“Should I burn it out instead? The smoke would be visible for miles. Besides, who’s in a half-mile range, who would notice?”

She had a point. Our father certainly wouldn’t take notice of a far-off noise, if he were to leave the house. More likely he’d be in his study with the maps, oblivious to his enemy so close, on his own property. The only other person within a dozen miles was the housekeeper, Mrs. Horton, and she was so deaf, wild coyotes could howl by her bed and she’d sleep undisturbed.

“It would be faster to make a kayak,” I said.

“I don’t have skins for it, and a tarp wouldn’t be durable enough. I’m going to be on water for a while. It’ll have to be a dugout. I guessed there would be a log around here, after those floods last spring, and fortunately, I was right.”

So wherever she’d been, she’d been following the weather. Where we were standing would have been underwater last spring, and this log had washed down then. I’d known about it, stranded after the water went down, though I hadn’t expected any particular use to come of it, not for humans, at least. But it had been waiting here for her all these months.

“It’s been so long since . . .” I couldn’t finish.

“Yes. But things will change. That’s what I’m doing this for.”

I knew not to ask her to tell me more. It could only increase the danger for both of us. “How can I help you?”

She nodded. “You can bring me some food. Of course I can fend for myself, but the less I have to stop to forage or hunt, the safer I’ll be. Foods that can be transported, that won’t spoil, that don’t need cooking.”

“Surely I could do more for you than that?”

She hesitated. “Yes. There’s one other thing. I need to get into the house.”

I froze. My heart even stopped beating. “There must be another way.” And then it beat again. “Whatever you need, let me bring it to you here.”

“It would be neither feasible nor safe. What I need is for you to find a way to unlock the French doors to Father’s study. I’ll come in late in the night.”

“But–” She knew all the objections. I wasn’t allowed in his study. He would notice anything amiss. He spent most of his waking hours there. If she were caught, what it would mean for her, for both of us– she knew all the objections, yet still she asked. The need was that great. “Yes. I’ll find a way.”

“But tonight I must rest. I’ll continue my work here tomorrow, and come tomorrow night after midnight.”

For the first time I noticed the hollows around her eyes, or was it only the shadows deepening around us?

“Yes. I’ll come tomorrow.”

We embraced again, longer this time. I clung to her like a child, feeling the strength of her heartbeat against my own, wanting it to sustain me as it had in the past.

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