Blackwood farm, p.10

Blackwood Farm, page 10

 part  #9 of  The Vampire Chronicles Series

 

Blackwood Farm
 



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Chapter10

 

  10

  "IN THE WEEKS that followed I felt better. I don't think you can feel sheer panic continuously. Your mental system breaks down. It comes in waves, and you have to tell yourself, well, this will end.

  "I went back to a leaden misery that was more easily manageable, and my mind was sometimes flooded with memories of Sweetheart, of her singing, and of her cooking, and of little things, unimportant and fragmentary things, that she had said, or would say, and then a terror would follow, as if someone had taken me bodily and put me out on a high window ledge nine stories up above a street.

  "Meantime I hadn't forgotten what Patsy had called me -- sissy, Little Lord Fauntleroy, queer. I knew perfectly well from the realm of television and movie watching, as well as books, what that meant, and I had a deepening inevitable adolescent suspicion that that characterization was true.

  "Understand, I was too good a Catholic to experiment with sexual stimulation when I was alone, and no good opportunities had come up for experimenting romantically with anybody else. I didn't think people went blind from self-stimulation, but the contemplation of it filled me with a Catholic shame.

  "But I had had wet dreams. And though I'd awakened disturbed and humiliated and cut them short, repressing the memory of what really drove them, I had a deep suspicion that they were about men.

  "No wonder Pops had offered two hundred grand to Patsy for a baby. He thought I'd never marry, never have children. He knew from looking at me. He knew from the way I couldn't hammer a nail into wood that I was queer. What had he thought about me raving over supper about movies like The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffmann? He knew I was queer. Hell, probably everybody who'd ever seen me knew.

  "Goblin knew. Goblin was waiting. Goblin was a profound mystery of invisible tentacles and pulsing power. Goblin was queer!

  "And what about the palpable embrace of Goblin, and the way that sometimes this embrace sent a cool delicious chill through all my skin, as though someone were stirring the hairs everywhere on my body and telling my body to wake up?

  "There was something so eternally intimate about Goblin's attentions that they had to be sinful.

  "Whatever the case, I did nothing but brood about it, and try to keep busy, and the panic grew in me, rising and falling, and it began to come at its very worst at twilight each day.

  "Now that summer was coming and the days were longer, I knew the waves of panic longer -- sometimes from about four p. m. till eight. There came that image to my mind of me putting a gun to my head and the thought that the bullet would make the pain end. Then I thought of what that would do to Pops and Aunt Queen and I put it out of my mind.

  "It was around that period that I made everybody turn on certain lights at four o'clock, come hell or high water, and whether we had any guests at Blackwood Manor or not.

  "I was becoming the Lord of Blackwood Manor -- the Little Lord Fauntleroy, I suppose.

  "Each evening, like a creature driven, I turned on classical music in the parlors and the dining room, and then I checked on the flower arrangements and the placement of furniture and went about straightening out all the pictures on the walls; and, as the panic went away a little, I sat in the kitchen with Pops.

  "But Pops didn't talk anymore. He sat in a straight-back chair, staring out the screen door at nothing. It was awful to be with Pops. His eyes were more and more empty. He wasn't snapping back the way that Big Ramona had snapped back. There was no consolation I could give or take.

  "Then one night, when the panic was on me heavy and it was mixed up with gloom and fear of being queer and mostly with gloom, I said to Pops:

  " 'Do you think Patsy will get pregnant again just to sell you the baby?¡¯

  "This was a very uncommon kind of thing for me to say to Pops. Pops and I spoke in rather formal terms with each other. And one of the things we had never done was discuss Patsy.

  "He answered in a quiet flat voice, 'No. It was just something of the moment. I figured I could save that one. I thought that that was something to do, to bring up that one. But the truth is, I don't even think she could carry one to term if she wanted to. She's gotten rid of too many, and that makes a woman's womb weak. ¡¯

  "I was amazed at his candor.

  "I wondered why I was alive. Maybe he'd given her money to carry me. But I didn't say anything. I'd rather be afraid of it than know. And Pops' voice had sounded too dead and metallic. I wasn't easy with Pops. I felt sorrow for him. Neither of us said another word about it.

  "And then at last -- at last -- it was eight o'clock and I could sit down on the bedside with Big Ramona and she'd brush her long white hair and slowly braid it and I'd be safe, safe in the shadows, and we would talk, and then lie down to sleep.

  "One afternoon, around three p. m. , I was sitting out on the front steps of the house, looking down the long avenue of pecan trees at the changing of the light. It was a Tuesday, I'm almost sure, and we had no company, the last of the weekend guests having gone away, and the guests for the coming weekend not yet arrived.

  "I hated the stillness. I saw that image of the gun at my head. What could I do, I thought, to stop thinking of putting that pistol to my head? It was too late to go out fishing in the pirogue, and I didn't want to get all dirty in the swamps anyway, and everything -- absolutely every single thing -- was done in the house.

  "Goblin was nowhere about. Goblin had learned to shy away from me when I got in these dark moods, when his influence to get me to do things was at its lowest. And though he would probably have come had I called him, I didn't want to see him. When I thought of putting the gun to my head, I wondered if one bullet would kill us both.

  "No, I didn't want the company of Goblin.

  "Then it occurred to me that I had not inflicted myself as Lord of the Manor on the attic; the attic was in fact an undiscovered territory, and I was too old to be forbidden to go up there, and I didn't need to ask anybody. So I went inside and up the stairs.

  "Now, at three o'clock there was plenty of light coming in the dormer windows of the attic, and I could see all the wicker furniture -- whole sets of it, it seemed to me, with couches, chairs, et cetera -- and the various trunks.

  "I inspected first a wardrobe trunk that had belonged to Gravier Blackwood and was now standing open with its little hangers and drawers all vacant and clean.

  "Then there were suitcases with old clothes in them that did not seem to be all that fascinating, and more trunks, all stamped with the name of Lorraine McQueen. New things. What were they to me? Surely there was something older, something that had belonged perhaps to Manfred's sainted wife, Virginia Lee.

  "Then I came upon a big canvas steamer trunk with leather straps to it, so big that the lid came almost to my waist, and I was already six feet tall. The lid was open a little, and the clothes were bulging out of it, the whole smelling strongly of mold, and the label on the top of the trunk read in faded ink 'Rebecca Stanford,' with the address of Blackwood Farm.

  " 'Rebecca Stanford,' I said aloud. Who could this be? Very distinctly, I heard a rustling noise behind me, or was it ahead of me? I stopped and listened. It could have been rats, of course, but we really didn't have rats in Blackwood Manor. Then it seemed the rustling was a conversation between a man and a woman and someone arguing. . . Just doesn't happen. I heard those words very distinctly, and then the woman's voice. . . Believe in him, he will do it!

  "She had pasted on the label, I thought. She'd packed her trunk and pasted on the label. She'd been waiting for him to come get her. Miss Rebecca Stanford.

  "But where did all these thoughts come from?

  "Then the noise came again. It had a rather deliberate sound to it. I felt the hair stand up on my neck. I liked the excitement. I loved it. It was infinitely better than depression and misery, than thoughts of guns and death.

  "I thought, A ghost is going to come. Voices. No, a rustling. It will be stronger than the apparition of William. It
will be stronger than the vaporous ghosts that hover over the cemetery. It's going to come because of this trunk. Maybe it will be Aunt Camille, who has been seen so often on the stairs, coming up to the attic.

  " 'Who are you, Rebecca Stanford?' I whispered. Silence. I opened the trunk. A mess of clothing was inside it and mildew had grown all over it, and there were other articles all tumbled with the fabrics -- an old silver-backed hairbrush, a silver-edged comb, bottles of perfume in which the contents had dried up and a silver-backed mirror, all splotched and darkened and no good anymore.

  "I lifted up some of the mass of clothing so that the items tumbled down into the lower portion of the trunk, and there I unearthed a mass of jewelry -- pearls and brooches and cameos -- all thrown among the dresses as if no one had cared about them, which was a puzzle to me because I knew when I held them that the pearls were real; and as for the cameos, I lifted them out one by one and saw that they were fine little works, specimens Aunt Queen would like very much, and all of them -- all three -- had gold frames, and good contrast to them, being made out of dark shell.

  "Why were they here, so neglected, so forgotten, I wondered. Who had just heaped them here amid dresses that were molding, and when had such a thing been done?

  "The noise came again, a rustling sound, and another soft sound like a footstep that made me pivot and face the attic door.

  "There stood Goblin, glaring at me with alarm in his face, and very emphatically he shook his head and mouthed the word No.

  " 'But I want to know who she was,' I said to him. He disappeared rather slowly, as though he were weak and frightened, and I felt the air grow cool as it often did after his disappearances, and I wondered why he had been so weak.

  "By now, you can guess that I was so used to Goblin that I wasn't all that interested in him anymore. I felt superior to him. At this moment, I didn't think much about him at all.

  "I set to work laying out the entire contents of the trunk upon the top of another trunk beside it. It was clear that the contents had just been heaped inside, helter-skelter, and all except the cameos and the pearls was a total loss.

  "There were beautiful old mutton-sleeve dresses, dresses that went back surely to the days of long skirts, and there were old rotted lace blouses, two or more with fine shell cameos attached at the throat, and what must have been silk gowns. Some items fell apart in my hands. Cameos, all 'Rebecca at the Well. ¡¯

  " 'So you loved just that one theme,' I said out loud. 'Were you named for it?¡¯

  "I heard the rustling again, and I felt something brush me, soft, as if a cat had brushed my neck. Then nothing. Nothing but the quiet and the dying afternoon around us, and a kind of dread I had to escape.

  "There was nothing better than to explore this trunk.

  "There were slippers that were dried up now and gnarled as if they were driftwood. An open box of powder had been tossed into the contents, and it still had a bit of sweet fragrance after all this time. A couple of perfume bottles were broken, and there was a small leather book with lots of pages of writing, but all of the writing had almost faded away. It looked like purple cobwebs.

  "The mildew had gotten to everything, ruining all this finery and in some places covering the wool garments with a slimy blackness, making them a total loss.

  " 'But this is sheer waste,' I said out loud. I gathered up the pearl necklaces, of which there were three, and all of the five cameos, including two I had to take off the old blouses, and I went downstairs with these treasures and sought out Jasmine, who was washing some bell peppers for supper at the kitchen sink.

  "I told her what I'd found and laid out the jewelry on the kitchen table.

  " 'Well, you shouldn't have gone up there!' she declared. Much to my surprise, she got ferocious. 'You just run wild these days, you know it? Why didn't you ask me before you went up there, Taw-quin Blackwood?' And on and on she ranted in that vein.

  "I was too busy looking at the cameos. 'All the same theme,' I said again, ' " Rebecca at the Well," and all so very pretty. Why did they get thrown up there in a trunk with all those things? Don't you think Aunt Queen would want these things?' Of course Aunt Queen had at least ten cameos of 'Rebecca at the Well,' I knew that much, though I didn't know how she had come by the first of them, and if I had known I would have been more engrossed than I already was.

  "At supper I told Pops all about it and showed him the loot, but he was no more interested in this than in anything else, and while Jasmine read me the riot act about meddling where I didn't belong, Pops just said in his dead voice:

  " 'You can have anything you find up there,' which made Jasmine quiet down at once.

  "At bedtime, I gave the pearls to Big Ramona, but she said she didn't feel easy taking them, that there was a story to them and all the things that were in that trunk.

  " 'You save them for some day when you get married,' she said. 'And you give those pearls to your new wife. You have them blessed by the priest first. Remember. Don't you give them away unless they're blessed by the priest. ¡¯

  " 'I've never heard of such a thing,' I told her. 'A pearl necklace blessed by the priest?¡¯

  "I begged her to tell me the story -- I knew she knew things -- but she wouldn't, and she said she didn't remember it real well anyway, which I knew was a fib, and pretty soon she had me saying our evening prayers.

  "It was her bright idea that night that we should say an entire Rosary, and we did it, meditating on the Sorrowful Mysteries, and then we made an Act of Contrition as well. All this we offered up for the Poor Souls in Purgatory, and then we said the famous prayer to the Archangel Michael to defend us in battle against the Evil One, and then we went to sleep.

  "Next day, I wrote to Aunt Queen about the discovery, and I told her that I had put the cameos with her collection in the parlor showcase, and that the pearls were in her dressing table, if she should want them. I asked if she would please tell me the story that Big Ramona wouldn't tell. Who was Rebecca Stanford? How did her things get in our house?

  "I went back up and searched all of the attic. Of course there were wonderful items -- old art deco lamps and tables and overstuffed chairs and couches that were rotting, and even a couple of typewriters of the ancient black species that weigh a ton. Other bundles of old clothes appeared mundane and fit for the rag pile, and there was an ancient vacuum cleaner that ought to have been donated to a museum.

  "As for the wicker furniture, I had all of it brought down to be restored, pending Pops' approval, which was granted with a silent nod. The Shed Men were happy to have a new project, so that went all right.

  "I didn't find anything else that was really interesting. Rebecca Stanford was the mystery of the moment, and when I left the attic for the last time I took the leather-bound book I'd found in her things, and there came again that uneasy and exciting feeling. I saw Goblin in the doorway and again he shook his head.

  "That it banished despair, this excited feeling -- that's what I liked.

  "The following day, Thursday, was another quiet one, an in-between day, and the panic started in on me, and after lunch I went outside to walk the avenue of the pecan trees and feel the crunch of the pea gravel under my feet.

  "The light was golden and I hated it because it was already failing, and the dread was coming on me thick.

  "When I reached the front steps I sat down with the leather-bound book I'd found in Rebecca Stanford's trunk, and tried to make out the writing inside.

  "It didn't take long to decipher the name on the first page, and to my surprise it was Camille Blackwood. As for the rest of the writing, it was pretty near illegible but I could see that it was verse.

  "A book of poems by Camille Blackwood! And it was Camille's ghost that was always seen going up the attic stairs! I ran to tell all this to Jasmine, who was having a cigarette on the back steps. And again, there came the tirade.

  " 'Tarquin, you leave that stuff alone! You put that book of poems in Miss Queen's ro
om until she comes home!¡¯

  " 'Now, listen, Jasmine, what do you think the ghost of Camille has been looking for? And you've seen her ghost same as I have. And why are you telling me to leave this book of poems alone? Don't you see, she lost it, or it got put in the wrong place, and you're acting like this isn't momentous when it is. ¡¯

  " 'And for who is this momentous!' she fired back. 'For you? Did you see Camille's ghost on the stairs?¡¯

  " 'Twice I did and you know it,' I answered.

  " 'So how are you going to tell her you found the book, I'd like to know. You going to tell your Guardian Angel when you say your night prayers?¡¯

  " 'Not a half-bad idea,' I said. 'You've seen that ghost, you know you have. ¡¯

  " 'Now you listen to me,' she said, 'I never saw that ghost, I just said I did. I said it for the tourists. I've never seen a ghost in my life. ¡¯

  " 'I know that's not true,' I declared. 'I think you've even seen Goblin. There are times when you just stare at him, and I know it. You know, Jasmine, you don't fool me one bit. ¡¯

  " 'You watch your tone with me, boy,' she said, and I knew that there was nothing more to be got from her.

  "She just told me again that I was to put the book away. But I had other plans for it. I knew that if I held up each page to a halogen light I could probably make out a little of the poem on it. But it was not enough. I didn't have the patience or the stamina for that kind of detail.

  "I put the book upstairs on my desk and went back down to sit on the front steps again, hoping some guest would drive up and something would change in the morbid miserable spell of the late afternoon. The panic was coming on strongly, and I said bitterly, 'Dear God, I would do anything to prevent this! Anything. ' And I closed my eyes.

  " 'Where are you, Goblin?' I asked, but he didn't answer me any more than God had, and then it seemed to me that the heat of the spring day lifted somewhat and a cooling breeze seemed to come from the swamps. Now, cooling breezes never came from that way, or at least not usually, and I turned to look down there to the far right of the house, to the old cemetery and the hulking cypress trees beyond. The swamp looked as dark and as mysterious as ever, hovering over the cemetery and rising up black and featureless against the sky.

  "A woman was coming up the sloping lawn from that direction, a petite woman, walking with big deliberate steps while with her right hand she gathered up the edge of her dark skirts.

  " 'Very pretty,' I said out loud. 'I knew you would be. ' And then the strangeness of my words struck me, Who was I talking to, and I felt Goblin pulling on my left hand. When I turned to look at him a sort of shock passed through me, and he flickered, shaking his head violently No, and then he was gone. It was like a lightbulb when it burns out.

  "To my right, the pretty young woman was still coming on, and I could see her smiling now, and that she wore a lovely old-fashioned outfit, a high-neck mutton-sleeve lace blouse with a cameo, and a tight-waisted skirt of dark taffeta to the ground. She had high-set breasts and full voluptuous hips, and they swayed as she walked. What a dish she was. Her brown hair was all pulled back from her face, revealing a serene hairline around her temples and forehead, and she had large cheerful dark eyes.

  "She finally made it to the level part of the lawn where the house stands, and she gave a little sigh as if the walk all the way up from the edge of the swamp had been hard.

  " 'But they didn't bury you down there in that cemetery, did they?' I asked her. We were the best of friends.

  " 'No,' she answered in a soft sweet voice as she came on and sat beside me on the steps. She wore a pair of black-and-white cameo earrings dangling from her pierced lobes, and they shivered with the subtle motion of her head as she smiled.

  " 'And you're as handsome as everybody said,' she told me. 'You're a man already. Why are you so worried?' -- so gentle -- 'You need a pretty girl like me to show you what you can do?¡¯

  " 'But who told you I was worried?' I asked her.

  "She was just gorgeous, or so it seemed to me, and she wasn't just endowed by nature with an admirable face and large eyes, she had a pertness to her, a freshness, a quick refinement. Surely there was a corset shaping her little waist, and the ruffles of her blouse were stiffly ironed and flawless. Her taffeta skirt was a rich chocolate brown color that glinted in the sunlight, and she had tiny feet in fancy lace-up boots.

  " 'I just know you've been worried,' she answered. 'I know lots of things. You might say I know everything that goes on. Things don't really go in a straight line the way living people think. Everything is always happening all the time. ' She reached over and clasped my right hand with both of hers, and I felt the shock again, electric, dangerous, and delicious chills ran all over me, and I bent forward and I went to kiss her lips.

  "Teasingly, she drew back just a little, and then, with her breast pressed against my arm, she said, 'But let's go inside. I want you to light the lamps. ¡¯

  "That made perfect sense. I hated the long shadows of the afternoon. Light the lamps. Light the world.

  " 'I hate the shadows too,' she said.

  "We rose together, though I was faintly dizzy and I didn't want her to know it. We went inside the cool and silence of the house. I could just barely hear the sound of running water in the kitchen. Four p. m. Dinner not for another two hours, and how curious the house looked! What a curious fragrance it had -- of leather and crushed flowers, of moth balls and wax.

  "The living room was full of different couches and chairs with frames that were somber and black and shiny, real Victorian furniture, I thought, and there stood another antique piano, far older than the one that had been there before. It was a square grand. The draperies were a heavy midnight blue velvet, and the lace panels were full of gracefully drawn peacocks. The windows were open. How pretty, the breeze against the lace peacocks. How perfect, I thought.

  "A thrilling ecstasy took hold of me, a certainty of the pure beauty of what I saw and the irrelevance of all else.

  "When I looked over at the dining room I realized that it too was altered, that the draperies were a peach silk with gold fringe on them, and that the table was oval, with a vase of flowers in the center. Fresh roses, natural garden roses on short stems, petals lying on the waxed table. Not cold magnificent florist roses. Just roses that could make your hands bleed. Drops of water on the round vase.

  " 'Oh, but it's delightful, isn't it?' she said to me. 'I picked that fabric for the draperies myself. I've done so many things. Small things. Big things. I cut those roses from the back garden. I laid out the rose garden. There was no rose garden before I came. You want to see the rose garden?¡¯

  "A faint protest voiced itself in my mind that there was no rose garden on Blackwood Farm, that the rose garden was long gone for the swimming pool, but this seemed incomprehensible and unimportant, and to have mentioned such a thing seemed rude.

  "I turned to tell her I couldn't hold off of kissing her, and I bent down and closed my mouth over hers. Ah. I never in my dreams felt that. I never tasted that. I never knew that. I felt the heat of her body through her clothes. It was so intense, I almost came. I put my arms around her and lifted her, and I put my knee against her skirts and pushed against her sex, and I put my tongue into her mouth.

  "When she drew back, it took all my self-control to let her put her hand firmly on my chest. 'Light the lamps for me, Quinn,' she said. 'You know, the oil lamps. Light them. And then I'll make you the happiest young man there ever was. ¡¯

  " 'Oh, yes,' I said. I knew right where they were. We always kept oil lamps at Blackwood Manor because, being out in the country like we were, we never knew when the electricity was going to go out, and so I found the oil lamp in the sideboard and I lifted it up and put it on the dining table. I raised the glass shade and lighted the wick with the cigarette lighter I always carried just for such things.

  " 'Put it on the window, darling,' she said, 'yes, right there, on the sill, and let's go into the p
arlor and light the lamp there too. ¡¯

  "I did what she told me, putting the lamp onto the windowsill. 'But that looks dangerous,' I said, 'with it under the lace panels and so near to the draperies. ¡¯

  " 'Don't you worry, darling,' she said. She led me briskly across the hallway and into the parlor. I took the lamp out of the high Chinese chest between the two hall doorways. After it was lighted, I put it on the windowsill in the same manner as I had done across the hall. Now, that harp, that harp was the same, the big gold harp, I thought, but everything else was changed.

  "This was the strangest dizziness. I didn't dare to think of having her, of her finding out that I didn't know how.

  " 'You're my darling,' she said. 'Don't stare at the pretty furniture, it doesn't matter. ' But I couldn't help it because only a moment ago -- when I'd taken the lamp from the chest -- it had been familiar and now it was different again, all those violet satin black-framed chairs, and there came a sudden chorus of voices, of people saying the Rosary!

  "Candlelight flickered on the ceiling. Something was wrong, and terribly terribly sad.

  "I was off balance. I was about to fall. I turned around. The sound of the voices was an inundation. And the room was full of people -- people in black, seated on chairs and couches and in little gold folding chairs -- and a man was sobbing.

  "Others were crying. Who was the little girl who stared at me?

  "There was a coffin lying before the front windows, an open coffin, and the air was heavy with flowers, drenched with flowers, the waxy smell of lilies, and then up out of this coffin there rose a blond-haired woman in a blue dress. In one swift gesture, as if she rode an invisible tide, she had come up out of the coffin and stepped down on the polished floor.

  " 'Lynelle,' I cried out. But it wasn't. It was Virginia Lee. How could I not know the lovely little face of Virginia Lee! Our blessed Virginia Lee. The little girl let out a baleful cry, 'Mamma!' How could a woman rise from a coffin?

  " 'You leave this house alone!' she cried, and she reached out in a perfect fury at the woman who stood with me, her white hands almost touching her, but the woman at my side drove her back with a great hissing sound, a flash and sputtering, and the figure of Virginia Lee, our blessed sweet Virginia Lee, our household saint, the figure of Virginia Lee, and the coffin, and the bawling child, the mourners -- all of it blinkered and went out.

  "The chorus of voices died away, as if it were a wave on the beach being sucked back into the ocean. Hail Mary Full of Grace and then nothing. Breeze and the flicker of the oil lamp in the shadows, and that smell of burning oil.

  "I was too dizzy to stand. She clung to me.

  "The silence crashed around us, and I wanted to say something, I wanted to ask something; I tried to form the thought, Virginia Lee had been here, but I was holding the woman again and kissing her -- and I was so hard it was painful, I couldn't keep it back much longer, it was worse than waking from a wet dream -- and saying, 'No, I won't let it go on, I can't do that. That's a mortal sin. ' But she said,

  " 'Quinn, my darling Quinn. Quinn, you are my destiny. ' It was so inexpressibly tender. 'Take me to my room. ¡¯

  "Smoke was rising behind the thick lace. A woman was crying softly, brokenheartedly. The child's sobs came like coughs. But the woman beside me was smiling.

  " 'I'm light, I'm little,' she said. 'See my small waist? See how small I am. Carry me up the stairs. ¡¯

  "Round and round and up and up. You can't fall down from dizziness if you are going up and up. Never in my life had I felt such exultation. Never had I felt so strong.

  "We were in a bedroom, and though the configuration of the walls and the archway made it seem that it was my room, it wasn't, it was hers, and we were lying under her lace canopy and the bed was airy and the breeze was coming in from the windows and the lace was moving in the air.

  " 'Now, my big boy,' she said as she opened my pants and pushed to get them down and lifted up her skirts. Her skin was hot. 'It's perfect now. ' I slid inside of her! First time! The heat, the pressure, the tight sheath. I came in her, I flooded into her, I came, and felt her shivering and pushing her hips up against me, and her sex holding me, and then she was dying back, spent, with a short gasping laugh coming from her lips.

  "I lay back. It didn't matter, the smell of smoke, the sight of it. It didn't matter, people rushing. She turned to me, and, rising up on her elbow, she said,

  " 'Find what's left of me out there, Quinn. Find the island. Find what they did to me. ' How passionate and exquisite she was, how wronged and frail. The cameo earrings shivered beside her delicate face. I touched her ear. I touched the place where the gold pierced it. I touched the handsome black-and-white cameo at her throat.

  " 'Rebecca,' I said. Beyond her stood Goblin shaking his head No. Goblin was so vivid, Goblin was using all his power.

  " 'Do that for me,' she said. 'Do that and I'll come back to you, Quinn. And it will be sweet, always so sweet. I was a creature born to make others happy. That's what I believe in, Quinn. I've given you your first time, Quinn. Don't ever forget me. To give pleasure. That's all I've ever tried to do. ¡¯

  "The cameo at her throat, it was so like those in Aunt Queen's collection yet it was different. But all of this made sense. She'd died out there wearing this cameo. Yes. I reached out to touch her soft brown hair.

  " 'Tawquin, Tawquin, Taw-quin,' Jasmine shouted. She was running up the steps. I could feel it, the vibration of the floorboards.

  "I was alone.

  "I sat up. My pants were open. The semen was all over my jeans and on the bedspread. I saw to myself immediately, and then, grabbing for a wad of paper tissue from the nightstand, I wiped up the evidence and stood staring at Jasmine as she came into the room.

  " 'You crazy boy,' Jasmine cried. 'Why did you put those lamps on the windowsills? Are you stupid? You set the curtains on fire! What was going on in your mind?¡¯

  "I flew into action. On fire! Blackwood Manor! Never. But she grabbed my arm as I tried to pass her.

  " 'We put it out!' she said. 'Why did you do it?¡¯

  "It could have been a disaster.

  "As it was, Lolly and Big Ramona, with the help of the Shed Men, replaced the burnt lace panels that afternoon. The heavy draperies were all right. They hadn't caught.

  "I was in a state of terror. I sat numb in my room. I hadn't answered a single question. Goblin had come around. Goblin sat in the other chair on the other side of the fireplace and wore a worried look on his face. The computer switched itself on. But I wouldn't go to it. I didn't want him to take my hand. I didn't have answers for him.

  "Finally, in pure weariness of his being there and staring at me, I said, 'Why did she come? Where did she come from?¡¯

  "He couldn't answer. He was confused.

  "I went to the computer and let him take my left hand. He tapped out: 'Rebecca was very bad. Burn down the house. Evil Rebecca. ¡¯

  "I tapped out: 'Tell me something I don't know, like where did she come from?¡¯

  "Long silence. Nothing. I went back to brooding in my chair.

  "Over supper, with Pops, Jasmine, Lolly and Big Ramona, I told them all pretty much what had happened. I told them the erotic part of it, that the ghost and I had been intimate. I tried to describe how very 'real' it had all seemed, and how reasonable to light those lamps as Rebecca had wanted, and I told them the things Rebecca said.

  "I showed them a cameo that I had found in the attic trunk, one that I'd put in the case in the living room, one that had belonged to Rebecca Stanford, no doubt.

  " 'Rebecca at the Well,' don't you see? And she was named Rebecca. Who was she, why did she come?¡¯

  "I felt a sudden dizziness. I looked down at the cameo on the kitchen table. It seemed I heard her saying something to me or I was remembering something. I tried to clear my head. I tried to remember. I strained to remember: Died out there with the cameo on, died out there. I shivered all over. So many pretty lace
blouses. That's what he had always liked, white lace.

  "I tried to talk clearly. I told them what she said about me finding the island, and the promise that she drew from me, that I would find 'what was left of her' out there.

  "Pops looked as grave as ever when he spoke. His voice was listless. 'Don't go looking for that island. You can pretty damn well gauge that by now that island's gone. The swamp's swallowed it, and if you see this damned ghost again, you make the Sign of the Cross. ¡¯

  " 'That's what you should have done, all right,' said Big Ramona, 'and she wouldn't have had any power because she came from Hell. ¡¯

  " 'But how could she get out of Hell to come to me?' I asked.

  " 'Those cameos of hers,' said Jasmine, 'you go put them back in the attic. Put everything back in that trunk just the way it was. ¡¯

  " 'It's too late for that,' said Pops softly. 'Just don't let her get you again. ¡¯

  "We sat there in silence. Then Big Ramona was boiling milk for our caf¨¦ au lait and it smelled good. I remember that, the smell of that hot milk.

  "I just realized that Lolly was all dressed up because she was going out with her boyfriend, who was always trying to marry her and lure her away but never succeeded. She looked like a Hindu beauty, Lolly. And Jasmine, Jasmine in her plain shirtwaist dress of red silk was smoking in the kitchen, which was rare.

  "The hot milk went into the coffee cups. I looked down into the steam.

  " 'Everybody believes me,' I said. 'You all believe me. ¡¯

  "Pops said to Jasmine, 'Tell him. ¡¯

  " 'Tell me what?' I asked.

  "Jasmine drew on her cigarette and crushed it out in her plate. Then she lit another one, just like that. 'It was Goblin,' she said, 'who came in here and pointed and carried on about the curtains burning. It was Goblin, in a flash' -- she snapped her fingers -- 'as big as life. ¡¯

  " 'Knocked the plate out of her hand,' said Lolly.

  "Jasmine nodded. 'Knocked a plate off the drainboard there, too. ¡¯

  "I was speechless. I was overwhelmed. All my life these very people had insisted Goblin didn't exist, or I shouldn't be talking to Goblin, or Goblin was my subconscious, or Goblin was just an imaginary playmate, and now they were saying these things. I had no answer. I felt amazement more than anything else.

  " 'How could that creature knock that plate off the drainboard?' asked Pops.

  " 'I'm telling you, it happened,' said Jasmine. 'I was rinsing the dishes in the sink, and that plate went crash, and then, when I turned, there he was, and he was pointing to the door, and he knocked the plate out of my hand. "

  "Everybody went quiet.

  " 'And this is why you believe me?' I asked. 'Because you saw Goblin with your own eyes?¡¯

  " 'I'm not saying I believe one word of what you said,' Jasmine fired back. 'I'm just saying I saw Goblin. That's all I have to say. ¡¯

  " 'You know who that Rebecca was, don't you?' I asked, glancing around at everyone. Nobody said a word.

  " 'I'm going to have the priest out here,' said Pops in the same lifeless fashion in which he'd said everything else. 'I'm going to get Fr. Mayfair here. This is just too many ghosts, and I don't care if one of them was Virginia Lee. ¡¯

  " 'And you, you idiot boy,' said Big Ramona, 'stop glorying in the fact that everybody believes you and get it straight in your head that you nearly burned down this house. ¡¯

  " 'That's the damned truth,' said Jasmine. 'I'm not saying I don't believe you saw this creature, this thing, this woman, but Mamma's right, you damned near burnt down Blackwood Manor. You set the damned place on fire. ¡¯

  " 'Look, I know that,' I said defensively. I got real defensive. 'But who was she? Why'd she want to burn down this house? Did she die out there on the island? That has to be it. ¡¯

  "Pops raised his hand for silence. 'Doesn't matter who she was. If she did die out there, there's nothing left of her. And you do what I tell you about making the Sign of the Cross. ¡¯

  " 'Don't you ever be caught up by her again,' said Lolly.

  "And on and on it went for a half hour, them castigating me and excoriating me and everything else in the book.

  "When I left the kitchen, I was in a sort of daze. Memories of being with her were coming back to me and I didn't dare tell the Kitchen Committee. I just wanted out.

  "I went into the parlor, maybe to convince myself that it was the parlor I knew and not that strange apparition, and I found myself looking at the portrait of Manfred Blackwood. So distinguished. So much authority in his bulldog face. It is amazing, the varieties of beauty. His huge mournful eyes, his flattened nose, his jutting chin and turned-down mouth all seemed harmonious and silently grand. I found myself talking to him, murmuring to him that he knew who that Rebecca Stanford was, and I would find out.

  " 'Why didn't you come to try to stop her?' I asked him, watching the play of light on the portrait. 'Why did it have to be Virginia Lee?¡¯

  "I went into the dining room and looked up at the portrait of Virginia Lee. I had seen her, vital, in motion, I had heard her voice, I had seen her small blue eyes blazing with anger and outrage. The dizziness came again. I welcomed it, straining to catch the mumbled voices that were maddeningly beyond my hearing: Mean to my children. Crying, brokenhearted. I'm afraid I'll die and someone will be mean to my children. The chorus of the Rosary came from the living room. She was crying. So mean to my poor children.

  " 'Virginia Lee,' I said. 'I didn't mean to do it. ' But only the silence came back at me, and her portrait was just a portrait, and there were no more prayers. I was struggling to remember things that hadn't happened. I was sleepy all over. I had to lie down.

  "When I reached my room I was utterly exhausted. I cleaned up the bedspread as best I could with a wet washcloth, and then I flopped down and went into a strange half sleep. I felt myself falling out of consciousness.

  "Rebecca was talking to me. The room was her room again, and she explained again that things did not happen in a straight line. Everything was happening all the time. She was always here. I grow no older. I never escape. I wanted to ask her what she meant, but some arbitrary darkness crept in, and I turned over and fell into a deep sweet state somewhere between sleep and wakefulness, in which my body enjoyed its exhaustion and knew it was exhausted from having spent itself sexually, and she and her strange talk were all gone.

  "I was deliciously drowsy when suddenly I realized Pops was in this room. Pops was standing at the foot of the bed.

  "Pops started to talk to me in his dull, flat voice:

  " 'All your life you've talked of ghosts and spirits, of Goblin, and seeing shades down there in the cemetery, and now this thing has come either into our house or into your imagination, I honestly don't know which. But you have got to fight for your mind. You have got to fight for some direction of your brilliance, you, at the age of eighteen, have got to determine some ambition, and that ambition must never be clouded by these ghosts. ¡¯

  "I sat up out of respect for him, and he went on.

  " 'I'm angry,' he said. 'I'm real angry that you nearly burnt down this house. But I don't know what to make of what happened to you, and as angry as I am I'm convinced that something clouded your reason because you love Blackwood Farm as much as I do. ¡¯

  "I said at once that this was true.

  " 'Well, you get your mind in order, you hear me?' he went on. 'And in the meantime, put this woman's cameos back in her trunk. Close that trunk. Shut it up tight. That trunk is Pandora's Box. You let her spirit out when you opened it, so put everything you took out of it back. ¡¯

  "He paused for a moment, and then he turned and stared at me with his wan expression and his pale face.

  " 'I've given you all I can give you,' he said. 'I don't have anything more to teach you. Lynelle taught things that I could never teach you. She was better than school, I don't argue with it. But you're wasting your time now. You're wasting everything. And I know perfectly well that
you won't go to any college right now, and maybe even at age eighteen that's not the right thing. But Aunt Queen has got to come home and she's got to find you a new teacher and she's got to take you on. ¡¯

  "I nodded. Aunt Queen wasn't terribly far away at this time. She was attending a seminar in Barbados, and I knew that Pops would call her and that she'd be coming home. I hated it, hated that he would interrupt her, but after what had happened she'd definitely be called home.

  "Pops stared at me for a long time, and then he went out of my room.

  "I felt a dull shock because in all the years I had lived with Pops he had never spoken that many words to me at any one time. Also I had seen that he was weak and washed out, and no longer the hale and hearty individual that he had always been.

  "That I had caused him worry upset me something fierce.

  "I went down to the parlor and I got the cameos out of the display case which I had taken from the trunk. I brought them up to my room, and I resolved that tomorrow by daylight, I'd go up to the attic and put them back. Maybe. Maybe not. After all, the ghost hadn't said anything to me about opening her trunk.

  "Again I fell into a doze, and there was a delightful wicked sense of Rebecca being there. Just a thing for pleasure, that's all I ever was, Quinn. That's what I'll be to you, Quinn. This is the time, Quinn, just a thing of pleasure, that's all I ever wanted to be. Somebody's jewel, somebody's ornament, somebody's pet, who knows?

  "Sometime very late Big Ramona came and roused me and told me to dress for bed. I did what she told me, and when I came out of the bathroom in my long flannel nightshirt, she looked at me and said:

  " 'You're too old for me to be sleeping with you. ¡¯

  " 'That's not true,' I protested at once. 'I don't want that ghost coming back. I don't want that -- what happened. If I need that, I'll take care of that somewhere else. I need you to sleep with me,' I said. 'Come on, let's say our prayers. ¡¯

  "And we did, and we hugged each other close as we slept, and I slept so deep that there seemed no dreams to it, only deep deep rest until the morning light astonished me coming through the windows and spilling into the room.

  "It was early, hours before my usual lazy adolescent time, but I got up quietly, taking great pains not to wake Big Ramona, and I dressed in my jeans and boots and got my heavy garden gloves and my rifle and my hunting knife, and, stopping silently in the kitchen to get a big knife -- the very knife that Patsy had waved at Pops -- I stole out of the house down towards the landing and the pirogue tied there.

  "The little cemetery was bleak in the sunshine and overgrown with weeds, and somewhere in the back of my distracted mind I knew that Pops in the natural course of things would never have let it get that way, and that he was not himself anymore; that grief was bringing real harm to Pops, and I had to do something about those weeds. I had to clean up the tombs. I had to take care of more things. I had to take care of Pops too.

  "I also knew that Goblin was near me but not showing himself, and I knew that Goblin was afraid.

  "I didn't care about Goblin, and I thought perhaps that Goblin knew that too.

  "As I look back on it now, I know that he knew it. He knew that once he had been the central mystery of my life and that he was that no longer -- Rebecca had taken his place -- and he was hanging back, weakened by my indifference and full of a panic which perhaps he had learned to feel from me.

  "My heart was set on finding Sugar Devil Island, and so, with the pole in hand I pushed away from the bank and set out into the swamp. "
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