Adelaide B. Shaw lives in Millbrook, NY with her husband. She has three children and six grandchildren. Her stories have been published in several literary journals, including By-Line, The Country and Abroad, Bartleby Snopes, Loch Raven Review, American Literary Review, The Writers’ Journal, SN Review, Bewildering Stories, Cyclamens and Swords, and Storyteller. In addition to writing fiction, Adelaide writes haiku and other Japanese poetic forms, such as tanka, haibun, and photo haiga and has been published widely. Her award winning collection of haiku, An Unknown Road is available at ww.modernenglishtankapress.com. Examples of her poetry may be seen at www.adelaide-whitepetals.blogspot.com
The Summer of Truth
Sixteen year old Andy Burdett looked with dismay at the empty parking lot and train platform. Aunt Cissy forgot. It was a mistake to come, she thought. She hoisted her backpack and pulling a wheeled suitcase, headed for the waiting room. It was locked.
Andy was a tall, thin girl, with long dark hair, worn in a not too neat ponytail. She was hot and tired. With a sigh, she dug out her cell phone and began to dial a number when a battered old Volkswagen pulled up, honking.
“Andy!” A young man jumped out of the car and gave Andy a bear hug. “Gosh, it’s been years since you’ve been up here. Sorry I’m late. Did you think we forgot? Mom did, actually, but fortunately Lionel remembered. He was going to get you, but Mom said I should go because he wouldn’t know you, although in this station I said you’d probably be the only one getting off. No one comes up here mid-week, except in summer.”
Andy’s 19 year old cousin Peter tossed Andy’s bags in the back seat, gave her a second hug and was back in the driver’s seat without pausing for breath or losing a beat.
“You look great, taller. Still skinny though. Wait’ll you see your room. Actually it’s the guest cottage if you want it. I wanted it, but Mom said I could have it after you leave, but then, I’ll be leaving too. Back to college. So, how are you? I’m awfully sorry about Aunt Rose. How’s your dad? God. Life stinks some times.” With that pertinent remark, Peter paused as if to contemplate just how badly life stinks.
“Hi, Peter. You’ve gotten taller yourself and talkier.” Peter turned and gave her his best smile, crinkling his eyes and showing dimples on both cheeks. “I’m o.k.,” she added, “and Dad is… Dad’s taken on more cases since Mom died. He says he has to keep working. So tell me, who is Lionel and what did you do to get those muscles? You used to be skinny like everyone else in the family.”
“Lionel is a retired construction worker. He moved in with Mom six months ago and helped build the cottage. Quiet guy. Has no opinions on art or literature or politics or on anything for that matter. I think that’s why Mom likes him. He does what she asks. Now, as for my muscles. I’ve been working out. Bar bells and weights. All my parts have filled out and grown. And I mean, all my parts.” Peter gave her a wicked grin, more like a leer and burst out laughing.
Andy laughed with him. That he was to be around for the summer was one of the reasons Andy had agreed to come. She needed some laughs.
Peter drove through the quiet streets of the village, past the galleries, gift shops, antique stores and outdoor cafes. It was too early for the summer tourists to invade and occupy the quaint bed and breakfast establishments on the tree lined roads.
Cissy Danvers lived in a rambling old house, once an inn, on three acres of land with a woods and a view of the river. It was named “Bella Terra.” Over the years she had added a studio where she could paint, a pool and cabana, a terraced garden, and now, a guest house.
She was the iconoclast in the family, the wild, rebellious daughter, the complete opposite of her older sister Rose, Andy’s mother. Andy, who resembled both sisters in height–tall and angular– had something of both personalities.
“You have your aunt’s impulsiveness sometimes,” her mother had said shortly before she died. “Just temper your exuberance. Think before you jump. Cissy jumped first and often landed hard. Sometimes others get hurt, if not immediately, then later. There’s truth in the adage: your sins will come back to haunt you.”
“What sins. Who got hurt?” Andy had leaned closer to the hospital bed, but her mother waved her away.
“Nothing. No one,” she said. “I’m speaking in generalities.”
A few days later Rose died, leaving Andy with questions.
Cissy, wearing her usual paint spattered overalls, came out to the porch. She was a woman in her mid-fifties with cropped slate gray hair. Two old mongrel dogs followed at her heels. “Come inside,” she said after the rush of hugs and kisses and dog petting had subsided. “I’m so glad you came. I’ve missed your visits. Do you want the bedroom where you stayed before or the guest cottage? Did Peter tell you about that? How is your father? And you? You look a bit done in.”
When she could get a word in, Andy chose the cottage. She could imagine she was on her own with no family just across the garden. It was a scaled-down version of the farm house, with a porch across the front, one bedroom and sitting room, small kitchen and bath, complete with Jacuzzi.
“A cottage doesn’t have to mean roughing it,” Cissy said, giving Andy a hug. “Consider this your domain. Be as private or as social as you want. There’s no need to join us for meals all the time, or at any time. But… it’s not good to be too much by yourself.”
“Don’t worry, Aunt Cissy. I’m not going to crawl into a hole. “
Over the next few days, Andy developed a routine: breakfast in the cottage with one of the four resident cats who took a liking to the cushions on the porch swing, lunch by the pool with whomever was around or by herself in the cottage and dinner at the house.
Bella Terra was still, in some ways, like the inn it was in former days, with those in residence coming and going independently of each other. Peter was usually off with friends; Cissy spent most of the day in her studio, preparing for a local show; Lionel, a short, stocky man, ambled through the house and property saying little. Four others, Cissy’s strays as Peter called them, were also part of the household, an older man who wrote poetry and spent most of his time in a back bedroom on the second floor, a fiftyish woman with a ten year old girl who were staying in the apartment above the barn, and an elderly Italian couple who did the gardening and cooking and had rooms off the kitchen.
Cissy had always collected strays–cats, dogs, people. Was Andy a stray? She wanted to ask, but knew what Cissy would say. “You’re family. Of course you’re not a stray.” But her father didn’t seem to need her at home. He had sunk into his own private hole of grief. “It’ll be good for you to get out of the City this summer. Cissy and her menagerie are what you need.”
What she needed was a reason, an explanation for Rose’s enigmatic allusion to the past and her immediate denials that there was a past to reveal.
“I need a break,” Cissy said early in July. “A pool party on the 4th. Some of my friends and Peter’s too. Let’s you and I go shopping in the village.”
Over lunch at a village café, Cissy reached over and patted Andy’s hand. “You look better, more relaxed. You have some color now.”
‘What happened, Aunt Cissy, three years ago?”
Cissy looked perplexed.
“When Mom was here after her mastectomy, why did she leave after only a few days? When I came up on that Saturday she was ready to leave. It was only because I put up a fuss that we stayed until Sunday afternoon, but you two hardly spoke, nor did you since. Why wasn’t I allowed to visit anymore? Why didn’t you visit Mom in the hospital when you learned that the cancer had come back? You visited only twice.”
“Oh, Honey. You do have a lot of questions.” She picked up her sandwich and took a bite, chewing slowly.
“You’re not going to tell me, are you? All Mom said was that you argued about your life style. And Dad says that’s all he knows.
“That’s the reason. Plain and simple. You remember. Doug Carpenter was sharing my studio at the time. And my bed. Your mother didn’t approve. You were only 13. I was too promiscuous for you to be around. We argued and she left, taking you with her.” Cissy continued eating, keeping her eyes on her plate.
No, that wasn’t the reason. Andy had known about her aunt. Rose had not approved, but she and Cissy had been close. “Cissy is family,” Rose had said, “just don’t follow her example. Black and white we are, but we love each other anyway.” The rift was more than disapproval of Cissy’s new lover, but Andy said no more. She would try again at another time. She had the entire summer to learn the truth.
The July 4th night was lighted up with stars, the moon and the occasional sky rocket shot from somewhere in the village. Andy and Peter had gone for a late swim after the party was over. They sat, wrapped in towels, sharing a thermos of hot coffee.
“Has Aunt Cissy ever explained why my mom and she argued three years ago?” Andy threw out the question in a lull after exhausting the topics of old movies and old songs.
“Just that Aunt Rose thought Mom was a bad example for an impressionable young girl. Hell, I was an impressionable young boy and it didn’t bother me.”
“That’s the only reason she gave?”
“Yeah. Is there another?”
“No. I don’t know. It’s just that even when Mom was dying, they didn’t reconcile.”
They sat in silence for awhile with the gurgling of the pool filter system as background to their thoughts. “It’s never bothered you how your mom lives? That you don’t know who your father is?”
Peter, roused from his reverie, mumbled a few incoherent words, then speaking more clearly, spoke with a nonchalance Andy didn’t believe. “Oh, I know my father’s name. Jonathan Smyth, a Brit, spelled with a y. They met in Florence. Yeah, I’ve asked questions, but Mom dismissed him as not worthy of a second thought. I wondered how she took up with him if that’s how she felt, but she said she was younger and foolish. Now, she’s older and foolish and hasn’t changed much. I got used to it years ago. Jaunts to Europe, being taken out of school. Sometimes the other kids envied me. Sometimes I envied them.”
“Have you thought about looking for your father? Does he know he has a son in the U.S.?”
“Mom says he knows, and didn’t care. So, the answer is no. I’m not going to look for him. The truth is I don’t care anymore. I take Mom’s word, that he’s not worth a second thought.” Peter got up suddenly tipping over his coffee. “Damn!” He tossed the mug and the thermos into the pool. “Time to say goodnight. I’ll get those in the morning.”
Again, Andy sensed that Peter was lying. That outburst was not from someone who didn’t care.
“I’m bored,” the 10 year old guest whined for the third time.
“Oh, stow it, Janie,” Donna, her mother, said. “You’ve got a pool here; you’re in the country. Clean air, acres to explore. Stop belly-aching.”
“There’s no one to playwith. I’m B…O…R…E…D. Bored.”
Old Mr. Enzio, on a rare appearance out of his room, waved Janie over to where he was sitting under an umbrella with a chess set and a book. “Sit,” he ordered. “I’ll teach you the game.”
“My youngest. A mid-life baby,” Donna said with a shrug, as if that explained the child’s whining. “I should have left her in Manhattan with her father and his mistress while I pulled myself together. Janie knows what’s going on. She actually gets along with that bleached tart.”
Andy nodded, not sure if a comment were required.
“Don’t get married,” Donna said, with a sudden vehemence. “Do what Cissy does. Don’t pin your hopes on one guy. He’ll break your heart eventually.”
“Cissy did marry,” Andy said. “Twice.”
“Rotten eggs, both husbands. That’s how she accumulated her money. Generous settlements. If you’re going to marry, marry someone with money.”
“I guess you’ve known Cissy for a long time.”
“Almost 30 years, I guess. We’ve kept in touch on and off, always picking up where we left off.”
“Did you know my mother?”
“We met a couple of times. Ages ago. Too bad they had that falling out. Strange, that after so many years, your mother suddenly cuts her off. I mean, your mother always knew about Cissy and her lovers, didn’t she?”
Again, the same reason given. They all agreed –Cissy’s life, Cissy’s promiscuity caused the disagreement. If Donna were the repository of Cissy’s secrets she was still keeping them.
Bella Terra was nearly empty of people for the first time since Andy arrived, except for Louie, the gardener, whose whirring mower was heard moving from place to place. Restless, she left the pool to explore the grounds. Cissy’s studio would be locked, but she peeked in the windows. Always neat, not what one would expect from Cissy. Next the barn. Nothing of interest there. Used for cars now, there was only a rusted pick-up truck in the back.
Andy meandered over to the garden shed, which should have been locked as well. The sagging, weather-worn wooden building was unsafe, Cissy had said. She didn’t want her guests to get hurt and sue her. Louie had been careless, and Andy peered inside the open door. The shed did lean, but didn’t appear to in danger of falling.
Inside was what she expected–a work table, flower pots, bags of fertilizer, garden tools. It had an earthy, dusty smell. In the back, against one windowless wall, were old garden chairs, the webbing frayed or missing, stacked haphazardly. Behind the chairs was a tarp covering something with sharp edges. She pulled away a couple of chairs and lifted one corner of the tarp. Frames in various sizes, all needing some refurbishing.
About to drop the tarp, Andy saw the back of a framed painting. She pulled it out and turned it around. Letting out a soft gasp she took a step back, sending the frames behind her tumbling. A good-looking man, his dark hair falling across his forehead, stood casually leaning against a maroon Jaguar convertible, looking as if he owned, not only the car, but the world. David Burdett. Her father, more than 20 years earlier, posing in front of Bella Terra on a brightly colored autumn day. Painted by Aunt Cissy. There was her name in the lower right hand corner–Cecilia. And, on the building a sign, The Bella Terra Inn.
Andy tried to remember what her parents had told her– that her father had sold the Jaguar before they married, that Cissy had bought Bella Terra after she returned from Florence, years after the inn had been closed and standing empty. Andy needed time to sort it out.
“Hello!” Peter stood in the doorway of the shed. “Hey, Cousin. What’ve you got there? Shouldn’t this shed be locked?” Peter pulled at the painting which Andy had tried to put under the tarp. “What are you hiding?” He stepped back and looked. “Hey, that’s Uncle David. Gosh, he looks young.” Andy attempted to pull the painting away from Peter, but he held on. “Why is it here? It’s a good painting. And, what’s with you? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“It’s nothing. Put that back. Swear that you won’t say anything to your mother that I came in here. She’ll get mad at Louie for not locking the shed.”
“Aunt Cissy, have you got time to talk?” Andy stood at the entrance to Cissy’s studio the next morning.
"Sure, Hon. I’ve got time to talk. Have a seat.” Cissy pointed a brush at a paint spattered bench, then applied the brush to canvas. It was a landscape of the river and appeared finished to Andy’s thinking, but Cissy added a stroke here, a stroke there, building up shadows which deepened the contours of the hills, creating a more somber scene.
“I was in the garden shed yesterday,” Andy said after a few minutes. “It was open.”
Cissy lifted her brush in mid-stroke and set the brush in a can of turpentine. She wiped her hands with a towel and sat at the other end of the bench, her face registering resignation and sadness. “I thought something was wrong last night when you hardly spoke during dinner.”
“I figured it out. So did Mom. That’s why you two no longer spoke. You and Dad had been to Bella Terra when it was an inn, when he still had his Jaguar. You were lovers and you painted his picture. Then you suddenly left for Italy.”
Andy had stood up while she spoke and circled the studio, moving paintings aside to look at the ones behind. Her voice was controlled, a dull monotone.
“Bella Terra was your lovers’ hide-away. And when Peter was born you concocted a lie about a lover in Florence and lied about Peter’s age. He’s my brother, isn’t he?” She stopped at the easel. “Why did you have an affair with my father when he was engaged to my mother? Mom was right. What you do does hurt others.”
“I’m sorry, Andy. We never wanted anyone to know. David handled my divorce, and we had a good reason to see each other. He and Rose weren’t engaged yet. I know that doesn’t excuse what I did. If I hadn’t batted my eyes at him, he would have proposed sooner.”
The morning had turned gray and muggy. Thunder rumbled in the distance as Andy resumed circling the studio.
A physical attraction, Cissy explained. A wild fling, just a few nights, one long October weekend at the Bella Terra Inn. Cissy–restless and floundering after her second divorce, David– already 40, needing to settle down, but giving in to this last bit of excitement. Both sorry afterwards.
“That’s when I did the painting, a brilliant Saturday in October. It was more my fault than his. When I realized I was pregnant, I lied about wanting to study in Florence. After I had gone, David proposed to your mother and they married that December. I remained in Florence until enough time had passed I could lie convincingly about Peter’s age. Your father and Peter don’t know.”
Andy paused in her pacing. “How did Mom find out?”
“Like you. The shed was left open. At the time of our… that weekend, David had made no promises to Rose. That’s why she said nothing to him after she found out. She forgave him the past and kept silent, but she wouldn’t forgive me. I knew she loved him and I betrayed her.”
“I hate him.” The anger Andy had been holding down suddenly rose to the surface in a choking cry. “I hate you, both.” With a quick swing of her arm she sent the brushes, turpentine and palette of paints to the floor, then ran out of the studio.
“Andy. I need just a few minutes.” Cissy was at the cottage door twenty minutes later.
“Don’t do anything yet. Let me tell your father and Peter. Please open the door.”
Through the partially open door, Cissy spoke quickly. “I’ve called your father. He’s coming up Friday night. I’ll tell him and Peter then. It’s my responsibility.”
“You’re a bit late accepting responsibility, Aunt Cissy. Peter was with me in the shed. I made him promise not to say anything, but I don’t know what he’s figured out.”
“Then I had better tell him right away, hadn’t I? Andy, your father always loved your mother, never me. Think back of their years of happiness. His devotion when she became ill. I didn’t want him to feel any obligation to me. I wanted him to marry Rose without any complications.”
“Why did you buy Bella Terra? Wasn’t living here a complication?”
“It was an impulse. I’ve always acted on impulse. I liked this area and…well, it wasn’t a problem for your father. He loved Rose. You must believe that he really did love her.”
Before closing the door, Andy scooped up the tabby cat from the porch swing. Sitting by the window she cradled the cat and let the tears fall. Peter was right. Life stinks sometimes. Would he hate Cissy for lying? Would her father hate Cissy, as well? All the years gone without knowing he had a son.
“Well, I hate him, Tabby,” she said to the cat. Her own voice startled her and she shook with fresh crying. “No, I don’t hate him. He’s been a great Dad and he must have loved Mom. The way he cried. The way they were together, never fighting. Maybe Cissy is right. It was just a fling before settling down. I don’t hate him. And, I don’t hate Cissy. I don’t know what I feel.”
Through the window she saw Peter running in the rain toward the cottage. “Look Tabby. Here comes my brother. That sounds strange. My brother. I guess I’ll get used to it.
I wanted to know what my mother meant–sins will come back to haunt you, others get hurt. I’ve got a different family, Tabby. Everything is changing, but I wanted to know the truth. It’s better to know, Tabby. It is better to know.”