When I was growing up, I loved to play in the family graveyard or in the third floor attic — no staid afternoons for me. Hide and seek among the tombstones and mausoleums was ever so much fun, far more than playing in the garden or down the lane. On rainy days we played in the attic amongst musty trunks full of priceless family treasures and sheet-draped furniture.
Regardless of where we played we were surrounded by the past, by the family secrets that would become our secrets, by the ghosts of those who came before us. Through our play we became keepers of legacy we would never have wanted, but was ours nonetheless.
In those days we lived in a fragile dream, caught betwixt and between our family, our imagination and the real world. Our lives were set to the rhythm of the household and very little had changed there in over a century. The telephone and the car were something we took for granted, but school was something we only knew of. Instead, like our parents and grandparents before us, we had tutors each morning and dance lessons on Thursday afternoons; Saturdays were for visiting Mama’s or Uncle Peter’s friends in town and — if we were very, very lucky — a matinée movie. On Sundays we sat as still as possible on the wooden pews at church and later on we ate our dinner off the family china. Betwixt and between we played or ran wild across the countryside, breaking stride only for holidays and funerals.
Such was the measure of our days. Though we didn’t know then, it was like living in a soap-bubble — fragile and easily broken. And the end, when it came, was a disaster as hadn’t been seen in this county since the end of the War.
But that was later.
“We” were my cousins and me. Our families lived together in the house our ancestors built, the one that escaped Sherman’s fires, where Mama grew up before she left home to marry my daddy. I don’t rightly recall him, I was too young when he died fighting Nazis. He was a Robillard and Mama was a Berengar, so it was considered by all a good match, even if he was from another county. When I was very little me and Mama lived with his family in Charleston, but after he died Mama brought me home with her. Or so they tell me; as I said, I really don’t remember. It doesn’t matter, anyway. Hardly anyone round these parts calls me by my daddy’s name. Even if the last name on my birth certificate is Robillard, I’m a Berengar to the core and the whole county knows it. To them I’m Sophia Berengar, not Sophia Robillard, although, to be fair, that’s not incorrect. Legally, I’m Sophia Berengar Robillard, but to my boys I’m always “Sia.”
You must understand this or nothing else will make sense. It’s important. This is my home and these are my people. Who I am today is bound up with who I was then — and all of it is tied to the secrets my family kept hidden.
Uncle Peter was Mama’s brother. He was married to Aunt Lydia, who was what Mama called “delicate.” Whenever I pressed the issue, all Mama would say is that Aunt Lydia’s nerves were “shot all to pieces” and to let her alone. No one ever said why, though, and eventually we simply accepted it as a fact. Just as rain is wet and leaves turn in October, so Aunt Lydia was delicate.
My cousins, on the other hand, were nothing of the sort. No trace of Aunt Lydia’s “delicateness” could be found in her sons. They were all rough and tumble, ready for anything at anytime, and together we terrorized our family and half the county. Or we pretended we did, at any rate. What we did in later years can’t quite be considered terrorizing, though it was by no means nice. We got away with so much because Alphard and Ezekiel were twins, you see. They could be in two places at once. It was deliciously funny then, but sad now to recall that only me and Mary Mae, our cook, could ever tell Al and Zek apart.
On the other hand, if one of us got caught we all were punished because we were inseparable. We were always Al, Zek and Sia. People cottoned on to our tricks quick, but still fell for them more often than not. It made playing our games a test of our skills, our intelligence, our adaptability.
Sometimes I wonder if that’s why we were allowed to run wild for so long.
Whatever the reason, Al and Zek were the constant companions of my childhood. We even shared a room until I turned five. The only reason that changed was because the Great Aunties kicked up an unholy fuss about it when they came to live us. They were horrified that a “young girl of good family” was sharing a room with boys, even if they were her own flesh and blood. Not that we let the Great Aunties stop us — I just learned to stay awake after Mama tucked me in.
The house had finally fallen nearly silent. The Great Aunties had gone to bed an hour after Mama had kissed her goodnight, but she and Uncle Peter had stayed up talking. Sophia counted to 300 five times, then slipped out from under the coverlet and tiptoed across her bedroom just as she had almost every night for the past three years. She opened the door just far enough to slip through, then pulled it carefully shut; it wouldn’t do to be caught, not this soon.
Avoiding the creaky boards, she tiptoed toward the other end of the hall, toward her boys, but stopped when she reached the head of the stairs. The voices were louder now and light spilled out of the open parlor door. It cast shadows on the wall when Mama and Uncle Peter moved.
“ … don’t know what we’ll do,” came Mama’s voice.
“Manage,” was Uncle Peter’s response. “What else can we do?”
Mama’s answer was muffled. Sophia scooted forward along the wall and down the stairs until she reached the bend, the peeked around the corner. She could see straight down into the front hall now, but as long as she stayed on this side of the stairwell she was out of sight. It was the perfect spot to listen.
The Great Aunties said she mustn’t eavesdrop. They never said she couldn’t listen to other people talk.
“ … of course it’s not ideal … ”
Sophia frowned and leaned forward, straining to hear. What wasn’t ideal?
“Typical of Margaret, never thinking,” her mother muttered.
Her eyes widened. Aunt Margaret? Her most favorite relative?
“She thought,” came Uncle’s retort. “She just didn’t think enough of us to choose otherwise.”
There was a silence for a long moment, and Sophia wondered if they would speak again, but then her mother’s voice, softer and sadder, asked, “Do you truly believe that?”
Uncle Peter’s sigh was so loud it reached even her ears and was followed by the clink of glass. He must be pouring a drink, she thought. Probably the “water of life” he and Mama shared when they thought they were alone, not the “merry sherry” the Great Aunties said a proper lady would prefer.
Sophia frowned. Her mother sounded … odd, different, not like herself. She had heard mother sound happy, angry, annoyed, bored and even, once, what Mary Mae called tipsy, but she had never heard her sound like this.
Her frown deepened. Was Mama worried, or maybe even scared?
“What else are we to think?” Uncle asked in reply, sounding tireder, she thought. “Margaret is not a stupid woman, nor is she a fool. That leaves two possibilities — either someone was intelligent enough to play her for a fool, or she simply did not care how her actions, her very public actions, reflected on this family.
“And frankly, Caroline,” he added after a moment’s pause, “I don’t credit any one person with the intelligence needed to fool Margaret for more than a minute.”
“Do we know why?” now Mama sounded tired.
Sophia’s forehead crinkled as her frown deepened. What had Aunt Margaret done?
“No defense for little sister, Caro?” Uncle Peter’s voice had taken on a strange tone.
“Don’t mock me, Peter,” Mama answered, her voice suddenly sharp. “Margaret is an intelligent woman, and no fool, as you say. As am I. Your point is well made and I see no reason to deny your conclusions, especially since I’ve come to them myself. But … ”
The sound of glass clinking came again. “You’ll forgive me, brother, if I’m a bit maudlin tonight.”
The silence returned. Sophia hugged her knees to her chest. Uncle Peter must have nodded, or wrapped his arms around Mama because neither were saying anything. She wondered, yet again, what Aunt Margaret did to make them so angry. Even she and the boys had never made Mama and Uncle Peter so angry, not even the time they played at grave-robbers and tried to dig up great-great-great-uncle Willy.
And that made Uncle Peter mad. They actually got whipped for that. When Mary Mae was cleaning them up later she said he was furious, whatever that meant, and they got put to bed with no supper.
Of course, she sneaked downstairs after everyone was asleep and found some bread and apples to take to Al and Zek. They got water from the bathroom. They were just playing, after all, and didn’t actually dig up Uncle Willy.
They wanted to, though. Just to see.
“ … agreed, then?” Uncle Peter’s voice broke through her reverie.
Sophia started and almost banged her elbow on the wall when her arm jerked, such was her surprise. Inwardly, she scolded herself. She’d missed something important, she just knew it.
“Yes,” said Mama. “Much as I dislike the idea, yes, to both.”
The creak of a door cut off whatever Uncle Peter said. Sophia’s eyes flew wide and she scooted forward around the corner without thought, staying close to the wall. One of the Great Aunties was coming down the hall!
She sat petrified at the top of the stairwell, staring down at the parlor door where Mama and Uncle Peter were talking. Despite being closer she heard very little of what was said, too busy straining to listen to the sounds behind her, waiting to see what the Great Auntie would do.
Shuffling footsteps passed the head of the stairs and continued down the hall. A soft, barely audible squeak echoed loudly in Sophia’s ears and she forced herself to breathe after the bathroom door shut. The Great Auntie hadn’t seen her. Unfortunately, while she was out of sight on the way to the bathroom Sophia knew there was a chance she’d be visible on the way back.
She had to move. But which way? Up or down?
Three deep, ragged breaths later, she started inching down the stairs. Mama and Uncle Peter’s voices were muffled now, and she thought it likely they had stepped out onto the terrace that led into the rose garden. If so, she could cross the hall in relative safety and cut through the dining room to the kitchen and take the back stairs to get back to the boys.
Maybe she’d sneak a few honeycakes while she was there. Maybe.
As she stepped off the bottom stair, Sophia risked a glance through the open parlor door. She decided if caught she’d say she had a nightmare, but quickly realised it was unnecessary. Mama and Uncle Peter were nowhere to be seen.
Just then a soft banging sound came from above. Muttering followed, and she scurried past the front door and around the display table, flipping back the long tablecloth and crawling underneath.
Her eyes strained in the near dark under the table. Everything was hazy here; the cloth that draped almost to the floor was surprisingly hard to see through for something so lacy, and it distorted everything. Only the front door was clearly visible. She squinted and could just barely make out the parlor door in the gloom.
It was also unexpectedly dusty under the table. Sophia stifled a sneeze and tried to focus on something else. Surely Mary Mae or one of her girls cleaned under here. Why, she’d hidden under this very table just last week and it wasn’t half so dusty then. It wasn’t like they’d had a dust storm or anything like that, just the regular folk coming and going.
Well, maybe she and the boys had traipsed through the hall that afternoon covered in dust and dirt after playing hangmen. They didn’t have enough rope to play properly —
“We’d best be thanking the Lord for that!” Mary Mae had told Mama before shoving them all into the big bathtub behind the kitchen.
— but they’d had fun rolling around on the ground pretending. Later, after supper, she had noticed all the dust was gone, all swept away.
Sophia wrinkled her nose and moved her legs gingerly. So this is where the dirt went. Yuck. It just figured — no, she mustn’t think about the dust or she’d sneeze. Then Mama and Uncle Peter or the Great Auntie would hear and she’d be in trouble.
The floor, the floor, think about the floor. Though she had done this several times in the past, she was still surprised at how cold and hard the tile floor was on her bare legs.
Sophia slapped a hand over her mouth in shock and sucked in a quick, quiet breath and waited, heart pounding ferociously in her ears as she counted slowly in her head. Had anyone heard?
After three counts of three hundred, when she could hear clearly again, she risked a peek out from under the tablecloth. Nothing moved that she could see, but then she couldn’t see all that much in the dark. What had seemed somewhat light, if shadowy, from the stairs was darker at ground level. The light from the parlor didn’t reach all the way to the table and the moonlight from the glass windows flanking the front door was weaker than expected for a full moon night.
She would have to rely on her ears, not her eyes, before making the next move.
There were no footsteps, no voices any closer than they had been. Had her sneeze really gone unheard?
It appeared so. To be safe though, she ducked back under the table and counted to three hundred three more times. This had been close, too close. It was getting harder and harder to sneak about, but there was no time to worry. She had to go, now, while she safely could, but she had to do so carefully.
When all was silent she slipped out from under the table, wincing at the sound of her bare feet on the tile.
“Next time, slippers,” she half-whispered to herself, wincing, again, at the sound of her voice.
She really was doing terribly tonight, but then this detour was unplanned. Not that it should matter, she told herself ruthlessly. She and the boys had planned for things like this — acted out how to get away, where to hide, how long to count, everything — and here she almost got caught.
It was beyond ridiculous. Especially since this route, down the stairs and under the table, had been her idea. It was simple, so ridiculously simple, so obvious, she’d told the boys, that no one would ever think to look there.
And here she was, almost ruining her own plan. It was too much to bear.
Sophia breathed a soft sigh and slipped through into the dining room. Any other night she might stop to look at the silver tea set displayed on the sideboard and only used on holidays, but tonight she was too focused to bother. The door to the butler’s pantry was ajar, so it was hardly any trouble to slip through and into the kitchen.
Almost immediately she stopped and inhaled. Supper was hours over but the smell of Mary Mae’s chicken and biscuits still lingered. Sophia licked her lips. There was something magical about Mary Mae’s cooking, she was sure of it. No one else could do the things with flour and water their cook could.
Such as honeycakes. Sophia spotted them on the cake platter under a glass dome and licked her lips. Two minutes later she’d pushed a chair up the counter and pulled a tea towel from the nearby stack.
Really, it was all terribly convenient. She counted the honeycakes carefully, then chose three of the smallest and wrapped them in the towel. The rest she rearranged to make it look like none had been taken. Hopping down, she tugged the chair back where it belonged and opened the door to the back stairs, honeycakes in hand.
It was part of the game they played with the adults. Mama or Uncle Peter or Mary Mae would do something, like put their favorite honeycakes out under glass, then watch to see what happened. It was like a dare.
And they always accepted a dare, Sophia thought as she climbed, her footfalls muffled by the well worn carpet that covered the steps, except for when they didn’t.
Light from a lamp in a recessed corner of the upstairs hall spilled into the narrow stairwell when she cracked the door. She peered carefully around the door jamb. No one there. Good. Sophia counted as she pushed open the door, stopping just before she reached ten. Playing in the hall and following Mary Mae around meant she and the boys knew just how far they could open the door before it squeaked.
She looked out again, then exhaled and squeezed through the narrow opening. It was a tight fit, especially with the honeycakes in hand, but a year of slipping in and out of small spaces in the attic made it easier than ever. The door swung shut with hardly any sound at all.
Sophia stood there for a moment, breathing quietly and listening again. A tick tick tick sounded in her ears, followed by a tock, the grandfather clock in hall keeping time. A soft creak, the house settling, raised gooseflesh on her arms; and beyond, the muted sounds of an owl echoed.
All was as it should be, then.
She crossed the hall with steps, the floorboards under the carpet barely creaking, and slipped through the door to the room Al and Zek shared. They were waiting for her.
“You’re late,” Zek observed, shifting to one side to make room for her on the bed.
“Almost late,” Al corrected, pulling the covers up over them.
“I’m neither,” she retorted. “Besides, it worked.”
The boys accepted her explanation, but she knew that wouldn’t end it. She grudgingly relayed the events of the evening — including her near miss on the stairs and the dust under the table — as they munched on pilfered honeycakes.
“Wonder what Aunt Margaret did?” Al wondered.
“Something bad,” was Zek’s solemn reply. “Really bad, horrible bad. I’ve never heard Dad sound the way Sia described.”
“Except when we dug up Uncle Willy,” Sia said around a mouthful of honeycake.
“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” Al chided snootily, nose in the air, imitating the Great Aunties. “It’s not proper.”
Sophia crossed her eyes and stuck out her crumb covered tongue.
“Saints preserve us!” cried Zek as he tried, and failed, to imitate the Great Aunties’ horror of bad table manners, his laughter spoiling the effect.
Snorts and giggles drifted out from under the cover as Al pulled it over them, all three finding the image far too funny to settle into their usual spots. Finally, after Zek’s elbow introduced itself to her neck and Al put his knee in her stomach, twice, Sophia made herself lie still.
The boys immediately did the same, but fingers continued to fidget with the sheet or the lace trim of her nightgown even after their breathing evened out. Just as Sophia was about to drift off, she heard Al whisper, “How could Aunt Margaret be bad?”
Sophia wanted to tell him what Uncle Peter said, that Aunt Margaret hadn’t thought about them, just herself, but she was too tired. Her limbs were so heavy they wouldn’t move, not for anything, and she couldn’t open her eyes, not now.
In the morning, she thought, in the morning.