He looked at her momentarily and without a word, crossed the porch into the house. There was a loud noise shortly as he used a claw hammer to raise the dining room windows. His head popped out and he drew several deep breaths before disappearing shortly inside again.

 

Moments later, Windell's black hearse bucketed up the two-lane drive and Mr. Windell and his eldest son pushed a wheeled gurney onto the porch. Shortly thereafter the gurney emerged, loaded, and as the hearse retreated down the drive, the ladies began covering dishes and folding tablecloths. The Sunday social concluded, everyone found a vehicle and as they left, Old Lady Deacon stood on her porch, daintily waving goodbye.

 

So it was that when Old Lady Deacon came upon Linda and Susan that day, she understood their pain. She assumed they, too, had lost someone they loved and so invited them to come to the house for some lemonade. Linda nodded and as the sun set that evening, she and Susan had joined the household, having no where better to go.

 

Days turned to seasons and the tiny Susan pressed her nose against the frigid dining room window to watch the first snowflakes of winter melt into the frosted yard. Old Lady Deacon lay in the next room, buried beneath a satin comforter, her slight body forcing air in and out from her struggling lungs. At her bedside sat Linda, holding the papery hand that had only days before signed her last will and testament with Lawyer Stansbury. Sometime around midnight, Linda inherited the old house and all that was in it. Unaware that her life was about to change, Susan slept, a pair of crimson ballet slippers clutched in one tiny hand.

 

Lawyer Stansbury returned, but this time bearing flowers...for Linda. He sat closely at her side on the Victorian love seat, reading the will in a low voice intended only for her ears. Days later he brought her a strongbox and opened it on the lace-covered dining room table. It held neat stacks of currency, sorted by denomination. With a wistful look he slid the box toward Linda, whose eyes teared with the realization that she and her daughter would never again go without. Lawyer Stansbury, sensing her confusion, offered to help her invest the money and true to his word, he came to visit almost every other day to give her an update. Linda began to look forward to his visits as it was very lonely in that old house on the edge of town.

 

The first lilacs were opening their blooms when Lawyer Stansbury proposed to Linda, and the summer's last roses framed Linda's delicate face as they exchanged wedding vows. Susan was a miniature bridesmaid, her long curls of saffron hair pinned high above her graceful, sweet neck. The congregation murmured at the signs of impending beauty...and even the older men were mesmerized by those magnetic green eyes.

 

Lawyer Stansbury was a man of patience and it was almost a year before he disappeared. Linda rolled over to share his warmth one unusually cool June night and found a smoothly drawn sheet where his body should have been. He did not appear in the morning, or any morning thereafter. The mailbox filled with bills and the sheriff came to the door with a fistful of bad checks. Linda held Susan against her chest and sobbed curses against men. The child Susan listened, and learned.

 

Linda's beauty began to fade after her husband left. Hatred etched the lines of laughter into scars of betrayal. She cared nothing for her appearance and left Susan to fend for herself. As the years passed, Susan would return from school to find her mother staring at the floor, her mind wandering in a mist of delusion and suspicion. She pleaded with her mother to leave Ivy Nook, but Linda would not respond. She moved mechanically from room to room, wisps of once beautiful hair clinging to the rumpled velvet of her old bathrobe. One day Susan found no one. Linda was gone.

 

She told no one. To all appearances, the young woman who tended others' children and helped out at the flower shop led a serene, but private life. The child's slender body had blossomed and high cheekbones cradled heather green eyes. Massive waves of saffron hair shimmered down to her waist but the innocence of youth was that of a young tigress.

 

On her eighteenth birthday she sat framed in the dining room window. She need no longer make excuses or hide that she lived alone. She celebrated yet one more death—and that was Susan's.

 

Emerald had been born.

 

Emerald

Emerald had come to Ivy Nook Village when she was a baby. Of course, in those days she was called Susan.

 

Linda, Susan's mother, was considered the most fetching young woman in anyone's memory. Her features were delicate, as though molded from spun glass and she had eyes so green you wanted to rest in her gaze as you would a cool, shady lawn on a hot August evening. Young men followed Linda, clinging to her essence as she soundlessly moved among them. She found them suffocating and considered her beauty a curse. Indeed, one young man pulled her from the sidewalk as she walked to evening service one Sunday. She had tugged away as he coddled her with a soft voice, urging her to the bank of Hogan's Mill Run. He was determined and muffled her cries with his big, fleshy hand. Eight months later, Susan was born. As soon as she was able, Linda wrapped the tiny baby in a pillowcase and set off across fields until she came upon the waterfall outside Ivy Nook Village. She was perched upon one of the flat rocks there, sobbing as the baby wailed; and that was where Old Lady Deacon found them.

 

Old Lady Deacon had been called that for as long as folks could remember. Her husband had been a deacon of the Ivy Nook Baptist Church but had never even mentioned he had a wife. Each Sunday he had presented himself in the same shiny suit, his cuffs and collar stiff with starch. After service he disappeared between the neighboring houses and no one really thought much about it. In fact, it was three Sundays before anyone noticed that he hadn't shown up for services. It was the topic of gossip as the ladies sipped tea and ate Bertha Myer's cinnamon rolls after church. A few husbands were enlisted and eventually someone thought to ask the Reverend Moniker what he might know. Sure enough he directed them to an old house at the edge of Ivy Nook Village, near the great waterfall.

 

There ended up being a entire procession of cars slowly headed toward the old house inasmuch as it was a Sunday afternoon in the heat of July and no one had anything better to do. When they arrived, a couple of the men were urged to knock on the door and that's when she opened it and invited them inside. Their stay was short and they burst onto the porch, handkerchiefs over their noses, loosening their collars as they headed to the waiting members of the congregation. Without ceremony the men started their cars and spun through the front yard leading the procession back to town.

 

An unscheduled meeting was quickly assembled in the church basement and it was there that everyone learned the horror of what had been discovered. It seemed their missing deacon had expired and the old lady claimed to be his wife. She had him laid out on the dining room table atop her mother's best lace tablecloth, tarnished silver candlesticks placed at his head and between his shiny, stiff thighs. The old lady, whom they all now referred to as Old Lady Deacon, had smiled sweetly and with all the charm of a genteel southern lady, purred that she had been waiting for the congregation to come and pay their respects.

 

“How long has the poor man been there?” cried out Mrs. Parkins.

 

“Too long,” one of the men answered. “Clyde, you run down and get the sheriff. Send him out to the old house and let him take care of this.”

 

Clyde didn't feel this was quite right. “But he's one of us, Ben. It's not right that we send the sheriff. She's nuts, she don't know no better.”

 

There was a general murmur of agreement and so it happened that while Clyde went to summon the sheriff, the rest stopped by their homes to gather up baskets of fried chicken, freshly-baked bread and berry pies before once again making the trek out to the old house. There they laid bright tablecloths on opened tailgates and filled somebody's trunk with iced drinks while they waited for the sheriff to arrive. One of the ladies timidly stepped toward the old house and cupping her hands, called out to Old Lady Deacon.

 

“Ma'am,” she called loudly in a tentative voice. “I say, Ma'am? Would you like to have a cold drink and a plate of luncheon?” she waited expectantly, pushing up the bra strap that drooped from her sleeveless dress, nervous perspiration turning her long nose into a downspout. A few moments later, the door opened and Old Lady Deacon emerged, a sweet smile upon her face as she crossed the porch in crimson ballet slippers.

 

“How kind of y'all to come,” she crooned. “Wouldn't y'all like to come inside?”

 

Heads wagged in the negative and one lady looked as though she would faint. They motioned Old Lady Deacon to come out to the impromptu church picnic and she responded like the belle of the ball. Folks eyed her cautiously and spoke around her, rather than to her directly. Someone held out a paper plate with a slice of blueberry pie and she accepted it graciously, not bothering to wait for a fork. The sheriff found her there when he arrived, blueberries staining her chin as she stood there in her pink organza summer frock, her tiny feet rising up upon her toes in the crimson ballet slippers.

 

 Column Two >>

 

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