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Hidden Shadows
cover art © Brad Fraunfelter

 

 

Hidden Shadows is a story of healing, of connection: to the land, to our ancestors, to others, to ourselves - and to the redemptive power of love.

Hidden Shadows by Linda Lucretia Shuler is the Winner for Original Soft Cover (Mass Market and Trade) Category in the 2016 WILLA Literary Competition.

 

 

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Hidden Shadows

literary

Linda Lucretia Shuler

 

 

 

 

Sing to me in the shadows

Come to me in evening quiet

While my heart awaits the dawn

And the sun upon the fields

 

 

 

 

 

Mountain Waltz

 

Summer, 1996

Death waited to dance for her through the eye of the camera. It would be a slow dance, graceful as a waltz against a slate blue sky.

She gazed at the view framed in the lens, unaware of danger: Colorado mountains rising all around, glowing pink and purple in the morning sun. Her husband Thomas grinning on the precipice of a sheer cliff, the canyon wide and deep behind him. A golden eagle hovering above, drifting silent in the winds, wings outspread like a dark angel descending.

All she had to do was press her finger, one small click, and the photo would be taken. Yet she hesitated, wanting this moment to last.

Thomas grew restless, waved at her to hurry, pulled a cap from his jeans pocket and rammed it on his head. "Going to take all day?" he teased. "C'mon, Cassie girl. Everybody's waiting."

The air smelled of fecund earth and crushed leaves and coffee warming over a campfire. Cassie glanced toward the scattered tents and the handful of friends who had traveled with them. No one seemed in a hurry. After a long week of roughing it, they likely welcomed the last few hours of leisure before heading separate ways, as did she.

There was something magical about this mountain, this breeze warm upon her skin, the shifting colors and glowing sky, the soaring eagle. And Thomas, standing like a young oak that had sprouted from the rock, a natural part of the elements with wildness in his blood.

The camera was an old Nikon with a bulky zoom, and hung from a strap around her neck. "On the count of three," she warned Thomas. "One, two..."

She snapped the photo, the sound swallowed by the eagle's cry. The bird dived into the canyon, the shadow of its great wings sweeping across the precipice. Cassie saw it through the camera's eye, saw Thomas and his startled response, his head jerking upward, his foot stepping back, the rocks beneath crumbling away.

Time and motion slowed as if in a dream.

Thomas stretched out his arms as though he, too, were about to lift from the ground and fly. Then he seemed to float backward, softly slipping from the cliff edge. His cap lifted away, light as a fallen leaf carried by the wind. He looked directly at her, mouth agape as if wanting to speak, and dropped from sight.

Cassie ran toward the empty space where he once stood, the camera whacking her chest, seeing everything, seeing nothing, a scream ripping her throat. Her red hiking boots flashed forward and back as her feet propelled her on and on. Red boots, red as blood, red as the fear roaring in her heart.

She teetered on the precipice. There, far below, sprawled face upward on a jagged outcropping as if sleeping in the sun, was Thomas, still as the stone he lay upon. Wind touched his wheat-gold hair, lifted the hem of his shirt, tasted the blood spreading from the back of his head like the bloom of an exotic flower. Ruby tendrils reached for the edge and dripped into the canyon depths.

"Thomas!" Her cry echoed among the mountains, Thomas! Thomas! Thomas! "I'm coming down!" Coming down! Coming down! Coming down!

She stumbled along the rim in a frantic search for access. The mountains yawned as if cloven with a knife, the sides shimmering, the floor sinking into shadows. Afraid of tumbling into the vast emptiness, she dropped to her knees and crawled along the precipice, pebbles and debris raining down from her scrabbling hands.

God help me!

A root thrust a gnarled arm from the wall some ten feet below. If she could somehow manage to get to it, then to the narrow shelf below that, and then...

How far down had Thomas fallen? Her mind couldn't calculate. He looked so small from where she knelt, so abandoned, like an unwanted doll.

Oh, God! Oh, God!

She lay flat, the rock-strewn earth digging into her stomach and legs, and stuck her feet over the lip. She could feel the tug of the wind as she inched downward, fingers grabbing at the dirt, her boots seeking a hold. Grit caked her teeth. She was sobbing, unaware of the sound, thinking somewhere in the deep recesses of her mind that she heard the anguished cries of a wounded animal.

Then she was airborne, lifted by a half-dozen hands and hauled onto level ground. She struggled against the arms that held her fast, the clamor of voices, the contorted faces. They dragged her to safety, the precipice receding through her tears.

She couldn't breathe. Her body shook and turned cold. They laid her on a sleeping bag and wrapped her in blankets, constraining her like a mummy while the sun slid across the sky and the eagle returned to its flight, wings glittering.

Thomas. Her lips formed his name. She looked up and imagined it was he who soared across the blue, gliding in the winds as if his spirit had risen free and now gazed down upon her. The bird dropped closer and closer still, transforming into metal and roaring as it dipped into the canyon and disappeared. Dust whirled in torrents from the blast of its wings.

She tore the blankets aside and lurched upright, clinging to the hands she had once fought. She had no sense of minutes or hours, only of an icy numbness that settled into her bones.

Whap-whap-whap! Propellers rose from the abyss, lifting the helicopter, lifting the basket that swung from its belly and carried her love. Even from this distance she could see the gold of his hair, the silken texture. The helicopter hovered like a giant prehistoric bird, then began its journey. She stumbled after it, the shadow slithering along the rugged mountain, until it vanished into the horizon.

 

 

The Ghosts Are Singing

 

Summer, 1999

Three years had passed since death danced on the Colorado mountain - one thousand eighty-odd long days shadowed by grief.

Cassie drove with the window down, squinting into the glare as miles slowly passed and the Texas sun blazed hot in the noon sky. Gnarled oak, honey mesquite and cedar crowded for room in the rocky Hill Country soil, crawled up outcroppings and plateaus, and butted against prickly pear cactus, purple-stemmed grass, and the occasional cow or goat. Willow City Loop, the road was called. An odd name, since there was no city. Just a couple of buildings missed in the blink of an eye. And the loop straggled with dozens of turnoffs, gravel-tossed and rutted and often identical, rambling to pastures or buildings unseen from the road. Fortunately, the one she sought was marked by boulders tumbled in disarray like the ruins of an ancient castle, setting it apart from the rest.

She longed to be thirteen again, worry-free and anticipating the summer ahead in her grandmother's home among the hills. But here she was, old enough to be mother to the girl she barely remembered, driving under that same sun toward the same home, now holding only echoes of long-ago days.

I'm still not ready for this.

The renovated Thunderbird jounced across cattle guards, through gray-weathered wooden gates, and past split-rail cedar fences. Little had changed since she was a girl traveling this dusty road in her grandmother's creaking Studebaker. She could almost smell the bitter scent of torn leather and hear the rattling complaints uttered by the car they had christened Methuselah since it seemed destined to live forever. Mimi would drive it like a madwoman, stomping on the gas and grinding the clutch as if in a battle of human against machine.

Oh, Mimi, how I miss you!

Thoughts of her beloved grandmother often came unbidden, and with them the memory of Mimi's hands clutching hers for the last time.

"Promise me!" Mimi had sighed, pale and shrunken amid the rumpled bed sheets. "Promise!"

"I'd like to, but..."

"Live there one year, that's all I ask. You'll make the right decision after that."

"But how?" Something clattered in the hall beyond the door, followed by a spurt of laughter. Cassie paused, startled. Gaiety seemed out of place in this dreary nursing home. She squeezed Mimi's fingers, surprised at how spindly her bones had become. "Thomas and I just opened a boutique, remember? Spirit of the Southwest. I may be an old lady before I have time to spare."

"Go when you can. The land will wait."

Cassie nodded, "All right, I promise," loving this worn-out old woman who bore little resemblance to the vibrant soul she remembered. When had her grandmother withered into a husk? She leaned in close, her breath stirring wisps of the silver-streaked hair. "Why me? Why not Mother?"

"She can't... hear them."

"Hear what?"

Mimi closed her eyes, her voice a mere shadow. "The ghosts are singing."

"There are no ghosts here," Cassie said gently. "Just me."

"They sing for you," Mimi murmured, and said no more. She never opened her eyes again, nor spoke.

Had someone told Cassie that in only a half dozen years from that moment she'd fulfill the vow made at her grandmother's bedside, she'd have laughed in disbelief.

But now there was nothing to hold her back. Nothing and no one.

There, finally! The marker she was looking for: a jumble of boulders under an arching mesquite, a wooden plank nailed to the trunk. A sun-bleached arrow pointed toward the hill beyond with the words, Spring Creek. She turned and winced. Gravel pinged and splattered under her treasured Thunderbird and exploded from the wheels as she bounced along rutted dirt hard as concrete, winding upward until Willow City Loop became a ribbon curling far below.

She didn't see the armadillo until it was too late. It froze in the middle of the road, mesmerized by the oncoming monster. Cassie yelped and swerved, bumped over jagged rocks, crashed through prickly pear, then nose-dived into a shallow ravine. The motor sputtered and died.

She sat with hands clenching the wheel and foot pressing the brake. After a moment, she opened the door, almost afraid to look. Briars scratched her bare ankles as she walked up the incline and down again, bracing her hand against the car, eyes sweeping every inch of metal and chrome. Other than tilting thirty degrees and settling on the rim of a flat rear tire, the Thunderbird seemed miraculously untouched, a fine layer of dust powdering the pastel yellow finish.

"Now what?" She groaned. No way could she change a tire at this crazy angle. There wasn't a soul around to help, nor a house in view. Just the armadillo lumbering along unscathed and a couple of distant goats.

She pulled a scrap of paper from her pocket. On it she had written the name Justin Grumm, followed by his telephone number. Although Mr. Grumm was the caretaker of Mimi's property and had exchanged letters with Cassie about the estate, she had yet to meet him in person. He and his wife lived about a half mile ahead in a white cottage on cinder blocks that had been there ever since Cassie could remember, the time-warped porch supported by pillars hacked from mesquite. Mr. Grumm had been delighted to hear from her several weeks ago. "Excellent!" he declared after Cassie explained that she was planning to move into Mimi's home and would need a key. She had liked his voice, warmed by the trace of a German accent.

"Good lord, you're going to live there a year before putting it up for sale? Why bother?" her mother asked from somewhere in Paris with husband number four or five, Pierre something. Tuff, or Taft. Maybe Tift. In the long-run it wouldn't matter since Lillian seemed intent upon changing husbands along with the seasons. "Mama's dead, God rest her soul, and won't know one way or another. Just clean the place up, throw away all that junk, and put it on the market. You could be in and out of there in a couple of weeks."

"I promised..."

"Promises don't count when the ears that heard them are buried six feet under."

"How can you say such an awful thing?"

"You're throwing a year of your life away! Let the past stay in the past and get on with living. Why isolate yourself in the sticks? What are you running from?"

Cassie couldn't answer, then or now. Maybe she was running. Maybe she just wanted some peace. Maybe she didn't know where else to go.

Maybe she was hoping to pull the raveled threads of her life together.

She had tossed luggage in the trunk and back seat, topped helter-skelter with odd items. Her potted rosebush sat alone in the front, belted and secured, crimson blossoms glowing. Long buried amid its roots were two treasures, one already turned to ash and the other rendered so by time. The rose and its roots had traveled with her from one city apartment to another, and now would be experiencing a much different life in the country - as would she.

Telling herself to hurry and do something, she reached into the car for her cell phone, pausing with a start when she caught her reflection in the side-view mirror: raven hair windblown, cheeks flushed, eyes murky as coffee brewed too long in the pot. Tiny wrinkles creased the corners. "Crow's feet tapping at my door," she groused. She'd be forty-five soon. Forty-five! Where had the time gone?

She dialed the phone and was met with silence. Disgusted, she flung it onto the dashboard; it skittered off, bounced against the gear shift, and plopped to the floor. No cell, no call to Mr. Grumm, no rescue. She would have to walk.

The rosebush presented a problem; she couldn't risk leaving it in the blistering heat of a locked car. She hoisted the heavy clay pot into her arms, struggled up the road toward a wild black cherry tree, and dragged it the last few yards into the shade. "Take care, my loves," she said. "I'll be back soon."

One more trek to the car for her purse and keys, and she was on her way. The sky gleamed colorless, with a scattering of clouds to break the bleached monotony. Blackbirds spiraled overhead, satin feathers glinting. Cassie imagined what they saw from their avian drafts, looking down - a lone woman, soft summer skirt brushing her legs as she trudged uphill along a rock-strewn roadway. A bare wind breathed upon her face as the earth fell away behind her, and when she looked over her shoulder she could see an eruption of vegetation-furred plateaus on the horizon, their tops so flat and defined it looked as though God had skimmed them with a buzz saw, while up ahead the hills leaped from the earth rounded and full.

The dry air tasted like scorched weeds. Her feet moved on, their beaded sandals soon swallowed by dust. "Idiotic," she grumbled. Why hadn't she worn something more practical, such as... what? Her hiking boots came to mind, red with black laces wide as ribbons, boxed somewhere among her other belongings stored in Houston. Although she had worn the boots only briefly, she was loath to do so again and equally loath to throw them away. So she hid them from sight and from the memories they evoked.

Those memories tugged at her now, pulling her heart along with them.

She had met Thomas Brighton at an outdoor music festival in Colorado. Tall and blond and wide-shouldered, he sat on the sun-warmed Vail slope, eyes closed while the sound of fiddles shimmered among the aspen. As she approached, his eyes opened, vivid blue, and she felt as though she had come face to face with a Viking from ages past somehow hurled into the present. He smiled and motioned for her to join him, offering his hand. She settled next to him, trusting the inner voice that whispered, "Yes."

Ten years later, while celebrating their wedding anniversary among those very same mountains, it all came to an abrupt, horrifying end.

She buried his ashes in the roots of the rosebush he had planted beneath the bedroom window. When she could stand to live there no longer, when phantoms prowled among the darkened corners and empty rooms, she dug up the bush, put it in a clay pot with as much of the dirt and ashes as it could contain, and left. The roses were the only constant in her life as the years passed, the one thing she treasured above all else, protecting the dust of her youth.

Stop thinking about it! she scolded herself. That was another time, another world, another self. "Don't dwell on sadness," Mimi had often told her. "Lift your eyes to the heavens and your spirit will follow." As much as she loved her grandmother, Cassie knew from experience that the only thing you got from looking upward was a stiff neck.

I'm like a dog with a chewed-up bone, gnawing on old grief.

A train whistle shrieked faintly across the miles. She turned and looked back at the slope she had climbed, the massive stretch of sky. A splotch of yellow marked the presence of her car below, tipped and waiting on three solid wheels. The whistle echoed once again, as if lonely and weeping for something lost.

She shook the dust from her sandals and continued onward, one step following another, the air glistening with heat mirages. Her mind quieted and she fell into an easy rhythm, feet moving steadily, arms swinging. It was almost a surprise when she saw the caretaker's cottage standing as she remembered - except for one thing.

Or many things. Perched on the fence and crowding the yard were multitudes of angels in all sizes and shapes, constructed out of metal scrap - wings of rusty tractor seats, halos of wagon wheels, billowing skirts of chicken wire, trumpets and harps from shovels or hoes, scissors or hedge clippers. Mobiles of angel forks and spoons dangled from the porch overhang, and several angelic giants with bodies made of barrel hoops appeared ready to launch themselves from the rooftop.

She walked up the steps onto the porch and peered through the screen door. The room beyond, bright with splatters of blues and yellows, resonated with the sound of clocks. "Hello?" she called over the barrage of tick-tocks. A fat white cat, face round as a stuffed pillow, appeared from inside and looked up at her with cobalt eyes. "Hi," Cassie said. "Is your mommy or daddy home?" She knocked on the door, the frame rattling under her knuckles.

"Ja, I'm coming!" A woman approached, almost a perfect match to the cat - small and plump and silver-haired, with lively hazel eyes magnified behind thick, gold-framed glasses. She smiled at Cassie through the screen.

"Mrs. Grumm? I'm Cassie Brighton, and I..."

"Mrs. Brighton, gut, gut! Justin has been expecting you." She opened the door, its hinges protesting, and glanced at the road. "Where's your car?"

"Somewhere at the bottom of the hill. I drove into a ditch and got a flat tire. So I walked."

"In this heat? Oh, my dear girl, sit down this minute. Let me get you something to drink." She led Cassie toward an overstuffed chair draped with a floral shawl and scurried away.

Before Cassie could protest, Mrs. Grumm had gone and the chair beckoned. She sank into it and rested her feet on a needlepoint stool, the shredded fabric testament to its daily use. A replica of the cat smiled at her through the worn threading along with the name, Strudel. "How did you rate your own portrait?" she asked as the cat brushed against her legs. Perhaps thinking this an invitation, Strudel leaped upon the arm of the chair and stretched its head toward her lips as if wanting a kiss. Cassie had never been fond of cats but didn't protest when it curled into her lap and began to purr. "Like a miniature lawn mower," she murmured, and closed her eyes.



Bong! Tweetle-too! Cuckoo-cuckoo!

Cassie jolted out of her chair, tumbling a disgruntled cat to the floor. From every room in the house clocks clanged, sang, or rang the hour. There must have been two dozen - no, surely more. Cassie spun around, delighted. A tall grandfather clock with a huge round head atop a narrow body chimed in a stately fashion, a minuscule sailing ship tick-tick-whistled, and an intricately carved village with costumed folk danced around a well and tinkled "Edelweiss," each telling her it was four o'clock in the afternoon.

"Are you rested?" This spoken behind her, the voice deep and obviously amused.

Cassie turned to face an impossibly tall man, all bones and joints, with a toothy smile spread in a wrinkle-grooved face.

"Yes, thank you, but I... was I... Did I fall asleep?"

"Thoroughly. Snoring is healthy, by the way. Clears the lungs."

"I'm so sorry, I..." Cassie stammered.

"Justin!" Mrs. Grumm scolded. "Enough teasing." She smiled at Cassie. "Pay no mind to this old man. You napped very lady-like. Now come, I have something for you."

Justin ran a hand through his fluff of sparse hair as Cassie, pulled along by Mrs. Grumm, entered the kitchen. It was a cheerful place, decorated with crisp white curtains and a blue tablecloth. A pottery jar filled with sunflowers graced the windowsill.

Cassie soon found herself sitting at the table, enjoying a glass of iced tea garnished with mint. "Delicious. It's been years since I tasted fresh mint."

"It came from my mother's garden long ago, in Villach. Every spring it sprouts up more, like weeds."

"Can't kill the stuff." Justin pulled out a chair and sat at an angle, long legs half under the table and half out.

Mrs. Grumm opened the refrigerator and reached for an ice tray. "You want to give her the key, or do you expect her to kick the door down?"

"Stop fussing, Schatzi. I didn't forget."

"You left it in the freezer, next to the ice cream."

"Well, hand it over then." Justin grinned at Cassie. "That house will be happy to see you. It's been empty too long."

"Cold as the devil." Mrs. Grumm wiped the key with a dishtowel and laid it beside Cassie's plate. "Sometimes this man of mine is so forgetful I wonder he can find his own head,"

Forged from iron and tipped by an ornate heart bound in vines, the key was longer than Cassie's hand. "How beautiful!" she exclaimed. "I wonder how old it is."

Justin shrugged. "As far as I can figure, the olden part of your house - the one in the back that the rest was added onto - was built sometime in the mid 1800's. So close to a hundred sixty years, give or take a few."

"I didn't expect a key like this."

"You've not seen it before?"

Cassie shook her head. "Mimi never locked her doors. She said the spirits in the woods would watch over things. I gave up trying to talk sense into her head."

"Now don't you worry about bad spooks. Only good ones fly around over there."

"There you go again, giving the girl a hard time." Mrs. Grumm patted Cassie's shoulder. "We're surely happy to meet you at last."

Justin nodded. "What took you so long?"

"Well, I..." Cassie floundered. How could she tell them? What could she tell them? Her troubles were hers alone: the emptiness that faced her, the dreams that plagued her.

"Justin, enough for today. Let the girl tell us all about herself later, when she's rested."

"All right, all right. I know I'm a nosy buzzard."

Relieved, Cassie nibbled on a ginger snap. "These are wonderful."

"Berta isn't too bad with the sweets. Except for her grebbel."

"So you're complaining about my doughnuts now?" Berta smacked him with the dishtowel. "You ate three this morning, silly old fool."

"Had to force down each bite. Pure torture."

Cassie watched the Grumms grinning at one another and something twisted inside - a longing, a regret. She drained her glass and set it aside. "Thanks for your hospitality, but I really must be going. Do you know who I could call to upright my car and fix the flat? Is there a gas station nearby?"

"I reckon so, if by 'nearby' you mean within twenty miles or thereabouts," Justin said with a chuckle. "Guy's Auto is closer in, but he doesn't work on Thursdays. Today is Thursday, isn't it?"

"Yesterday was Wednesday and tomorrow's Friday," Berta said, "so unless the world has turned upside down, yes."

"That settles that, then."

Cassie's heart plummeted. "Surely there's someone around who could help. I'd hate to leave my car and everything in it until tomorrow."

"Guy may not work on Thursdays, but this man does." Justin stood and adjusted the pants at his narrow waist. "Come on, then. Let's get the job done."

"Stay and have dinner with us afterward," Berta said. "There's not enough in your refrigerator for a good meal tonight - just eggs and such. We didn't know what you might need."

"How kind of you. I didn't expect anything at all."

"Drive straight here once the tire is fixed and I should have something nice and hot for you both."

"Oh, but I couldn't. I mean I shouldn't. I have too much to do. You've both been so lovely to me, but I haven't been to the house yet and..." Several clocks chimed the quarter hour. "And it's already four-fifteen."

"It doesn't get dark until after eight. Please, we'd love to have you." Berta nudged Justin. "Isn't that right?"

"Right as blueberry pie - which we'll have a good portion of tonight, fresh-made."

Cassie was tempted, but she still had a long day ahead of her, a car to upright and a tire to change, luggage to unload, a house to inspect. "May I have a rain check?"

"Of course! How about tomorrow at lunch?"

"That sounds delightful."

"Good! I'll see you at noon. Fix that car good, Justin. And try not getting your shirt dirty. I just washed it."

"Stop fussing, Schatzi. You've scrubbed this shirt so much there's hardly a thread left." He leaned to Cassie and muttered, "Berta goes into fits when she sees dirt anywhere except on the ground, and even then it better be clean dirt."



The roses, secured once again in the passenger seat, filled the car with their heady scent as Cassie followed Justin's blue pickup truck. A sign with red and white letters was painted neatly on its door: Grumm Clockworks and below, J. Grumm, Master Clocksmith. They parted at the cottage; Justin stuck his long-boned arm out the truck window and waved as Cassie passed by. She continued along the high-rising hill before turning into a rough weed-choked drive. Following its wanderings, she arrived at a wooden gate so old the earth had swallowed part of the supporting frame. Scattered posts leaned into each other, vague remnants of the proud fence that might have been built by her great-great grandfather.

She had always been curious as a child about her ancestors, but Lillian refused to speak about them, saying, "They're all dead and gone. Let them stay there." Mimi, who normally talked a blue streak, remained strangely mute - with a single exception. One evening, while the two of them were swapping tales on the porch swing, Mimi let slip that their ancestors had come from Germany long years ago, sailing over a troublesome sea then traveling in an ox cart along the Guadalupe River and upland until they arrived at this very place. "Someday I'll tell more," she had promised.

But the day never came.

Cassie got out of the car and pushed the gate. It opened easily enough, although the bottom edge dragged along the ground. The hinges made a low creaking sound, a three-syllable whine, as if saying, come on innnnnn. She gripped the dry wood, suddenly transported to the past, a girl in shorts with her hair in a ponytail opening the gate so Mimi could drive through. Turning, she half-expected to see a ghostly Studebaker swimming in the heat behind her.

She returned to the car and sat, looking through the windshield at the hills humped beyond the fence, the slope on her right shadowed by trees, the driveway snaking around the juniper on her left, and the great spread of land between them. The house, windmill, and barn waited for her around the bend and out of sight, their images hovering behind her eyes, dim and quiet as old photographs in a family album.

"Oh, Mimi," she whispered, and drove through the gate.

 

 

Secrets

 

Cassie jounced along the rutted dirt road toward what was to be her home for the next twelve months.

Behind her, a shaded woodland. Before her, a meandering creek spanned by a narrow wooden bridge. Beyond, the house, barn, and windmill in a valley of scrub-covered hills - the time-battered barn slumped into itself as if it yearned to lie down and sleep, the windmill dry and splintery as long-buried bones. But it was the house her eyes sought, shaded under the limbs of a live oak. She slowed to a stop, wanting to see it from afar.

She remembered the house as a charming hodgepodge of construction with rooms added or demolished over the years at the whims of those living in them. The older rear section was made of stone and the front of wood, joined in a cockamamie fashion that would make an architect shudder. Yet it once held warmth and welcome. Now the place ached with loneliness. Mold stained the stone. Paint peeled from the wood. A sagging porch supported a swing that should have become firewood long ago.

Although sprawling and topped by a cupola with windows all around, the house was dwarfed by the massive live oak arching over the roof, engulfing stone and timber. Gnarled roots pushed from the earth, heaves and bumps splaying outward toward the creek.

How long had it been since she spent the night here with Mimi? Fifteen years? Twenty?

Six years ago she had paused on this very spot, her tears transforming the landscape into a misty watercolor painting. She had just buried Mimi in the little family cemetery sheltered in the woods, and hadn't the heart to linger. Nor had she the time, since the trip from and to Houston ate up almost eight hours. So she had turned away, seeing only the yesterdays.

The house peered at her with empty eyes.

A shape flickered behind an upstairs window, as though someone had been watching her before quickly drawing away. Cassie held her breath until she noticed the oak leaves tossing in the breeze, throwing quick, fluttering images against the glass.

A trick of the light, that's all. Nothing else.

She laughed unsteadily and headed for the bridge. Rickety, creaking with age and too narrow for comfort, it reminded her of a battered raft swept up in a storm and left adrift. Gripping the steering wheel, she rattled across.

"Oh, dear God!"

She groaned at the sight greeting her. Trash. Mounds of it, piles, stacks, a mini-garbage dump spilling from the carport. The tin lean-to squatted under a cluster of pecan trees, vomiting rubbish: busted rakes and shovels and wheelbarrows, rolls of barbed wire, lawn furniture with rotted wicker seats, a tin washtub, a twisted bicycle frame, firewood, a jumble of cardboard boxes covered with tattered quilts. Cassie's spirits sank. What other mess awaited her in the house and barn?

What did I expect? A genie with a power vacuum?

Her tires bumped over knobby roots as she parked in the shade of the oak. When she stepped from the car, she couldn't help but glance up at the huge hill looming behind the house, so rotund and scruffy Lillian had dubbed it Mount Bubba. "If this ugly thing sprouted legs, it would wear a silver-buckled belt under a fat paunch," she had said, "and drink cheap beer by the case."

Cassie had been fascinated by it when she was young, imagining caves and mysteries hidden among the bulging planes and thorny bush, but didn't dare explore. "Rattlesnakes big as a man's arm hide under the rocks," Lillian had warned, a gleam in her eyes as if relishing the terror this would induce. "They attack in a flash, zap-zap! until your legs swell like balloons and bust open." Yet it was something else her mother had said, something that still gave Cassie the chills. "A restless spirit wanders around up there," Lillian had whispered. "Dripping blood and crazy blind and mean as a rabid hog."

Cassie had never gathered enough courage to venture more than a yard or so up the rocky incline. Images of writhing snakes and a moaning ghost with gaping eye sockets sent her back, running. I'll climb when I'm grown, she would think, when I'm big enough to stomp on any snake and holler at any spook. Well, here she was all grown up and big enough to stomp and holler. Yet the sight of any hill close enough to climb made her want to run in the other direction. Ever since Colorado she had loathed the sight of them, preferring city streets on flat, solid ground, a bright and busy life of noise and concrete and man-made lights drowning out the stars.

She had been avoiding reminders of her past and now was forced to live among them. She wanted to turn around and go right back... where?

Nowhere.

She had no home waiting for her, no special love, no other responsibilities. Just this, right here, right now. This.



The screened front door had black iron hinges big enough for a drawbridge. Cassie opened the screen and slipped the key into the lock. As metal brushed against metal, she leaned in for a closer look. The lock and key tip were exact replicas of one another, differing only in scale. A matched pair of hearts! Why had Mimi never spoken of this?

"Secrets," she murmured. "Too many secrets!" This house and all that created it were unknown to her, except for the life and love that Mimi brought. The unanswered questions about her ancestors, about what came before Mimi entered this world and after, all the questions unasked or even unthought-of, were manifest in this single key.

A mystery to solve! Her spirits lightened. Surely answers lay among Mimi's belongings.

I'll take my time and look at each item, no matter how small.

She had an entire year to explore and decide what should be tossed, sold, or given away. Maybe searching for clues to Mimi's past would take her mind from the unpleasant tasks that lay ahead - as well as from the memories of what she left behind.

Cassie pushed the door open into a room of shadows. Half-remembered shapes appeared: the horsehair sofa, the wobbly coffee table, a floor lamp with its lopsided shade, the brick fireplace. A ceiling fan, the frayed cord dangling. To the right, through the doorway into the kitchen, Cassie could see the blue and white pottery canisters Mimi had inherited from her own grandmother, some chipped, some pieced together with glue.

For a moment it appeared as though Mimi were still there and simply had forgotten to turn on a light. Her grandmother's presence was so strong, so terribly real, that she half-expected to hear Mimi's voice calling from another room. Goosebumps prickled her arms as her senses awakened, alive to the touch of air against her skin, the musty scent of age biting into her tongue, the uneasy stillness of the house broken by her own quick breathing.

A scrub jay's chatter stirred her to open a drape, inviting the western sun to cast an evening glow upon clean longleaf pine floors and recently dusted furniture. It wasn't at all what Cassie had expected. No piles of clutter, no tossed rubbish in corners. Although she recognized the efficient hand of the Grumms, it felt wrong, as though a stranger had intruded and rummaged through Mimi's personal belongings.

Cassie strolled through the rooms of the front part of the house, reacquainting herself - the kitchen, with a table carved by long-ago hands and curtains sewn from fabric scraps; the bath, with a claw-footed tub and a toilet tank that hung high on the wall, operated by a chain pull. Her footsteps, click-clacking on the wooden hall floor, paused in front of the room her grandmother had slept in for decades. She was almost afraid to enter, as though by doing so she'd see Mimi once again lying there, pale as dust, whispering, "The ghosts are singing." Or, worse, rising into the air, arms open for an embrace, while the walls and window glimmered through her bones.

The door wouldn't budge. She pulled the knob, pushed with her shoulder, and finally kicked. It flew open with a jerk, as if yanked from the other side.

The bed, emptied of the beloved person who once lay among its sheets, was freshly made, the patchwork quilt folded neatly at the foot, the coverlet turned, the pillow plumped. A jar of wildflowers sat on the dresser, next to a framed photograph of Mimi as a young woman. Dressed in white, she held the hand of a little girl who looked toward the camera with her head tilted as if to show off the big bow in her curly hair. Cassie's grandfather stood with arms wrapped around them both, handsome in his army uniform. Mimi buried him in it shortly thereafter. His gravestone lay beside hers in the family plot among the trees on the other side of the creek. The only thing Cassie knew of him was etched in the stone:

Johann Ruff, 1903-1941, husband, father, warrior

May his spirit fly with the winds.

Holding the picture to the light, Cassie studied the face of the girl, Lillian. Poised, aware of her beauty even then, flirting with the camera. Her lips were set in the fetching pout Cassie recognized, one her mother still used whenever she wanted attention - an act that should be ridiculous for a woman three years shy of seventy-five. Yet it must be effective bait, since a series of unsuspecting fish were still caught by its lure.

Cassie hesitated, drawn by Mimi's quiet gaze and the pride apparent in the face of the grandfather she had never known. The child they protected gripped her mother's hand and leaned into her father as if grounded by their combined strength.

If love had a color and shape, it would be exactly this - a family captured within a yellowed black and white photograph surrounded by a tarnished brass frame, lovely in its rightness, poignant in its passing. Something once treasured, now gone.

Loss! Loss! It caught Cassie unaware, punching her beneath the ribs, slicing cold into her veins.

There would be no picture of herself wrapped in the arms of protective parents. No picture of a proud father or mother standing beside her. Rather, there would be a series of photographs taken over the years with a variety of different "uncles" and step-dads, most of whom she couldn't recall. Nor could she remember much about her real father, except for his rumbly voice reading Winnie the Pooh while she sat in his lap. The last she had seen of him was on her sixth birthday. He had given her a ring with a blue stone in the shape of a heart. "Love you, Sugarfoot," he said, then walked out the door and never returned.

Her mother had wept, torn his photographs to shreds, tossed his clothing in heaps outside and burned it all. The bonfire blazed high, shooting sparks like falling stars.

Love you, Sugarfoot.

Cassie put the picture on the dresser and left the room. Whatever yearnings rose with the memory of her father's voice she pushed aside, burying them amid all the others.

She continued down the hallway, her footsteps changing to a sharper rhythm once they hit flagstone. The gray-black stones were uneven and joined with thick grout. Cassie's sandals jammed against one of them and she stumbled, slamming into the limestone wall. "Got to watch it!" she exclaimed. "God, I'm muttering like an old woman."

More carefully now, she approached the threshold leading to the older section. All was in darkness, except for shafts of light from the shuttered windows and shapes vague as draped phantoms. The arched stone fireplace hunched in the shadows. She waited for her eyes to adjust, but the longer she waited the darker it seemed to become.

A loud ping! shot through the gloom, followed by a rattle.

Cassie spun and dashed down the hallway. She knew the sounds were a normal part of the house, timbers contracting or expanding. Yet she still felt unsettled, as if someone or something lurked in that murky room, hovering beyond eyesight.

* * *

The chorus of clocks announced the arrival of twilight while Mr. and Mrs. Grumm sat in their usual places at the table, eating the last slices of blueberry pie. Berta fiddled with hers, shoving it around the plate.

"She has a sadness about her, don't you think?"

Justin shrugged. "Maybe she's the serious sort, and keeps a smile for special times."

"I worry about her, up there all by herself."

"You worry about every lost chick that finds its way into our yard."

"She's too young to be a widow. It isn't right."

"You going to tell her that?"

"Of course not. Don't be silly." Berta tapped her plump fingers on the table. "Does she have any children?"

"Not that I heard."

"She's alone, then." Berta pushed her uneaten pie toward Justin, who tucked right into it.

"No one should be without family. Especially here, among all this space and wind and loneliness. Neighbors are miles from each other with houses so well hidden from the road you could pass by and never know one was there."

"Schatzi!" Justin's fork slipped from his fingers and clattered on the table. "Are you lonely?"

He looked so startled Berta smiled and patted his cheek. "How could I be, when I have you? I'm concerned about Mrs. Brighton, that's all."

"She'll be just fine. With us around and with your good heart, she'll not be without a friend."

"It's a pity she doesn't have a neighbor nearby, someone closer than us, in case she needs anything."

"Aren't you forgetting Tatty?"

"She's too addled in the head!" Berta rose, using the table for support, and began to clear the dishes. "What help could she be to anyone?"

"Maybe none. I don't even know if she can talk anymore. She sort of grunts."

"How did you get that idea?"

"I saw her at Pete's fruit stand a couple of weeks ago. When I said hello she growled like a sick dog, and when Pete asked her what she'd like for her basket, she pointed to a melon and grunted, Ugh, and then to a couple of peaches, Ugh. Ugh."

"Oh posh!" Berta laughed. "Maybe she's lived alone so long she's out of practice."

The dishes rubbed against one another in the suds while Berta washed and Justin dried them. It was a comfortable routine done without haste, the silence unbroken until Berta said, "Maybe we should warn her about what she might find out there."

"Why?" Justin dried the last plate and put it on the shelf. "Tatty may be peculiar but she's no harm to anyone."

"I'm not talking about her! I'm talking about what's been happening in and around that old place."

"What old place?"

"Mrs. Brighton's, of course! What did you think?"

"Nothing's happening."

"But you told me..."

"Nothing. A wind playing tricks, an odd shadow, and an old man with bad eyes and only one good ear."

Berta yanked the plug from the sink. "Hogwash!"

"Ah, Schatzi. I've got cobwebs for brains and you fuss too much." Justin hitched up his glasses and walked from the room.

"I still worry about her," Berta mumbled to no one in particular.

* * *

Cassie had forgotten how deeply the night falls when unbroken by city lights. And noisy! Crickets and katydids, strange rustlings, an owl. If she listened closely she could hear the chirrups of tree frogs and the harrumph of their larger cousins down by the creek.

The clay flowerpot banged against her shins while she carried it from the shade of the oak up the porch steps, careful not to disturb the rose blossoms as the sky rushed past, stars, clouds, moon flowing like a fire-lit river. The breeze quickened and lightening flashed in the north, illuminating the hills.

Maybe it will rain and cool things down a bit.

A lone howl from deep within the woods soared through the trees and over the meadow. The cry came again, answered by another from somewhere on Mount Bubba, a lingering, eerie yowl that sent shivers down her spine. "Just coyotes," she told herself, "yapping at the moon." The howls followed her inside, gliding through the windows. She began to shut the nearest one, her hand reaching for the sash. In the city she'd close everything up at nightfall with thick drapes, deadbolt locks, and an alarm system. It felt unnatural to be exposed to whatever lay in the dimness beyond, yet she hesitated, the wood rough on her fingers. Her image stared back at her in the glass, hand raised as if waving.

The parlor was stuffy, redolent with stale oil polish and a scent she couldn't quite place, faint but pleasant, akin to flower petals crumbling with age. Violets, perhaps. Or lavender. The ceiling fan whirred, attempting to stir it all about. Better to breathe than suffocate in the heat, she decided, and left the windows open. Hopefully a breeze would wander the rooms, seeking passage from one to the next.

She walked into the kitchen, hungry enough to eat the wallpaper. The refrigerator was a boxy affair the Grumms had stocked with eggs, bacon, and coffee cake. "There goes my diet," Cassie groused, and searched for a frying pan. Fumbling through a low cupboard filled with battered pots and filmy jelly jars, she found a cast iron skillet so heavy she almost dropped it. Encrusted by the accumulation of years, its age could probably be determined by the rings, like the sawed-out trunk of a tree.

She had never cooked on a gas stove, much less one so archaic, and eyed it suspiciously. It had four cast iron plates like blackened wheel spokes and a single unlit pilot light. An oven drawer, another beneath, all sorts of knobs. She gave the stove a leery nudge, struck a match, and held it to the pilot moments before a mouse popped its head out of the grate.

"Aaaak!" Cassie grabbed a broom as the rodent retreated into the bowels of the oven. "Out! Out!" she cried, whacking the stove and jabbing the bristles down the burner. The broom erupted into flame with the glory of a Fourth of July fireworks. "No! No! No!" Cassie thrust the torch into the sink and turned the tap. Water burst with the force of a geyser, splashing everything within sight and reducing the broom to a soggy, blackened mess. The entire kitchen stank of scorched straw.

There was no way she was going to eat on a single plate or use a single fork or cook from a single pot until the kitchen was completely rid of that creature and its relatives, and every item and inch scrubbed and disinfected.

She sat at the table in a cozy nook with a bay window. The live oak pushed against the screen, the massive trunk a silhouette, the limbs swaying. She ate coffeecake with her fingers, eyes wandering over the worn cupboards, the jumble of china and jars, the stove and refrigerator surely as old as she was herself, the chipped porcelain sink, the cockeyed drawers and their mismatched contents.

When had this place grown so shabby? It used to be a haven of sunshine and laughter, a place made happy because Mimi was there. How long had it been since she last walked through the kitchen door, sat at this table, ate from these plates, opened the cupboards and drawers?

Another lifetime ago.

Mimi had grown old amid these decaying things, never complaining, never asking for help, doing what she always did as best she could.

A choking regret welled up inside Cassie's throat. Oh, Mimi, I'm sorry. I was so involved with my own life I neglected yours.



The person looking back at her from the bathroom mirror bore little resemblance to the one she had studied so carefully that morning. This one had hair sticking out like an agitated porcupine and a face the color of oatmeal. Cassie leaned in toward her pale twin. The light from the single overhead bulb emphasized each downward turn. Maybe old age was catching, like the measles. Stay here much longer and gravity would claim the rest.

She brushed her teeth, knowing she should bathe, wash her hair, soak the ache away. But exhaustion demanded she wait until morning.

I'll worry about tomorrow... tomorrow.

She lay in Mimi's bed, under Mimi's sheets. It felt as though other eyes and other ears were nearby. She could almost sense a collective breath, as if an unseen crowd gathered around her bed. So she kept the lights on - not all, just enough to chase away the shadows. Thunder rumbled, growing closer. The house answered with thumps and grumblings, and the floorboards creaked as if someone were tip-toeing toward the bedroom.

"Can't you shut up for one minute?" Cassie shouted at whatever was or wasn't there.



A clap of thunder exploded at midnight, the sound roaring through the house. Cassie awoke with a start and sat upright. Lightening flared, rain hammered the roof, wind rattled window panes and charged into the room. Cassie leaped off the bed, rain spattering over the sill and onto her bare feet. She rushed to close all the windows. The bedroom. The bathroom. Down the hall for the kitchen and parlor.

The lights flickered, then went out.

She waited, arms outstretched in the pitch black, for the next flash to light her way. When it came she ran in fits and starts, careening into furniture. The curtains whipped with the wind as rain sluiced through, soaking the floor. She stumbled from window to window and wrestled with the drapes, the wet fabric clinging to her arms. Lightning shimmered and burst over the meadow the very moment she touched the glass. The power of it jolted up her arms and she reeled backward, shaken.

Thunder vibrated along the floor and through her feet and up her thighs. The house shuddered and groaned. She lurched through roiling shadows into the kitchen, reached for the bay window and with a final heave shut it. The oak tree thrashed outside, limbs cracking on the roof and scraping the walls. She bumped into a kitchen chair and abruptly sat.

Dark. Light. Dark. Spots floated in front of her eyes as the storm raged.

A terrible wail careened down the hall, a wheezing shriek ending in a sucking moan. Cassie curled inward, reminding herself over and over that it was just a quirk of the wind finding an opening in the original fireplace and pushing through ancient stone and mortar. Sometimes it whispered, sometimes wept, and sometimes, like now, it wailed. Mimi had called it the voice of Firewind.

Shivering, Cassie put her hands over her ears and closed her eyes, willing the storm to cease, willing the darkness to end, willing the voice to silence.

Something shifted in the air, in the wind, in the room.

A burst of light split the night. Its brief glare revealed a man standing in the doorway of the kitchen. Tall, wearing a hat, face hidden.

Too frightened to move, too frightened to speak or cry out, Cassie sat, rigid, her heart racing. She felt suddenly cold, so very cold she couldn't think.

Another flash, and he was gone.

Every sense awakened, she waited for the next lightning strike. It revealed the parlor floor lamp, visible through the kitchen door - the same height as the shadowed man, its shade the shape of his hat. A floor lamp. A flash of light. A too-vivid imagination.

It took a moment before she realized she had stopped breathing. She forced air into her lungs, one long breath, two, striving to calm her heart while thinking how silly she was, how foolish, to get so riled up over a lampshade.

She tried to stand and walk hand-over-hand across the counter for a match and candle. But she couldn't remember seeing a candle. Besides, her knees were shaking.

Tomorrow. I'll find one tomorrow.

She wrapped her arms around herself and looked through the bay window as the old oak lifted its limbs and beat against the walls.

 

 

Small Blessings

 

Cassie awoke, startled to find herself askew in the stuffed parlor chair. She looked at the lamp beside her, its crooked shade an unpleasant reminder of the shadow-man her fears had conjured the night before. She set it aright, shrugged away her stiffness, and opened the door to a new day. Morning had dawned upon a windswept sky, the only trace of the storm seen in the dripping leaves and puddles glittering in the meadow.

Tomorrow had arrived and with it a slew of things that needed doing.

She lingered in the shower until the water ran cold. It sloshed around her feet as she stepped from the tub and wrapped in a towel, wet hair clinging to her face. Exhaustion sat heavy on her shoulders, nothing a cup of strong coffee wouldn't cure - something she'd have to do without, thanks to that damn mouse. Today's the day that mouse meets its maker, even if I have to take that stove apart bolt by bolt. She reached for the hair dryer, thinking none too happily of those beady mouse eyes and squirmy mouse body as she plugged the dryer into the single outlet, a wonky affair that jutted from the wall, and turned it on.

Clack! the fuse popped.

"I don't believe this!" She stomped into the parlor, sodden hair spattering the floor, with no idea where to search for a fuse nor what to expect once she found it. Much of her life had been spent in apartments where management took care of such prosaic things as fuses. Thankfully, she had management of a sort in Justin Grumm. All she needed to do was call.

The telephone was a squat black rotary, the kind featured in old black and white movies, usually on the desk of a detective wearing rumpled suits while growling at sexy blonde clients in form-fitting skirts. A far cry from Mimi's life.

No dial tone.

She stared at the receiver as if it were purposely misbehaving then slammed it into the cradle. One more thing she needed to do - get the line connected. Why hadn't she thought of that earlier? Nor did her cell phone work, likely due to interference from the surrounding hills. Whatever the cause, she had no way to talk to the Grumms until she joined them for lunch at noon.

Her mother's voice scolded from the recesses of her mind: Stop being a lollygagger and look for the darn fuse. One of Lillian's favorite words was lollygagger, along with slothful and lazy bird and drama queen, each used one time or another to chastise Cassie for not doing what she should quickly enough. Cassie tossed the towel aside and slipped into her terrycloth robe, wondering where to search. A closet seemed as likely a place as any, but each was jam-packed with stuff. Didn't Mimi ever throw anything away? She yanked clothing aside, shoved boxes and shoes and snarled wire hangers away from the walls, but found nothing remotely like a fuse box.

"Ridiculous!" she cried, and "Where the hell is it?"

Earlier she had noticed a pair of ugly mismatched rubber galoshes stored near the side door. Perhaps the fuse box was outside. She pulled on the cumbersome things and ventured onto the muddy yard. Grateful no one could see how outlandish she looked swaddled in terry with grungy rubber boots up to her knees, Cassie high-stepped over pools of muck and began to inspect the walls. Her feet made sucking sounds in the quagmire, thuck thuck.

"This stuff is thick as horse glue," she muttered. And as tricky; it grabbed her foot and wouldn't let go, as if winning in a game of tug-of-war. She lost her balance and down she fell, landing on her hands and knees.

"Damn it all to heaven and back!" Mud squished between her fingers and toes and oozed around her mucked-up legs. "Damn damn DAMN!" She smacked the ground in what Mimi would have called a hissy fit, sludge flying and spattering her face and hair like globs of chocolate pudding.

Somewhere from behind came the unbridled sound of laughter. Cassie stopped in mid-damn. The sound came again, unmistakable. Startled, she looked over her shoulder. Standing in the partial shade of a cedar on the far side of the creek was what appeared to be a bag lady, a bedraggled creature scooped from the dregs of a city and dropped into the meadow. She was tall and knobby as a hackberry tree, and dressed in a hodgepodge of clothing in odd sizes and patterns. Twigs and scraggly weeds stuck from bulging pockets and dangled from a straw hat askew on a mop of flyaway hair, while combat boots stuck out from underneath it all.

They gawked at one another, the woman grinning and Cassie with her mouth ajar. Finally Cassie cried, "Looking for the fuse box." Bag Lady shrugged, putting a hand to her ear. Cassie tried again, shouting, "FUSE BOX!" The woman pointed to a vine-covered trellis leaning against the wall, did a "thumbs up" gesture, and turned into the woods, her chuckles trailing after.

Cassie stumbled upright and tucked the dirtied robe around herself, flushed with indignation. How dare that woman trespass! How dare she wander onto land that didn't belong to her, acting like she had a right to be there! "Knock next time!" she yelled at the empty space across the creek.

Sunlight glinted on metal partially hidden by honeysuckle vines. If it proved to be the elusive box, the bag lady knew what Cassie had not - proof that the odd woman had a habit of snooping around. Where else had she stuck her rude nose? The barn? The house? Inexcusable! Cassie eyed the meadow as though expecting to see the culprit skulking behind the trees or submerging in the creek with a reed for a breathing straw clamped between her teeth.

A gray shape emerged from the dimness of the wood. It blended into the surroundings so perfectly had it not moved she wouldn't have noticed. Amber eyes stared at her with unnerving interest.

A wolf!

Wolves hadn't been seen in a century or more. Maybe it was a coyote. Or a dog with weird eyes. "Go away!" she yelled, waving her arms as if to shoo him like an errant chicken. "Get out of here!" The animal didn't flinch. She threw a blob of mud that fell apart the moment it left her hands. "This is private property!"

He twitched his ears as if to say, So what?

Cassie clasped the robe close, her mouth suddenly dry.

The wolf-thing moved toward the bridge, sunlight glinting on powerful haunches. "All right, then," she said, her voice quavering. "Stay, for all I care." She stepped back, intentionally looking away as if she didn't give a damn, thinking it might be best if she were safe inside the house. One step, two, another.

When she dared another glance, it was gone. She waited. The morning continued as usual, wet leaves glistening, birds flitting among the treetops, a breeze teasing her hair. A dog, that's all it was. And if not? No matter. She was in the country now and should expect to see all sorts of wild creatures - maybe even a dog that looked like a wolf.

She turned her attention to the trellis. Honeysuckle crawled in heavy layers over the wooden frame, the fragrance syrupy as fruit ripened too long in the sun. After a bout of furious tugging and creative cursing, a slew of vines sprawled at her feet, revealing the box in all its corroded glory. She pried it open, the metal door squealing. Four fuses lined up inside, the glass button tops reminding her of miniature doorknobs. One was blackened and off-kilter; she twisted it and the fuse tumbled into her hand. Fragments of aluminum foil clung to the squat, mottled brass body like dried-up skin on a bone. She picked them off, screwed the fuse back in, and hoped for the best.

Five minutes later she resorted to towel-drying her hair, wondering how the heck she was going to find a replacement for a dead fuse so old it likely belonged in a museum somewhere.



The ground was still soggy when Cassie drove toward the Grumms a bit before noon. Evidence of the storm lay all around - broken limbs, scattered leaves, water pooling in the fields - but she paid little heed. Her mind was occupied with all the things that needed doing. The house was deteriorating around her, complaining with voices and shapes stirring in the shadows, with stubborn drawers and rodents in the stove and faulty wiring and an amazing amount of clutter spilling from the carport, closets and cupboards. Adding a deluge, a meddlesome vagrant and a wolf-creature made her wonder whether coming here was such a good idea after all.

She was making a mental list of items she should purchase - fuse, cleaning supplies, groceries - and at first didn't notice the red pickup rushing from behind. The driver blasted the horn in triplets, Honk-honk-honk! Honk-honk-honk!, evidently oblivious to the fact that the road was barely wide enough for one car, much less two. Honk-honk-honk! Cassie glared at the driver through her rearview mirror, seeing only a blurred figure in a cowboy hat. On he came, as if he intended to run right over her. Cassie yelped and tugged at the wheel, spinning to a stop as her rear fender crunched against a fence post. The truck sped past, throwing pebbles in its wake.

"Hey, watch it!" She leaped out to investigate. Sure enough - a dent. "Idiot driver!" she shouted, and ran after the truck. "Come back here!" The pickup didn't hesitate as it sped recklessly down the road. A floppy-eared dog stuck its head out the window, barking as it continued downhill and away.

The last thing Cassie noticed was a hawk painted across the rear window, wings opened in flight. She shook her fists, feeling helpless and hating it. "I hope you crash into a ditch and land with cactus up your butt!"



Berta pulled the lace curtains aside as the yellow car skidded up her driveway. The bantam cock flapped his wings and skedaddled across the lawn, squawking as the wheels rolled past. The car came to an abrupt stop and Mrs. Brighton leaned her head against the steering wheel as though she might be crying.

"Something's wrong," Berta murmured, and hurried outside to see what she could do.

But the young woman greeted her with a smile. "Hi! Thanks for inviting me to lunch. It's been a long morning and I'm starved." No tears - in fact, her eyes were snapping. "I'm sorry I startled your poor chicken. I was mad at a cretin in a red pickup with a hawk painted over the rear window. He ran me off the road."

"Goodness! That must be Hawk. But he seems like such a nice fellow, I can't imagine him being rude. He's the quiet sort, hardly ever around. I see him sometimes walking the hills."

"He made me smack into a fence and ding my car."

"Let Justin take a look at it. He's good at fixing things."

"A lot of things need fixing, I'm afraid. I'm a bit overwhelmed by it all."

"I'd be overwhelmed too, wandering around alone in a big drafty place like yours, Mrs. Brighton."

"Call me Cassie, please - or Cassandra."

"No formalities for Justin and me either, dear girl. So call us what you will."

A mobile of angels fashioned from silverware jangled a welcome as they walked up the steps. Berta flipped her hand at the two rockers on the porch. "Come sit awhile, and I'll fetch iced tea for us both." She hurried inside, leaving Cassandra to mull over which rocker to choose, and shook Justin from his nap on the couch. "Cassandra is here. Take a look at the dent in her car, would you, while I fix the tea." She kissed him on the forehead and turned to the kitchen as he mumbled a reply, something that was becoming a habit of late. Her hearing was less acute than it used to be but the sound of his footsteps and the slam of the screen door registered just fine. More than likely he was developing a bad case of lazy lips.

She prided herself on the prettiness of the tea tray, with glasses on doilies, sugar and lemons in crystal bowls, and a single rose. Blessings could be found in small things, simple pleasures. She placed the tray on a little porch table and arranged napkins while Justin and Cassandra looked at the damage on the fender. She's truly beautiful, Berta thought. There was a charisma about her, a certain intangible something Berta had sensed the moment she had answered the door and found the young woman standing there yesterday afternoon.

But sorrow was evident too, and loneliness, and perhaps anger.



The wooden rocker bit into Cassie's tailbone and wobbled with a lopsided whump on the floorboards. The frosty glass was cool in her hands, and the tea tasted of mint and lemon. "This hits the spot," she said as Mrs. Grumm's hazel owl-eyes regarded her from behind thick lenses. The eyes were kind but astute as well, and Cassie suspected that Berta could see what lay beneath bone and sinew if she had a mind to. Unused to such focused scrutiny, she didn't know quite where to look - the porch, the angel-strewn yard, Justin attacking her fender with a toilet plunger.

"Good heavens!" Cassie exclaimed. "What's he doing?"

"Don't worry. Justin's got a knack for things even if it does look silly." Berta cupped her hand to her mouth and called, "You about finished, Schatz? Time to eat."

Justin waved at them with the plunger. "Almost done!"

Berta sighed. "You'd think after sixty years I could get him to stop and eat of his own accord. If I didn't nag, I swear he'd starve to death working on his angels or clocks or whatever else tickles his fancy."

Sixty years? Cassie couldn't fathom what it must be like to live with someone that long. "How did you two meet?"

"When he almost killed me."

"What?" Cassie choked, dribbling tea onto her chin. "How? Why?"

"He threw me in the Alm, a mountain stream in Austria. We grew up nearby."

"Why did he do such a thing?"

"I provoked him." Berta chuckled and smoothed her starched apron over her equally starched and ironed dress. "We were children. I was eight, I think, and Justin three years older. As a treat my parents took me to the Alm to search for the first rose of spring. Other families were doing the same, all of us enjoying the day." Berta's face glowed with remembrance, her faint German accent deepening. "I saw Justin poking the water with a stick. It looked dangerous, leaning so near he could tumble in, and I marched right up and told him so. The winter's thaw turned the spring rapid enough to carry him away if he wasn't careful. I told him that, too. He laughed like it was funny and tossed a dead fish in my lap. So I took that stinky fish and snacked him with it. He called me a cowardly pug and pushed me in the water."

"Were you scared?"

Berta shook her head. "The current caught me. All I remember is the fierce cold and the land rushing past, and my mother running alongside, screaming."

"You must have had nightmares long after."

"Not really. It was as though I went to sleep and when I woke up I was lying on the ground with Justin leaning over me, wet and gagging, and Papa pounding him on the back. I didn't learn until later that Justin forgot he couldn't swim and jumped in after me, and Papa rescued us both."

"That's amazing!"

"It is, isn't it? Papa swore to the day of his death that he rested on the back of an angel who powered his lungs and limbs, bringing us safely to shore." Berta leaned forward, as if sharing a secret. "And I swore to get my revenge on Justin by marrying him when I grew up."

"I'm sure he considers it just punishment."

"And so you see," Berta swept her hand at the collection of metal scrap angels populating the yard and roof, "ever after Justin has honored the angel that saved us."



Cassie helped set the dining room table, touched by the care Berta had taken to make lunch a special affair, using china painted with a flourish of tulips, and a centerpiece of tiny roses. Serving dishes held a whipped concoction of potatoes and apples called Heaven and Earth, roast beef, carrots simmering in nutmeg, yeasty rolls. It all rested upon a fragile lace tablecloth that had deepened into the ivory hue of age. Perhaps it was a heritage piece handed from one generation to the next. The idea of being treated to something so treasured made Cassie's throat tighten and she gulped, surprised at herself.

"Justin!" Berta called. "Time for lunch!" She motioned to a chair at the table's head. "Sit there, Cassandra, between us old folk."

"All fixed!" Justin entered, wiping his hands with a towel. "Couldn't have been easier."

"No more dent?" Cassie asked.

"Nope. All it took was a good pop. Handy invention, the toilet plunger." His grin reminded Cassie of a garden gnome with a glint of mischief and eternal good humor. "Anything else needs doing, just say the word."

Cassie opened her mouth to say the word fuse, but wasn't fast enough.

"Schatz, would you give the blessing?"

Berta clasped Cassie's left hand and Justin held her right as he began to pray. Lowering her head, Cassie peeked from beneath slit lids at the two faces on either side of her - one long and bony with feather-tufted hair circling a bald patch, the other petite and rotund as a puff ball with rosy cheeks. "Our heavenly father, thank you for the blessings of this good food," Justin intoned, his voice falling into rhythm with the clocks. "Thank you for the blessings of our home and all that rest therein. And thank you for the special blessing of our new friend. May she find happiness here among the hills of Willow City. Amen."

Soon all was silent, save for the ticking clocks and the clinking silverware. Strudel the cat glowered from under the china cabinet, unforgiving for having been so rudely dumped from this new person's lap yesterday.

"Ambrosia," Cassie said between mouthfuls.

"Take some home for later," Berta said. "You probably haven't had time to shop for groceries."

"There's a mouse in my oven. I don't dare buy anything edible until it's found and everything scrubbed."

"A mouse in the oven?" Berta exclaimed. "Good heavens!"

"Probably a nest somewhere underneath," Justin said. "Won't take a minute for me to take care of it."

"Oh, thank you! You're a knight in disguise."

"Armed and ready to face the rodent dragon."

Berta collected the empty plates and busied herself in the kitchen. "Is everything else going well?" she called from around the corner.

"Okay, except the lights went out and I need a fuse, the kind with a glass knob on top that screws in. Mine is blown or corroded or something."

Justin put his hand in a pocket and pulled out a penny. "Here."

"A penny for a fuse?"

"Stick it in first and screw the fuse back in place. It'll work just fine."

"Schatz!" Berta stood at the doorway. "Why are your reading glasses in the flower pot?"

Justin rubbed his bare nose. "Well, what do you know. I guess I wanted to grow a new pair."

Berta plopped his glasses on the table. "You'll be the death of me yet."

"You fuss too much," Justin teased. "Just bring out your butter cookies and all will be forgiven."

"They're too hot from the oven, so we'll have to wait a bit."

Justin scooted his chair back. "Time enough for me to go find that mouse. You two girls visit in the meanwhile, enjoy yourselves." He turned to Cassie. "Can I borrow the key?"

"Of course!" She hurried to fetch it from her purse. "Are you sure you don't want me to come and help?"

"Stay, keep Berta company. I'll be back before you know it." A minute later he was gone, his lanky frame loping down the front steps.

"Thanks!" Cassie called after him. "You're an..." She meant to say angel, but a riot of cackles erupted from the back yard, followed by a barking frenzy.

"Not again!" Berta hurried to the rear entry, her slippers flop-flopping on the wooden floor. "Stop it, you two! Behave, or I'll sic the pound on you!"

Cassie watched through the window as Berta scolded a pair of dogs almost as big as she was while a black and white goat leisurely chewed a sunflower alongside the barbed-wire fence. Standing guard were a half dozen angel sentries fashioned from iron scraps, wings unfurled, wielding swords and hubcap shields. One of them perched upon a post, knees bent as if preparing to launch upward.

"Is that where Justin makes his angels?" she asked upon Berta's return, pointing to a shed attached to the side of a barn. Pyramids of rusty metal odds and ends lined up against its outer walls in neat formations.

"Good heavens, no. He's taken over the entire barn. The other is where he fiddles with clocks."

"A man of many talents, your Mr. Grumm."

"That he is," Berta said, sounding pleased. "Sometimes I forget."

"Maybe that happens when you live with someone for a while." Cassie returned to the task at hand, gathering dessert plates and napkins while Berta ran water into the sink. "Do you have any children?"

Berta nodded. "Two, a boy and a girl, with one granddaughter and two great-grandbabies." She pointed a sudsy finger to a photograph on the windowsill. "There we are. That's my daughter standing beside me, and her husband with their kids and grandkids all around."

Cassie gazed at the faces smiling at the cameras. Berta sat on a bench with Justin beside her, his arm over her shoulders. A baby cuddled in her lap and another hung onto Justin's leg while the others crowded close.

"Was your son taking the photo? I don't see him here."

Berta scrubbed a platter with undue concentration. "No. He's in New York. He doesn't visit much."

"You and Justin must miss him."

"There have been... disagreements between those two. And so my boy stays away."

"I'm sorry." It was all Cassie could think of to say.

"Justin wants him to be an engineer or a doctor or just about anything other than what that boy truly loves." She thrust the platter at Cassie. "Frederick waits on tables when he's not acting in a theatre somewhere. He calls himself Jason now, a stage name, Jason Wells."

Water dripped unnoticed onto Cassie's shoes as she looked with dismay at the saddened face of Mrs. Grumm. "Any grandkids there with him?"

"No. He doesn't have children. He'll never have children. He'll never have a wife." Berta wrung the dishrag as if hoping to strangle it. "He prefers a... man friend."

Cassie wanted to respond but couldn't find the words.

"Life goes on, and so must we," Berta spoke with a forced brightness. "Thanks for helping me tidy up. Work is better with two, don't you think?" She tugged at her apron and hung it on a hook shaped like a kitten. "But enough about this old woman. How about you?"

"Me?" Cassie wasn't used to talking about herself and found it awkward. "Well, I don't... Oh, look at this!" She gaped at a picture frame she hadn't noticed earlier, hanging between two cuckoo clocks. "A collection of arrow heads!" A familiar excitement prickled her scalp as she studied the stones and flaking pattern "Where did you find these?"

"Scattered around here and there. Justin likes looking for them." She peered over Cassie's shoulder. "Seem like chunks of rock to me."

"They're stunning."

"You think so?" Berta looked at Cassie with an odd little smile. "There's so much about you I find interesting. Let's sit in the parlor now that the dishes are done. Would you like that?"

"Absolutely."

Berta led Cassie into the other room and with a soft grunt plopped onto the sofa. "Come sit next to me," she said, and pushed aside a half dozen pillows of needlepoint cats. The real cat hopped into the cushy lap of its mistress and watched through wary eyes as Cassie joined them.

"Now then," Berta began, "Justin tells me often enough I have a bad habit of snooping where I oughtn't, but I truly would like to know more about you."

"There's not much to tell."

"Well, let's begin with your interest in arrow heads."

"I'm interested in the whole shebang, actually."

"The whole what?"

"All of it, any of it. If it's Native American, I'm hooked. I've been fascinated ever since I read a prayer written by a Sioux holy man. His name was Black Elk. It affected me so much I started collecting books about American Indians, so many I lost count. And things like jewelry, paintings, blankets, and fabrics - until I figured, why not do this for a living? So my husband and I opened a store and did just that."

"Gracious! Where?"

"On the top floor of the Galleria in Houston, overlooking the skating rink. I named it Spirit of the Southwest. A small place, really. A boutique."

"My daughter Victoria took me to the Galleria once. I never saw a mall so fancy."

"Does she live in Houston?"

"In Rice Village near the University. She teaches German."

"How impressive! I admire people who master other languages."

"And I admire people brave enough to follow their heart's desire, like yourself. So tell me about this store. Do you sell arrow heads?"

Cassie nodded. "Did sell. Past tense. Also silver and turquoise jewelry signed by the artist. Hand-loomed blankets and shawls, Kachina dolls, one-of-a-kind belts and bags." She gestured to her soft leather purse lying where she had tossed it on the footstool, the silver spider clasp gleaming. "This was my favorite, even though I loathe spiders. It's a memento of sorts. Of the shop, of my hopes for it."

"The place sounds... unique."

"I like unique. My partner didn't."

"Oh? You have a partner?"

"Had," Cassie replied tersely. "I sold my share this June. June sixth, to be exact."

"Why?"

"A difference of opinion. Diane thought we would bring in more money by selling cheap trinkets for tourists: Tee-shirts decorated with rhinestone boots, plastic chili pepper mobiles, fake war bonnets with purple chicken feathers. That sort of thing." She glanced down, remembering the unhappiness of the last few months. "I was scraping by, glad to make each month's rent, until I faced the truth and passed what I had hoped would be my life's work into the hands of someone else.

"It was best we split. Now Diane can go her own way and follow her own tacky dream."

Berta leaned forward, almost squishing Strudel as she rested her elbows on dimpled knees. "And your own un-tacky dream?"

"It's still in the making." Cassie smiled, embarrassed. How could she say what had first come to mind? I lost my husband, lost my boutique, and somewhere along the way I lost my dreams, too. "To find myself. To put my life in order. To begin again."

Berta began to speak, then seemed to change her mind. Cassie pulled a cushion into her lap and hugged it close, wishing the conversation would end yet enjoying it all the same.

"It must be difficult, living alone," Berta finally said. "I'd be lonely all by myself. I've been married to Justin for so long I don't know what life would be like without him."

The words slipped from Cassie's mouth, as if pulled by an invisible string: "I had love once and can't imagine another as wonderful. My time has come and gone."

"Oh, my dear!" Berta clasped her hands over her heart. "You're still too young to know what life will bring! So let's not hear about time coming and going!"

The older woman looked so stricken, so warmly sympathetic, that for a moment Cassie was tempted to shove Strudel off of her lap and claim the spot for herself.

 

 

The Emperor Tree

 

Justin opened the screen door with a grand flourish and wide grin. "I found a nest behind the stove. It's gone, as is the beastie. How about celebrating? Let's have ice cream with those cookies. Cranked some up this morning, put strawberries in it."

"That was yesterday," Berta said. "Last night, in fact. Remember? We talked about the storm coming on."

"Well, no difference. It tastes just as good."

"It sounds tempting but I'd best get going. Every inch of that kitchen has to be scrubbed before nightfall." Cassie hugged Berta, then stood on tiptoe and hugged Justin, too. "Lunch was wonderful."

"Take a little something along to help you settle in." Berta hurried to the kitchen, and despite Cassie's protests filled her arms with leftovers and extra cleaning supplies.

"I need to stock up on just about everything," Cassie said as they walked to the porch. "Is a grocery store nearby?"

"Fredericksburg, if you don't mind the drive."

"Anything closer?"

"There's Pete's at Ranch Road and Crabapple Creek. Just turn right on the loop and follow it along for a bit. It's small with little to choose from, but I like it just fine."

"You can't miss it," Justin added. "Look for the sign, Pete's Gas `n Grub."

"Gas `n Grub?" Cassie burst into a giggle, lost her footing, and stumbled down the bottom step. Sponges and a can of cleanser slipped from her grasp and rolled across the lawn. "I'm sorry," she said, laughing while trying to gather them up. "I don't know why that name tickles my funny bone."

Justin chased after a sponge. "It's always nice having laughter in the house. When the grandkids are here the place fairly rings with it."

"We miss it, you know," Berta said. "Sometimes I'm surprised it's just the two of us rattling around all by ourselves. I'd go crazy without Justin taking up space and making a nuisance of himself. I think he riles me up just to keep away the quiet."

Cassie pulled out of the driveway, watching the Grumms through her rearview mirror. They stood together, Berta's head barely up to Justin's shoulder as they waved farewell. A mobile of silverware angels that had hung on their porch now rested in Cassie's lap. Berta and Justin had spoken over one another in their eagerness to give it to her. "To watch and protect you," and "Whenever it chimes, your guardian spirits are listening," and, "If it's specially merry, make a wish."

As the road curved and the house disappeared behind a clump of trees, she thought of the photograph on Berta's windowsill with several generations gathered together. The only family Cassie had was her mother. No father, no grandparents, no sister, brother, aunts or uncles or cousins - at least none she knew about - and no husband or child. Just Lillian. Their relationship consisted of telephone calls with token words: Nice to hear from you, chat-chat, goodbye. Frowning, Cassie tried to recall the last time they had spent more than a few hours face-to-face. It must have been during Mimi's funeral, and even then Lillian dashed in too late, full of apologies. She had been in Africa, ballooning over the Serengeti on a honeymoon with new husband Whoever, and had not known. Cassie faced Mimi's death alone, and buried her alone.

The memory rose and played before her eyes like the rerun of a familiar movie.

Lillian is traipsing over the rugged grounds to the family gravesite in four-inch stiletto heels, puncturing holes in her wake, long after the scattering of mourners are gone. She pauses by the weather-worn picket fence enclosing the small space deep in the woods beyond the creek and house. Cassie stands in the tree-cast shadows, waiting as her mother opens the wooden gate and steps past the old headstones to the fresh mound of dirt. "Dearest," Lillian whispers, her voice ragged and thick. "We have lost our heart." Swaying, she drops to her knees beside the mound and places her hands upon it, as if in a blessing.

It is silent for a time, broken only by the songs of sparrows and the wind rustling through the leaves. With her black shoes, black stockings, black dress, hat, and veil, Lillian in her stillness looks like a giant raptor come to rest. An unkind thought, Cassie knows, provoked by anger at Lillian's absence and neglect.

Abruptly, the black figure wails and pounds the grave, beating it with her fists as though to punish the earth for what lay hidden beneath. The face that looks up at Cassie contorts behind its thin veil. "I can't remember if I ever told her I loved her," she cries. "I can't remember."

Cassie's resentment wilts in the heat of her mother's anguish. She kneels, wrapping her arms around Lillian's slender shoulders and presses her lips against Lillian's hair, afraid that one day it will be she pounding on a gravesite, weeping for the loss of words left unspoken.

Cassie's eyes burned with unshed tears as she gripped the steering wheel, annoyed. Almost forty-five years old and she still missed her mother.

Thoughts of Lillian jumbled with thoughts of the Grumms as she drove back to the house. She found it difficult to phrase the return. Usually someone says, I'm going home. But this place wasn't home. I'm going to the house seemed... indifferent. Lonely, even.

She drove over the rackety bridge and parked under the old oak. Moments later, using a kitchen chair to stand on, she hung her silver angels from the porch eaves. They stirred in the breeze, the chimes sweet as rippling water. "Louder!" she commanded. "Time to make a wish." For what, she didn't know. She felt as hollow and haunted with the past as the house. Maybe they belonged together, she and it, in ways she didn't yet understand.

The mobile hung directly above the rosebush, as though protecting the blossoms below. She studied the potted plant with a critical eye, knowing that roses needed the right amount of sunlight at the right time of day in order to thrive. She scooted the bush here and there and back again, seeking the perfect spot. A petal trembled against her skin. So soft, so lovely. A good resting place for what lay beneath, long buried among the roots.

Her intent to disinfect every inch and item in the kitchen faltered after several hours of scrubbing. There were too many dishes in different sizes and patterns, too many glasses and jelly and canning jars, too many pots and pans so old the sides had buckled, too many and too much of everything.

Twilight fell in its usual slow summer grace. Shadows deepened, tumbling into darkness. The house seemed to expand around her as night descended, her footsteps echoing in strange ways. Whatever Cassie touched resonated in the quiet, as if breathing. She turned on the lights and sometimes sang, trying to fill the emptiness. She was used to being alone. But this was a different sort of aloneness, something she couldn't define. As if the walls had ears and listened.

One last chore for the evening and she would call it a night. She found a tin bucket among the carport junk, hauled it inside, and stuck it under the faucet. The bucket clanked against the sink and pipes grumbled in the wall.

A ray of light bounced along the counter and hit her in the face. She stiffened as it slid to the floor and crawled over the sill and out the bay window, brushing against the tree. She forgot the bucket, forgot the water as it overflowed and gurgled down the drain. She forgot even to breathe as the light traveled in the darkness beyond, then was suddenly no more. The mantle clock wheezed and bonged the hour. One, two, three... After the fifth she moved to the window, cupped her hands to her eyes, and peered into the night. Seven, eight. Moonlight threw silver onto the trees, the creek, the meadow. One final bong. Nine o'clock. Yet still she stood, pressed against the glass.

There! The light, swinging to and fro from the hand of someone close by, someone wearing a floppy hat. Wind tugged at a long, voluminous skirt, lifting it above a pair of cargo boots.

Good Lord, it's the bag lady!

The figure stepped back into the darkness.

"Wait!" Cassie ran into the parlor, through the front door and down the steps, crying, "Wait!"

The bag lady scurried over the bridge into the shadow of the woods.

"What do you want?" Cassie yelled. "Coming to watch another hissy fit? Let me know when you'd like an encore and I'll supply the popcorn!"

She stomped into the house, slamming the screen door. What an odd creature, spying like some sort of pervert! She peered through the screen, seeing nothing but moon-splashed meadow. Crickets and tree frogs chirruped and the windmill squawked in the wind as if nothing unusual had happened. Retreating to the kitchen, she turned off the faucet and mopped the floor in a fury, acutely aware of how silent and still the house seemed against the night sounds. How strange that face staring from the shadows. How vulnerable and exposed she felt.

"I need somebody around I can talk to," she muttered.

A fairy godmother must have been sitting on her shoulders, for as soon as the wish had left her lips headlights flashed through the bay window and played over the walls. Startled, Cassie paused while the vehicle growled closer, the bridge clattering, the racket abrupt and out of place in this too-quiet house. The motor coughed and came to a stop, followed by the squeal of a door opening.

Dropping the mop into the bucket, she rushed to the porch the moment Mrs. Grumm's rotund, petite self clambered out of Justin's blue pickup. It looked like a free-fall leap to get from the driver's seat to the ground.

"You actually drove that thing?" Cassie asked.

"Do it all the time." Berta thrust a frosty container into her hands. "Justin insisted I bring this tonight, with orders for you to eat it right away while the cream's fresh and the strawberries tasty."

"How thoughtful! Thank you."

"Other men have a passion for cars or football. With him it's clocks, angels, and ice cream."

Cold crystals bit Cassie's fingers while she stood, bemused. She had received so much kindness from the Grumms in such a short period of time she didn't know quite how to respond. She settled with, "Can you stay awhile, have some with me?"

Berta nodded, smiling. "I was hoping you'd ask."

"A weird thing happened a while ago," Cassie said while ushering her inside. "A woman in a floppy hat spied on me through the window, then ran away when I saw her."

"It was Tatty, I'm sure. She lives in a tumble-down house in the woods, all alone."

"She's peculiar, then?"

"My, yes. But harmless. I feel sorry for the poor thing."

Cassie scooped the delicacy into bowls and carried them to the swing. The rusty chains complained as Berta settled upon the seat, her short legs dangling. Cassie pushed with a nudge of her foot until the two of them rocked back and forth. Dots of flame scattered like embers across the meadow.

"Look," Cassie said. "Fireflies."

"Pretty things, lightning bugs. Wouldn't it be something if we could do that - have our own built-in flashlight?"

"Where would it be? In our stomach?"

"Maybe our forehead, like a third eye."

They laughed quietly. After a moment, Cassie said, "Once I tried to catch fireflies and put them in a jar, but my grandmother said that was a wicked thing to do. She believed everything has a spirit, that the stars, the rocks, the wind - all we see, and all we do not, hums with life."

"She must have been very wise.'

"Yes, I think she was."

"I used to tease Justin that he was a tad in love with her. He'd say, 'Her eyes are like blue hyacinths.' And he'd work up a lather doing stuff for her around the house and such."

"She obviously liked and trusted you both, or she wouldn't have asked you to be the caretakers."

"I wish I had known her better, but never had the chance. Justin and I moved here about six years ago, glad to find a quiet place far from the city even though our daughter kicked up a fuss about us old folks being alone. Your grandmother went to the hospital a short time after, I think."

"A nursing home," Cassie said quietly. "Mimi hated it. She wanted to be in her own home."

"I'm sure I'd feel the same way."

Leafy shadows waltzed through the moonlight, dancing on the ground and porch railing. Cassie glanced at Berta, remembering the times Mimi had sat in that very spot with the very same shadows dancing the very same patterns, while eating ice cream just like now. "We would sit here on the swing or on the steps, and she would tell me stories."

"Oh? What kind?

"Outlandish ones, funny, happy, sad ones. All sorts." Cassie motioned to the old oak sprawling over the rooftop and rustling in the wind. "My favorite is about this tree and how it came to be. Mimi called it the Emperor Tree because it stands regally above all the others, as if guarding its realm,"

"I remember stories from my childhood, too. Oma would hold me in her lap long into the night whispering long-ago legends, fairy tales about little people, pixies and such."

"Oma?"

"My grandmother. Small like me, and with a lap just as ample." She chuckled softly and asked, "Do you remember the tree story?"

"Word for word. I rarely let a visit here pass without hearing it at least once."

"Oh, do tell me!" Berta clapped her hands as eagerly as a little girl. "I'd love to hear it."

"Well then, I'd love to tell it." Cassie's lips moved, recalling the words of many yesterdays:

Once upon a time, there was a prince so handsome maidens leaned from their balconies and sang as he passed. When it was time for him to be crowned, people cheered at the gates, rang tower bells, and flung kites into the skies. Everyone thought someone so beautiful to look upon must surely be equally so in heart.

Cassie licked the last dollop of cream off her spoon. "I'd usually interrupt right about now and ask Mimi, 'Will I ever meet someone so handsome?' And she'd say, 'A beautiful heart is better than a beautiful face.' I never liked that answer. I wanted both together."

Berta nodded, waiting for Cassie to continue.

No one knew that his heart had shriveled into a blackened lump. Nor did they understand why sadness followed in his wake, or why flowers lost their bloom when he breathed upon them, or why those who gazed into his eyes were suddenly afraid of the dark.

His favorite hobby was to collect gifts of a maiden's tears captured in crystal vials, which he lined up on shelves for all to admire. At first he would dust the display, saying, "That one's from Francesca and this from Caroline, or Missy, or Rebecca." But after a time the shelves grew crowded and the glassed tears tumbled together, covered with cobwebs. He added shelves but no longer bothered to look at the tears or remember who had shed them.

Late one evening in the darkness of the night when the moon hid her face, the prince demanded, "I need room for more!" and swept vials off the shelves and ground them under his boot. The glass turned to powdered dust but the contents did not. The tears moved along the floor in a fast-flowing stream, gathering and transforming into a snake with glittering scales. The prince screamed as the serpent slithered up his legs and thighs and wound around his chest, squeezing life from his lungs.

"Goodness!" Berta interrupted. "This isn't a very pretty story, is it?"

Cassie looked at the face of Mrs. Grumm, pale in the moonlight, hands clasped tightly around the bowl as if it would fly out of her lap.

"Would you like me to stop?"

"Oh, my no!" Berta exclaimed. "I'd worry all night, wondering how it ended."

"All right then."

"Your heart and spirit have long been hardened to the gift of love," the serpent hissed. "By your actions are you judged. Henceforth your skin will be tormented bark, your arms branches, your fingers twigs. You are destined to remain forever rooted to the earth, protecting those you once scorned."

"Have mercy!" the prince begged. "Will nothing save me now?"

"Only the love of a fair princess."

With a magical poof! and a smattering of sparks, the once-handsome prince changed into a tree. Centuries passed. The tree grew old, his limbs heavy, his trunk twisted and thick. With each passing year, the shell of his heart crumbled bit by bit, until nothing was left but the pulsing core of grief and loneliness.

Still he waited, hoping for a princess.

"What happened next?"

"I don't know."

"That's not a proper ending at all! I want a happily-ever-after."

"Me too, but Mimi never gave me one. 'Ask the tree,' she'd say."

"How sad!" Berta gave her bowl to Cassie and wiggled off the swing, hanging onto the chain until her feet hit the floor. "A powerful story, but it's time for me to go home. Justin is probably getting lonesome. He doesn't do well by himself."

"Thanks for the ice cream." Cassie put the bowls on a step and followed Mrs. Grumm to the pickup. "And thanks for listening to my story."

"I'd like to hear more, but only if you promise a happily-ever-after."

Laughing, Cassie helped hoist Mrs. Grumm up to the driver's seat. "Maybe I'll think up a better ending for this one."

"Yes, I'd like that." Berta slammed the door and leaned from the opened window. "You're a dear girl, Cassandra. I'm glad we met." She gunned the truck and drove over the bridge much too fast, chubby arm waving in the moonlight.

"I like you, too." Cassie called, although she knew her voice would be drowned by the truck's rumble. She waited until the headlights disappeared into the darkness, beguiled by the woman's spunk and energy, and hoping she herself would be half as sassy at eighty-odd years.

She returned to the porch, passing under the old oak. She patted the rough bark as one would a friend, her mind wandering and playing with Mimi's story. What would happen if love finally penetrated the Emperor Tree's crusty shell? Would he turn young again, morph into a prince and frolic into the sunset, streaming leaves like rose petals along his path? If so, he would leave behind a great hole where his roots had once burrowed, a hole almost as deep as the one in her heart.

The angel chimes trembled in the breeze while Cassie gazed at the fireflies, wishing for the impossible.

* * *

She lingered over coffee the following morning, leaning against the kitchen counter and gazing out the narrow window above the sink. She could see the barn and windmill, the hills far behind them, the clouds skimming above. And to the left, between the house and barn, the remnants of Mimi's garden. Parts of the picket fence had broken away, revealing weeds where tomatoes and squash once had flourished. In the far corner a single daylily struggled in the sunlight, leaves wilted.

It's all so desolate and sad and forgotten.

She tried to block the ruined garden from her mind's eye as she drove along the farm road toward Crabapple Creek. She knew if she kept going she'd eventually end up near Enchanted Rock, a mystical place some folk claimed was haunted by the Comanche, or was the center of an energy vortex, or just plain beautiful.

Justin had been right. The sign couldn't be missed. Pete's Gas `n Grub, painted in fluorescent pink, rose from the back of a cement armadillo. She turned into the dusty lot, easing past the single gas pump, and parked beside an outdoor fruit stand boasting a poster announcing peaches and blackberries guaranteed home-grown delicious. She turned off the ignition and began to open the door, hesitating when a red pickup abruptly backed away from its parking space and sped close by, gravel spitting from the tires. A floppy-eared yellow dog stuck its head out of the passenger window, yapping into the wind. She twisted around in her seat, squinting at the truck's rear window as it passed. Sure enough, a soaring hawk was painted over the whole thing.

That's the clod who forced me off the road yesterday, pounding on his horn as if he couldn't wait to shove me into the fence!

"Have a lousy day," she muttered, and tapped her own horn in triplets, Honk-honk-honk!

Stepping from the car, she turned toward the store - and realized the pickup had stopped, idling mere yards from where she stood. A tanned patch of arm from elbow to wrist poked from the open window as he looked at her, face shadowed beneath the rim of his cowboy hat. Although his eyes were masked behind sunglasses, she could feel him staring, as if laser beams cut through to her bones.

Oh my God, what have I done?

She had to admit it - she was spooked. Maybe he's a temper-challenged jerk itching for a fight. Maybe he's wondering who the hell I am and why I honked at him. Maybe he just stopped for a sneeze. She began to consider making a dash for it, when he raised a hand and tipped his hat, nodded, and drove down the road - too slow for her liking, those laser-beam eyes likely aimed at her the entire time.

It came as a surprise to discover she was gripping the car door handle, as if planning to throw herself in at the first hint of danger and race away.

The store itself was a sun-bleached green. A sagging porch supported two rockers and a dented Coca-Cola cooler, with faded letters oca-Col. An overgrown gray dog with paws big as softballs slept on the steps, barring access. "Nice doggie," Cassie ventured. Doggie opened one eye and growled. When she tried to maneuver around it, the growls grew louder and the fat lips quivered.

"Hellooo," she cried, cupping hands to her mouth. "There's a problem out here!"

The door opened with a clang from an overhead cowbell, revealing a man who looked like a cross between Santa Claus and Paul Bunyan. Geniality glowed from every massive pore. "Pooh-Bah!" he roared, "get your lazy ass off these here steps so the lady can come in." He nudged the animal with the tip of his lizard boot.

"Pooh-Bah?" Cassie eyed the dog warily as it retreated huffing with the indignity of it all. "He looks more like a Rover or Big Jim or something."

Santa Bunyan opened his bewhiskered mouth and guffawed, showing rows of perfect teeth, all of them stained brown. "Pooh-Bah is fine for a dog who thinks he's grander than he is and gets puffed up over his own importance." The giant leaned down and whispered in a soft bellow, "He's really a cupcake under all that pretending."

"Sounds like some people I've known."

"Yah. Sometimes I forget he's a dog." Grinning, he stuck out a hand. "Pete Addle here. And who might you be?"

"Cassandra Brighton, but please call me Cassie."

"Welcome to Gas `n Grub, Miss Cassie. Take your time, walk around, have a cup of hot coffee there on the back counter. It's free to all customers, slice of pie's extra. Peach today. Mighty good, too. Wife makes `em. If you need anything, got any question, just holler." And with that, he plucked a glowing cigar from an ashtray, stuck it in his mouth, and left.

"Thank you," Cassie called to the retreating back. "I'll do that." She looked for something to put groceries in. Quarter-bushel baskets were stacked on the floor nearby, apparently for that purpose. Grabbing one, she wandered along cramped aisles so narrow she almost had to shuffle sideways on a wooden floor that sloped uphill or down like a wave in a petrified sea, reminding her of a quotation from Alice in Wonderland: Curiouser and curiouser.

Selections consisted mainly of canned goods arranged in no discernable order, with tick spray alongside baby food. Mingled amid it all were oddities such as mustang grape jelly or jalapeño pepper jam or beef jerky. She chose a jar of honey with a bumblebee sticker that read, "Sweet Miracles by Maude."

Bins of fresh vegetables pushed against a rack of hunting gear and auto supplies. She selected a few tomatoes and reached for a flashlight when a voice rang, "Hey, Ed, you done it again!" followed by raucous laughter. For the first time, Cassie noticed the din around her - the rattle and hum of the freezer, the fup-fup-fup of the ceiling fan, voices - and a guitar. Curious, she dropped the flashlight into her basket and headed toward the strumming.

Several men gathered around a cardboard table at the rear, playing dominos amid coffee mugs, half-eaten slices of pie, and crinkled bags of potato chips. Peanut shells littered the floor. A coffee pot rested on the counter behind them, as did a scattering of cups and what was left of the pie. Sitting alongside on a barstool was a boy around fifteen or so, playing a guitar.

It was like a scene from an old Western, complete with cowboy boots and hats. It even had one of those barroom double-doors opening into another room, the sort a gunslinger would fling open with a scowl, spurs jangling. A plaque hung overhead, its letters burned into the wood, RAZORBACKS.

The only things present that wouldn't be seen in a tavern from the Old West were the paintings on the wall - landscapes, floral arrangements, farm animals - likely by local folk hoping to make a small profit. A tag thumb-tacked beside each noted the price in red ink, the most expensive being sixty dollars.

"How you doing, Miss Cassie?" Pete's head appeared over the barroom doors. "Find what you need?"

"Yes, thank you."

"Everybody, this here's Cassie Brighton."

Heads popped up, hands extended, mutterings of Howdy and Glad to meetcha, the names going past rapidly - Ed, James, Rupert - the last names forgotten as soon as they were spoken. Then back to playing dominoes or whatever. Cassie stood awkwardly, feeling dismissed.

"Hi. I'm Billy," the boy said shyly.

Cassie smiled and shook his hand, thinking it was too big for the rest of him, as were his feet. By the looks of things, he had a lot of growing to do. "I heard you playing the guitar. Very nice."

"I'm practicing, trying to get good enough so Pete will let me join the band."

"He has a band?"

"Razorbacks. It's awesome. Drums, guitars, fiddles, piano, bass or banjo or mandolin, sometimes a flute - not high and twerpy but kind of sad, even spooky. They get great gigs - Fredericksburg, Gruene, Blanco, even the Old Settler's Music Festival a couple months back."

"Now don't you go parading our colors, Billy." Pete's head once again popped up behind the double doors. "We play for the fun of it, amateurs all of us. Bluegrass, country-rock, blues, gospel or some such, depending on who shows up to jam." He winked at Billy. "Go ahead, boy. Twaddle them strings for Miss Cassie. Show her you ain't no dumb-ass who can't do nothin'."

A faint blush crept up the boy's neck and into his cheeks. "Would you like to hear something?"

"Sure!" She sat on a bar stool beside him. "What sort of music do you play?"

"I like all kinds but make up a lot." He struck a few cords, experimenting.

Cassie thought he looked like a Norman Rockwell painting of a country boy: tousled red hair bleached by the sun, freckles, eyes deep as pond water. He glanced at her briefly and began to sing:

A lady walked in the door, wearing a smile
She sits next to me now, lady stranger.
Pretty like my mama was, is she sad too?
Maybe she knows that love is in all the yesterdays,
And love is gone in all the tomorrows,
Lady stranger wearing a smile.

Cassie clapped, not trusting herself to speak.

"Was it really OK?"

"More than OK. It was..." Words stuck in her mouth, and so she tried again. "Wonderful. It was wonderful and I loved it. How did you make it up so fast?"

He shrugged. "I just let the words and music come out like they wanted."

The cowbell jangled as the door opened. Pete's voice bellowed from the next room. "Billy, customers! Break's over. Stop lazing around."

"Yes, sir." He placed the guitar behind the counter, and with a quick salute in Cassie's direction, hurried away.

Cassie watched as he disappeared behind a stack of goods. She didn't move for a moment, aware that this boy had touched her heart. She glanced at the domino gang. They were still hawing at one another, having a good time, paying no attention to her or Billy.

Good. Some things were best kept private.

She rushed through the aisles, tossing items into her basket. On the last round she passed the barroom doors and glanced over them. At the far end of the room was a platform with a drum set and piano. Pete, cigar clamped between his teeth, was busy arranging chairs and benches in rows, as if for an audience.

"Hey there, Miss Cassie," he said, waving her in.

"Is this where your band performs?"

"Yuh, sometimes. It used to be storage. Lots of stuff I keep behind that there." He gestured toward a self-standing screen in need of a paint job. On one side of it was a beat-up refrigerator and on the other a door opened to a jumble of boxes and a rag mop. "Guys hereabouts like to jam on Wednesday nights, bring whatever instrument they're handy at. Folks come to listen, have a good time. Starts at eight, goes on `til we're done." He placed a stool on the platform and closed the piano lid, revealing something that had been hidden on the wall behind it.

A painting. Small, the canvas perhaps a foot square, framed in roughened mesquite. "How interesting," Cassie murmured, and drew closer.

It was rendered in oil, sparse in strokes as though the artist had crafted it quickly in a burst of inspiration. At first glance it appeared to be a simple landscape of the hill country - a craggy plateau in the background, a field of bluebonnets, a large, twisted oak. She was about to turn aside when she noticed the phantom caught within the oak's crusty interior. Subtly drafted within the texture of bark was the figure of a man, face contorted in a cry, body embedded within the prison of the tree's limbs, struggling to break free.

Cassie caught her breath. Pete must have heard, for he raised his bushy eyebrows in mock surprise. "You like that? Not many folk do. They think it's peculiar."

"It reminds me of a story, a fairy-tale."

"Eh-yah? I never was one for fairies and all that."

"Who's the artist?"

"Nice fellow, bit of a loner. Travels way out in the country, disappears for days, sometimes weeks. Then comes back with stuff like this." He pointed at the painting's low right corner. "Name's Hawk. See? There's his signature - no name, just that there hawk. Usually it's got wings open like it's flying around. Even drew it on his windshield, big as life. But in this here the hawk's just sitting there, all solemn-like. Kind of creepy, if you ask me."

"I've met him, sort of."

"Eh-yah?"

"By sight. In that red pickup, coming and going." She spoke quietly, the anger forgotten, captivated by how the picture transformed when she neared. Loneliness and despair, captured with a strange beauty. Hope was there, too. She felt the promise of it, invisible and unspoken, as if the imprisoned figure had whispered to her in a dream.

"Is there a print of this available? I'd love to buy one."

"You can buy that there original if you want. Been hanging here for over a year. Nobody else around here cottons to it much, like I said."

"Are you sure?" Cassie exclaimed, almost jumping with pleasure.

"Need to get the darned thing off the wall anyway. Spooks everybody. Hate to say it costs a bunch. Hawk thinks a lot of himself, won't come down none."

Steeling herself for the bad news, Cassie asked, "How much?"

"Hundred fifty."

"You've got to be kidding! It's worth a lot more. I'd be stealing it at that price."

Pete looked at her oddly, as if he wanted to speak but thought the better of it, and took the painting from the wall. "That's the only time I ever had a customer complain because I was charging too little." He pressed it into her hands, brushing aside her words of thanks. "It's Wednesday jam tonight, with people coming and going. You'd be welcome any time."

"I'd enjoy that, but another Wednesday," she said with genuine regret. "I've moved into my grandmother's house and have just begun to settle myself in. There's not much time for anything else."

"I heard you were there."

"Really?"

"Small town, that's the way it goes. She was really something, your grandmother. She had a special way about her. Could never put my finger on it exactly, sort of like she was younger than she looked but older than she seemed. I liked her. Miss her, too. We all do."

"I still feel like she's still there, in the rooms with me."

"Ghost-like?"

Cassie laughed. "In a good way."

"Don't know about ghosts. Gives me the jitters. Well, you got heavy things need moving - boxes, furniture, stuff like that?"

"Too much of it. The carport is overflowing with so much clutter there's no room for my car. I dread looking in the barn. It's probably worse."

Pete walked to the double doors, warily looking over them. "Miss Cassie," he whispered, "I have a suggestion."

Cassie whispered back, "What?"

He leaned forward, resolute. "Billy can do it for you. He's a good boy, a hard worker."

Cassie found herself so close to Pete she was in danger of bumping noses with his cigar. "He seems awfully young."

Pete nodded. "Yuh. You won't be disappointed." Glancing once more at the doors, he continued, "Work would be good for him, give him something else to think about. He's having a hard time since his mama died."

A burst of laughter from the domino players startled them both. Cassie almost dropped her basket and Pete hurried to the doors, speaking loud enough to be heard clear to the front and probably outside as well, "Miss Cassie, you come back now."

Her full basket landed with a thump next to chewing tobacco and snuff on a counter crowded with an eclectic assortment of goods. Billy waited behind it, hair stirring in the tepid breeze of a fan perched on a coffee can. "You find what you need, Miss Cassie?"

"Not everything, but enough." She could make do for a while but a trip to Fredericksburg was definitely in order. As Billy punched the cash register keys, her eyes wandered the area around him - the curling fliers advertising church or school events long past, the faded notice Cash or Check Only, a framed photograph of the store with a younger, slimmer Pete standing proudly beside the banner Grand Opening Today. Taped to the wall beside it was an advertisement scripted in purple longhand and decorated with gold star stickers: Nails by Nan, the number and address below. "Crabapple Creek," Cassie read aloud. "Must be nearby."

"Nan?" Billy asked. Cassie nodded. "Right next door, up a ways behind a bunch of trees. She's real nice, makes great pies, too." He turned and lifted a framed photo off of a cigar box. "See, here they are at their wedding. Pete says he likes to keep this nearby to remind himself every day how lucky he is."

Husband and wife squinted in the sunlight under an arbor of flowers, he in a suit and she in a simple white shift, her dark hair fastened with blossoms. "I can see why Pete thinks he's so lucky," Cassie said. "She's lovely. They look happy together."

"She's from Vietnam but won't talk about it much." He punched the keys one more time. "That comes to fifty-two dollars and three cents, Miss Cassie - not including the painting."

As Cassie pulled out her checkbook, and in as casual a voice as she could muster, she asked, "Billy, I have a slew of heavy things that need sorting or hauling away, most of it junk, pay negotiable. Could I interest you in a job?"

"Really?" His face lit up in a huge grin. "No problem! I'm your man!"

 

 

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Author Bio

Linda Lucretia Shuler wrote her first story when she was six, Koko the Monkey, which she still has tucked into a drawer. Her first published work was a poem she composed while in the third grade. Since then her stories and poems have appeared in anthologies and literary journals, and a handful of her plays have been produced in schools and community theatres.

Ms. Shuler received a BFA in theatre from the University of Texas, and an MA in theatre from Trinity University while in residence at the Dallas Theatre Center. She taught theatre arts in college and high school for three decades, loving every moment and directing nearly a hundred plays in the process. She also wrote theatre arts curriculum K-12 for Houston ISD, conducted numerous workshops, and performed in community theatres.

Hidden Shadows takes place in Willow City, a small community snuggled in the ruggedly beautiful Texas Hill Country less than two hours from her home in San Antonio. Several other manuscripts are in the works, reaching across the genres. These include a prequel to Hidden Shadows, plays, and a collection of poems and a half-dozen different story ideas demanding attention.

Linda enjoys participating in Toastmasters International, writer organizations, critique groups, and book clubs. She continues her love of theatre, delights in watching the birds flocking outside her office window, and is an enthusiastic fan of San Antonio's championship basketball team, the Spurs.

TTB title: Hidden Shadows

Author web site.

 

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Hidden Shadows Copyright 2015. Linda Lucretia Shuler. All rights reserved by the author. Please do not copy without permission.

 

To order this book:
Format: ePub, PDF, HTML, Kindle/Mobi
    Payment Method
PayPal -or- credit card -or- Apple iBookstore; BN Nook; eReader; Kindle; Kobo Books; OmniLit
List Price: $6.50 USD

Format: Trade Paperback
    Available December 2015!
List Price: $19.95 USD

 

  Author News

Hidden Shadows by Linda Lucretia Shuler is the Winner for Original Soft Cover (Mass Market and Trade) Category in the 2016 WILLA Literary Competition. The WILLA Literary Awards are chosen by a distinguished panel of professional librarians, historians and university affiliated educators. Women Writing the West (WWW) is the underwriter and annual presenter of this nationally recognized award.

Hidden Shadows is a Winner in the Fiction category of the 2016 NABE Pinnacle Book Achievement award; Winner 2016 Global Ebook Awards, Popular Literature Fiction; Short-Listed for the Eric Hoffer Award Grand Prize; finalist for the Eric Hoffer First Horizon Award; Honorable Mention, General Fiction, Eric Hoffer Award; Finalist, da Vinci Eye Award; Finalist, Debut category: WFWA (Women's Fiction Writers Association) Star Award Contest; Finalist, Literary Fiction, NIEA (National Indie Excellence Awards); Finalist for the Will Rogers Medallion Award in the Western Romance category; Finalist in the NERFA contest (National Excellence in Romance Fiction Awards), sponsored by First Coast Romance Writers, for "Novel with Romantic Elements;" Finalist in the Long Contemporary category for the Aspen Gold Reader's Choice Contest (Heart of Denver Romance Writers) and Top Ten finisher, Best Other Novel, Predators & Editors Readers' Poll 2015 as well as other awards and accolades.

 

  Reviews

"Hidden Shadows is a wonderful novel of a woman's journey of self-discovery and search for purpose. The characters will win your heart (and sometimes break it) in this beautifully written and satisfying story of loss and renewal."
~ Sandra Worth, Award-winning author of The King's Daughter: A Novel of the First Tudor Queen.
 



"...In Hidden Shadows, Linda Lucretia Shuler has written a poignant novel that explores the complex and ever-shifting definitions of art, community, and love. The result is a story that is as vivid and melodious as the paintings and music of Cassie's new Hill Country home."
~ Diana Lopez, Award-winning author of Confetti Girl
 



[Hidden Shadows] "Linda Lucretia Shuler has penned a vivid story woven with suspense, love, loss, artistry and renewal. A great read for all ages."
~ Jane Kirkpatrick, New York Times Bestselling Author
 



"...Hidden Shadows is a beautiful first novel, filled with vivid imagery bringing the Texas plains to life for the reader, as well as a delicate love story. Newcomer Linda Lucretia Shuler has written an entertaining and thought-worthy romance, showing as it does that even events in the past that are well hidden can often affect both occurrences and people in the present."
~ New York Journal of Books

 

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