Ella and I are in the big bed with the fine sheets, and we can’t stop giggling over the thrill of an unexpected knock on our door that evening. Not just company, but three lovely men. Her feet are like ice and she keeps touching my legs with them, which makes me lurch away, and when she laughs I laugh.
“Shush,” my sister says, even though there’s no one to hear me squeal in this big house. Just the men outside in their tent. “There’s a war on, Lucy. Is this any way to behave?”
“No, it’s very wrong of us.”
“Think about death.”
“I’m picturing bombers,” I say. “They’re headed this way, about to drop on us this very instant.”
“The bombers are coming, hurrah, hurrah,” she sings.
“I’ll bet they’re fine dancers,” I say, and Ella knows who I mean.
“Oh, yes, I bet Williams would come to life. I’d dance with him all night.”
“I wish they’d come in for dinner. They look starved, don’t they?”
“They’re anxious about their truck.”
“I was watching from the playroom window. They got it pushed into the stable.”
“If only we could help.”
I pause, then say it. “You know who could.”
Ella is very still. “He could fix anything.”
“He fixed my doll once—remember how her leg kept falling off?”
“That dowdy one?”
“She wasn’t dowdy,” I say. “She had a white dress with a cherry print and red trim.”
“What was her name again?”
Ella snorts. “What sort of a name is that for a little girl’s doll?”
I snort and giggle too. Silence. She swings her legs over, puts her frozen feet on my shins again. Peals of laughter followed by another, longer stretch of silence. Finally, “Let’s bring them an early tea tomorrow,” I say, “then they’ll have to come to dinner. They’ll feel obligated when we ask.”
“Yes, let’s do.” Her voice is excited, like it was when we were girls, planning parties for the neighbors on our days off.
“A proper tea—with Lady D’s silver pot and tray.” Ideas are popping up in my head like spring weeds. I won’t be able to sleep, though just an hour before I’d been yawning over the button I was sewing on a blouse.
“Yes,” Ella agrees. “Let’s use all the silver tea things. I polished them last week.”
“The silver is polished, hurrah, hurrah,” I sing.
“We have those jars of plum jam in the cellar. It would taste fine on crackers.”
“It will all taste fine to them after what they’ve been eating.”
“Warm water from rusted tins.”
A silence. “We’ll have a lot to do. We should sleep,” I say.
“Yes.” Giggle, giggle, more cold feet. “We should sleep.”
In the morning we decide to bake a cake. We don’t have sugar, but there’s honey, thanks to all the clover and the bees and to Ella who can sing the bees to sleep. Lucky girls, we also have some eggs and milk. We used to share them with our neighbors but the last of them cleared out last spring, when the bombing came so close. Off they went, with us cheering and smiling, pretending it was a parade. We have lettuce and cucumbers for salad. Has it been that long since we talked to another human being?
As soon as the cake is done and ready to be cut, we bring the tea. Hotchkiss is leaning against the truck, looking as tired as Williams had looked yesterday when he’d come to our door, shamefaced, and asked if they might have a bit of bread. Rivera, the Spaniard, is bent under the hood of the truck. When Hotchkiss sees us through the open stable doors, he turns and says something to Rivera, who makes a low reply. Hotchkiss nods, then comes forward, tired and smiling.
Suddenly Ella and I are shy, embarrassed by our Lady Delaford skirts and heels, our red lipstick. Ella stands a half-step behind me, but I lift my tray a little, and sing, “Tea time!”
Hotchkiss’s face breaks into a smile. “What’s all this?” he says, taking the tray from me. Ella sets her bundle down. The grass is damp, but she spreads out a blanket and lays out the cake, the jam and crackers, the cups.
“Look what they’ve brought us,” Hotchkiss calls to the other men.
Williams crawls out from under the truck and wipes his hand on a rag before brushing his fingers through his hair, which is standing up. He greets us politely. I get the feeling he doesn’t want to stop working, but he’s too well-mannered to show his impatience.
“Hot tea and cake!” Ella says, finding her voice again when Williams smiles at her.
Rivera doesn’t smile, but his dark eyes are somber in a way that’s not unpleasant.
“Do sit down,” I say to them, motioning toward the blanket.
“But you’re joining us?” Williams protests.
“We’ve got a dinner to prepare,” I tell him. “A party, really, for all of you. Tomorrow evening,” I add, an improvisation—our plan was to invite them for tonight. From the corner of my eye I can see Ella’s look of surprise turn into a smile. This way, we’ll keep them at least one extra day.
“Yes,” Ella says to Hotchkiss and Rivera. “Come at seven—or earlier if you want. Wait, do that—come at six. You can clean up in Lord Delaford’s rooms. You can wear his dinner coats.”
“How many dinner coats does he have?” asks Hotchkiss, with a glance at his khaki shirt sleeve, worn and dirty and creased.
“How many dogs run wild through the country?” I ask cheekily. I think about how nicely my hair is clipped back from my forehead today. And how the green trim I added to my skirt draws attention to the curve of my calves.
“You have to come,” Ella persists. “The war is going fine without you. Really, at this moment they’ve got hundreds of men to do your jobs—fire shots, set bombs.”
“Wave flags, toot horns.”
“Your truck can wait. We insist.”
Hotchkiss, who is sitting down and has helped himself to a piece of cake, looks up at Williams. Rivera still lingers by the doors of the stable. I’m going to laugh and they’ll think we’re a pair of mad girls. I dare to look right at Rivera and wonder if madness could be in our favor.
Williams inclines his head. “Six o’clock?”
“Six o’clock tomorrow,” Ella says.
“Until then,” Williams says. He feels obligated to get back to work. Ella shows her dimples, and Hotchkiss grins.
As soon as we’re in the house we run upstairs, throw off our Lady Delaford clothes and put on house dresses and aprons. We march through the place—an army sent to sweep and polish and scrub. In the kitchen the tea kettle gleams, in the parlor every pillow is plumped. Floors are mopped, rugs beaten. When that’s all done, we shake off the dust that’s settled on the shoulders of Lord D’s dinner jackets, then we shine his handsome shoes. We stop just once in the evening to bring the men bread and milk and tea.
“Wouldn’t you rather come in?” I ask again, just as I did the night before. “You could choose your own rooms. You could have your own wing.”
Hotchkiss glances at Williams who tells us, again, that their tent will do. They even refuse to make use of the old gardener’s cottage, although Ella reports from one of her spying missions that she’s seen Williams come out of the adjacent privy.
That night we’re sitting at the kitchen table with our own bread and milk. I force myself to stay in my chair, not to jump up to see if the tent is still there, to open the door and listen for the quiet rumble of male voices. By nightfall all is quiet. No sound of an engine. We dance through the house on our way up to bed, giddy that the truck still isn’t working.
Later, in bed, I say, “How long do you think they’ll stay?”
Ella doesn’t answer. “The Spaniard’s a work of art,” she finally says.
“He’s beautiful,” I agree. “We don’t know that he’s Spanish, though. He could be an enemy spy. Perhaps he’s fooled Hotchkiss and Williams into taking him in. But who cares? He’s lovely.”
“Hotchkiss is beautiful,” she sighs.
“He is.” I’m smiling in the dark, just thinking about him. “Skinny and strong and beautiful.”
She rolls onto her back. “Williams is more romantic, though. I put dibs on him.”
“I like his eyes. And his voice—I’d like to hear him sing.” I close my eyes and dream I’m dancing with Hotchkiss.
The next day we rise even earlier than usual. A peek through the narrow window of our old attic room (how long ago we slept there!) reveals that the tent is still zipped shut. All day long the kitchen hums with our industry. Ella brings in the milk and then offers to kill the chicken. In compensation, I let her take tea to our guests afterwards. Before she goes, I catch a glimpse of her in front of the mirror in the hall, where she pats her hair and smooths her eyebrows.
While she’s gone I dress the chicken and put the braided dough in the oven, then I go out to the garden to pick lettuce for the salad and the last of the blackberries for the pudding. I also snip some sprigs of rosemary and collect the onions, both of which grow in abundance. We’ll still have onion soup when we have nothing else to eat. How thin will we become on that alone?
Ella comes back more than an hour later, her cheeks flushed, her eyes shining.
I lift the back of my hand to push away the damp hair that’s fallen from my kerchief. The kitchen has grown hot, and I smell like sweat and chicken and onions.
“How was Williams?”
She pulls herself up onto the counter and swings her pretty feet, dressed as they are in Lady Delaford’s shiny black shoes, the ones with the ankle straps. “Fine, but none so fine as Hotchkiss,” she lilts.
“Ah, so it’s Hotchkiss now.”
“Yes, it’s Hotchkiss, it’s Hotchkiss.” She jumps down from the counter and dances around the work table, her arms wrapped around herself.
With effort, I remind myself that I didn’t have to play butcher. Just the same, I turn away.
“The bread’s done,” I say, although she can see for herself, two gleaming loaves resting on racks.
“It’s divine. I could smell it before I even got through the gate.” She comes up behind me, throws her arms around my waist, nestles her head against my shoulder. “We’re having a party, Lucy! A party with pudding and chicken and bread and men!”
“And wine,” I remind her. “How many bottles are left?”
She takes my question seriously, even in her giddy state. “I think we can spare three—no four—for tonight. Shall we get it now?” She sounds like a child who wants to blow up the balloons the night before her birthday.
I throw down the limp dish cloth I’ve been using to wipe the counter. “Let’s do.” With the help of a torch, we go down to the cellar, to the cobweb-laced racks that were once filled with Lord Delaford’s wine. How thoughtful of him, we laugh every time we take one. Always thinking of us!
At six the supper is done and warm in the oven. The table is set with crystal and silver and flowers—Lady Delaford’s roses, which I tend with such care, like children. I sing to them, softly, when I know my sister isn’t there. We hear the men’s footsteps coming up to the door, their modest knock. Ella greets them with comic formality, and they smile at her in return. This time I’m the one who’s tongue-tied. Hotchkiss is the tallest, but Rivera has the darkest eyes. Ella leads the way upstairs while I lag behind. She shows them Lord Delaford’s dressing room. The closet full of trousers and coats, the rows of polished shoes. The drawers full of cuff links and folded socks and crisp white under things.
We leave the men standing on the plush carpet in the center of the room, looking as awkward as boys starting a new school at midyear, then we hurry to our room next door, whispering and laughing into our hands. From there, we can hear a hint of their voices. First Hotchkiss and Williams, then the music of the Spaniard’s accent.
We’ve already had our baths and done our hair, and we chose our gowns the night before. I wanted the dark green of course—hunter’s green, shimmering lady-of-the-sea green—but Ella surprised me by taking a glossy midnight blue instead of her usual blossom pink. We’re both smaller than Lady Delaford, but we’ve found we can make her clothes fit with a few well-placed pins and some satin ribbon tied around our waists.
I stand in front of the mirror, plying my red lipstick, while Ella, beside me, lifts the lid of the jewelry box. It has two tiers and is lined with royal velvet—a sparkling treasure chest. When I was a teenager I used to amuse myself by fancying our employer was really a pirate, that she took every broach, every ring at knifepoint.
“Which ones are you wearing?” Ella asks.
I hesitate. Lady D used to lay it on thick—bracelets and earrings, a choker and a long necklace, a tiara even, worn all at once. Diamonds were her favorites. “She’s covered with frost,” I’d whisper to Ella, as we buttoned up the black cotton dresses we wore when we were serving. “Let’s each wear one piece,” I say now, as if I were rationing a box of candy.
Ella pulls out a slender sapphire bracelet, while I choose a barrette—a firefly made of emeralds and diamonds—to clasp into my curled hair.
The men are already waiting in the front parlor when we come downstairs. Their hair is wet and their faces shine. Lord D’s coats fit Rivera and Williams well enough, but poor Hotchkiss’s bony wrists hang exposed from his too-short sleeves. We show them their places at the table and then pass around the dishes and make awkward conversation about their work on the truck and the coolness of the evening. When we hold up our glasses, the men follow suit, and we all take turns making toast after toast. To lettuce, to wine, to broken trucks, to our hostesses, to baths, to curling irons, to dinner coats, to the Delafords, to summer, to evening, to damask roses, to blackberries, to bread pudding.
“To God and country,” somber Rivera says. We all look at him before our communal laughter bursts out. Williams dabs his eyes with his napkin, and Hotchkiss slaps him on the back. Rivera regards us, pleased and silent.
After dinner Ella tells Hotchkiss we have a treat for them.
“Another cake?” he asks brightly.
Williams, who’s in on the surprise, smiles. Ella found the film and the projector while we were cleaning house, and she drew him aside and asked for his help this morning. He sets up the projector now in the small parlor.
Hotchkiss eyes the white sheet we’ve draped over a portrait. “Who’s hiding back there?”
“Lord Delaford’s father,” I say with a wink. “A-hunting on the green. The sheet’s an improvement. He was always a sourpuss.”
As Williams fiddles with the machine, Ella makes plans. “Look at these,” she gestures toward the reels packed in their crate. “We’ll have dinner and a movie every night until Christmas.” As if it’s been decided that the men will be permanent residents.
Hotchkiss sits in the big plush red chair, and she perches on its arm.
“Where’s Rivera?” Williams asks when he’s ready to show the film.
“He wanted to see the library,” I say. “Shall we wait for him?”
“No, he wouldn’t like it.”
Not like us to wait? Not like the movie? I take my place on the velvet couch, holding back a sigh. Williams starts the film, and pale images flicker and wave against the sheet. A large, too-white face, a pair of knees, a blurred foot, then the camera focuses and two boys appear. If our guests had been expecting cartoons or adventure, mystery or romance, then they’re experiencing profound disappointment, for these are the Delafords’ home movies, which are as dull as dust. And yet tonight, with our company and the wine, somehow the films are transformed into real entertainment. There are the Delaford boys at the beach, their damp, drooping swimming trunks. Lord Delaford standing in front of the house, saluting, and his uniform so stiff and new the pants might not bend at the knees. The young masters, dressed in matching robes and pajamas, tearing into a pile of Christmas packages. Lady D—Lah Dee Dah, as we used to call her—in fur coat and heels, posing in front of her famous roses, a pair of shears in her elegant hands. She pretends not to notice the camera, which is ridiculous with that get-up and hairdo, the penciled eyebrows. By the time the reel is through we’re all laughing as if we were watching skilled comedians, and not just the poor, sad, silly Delafords. Hotchkiss has his arm around Ella.
“Anyone for more wine?” I stand too fast, and everyone pretends not to see. As I’m plucking a full bottle from the sideboard I glance down the hallway. A light is on in the library, illuminating a black sleeve. Rivera appears to be reading. I fill everyone’s glass before settling back on my couch. Hotchkiss and Ella clink their glasses as Williams starts a new reel. Projected on the sheet hanging over old Lord Delaford, we now see our very own table decked out for another party—dressed with the same crisp cloth, the same shining silver, even the same crystal glasses we’re drinking from right now, only on the screen they’re filled with lemonade, not wine. There’s food, too—little bowls of nuts and candy (I remember a younger me slipping a salted almond into my mouth) and bigger bowls filled with some sort of fruit—grapes or cherries. Streamers hang from the ceiling and criss-cross the air above the table, which is crowded with boys in jackets and ties. A birthday party.
The camera focuses on the eldest Delaford heir, who sits at the head of the table, a pointed hat on top of his head. Then we see the cake in front of him—a beauty the size of a hatbox and covered with white frosting and candles and licorice train tracks and candy railcars. As soon as the boy blows out his ten candles—was it really just ten years ago?—a tall girl in a dark dress is there to pluck them out of their bed of icing, their wicks still smoking, and set them on a plate. Then the person holding the camera—not a Delaford—backs up, taking in the whole table, the boys squirming in their seats, getting as much cake on their faces as in their mouths. Back and back the camera goes, revealing more of the party—the balloons hanging from the chandelier, the presents heaped on another table.
Now the camera is on the tall girl, who’s standing off to the side, ready to gather up a dirty plate, offer a clean fork, mop spilled lemonade. A servant girl, not at all the proper subject for a Delaford film, still, the camera, insistent, comes closer and rises to my face. What am I? Fifteen and hardly recognizable in that loose dress, my hair pinned up. But the smile I give the man behind the camera is mine. The smile and the wink, a face familiar with amusement, joy even.
I hear Williams sigh from behind the projector, and I realize that I’m staring at the makeshift screen, that my hand is gripping my knee. I sense that Ella, too, is hardly moving. But the camera has already swung back to the boys again. A doughy fellow blows his party horn into the ear of his neighbor, while the younger Delaford picks up his spoon and catapults a cherry across the table, causing the boy across from him to slap his hand to his eye. Just then the film shakes a little and blurs, as the cameraman succumbs to a fit of mirth, and we’re all laughing, too, here in this room. Ella snuggles closer into Hotchkiss’s arm. Williams, his eyes on the screen, is grinning, and I’m studying his face, watching him closely because if I think about the film, about the man with the camera, if I let myself picture Edward as he was that day, I’ll enter some dark place—whether beyond the moon or buried deep in the earth, I don’t know—but I’ll go there and I won’t ever be able to come back here to flowers and dresses, steam rising from a pot of tea, my trowel digging in the garden, the laundry flapping in a sunny breeze. I’ll be gone forever from all of that, from Ella, from myself. So instead I study Williams.
Even laughing he looks tired, and I see his hair has gone a bit gray on the sides—too soon, I guess, but he’ll be fine. The war will end and he’ll go home and write poetry, and young girls with pale legs and blue dresses will stand in line at book shops, waiting to get a glimpse of his romantic eyes. They’ll want to see how his waving hair falls over his brow, how he holds his pen and writes his name across the pages they hold open for him. There’s not a hint of swagger in him, but his autograph shows he knows his worth, making him even more attractive to all of them. Yes, Williams will be alright, I think, as he sets up a new reel and another film begins, just white light on the sheet at first. Across the room, Hotchkiss gives Ella a squeeze then pulls her onto his lap.
There are footsteps behind me. Rivera. I hadn’t heard him come in. I don’t turn my head, but I see his dark profile from the corner of my eye, feel the cushions shift as he sits down beside me. We stay like that for so long—two statues, almost, except for our breathing. I don’t even know that his hand has moved until the tip of his index finger is on my wrist. Just for a moment, then it travels to my palm, tracing its lines. The smallest movement.
I’m not myself.
I want to take his hand in mine, bring it up to my lips. Instead I sit, transfixed. I stare at the makeshift screen in front of me, sure that if I so much as blink I’ll break the spell. And I’m rewarded for my stillness because the film lasts forever—picnics, horses, more Christmases and birthdays and then horses again. Lady Delaford with another lady who could be her twin. Rivera still sits a foot apart from me, but our hands are clasped. It’s all we can manage. If we turn our heads, if we look at each other, we’ll melt. My heart beats, and I know the movie will never end. I’ll sit beside Rivera on the velvet couch forever, holding my breath.
And then the film is over. Ella and Hotchkiss are whispering, and she disentangles herself from him. She stands, yawns widely, and makes the surprising statement that she’s all done in. Beside me Rivera has moved. My hand is empty.
Williams begins to put the films back in their tins, but Ella stops him. “We can do that in the morning.” She yawns again. Poor Hotchkiss. “Don’t bother about your things. We’ll bring them to you tomorrow.” Williams and Rivera move towards the door. They are saying goodnight to us. How much wine did I drink? I didn’t see poor Hotchkiss leave. How quickly will the night go by? How soon until I bring Rivera breakfast?
“Don’t go yet,” Ella says to the men, her foot on the first stair, already on her way up to bed. “This is your party. Let Lucy make you some tea. I’m awfully dull, but Lucy’s wide awake, she still wants your company,” my sister, charming in curls and creased satin, urges them.
I stare at her. Her look pleads.
I turn to the men. “You don’t have to go just yet, do you? There’s pudding left, and I could make tea.”
“It’s late,” Rivera says in his beautiful somber tones. Our eyes meet before he turns to leave. He’s telling me something with his eyes—I’m not sure what, but I’m sure that I love him.
“But you can’t leave,” Ella calls to Williams. “You don’t want to leave Lucy alone.”
I shake my head, embarrassed. “You must be tired.”
“No, I’d like to stay.” The kindest eyes.
“Good, you’ll have your party then,” Ella says. “Goodnight everyone,” she calls and escapes up the stairs.
Williams follows me to the kitchen. We’re quiet as I put the kettle on to boil. Finally I ask him what happened to Hotchkiss. “He just disappeared. Was he unwell?”
Williams looks down at the table where he sits. “Hotchkiss is fine.” Williams’s cheeks are flushed.
I wave my hand as if to stop a speeding car. “You don’t have to stay, really,” I say, anxious to show I understand now. “I’ll sleep in the little parlor tonight. I do it all the time. Ella snores something fierce, you know,” I add.
“No, I want to stay—that is, if it’s alright with you.” And so he stays and we both have tea and an extra portion of the pudding. We talk more freely than we have before, as if we’ve always been friends. He tells me that they were sent to draw maps of the area.
Once the truck is running, they still have a long way to travel. I tell him about the Delafords—how the boys both joined the service, that the parents are now dead. After a while I bring the pudding over and we take turns eating the last of it out of the pan.
When he stands to leave I walk him to the door. I picture him as he must have been before the war. A good husband, a father. Yes. That’s why the film of the birthday party made him sigh. He has a little boy of his own, and a daughter too, I decide. She used to ride on his shoulders. A daughter with pale brown curls. She remembers him. She’ll run to him, laughing, when he returns, when he climbs the front stairs.
In the morning I wake up on the velvet couch, a black and red afghan over my knees. A sound has woken me. The cough and sputter of an engine.
I fly up the stairs. Ella is in the washroom, undressed and humming, sponging herself with a dripping cloth.
I grab her hand, and she’s frantically tying a robe that clings to her wet body and we’re hurrying to the side yard, to the stable. The tent is already gone and the men have their jackets on. They thank us for our hospitality, the excellent food, the even-better company. We’ll find Lord Delaford’s clothes lying over the couch in the large front parlor, they say, then Hotchkiss and Williams each kiss us good-bye. Ella makes Hotchkiss’s clothes wet—shirt and pants both—as she presses herself against him. She looks up at Rivera, who comes over and kisses her hand. He takes a step toward me, reconsiders, and our parting is marked only by one last somber look.
“We’ll meet again!” Hotchkiss calls before he jumps into the truck. The tires begin to roll, and he puts his head out the window and waves. Rivera is driving. The truck is moving away from us and onto the road and our legs are moving. We break into a run, chasing the truck. Our feet are bare and Ella’s robe flaps open. The distance between us grows, but we run and run until the truck grows smaller and then disappears, the engine a distant hum and then gone. We stand, slightly bent, our gasping the only sound around us. No flicker, no fox, no squirrel. When I’ve caught my breath, I straighten and start to turn toward the house, but she catches my hand. “Let’s not go back.”
“But where will we go?”
“Anywhere—to the city.”
“It would take us two weeks to walk that far. And where would we live? What would we eat?”
“Does that matter to you? Do you care?”
I think of all the picnics we two have shared on the plot of grass by Lady Delaford’s roses. The salads of cucumbers and potatoes. Our tea and our garden and the comfortable bed with its smooth sheets and its eiderdown. The rows of shoes and dresses. The library. How far away are the men now? Will Williams see his wife, his children again? And Rivera. He has a home somewhere.
“We’ll take the lightest blankets,” I tell Ella. “I’ll fill the flasks with water and take what food I can. Can you find pants and sweaters and comfortable shoes for us?”
“Yes, yes, of course. The boys’ rooms are full of things that’ll fit us.” We never liked them much, the young lords. Sometimes, though, if you caught them at the right moment—if they were frightened or very sleepy or very happy, chasing a kite or caught up in some silly song they were singing at the tops of their lungs—then they almost seemed like little boys we could love, like we were their sisters and it was our joy to watch over them.
“We’ll need a rope and matches and a tarp,” I continue, but Ella isn’t listening. She would have us leave with nothing. “Gloves. An ax and a knife.” Ella strides ahead of me into the house. “Two small towels, a bar of soap, toothbrushes, a roll of bandages, and antiseptic, just in case.”
I’ve finished packing by the time she comes down in a pair of gray trousers and a moss-green sweater. She hands a similar outfit to me.
“Lantern!” I say.
Our backs strapped with supplies and a canvas bag in each hand, we leave the house. We shut the door and don’t look back.
“What’s the hurry?” I call. Ella is ahead, pumping her arms. I’m sure she’ll wear herself out before we get past the Henderson place. She ignores my call.
I know her. She would like to spend the night in the woods—even in the midst of our flight she yearns for romance. But of course we can’t go that far today. Instead, when evening comes, we tuck ourselves into the musty straw of an empty barn. For our supper we have what’s left of the cake we baked for the men. While I’m cutting it, Ella reaches into her pack and draws out a bottle.
“To Hotchkiss,” she says, raising the wine to her lips.
“To Hotchkiss!” I repeat and take a swig.
“You’re drunk,” she tells me later.
“Yes, it’s lovely.”
“I could die happy right now.” She snuggles down into our bed of blankets and straw.
“Perhaps we will,” I say.
“Yes, maybe there’s a plane over us now, ready to drop its bomb.”
“Or an enemy unit is outside with rifles aimed at the door.”
“A thief made desperate by deprivation could grab us in the woods tomorrow night and kill us for our cheese.”
“Dying for cheese! I like that!”
Later, half-sleeping, I hear Ella’s voice again. “Do you want to go home tomorrow, Lucy? We can, you know.”
“No,” I murmur. “I want to go on.”
“Me too. I want to go on and on until I see Hotchkiss again. I want to see him and kiss his mouth.”
I’m fully awake again. “Williams for me then?”
“No, we’ll keep him for his wife. You’ll have to take the Spaniard. You’ll have to take Rivera.”
“But I like Williams. He’s so nice, and he’ll be known for his poetry.”
“No, you’ve got to take Rivera. He wants to be taken. We didn’t flirt with him like we did with Hotchkiss. That was a mistake. We were intimidated by him, by his beauty, by his silence, but I think he was the saddest of the men. You have to find Rivera and give him cake with your fingers and kiss him.”
I half-laugh, half-sigh. “That’s lovely. That’s why I want to go on with you—because you say things like that. Let’s make them all cakes. Let’s find them all and bring them cakes and kiss them.”
She stirs. “Let’s find the two young Delafords, too. We can darn their socks and sweaters like we used to.”
“And Robert, the boy who worked at the Vinley place? The one with the rosy lips?”
“Alright, we’ll find him, too.”
“And Sebastian, the one who had a way with horses? I always liked him.”
“Yes, we’ll find Robert and Sebastian and the little lords and all the neighbor boys and Hotchkiss and all of them.”
“And Edward?” It’s easy to say his name after all.
Ella catches her breath. “Yes, Edward, most of all. Our darling, our Eddie, our Eddie, our own boy.” We say our brother’s name again and again, and it’s like tasting wine for the first time.
“Our Eddie, our brave, brave, beautiful boy. He didn’t want to join.” A sob catches in my throat this time.
“It was always the three of us,” my sister says fiercely. “Eddie and Lucy and Ella.”
“But we’ll find him and bring the nicest cake to him, and the three of us will be so happy.”
“We’ll find them all, Lucy. We’ll find them and feed them and keep them warm.” We’re quiet for a long time. She raises her head and kisses my cheek. “Goodnight,” she says.
“Goodnight,” I say, almost warm in our blankets.
She puts her arm around me. I take her hand. I feel myself falling into sleep, and she’s saying, “We’ll find all the sweet and beautiful boys.”
This story originally appeared in The Milo Review.
Header photo of by MikesPhotos, courtesy Pixabay.