Winter Cottage by Mary Ellen Taylor
In coastal Virginia on a warm spring day, Mrs. Catherine Buchanan settles tired bones into her cane rocker. She carefully adjusts her green knit dress with gnarled but precise fingers. She is dressed for this occasion, but no amount of fussing or preening can approach the reckless beauty of the girl sitting across from her.
The girl has straight blonde hair and sharp blue eyes that remind the old woman that once her thin white hair was an unruly red mass of thick curls that tumbled down over tanned shoulders and full, high breasts. She was filled with hopes and dreams, and she too knew a man’s sensual touch. She was never as stunning as this girl, but she turned her fair share of heads.
The girl’s name is Elizabeth Kincaid Jessup—Beth to her friends. She has asked Mrs. Buchanan if she can record her stories with a camera borrowed from the high school library. It’s a living-history project, she says, and then adds quickly with refreshing honesty that she needs an A, so don’t hold back on the good stuff.
Youthful hands carefully unfurl the microphone wire attached to the camera. She has a devilish smile that reminds the old woman of another girl who lived here so long ago. And like the other girl, there are whispers about Beth. She runs with a fast crowd, drinks, and has been seen with several boys in town, some not so nice.
Girls like Beth think they have invented rebellion. They believe they’re the first to ignore the rules, but they are simply reinventing a wheel that has been rolling for hundreds of generations.
“Can I clip this to your collar?” Beth asks. “It’ll pick up the sound better when you talk.”
Beth’s gaze is drawn to the chandelier and then to a portrait of a young woman dressed for her wedding day. The painting hangs over the pearl marble fireplace embellished by a French mason with flowers, scrolls, and greenery.
Mrs. Buchanan doesn’t need to glance to see the portrait. She is the woman in the painting wearing a white satin dress fitted with a beaded bodice and an apron tunic of lace. Woven through red curls are strands of pearls and a waterfall of tulle that graces the floor behind her. The portrait was painted in this very room.
“Do you remember when it was painted?” Beth asks.
The old woman’s coy smile is for the man she loved. “Yes, I remember it all.”
The girl adjusts the focus button as she peers into a lens and then settles onto the floor, easily folding and crossing her legs. “You’ve lived by the bay for nearly a hundred years.”
“I have, for the most part.”
Beth grins. “I heard you know where all the bodies are buried.”
Beth shrugs. “A figure of speech. I don’t mean real bodies. Just the juicy stories about the area.”
Mrs. Buchanan straightens but keeps her expression in check. “Yes, I have stories. And buried in those stories is perhaps a body or two.”
Secrets bubble up as time loosens the bindings. There is no one left alive to protect now. “Shall we begin?”
The girl clears her throat and presses the record button. “I’m Beth Jessup, and I’m a senior at Cape Hudson High School. This is my final exam project for Mrs. Reynolds’s history class. I live on Chesapeake Bay’s Eastern Shore in Virginia, and today I’m interviewing Mrs. Catherine Buchanan, who was born in Cape Hudson in 1888. Mrs. Buchanan, can you tell me about your family?”
The rocker squeaks as Mrs. Buchanan leans forward a fraction. “My mother was Addie Smith, and my father was Isaac Hedrick. When my father wasn’t doing carpentry work, he was sailing with the merchant marines. I am the oldest of seven, and my mother died giving birth to her last child when I was twelve.”
The girl looks up, and her blue eyes reveal the pain of the loss of her own mother. At first glance, they might seem to be an odd pair, but strip away money and age and they are simply two motherless girls hungry for love.
“What happened after your mother died?”
“My father could not go to sea and also care for seven children, so he farmed us out. The boys went to the Jessups, a childless couple in town. My sisters were sent to live with families on the mainland, and I went to work for the Buchanans.”
“That must have been terrifying.”
Mrs. Buchanan locked this pain away a long time ago and is not anxious to handle it again. But when she agreed to this interview, she promised herself the truth would not die with her. “The Buchanans took me with them back to New York City. I was so homesick. The city was noisy. Bright. I didn’t really sleep for months. But I eventually learned to adapt and move forward.”
“Did you ever see your sisters or brothers again?”
“Eventually. But it would be a long time.” The words hung between them for several seconds before Beth cleared her throat.
“What did you do for the Buchanan family?”
“I assisted the ladies’ maids, and then later I became Miss Victoria’s personal maid.”
“Who was Victoria?”
A breeze sneaks past the silk taffeta curtains, and she feels the pull of the spirits that have been circling closer these last few months. Old pains bob like distant buoys.
“Mr. Buchanan’s daughter. She would later become my sister-in-law. In fact, you remind me of Victoria. She was restless like you.”
Beth’s grin is sly, as if she’s been busted. “What happened to her?”
The old woman smiled, pleased by the girl’s genuine curiosity. “Maybe if you come back another day I’ll tell you.”
“You’ve barely told me anything today.”
“If you want to know more, then you’ll have to come back. I’m old. I get tired easily.” A half truth at best. She wants to see the girl again. She enjoys talking to her.
“I work in the afternoons at the restaurant. I can’t afford to come back.”
“Then I’ll pay you. Consider it a new job.”
The wariness in the girl’s eyes reminds her of a wild fox her father once captured in a trap baited with fish. “I’m a pretty good waitress, Mrs. B. I make good tips.” Beth names her price but seems to expect some haggling.
Blue eyes widened. “Seriously? All I have to do is tape while you talk?”
“Correct. And be punctual.”
Beth seems to wait for the catch. When none comes, she says, “I’ll do it. But you have to pay me as we go.”
“Of course. Can you return this Friday?”
“Sure.” The girl’s gaze catches the portrait again, and she asks, “Was it love at first sight?”
Mrs. Buchanan is silent for a long moment. The drumbeat of secrets grows louder. “Yes. But that love wasn’t for my husband, Robert.”
Beth’s blue eyes are calculating, just like the fox’s were when he sniffed fresh fish in the trap. “Who?”
“See you on Friday.”