Thursday, August 09, 2007


Unsure of how long she would have to wait and unable to contain her nervous energy, she stood up and began to walk aimlessly around the room. Though her feet moved slowly, her eyes passed quickly over the room and then out of the large windows lining the side of the room across from the door.

Outside, half a dozen blackbirds congregated on the power lines watching a lone bird of tan and gold hop nimbly from branch to near-naked branch of a great oak nearby. She continued to watch, entranced, as two squirrels swept up the trunk of the massive tree in frantic, dizzying circles looking, presumably, for the last few acorns they could forage before fall finally gave way to winter. As the feuding squirrels neared the solitary bird, it sprung from its perch and drifted softly to the ground like so many leaves had before it.

Once there, it continued its quirky little hop off toward the front of the house where she knew it must be going to rummage under the bushes that trailed from each side of the stoop. For some reason she felt more connected to that lone, little bird hunting and pecking through everyone else's leftovers for something, anything of substance. She watched it hopping as long as she could see it, but it was gone before too long and her attention turned back toward the empty room.

As she turned back into the room, she caught a bit of motion out of the corner of her eye. She was instinctively drawn toward it. Heading along the windows back toward the front of the house, she rounded the edge of the couch and came to a corner hutch. The dim light from the dreary day only glinted slightly across the windows in the door. The movement came from inside the cabinet.

Looking around first to be sure she was still alone, she opened the cabinet door, reached in and pulled out an intricate porcelain carousel. Horses and dragons moved up and down on poles of gold filigree. The inner column boasted miniature scenes of people laughing and dancing as if there had never been anything bad in the world. She turned it over and over in her hands looking for the key she knew would play the song her heart so desperately longed for.

"It hasn't played in over a year," came a cold, crisp voice behind her. She turned abruptly to face the matron of the house, still clutching the carousel, willing her eyes to stay dry. "But it won't stop turning, either. My own little personal reminder that the show must go on even if the music's died…not that I need one, Lillian, do I?"

"My grandmother went by Lillian. Please, call me Lilly."

"Your grandmother was a commendable woman. You would do well to remember that and use her name with honor," huffed the old woman. "I swear, your generation has no sense of propriety."

"Forgive me, ma'am," retorted the younger, "but it was my father who first began calling me Lilly and it is his memory I would prefer to honor." Lilly's fingers tightened a bit on the trinket in her grasp and then loosed once more when she saw a slight shadow pass across her hostess's face.

The most sought after woman in her youth, Victoria Mackenzie had, like a fine wine, merely improved with age. Indeed, she was a woman of great grace, proficient at inspiring jealously, awe, admiration and fear. But something had changed since the last time Lilly had seen her.

Her silver-gray locks, once a rich mahogany brown, were now streaked here and there with wisps of pearly white. The highlighting effect it gave simultaneously softened her angular features and magnified the aura of careworn years draped like a shawl over her proudly drawn shoulders. After years of ruling her family and community with an iron fist, Mrs. Mackenzie was finally showing signs of growing weary.

Lilly took a moment to set the carousel gently on the nearest coffee table, not daring to turn her back on Victoria Mackenzie. Signs of wear, or no, she had no intentions of letting her hostess leave her sight again. The young maid appeared at the door to ask if the madam would like some refreshments brought in. After a short directive, she scurried away out of sight, leaving the two of them alone once more.

"Shall we have a seat, then? No need standing about for hours on end." Mrs. Mackenzie positioned herself in a high-backed chair nearest the entrance or, as Lilly saw it, the only exit. Leary, but eager to get the meeting over with as soon as possible, Lilly walked round to the front of the couch and lowered herself cautiously to the edge, careful not to make herself too comfortable, lest the encounter truly persist for "hours on end."

As if on cue, the maid padded back into the parlor, pushing a cart of tea and cakes. The haughty calico followed, stopping in the doorway to watch the nervous servant prepare the guest's and then her mistress' tea. It flicked its tail and waited as she dropped one and then another lump of sugar into each dainty porcelain cup resting in their matching saucers. After offering cream to each lady, the maid then proffered a third saucer from the cart, filled it with cream and placed it on the woven rug just beside the cart and waited as the cat loped up to it, sniffed it and tucked in happily for an afternoon treat.

When the maid left the room and closed the door behind her, Lilly knew she would not see her again today. She wondered if she would see her again, at all and hoped the answer was no. These thoughts ran involuntarily through her head as she absentmindedly stirred her tea, waiting for it to cool to sipping temperatures. Once again the crisp voice called her to.

"Now then, I suppose you are wondering why I asked you here today. Oddly enough, we're here to talk about that," she sighed, with a nod to the little coffee table on which Lilly has just placed the carousel, still turning in its own eerily silent reverie, "and this." Lilly's eyes followed as Mrs. Mackenzie lowered a jeweled hand and pointed her lithe fingers toward the foot of the cart. There her eyes met the golden-hazel stare of the calico cat.