The car swayed gently through easy curves as the car slid south down the two-lane highway. The engine whispered, even at seventy-five miles an hour. David glanced at the map on the passenger seat, but he knew by heart where he was going. He pressed Play on the CD player sitting on the seat, and the Brahms Third Violin Sonata swam through the still air.
Mary Ann had read his palm four years ago, just before he left Despertar.
“These three small breaks in your lifeline,” she said, “may frighten you. They will seem life-changing, but they will be hiccups, brief interruptions to help you awaken.” Her fingertip gently traced his palm and she looked up. Her eyes echoed the deep golden flowers swimming on her rich purple dress.
He cleared his throat. “When will they happen?”
“I believe one already has.”
“The car accident when I was a teenager?”
Mary Ann nodded. “The others? It's hard to say. They seem close together here, but it's hard to read that in years.” Her bracelets made a comforting jingle and clink. “Don't be anxious, David. You have a very long lifeline. We all have bumps in the road along the way. You have many surprises in store for you. Savor them. Every one.”
“Do you see anything about . . . my love life?”
“Yes. Your heart line. I see only two significant loves for you. The first one is quite short. This person may seem at first to be a kindred spirit. But the second is your love soul mate.” She closed his hand. “It will be a deep bond. For the rest of your life.”
A steady wind was blowing the palm fronds, but he could not hear their rattling as they pointed the way. The car swallowed the miles in silence. A nineteen-thirty-nine Series 452 Cadillac. Sixteen cylinders, one hundred eighty-five horses. He patted the dashboard. Thanks, Uncle Jess, for getting me where I have to go in grand style.
He came to the ramp just as the ferry was docking. All hands on the craft gawked at the Cadillac asking him the model and year. He leaned back against the front fender, closed his eyes and breathed in salt air, as the ferry churned and slapped the waves. At the dock the odor of dead fish wafted up from the shore.
The beach road slid under him, pale yellow and luminous in the sun with thousands of scallop shells ground almost to dust. He had scarcely thought about Beth the whole trip. She would be at the computer in her little cubicle staring at the design of a book cover. Then she and Andrea would have lunch at Pasquale's, as they always did. When Beth got home, Minnaloushe would be at the door, tail twitching, looking for him, but glad to have Beth pick her up and give her kisses.
The sand and shell road slipped under him, and in no time he pulled into the driveway beside the low sprawling house. The carport was empty. Maybe she wasn't home. Maybe she didn't even live here anymore.
Mary Ann came to the door, and he took a deep breath. Inside, he was surrounded by faint wisps of incense in a dim living room.
“Welcome.” She took his hand.
“I'm so glad you're still here,” he said.
“I've been waiting for you.”
“I couldn't find an address. I wasn't sure you were still on the island. I came down here hoping . . .
“You listen well.”
“Listen . . .?”
She tapped her chest. “To this voice,” she said.
“Yes. I remembered when you read my palm, and I have come to a point . . . Well, I thought a reading would help me make some decisions.”
She crossed the room and sat on the couch. The black silk dress with its tiers of fringe swayed and shimmered. He sat on a rattan chair near the door.
“I dreamed about you,” she said. “I was reading for you, but when I woke, the only card I could remember was the Two of Wands.”
“Did that foretell something?”
“That card often suggests travel.”
“And here I am.”
“With a dilemma.”
“The card also suggests the beginning of clarity about a choice.”
David nodded. “I hope so.”
“A reading will probably clarify all this. Right now . . . how about some lunch?”
“I'd love to.”
She looked back over her shoulder as she walked away. “In the kitchen.” He followed her and the trembling dress. “The sweet liquefaction of her clothes,” he thought.
On the other side of the swinging door, unfettered afternoon sunlight drenched the pale blue kitchen and the patio beyond. Mary Ann quickly put together a fruit and veggie salad while he sliced a loaf of crusty bread for the cheese.
The bite of salt in the air, the sharp outlines of shadows, the clusters of palmettos, the hiss of wind in the pines and Australian oaks. It was as though he had never left the island. He had met Mary Ann only that once, but he remembered her eyes, gold-brown flecked with green, her high cheekbones, the deep pools of shadow cradled behind her collar bones. He had already begun to paint her portrait.
David helped clean up the dishes, and they stood a moment at the sink.
“What a refreshing lunch. Thank you.”
“You're most welcome. I enjoyed it too. Now let me show you the room.” She led the way through a study: an antique desk, bookshelves, photographs, prints, and paintings. In the far corner on a low table rested a large statue of a reclining nude woman.
“I hope you'll be comfortable here,” she said as she opened the door. “My grandmother was my designer, you might say. Everything here belonged to her.”
A crocheted runner spilled down the sides of a chest of drawers with its tarnished mirror reflecting a large pitcher with hand-painted flowers set in its matching basin. She had carefully placed a silver-backed brush and comb on one side and a stack of old books on the other, with a vintage copy of The Great Gatsby on top. Over the bed hung a photograph of a woman with an expression of coy haughtiness wearing a sleeveless black dress made dull and fuzzy by a mist of silver tarnish. A worn and pale quilt lay across the bed with lace shams on the pillows. Draped on a rack at the foot of the bed, an Afghan with a black ground gave the bland room a burst of bright colors.
“Did your grandmother make the Afghan?”
“She did. Back in the twenties.” She pushed open the bathroom door. “Here's the loo.”
“I feel as though I've stepped back in time.”
“Maybe you have.” She smiled. “Well, we can both get settled into a quiet place. It's time for my practice and meditation. And you can get some rest after your trip.”
She closed the door behind her, taking her brave vibrations with her.
After a few moments, he peeked out the door to confirm his first impression. What a stunning piece of sculpture, the work of a master. And, yes, it was Mary Ann. Svelte, but muscular and curvy. No wonder that dress moved so seductively. But he had come here to think about Beth, not Mary Ann. He stretched out on the bed in his shorts and tee. Beth. They had been together two years, married one. It had begun that night at the reception for his exhibit at the Phoenix Avenue Gallery.
“I love your work, David Collier.” A petite young woman in pink jeans, a fuchsia tank top, and silver flats had peered up at him through horn-rimmed glasses. She took his hand and kissed it.
“Thank you,” he said.
“It's rare to see portraits so revealing. I feel as if I know their secrets. Especially the woman in the floppy hat. We both work at Maxwell and Tyler.”
“Her fiancé commissioned it,” he said.
“Mark? We used to date.” Her eyeliner flipped up at the corners of her eyes, giving her an impish look.
“And you are?”
“Beth Robertson. I took back my so-called maiden name.”
“I see,” he said.
“Everybody calls me Elfie. “
“I'd love to sit for you, Mr. Sargent. Maybe I can be your 'Egyptian Girl.'”
She put her hand at the back of his neck, pulled herself up on her tiptoes, and kissed him on the cheek. Backing away, she covered her mouth with her fingers. “Oh, I'm sorry,” she said as she wiped plum lipstick from his face. She smiled and drifted back into the crowd.
Elfie. Flirtatious, impulsive. But behind those eyes she clung to a deep fear and sorrow. At first, he had thought that knowing her secrets would unravel the tangle of her emotions. Closing his eyes, he tried to dissolve the image of her face in his mind. Finally, he slid into shallow sleep.
A tall woman in a dark shawl walked along the bank of a brook, twining violets into her auburn hair. She did not see him following on the opposite side, birch by birch. Far ahead, partially hidden by a copse of trees, a bridge arched in mist across the stream. The woman disappeared into the trees as he made his way through the sedge and blue flowerets covering the banks. Below the bridge, slate-gray rocks, streaked like wood grain, held steady in the current, as serpentine grasses wavered, trying to carry her hair away.
He went in the bathroom and splashed water on his face, then lay down again. Ophelia. A large print of the Millais painting hung in his studio, and Beth's unfinished portrait leaned against the wall below it.
Beth gave him a loud smack on the cheek and walked into his studio.
“You're marked,” she said on her way to the wingback chair by the windows. She sat on the edge of the chair arching her back stiffly.
“Relax,” he said. “You might get tired before we take a break.”
Beth nodded and leaned back, letting her shoulders drop a little.
“We need your eyes.” He removed her glasses and slipped them in his shirt pocket.
She gave him a slight frown. “I thought I was 'your little nerd.'”
“I'll try to capture your intellectual curiosity in your eyes. And could we lose the jacket?”
She held out her arm and looked at the sleeve. “But it's me.”
“It is you. But it's not me,” he said. “I want those collarbones. And your lovely neck.”
“That maroon tank top is perfect,” he said. “Wonderful scoopy neckline, but the jacket is in the way.”
She opened the jacket and pulled the lapels away from her neck to expose a little more of the top.
David wanted to say how much he loved her shoulders and arms, too, but he decided not to insist. He adjusted the position of the easel and studied her a moment. “Your right arm. Rest it on the back of the chair. Turn your body to the right. That's it. Now your head. Turn it toward me. I love it,” he said. “Almost as much as I love you.”
The clanging of cookware startled him.
“I guess I needed a nap,” he said as he sat at the kitchen table. “Anything I can do to help?”
“I'm fine. Put your feet up. I love to cook.”
Mary Ann had changed into black jeans and a lavender blouse, loose and sleeveless. Her dark chestnut hair danced shadows down her back.
“That sculpture in the study . . . what splendid craftsmanship. It's beautiful.”
“Thank you.” She closed the refrigerator and carried vegetables and a cutting board and knife to the table.
“When I studied at Ringling, I modeled for classes. My mentor Alan was a fine sculptor. It was his graduation gift.”
“You studied sculpture?”
“This island is a watercolorist's dream.”
“It really is.”
“I'd love to see your work.”
“It's all in my studio. We'll take a tour.” She began chopping the veggies.
“Careful,” he said. “You're going so hard and fast at those veggies. Don't cut yourself.”
“Don't worry. They trained me well.”
“Le Cordon Bleu. A little side trip in my life. I always wanted to be a chef. When I was studying in Paris one year, I got bored with sketching the masters in the museums.”
After baked swordfish and steamed vegetables, they settled in the living room for coffee. They talked about current residents of the island community of artists, many of whom he remembered.
“A composer lives in your old house now. At night I can hear him at work on his piano.”
“Film scores. And classical, too, I think. He has friends come over for evenings of chamber music.”
“I think you moved here right before I left,” he said.
“Yes. And right before Alan died.”
“We knew . . . from the beginning.”
She wiped her cheeks with the back of her hand.
“Mary Ann. I'm so sorry.” He leaned towards her.
She held up her hand. “I'm all right.”
“I don't know what to say.”
“You don't need to say anything. I hear you.” She held her hand against her chest and took a deep breath. “Are you ready for that reading?”
“If you are.”
“I'll be right back,” she said. In a few moments she set a wooden chest on the floor and pulled out a midnight blue, fringed cloth to cover the table between them. After she set up everything, she closed her eyes, hands on the table, palms up, thumbs and fingers held in a mudra. Incense drifted from the mantel and the flames of green and violet candles flickered across her face. Beside a small notebook sat a worn Tarot deck wrapped in a purple paisley scarf.
She took several deep breaths and looked up. “What is your main question?”
“I don't know. I have so many.”
“You want to know what lies ahead. The near future.”
“That will keep the reading open. Not too narrow. More insights will come up that way.”
As she spread the cards around in a random mix across the table, a card fell on the floor. She glanced at it and put it back into the swirl of cards. She gathered the cards and shuffled them overhand. “The cards will tell me when to stop mixing.” She gathered the cards into a squared deck, and as she cut it, another card popped out onto the table. She inserted it in the middle and gave him the deck. “You give it a few cuts, too.”
Another card fell out as he made the cut. “We're clumsy tonight.” He laughed.
“It's not us.” She picked up the card and looked at it. “It's the same card. Three times. It has something to say to you.” She set it aside face down.
She dealt the first two cards, and The Tower stared up at him, a sky filled with lightning, a man and woman falling from a tower in flames.
“That doesn't look good,” he said.
“Don't panic. Chaos doesn't last forever. This signifies an ending, but also a new beginning following the disruption. You should let it all happen as it will.”
She dealt the rest of the cards in a Celtic spread and jotted them down in the notebook. As she went through the reading, Mary Ann explained what the cards seemed to be revealing. She pointed to the Devil card. “This might seem scary. It's not about evil, though, but fleshly pleasures. Being enthralled. Does that mean anything to you?”
“That word enthralled.”
“It just came up for me,” she said.
“It makes me think of a line in a poem. ‘A faery child hath thee in thrall.'”
“'La Belle Dame sans Merci'.”
“Keats. I learned it because there are so many paintings of the story.”
“Have you been thinking about the poem lately?”
“Maybe I got it from your subconscious. Or from something in your life right now. She held up a card. “The Three of Cups, the only card depicting more than one woman. You have very strong feminine energy in your life right now. Three women celebrating with dancing, laughter, cups of wine. I sense a joyful ending to a struggle. It's also a new beginning, too.”
“Like the Tower.”
“Yes. I'm glad you saw that. Often the cards work well together. And, of course, whatever you think about any of these, or what I've said, that's the meaning for you. The first thing that comes to you is the best understanding. Trust your inner voice to tell you what you need to see.”
She turned over the card that she had set aside. “And that is what the High Priestess wants to say to you. Trust your intuition. No one knows better than you what path to take, which choice is right for you. That is the message of the Two of Wands in my dream, too. Trust. Don't force anything. When the time is right, you will know.”
“I hope so,” he said.
Pale slats of light fell across the bed from the floods bathing the patio. Slices of light crossed him, moved over his body as he lay down. Phrases from the Keats poem kept turning over in his mind: Hath thee in thrall. I made a garland for her head. And fragrant zone. Sweet moan.”
Afterplay. Beth would fling her arms over her head and grab hold of the rungs of the headboard. Giggling, she would say, “It's time for the postlude.” When she was a kid, she had played a wheezy little organ in the country church where her parents had taken her. The preacher had frightened her with his tales of bitter suffering in hell for anyone who “strayed.” But she loved playing for the hymns as her mother had taught her on the old family upright.
“I used to play 'O sacred head sore wounded' as the postlude. No one knew what it was. I always thought it was a big joke because I dreamed of the preacher in hell with his head battered and blood matting his thick gray hair. He strayed all over the place.”
“My little sprite,” David called her. “My Sunday school sprite and little devil.”
They made love following the same patterns every time, all according to her instructions and commands.
“The keyboard is ready. And the organ pedals,” she would say, curling her toes. “Start there.” She squeaked and squirmed as he kissed her arches.
He had the routine memorized: down the curl under the toes back and forth. “Little piggies.” That was the cue to run his tongue between them, and nibble each one, starting with the pinky. Finally, the big toe. “Suck the polish off. I want to see a purple tongue.” She'd shudder, grab his hand, and bite into the palm with her nails.
Their lovemaking followed her scripts. Her three or four scenarios were variations of each other, whimsical fantasies. Their love sessions seemed playful and quirky, but every move, every line was planned. And replayed over and over.
That might explain The Devil card, he thought. Enthralled. Circe, the sirens, dryads, mermaids. The Waterhouse painting of Hylas and the Naiades. And his La Belle Dame. Alluring, elusive, the nymphs promised pleasure, excitement, danger. History was filled with hundreds of paintings and poems, cautionary tales. These mythical women offered mortal man the unattainable, often the gift of immortality, or its curse.
The actual question nagging him hadn't come up in the reading. He had decided not to bring it up, maybe out of cowardice, but Mary Ann had told him that he was on a path of destiny and that neither the cards nor her vision could reveal a definite answer. It was up to him to trust his inner guidance. So, he had remained silent.
David had walked into the living room with the bottle in his hand. Beth sat on the couch, feet tucked, a reading lamp clipped to her book. The light bounced off the page and lit her blond hair in a halo around her small features. Vermeer would have loved this lighting, he thought. Then he felt the weight of the bottle held at his side. He held it up.
“What's this?” he asked.
“A wine bottle.”
“We don't drink wine,” he said.
“Andrea brought it.”
She took her glasses off and set them on the open book. “I don't know. Saturday.”
“We were at the Renaissance Fair Saturday.” He put the bottle on the coffee table.
“It was weeks ago.”
“I know. She drank the whole thing.” She glanced up at the overhead light and blinked.
“Andrea? I've never seen her drink like that.”
“She was feeling down about something Victor said. “
He picked up the bottle. “And this?” He walked over so she could see the imprint of pink-orange lips on the label.
Beth set the book on the couch beside her and put on her glasses. She laughed. “I guess she got a little carried away with herself.”
“It's your color.”
“I guess I got carried away. I was trying to cheer her up. Acting silly. You know me.”
“I don't think I do know you.”
“That's not my fault. I'm an open book. And you know how I like to mark everything.”
“Did you mark her?”
“David! What a thing to say. That's mean.”
He put the bottle back on the table. “Beth, I know.”
“I'm not crazy. I found the note from her.”
“No, it was in plain sight. No envelope. Sitting on the clothes hamper. I was about to throw it away, but I flipped it open to see if it was something important.”
Beth got up from the couch, tossed the book behind her, and flounced out of the room. In a minute he heard her car cough and start up. Through the window he could see her headed down the street. Her glasses had fallen on the floor, and he picked them up and put them on the table.
“Did you sleep well?” Mary Ann asked.
“Yes. The bed is very comfortable.”
“Good. Relax with some tea and oranges.”
“All the way from China?” he asked.
“Of course.” She poured the tea. “Can you sing it?” she asked. “While I conjure something special?” She went into the kitchen.
He called through the window, “I'm a terrible singer. Why don't you sing while you cook?”
She sang the melody, la-la-la. “I can't remember the words. It's a beautiful poem, though. Oh, yes. At the end. 'There are heroes in the seaweed, there are children in the morning. They are leaning out for love and they will lean that way forever.'”
“Very nice. Leonard would love it.”
They ate on the patio and afterward sat sipping lattes in the morning breeze from the ocean. Mary Ann was spiffy, his mother would have said. Navy blue Bermudas and a teal tank top. Her hair in a ponytail. She kicked off her sandals and put her feet on another chair.
“I hope the reading was helpful.
“It was. More than you know. Mary Ann, I am grateful for everything you have done for me. The reading. The lively conversations. And the incredible French toast.”
She laughed. “And the guy who gave me this recipe had been making it for thirty years in his little cafe in Manhattan.”
“I love surprises like that.” He set his napkin on the table. “Before I go, may I ask a favor?”
“I brought my sketchbook. I'd love to do some drawings.”
She held her hand out in a Mucha gesture. “I thought you'd never ask.”
“Do you know Mucha?”
“The artist Alphonse Mucha.
“The cigarette paper ads?”
“Yes. And the beguiling stares of those lovely women who helped sell it. With that gesture.” He mimicked the pose.
She looked at her hand back and front, then held it out again, with middle fingers tucked and the pinky lifted. “I was channeling again,” she said, smiling. “Where do you want me?”
“The light is perfect in the shade under that oak.”
“Let me change. Won't take a second.”
“I'll get my stuff from the car.”
She got back to the patio before he did. In the black dress.
“Lovely,” he said.
“I've been thinking about this gown since I woke up.”
“It's the one in the photo over the bed, isn't it?”
“Grandmother. Today is the anniversary of her death.”
“Oh, dear,” he said.
“Long ago. Thirty-eight years before I was born.”
They carried their chairs out to the tree and she sat in front of the broad trunk.
“You look like a flapper straight out of the twenties.”
“In this dress I am.”
“Turn to the right a little. Perfect. Beautiful profile. Very elegant.”
“It's the dress.”
“It's you. Very nice pose. Your right shoulder, though. Relax.” The strap of the dress slipped off her shoulder and fell down her arm. She started to lift it back. “No, no. Leave it right there.”
“Oh, yes,” she said. “The famous strap. I always did want to be Madame X.”
After twenty minutes, he turned the drawing so she could see it.
“Oh, David, that's so . . . I even look like Grandmother.”
“Do you think?”
“It's the line of my nose. It's perfect.”
Several drawings later, they took a break for a walk on the beach. On the way back to the house, the silence was filled with the crunching of pine needles under their feet, a brown carpet laid down by the tall, long needle pines in her side yard. Mary Ann stopped and stared at his car in the drive.
“Your car,” she said.
“It's really something, isn't it?”
“I've been looking at it since you got here. It has haunted me.”
“Would you like to take a spin?”
She put her hand on his arm as she stared at the car. “Why did you say that?”
“It might be fun.”
“I have a photo my grandfather took. Bless his soul. My grandmother in this dress, one foot on the running board of a car just like this, leaning back like she owned the world.”
The beach road, hard sand and ground shells, whispered a crackling hiss under the tires. The wind tossed her hair.
“Nineteen-forty-one,” she said. “August fifth. My grandmother Eulalia and a family friend, Terrence, went on a joyride, right before he was to leave for war. In a car just like this. They were lovers, though my grandfather never knew. The road was lined with oak trees.” She covered her face with her hands. David started to pull over.
“No,” she said. “Please keep going.”
He put his hand on her shoulder and she pressed it with hers.
At the northern tip of the island, the road ended in a wide space to turn around. In silence they walked over the dunes. He took her hand, and as they walked, the waves turned the sand to a dark glistening gray at their feet.
“Eulalia,” she said. “I always loved those sounds. It's my middle name. She was thirty-five. So am I.”
They turned to go back to the car, hand in hand.
“For years I have relived the accident as though I had been there. You know, the slow-motion flashes of images. The steering wheel wrenched out of his hands. The dashboard turning up-side-down. Leaves flying over us.” She turned and pressed her face into his chest. The fringe of the gown was light and delicate as it fell, like tears, over his hands.
“I was there, David. The feeling is even stronger than it ever has been. And now I think you were with me.”
“Maybe I was.” He slid his fingers into her hair and tilted her face toward his. “But now we are here.”
She put her fingers on his lips. “Not now. We don't want to complicate things.”
On the front steps they hugged. He kissed her hair.
“Thank you so much. This has been a lovely visit,” he said.
“You're more than welcome.” She squeezed his hand.
“I have only one regret.”
“The tour of your studio . . . I was hoping to see your paintings.”
“I promise I won't sell one piece.”
“I'll hold you to that.”
As he eased down the driveway, she blew him a kiss. And he sent one back.
The wind filled the car with gentle echoes of beach wind. The Brahms violin sonata picked up where it had left off, and he turned up the volume. His hands rested lightly on the steering wheel as the car held steady through the curves. The photograph of Mary Ann's grandmother stayed with him, the black dress, the life Mary Ann had given it.