In their white petticoats, and walking side by side, the two sisters were like phantoms upon the grounds.
“I always knew mother would die from fear of death,” Angela remarked as she and her sister toured their mother’s estate grounds. The sky was overcast and gray, but the afternoon was warm and Summery. “Not fear of her own end, of course, but of ours. She always fretted over the most innocent of bug bites and coughs.”
“I do recall several instances attesting as much,” Evelyn said, lifting her petticoats as she stepped over a broken branch from the great felled tree. The rest of the yew lay athwart the garden, broken limbs spread dramatically and smashing much of the hedges. “She fancied herself clairvoyant.”
“If so, she should not have bothered worrying so much,” her sister rejoined. “She should have reconciled with it and had done with fretting.”
“Remember when, only last year, she insisted we all have our funeral portraits taken? What nonsense! Only Thomas would indulge such an absurdity.”
“Thomas was always more heart than head,” Angela said. “He indulged mother’s every morbid whim.”
“It did pain her greatly when news came from the Front,” Evelyn said. “As it did all of us. But he is gone. Cast in some charnel countryside trench in Germany. That was what drove mother to the brink, I think. It was as if her prediction had come true.”
“Indeed,” Angela said, eyeing the yew tree disdainfully. It looked as an ancient, crooked titan fallen to the ground, one limb still raised, as if pleading for aid. “This falling tree was merely punctuation at the end of mother’s final sentence. But that is why one must never indulge the supernatural. It makes prey of the mind for every capricious fancy misread on the wind.”
“Indeed,” Evelyn said, sighing. She lifted her petticoats again, stepping gingerly through the scattered detritus of the shattered crown of the tree. Angela did not bother, and seemed to be dragging half of the splintered branches by her petticoats, like the charred bones of the war-strewn dead. Evelyn said nothing, but knew Angela was very stubborn about things, and set in her ways. “She was right about Thomas, though. He did die over the Eastern horizon.”
“As did many other men,” Angela said, scoffing. “It is an utter tragedy for us, naturally, but it is a tragedy for many other families as well. A tragedy for Great Britain! The rule, I dare say, rather than the exception. Mother’s supposed clairvoyance had naught to do with granting her especial insight into the outcome. We all knew it was a bedeviled enterprise. I believed Thomas would fall as well, though I hoped he would not.”
The two sisters fell silent, passing along the outer perimeter of the garden. After a few moments of glowering at the tree, Angela spoke again.
“The menfolk should be returning soon enough,” she said, “or what remains of them. Perhaps we may make a request of a few hearty young men to clear away this obscenity. And restore the garden. Mother’s estate has enough in its coffers to see to that, I would imagine.”
“What a frightful storm that was,” Evelyn remarked. “Little Edward and I felt it in Yorkshire. What fright mother must have felt to have it raging all around her!”
“Indeed,” Angela said. “One must wonder what it must be like in the trenches. I have read that it is most like a tempest, only with malice in its every gale.”
“That is because of their machines,” Evelyn said. “Such terribly clever machines of death.”
“And such godless machines,” Angela added. “To waste so many good young men. God should not allow it, but I suppose it could be a punishment.”
“Not for Thomas, surely!” Evelyn said quickly. “He never wronged anyone in his life, except in trying earnestly to make right by them. He was a sweet soul, however misled in the manner of his kindness.”
“Certainly,” her sister said. “What I mean to say is that these men are like the…avatars of Christ. I do not mean to blaspheme by invoking a pagan religion, but it is the only analogy by which I may express myself. They die for our sins. For mankind’s sins.”
“It seems unfair to them to shoulder such sacrifice.”
“As was it for Christ.”
“Do you believe he might, therefore, Rise again? Thomas, I mean. And not literally,” she added hastily. “Spiritually. To Heaven.”
Angela looked up at the overcast sky. It was still gray and bleak, and a warm wind whispered in the butchered hedges. “Thomas was always the believer among the three of us,” she said. “He was more like mother than either of us. I suppose if any should, he should.”
Evelyn nodded in agreement, then let out a gasp. Her eyes had affixed upon a dead crow laying rigid among the yew tree’s scattered red berries.
“Another augury,” Evelyn said.
“Mother would think so,” Angela said, lightly. “But what would she have made of it? A crow— being a creature of death—dies from feeding on the seeds of the tree of death? It is such a conflicted omen.”
“Perhaps she would say the spirits are mad,” Evelyn said with a sad smile. “Perhaps the world is mad.”
“Or Death itself has died,” Angela said. “If you were inclined to indulge such inanities.”
The two sisters retired to the gazebo in the center of the garden, sitting and taking tea after an old maid brought it to them. They sat and watched as the premature twilight settled over the earth. Mist rose languidly, like ghosts from their chthonic beds.
“Mother loved this garden,” Evelyn said. “We should have had her buried here.”
“She would have haunted us to no end,” Angela said. “To be honest— and risk being callus—I am heartened that she has passed on. She was very bitter toward the end, you know. She was one of those long-lived spinsters who should have taken residence in a nunnery, yet she was also one of those aged grandmothers so bitterly steeped in their fading years that they cannot enjoy their family life, nor let their families enjoy the lives they have claimed for themselves.”
“Mother missed father,” Evelyn said. “That is all. Do you know she confessed to me once that it was father’s death that would kill her. Not upon the instant, of course, but over time. His being gone over the years was tolling her considerably.”
“We all miss father,” Angela said dismissively. “It is the tragedy of mortality. It all claims us in the end.”
“Mother said I would die from tragedy,” Evelyn said. “She said I would lose everything and wish to lose what was already lost.”
“Please, Eva, no more morbidity,” Angela said. “I am in no mood for it.”
“It is just that her prediction for me would indicate that I live to be a very old woman,” Evelyn said. “That should be nice, of course, but to lose everything would mean to lose little Edward. And he is so young presently. Did you know she predicted his death as well?”
Angela shook her head stiffly, a sneer of distaste upon her lips. “It is not surprising that she should burden her daughter with visions of a son’s death. Mother always courted improprieties that were excused only by her elevated station in society.”
“She said Edward would die as his uncle had and be buried beneath the Eastern horizon. But that can’t be so. The War is over now. The Treaty has been signed and the enemy put in his place.”
“Just so,” Angela said, sipping at her tea.
The two sisters were silent for a time. The mists gathered at the edges of the garden. It was nearly time to retire.
“It will be strange to sleep in our old house once again,” Evelyn said. “I would rather stay at the house with little Edward.”
“As would I prefer to stay in my own home,” Angela said. “But we must see to mother’s remaining concerns. For all of her reputed clairvoyance, she did not prepare for death the way she should have. So many matters still need tending. I hardly know where to begin.”
“That is why it will be nice to have Edward in from Yorkshire tomorrow,” Evelyn said. “As a lawyer, he can attend such things with experience while little Edward and I go birdwatching.”
“Indeed,” Angela said.
The two rose from the table and walked toward the large house to which their backs had been turned most of the evening. They came to the cobblestone walkway leading to the verandah, and Angela paused.
“Something the matter?” Evelyn asked.
“You spoke of dying from tragedy earlier,” Angela said, a slight smile upon her face. “Well, mother knew me well, I suppose. She said I would die from a great joy in life. A miracle, she said. Wreathed in flowers as if ready for my funeral.” Angela may have laughed, or may have cleared her throat; the two were much the same for her. “Mother knew her children well, but I believe it was a slight on her part to tell me I would die from what is presumed to be a happy happening.”
“Mother was very strange,” Evelyn said, sympathetically.
The two sisters went into the house of their dead mother.
Angela sat in an armchair in the parlour, in front of the hearth. The hearth was ablaze, throwing shadows across the vast room with its high, barrel-vaulted ceiling. The bookcase was half aglow and half in murk, as were most of the chairs arrayed around the room. The table— large and formerly central to the parlour—had been moved to the far end of the room. Her mother’s chair, too, had been moved to the far end, though Angela found herself staring at it more often than she would have lived. A painted portrait of her mother, near the hearth, also preoccupied her.
“It was always dreadfully chilly in here,” her sister said, walking in briskly while carrying a plate with teacups and a steaming kettle upon it. She set the plate down on a smaller table that was closer to the hearth, then poured the tea into the two cups.
“What is that?” Angela asked suspiciously. “It smells fragrant.”
“It is hibiscus,” her sister said.
“As I feared,” Angela said, crinkling her nose. “I shall have none, thank you.”
“Why ever not?” Evelyn asked, furrowing her brow.
“It does not agree with me.”
“But hibiscus tea is excellent for sleep,” Evelyn said. “Doctor Doyle has told me so on numerous occasions. The tartness relaxes the stomach, and the soul, so good dreams are sure to follow.”
“I would rather have a nice bitter tea before bed,” Angela said. “Whenever I drink hibiscus I am reminded of heathens bending their knees and backs in a temple to some obscene goddess.” She clucked with agitation. “Indeed, now I know if I drink it I shall have dreams about just such a foul creature.”
“Mother enjoyed hibiscus tea,” Evelyn said, stealing a furtive glance at her mother’s chair. “She said it was nectar of the gods.”
“If you ask me,” Angela said, “mother had far too many acquaintances with gods. All one ever needs is the Father. The others are extraneous, if not diabolical.”
Evelyn let the point stand, not really willing to argue metaphysics when concerning their mother, and instead went to fetch a chair. She did not take liberty of her mother’s chair, though she had to fetch a chair from another room consequently. She sat down in front of the hearth, staring into the flames and sipping her tea. She noticed Angela’s wayward attention.
“Mother may be gone,” she said, “but she still commands the attention in this room.”
“It seems no matter how much I struggle, I cannot force my attention away from mother’s chair and table.” Angela glanced about the room only to have her eyes return again to the aforementioned items. “It is strange.”
“It is the grief that does it,” Evelyn said. “Or so I should think.” She, too, glanced about the room and found herself drawn to the chair and table also. “So many seances she hosted here. Whether they were true or not…I do not presume to know. But mother certainly believed in them.”
Angela stood up and walked cautiously toward her mother’s chair and table, as if they were temperamental dogs soon to bite. The centerpiece to the table was a vase full of old chrysanthemums, all withered and dead now.
“Mother believed in a lot of rubbish,” she said. “And consequently tainted our sensibilities with her rubbish.” Peering closer at the vase, she noticed another flower among the large bulbs. She snorted with amusement. “And here are hidden your yarrow, mother. I thought you had forsaken their visions.”
“Hm?” Evelyn said, looking over her shoulder at the vase. “Yarrow?”
“Here,” Angela said, pointing to the smaller, yellow flowers. She did not go nearer to the table, or the chair. “Mixed in with these other flowers.”
“What of them?” Evelyn said, sipping daintily from her tea.
“Do you not remember how she would hold them to her eyes as if looking through a monocle? She claimed she could see other spheres and phantoms with them.”
“I do not recall all of her eccentricities,” Evelyn said. “There were so many.”
“Mother was particularly obsessed with yarrow,” Angela said in a governess’s tone of scolding. “You should recall as much as I. Do you not remember when Thomas relieved himself in the yarrow she had planted in the garden? Mother was furious. She said he had invoked the Evil Eye upon him, and upon the rest of us.”
“She likely meant her own evil eye. Thomas had earned its scrutiny on more than one occasion, however innocent his intentions.”
“And yet it was mother who was ultimately the victim of her superstitious nonsense,” Angela said.
“Whatever do you mean?” Evelyn said, somewhat aghast.
“Why, the old yew tree fell and her poor heart gave out at the sound. It is the most natural conclusion to make. She always obsessed over that yew tree, just as she obsessed over the yarrow flowers. Just as she obsessed over every little presumably occultist tiding. It is a matter of self-manifest destiny, you know. Fear the cock’s crow at dawn and it will, with passing days, bring about nightfall of the heart. Did you ever hear of Reverend James and the real cause of his death?”
“It was always said he died of falling from his roof in the middle of the night,” Evelyn said. She sipped at her tea, and made a face. “Quite tart, but good for the soul.” She set it aside. “Is there more to it? I always presumed there must be. He was not a daft man.”
A sly smile played upon Angela’s lips. It was an uncommon visitor, and so did not settle there for long, embarrassed at its own presence like a stranger in a strange land.
“That is not the complete story,” she said. “Do you recall how obsessed he was with ‘wrestling demons’?”
“Indeed,” Evelyn said. “It was his incessant refrain in every sermon.”
“Just so,” Angela said, still staring at the yarrow. “Reverend James’s refrain originated in his belief that the Devil danced upon his roof at midnight.”
“Surely not!” Evelyn said, her mouth a dismayed moue.
“Any reasonable person would say as much,” Angela said. “But James was never reasonable. Or sensible. He told the baker, Rhodes, of his nightly visitor and vowed he would wrestle the Devil if it was the last thing he ever did.”
Evelyn raised a hand to her mouth in shock. “So he climbed atop his roof in a fit of moonlit fancy and fell to his death?”
Angela turned away from the seance table, and her mother’s chair. “He did just that. Yet, it is worth remarking that he may have not been entirely lunatic at the end.”
Evelyn’s eyes were wide, listening intently as a doe before it bounds away into the forest. “How do you mean? Please, Angela, do not make me regret this conversation. I will be tossing all night with terrible dreams if it takes a turn in the shadows.”
“Abide, sister, and you will see it as more sheet than specter,” Angela admonished her. “James’s neighbor, the farmer Montague, reported missing his most beloved billy goat the day after. In fact, the men happened upon Reverend James’s body while in search of the goat.”
Evelyn sighed in relief. “So the goat had been climbing upon the Reverend’s house at night and chewing his thatch? What a shame that James should die from such an absurd misunderstanding!”
“It is a good lesson, do you not think?” Angela said, complacently. “A cautionary tale that should be edifying. Mother knew the story in its totality, yet she said she knew the Devil was still dancing on the Reverend’s roof, even after Montague fetched his silly goat down that same morning. Mother feared all sorts of spirits and auguries, and as a consequence she scared herself to death with the fright she begot upon herself. Let that be our lesson, then, and take it to heart. Never let fear overmaster us, especially fear of specters born of our own frayed nerves.”
It was the next morning and Angela sat on the bench beneath the latticed arbor in the garden. She sighed in contentment of the morning. It was a bright dawn— starkly glorious compared to the bleak weeks recently with their stormy weather—and she sat with her parasol leaning against the arbor, in anticipation of the hot noon. Mists drifted throughout the garden, but it was not overly chilly. Her white dress was thick with plumes and frills. It reminded her how Thomas spoke of women’s fashion before he was sent to the Front.
“How you women can tolerate it is beyond me,” he had said. “It all seems like wearing one’s bed around upon oneself. I’d rather a soldier’s uniform any day of the year.”
Atop the arbor the blooming red roses crowded each other, perfuming the cool morning air. Angela sniffled at their heady fragrance, and frowned.
“Too much sweetness may well kill a man,” she said sourly. Yet, it was not in her nature to leave because the flowers were not agreeable. She sat stubbornly upon the bench, waiting for her sister to rise from bed.
The mists were heavy upon the world. They drifted as though off the River Aire.
She saw the figure at a distance, being but a gangling silhouette loping through the mist. She might have dismissed it as the gardener, or her brother-in-law, but there was something peculiarly singular about the figure’s stride that distinguished it from all others. When the figure broke from the mist into discernability, Angela let out a dreadful choking gasp.
The figure continued up the cobblestone walkway, toward the house. The front door opened and Evelyn stepped out with her parasol. Seeing the figure, she dropped her parasol at once— eyes wide with surprise, confusion, elation— and then hastened down the steps toward the figure.
“Thomas!” she cried. “Thomas, is that really you?”
Her brother chuckled and held out his arms, embracing his sister as she met him.
“Just the same,” he said, smiling ear to ear. He was thinner than she remembered, and his face gaunt with sleeplessness as well as malnutrition. His brown suit hung slack off of him in places where he once filled it out properly. Evelyn trembled to see him in the flesh.
“But they said you had been…had been…but I cannot say it!” she exclaimed, sobbing with joy. “Had only mother lived long enough to see you alive and well!”
“Oh, but mother knew I would not die,” Thomas said. “Not yet, anyway. She knew better than my own mates, it seems.”
“Why, then, did they report you so?”
“It was some other poor fellow,” he said. “So many have fallen, you know. And there is no sorting the wretches out. Why, I lost more friends than I can count, and have had my fill of the trenches. They were as mass graves, and many were just left to rot like half-planted seeds.” He shook his head sorrowfully. “It is a nasty business, war. A job for the plow as much as for the reaper.”
“No doubt, no doubt,” Evelyn said. She wiped away her tears, then beamed like a convert to a miracle. “Come! We must let Angela see you! She will not believe it! Why, I think she will be all tears and smiles!”
“Not our dear Angela!” Thomas said with grinning incredulity. “I believe she will stubbornly tell me I am a ghost and should be getting on to the next life!”
“Oh, you know she does not believe in ghosts,” Evelyn said.
Brother and sister walked, hand-in-hand, toward the garden. They waved to their sister beneath the arbor.
Angela slumped, silent and still, among the beautiful roses.