I don’t know what led me to that house in the woods. It had stood there, all of my life – alone, a solitary vigil against the elements – a prop for many scary stories told around camp fires – a dare I was always afraid to take. But a voice in my head said, ask her. So, I got up before dawn and dressed in jeans, sweater, wooly socks and boots. I grabbed my smokes and my keys and was off to, ask her.
The town hadn’t changed much since I’d lived there. Still small and quaint and smelling of Sycamores and Oaks, rich earth and mown lawn. The sun rose lazily over the hills as I drove out Old Towne Road. I’d always liked that road, it was quiet and when I was young I would walk it from end to end, pondering the height of the trees that flanked it and my purpose for being. A feeling, warm and comfy like an old quilt settled around me and the closer I drew to the spot, the more right I felt.
Morning was still sleeping and I saw no one on my travail, not even Ike or Morty, legendary for their early morning hikes down to the fishing hole. It was Sunday, maybe they were sleeping in and planning a family breakfast then church, instead of a jaw session about sports and affairs of the day, and bait and fish hooks and lures. I was alone with the day and that felt somehow right too.
Before long it was time to pull the car over and park. I couldn’t drive where I was going – the walk would do me good. I hadn’t walked, really walked anywhere in a long time and my legs missed it and my body rose to the challenge of it. The air sunk deep into my lungs and it tasted sweet and fresh. I wondered then, why I’d left this place, this town, my home. No place since had ever meant anything to me, had ever owned me, wanted me. And the trees felt happy to see me as their leaves cruched under my booted feet.
And then it was there. The old house. A house I secretly loved all my life. A house I dreamed of often, fantacized owning someday. I would renovate it with my own hands, bit by bit, until shone in the afternoon sun, like a trophy hard won. Ask her, the words sounded again in my head.
I stood at the front door, so old it was grey with time and weather, so strong nothing could knock it down. I lifted the brass knocker, an eagle’s head who peered at me proud and defiant, and let it drop. The sound was deep and I wondered if she heard the thud inside or if I would have to call out or knock. But the door creaked open on its mighty hinges and there she was. “I knew you’d come,” she said quietly. “Someday.”
I studied her face and saw that special blue of the eye, the turn of the nose, the light spray of freckles over her cheeks and I seized up inside, wanting to turn and walk away. Run away. I’d already run for so long, so far and yet always ended up back here. To this place. The one I watched all my life from a distance. The one I could never touch but only want.
Drew me inside with a smile and maybe she took my hand but I was so scared, like a child introspect and lost, I couldn’t tell. Ask her, the voice demanded. Ask her, ask her, ask her!!
She sat me down on her old divan, blue and of silk brocade, and put a cup of tea in my hands. And we sat like that for a long while, sipping tea, waiting for the other to speak. Dread came over me and I regretted coming, I couldn’t ask, I’d never be able to. “I should go,” I stammered, “thank you for the tea.”
“It was like lightning,” she said so quietly I had to lean in to hear her. And then I sat down. “That’s very rare, you know? Most people never know it. Most people don’t believe it. But I did, we did.” Her eyes reached into mine and I couldn’t look away. “It was wrong. We both knew it but we couldn’t stop it. Nothing could stop it, something so rare and beautiful…”
“But you hurt people,” I whimpered like a small child.
She nodded. “Yes, we did, very much. We didn’t mean to, we didn’t want to – but yes, we did.” She flushed deep and red like a young girl whose skirt flies up in the wind. “I’m sorry about that. About hurting people but I’m not sorry about it. I never was and I never will be. I loved your father and I will love him to my grave. He was not mine and could never be, but I loved him with all my heart.”
“And what about me?” I screamed. “Did you love me too! I guess that would be a no, since you gave me away!”
She didn’t flinch or become angry but remained calm, almost loving – it confused me. “I gave you to your father and his wife. It was the only thing I could do. The right thing to do. And you know it.”
I couldn’t bear looking at her, feeling all the betrayal, remembering all the hushed stories behind my back growing up, the gossip, the looks, always feeling the outsider. “I have to go,” I said jumping to my feet. “I shouldn’t have come. I shouldn’t have ever come here.”
I flustered and couldn’t focus, where was the damn door? I had to get out of there. I had to breathe.
“You’ve been coming here, all your life. Standing at the edge of the trees, watching. I’ve seen you so many times and I wanted to go to you…”
“Then why didn’t you?”
“Because you weren’t mine to go to!” she cried. “I had no right to you. It would only have hurt you and confused you and I’d already done that, why would I do that more to my only child?”
I found the door, and closed my hand over the knob, shaking and trembling with anger and grief. “No, instead you abandoned me. Let them gossip and talk about me behind my back, for something I never did. You’re a coward!” I pulled open the door and walked through it.
But she followed me. “Ask me, Gina. Ask me! You came here to ask me something. Ask me!”
I stopped and turned back to her, suddenly calm and looked my mother in the eyes that she gave me and said. “Why did you stay? All these years. Why?”
“Because I was waiting for you, my dear. I stayed for you.”