The Initiation (Chapter Four)
It went on and on. Cassie clawed open the car door, getting an unobstructed view of the house at last. The more she saw of it, the worse it looked.
Her mother was saying something about a transom over the front door, her voice rapid and breathless. "… rectangular, not like the arched fanlights that came later – "
"I hate it!" Cassie cried, interrupting, her voice too loud in the quiet air, startlingly loud. She didn't mean the transom, whatever a transom was. "I hate it!" she cried again passionately. There was silence from her mother behind her, but Cassie didn't turn to look; she was staring at the house, at the rows of unwashed windows and the sagging eaves and the sheer monstrous bulk and flatness and horribleness of it, and she was shaking. "It's the ugliest thing I've ever seen, and I hate it. I want to go home. I want to go home!"
She turned to see her mother's white face and stricken eyes, and burst into tears.
"Oh, Cassie." Mrs. Blake reached across the vinyl top of the car toward her. "Cassie, sweetheart." There were tears in her own eyes, and when she looked up at the house, Cassie was astounded at her expression. It was a look of hatred and fear as great as anything Cassie felt.
"Cassie, sweetheart, listen to me," she said. "If you really don't want to stay – "
She stopped. Cassie was still crying, but she heard the noise behind her. Turning, she saw that the door to the house had opened. An old woman with gray hair was standing in the doorway, leaning on a cane.
Cassie turned back. "Mom?" she said pleadingly.
But her mother was gazing at the door. And slowly, a look of dull resignation settled over her. When she turned to Cassie, the brittle, falsely cheery tone was back in her voice.
"That's your grandmother, dear," she said. "Let's not keep her waiting."
"Mom…" Cassie whispered. It was a despairing entreaty. But her mother's eyes had gone blank, opaque.
"Come on, Cassie," she said.
Cassie had the wild idea of throwing herself into the car, locking herself in, until someone came to rescue her. But then the same heavy exhaustion that had descended over her mother seemed to wrap around her as well. They were here. There was nothing to be done about it. She pushed the car door shut and silently followed her mother to the house.
The woman standing in the doorway was ancient. Old enough to be her great-grandmother, at least. Cassie tried to detect some resemblance to her mother, but she could find none.
"Cassie, this is your Grandma Howard."
Cassie managed to mutter something. The old woman with the cane stepped forward, fixing her deep-set eyes on Cassie's face. In that instant a bizarre thought flashed into Cassie's mind: She's going to put me in the oven. But then she felt arms around her, a surprisingly firm hug. Mechanically she lifted her own arms in a gesture of response.
Her grandmother pulled back to look at her. "Cassie! At last. After all these years." To Cassie's discomfiture she went on looking, staring at Cassie with what seemed like a mixture of fierce worry and anxious hope. "At last," she whispered again, as if speaking to herself.
"It's good to see you, Mother," Cassie's mother said then, quiet and formal, and the fierce old eyes turned away from Cassie.
"Alexandra. Oh, my dear, it's been too long." The two women embraced, but an indefinable air of tension remained between them.
"But we're all standing here outside. Come in, come in, both of you," her grandmother said, wiping her eyes. "I'm afraid the old place is rather shabby, but I've picked the best of the rooms for you. Let's take Cassie to hers."
In the fading red light of the sunset the interior seemed cavernous and dark. And everything did look shabby, from the worn upholstery on the chairs to the faded oriental carpet on the pine-board floors.
They went up a flight of stairs – slowly, with Cassie's grandmother leaning on the banister – and down a long passage. The boards creaked under Cassie's Reeboks and the lamps high on the walls flickered uneasily as they passed. One of us ought to be holding a candelabra, Cassie thought. Any minute now she expected to see Lurch or Cousin It coming down the hall toward them.
"These lamps – it's your grandfather's wiring," her grandmother apologized. "He insisted on doing so much of it himself. Here's your room, Cassie. I hope you like pink."
Cassie felt her eyes widen as her grandmother opened the door. It was like a bedroom setting in a museum. There was a four-poster bed with hangings cascading from the head and foot and a canopy, all made of the same dusty-rose flowered fabric. There were chairs with high carved backs upholstered in a matching rose damask. On a fireplace with a high mantel rested a pewter candlestick and a china clock, and there were several pieces of massive, richly glowing furniture. The whole thing was beautiful, but so grand…
"You can put your clothes here – this chest is solid mahogany," Cassie's grandmother was saying. "The design is called bombe, and it was made right here in Massachusetts – this is the only area in all the colonies that produced it."
The colonies? Cassie thought wildly, staring at the decorative scroll top of the chest.
"And this is your dressing table and your wardrobe… Have you looked out the windows? I thought you might like a corner room because you can see both south and east."
Cassie looked. Through one window she could see the road. The other faced the ocean. Just now it was a sullen lead gray under the darkening sky, exactly matching Cassie's mood.
"I'll leave you here to get settled in," Cassie's grandmother said. "Alexandra, I've given you the green room at the opposite end of the hallway…"
Cassie's mother gave her shoulder a quick, almost timid squeeze. And then Cassie was alone. Alone with the massive ruddy furniture and the cold fireplace and the heavy draperies. She sat gingerly on a chair because she was afraid of the bed.
She thought about her bedroom at home, with her white pressed-wood furniture and her Phantom of the Opera posters and the new CD player she'd bought with her baby-sitting money. She'd painted the bookcase pale blue to show off her unicorn collection. She collected every kind of unicorn there was – stuffed, blown glass, ceramic, pewter. Back home, Clover had said once that Cassie was like a unicorn herself: blue eyed, shy, and different from everyone else. All that seemed to belong to a former life now.
She didn't know how long she sat there, but sometime later she found the piece of chalcedony in her hand. She must have taken it out of her pocket, and now she was clinging to it.
If you're ever in trouble or danger, she thought, and a wave of longing swept over her. It was followed by a wave of fury. Don't be stupid, she told herself sharply. You're not in danger. And no rock is going to help you. She had an impulse to throw it away, but instead she just rubbed it against her cheek, feeling the cool, jagged smoothness of the crystals. It made her remember his touch – how gentle it had been, the way it had pierced her to the soul. Daringly, she rubbed the crystal over her lips and felt a sudden throb from all the places on her skin he had touched. The hand he had held – she could still feel his fingers printed on her palm. Her wrist – she felt the light brush of cool fingertips raising the hairs there. And the back of it… She shut her eyes and her breath caught as she remembered that kiss. What would it have felt like, she wondered, if his lips had touched where the crystal touched now? She let her head fall back, drawing the cool stone from her own lips down her throat to rest in the hollow where her pulse beat. She could almost feel him kissing her, as no boy ever had; she could almost imagine that it really was his lips there. I would let you, she thought, even though I wouldn't let anyone else… I would trust you…
But he'd left her. Suddenly, with a shock, she remembered that. He'd left her and gone away, just as the other most important man in Cassie's life had.
Cassie seldom thought about her father. She seldom allowed herself to. He'd gone away when she was only a little girl, left her mother and her alone to take care of themselves. Cassie's mother told people he had died, but to Cassie she admitted the truth: he'd simply left. Maybe he was dead by now, or maybe he was somewhere else, with another family, another daughter. She and her mother would never know. And although her mother never spoke about him unless someone asked, Cassie knew that he'd broken her mother's heart.
Men always leave, Cassie thought, her throat aching. They both left me. And now I'm alone… here. If only I had somebody else to talk to… a sister, somebody…
Eyes still shut, she let the hand with the crystal trail down and fall into her lap. She was so exhausted with emotion that she couldn't even get up to go to the bed. She simply sat there, drifting in the lonely dimness until her breathing slowed and she fell asleep.
That night Cassie had a dream – or perhaps it wasn't a dream. She dreamed that her mother and grandmother came into the room, moving noiselessly, almost gliding over the floor. In her dream she was aware of them, but she couldn't move as they lifted her from the chair and undressed her and put her to bed. Then they stood over the bed, looking down at her. Her mother's eyes were strange and dark and unfathomable.
"Little Cassie," her grandmother said with a sigh. "At last. But what a pity – "
"Sh!" her mother said sharply. "She'll wake up."
Her grandmother sighed again. "But you can see that it's the only way…"
"Yes," her mother said, her voice empty and resigned. "I can see that you can't escape destiny. I shouldn't have tried."
That's just what I thought, Cassie realized as the dream faded. You can't escape destiny. Vaguely she could see her mother and grandmother moving toward the door, and she could hear the whisper of their voices. She couldn't make out any words, though, until one sibilant hiss came through.
"… sacrifice . . ."
She wasn't sure which of the women had said it, but it echoed over and over in her mind. Even as darkness covered her, she kept hearing it. Sacrifice… sacrifice… sacrifice…
It was morning. She was lying in the four-poster bed and sunlight was streaming in the eastern window. It made the pink room look like a rose petal held up to the light. Sort of warm and shining. Somewhere outside a bird was singing.
Cassie sat up. She had a confused memory of some kind of a dream, but it was dim and vague. Her nose was stuffed up – probably from crying – and she felt a little lightheaded but not really bad. She felt the way you do after being very sick or very upset and then getting some deep, restful sleep: strangely spacey and peaceful. The quiet after the storm.
She got dressed. Just as she was about to leave the room, she noticed the chalcedony lucky piece on the floor and slipped it in her pocket.
No one else seemed to be awake. Even in the daytime the long passage was dark and cool, lit only by the windows at opposite ends. Cassie found herself shivering as she walked down the hall, and the dim bulbs of the wall lamps flickered as if in sympathy.
Downstairs was lighter. But there were so many rooms that when she tried to explore, she quickly got lost. Finally, she ended up in the front hallway and decided to go outside.
She wasn't even thinking about why – she guessed she wanted to see the neighborhood. Her steps took her down the long, narrow country road, past house after house. It was so early, no one else was outside. And eventually she ended up at the pretty yellow house with the towers.
High in one tower, the window was sparkling.
Cassie was staring at it, wondering why, when she noticed motion in a ground-floor window much closer to her. It was a library or study, and standing inside was a girl. The girl was tall and slender, with an incredibly long cascade of hair that obscured her face as she bent over something on the desk in front of the window. That hair – Cassie couldn't take her eyes off it. It was like moonlight and sunlight woven together – and it was natural. No dark roots. Cassie had never seen anything so beautiful.
They were so close – Cassie standing just behind the neat hedge outside the window, and the girl standing just inside, facing her, but looking down. Cassie watched, fascinated, at what the girl was doing at the desk. The girl's hands moved gracefully, grinding something up with a mortar and pestle. Spices? Whatever it was, the girl's movements were quick and deft and her hands slender and pretty.
And Cassie had the oddest feeling… If the girl would only look up, she thought. Just look outside her own window. Once she did, then… something would happen. Cassie didn't know what, but her skin had broken out in gooseflesh. She had such a sense of connection, of… kinship. If the girl would just look up…
Yell. Throw a stone at the window. Cassie was actually looking for a stone when she saw movement again. The girl with the shining hair was turning, as if responding to someone inside the house calling her. Cassie had a glimpse of a lovely, dewy face – but only for the briefest instant. Then the girl had turned and was hurrying away, hair flying like silk behind her.
Cassie let out her breath.
It would have been stupid anyway, she told herself as she walked back home. Fine way to introduce yourself to your neighbors – throwing rocks at them. But the sense of crushing disappointment remained. She felt that somehow she'd never have another chance – she'd never get up the courage to introduce herself to that girl. Anyone that beautiful undoubtedly had plenty of friends without Cassie. Undoubtedly went with a crowd far beyond Cassie's orbit.
Her grandmother's flat, square house looked even worse after the sunny Victorian one. Disconsolately, Cassie drifted over to the bluff, to look down at the ocean.
Blue. A color so intense she didn't know how to describe it. She watched the water washing around a dark rock and felt a queer thrill. The wind blew her hair back, and she stared out at the morning sun glittering on the waves. She felt… kinship again. As if something were speaking to her blood, to something deep inside her. What was it about this place – about that girl? She felt she could almost grasp it…
Startled, Cassie looked around. Her grandmother was calling from the doorway of the old wing of the house.
"Are you all right? For heaven's sake, get away from the edge!"
Cassie looked down and immediately felt a wave of vertigo. Her toes were almost off the bluff. "I didn't realize I was that close," she said, stepping back.
Her grandmother stared at her, then nodded. "Well, come away now and I'll get you some breakfast," she said. "Do you like pancakes?"
Feeling a little shy, Cassie nodded. She had some vague memory about a dream that made her uncomfortable, but she definitely felt better this morning than she had yesterday. She followed her grandmother through the door, which was much thicker and heavier than a modern one.
"The front door of the original house," her grandmother explained. She didn't seem to be having much trouble with her leg today, Cassie noticed. "Strange to have it lead directly into the kitchen, isn't it? But that was how they did things in those days. Sit down, why don't you, while I make the pancakes."
But Cassie was staring in amazement. The kitchen was like no kitchen she'd ever seen before. There was a gas range and a refrigerator – even a microwave shoved back on a wooden counter – but the rest of it was like something out of a movie set. Dominating the room was an enormous open fireplace as big as a walk-in closet, and although there was no fire now, the thick layer of ashes at the bottom showed that it was sometimes used. Inside, an iron pot hung on an iron crossbar. Over the fireplace were sprays of dried flowers and plants, which gave off a pleasant fragrance.
And as for the woman in front of the hearth…
Grandmothers were supposed to be pink and cozy, with soft laps and large checking accounts. This woman looked stooped and coarse, with her grizzled hair and the prominent mole on her cheek. Cassie kept half expecting her to go over to the iron pot and stir it while muttering, "Double, double, toil and trouble…"
Immediately after she thought this, she felt ashamed. That's your grandmother, she told herself fiercely. Your only living relative besides your mother. It's not her fault she's old and ugly. So don't just sit here. Say something nice.
"Oh, thanks," she said, as her grandmother placed a plate of steaming pancakes in front of her. Then she added, "Uh, are those dried flowers over the fireplace? They smell good."
"Lavender and hyssop," her grandmother said. "When you're done eating, I'll show you my garden, if you like."
"I'd love it," Cassie said, truthfully.
But when her grandmother led her outside after she'd finished eating, the scene was far different than Cassie had expected. There were some flowers, but for the most part the "garden" just looked like weeds and bushes – row after row of overgrown, uncared-for weeds and bushes.
"Oh – how nice," Cassie said. Maybe the old lady was senile after all. "What unusual – plants."
Her grandmother shot her a shrewd, amused glance. "They're herbs," she said. "Here, this is lemon balm. Smell."
Cassie took the heart-shaped leaf, wrinkled like a mint leaf but a little bigger, and sniffed. It had the scent of freshly peeled lemon. "That is nice," she said, surprised.
"And this is French sorrel – taste."
Cassie gingerly took the small, rounded leaf and nibbled at the end. The taste was sharp and refreshing. "It's good – like sour grass!" she said, looking up at her grandmother, who smiled. "What are those?" Cassie said, nibbling again as she pointed to some bright yellow buttons of flowers.
"That's tansy. The ones that look like white daisies are feverfew. Feverfew leaves are good in salads."
Cassie was intrigued. "What about those?" She pointed to some creamy white flowers that twined up other bushes.
"Honeysuckle. I keep it just because it smells good. The bees love it, and the butterflies. In spring it's like Grand Central Station around here."
Cassie reached out to snap off a fragrant stem of delicate flower buds, then stopped. "Could I – I thought I'd take some up for my room. If you don't mind, I mean."
"Oh, good heavens, take as many as you want. That's what they're here for."
She's not really old and ugly at all, Cassie thought, snapping off stems of the creamy flowers. She's just – different. Different doesn't necessarily mean bad.
"Thanks – Grandma," she said as they went back into the house. Then she opened her mouth again, to ask about the yellow house, and who lived there.
But her grandmother was picking up something from beside the microwave.
"Here, Cassie. This came in the mail for you yesterday." She handed Cassie two booklets bound in construction paper, one red and one white.
New Salem High School Student and Parent Handbook, one read. The other read, New Salem High School Program of Studies.
Oh, my God, Cassie thought. School.
New hallways, new lockers, new classrooms, new faces. There was a slip of paper between the booklets, with Schedule of Classes printed boldly at the top. And under that, her name, with her address listed as Number Twelve Crowhaven Road, New Salem.
Her grandmother might not be as bad as she'd thought; even the house might turn out to be not so awful. But what about school? How could she ever face school here in New Salem?