Heartland Brides – Jill Barnett

On the last clear day in August, seven great black cormorants flew in a wedge out over the Atlantic and lit on a rock in a lazy cove on Arrant Island. Now that wasn’t particularly unusual; cormorants were sea birds and sea birds landed on rocks all the time. Except those birds had done the same thing, at the same time of day, for the entire summer. Every morning they lit on that rock and just stood there with their wings spread-eagle, as if they were drying out their laundry. They didn’t move, even when a tasty school of alewives swam by; all they did was stare, for hours, like they were waiting for something to happen. If the birds had been crows, their antics could have been easily explained away. New Englanders knew that the number of crows seen at one time could foretell the future: one for sorrow, two for mirth, three for a wedding, and four for birth. But these birds weren’t crows. They were cormorants, ravens of the sea. The locals claimed them to be the most annoying birds to ever fly the Maine skies because, more often than not, they ruined both the fishermen’s catch and the island trees. Had anyone ashore known about the birds perching on that rock, they’d have probably said it was only “like attracting like.” The island, it seemed, had as bad a reputation as did those birds. From the shoreline, on a clear day, when the seas were calm and blue-green, if you were to cast a quick glance at Arrant Island, it looked as if it were a proud medieval castle built upon a high crag. But when the weather changed, the island did too, for it appeared to be only a mysterious blue cloud floating on the horizon. At times when the winds were southerly, the ledges around the isle broke hard and dangerously; seafoam sprayed over its rocky headlands.

But always the island stood stiff and unyielding, oblivious to the moods of the wind and seas, like a stony face that must hide secrets. It was only a scant seven leagues off the jagged Maine shoreline, where huge summer estates and elegant compounds were only down-the-coast-a-ways from fishermen’s shanties and the sea-worn wharves that dotted the mouth of the Kennebec. The isle was just a short sail in fair weather for the sleek schooners built in the Bath shipyards and not far from where fishing boats chased cod, mackerel, and the huge schools of silver herring, which, when the moon was high, made the water shimmer as if the Milky Way had fallen right smack dab into the ocean. Still, with the bustling coast only a whistle and a lick away, there was an aloneness to the island, a sense of isolation. Not just because of the water that surrounded it, but because it was almost as if Arrant Island were another world, hidden away, until the mist rose and you saw with a second look that it truly did exist. The island had long been the stuff of idle talk. Children of the fishermen huddled around winter fires and told tales of the wild Scots who lived there, men who were not real, they claimed, but instead the ghosts of those who had died long ago on Culloden Moor, ghosts that fled clear across the Atlantic to a craggy, cold, and rugged plot of land that was like their beloved Highlands. Others called the MacLachlans who owned the disappearing island those “mad Scots.” And children grew up afraid of nights with a full moon, convinced that unless they placed a pale feather from the down of a puffin chick beneath their pillows, a mad MacLachlan might charge up on a white horse with its mane flowing and snatch them from their warm beds! When the wind grew fierce and blew the shingles off the fishermen’s shacks, it was said a MacLachlan was out riding that night, stirring up the wind. Some nights the willows would moan from that same wind, a sound exactly like someone crying.

Mothers would tuck their children back under warm woolen blankets and assure them that no one was there. The noise was only a wind tunnel formed by the branches of the trees. But the imaginations of children spun as wildly as the wind in those willows. They pressed their small heads together and wrapped their arms tightly around one another as they whispered that the sound was crying, crying from some poor soul who had seen a white MacLachlan horse come thundering out of the mist. So that summer the odd behavior of those annoying black sea birds went unnoticed. There were already too many yarns to tell, the stuff of nightmares and dreams, dark and fierce tales about wild Scotsmen who would ride up on their white horses and carry you away. Chapter Two I wonder if perhaps I might Suddenly see a shining knight Winding his way from blue to green Exactly as it might have been Those many, many years ago… Perhaps I might. You never know. —A. A.

Milne For Amelia Emerson, it was one of those bright days when the sky looked like the inside of a big blue bowl, the earthenware kind the cook used to mix bread dough every Saturday morning. Even the clouds played to her fancy, because they streaked across the blue bowl sky like thin white strips of bleached flour. Amy turned her face toward the warmth of the August sun and closed her eyes. In her mind’s eye she imagined God standing in the heavens above her dressed in a white smock and apron, His long gray hair tucked under a crisp linen kitchen cap as He dumped the sky upside down to give those on earth the gift of a perfect day. In June there had been a blue bowl sky, just like today, when William De Pysters had taken her canoeing on the Kennebunk River. As their canoe moved silently on the glassy water, the red maple blossoms drifted down and floated alongside of them like a red velvet carpet set before a queen. That day had been as close to a perfect day as she could ever remember; for a few smiles, some small talk, and a sweet kiss later, and Amy left the canoe with her hand on William’s strong one, the same one that had placed a soft red blossom behind her ear and the emerald engagement ring on her finger. It was strange how one’s life could change. Her parents had died three years before and that was why she had spent her summers in Maine. One of her executors had suggested the sea air might help her, and the others had quickly agreed.

The summer coterie came from many places—Boston, Philadelphia, New York, wealthy caravans of “good society,” all summering in Maine, where the blueberries were plump and sweet, where the light sea breezes made the living easy and free, where they sailed and socialized in an idyllic world of their own, one of blue blood and money. Amelia Emerson had money, lots and lots of money. Enough money to have her name placed highly in Beach’s—a social register that listed the amount and origin of each Yankee fortune. Enough money to open the hallowed doors that cloistered the closest thing America had to aristocracy. Enough money for Amy to receive all the right invitations watermarked with names like Cabot and Livingston, Dearborn and Winthrop, the old money families. She went to their parties, even after she realized she wasn’t truly welcome, but instead was a pariah because her family had actually had the audacity to earn their millions rather than inherit that money from some great-grandparent who left the old country a couple of hundred years before to come to America and eat speckled corn with the Indians. She still didn’t understand how wealth that had been earned through hard work and ingenuity could be considered of less social value than money that had been moldering in a bank or bonds, or in vast amounts of land for the last hundred years or more. The concept of old money versus new money escaped her understanding. But Amy understood very little of people. She had been very close to her parents, who had kept her safe and sheltered within their tight little family where she knew she was loved.

As if it were yesterday she could still recall the image of her father with his long legs bent at odd angles while he sat in a tiny white chair with pansies painted on the arms. He had been a very tall man, but he could balance a miniature china teacup and saucer on his knobby knees while he ate cucumber sandwiches with his pinkie finger stuck out in the air. He had taught her to appreciate the beauty in the trees and flowers, the call of a bird and the brilliance of a summer sky. He had a strong sense of what was right and wrong and what was important to him. Sometimes, when he was walking with Amy, he would shake his dark head and say he would never understand how anyone could look at a rose blooming, at a red maple changing color, or listen to the song of a starling in the morning and not believe there was a God. He would get that same look of wonder whenever he looked at her and Amy’s mother, as if he couldn’t believe they were real. Amy’s mother made her feel whole and comfortable. She had knack for knowing the exact moment when Amy needed a hug, advice, or just a soft touch of a comforting hand. She knew with one quick glance when Amy was feverish. She never even had to put a hand or her lips to her forehead.

Amy couldn’t count the number of times when she had suddenly realized she was hungry, had turned around only to find her mother standing at her bedroom door with a bowl of fruit or a plate of teacakes. Her mother would come into Amy’s room on some pretext moments before exhaustion could hit her. In a blink Amy was in her nightdress and tucked into a warm cozy bed while her mother turned down the lamps and said good night in a voice so soft and soothing it sounded as if it came from straight from Heaven. When she was barely seven, she and her mother had seen a doll with an exquisite trousseau in the window of F A O Schwarz. Amy could remember standing on her toes so she could look in that shop. Her breath had fogged the window because she had her nose pressed against the icy cold glass, but her mother had bent down with a gentle and amused look on her face, and she had wiped off the mist with her good lace handkerchief just so Amy could keep looking at that display. They must have stood there for at least a half hour with the snow falling on their fur mufflers and velvet coat collars. But her mother had never hurried her away, she had just let Amy look. For Christmas that year Amy opened box after box of doll clothes, not the ones from the toyshop window, but velvet gowns with brocade trim, miniature bonnets with bows and feathers, even little velvet purses with silk braided drawstrings, all exact duplicates of the doll’s clothing and all handsewn by her mother. Her parents could have simply purchased the clothes in the shop—her father was successful even then—but they hadn’t.

Her mother had spent hours making those clothes for Amy’s own doll, which made them more valuable to Amy than all the money in all the banks in Manhattan. Each pearl in the trim, each ribbon and tuck had been sewn with a mother’s love. As wonderful and joyful as those years of tender memories were, her parents had made one mistake: they had never exposed her to any world other than the one they’d created for her—a place where she was loved and protected, where she was taught goodness and love and thoughtfulness, values that had nothing to do with money. Her childhood had been a special world that centered around their family, a world that suddenly, in one tragic instant, no longer existed. Because the moment her parents died, the only world she had ever known died, too.


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