As an extra special treat on day one of our WEEK OF MICHELLE ZINK, we've got an extract from Prophecy of the Sisters for you. (Though if you're very very good, we might post a chapter from Guardian of the Gate later this week too.)
Perhaps because it seems so appropriate, I don’t notice the rain. It falls in sheets, a blanket of silvery thread rushing to the hard almost-winter ground. Still, I stand without moving at the side of the coffin.
I am on Alice’s right. I am always on Alice’s right, and I often wonder if it was that way even in our mother’s womb, before we were pushed screaming into the world one right after the other. My brother, Henry, sits near Edmund, our driver, and Aunt Virginia, for sit is all Henry can do without the use of his legs. It was only with some effort that Henry and his chair were carried to the graveyard on the hill so that he could see our father laid to rest.
Aunt Virginia leans in to speak to us over the drumming rain. “Children, we must be going.”
The reverend has long since left. I cannot say how long we have been standing at the mound of dirt where my father’s body lay, for I have been under the shelter of James’s umbrella, a quiet world of protection providing the smallest of buffers between me and the truth.
Alice motions for us to leave. “Come, Lia, Henry. We’ll return when the sun is shining and lay fresh flowers on Father’s grave.” I was born first, though only by minutes, but it has always been clear that Alice is in charge.
Aunt Virginia nods to Edmund. He gathers Henry into his arms, turning to begin the walk back to the house. Henry’s gaze meets mine over Edmund’s shoulder. Henry is only ten, though far wiser than most boys of his age. I see the loss of Father in the dark circles under my brother’s eyes. A stab of pain finds its way through my numbness, settling somewhere over my heart. Alice may be in charge, but I am the one who has always felt responsible for Henry.
My feet will not move, will not take me away from my father, cold and dead in the ground. Alice looks back. Her eyes find mine through the rain.
“I’ll be along in a moment.” I have to shout to be heard, and she nods slowly, turning and continuing along the path toward Birchwood Manor.
James takes my gloved hand in his, and I feel a wave of relief as his strong fingers close over mine. He moves closer to be heard over the rain.
“I’ll stay with you as long as you want, Lia.”
I can only nod, watching the rain leak tears down Father’s gravestone as I read the words etched into the granite.
Thomas Edward Milthorpe
June 23, 1846–November 1, 1890
There are no flowers. Despite my father’s wealth, it is difficult to find flowers so near to winter in our town in northern New York, and none of us have had the energy or will to send for them in time for the modest service. I am ashamed, suddenly, at this lack of forethought, and I glance around the family cemetery, looking for something, anything, that I might leave.
But there is nothing. Only a few small stones lying in the rain that pools on the dirt and grass. I bend down, reaching for a few of the dirt-covered stones, holding my palm open to the rain until the rocks are washed clean.
I am not surprised that James knows what I mean to do, though I don’t say it aloud. We have shared a lifetime of friendship and, recently, something much, much more. He moves forward with the umbrella, offering me shelter as I step toward the grave and open my hand, dropping the rocks along the base of Father’s headstone.
My sleeve pulls with the motion, revealing a sliver of the strange mark, the peculiar, jagged circle that bloomed on my wrist in the hours after Father’s death. I steal a glance at James to see if he has noticed. He hasn’t, and I pull my arm further inside my sleeve, lining the rocks up in a careful row. I push the mark from my mind. There is no room there for both grief and worry. And grief will not wait.
I stand back, looking at the stones. They are not as pretty or bright as the flowers I will bring in the spring, but they are all I have to give. I reach for James’s arm and turn to leave, relying on him to guide me home.
* * *
It is not the warmth of the parlor’s fire that keeps me downstairs long after the rest of the household retires. My room has a firebox, as do most of the rooms at Birchwood Manor. No, I sit in the darkened parlor, lit only by the glow of the dying fire, because I do not have the courage to make my way upstairs.
Though Father has been dead for three days, I have kept myself well occupied. It has been necessary to console Henry, and though Aunt Virginia would have made the arrangements for Father’s burial, it seemed only right that I should help take matters in hand. This is what I have been telling myself. But now, in the empty parlor with only the ticking mantel clock for company, I realize that I have been avoiding this moment when I shall have to make my way up the stairs and past Father’s empty chambers. This moment when I shall have to admit he is really gone.
I rise quickly, before I lose my nerve, focusing on putting one slippered foot in front of the other as I make my way up the winding staircase and down the hall of the East Wing. As I pass Alice’s room, and then Henry’s, my eyes are drawn to the door at the end of the hall. The room that was once my mother’s private chamber.
The Dark Room.
As little girls, Alice and I spoke of the room in whispers, though I cannot say how we came to call it the Dark Room. Perhaps it is because in the tall-ceilinged rooms where fires blaze nonstop nine months out of the year, it is only the uninhabited rooms that are completely dark. Yet even when my mother was alive, the room seemed dark, for it was in this room that she retreated in the months before her death. It was in this room that she seemed to drift further and further away from us.
I continue to my room, where I undress and pull on a nightgown. I am sitting on the bed, brushing my hair to a shine, when a knock stops me midstroke.
Alice’s voice finds me from the other side of the door. “It’s me. May I come in?”
The door creaks open, and with it comes a burst of cooler air from the unheated hallway. Alice closes it quickly, crossing to the bed and sitting next to me as she did when we were children. Our nightdresses, like us, are nearly identical. Nearly but not quite. Alice’s are made with fine silk at her request while I prefer comfort over fashion and wear flannel in every season but summer.
She reaches out a hand for the brush. “Let me.”
I hand her the brush, trying not to show my surprise as I turn away to give her access to the back of my head. We are not the kind of sisters who engage in nightly hair brushing or confided secrets.
She moves the brush in long strokes, starting at the crown of my head and traveling all the way down to the ends. Watching our reflection in the looking glass atop the bureau, it is hard to believe anyone can tell us apart. From this distance and in the glow of the firelight, we look exactly the same. Our hair shimmers the same chestnut in the dim light. Our cheekbones angle at the same slant. I know, though, that it is the subtle differences that are unmistakable to those who know us at all. It is the slight fullness in my face that stands in contrast to the sharper contours of my sister’s and the somber introspection in my eyes that opposes the sly gleam in her own. It is Alice who shimmers like a jewel under the light, while I brood, think, and wonder.
The fire crackles in the firebox, and I close my eyes, allowing my shoulders to loosen as I fall into the soothing rhythm of the brush in my hair, Alice’s hand smoothing the top of my head as she goes.
“Do you remember her?”
My eyelids flutter open. It is an uncommon question, and for a moment, I’m unsure how to answer. We were only girls of six when our mother died in an inexplicable fall from the cliff near the lake. Henry had been born just a few months before. The doctors had already made it clear that my father’s longdesired son would never have the use of his legs. Aunt Virginia always said that Mother was never the same after Henry’s birth, and the questions surrounding her death still linger. We don’t speak of it or the inquiry that followed.
I can only offer her the truth. “Yes, but only a little. Do you?”
She hesitates before answering, the brush still moving. “I believe so. But only in flashes. Little moments, I suppose. I often wonder why I can remember her green dress, but not the way her voice sounded when she read aloud. Why I can clearly see the book of poems she kept on the table in the parlor but not remember the way she smelled.”
“It was jasmine and … oranges, I think.”
“Is that it? The way she smelled?” Her voice is a murmur behind me. “I didn’t know.”
“Here. My turn.” I twist around, reaching for the brush.
She turns as compliant as a child. “Lia?”
“If you knew something, about Mother … If you remembered something, something important, would you tell me?” Her voice is quiet, more unsure than I’ve ever heard it.
My breath catches in my throat with the strange question. “Yes, of course, Alice. Would you?”
She hesitates, the only sound in the room the soft pull of the brush through silken hair. “I suppose so.” I move the brush through her hair, remembering. Not my mother. Not now. But Alice. Us. The twins. I remember the time before Henry’s birth, before Mother took refuge alone in the Dark Room. The time before Alice became secretive and strange.
It would be easy to look back on our childhood and assume that Alice and I were close. In the fondness of memory, I recall her soft breath in the dark of night, her voice mumbling into the blackness of our shared nursery. I try to remember our proximity as comfort, to ignore the voice that reminds me of our differences even then. But it doesn’t work. If I am honest, I will admit we have always eyed each other warily. Still, it was once her soft hand I grasped before falling into sleep, her curls I brushed from my shoulder when she slept too close.
“Thank you, Lia.” Alice turns around, looking me in the eyes. “I miss you, you know.”
My cheeks are warm under the scrutiny of her stare, the closeness of her face to mine. I shrug. “I’m right here, Alice, as I’ve always been.”
She smiles, but in it is something sad and knowing. Leaning in, she wraps her thin arms around me as she did when we were children.
“And I as well, Lia. As I’ve always been.”
She stands, leaving without another word. I sit on the edge of the bed in the dim light of the lamp, trying to place her uncommon sadness. It is unlike Alice to be reflective, though with Father’s death I suppose we are all feeling vulnerable.
Thoughts of Alice allow me to avoid the moment when I will have to look at my wrist. I feel a coward as I try to find the courage to pull back the sleeve of my nightdress. To look again at the mark that appeared after Father’s body was found in the Dark Room.
When I finally pull back my sleeve, telling myself that whatever is there is there just the same, whether or not I look, I have to press my lips together to keep from crying out. It isn’t the mark on the soft underside of my wrist that is a surprise, but how much darker it is now than it was even this morning. How much clearer the circle, though I still cannot decipher the ridges that thicken it, making the edges seem uneven.
I fight a surge of rising panic. It seems there should be some recourse, something I should do, someone I should tell, but whom might I tell such a thing? Once, I would go to Alice, for whom else might I trust with such a secret? Even still, I cannot ignore the ever-growing distance between us. It has made me wary of my sister.
I tell myself the mark will go away, that there is no need to tell someone such a strange thing when surely it will be gone in a few days. Instinctively, I think this a lie but convince myself I have a right to believe it on a day such as this.
On the day I have buried my father.
Prophecy of the Sisters (paperback) and Guardian of the Gate (hardback) are published on 5th August.