BLOODLINES

By Peggy Ehrhart


On the drive up to Maine, she forced herself to talk about it. If they were going to spend the year at the farm, she might as well clue Andy in right now. Then if she started to freak out later, she wouldn’t have to explain from scratch.

So she described hurrying across the lawn that hot August night, being bundled into the car, and the long drive south along this very road. It had been hotter than usual for Maine, the heat like a blanket, muffling the landscape except for the chirping bugs.

“Your dad never wanted to come back?” Andy said.

“Never. We just stayed in Cambridge every summer, except for a few weeks on the Cape.”

“Poor guy. On his own with a little kid. . . .”

“He survived.” Cordelia--her father had been a Shakespeare scholar and named her after the sweet daughter in King Lear--let her eyes drift from the road to the pine forest. It rose and fell as the car glided down one hill and up the next. “He got married again a year later. Kind of weird--he was usually so uptight about his image.”

“Did it last? Love on the rebound and all--”

“They already knew each other,” Cordelia said. “And besides, his new wife was closer to his age. She almost seemed like a grandmother to me.” They were at the top of a hill now. In the distance Cordelia could see a patch of forest made darker by the shadow of a passing cloud.

“You never saw your mom again?”

“Never. My dad said Katherine wanted to stay in Maine. I was only a little kid. When you’re little, you don’t know what’s normal. Anyway, we weren’t normal. We lived in Cambridge, for God’s sake, and he was a professor--”

“You called your mom by her first name?”

“Like I said, we weren’t normal.”

Andy glanced at her. “Wouldn’t you think a mom would want to see her child again?” he said. “Just to know how things turned out?”

***


They had been there two months, and Cordelia had made peace with the hollyhocks.

She’d hated hollyhocks ever since she could remember--hated the hairy stems and the leathery flowers and the gaudy, obvious colors. But with her writing going well, and she and Andy settled in like the farm was their place now, she wanted to make things pretty. She wanted flowers to be somewhere where she could see them, not stuck behind the barn.

In fact, she was digging them now. That talkative, bosomy woman down the road--kind of boring with her doll collection and descriptions of her husband’s arthritis--had said October was the perfect time to move hollyhocks. You clipped away all the bristly stuff that the frost had turned from green to brown, and then you dug till you found the roots.

“Yes-suh,” the neighbor woman had said in that tight-jawed Maine accent. “Nothin’ to it.”

Cordelia had already moved three or four hollyhocks to the sunny spot by the kitchen door. She was looking for another patch of them when she noticed some at the edge of the field where the hippies had lived.

Maine had been full of hippies that summer. Her father had thought they were silly, and he said if he wanted to see hippies he’d have stayed in Cambridge. But when Eric and Swallow asked if they could camp behind the barn in exchange for doing odd jobs, he said he’d give it a try.

Eric had been in and out of the house constantly. He did all kinds of chores that her father, who spent all his time in his study, never got to.

And Eric gave her mother someone to talk to. Between projects, he’d sit in the kitchen, and they’d chat while she worked on the elaborate meals she loved to cook, stuffing rump roasts or deboning chickens. One day Cordelia even came in from the yard and saw them leaning against each other and whispering. And Eric was cute, despite his shaggy hair. Even Cordelia’s five-year-old self could see that.

***


While Cordelia thought about these things, she loosened the dirt around the patch of hollyhocks by the hippie field. Then her shovel hit the first bone.

Of course she didn’t know it was a bone then. She thought she’d encountered a big rock, or maybe a tree root. She lowered herself to her knees and felt in the chilly soil until her hand came upon something solid. She tugged, but nothing happened, tugged again till she was sweating, despite the chilly day. She was still grappling with the thing when she heard Andy’s voice calling across the yard.

“How’d you get back so soon, babe?” he asked.

“Back from where?” She eased herself onto her heels and pushed her hair out of her eyes with a grimy hand.

“The village.” He leaned down and kissed her. “If I’d known you were going, you could have ridden in with me. That’s a long way to bike.”

“I wasn’t in the village. I’ve been here the whole time digging.” She pulled herself to her feet.

Andy lowered two grocery sacks to the ground. “Coulda fooled me,” he said in the Maine accent he’d been cultivating. “You’ve got a double then. Same curly red hair, and just your size and shape. I followed her for a block or two. Good thing I didn’t catch her . . . because I was going to swoop down on her and--”

Cordelia laughed as he grabbed her in a bear hug and planted a sloppy kiss on her lips.

“Did you put the sign up?” Cordelia said.

“Ayup,” Andy said. “Hardware store guy said we shouldn’t have any trouble finding a painter.” As she squirmed out of his grasp and reached for the shovel, he surveyed the project. “Looks like it’s coming along.”

“It was,” she said, “but there’s a rock or something in the way.” She pointed toward where she’d been struggling with the reluctant thing.

“Let me give it a try. Andy lifted the shovel out of her hands. When he’d stomped the blade nearly all the way into the ground, he leaned on the shovel’s handle till they heard scraping.

“That’s some rock,” he said, and repeated the procedure a few more times, making a circle around the mysterious thing. He stooped, grubbed with his hands, and pulled up a long dirt-encrusted bone.

“I think, my sweet,” he said with a grin, “that you’ve discovered a femur.”

“You mean, from a human?” Andy nodded. “No,” Cordelia said.

“You’re talking to an anthropologist. I’ve seen a bone or two.” He rubbed at the bone till he’d freed it of the biggest chunks of dirt, then held it against the leg of his faded jeans. “Check out the joints at each end. It’s a small femur, just about your size.” She jumped away with a yelp as he attempted to measure the thing against her leg.

Within a few minutes, he dug up more bones and begun to arrange them on the ground as if assembling a skeleton.

“Don’t!” Cordelia put her hands over her eyes and turned away.

“No point in letting the cops have all the fun,” Andy said.

“The cops?”

“Sure. We have to call the cops. Who knows what’s gone on in this house since your family stopped coming.”

“You can’t tell the police.” She was trembling, and her face, pale anyway, with a light sprinkling of freckles, had become even paler.

“Babe, babe--” Andy grabbed her by the shoulders and tugged her toward him. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”

“We can’t call the cops.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know why. We just can’t. Put them back. I’m sure they’re really old. They don’t have anything to do with anything.”

She waited long enough to see him nod and pick up the shovel, and then she headed up the sloping lawn toward the house.

***


Later, sitting in the shadowy kitchen with a bowl of Andy’s homemade stew and a glass of wine in front of her, Cordelia felt better.

Andy gazed at her across the table. “That girl in the village wasn’t nearly as gorgeous as you,” he said. “She had your hair, but--”

He was interrupted by the scuffle of steps on the front porch and a knock at the door.

“I’ll get it.” He caressed her shoulder as he slipped past.

Cordelia heard the door open and Andy say, “That was quick. I just put the sign up a few hours ago.”

He returned to the kitchen leading a worn-looking woman, about sixty, with a kerchief over her hair. She was dressed in shapeless, colorless jeans and a down jacket so ancient that the down had formed into clumps. Once in the room, she glanced around, stared at Cordelia for a minute, and pulled her eyes away.

“So,” Andy said, after he’d settled the woman at the table. “Think you can handle the job?”

“Job?”

“I thought you were here about the painting. We expected a guy, but that’s OK. We’re equal-opportunity employers.”

“You need a painter?” the woman murmured, then nodded slowly. “I can paint.”

Poor thing, Cordelia thought. Looks like she’s never used anything decent on her skin.

“You’re up for it?”

“I can paint,” the woman said again, but looking at Cordelia, not Andy. “I could work for you.”

Odd, Cordelia thought. She looks like these Maine people, but she doesn’t sound like them.

“Let’s give it a shot then,” Andy said. “So, babe--” He stood up. “Why don’t you show. . . .” He paused and the woman filled in the word he was looking for.

“Kay,” she said. “People call me Kay.”

“Great. You show Kay the job and I’ll rustle up some coffee.”

“We want to start with the bedrooms,” Cordelia said. She watched as Kay headed not for the main hall, but for the door that, in the farmhouse’s peculiar layout, led from the kitchen directly to the sleeping wing.

“It’s weird,” Cordelia said later, snuggled up next to Andy in the iron-frame bed that she remembered from her childhood. “She totally knew her way around, like she’d been here before. Spooky. Maybe we shouldn’t use her.” Andy let one arm drift over Cordelia’s shoulder and began to stroke her neck. Cordelia went on. “I don’t think she really saw the ad you put up. I think she came here for something else.”

“Probably going door to door looking for work. She looks like she needs money. We can’t back out now.”

***


A scream pushed itself up from Cordelia’s lungs, then got stuck in her throat because her lips wouldn’t open. Frantic as she was, she knew she was only dreaming. But in the dream, someone had grabbed her, and a huge hand was clamped across her face. “What did you see?” an urgent voice was asking in the hot darkness as bugs chirped in the background.

She shook her head, trying to say “nothing, nothing” but it came out “ump-um, ump-um.”

But really she’d seen a lot. Four shadowy people moved among the hollyhocks, coming together and then changing partners like an urgent dance, until finally one of them fell.

“What’s happening?” she asked when the hand--it turned out to be her father’s—finally went away.

“Go back to the house and wait for me,” her father said.

“Why do you have a shovel?”

“The hollyhocks are overgrown. We’re going to move them.”

“At night?”

Then they were in the car, just she and her father, driving back to Cambridge.

***


First thing in the morning, Cordelia drove to the village to get the paint so Kay could get started. In the hardware store, with its pleasant smell compounded of old wood flooring and bins of nails and rubbery things like sink plugs and gaskets, she pondered paint samples, settling on a creamy white.

“Truck runnin’ OK now?” said the store’s proprietor as Cordelia handed him the paint sample. He was a rangy white-haired man with the slightly stooped posture of somebody who’d always been the tallest person around.

“What truck?” Cordelia said.

“That warn’t you I helped out with a jump t’other day?” He pushed his glasses up onto his forehead and gave her a long stare. “No,” he shook his head at last. “T’wasn’t.” He settled his glasses back into place on his bony nose. “It’s the hair. I took you for someone else.”

“Who?” Cordelia asked, remembering the woman Andy had seen.

“Lady I helped with her truck. Not from around here.” He turned and got busy with the paint.

***


“I really do have a twin,” she announced to Andy when she got home. He was rubbing lemon oil into the kitchen table.

“Umm,” he murmured, too absorbed in his project to look up. “Gorgeous, this old wood.” His hand was guiding a scrap of cast-off T-shirt over the table’s worn surface. “Probably older than both of us put together.” He looked up. “Do you remember it from when you were a kid?”

“Sure,” she said. “We ate here every night. We kind of huddled at the end closest to the stove, because the table’s so long. I sat here.” She pointed to a spot on one of the long benches. “And my dad sat across from me, where you’re standing, and my mom . . .” She stopped. For a second, hovering over the table like that, Andy wasn’t sweet, comforting Andy. He was her dad, and the place where her mom usually sat, next to her, was empty. Her dad was yelling and her mom had pushed the bench back from the table and jumped up, nearly toppling Cordelia onto the floor.

“Babe? What’s wrong?” Andy was staring at her, alarmed.

“I said, I have a twin.” She didn’t want to try to explain the sudden memory, but that’s what had upset her.

Andy thought she was angry at him. “Sorry.” He pretended to cower. “I know I wasn’t listening. It’s one of those insensitive guy things I do.” He tossed the T-shirt scrap aside, stepped around the table, and pulled her to him. “You’re shaking,” he said softly. “What’s up?”

“Just now, when you asked about the table, it reminded me of the night we left. We were eating, but they started arguing. My mom said someone else wanted her if he didn’t. He came lunging around the table, and she grabbed a knife. But then she ran for the door.” She pointed to the door that opened from the kitchen onto the lawn that sloped down to the barn and the hollyhocks beyond. “He ran after her.”

***


Kay showed up so early the next morning that they were still in their pajamas, and she worked so steadily that by mid-afternoon, the first bedroom had been spackled, sanded, and painted. At four o’clock, Andy made a pot of coffee. Lured by the smell, Cordelia emerged from her study to find Andy and Kay chatting in the kitchen.

She’d barely tasted her coffee when they heard someone knocking at the front door.

“Want me to go?” Andy turned from the sink, where he was chopping vegetables for a pot of soup.

“No, I’ll get it.”

Cordelia opened the door to a fading autumn afternoon and Joanne, the talkative woman from down the road. Joanne was carrying a strangely shaped bundle wrapped in newspaper.

“My husband got a deer,” she said, offering the bundle to Cordelia. “We’ve already got a freezer full of meat.”

Cordelia took a step backwards and her eyes got big. “There’s a deer in there?” she said.

“Not a whole one.” Joanne laughed, and the sound gurgled up from her huge bosom. “Just a haunch.”

“Come in.” Cordelia motioned toward the kitchen. “Andy,” she called ahead. “We’ve got a deer--part of one at least.” In her mind she wondered what they were going to do with a deer haunch, whatever that even was, but Joanne seemed so pleased to be making such a gift, that, once the bundle had been deposited on the table, Cordelia offered coffee.

“I’d love some,” Joanne said, looking around with unembarrassed curiosity. “It’s nice to see people in this house again.” She reached out a hand for the coffee and nodded at Kay. “Of course, we didn’t really get to know the other ones. We’d just moved here and all of a sudden they were gone. And the hippies that had been hanging around left too. Everybody disappeared at once, even though it wasn’t the end of summer. Just as well about the hippies--they made Ed nervous. The girl hippie went back to Canada where she was from. That’s what we heard anyway.”

Cordelia glanced toward Kay, wondering if she should try to bring her into the conversation. But Kay seemed happy, staring into space and smiling slightly.

Joanne blew on her coffee and took a sip. “Such a nice couple, the professor and his wife, even if he was so much older. For awhile we thought maybe there’d been a problem with the baby.”

“They had a baby?” Cordelia said, puzzled, picturing her five-year-old self.

“Not yet.” Joanne laughed her gurgling laugh. “They had a little girl, cutest thing, strawberry blond curls. But there was a baby on the way.”

“His wife told you that?” Cordelia said.

“No, no, no. But that was the gossip. Can’t go to the doctor in a little town without everybody finding out.”

Kay jumped to her feet and mumbled something about washing paintbrushes. Joanne was still chuckling as Kay disappeared through the door that led to the sleeping wing. “How’d the hollyhocks turn out?” she said as the last chuckle subsided.

“I got a few moved.” Cordelia nodded toward the kitchen door. “I put them right out there.”

“Could you spare some?” Joanne said. “Mine haven’t been coming back like they used to.”

They crossed the yellowing autumn grass, and Cordelia turned off toward the barn in search of shovel and a box. She tugged at the latch that held the sagging door secure, and stepped into the dark interior. The garden tools were lined up along the wall just past an old table. Glancing that direction, Cordelia expected to see the familiar jumble of flowerpots and half-empty bags of fertilizer.

Instead, as her eyes adjusted to the gloom, she felt a jolt that left her momentarily frozen. Arranged on the table’s surface was a collection bones, neatly laid out to form a skeleton.

Her skin felt empty, like most of her had torn loose and bolted for the house, screaming for Andy, which was what she really wanted to do. Except she hadn’t done it.

Instead, she’d stood there suffocating because the smell in the barn was no longer just moldering hay and dust and old wood. As she came back to herself, she realized that her forehead and underarms were prickly with sweat.

***


Back out at the hollyhock patch, the hole was much larger now, with cast-off nubbins of hollyhock root strewn among the mounds of excavated soil.

“Looks like you’ve been busy,” Joanne said. She’d already gathered a pile of the most promising roots. “No boxes?” Her eyes dropped to Cordelia’s empty hands, and Cordelia realized she hadn’t even picked up a shovel.

In a daze, Cordelia lifted her hands and examined them.

Joanne slipped an arm around Cordelia’s shoulders. “Are you OK, hon?” she said. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

Cordelia felt like maybe she was a ghost, kind of disembodied, but she shook her head and said, cheerfully she hoped, “Fine. I was just distracted for a minute. I’ll run up to the house for some bags.”

But back in the kitchen, she couldn’t tell Andy about what was in the barn because Kay was there. Kay and Andy were hovering over the haunch of venison, a grisly spectacle now surrounded by swathes of bloody plastic wrap. Cordelia leaned on the counter until the whirly feeling that had suddenly overtaken her passed and the black speckles dancing before her eyes vanished.

“I need bags,” she mumbled, stooping to rummage in the cupboard.

When she returned to the house after seeing Joanne off, Cordelia was relieved to see that the haunch had been wrapped again.

“Kay’s going to take it,” Andy said. “She’ll turn it into manageable pieces, keep some for herself.”

Cordelia shuddered.

“That kind of work never bothered me,” Kay said as she scooped up the bulky parcel and headed for the door, Andy following after.

Cordelia waited for the click of the door latch and intercepted Andy in the hall. “Please hug me,” she moaned, snuggling against his chest. “Someone dug up all those bones and put them on the table in the barn. It’s the most horrible thing--”

“I couldn’t help myself,” he murmured into her hair.

“You did it?” She pulled away.

“I couldn’t help myself, babe,” he repeated with the trace of an embarrassed smile. “I’m a scientist.”

“You’re a nosy busybody. You knew I was upset. Why couldn’t you respect that and leave things like they were?” The last sentence came twisting out of a throat that suddenly felt tight and raw. A hot haze was gathering behind her eyes.

Andy’s smile seemed to get larger even though he was biting his lip now. “What’s the matter? It’s nothing to do with us. Who knows how long they’ve been there? It’s cool though, like a mystery. But we really should call the cops.” He wasn’t managing to make the smile go away. “It’s a woman, by the way. But I had the devil of a time reassembling her. Whoever did it was really an expert butcher. They dismembered the corpse so they could fit it into a tiny hole.”

Cordelia let her head sag forward into her hands, but they seemed to have a smell on them, so she lowered them to her sides. “You idiot.”

“Sweetie.” He reached out a hand, but she pushed it away. “You’re overreacting.” He watched her while she sniffed at her hands and let her head fall into them again, gulping and sobbing at the same time.

“Wait a second,” he said. “I get it. That story you told me the other night . . . your dad yelling and the knife--”

“He wouldn’t.” Her head popped up and she almost screamed it. “He’d never do that, especially chopping her up like you said. He was the most squeamish person in the world.”

“But you never saw your mom again--”

“Andy, don’t.” Now she really was screaming. “Just don’t.”

The next morning Kay showed up carrying a newspaper-wrapped parcel like the one the haunch had come in, but smaller. “I turned it into roasts and chops,” she said, a pleased smile lighting up her worn face. “And I made some venison sausage. I stayed up half the night.”

“You made sausage?” Andy said in amazement.

“You’ll like it,” she said, stealing a glance at Cordelia then turning away like she wanted to look longer but somehow felt she shouldn’t.

“We’ll have it for dinner.” Andy snatched the parcel up and stowed it in the refrigerator. “And you’ll stay and eat with us. OK?”

***


So that night they sat together at the end of the long table closest to the stove. Andy had fried the sausage links while a pan of sliced potatoes roasted in the oven and a pot of green beans steamed on the stove top. Now their plates were almost empty and they sat in the candlelight almost groggy from the food and wine.

“The painting’s going great,” Andy said smiling across the table at Kay, who sat next to Cordelia. “The day you turned up was a real stroke of luck for us.” Kay smiled modestly and looked down at the table. “We don’t know anything about you, really,” he said. “What else do you do besides painting?”

“Different things,” she said, in the voice that didn’t sound like the Maine people. “I get by.”



“Hey, you know--” Andy had gotten a little boozy. Two wine bottles, one empty and the other nearly so, sat amid the serving dishes. Now he was squinting at Kay and Cordelia, side by side on the bench. “You two almost look alike in the dark.”

“I don’t know.” One of Kay’s hands rose to finger her ravaged skin.

“No, really, you do,” Andy said, caught up in the idea now. “If your hair was the same . . . but you always wear that scarf.” He stood up. “What if I took it off?”

Cordelia studied Kay’s face. She couldn’t tell if Kay wanted the scarf to stay on or come off, and thought maybe Kay didn’t know either.

Andy scooted around the end of the table, and as Cordelia watched, plucked the scarf from Kay’s head. A wiry mass of curls came free, faded to gray of course, but gray with the slightest hint that the curls had once been red, just like Cordelia’s curls.

Now the look on Kay’s face seemed to be daring Cordelia to say something.

“Katherine?” she whispered.

Kay nodded.

“Why?”

“I heard there were people in the house again. Jennie--she’s my other girl--and I don’t usually come around this way.”

Cordelia wanted to say lots of things. But the first thing that came out was, “Who are the bones?”

Kay reached for Cordelia’s hand and squeezed it, too tightly.

“Swallow didn’t want to give Eric up,” she said. “So I had to get rid of her. And your father--” She laughed. “All he could see were the headlines: ‘Harvard Prof’s Wife Slays Love Rival.’ He had the hole done even before I finished getting her ready to bury.”


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Peggy Ehrhart is a former English professor now writing full time. She is a member of Mystery Writers of America and treasurer of NY/TriState Sisters in Crime. Her fiction has appeared in Crime and Suspense, Futures Mystery Anthology Magazine, and Flashing in the Gutters. Her writing awards include first prize in Futures Mystery Anthology Magazine's 2005 Flash Fiction contest. Visit her website at www.publishersmarketplace.com/members/PeggyEhrhart/ .


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