Excerpt from High Ground, copyright 2017 by Richard Authier Lee
“She reads like a sixth-grade boy,” the sniveling Principal Arnold Parsons had said about her—God rest his soul—-an insult nestled in a compliment like a rock in a raisin cookie. “Yes, Madam, an exceptional mind for a young lady,” he would coo. “She’ll make a fine and cultured wife one day, when she develops sociability.”
As if that little man would have the slightest idea about any of that.
Children of the town were rough and vulgar, not at all like Mother, Jensen, Woods or Millie. Father would have caned them within an inch of their lives had they been Brandts. Children ran, hollered, threw snowballs against the windows, played stick ball in the street, scared the daylights out of Mother and one Sunday in June fulfilled her most dire prediction with the fateful smashing of a rose-tinted Tiffany window.
The servants planted maple saplings and thick evergreen hedges between the house and the street. Dirty, sweaty men with stinking, smoking horse-drawn carts forged a black iron fence around the grounds. The city poured an oily, black cover over the hopscotch wheel ruts in the road.
Esther worked at the Library after school, returning each night, disappearing behind the burgeoning greenery along Hemlock and Pine.
The town’s children had children. Some left. None returned.
The city packed the street with blue-black asphalt and the noisy charge of autos drove horses from the roadway. Mother was taken ill and a doctor came. Two men carried her down the marble staircase and out into the world, never to return.
The town’s children grew old and died, forgotten in their passing by all but the obituary page of the now extinct Leitrim Champion, their lives terse paragraphs before the names of the funeral parlors that paid for the listing. Esther read more newspapers, magazines. and books. She clipped and saved, pasted and rebound the words and pictures, taking the measure of the world outside by its paper replica, constructed of clean, volumes bound in green leather. She piled them around her desk, her room, out into the hallway against the wall, down the corridor, and over the years down both sides of the halls, deep into the house. She felt comfort from the nearness of her green books, and, yes, comfort from the organizing and sorting of such an untidy world. They became her proof of the world, nothing less.
Esther sealed her envelopes, stamped and placed them in the slot for her mailman Gerry to take next morning. At the kitchen table, she sipped her tea, took up her green and gray Waterman fountain pen and scratched another entry into her diary.
This house grows larger by the day, shooting new branches and wings like wisteria vine in the spring, as though some critical ballast was lost when Mother died. It fairly breathes now, adding rooms and doors I do not recall passing through before. Tricks of an aging mind, I know, but some corners, some rooms, some halls are so foreign to me that I have come to fear them, fear what lies behind them as if were again a child. I am the last, a lonely childless old woman and it has come to me these few months how suited I am to this unhappy task. While the others so greatly surpassed me with each of their personal gifts I have taken on a bit of each of them in myself, living through their lives, through their deaths, to remain the pale distillation of that which came before.
Last night the waves were stronger and believe I heard Father in the house. There have always been things about this place that frightened me—though I know each stone, each board, as I know my own hands.
What has been my crime? My punishment is clear.
I am condemned to life—