Deborah Doucette began her writing career as a freelance journalist, subsequently writing a nonfiction book, Raising Our Children’s Children: Room In The Heart. The Forgotten Roses is Doucette’s debut novel. She is a Blogger for the Huffington Post, an artist, and mother of four. She lives in a small town west of Boston with her red standard poodle Fiamma (Italian for flame) surrounded by her art and enjoying the comings and goings of her twin grandchildren. She is currently working on a new novel. Visit her on her website, Facebook, Twitter, her Amazon Author’s page, and Pinterest.
Secrets, Excerpted from The Forgotten Roses
Owl Canyon Press
© Deborah Doucette 2014
Someone else waits on this night filled with mischief and dreams. She, too, has spent a lifetime waiting, waiting to leave, waiting to come back. Serena Deitzhoff sits in a tiny log cabin located deep in the woods near the home where she grew up. She hugs her knees to her chest listening for noises in the dark. Buried memories ambush her every so often, and she feels like a child again, as if she’s been sucked back in time instantaneously and against her will. She shivers, but it is not from cold.
She looks over at the doorway and conjures up the figure she saw when she was a little girl. It was illuminated by the backdrop of sunlight filtered through saplings, and shimmered there a pale sparkling green, like a woodland fairy. At five years old, Serena thought it really was one of the fairies that she and her mother built tiny, earth-bound huts for. Julia and Serena would find thin willow branches and bend them over, poking each end into the dirt until it formed a short, curved tunnel, a miniature home. Then they covered it with the biggest, most perfect maple leaves, decorated it with blossoms and lined the bottom with a bed of moss as soft as kitten paws, or fragrant mint leaves from her mother’s herb garden. In return, the fairies left tiny gifts like a red-capped mushroom, or a perfect rose. Other times Serena would find a smooth white stone, a foreign coin, a blue barrette, and once, a chocolate covered cherry in a pleated, brown paper cup.
On that day long ago she had wandered from her play yard, followed the direction that the tall grass blew and the bend of the lowest oak branches pointing the way. She eluded the blockade of pine. Serena tucked her head under an arch of vines and found a pussy willow path, saw a gathering of pink Lady Slippers, so wild and rare that she knew not to pick any, and tried to locate the thin call of a hawk looking for a mouse lunch. She scooted under a crook in a hedge and only got her hair caught once, passed a rabbit lodge at the base of an old stump and when she stopped to find a stick to poke into the hole, she saw the little house up ahead. Serena rubbed her eyes with balled up fists, she was that amazed. She never once realized she was lost.
Serena heard her mother calling her name, but it seemed far, far away and unimportant; Serena wasn’t ready to go back yet. Inside the cabin smelled like cedar chips, wood-smoke and the moist, brown-dirt scent of the forest. There was a cot with a worn quilt tucked tight around a thin mattress. The striped pillow was too flat to be comfortable. A messy pile of split logs leaned against a woodstove in one corner, and one lone chair, looking punished, stood in another. There was an oil lamp on a shelf, and thick canvas squares nailed to the tops of the windows, parted like pigtails and held aside – not with colored ribbons – by string ties.
The sunlight shone through the windows in perfect straight lines just the way she draws them with her colored pencils. She watched as a million tiny stars danced inside the rays. She felt warm and drowsy, sat on the floor, and leaned her head against the edge of the cot. Her eyelids felt heavy. She could hear her mother still calling but would not, could not shout out loud herself. Hush, hush Serena wanted to whisper, she wanted her mother to be as quiet as she, as quiet as the spider waiting in her web along the windowsill, as quiet as a secret.
Serena could tell this was a secret place, and maybe the secret was for her alone; it could be a playhouse or a gift from the fairies. Maybe it is the giant queen of the fairies now at the door and this is her home, she had thought. Serena lifted her arms up high toward the vision, the luminous glow of light at the doorway. But, when the figure moved forward Serena saw that it was only her mother in a faded housedress and not even the Blessed Virgin which would have been her second guess because bolts of light appeared to be rising off her head, just like the pictures she had seen of Mary floating to heaven.
Julia Deitzhoff’s yellow hair stood out in zigzag wisps that had escaped her French twist on her fight through the woods to find Serena. Her nylons had runs that looked like puffy fat scars running up her legs. There was a circle of pink high on each of her cheeks that was so round and perfect and fever bright that it looked as though it might have been painted there by a doll-maker, the lipstick had been chewed off her lips that were as parched and white as tissue paper, and her eyes looked too wide. A spark bounced off the gold cross hanging around her neck as she bent towards Serena.
But it was not a fairy encounter, or visions of the Virgin Mary, or being alone in the woods that alarmed Serena; it was the expression on her mother’s face that made her freeze in place. The look in her eyes was so foreign to Serena that it caused her to stare in confusion until her mother reached down and yanked her up by the arm and squeezed her too tight, then pulled her all the way home while Serena screamed in outrage. Her mother spanked her hard for the first and only time that day and told her never to wander from the yard again. And to never, never dare go back to the little house again. She told Serena that bats and snakes lived in the house. Julia told Serena that a bad man might steal her. She told her that witches went there at night. She made Serena get down on her knees at bedtime and pray for God to protect her from all the bad things. Serena’s mother knelt down beside her, closed her eyes, and moved her mouth, but the prayers were swallowed by the dark. Then she tucked Serena into bed, and leaned down close to her. Serena felt her mother’s warm, moist words puff into her ear, “Don’t tell father.” They echoed there all night, like the tapping of mice feet in the attic; little whispered warnings.
Serena didn’t believe any of her mother’s stories, not really, but she didn’t like getting hit, and she hated the way her mother looked at her when she found her at the little house. Serena disliked the way spit gathered in the corners of her mother’s mouth and the way she trembled when she scolded about the cabin that day. So she stayed away – until she was older. She tucked the cabin aside in her mind, didn’t think about it at all until a few years later when she began to wake in the night. People were in the woods way past everyone’s bedtime and Serena knew in her bones exactly where they were headed. On those nights, something nagged her to consciousness, to turning on her pony lamp, and to her window.
Her father must have noticed her light from his post down on the cart path, perhaps even saw her at the little window. He must have considered his options, weighed them meticulously and clever man that he was, came up with the owl to block the view.
When her father showed them the owl, he told Serena and Julia it was to scare the squirrels from the attic, to keep woodpeckers from making holes in the wooden gutters. Julia worked her hands like she was trying to stretch them, until they were blotched and dry as autumn leaves, until father put his big hand on her shoulder, looked into her fretful eyes and said, “I don’t want you giving it another thought, mother. This will take care of everything nicely.” To Serena he said, “This is Big Bertha, she will protect the house. She is beautiful, don’t you think?” as he stroked the decoy’s cold head.
Serena thought the owl’s eyes resembled her father’s somehow. Even though the owl’s round stare was different from her father’s piercing blue eyes. His eyes were sharp enough to penetrate tender, hidden places but opaque as a closed door; the owl’s were still and deep as a pond, connected all the way through to the center of her. It was the peaks that framed their eyes that made them appear similar – the owl’s pointed, ruffled feathers and the silent, watchful scowl that hooded her eyes; and her father’s bushy brows, overgrown as a forest, dark as menace – as if their intentions were bunched up on their faces for all to see.
Serena was a wakeful child. From that night on, whenever she heard the noises in the dark, instead of getting up she looked over at the big owl standing guard on the other side of the window. Serena believed the bird was as detailed inside as she was out, with no empty spots, or hollow spaces where uncertainty could blow through. She thought the brain might consist of gears and winding things like a clock, that her stomach was solid full all the way through, and her heart was a fearless rock the size and shape of Serena’s small fist. Her father was right oddly enough, his idea worked but not in the way he had calculated. Bertha protected her all those years.
The decoy was fierce and hard, an impenetrable barrier. Bertha never let the voices get near, she, not God, kept the bad things out. Serena talked to Bertha until the outside voices faded and Serena’s eyes grew tired. After a while, she slept through the night. When she got old enough to piece things together, she wondered what it was that her mother needed to get through the nights.
Now, the little house doesn’t frighten her, it never really did. She is quite comfortable staying here. She feels calm and in control, even peaceful, and that strikes her as ironic. She cocks her head. There is only the hum of wind through bare branches, the shush of pine, and the dry rustling of grasses. The sun stole every last drop of warmth on its way down; the night quieted as it hunkered down against the frost. She reaches into her backpack for her down jacket and slides her arms through but leaves it unzipped even though her shirt is open at the neck. This is easy, she thinks, not like bivouac. Serena couldn’t take the freezing cold, the kind that was permanent, night and day relentless, and left your fingers and toes aching, your lips cracked, too numb to speak. She hated the forced marches of her youth, the damp and discomfort. Other than that, she found Army life had suited her. The routine, the structure, the boundaries and restrictions: others felt stifled by them; Serena felt comforted, secure.
She reaches into her pocket, feels a package of lifesavers, and pops one into her mouth. Wintegreen. She should lie down and try to sleep for a bit, but she is too excited. Like a teenager, she thinks and the tension in her face gives up to a wide smile. What she feels is not the heart pounding, hand trembling kind of excitement that leaves you breathless that others describe, this is more of a spreading warmth, an expectation of pleasure. Serena is infinitely relaxed, she gets up, yawns widely and stretches, stamps her hiking boots on the floor, puts her hands on her hips and twists from left to right getting the kinks out.
She looks out the window and can just barely make out, through the filter of brush and tall grass, the dark outline of the house down the hill. Or maybe she can’t really see it, just knows it’s there and so imagines the black outline of a building. She places her hands against the rough log frame of the window and leans forward with her nose nearly pressed against the glass pane trying to get the house into view. “Hocus pocus, now you see it, now you don’t,” she says to herself as the clouds part and she catches a brief glimpse of the front door until it disappears back into shadow. She gazes up at the sky, the clouds that are balled up sliding by the moon are few, but there is a choppy breeze that pushes at the tallest tree branches so that the shadows shift. She looks back at the house and sees only emptiness.
During the day, with her binoculars, she can see clearly the goings on there. She watched the real estate lady and the others this morning and, later in the afternoon, she watched Hanes as he went into the house, stayed for a few minutes and left. Hardly anyone knows about this place, she thinks. Serena is not surprised that her father did not mention to anyone that there is a small one-room log cabin further up the hill. It was built for seclusion, camouflaged. A wall of dense brush and brambles at the back protects it, so that if you were to walk the property line along the old cart path on one side and then down the bridle path on the other, you would never see it. It’s low – Serena can barely stand up in it – set into a small hollow and, like Sleeping Beauty’s castle, flanked by thorny briars. The roughness and color of the logs and weathered cedar shingle roof conceal it from every angle. And all around, a conspiracy of pine.
It does not exist on any plot plan, map, or deed. There are probably only a handful of people left who know about it and they would likely try not to remember. Maybe they have dreamed, as Serena has, that it has crumbled into dust, or blown away in a storm, or ignited setting ablaze everything standing for miles and miles. Maybe, in fact, there are only two remaining who remember and dream. Or one.
The iron bed frame is still here, rusted raw, and the narrow woodstove in the corner with the crooked pipe, the small wooden table with a pitcher and bowl in the center, frozen in time like a primitive still life. They are covered with cobwebs, leaves and dried insect hulls. Serena swept out the floor before she set out her things, but tried to ignore the rest. Now she looks around and in the dark, they seem to stare back in reproach.
Serena hears the crunch of movement outside and holds her breath. She stands still, but flexed for a quick flight if necessary. The door slowly swings open and when Serena sees who it is she takes two quick strides and holds out her arms in welcome. She shuts the door and their lips find each other in the murk, a long soft kiss. Velvet.
A lifetime spent waiting . . . plenty of mystery in this slice of a larger story. Hooked yet?