[Emily Riddell’s Journal]
June 26th 18–– A.D.
Today, on a teetering skiff, I reached Whalebone Island. Mister Franklin crosses the inlet twice a month to deliver mail and supplies. In three years, he has never seen Loretta’s face. She hides behind a veil.
Squeezed to near-transparency between the distant sky and sea, Whalebone Island resembled a mirage. Gulls and smaller seabirds—Emily did not know what to call them, since she had never lived near the ocean before—cavorted around the smudge of land. “Sir, have you ever been attacked by a whale?” she asked.
“They avoid the island.” The obstinate wind unraveled Franklin’s voice, and it took a moment for Emily to collect its threads.
“But I thought . . . ” She sniffled and wiped wind-drawn tears from her cheek. “Well, why is the island called Whalebone?”
“The answer might frighten you.”
“It cannot be worse than the bible. Jonah was swallowed by a fish!”
Yawning mouths haunted Emily’s dreams. Eventually, unfailingly, they devoured her. During the worst nightmares, she survived mastication, and her ragdoll body tumbled down a gullet. If pressed, Emily might attribute the recurring nightmares to childhood trauma. As an eight-year-old, she witnessed a mouse slip, kicking, into a snake’s mouth. She tried to rescue it, but the reptile thrashed with bruising violence and escaped into the brush. How long was its stomach? How far would the mouse struggle before it succumbed to crushing darkness and gradual digestion? The questions had haunted her for six years.
The land breeze mixed Franklin’s laughter with gull screams until Emily’s ears could not separate one from the other. “Fair enough,” he said. “When they discovered the island, its beaches were a tangle of enormous bones. The explorers counted enough for eighteen giants, and—not sure I believe this part, but many do—some were even bigger than sulphur-bottom whales.”
“How did that happen?”
“If you ask me? The same current that throws ships against the island stranded a family of whales.”
“A whole family . . . ” Emily flushed, as if a geyser had erupted in the cavity behind her eyes, nose, and cheeks. Moved by nausea, she bent over and vomited into the gray Atlantic, heaving in tune with the rolling water. Between sky and sea, the island bobbed, dizzying. There glinted a faraway pillar of white—was it a piece of poor, dead whale jutting from the beach?—but another burst of vomiting wiped the figure from sight. Emily waited until her stomach calmed before crumpling on the passenger bench.
“Don’t lie down,” Franklin said. “Just makes it worse.”
“I may die!”
“It passes.” He scrutinized Emily from her yellow bonnet to tightly laced boots. “What are you doing here?”
“The Forresters employed me as a nursemaid.”
“Odd choice. Do you know Missus Forrester well?”
“Not especially.” It was only a partial lie; Loretta’s married name still sounded like it belonged to a stranger. When Emily was summoned to the island, Loretta asked her to be discreet. Tell nobody that we are sisters.
“Excuse me,” Emily said. “I feel sick again.”
Even after they docked, she swayed, as if her blood sloshed with the ocean. Franklin proffered his hand; his calloused, steadying grip felt familiar. Emily recalled a sense of unbalance, a comforting presence. Perhaps a man—her father or an uncle?—taught her to walk. “Thank you,” she said. “Up that way?”
Stairs had been chiseled into the incline between the beach and elevated meadow. As if summoned, a woman in white stepped onto the granite landing. Although her face was hidden by a lace veil, Emily recognized the willowy shape and unflagging straight posture.
“Thank you, Franklin!” Loretta called. That low, lilting voice had given Emily a thousand stories, a thousand admonishments, and a hundred thousand tender endearments. “Albert and I can manage the rest.”
As the skiff broke away from land, the sisters met in the middle of the staircase. “I missed you!” Emily cried. “Let me see your face!”
Loretta turned away from the sea and lifted her veil. “Have three years changed me?” she asked.
“Well . . . ” Loretta’s skin, once richer than dark amber, was sallow. She must rarely sun it. The new look complemented Whalebone Island, as dreary a place as any. Its grasses, brush, and scraggly trees were wind-stooped and stunted by their inhospitable lot. Emily wondered if the island, with time, would leech the color from her cheeks, too.
“Why do you cover your face?” she asked.
“Because I hate the way they stare.”
“Everyone but you, Darling.” Loretta smiled. “Let’s hurry home. A surprise is waiting.”
The suitcases were light, but Emily carried both. She had lugged them between so many train cars and carriages, they felt like vestigial limbs. Upon the upper landing, she dawdled to appreciate the view. Amidst the battered meadow grasses were a gray saltbox house, vegetable gardens, sumac trees, and, on a stone summit, the white Whalebone lighthouse.
A thin man with a hatbox in his arms came toward Loretta and her. He had laughter-creased, animated eyes, a spattering of freckles across his cheeks, and hair the color of ripe wheat.
“That’s my Albert,” Loretta said.
“Hello, Ladies!” He stopped in front of them. “Emily, will you trade a present for your parcels?” The box wiggled, and its lid popped ajar. A button-tiny pink nose poked out.
“Kitten!” Emily dropped her luggage and lifted the red shorthair from its blanket-lined hatbox. As the cat rubbed its cheek against hers, the silver bell on its blue ribbon collar rang. “I love him!” she said. “Oh, thank you!”
“What should we name the little tiger?” Albert asked.
“I like ‘Łitsóóye,’ because his eyes are so yellow!”
“Emily!” Loretta exclaimed. “What kind of choice is that? Think of something else.”
“Why? Is Missus Mary hiding in the bushes with her paddle?”
“No. Nevertheless, behave. We speak English around company.” Loretta picked up the hatbox lid and marched up the path. “His name is William.”
From the distant garden trilled a little bell, and Emily wondered if a second cat lived among the sumac trees.
“That’s very clever,” Albert said, with the fierce cheeriness of a peacemaker. “Like Prince William of Orange.”
“Do you hear that sound, Mister Forrester?”
“It’s the parrot. Please call me Albert.”
“There are parrots here?”
“Just one,” he said. “Lonely creature. It has lived on the island since my father was keeper. Maybe longer.”
“Does the birdie speak, too?”
“Speak, sing, and whistle. I once heard it bellow like a foghorn.” He rubbed his sharp, clean-shaven chin. “We think it came from a shipwreck. There were several before the lighthouse. However, nobody truly knows. It’s quite mysterious.”
Perhaps, Emily thought, the parrot crossed the ocean in a whale’s mouth.
Every morning, when Loretta is sick, I remember my bout on the skiff and wince. She reassures me that Baby is just pinching her stomach. Entirely healthy! I still pray for her safety.
The house library has 100s of books (I suppose lighthouse keepers are all well-read, for how else do they fill lonely hours?). Sometimes, I read until the moon rises. Loretta asked Franklin to bring more candles. She must know that I waste them but does not seem to mind.
To hone my caregiver skills, I play nurse maid with William-cat. He sleeps in the baby carriage as I do chores indoors. Loretta spends her energy in the vegetable garden, and we prepare Albert’s portable meals together. He dines at midnight, alone. His assistant, Mr. Gorey, dislikes company. In fact, we have never met! Apparently, Gorey lives in the lighthouse. That’s dedication!
In my leisure, I practice rowing a canoe in the calm shallows (in an emergency, the skill may save us all). At first, the paddles blistered my fingers and palms. Hideous skin balloons! Loretta gave me silk gloves to prevent more injury. They and the calluses I’ve grown have made practice easier.
Yesterday afternoon, I heard laughter as I paddled. It was that tiny parrot, barely larger than my hand, perched on a bush and giggling like a child! Its feathers were a sunset of orange and yellow, with green about the wings. Such a beautiful animal. It reminds me of the lighthouse fire; for something so small, its vibrancy radiates far!
“Hello, pretty one!” I called.
In response, it sang to me! “A fisherman stood. A fisherman stood aghast. On the reef or Norman’s Woe. A fisherman stood aghast, aghast.” No doubt part of a longer ballad, one I do not know.
I returned later to feed the parrot crackers, but it had gone.
Midday, I drifted off whilst reading in the library (yes, yes, lazy me!). I woke up with a scream in my ear: “Chee Ba-ti!” Perhaps the voice came from a dream. Reason insists that it did, for who else knows my first tongue? However, I saw the parrot on a sumac branch, just inches from the window. It did not budge when I pressed my face against the glass. We are becoming friends through food. I always carry nuts and dry fruit in my apron. Treats for my sweet songbird.
I wonder if all parrots have dancing eyes. The pupils are in a state of constant flux, contracting and expanding. Big, small, big, small.
They remind me of the pulsing flame in Whalebone lighthouse. The clockwork waves that roll ashore. A ticking metronome. A pendulum. “Did you wake me up?” I asked. The pupils flashed twice more before Parrot flew away.
Chee Ba-ti! Chee Ba-ti. Hours later, and my peace is still disturbed.
Some memories that have barbs.
As a new orphan, I had tremendously horrible dreams, from which I awoke calling for my dead older sister, “Chee Ba-ti!” That is how I met Loretta. She, an older child in the girl’s dormitory, ran to my bedside as I screamed, gathered me in her arms, and made soothing sounds, the kind that straddle language barriers. We could not speak like Indians in the orphanage-school. Unfortunately, I knew very little English back then!
When I stopped crying, Loretta whispered, “I will be your sister.” It was the only time I heard her speak my first tongue. She risked a paddling from Missus Mary to comfort me.
Yes, some memories have barbs. That one stings of sorrow and the horror I experienced when, upon crying for my dead sister, a stranger came in her place.
How could I fear Loretta or doubt our kinship? Family is foremost loyalty and love, two qualities she radiates. During my youth, she taught me how to survive. Alone, I would have fared no better than a whale stranded on the beach.
Emily scoured the library shelves, but she found only two books suitable for Baby: Mother Goose and another illustrated collection of poems. No matter. She could invent new stories and recite them.
From the garden, Loretta screamed.
“Are you hurt?” Emily cried. She leaned out the window and looked through a screen of sumac twigs. Loretta stood thirty feet away, her arms limp, her back to the house. The breeze tousled her loose black hair. She seemed to sway, and Emily felt uneasy, as if the island had unrooted from the Earth and now bobbed on the Atlantic.
“What happened? You’re scaring me!”
Tentatively, Loretta knelt, took something from the earth, stood, and turned. In her palms, she cradled a kerchief-wrapped bundle. With new-lamb-trembling steps, she walked to the window and placed her burden on the sill. Spots of blood bloomed across the hand-embroidered fabric. “God,” Emily said. “What is it?”
Loretta simply stared. In the shade, her eyes lost the distinction between pupil and iris; Emily felt like she was gazing into two wells. She unwrapped the bundle.
It swaddled the parrot, dead. Blood dried on its punctured wings and belly. Its sunset tail feathers were bent, and fog thickened over its motionless eyes. “William,” Emily said. “He must have gone through the window. Wicked cat!” She sobbed. “No. No. It is my fault. Forgive me, little parrot.”
Loretta thrust a hand through the open window and wiggled her dirt-caked fingers. “Emily,” she said. “Emi-lee.”
“I can bury Parrot after I find Will-cat—”
“No. I can bury Parrot!” Loretta took the body and tenderly stroked its head. Tears slipped from her well-black eyes.
“Don’t cry. It is in heaven now, right? Maybe it’s imitating an angel’s song! Wouldn’t that be—”
“Find Will-cat.” Loretta slammed the swinging window shut and turned toward the eastern meadow.
“Ladies!” Albert hollered; his bedroom was above the library, the floor a miserable barrier against sound and drafts. “Please lower your voices!”
“Sorry! William ran away!”
Emily heard a rapid succession of thumps down the stairs. Barefoot, his short hair disheveled, Albert leaned into the library doorway. “Let’s fetch the rascal,” he said.
After searching the upper island, a ringing bell drew them to the beach. There, Will-cat mewed and rubbed himself against Emily’s boots. His mouth was darker where blood had stained it brown-red.
“I’m ashamed, Albert.” Emily pulled Will-cat into her lap and cleaned him with her thumb. He purred at the attention.
“Don’t be. Cats are escape artists.”
“So are children. I’ll do better as nursemaid.”
“You . . . ” Albert had an Englishman’s complexion, so pale that every slight whim of blood, from blushes to windburn, marked his face. Though he turned away from her to face the inlet, Emily noticed that his ears and exposed neck were flushed brighter than usual.
“Emily,” Albert said, “Dash it, you’re fourteen! Focus on learning. Loretta can raise her own child.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Light keepers are governed by strict rules. We have a code of conduct. My superiors may not understand your position in our family. It is better—safer!—if the public believes that you are hired help. Their ignorance does not impact our honest, private lives. I’ve always wanted a little sister.”
“Don’t you have three?”
“We never got along.” He knelt. “Emily, my father is unwell. It won’t be long before he goes to God. When that happens, rest his soul, we can leave this island and claim our inheritance.”
“Is he dying? Visit him! Before it’s too late!”
“No. He riles me up. I prefer to grieve an estranged father than a bitter enemy.”
“Maybe he changed his mind about Indians. It’s been years since you married one.”
Albert pulled a dreary face, his brow knit. An easy-tempered man, the expression seemed forced, if only because he seldom practiced its motion. “Loretta, the baby, and you are the only family that matters.”
“We should take Will-cat home.”
They returned to the wind-blanched saltbox house. Its front door hung open, swaying and creaking with each bellow of wind. “I thought we latched it,” Albert said. “Is that dirt on the floor?” A trail of moist crud had been tracked from porch to library. There, Loretta writhed on the hardwood floor, ensnared in her own tea gown. She’d pulled her arms out of the sleeves, and now gray flannel bound her like a delicate straightjacket. When Emily and Albert stepped into the room, her struggling intensified, and the gown slid over her face. Impressions of her nose and mouth warped the fabric. She bit it, as if trying to chew a way free. The gown no longer resembled a straightjacket.
It was a cocoon.
Emily broke the chains of shock and ran to her sister. She untied the cloth belt under Loretta’s chest and removed the gown with a deft pull. Loretta, gasping and disheveled, curled on the floor. Thankfully, she seemed unbothered by her knickers and chemise. As she absorbed the room by turning her face side-to-side, her pupils swelled against paper-thin brown borders. Might they burst?
“I’ll bring water!” Albert said. “Keep her safe!”
“Loretta,” Emily sat among the scattered books and kissed her sister’s cheek. “I’m here.” Loretta’s skin felt warm; she coughed, spraying red droplets.
“No, no, no,” Emily whispered. Prayed. So many children at the boarding school stained their sleeves with consumption ink before the sickness killed them.
“I feel faint,” Loretta whispered. “What happened?”
“Just a bad spell,” Emily said, pulling Loretta to her chest.
“I was weeding in the garden, and then you called my name. When did I come inside?”
“After you buried the parrot.”
“Why would I do that?” Loretta licked her bloodstained lips, and Emily thought of Will-cat’s red whiskers. “Has it died?”
“Yes,” Emily said. At the time, she was so certain that it had.
I worry that the nerve tonic Doctor prescribed is not working. Although Loretta has not become tangled in her gown again, sometimes, when I am talking, her pupils swell, unfocused, as if a veil parted them from the light. I call her name (Loretta, Loretta) and she returns with no recollection of our conversation!
I cannot be that boring.
Loretta no longer works outside (the doctor’s orders). Instead, she peers at the garden through the library window and sews. I rarely leave the house, either, because chores keep me busy. It is good. I fear that Loretta may hurt herself I am not available to break her ever more frequent dazes!
Unfortunately, because there is no time for canoeing anymore, our isolation seems insurmountable.
Loretta and I are bedfellows. It is familiar, comforting. At the orphanage-school, we slept side-by-side, and she held me when I cried. How I need her closeness during the darkest moments in my life. When the curtains are drawn and the candle wick is cold. When nightmares linger, because the blackness behind my eyelids is everywhere. Everywhere.
Last night, I believed that Loretta roused me from a dreamless slumber. “Emily, wake up. The baby is kicking!”
“Baby, stop that!” I said.
“No, no. Movement is healthy.”
Through touch, I found and lit a candle in its brass holder. Loretta sat against the headboard on her side of the bed. She asked, “Do you want to feel?”
“Yes, of course.” I put my hand against her stomach, but I felt nothing. Maybe the fabric under my palm muffled the kicks. I wondered: could I hear Baby instead, like a heartbeat? I put my ear against her navel and heard a flutter. A ringing bell and meowing cat and scream. Her stomach began to bleed; she was a bird with a tooth-torn belly and broken wings.
A nightmare, yes, but when I woke, the horror persisted. There were drops of blood on Loretta’s pillow. She had gone away. Breathless from running room-to-room, I found her in the library. There she sat in her favorite armchair, the one beside the window, with a book on her lap. Her eyes were faraway. “Loretta,” I said.
How do I describe the arresting strangeness of Loretta’s gaze? It was a sudden thing, a flash of ocular movement. She opened her mouth, and the word “Loretta” flew out. Was it just my imagination, or did her lips move not a whit? As if she swallowed my cries (Loretta, Loretta) and threw them back at me. I suppose it might be trickery. There are some people who speak through dolls. These performers, called ventriloquists, do not knead words with their lips. However, the skill takes considerable practice, does it not? That, Loretta has never done!
“Are you sick?” I asked.
Will-cat must have entered the room behind me. He leapt onto a nearby writing desk. Loretta threw her book at my poor, affectionate pet! I swatted the projectile off course. It landed cover-up upon the floor; it was the finest bible on Whalebone, an antique with gold embossing. Glinting. Loretta is a pious woman, but we read from a simple King James, not Albert’s family bible, that rare and gilded marvel. Its gold-leafed family record pages contain signatures, names, and dates of birth-or-death that span generations of Forresters. When Baby is born, Albert will add another name and birth to the list. Mister John Forrester begot Mister Christopher Forrester begot Mister Shelton Forrester begot Mister Albert Forrester begot Baby Forrester. I have no such line. Yet I know, in that dreamy way of memories during early childhood, that my original family was defined by relation, not name. I called all my father “An-zhe.” (Did I spell it right?) My sister “Ba-ti.” My mother . . . I cannot remember anymore.
Did they have unique names? I cannot remember that, either. Did I have a unique name before the orphanage-school Christened me “Emily Riddell”?
It’s so important to write things down. When every-body in a family dies, and all their friends die too, what remains but empty orphans?
Chee An-zhe is “my father”
Chee Ba-ti is “my elder sister”
??? is “my mother” (Does any of this really matter?)
I have been distracted.
At the orphanage, Loretta broke bread with squirrels and sparrows. Our daily rations included half a loaf (I always desired the whole). Loretta would carry hers to the garden, a parcel of land where girl students learned how to grow vegetables and raise hens. “You cannot tell anybody that I waste food,” she once said. I think, at the time, she was fourteen, and I seven.
“Why do you do it?”
“To stop them from eating the garden.”
Even white lies torment Loretta. That night, in the dormitory, she whispered, “Emily. I feed the animals because I love them.”
My sister would NEVER hurt a defenseless kitten.
Who threw the bible at Will-cat?
After blocking the attack with my hand (it still hurts), I screamed, “Loretta!” Screamed her name so loud, I wonder if the mainland heard me. She swayed and blinked, as if waking from a dream.
I was prepared, this time, for the violent coughing that always shakes her body after a spell. We leaned against each other; I dabbed blood off her lips with my sleeve. By the time Albert arrived, wild-looking with fear, Loretta was breathing freely again. “My poor girls,” he said.
The doctor will come again. Little good he does. If that man gives us more nerve tonic, I will throw him into the sea.
The days are gray. Loretta sits beside the window, sewing a quilt for Baby. Her stitches seem to fluctuate between tidiness and disarray. As if
I hear a bird in the house. Better find the poor thing before Will-cat kills it.
8 P.M.: Not a bird. Loretta was outside the bedroom door, making chirps. I called her name, and she stopped.
10 P.M.: As I put Loretta to bed, she sang, “A fisherman stood aghast, aghast.”
“What song is that?” I asked. Her pupils danced: large, small, large. She possessed parrot eyes and parrot songs. Perhaps she was simply possessed! “Loretta!” I cried. “Loretta, come back to me! Stop singing!”
She coughed and said, “What song?”
Something is wrong.
I told Albert that Loretta has been sick since the parrot died. He called it a coincidence, and then he explained what the word means, as if I did not understand.
“What about the noises she makes?” I asked. “They are songs, whistles, and mocking echoes. What about the way she moves? In bursts or unsteady staggers, like her body is new! What about her hatred of cats? The way her pupils flash? Or—”
He interrupted me with, “Signs of madness! Is that what you think? Well?”
“I think a ghost has made her sick!”
“Christ! A bird ghost? I cannot deal with two hysterical women!”
His dismissal riled me up. “You hardly deal with one, Albert! While you sleep all day and work all night, I support Loretta. Talking to her, feeding her, even sleeping beside her. You know nothing!”
He had the decency to look contrite.
After our talk, I read every ghost story in the library. Many authors write about apparitions that stalk old houses and weep at midnight. However, I found no mention of animal ghosts. Had Albert been vindicated?
In my heart, I think not! Could I know an unwritten secret? That the disturbed dead infect people? That ghosts arise from both creatures and men?
Tomorrow, I will find the parrot’s grave. Might it be disturbed? Should I bless or burn the body? Something must be done!
I will save my sister.
At sunrise, Emily went to the eastern meadow. She pressed through waist-high grasses and brush, searching for disturbed earth. Her skirt collected every prickleseed it brushed. Their teeth bit her ankles, calves, and thighs. If she looked down, would she see blood speckling her skirt? It would match the dry blood on her sleeves, all her handkerchiefs, blankets, and pillows. On the curtains and carpet. On Albert’s family bible.
There: an elderberry shrub had been torn from the ground and cast aside. The bare patch in its wake was the perfect size and shape for a bird grave. Emily planted her hands into the soil and started digging. Six inches down, she unearthed a handkerchief-wrapped lump.
Although it carried distinctive spots of blood and Loretta’s neat embroidery, the parcel was heavier than five birds! Her fingers chill-numbed, Emily unwrapped an oblong, egg-shaped rock.
“Emily! Come back to the house!” Albert strode across the meadow.
“Come here!” she shouted. “You need to see this!”
His pace hastened to a sprint. “Yes?” he asked. “What?”
“Loretta buried a rock.”
He seemed at a loss for words.
“During one of her spells,” Emily said. “The first. Why? Where did she put the parrot?”
Albert took the handkerchief and tenderly thumbed grime from the “LF” initials stitched in one corner. With a long exhale, he folded it in quarters and tucked it in his vest pocket. “Loretta is very sick,” he said. “Perhaps the doctor can recommend a sanatorium.”
“You’re sending her away?”
“To save her life! Unless you have a better idea?”
“Bury the parrot.”
“Bury the . . . ”
“You asked for my advice.”
He spread his arms, as if shrugging at the universe. “We need to find it first.”
In the house, they scoured every nook, overturning baskets, prying up loose floorboards, peeking in hats and purses. Even Loretta helped; she checked the pots, pans, and cupboards in the scullery. By noon, their choices had been exhausted. They gathered around the dining table and fed on thick potato stew.
“What if I threw him in the ocean?” Loretta mused. “It’s possible. I cannot remember anything during spells.”
“I’ll check the beach,” Emily said. “The current might bring it to land. That’s what Franklin told me. All the whales and ships are pulled here.”
“But the parrot is already dead,” Loretta said. “Whalebone has no appetite for that. It likes to kill us itself.” She pursed her lips at Albert’s flushed ears. “Darling, calm down. I’m just kidding.”
Emily had never heard Loretta tell such bitter jokes before.
From the garden, as I weeded, I saw a figure wearing lighthouse keeper blues. Albert was supposed to be with Loretta, not strolling in the meadow! All-fired, I shouted, “Just where do you think you are going, Mister?”
He turned around and showed me a stranger’s face. Black moustache, up-turned nose, and eyes that stared unblinking, unamused. I felt like a mouse caught in the grain. I thought I heard a rattle (it must have been rustling leaves, because there are no snakes on Whalebone Island!) and ran inside with a shriek.
Of course, once the shock subsided, I reasoned that the man was Assistant Light Keeper Gorey. Who else could he be?
It is a fine day for mistaken identities.
Later, in the dresser mirror, I saw a dead woman. Perhaps my eyes are wider than hers. My lips thinner, my nose broader. Perhaps! But the similarities were enough to confuse me, in my tense, exhausted state.
I look so much like my mother.
If only she
A metallic clatter startled Emily. She put aside her journal and surveyed the dim library. Will-cat slept on a cushion beside her feet. Albert was in the lighthouse; he always started duty before sunset. Where was Loretta? It had been a forty minutes since she excused herself to use the privy.
Emily carried Will-cat through the house. The scullery was a mess of fallen pans and spoons; clattering came from the dining room. “Supper already?” Emily asked. “Are you hungry? Oh!”
Loretta, perched on the dining table, held a serrated silver knife. She levelled its blade before her eyes, as if admiring herself in a hand mirror. “Supper,” Loretta lilted. “Supper, Emi-lee.” She had piled unwashed vegetables beside her. Their leaves rustled as earthworms thrashed, desperate for the cool, moist Earth.
“Put it down,” Emily said. “Put it . . . put it down.”
Loretta turned; she saw the cat. “Hello.”
“Loretta, stop. Put it down. Loretta!”
A bell rang, and a gull cried. The ventriloquist voice said, “Killing birds is evil.”
“Loretta, listen to me!”
“Loretta! Lo-ret-ta. Loretta, listen! On the reef of Norman’s Woe.” It was as if she no longer recognized her name.
“Little parrot?” Emily said. “Do you remember me? We were friends.”
Loretta paced around the table, her flashing-pupil eyes trained on Will-cat. She stabbed the air twice, as if practicing. In another situation, the gesture might look funny; a grown woman miming battle, as if dueling an imaginary friend.
Emily remembered the antique bible. Hadn’t Loretta, during a spell, sought it out? Could that be the solution? “Ye bird!” Emily said. “Ye have heard that it hath been said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say unto you, ‘Whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also!’ Understand? God says to forgive my cat!”
Loretta jabbed the table so violently, the knife lodged in the oak top. The bible verse clearly missed its mark; maybe the parrot liked shiny gold more than scripture. Emily tightened her grip on Will-cat and escaped through the kitchen. Her mind juggled no good options:
1) Drop the cat, subdue Loretta.
* Loretta is too strong. She cannot be subdued.
* During the struggle, Loretta is hurt. She and Baby die.
2) Hide with Will-cat in the bedroom. Lock the door.
* Without supervision, Loretta dines on worms and attacks Albert when he returns.
3) Continue running. Escape to the lighthouse. The men can help.
* Nevermind the sanatorium. Fearful Albert sends Loretta to a lunatic asylum.
4) Find the bird’s body. Bury it.
* How? She cannot search for bones while Loretta is possessed.
Dangerous options were disregarded. She burst out the front door, nearly dropping Will-cat in the process of turning the doorknob. He clung to her bolero and yowled. Behind them, Loretta sang a ballad.
On its lookout rock, the lighthouse winked invitingly. Emily cut through the meadow, grasped by familiar prickleseeds. She passed a shriveled elderberry shrub and stepped on freshly disturbed soil. Will-cat shifted in her arms. His anxiety-drawn claws shredded the lace on her jacket; one became tangled in the unraveling silk, and he thrashed to free it. “Shh, shh!” She stopped running to free his paw, and during the break, Emily glanced back at the house.
Loretta had followed them outside. She pursued with teetering, unsteady bursts of speed, her arms spread, as if grasping for balance. Emily could not see the knife. She hoped that it had been discarded.
Although darkness thickened in the east, the sunset peeked through western cloud windows. Its oranges and reds reminded Emily of the parrot’s feathers. Alive. Dead. What a beautiful little jewel. He’d deserved better than a rock named after bones.
“Shoo, Will-cat,” Emily said. She untangled his claws and sent him running with a pat on his back. He wouldn’t go far. He couldn’t. They couldn’t.
“Hello!” Loretta cried. “Hello! Hello?”
“Hello,” Emily answered. “Come here.”
She stood still, allowing Loretta to cross the distance between them. When they were near enough to look each other in the eyes, Emily said, “I’m sorry.”
Loretta swayed, peering side-to-side, searching. Her pupils flashed.
“Will-cat is gone.”
“No. It’s time for you to go, too. This is not your body. Remember who you are. Your name is Loretta. Loretta. Loretta Forrester!”
“Find Will-cat!” Loretta’s surged forward and shoved Emily to the ground.
“Loretta, please don’t hurt me!” She wheezed, winded, and lifted her hands in a gesture of peace. Those eyes, pulsing like a heartbeat, carried no hint of recognition. “You’re my sister,” Emily said. “I love you.”
Did Loretta flinch?
“You’re my sister. Sister!” Loretta swiped at the air between them, either a warning or a clumsy attack.
Emily persisted, “You aren’t Missus Forrester. You aren’t Loretta. Nde tenéna! Shé báti! Shé báti! Shé báti!”
The island screamed. Its voice sent gulls flying and insects frenzying. Emily felt vibrations in her chest; they played through her ribs and kicked her heart. They squeezed her lungs until she replied in kind. Loretta doubled over, her body shaken by raspy, breathless coughs. Red froth bubbled down her chin and baptized Emily’s brow. Her final cough was so quiet, she resembled a mime performing illness.
The parrot fell from Loretta’s mouth and landed on the spongy ground, a mess of blood and ruffled feathers. If Emily had any strength left, she might have screamed a second time, because the once-dead creature giggled like a child, spread its wings, and flew away.
Tragic news by mail. Mister Shelton Forrester died on September second and was buried shortly thereafter. Albert collapsed with grief when he read the letter. His inheritance is no comfort. We are all orphans now.
Loretta and I will leave Whalebone on the next skiff. Albert can join us in New York after a replacement keeper has been secured. He may miss Baby’s arrival. The thought energized his fits of sorrow. “Keep her safe, Emily,” he begged me. Haven’t I proven myself already? Loretta has not suffered a whit since I banished the parrot (was it a ghost or something stranger?).
“Always,” I promised.
Currently, Albert stares at two portraits in a brass locket. One depicts his late father, a man with a thick black moustache. It makes me shudder.
This damned island!
The family is finally reunited! We supped in the Forrester Manor: Loretta, Baby, sunburnt Albert, and his two unmarried sisters. Will-cat ate from a silver bowl under the table. It has been a busy day. Albert cannot not stop doting over Baby, that plump and cheerful miracle. I understand the inclination. Although I am not officially a nursemaid, I love minding her while Loretta works the farm.
Someday, I will teach Baby everything I know.
Albert’s sisters both still wear black, but only the youngest persists with her mourning veil. Today, we crossed paths in the flower garden. Betwixt the yellow rose bushes, upon the cobble track, she lifted her veil and stared at me. I stared right back. Let her blink first! My trial on Whalebone hardened me against strange gazes.
Her eyes are blue. I know that now. Like I know the gray-blue of the ocean, a color my mother never saw.
Dakohigai kabaa adanaasiya.
I once went to the ocean, to its shore. Today, I stared at the girl in a black veil until a smile cracked her face. I giggled. She laughed. We stared and laughed and stared and laughed until our eyes burned. Until we cried. It is so easy to mistake wailing for screeches of laughter. She fell into my arms, and we held each other.
Somewhere, my parrot sings about the reef of Norman’s Woe.