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September 25, 2023

Transitions 02

By Sand Pilarski

Two: Espionage

I heard my mother's voice on the stairwell and exited Aunt Sully's doorway, shoes in hand, slipping on the polished hardwood space between carpet runners as I rounded the corner to the wing my siblings and I occupied and that we referred to as "Cellblock 209." I had plenty of time to scutter down the hall and around the corner to the left, evading her eyes.

There were five stairways to the second floor. One was off the hall by the big study and the sitting room downstairs, and I think the adults in residence used that one the most. It was a wide stairway, curving elegantly upward, wide enough for two people to hold hands as they mounted the steps. We called it, unimaginatively enough, "The Main Stairway," even though it technically wasn't. Many a time I had watched my grandfather formally take his wife's hand and walk up the stairs, slowly, as though they marched to some unheard royal music. Their suite, almost as large as Aunt Sully's house, was on the southwest end of the mansion. There weren't a lot of tall trees in the way of one's views from their westernmost windows, so their sitting room was a great place to go in the evenings to watch the sunsets and cadge a few cookies, or chocolates with a cup of tea. That was one destination for the Main Stairway.

The Main Stairway emptied out on the second storey not far from Aunt Sully's study, which was just about the best place in the house. There we were allowed to be silly and noisy; we lounged sloppily on her furniture and ate our suppers there if we were not being punished or being required to be the adorable little children of the estate. That is, if Aunt Sully was visiting. She didn't live with us, preferring her house in Riverton where she didn't have to worry about Gabe getting dog hair all over everything and where she could cook cabbage or spaghetti sauce or catfish without offending anyone's sensibilities. I can't remember a time when Aunt Sully didn't come at least once a week to stay in her bedroom, except when Uncle John was shot and she stayed by her phone until he was out of intensive care. One of us always went up that stairwell after school to see if she might have shown up unexpectedly, and be found nestled in a couch with a book, her red hair contrasting with the cream and sage upholstery, her fair skin with the brickly red walls. Well, yes, I did and I guess, do have a crush on my aunt. But that's another story. I was talking about stairways.

Across the hall upstairs where the Main Stairway opens, if you go around the corner, there is a narrow, dark stair. That one goes from the second storey to the kitchen area, or more accurately, to the wide table-setting cabinets that line both sides of the passageway between the kitchen area and the old ball room. (I've never seen a "ball" and my mother told me not to hold my breath waiting for one to happen in there. Currently it holds some gym equipment and is where I have fencing lessons.)

Downstairs, in the hall off the main dining room (the really big one for important formal events) a stair sweeps up, stops at a big landing with a table on it for floral arrangements or extra trays of canapes, and then splits into two for a duo of grand curves. There are two restrooms up there, one for the ladies and one for the men, and a lounge with a pool table, a couple card tables, a number of pieces of furniture that aren't particularly comfortable to sit in, and low tables for coffee service. No alcoholic drinks are served in that lounge, as my mother has no patience with guests who have to be helped down the stairs -- the ones that we call "The Guest Stairs."

On the southwest side of the house, along the side of the storage rooms of an additional wing, (the doors of which are all locked and we were not allowed to play in) are a set of stairs that lead from the second story not to the inside of the house, but to the outside, with a little garden room at the first landing where one could either sit in the warm sun on winter days, or start cuttings and seeds to get a jump on spring. There was even a water faucet above a low sink in there. The bottom of that stairs had a protected little patio, warm and inviting when the sun broke through the clouds. We spent quite a bit of time there on sunny days, though there were always battles with Nanny or the maids about taking our toys back to our rooms when we were done. It was a 'kids place,' and we Five understood it to be our own.

Finally, there are the stairs at the southeast end of the house, that lead from the long hall off the House Staff Lounge. Those stairs were pretty much forbidden territory, as one of the family beliefs was that staff ought to have their own space that didn't have other people intruding in it. We snuck up and down those stairs from time to time, but not often, not wanting to provoke Redell, who had the power to order the chef to make food that was hateful to us -- and we knew damned well that Redell had us all catalogued from breakfast to late snack as to what we liked and didn't like.

I went into what had been our nursery playroom and sat down in a chair by the east windows to put my shoes back on. Spying seemed to be done for the night, and although we lived in a mansion, it was November, and the floors were cold. Kelsa pattered into the playroom in the dark, felt her way to a desk, and sat down in the chair before it, her back to me. I heard her sigh, and by the light in the hallway, watched her scratch the back of one of her skinny legs. Where her hair frizzed out from her head, it looked like a cloud of rust. She hated getting her hair trimmed, and so it was past the middle of her back. Her hair had more volume than she did.

A singing voice echoed along the outer hallway. Oesha, returning from Grandmother's suite. She sang, "I walk the unfrequented road/ with open eye and ear/ and watch afield the farmer load/ the bounty of the year." It was a melancholy tune in minor key, perfectly suited to the dark and drizzly evening. We heard Marca's bed creak, and then she joined Oesha in the song. "A beauty springtime never knew/ haunts all the quiet ways,/ and sweeter shines the landscape through/ the veil of autumn haze." Both of them entered the room, and headed for their favorite table. They continued to sing. "I face the hills, the streams, the wood/ and feel with all akin./ My heart expands, their fortitude/ and peace and joy flow in, flow in." It was beautiful, magical. Just then, with a little scrabbling sound, Michel slipped in and flattened himself against the dark wall. In the dim light from the windows, I could see him holding one hand over his mouth.

Our mother paced down the hallway, paused, and then went back to her rooms.

I waited until Michel had taken his hand from his mouth. Everyone was silent, waiting. Then I summoned my newly-discovered baritone, and said, "I suppose you're wondering why I asked you all here."

All four of them screamed. It was one of the most gratifying experiences of my life.

* * *

After the screams of outrage and laughter had subsided, and after Aunt Sully and her dog, and a few moments later our mother had checked in on us to make sure that we hadn't lit fireworks in the nursery or smuggled in a forbidden DVD, we gathered at the largest table and set Michel as a sentry by the door. We didn't think the adults were above eavesdropping any more than we were. Make that Aunt Sully. And maybe Aunt Andersol. But Mother and Uncle Uncle Bodie were about as aware of our activities around the estate as they were of the rabbits that hopped and fed in the field south of the mansion. That means, "Hardly At All."

"What about Aunt Andersol?" I whispered to Michel.

"I heard her puking, and then nothing for a while," he hissed back from the door. "Then she came up the Staff Steps and went right to her room. She was walking like she could hardly make it. She shut the door, turned off the light, and her mattress skreeked like she fell on it. I barely got in the door before Mom got out in the hall to listen."

"Grandmother Claire knows nothing," offered Oesha. "She asked a few questions about what everyone was wearing tonight, but she had her computer on and I think she was instant messaging that man in Bordeaux, so she wasn't really all that interested in a visit."

Kelsa scratched at her hair. "Mom and Uncle Bodie didn't talk about a baby much at all. Mom said, 'Well, that went better than I thought it would,' and Uncle Bodie said, 'That's because the kids were there, you devilish strategist,' and then they both laughed.

"That sounds like good news." I wasn't sure I wanted to share what I'd heard behind Aunt Sully's door.

"What about Sully?" asked Marca, quite rudely, as one might expect. "Did you hear anything?"

"Aunt Sully called John to let him know she was here, and told him that our mother is pregnant. I heard that. Most of the rest of the conversation was lovey-mumbles, so I left her door." I don't lie to my siblings, but I don't mind misleading them. What I said was true. But I suddenly didn't want to tell Kelsa and Michel what Aunt Sully had said. Aunt Sully's angry voice sounded more worried than anything, like she'd sounded when she'd come upon us trying to give Michel a tattoo with a sewing needle and the ink from one of those clear disposable ball-point pens. He still has the first three dots we made, and all five of us have the mental scars of hearing her yell -- we sat on separate chairs in her kitchen for twenty minutes before we were allowed to move, and before she could speak to us without shouting.

That was years ago. She hadn't spoken to us like that in years, because we had better sense. Now I can understand why she got so bent about the tattoo job; she'd been worried about disfigurement and infection. But my mother being pregnant? I didn't understand; but I thought I knew where to start.

The question was just -- when? It was Saturday night, the university football game having given our family some respite from entertaining, but tomorrow was Sunday, and family elders expected family juniors to be present and pleasant and within sight so that they could preen our feathers and reassure themselves of the future by talking to us. First would be church, the family taking up a pew and a half. Aunt Sully would sit in one pew with us kids, our fidgeting and Marca's sullen looks dissuading parishioners from cramming in beside us. Mom and Uncle Bodie sat behind us in the next pew. Uncle Bodie came to Mass with us because he loved Mother; Mother, I think, attended Mass because she didn't want to cross Aunt Sully. Mom never talked about religion at all, but Aunt Sully took any opportunity to talk about the reality of God and the insidious campaign of the world to eliminate faith in favor of consumerism and hedonism.

We listened to her attentively, as she was a good speaker, but her admonitions seemed like over-soaked watercolors to us, and flowed away off the edges of our canvases. (We were, in fact, in the middle of a sermon at Mass when that turn of phrase occurred to me, and I incurred my aunt's displeasure by pulling a tiny pen and notepad out of my pants' pocket and jotting the thought down. For some unremembered reason, Kelsa was sitting between me and my aunt, and she could not see what I scribbled. )

Sundays were problematic. There was The Hours of Getting Ready For Church, there was Getting To Church, there was Sunday Dinner, and then there was Are You Ready for School Tomorrow Time.

Each weekend, I felt like I was already an adult businessman, tied down by his job, desperate for a holiday, by the time we kids were released from immediate Sunday custody to go to our rooms.

Home was a holiday on Fridays, but on Sundays, school seemed to be the key to freedom. I think we all carved our niches of escape where we could.

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2009-02-23
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