Effie Wickes finds herself struggling to deal with her mother's death...
|// note: these are the first 3 chapters of the novella I recently finished. //|
A new beginning, a chapter in her life that she had never thought she would reach—Effie Wickes was free from one thing, just to be captured and caged by another.
She changed the CD and turned the volume up, humming along with the notes of Tchaikovsky. Her GPS beeped, reminding her to pull into the turning lane in five hundred feet. The drive up the coast had been magical—the towering trees and the crashing waves, the foggy mornings and misty sunsets; her trip had taken two days longer than originally anticipated due to her frequent stops and photography opportunities. However, she was glad she had taken the time to document her journey, for it would be her first writing topic once she got settled into her new home. She lifted her hand-held tape recorder from her purse and placed it on the dashboard, pushing the record button.
‘I crossed the state line maybe thirty miles ago; and now, only fifty more miles until I reach my destination. Less than an hour and I’ll have a cup of tea and a good book in front of a fire. I’m proud of myself for doing this, for being brave enough to make the journey without her.’ She flipped on the turn signal and followed the exit. ‘I remember the first time she brought me to Norswood—I was five years old. My father had just passed away and she wanted to escape into the woods to mourn his death and recollect her thoughts. Even at five, I knew she was struggling to keep herself balanced. I didn’t learn what was wrong for years, but I knew something was wrong with her at that young age.’ The road she turned onto was single lane and lined on either side with Beech trees whose leaves had already turned a golden-bronze colour with hints of green splattered like paint in between, here and there. She pressed the record button again and leaned forward over the steering wheel, gazing at the height of the trees.
‘Just like she had all those years ago, and every year after, I told everyone I needed some time to clear my head. I told everyone that it was time for me to lose my mind in the forest in order to find my soul. The city sucks it all out, it destroys you slowly. I think that is what took my mother—the city. Perhaps not in a literal sense, but I truly believe that if she had moved back to the cottage when she had wanted to, she would still be alive.’ She took a deep breath of the air flowing through her open window. ‘I needed to get away from it, from the condo, and that is exactly what I’ve done. It is true that the spirit needs to escape to a place in nature where human hands have not changed the landscape—in my case, I am escaping to a mostly unchanged area. I’ll take what I can get. I miss her. I’m not sure what I am going to do without her, but hopefully the forest will help me figure it all out.’
She pulled into what could be considered the driveway—it was really just a leaf covered turnaround, barely wide enough for her car. The house sat perhaps one hundred feet away from the turnaround, with bushes littering the forest floor and the trunks of trees standing watch over the structure. Through the branches, she could see the double doors, and on either side rested a window, and one above the porch roof. The house was made from a dark brown wood and trimmed in white—the front porch was lit by a single bulb over the door.
She carried her suitcase and her typewriter case to the door and noticed a piece of yellowed paper taped to the glass.
Miss Effie Wickes,
Welcome back to Norswood, though the circumstances are less than favourable. We are happy to have you here, and grieved at your mother’s passing—she was a bright soul in a dim world, and we will all miss her dearly. We invite you to join us in our Autumn Celebration this weekend. We had the caretaker clean up the house to make sure you get the most out of your time here. We hope to see you at the festival, as well as in town. Again, welcome back to Norswood and we hope you enjoy your stay!
Mayor Nels Anderson and Mrs Carolyn Anderson
As she folded the paper and stuffed it in her coat pocket, she remembered speaking with Mrs Anderson about the forest cottage—the woman had been pleasant on the phone, and the letter was further evidence of how welcoming and kind the town was. She remembered all of the great things her mother had boasted about the quiet town: low crime, good education system, local produce and meat sold at the shops, and quite the budding art community. As a child, it had been a town filled with remarkable adventures and experiences; as an adult, it seemed to be heaven on earth to Effie, who never had adjusted to life in the city.
She unlocked the door and stepped into the house to find that everything had been dusted, polished, and cleaned. Sparkling china rested in the hutch next to the archway leading to the kitchen and dining nook. A small desk sat in the living room, in front of one of the windows. Effie placed her typewriter on the desk and went to the stairs—even the bannister had been wiped down and polished.
The bedroom was simple but lovely—a full sized, four-poster, wrought iron bed was centred against the opposite wall, under the window that looked out over the turnaround. There was a black wrought iron vanity to the left with a large mirror and cushioned stool, and a large dark oak dresser to the right of the bed. She unzipped her suitcase on the bed; shirts in the middle drawer, bottoms in the bottom draw, undergarments and socks in the top drawer. She had two more suitcases in the car, but decided to bring them in after a cup of tea.
Downstairs, Effie found a tea kettle and a lovely assortment of teas in the cupboard to the left of the wood-burning stove. She filled the kettle with water and opened the door—the caretaker must have loaded the stove in anticipation for her arrival, which was thoughtful. She opened the damper and pulled out a grill lighter from the drawer next to the stove; now, she needed only light the crumpled pieces of newspaper and watch the fire catch.
As the fire took hold and sent a pleasing aroma through the kitchen, Effie sat back on her heels watching the flames. The sting of the life she had lived only a few days before was still raw in her heart, though she had fought the tears for the entire trip. She knew she had made the correct choice in moving to Norswood; her mother had left the cottage to Effie in her will, and there was work to be done in sorting her affairs and going through the boxes at the cottage—and of course, the added advantage that her ex-husband had no idea where the small town was, nor that she had left in the first place.
She had to keep reminding herself that it was the right choice, that she needed to leave the city and reconnect with whatever it had always been that balanced her in Norswood. She had felt off-kilter ever since the divorce had gone through, and with the constant calls from Henry and her mother’s illness, Effie had longed to run away to the forest and hide amongst the towering trees. There was no point in dwelling on the past as the present began to feel so real, so she pushed the thoughts from her mind and placed a floral smelling tea bag in the cup. She covered the bag with boiling water and looked around the kitchen for biscuits or crackers—she was able to find a fresh box of blackberry jam biscuits near the ice chest.
The wood stove had heated the living room to a cosy temperature, and she was comfortable leaving the coals going in the firebox, just in case she wanted another cup of tea. Once she found a comfortable position on the couch, she lifted a book from her bag and opened it to where she had left off. It had been her mother’s book, and Effie had picked it up the day her mother had died, trying to find a piece of her to hang onto.
Theola Wickes had been a lover of the classics—her favourite author had always been Jane Austen, though she would read anything written before the 20th century with a hungry mind. She had passed that same love and passion to her daughter, who felt that she should have been born closer to the Victorian era than the modern. Effie could almost hear her mother reading to her, sitting on the same couch years before, tea in their cups and biscuits on a tray, the soft sounds of rain against the glass soothing them both into an afternoon nap.
She found herself daydreaming, instead of reading the book, which was an indicator that she needed to get busy and keep her mind from wandering too much. Putting the book and cup on the side table, Effie stood from the couch and took inventory of what she had already brought in from the car. The final two suitcases held mostly clothes and a few books with some toiletries littered throughout. After finding a place for everything (and putting everything in its place), Effie slipped her arms into her jacket and zipped it up; she placed a scarf around her neck and tied her boots. A short walk in the cool evening air would help her find her balance and calm her mind again.
As Effie opened the door, the soft mewling of a kitten hit her ears. She searched behind her to see if a cat had found its way into the house when she had been lugging the suitcases in, but didn’t find the source. She stepped onto the porch and looked under the small wicker table by the door; she wandered to the left and peered over the railing, but found nothing—as she neared the right side, however, the mewling became more frantic. She heard the rustle of leaves from beneath a bush just below the edge of the porch—concerned, Effie dashed off and around to the side, where she could see the flicking tail of the sounds producer. With care, she moved the leaves aside and pulled out the mass of grey and white fur. She turned it around and found it staring at her—it had ceased its mewling and had begun to purr.
‘You poor thing. Here, let’s get you inside for some food.’ Effie tried to adjust the kitten, but it bit into her thumb and jumped to the ground. ‘No, silly kitty, let me take care of you!’
The kitten turned back and mewled, then seemed to nod its head in the direction of the forest path behind the house. As she took a step forward, the kitten bounded toward the trees, only to stop again and turn to face her. Something in the way the kitten was bounding off then turning to look back caused Effie to think that it wanted to be followed.
‘All right, little one, I’m coming!’ She called to the feline—with what seemed like another nod, the kitten ran into the trees before she could reach it. She continued to chase the furry creature, around bends in the path and over fallen logs. It wasn’t until the kitten reached a small clearing that it stopped and flopped over onto its side, closing its eyes to the dim sunlight streaming through the trees. Effie came upon it, slowing down to walk as she caught her breath. ‘Well, little kitty, what did you want to show me?’
The kitten perked its ears and rolled onto its back, exposing the soft white fur of its belly. Effie could hear the purrs in the silence of the forest—she knelt down and rubbed the kitten until it grabbed at her hand and nibbled on her fingers. It didn’t protest when she slipped her other hand under it and lifted it from the ground, nor did it fight as she cuddled it against her chest.
The clearing was strangled by tall grass and climbing vines, reaching along the trunks and branches; the grass was bent, here and there, as if animals had made the area their home. Though she could see—and feel—the creeping forest fog, Effie felt little pricks of warmth from the rays of sunlight dotting the ground. She walked in a spiral around the clearing, each trip around bringing her closer to the centre. As she put one foot in front of the other near the centre, the toe of her boot hit something hard. Effie looked down and saw a small chest partially hidden in the grass—it was, perhaps, half a foot in length, with a lock on it. The kitten mewled as Effie bent to pick it up, but continued to purr as she adjusted the chest and the kitten for easier travel.
‘All right, kitty, let’s get home and eat some dinner.’ She smiled down at the feline and left the meadow and the sunlight and bent blades of grass behind. As she walked, Effie hummed to the kitten—her attempt at keeping the animal calm—and made note of all the flourishing plants and flowers. Where it seemed that the trees and bushes nearer the road were shedding their leaves, the farther from the house a person was meant the greener their surroundings. Effie made a note to write her observations in her journal before bed. It was an easy way to centre her thoughts and keep her mind focused and on track.
She could see the soft lights of her cabin not too far in the distance, and felt relieved to be nearing the comfort and warmth of her new home. Though she was concerned about interacting with the townspeople, Effie was positive she would enjoy her stay surrounded by silence and nature.
With care, Effie opened the front door and closed it behind her. She placed the chest on her desk, and walked to the couch to create a nest for the kitten. A pillow and her scarf protected the sleeping feline from cold, discomfort, and falling off the couch as she inched away to the kitchen to stoke the embers and put the water back on for tea and instant soup. She searched the refrigerator and found a package of deli meat; in the cupboard she found two cans of tuna. Feeling certain that the kitten was old enough to eat solid foods, Effie opened the can and emptied it, juice and all, onto a small saucer. Turning, she almost dropped the dish on the floor out of shock—the kitten had, with all of its cat-like stealth, sneaked into the kitchen while she had been fixing it dinner.
‘Did you smell the tuna, or did you hear me opening the can?’ She laughed as she placed the saucer on the floor near the archway separating the kitchen from the living room. The kitten mewled in response as it dug into the tuna. ‘Well, I think you have the right idea, kitty. Time for some grub.’
When the water was boiling, Effie poured according to the markings on her cup of soup and refilled her tea cup after changing the bag. With fork, soup, and tea in hand, she moved to the living room and sat on the couch. The soup was unappetizing and over salted, but it was something in her stomach until she was able to take stock of her cupboards and determine what all she would need from the store in town. As she listened to the purrs and soft mewls of the kitten, Effie opened her journal and took up a pen.
Everyone should spend some time with a cat…
Miss Effie Wickes,
We would like to formally invite you to the Autumn Celebration, a yearly gathering of the entire town, which commences this Friday at eleven o’clock in the morning, at the Anderson Estate Orchard. We will be spending the morning and afternoon picking apples and berries, and then a formal event for the adults will begin at six o’clock that evening in the back garden of the Estate proper. Food, drink, and merriment will be provided. We do look forward to your attendance.
With Regards, Mrs Carolyn Anderson.
Her mother had loved the Autumn Celebration—during fall break, Theola would whisk Effie away from the city in order to attend the festival. It was always such a big deal, as were the other seasonal celebrations the town held every year. But there was something about the Autumn festival that filled her mother with warmth and balance and a nearly magical glow that had always excited Effie. She remembered the Apple Picking Ceremony and learning how to make cider and pies and eating the apples with hand-made almond butter. The children would all be ushered inside for supper around four-thirty and the adults would finish decorating the back garden for their Celebration. The juniors and seniors of Norswood High would watch the children, carve pumpkins, read faerie tales, and do other activities until the Celebration was over—at which point, most of the children would stay the night at the Anderson Estate, and the adults would disappear into the forest for whatever it was they did. Effie had never asked her mother what they did in within the dark trees, and she knew that even if she had, Theola wouldn’t tell her. The only explanation the children received was that they would learn once they were adults.
Effie looked at Nimbus, the kitten’s soft purrs vibrating against her chest, and looked back at the invitation beside her on the couch. It was as if she was meant to be there, in the cottage, in the town, at this time of year just for the celebration, just to see how cyclical the wheel of time truly was.
A plate of jam biscuits and a cup of steaming tea sat on the side table, and Effie moved around the room, carrying boxes covered in dust from the closet and placing them on the floor and the bed. She couldn’t put it off, she knew she had to go through her mother’s things, but there was a pain in her heart that wouldn’t go away.
Satisfied that she had enough boxes to fill a few hours, Effie sat in the centre of her bed and opened the first box—it was filled with journals and books and dusty, faded letters written on handmade paper. The writing was definitely her mother’s, and the subjects ranged from longing to excitement to a dark depression Effie hadn’t known her mother had experienced until recently. She placed the letters in a pile beside her, hoping to go through them all at a later date.
The diaries were just as jumpy—some entries were so bright that Effie felt blinded by her mother’s happiness, yet scattered throughout the pages were such dark thoughts and feelings that confused her. How had her mother dealt with such a jumble of emotions? Effie stacked the diaries beside the letters, planning on putting them all together to form the story of Theola Wickes in a way that she might be able to understand her mother’s illness better.
The books excited something in her that hadn’t shown itself in years; the childlike wonder and curiosity of old tales and fables, the undying innocence of stories that taught morals and valuable lessons but still caused such a deep fear within the readers that they would never dare do what the characters had done. There were bookmarks made of cloth, leaves, bits of paper stuck between pages, corners bent; she felt that each page held a clue to what her mother had felt and thought throughout the years.
Finding these things made her feel closer to Theola, made the loss of her mother more bearable, as if she had not died at all but was only away indefinitely.
Effie moved to the next box, pulling it onto the bed and opening the flaps to reveal a heap of clothes. She lifted the top piece and recognised her mother’s favourite house-coat—it was a knit sweater that, Effie remembered, fell to her mother’s mid-thigh; the sleeves had covered her mother’s hands, and it would open to frame her in deep forest green. She squeezed it against her, taking in a deep breath, and she wanted to cry. The tears threatened to fall, but she put the sweater down and sighed in agitation. The next piece of clothing was a strange skirt made from different patterns of fabric—she placed it on the other side of the books and letters and diaries, planning to donate it to the local thrift shop with most of the other clothing.
The last piece of clothing in the box was a reddish-brown dress; she remembered her mother wearing it to every Autumn Celebration. She remembered the way it had clung to her upper body and hugged her hips, but fell loosely around her legs to the floor. It had sleeves that hung like butterfly wings over the shoulders and a band of beaded fabric that ran under the bust.
Effie stood from the bed and pulled a hanger from another box she had found; she placed the dress on the hanger and placed it on the bathroom door, looking at it in deep thought. Her mother had had exquisite taste in clothing, and the dress before her was a tribute to Theola’s style and Effie knew that she had found the exact dress she would wear to the Autumn Celebration.
Surrounded by memories, Effie fell back on the bed and took a deep breath, closing her eyes. The soft mewling signalling that Nimbus had found her way up the stairs did not stir her from her place. She waited for the kitten to find her on the bed, and when the feline climbed her way up Effie’s leg and onto her stomach, she smiled and ran her hands over her head. She closed her eyes and fell asleep, enveloped in the smell of her mother.