Authors: T'Gracie Reese,Joe Reese
Your Gift Cove
––here there were:
(Where they actually went inside, and where Nina bought a Mississippi State sweatshirt with a snarling bulldog on it.)
––well, it just went on and on.
“Can you believe this place?” whispered Margot.
“How could anybody live here?” answered Nina.
Finally they made their way into “Obob’s Coffee Shop,” since one of the waitresses who worked there also helped out during busy weekends at The Candles.
They sat at a white wrought-iron table, from which Nina could see the street and Margot, sitting opposite, could see back into the interior of the shop. Beyond the actual coffee bar was a larger garden, ferns hanging everywhere, clay pots and framed riverscapes peeping out through the foliage.
A hefty, florid, and red-faced woman emerged from this area. Margot began to speak to her.
“Hello, Lizzy! Hey, I want you to meet my––”
But she was interrupted.
“Margot, where have you been?”
The woman, Nina could tell, seemed terrified.
She was then joined in the café’s main room by a second woman.
This woman was the exact opposite of the first.
Whereas the first—‘Lizzy,’ Margot had called her––was hefty and ruddy-skinned, she was small and shriveled and sallow.
“Hi, Maybelle! I want you to meet my––”
“Margot, where have you been?”
Margot stared back at the two horrified faces for a time, then stammered:
“Down in Bay St. Lucy. I go down there every month.”
“Nobody could reach you!”
“But why did anybody need to?”
Both women had now surrounded the table. Their eyes were dark and furrowed, their mouths agape:
They seemed to speak as one:
“Margot, they tried to call you. Everybody tried to call you!”
“I didn’t get any calls!”
“Margot,” said Nina, sensing the trouble because of knowing Margot, “check your cell phone.”
Margot took the small plastic thing from her monumental purse and looked for an instant at the dark screen before saying quietly:
“You have to charge it every now and then, Margot.”
“I know, but––”
“That’s why,” said the two women, again in unison, “nobody could get through to you.”
Margot put the phone away and continued to stammer:
“But what in heaven’s name is the matter?”
The bigger of the two women pushed her way in front of the more weasily of the two and fairly shouted:
“Margot, you have to get out there!”
“Because, because, because––”
What in God’s name is going on?
Nina found herself thinking.
“Has there been an accident?”
Fierce shaking of heads:
“You just need to get out there. Fast.”
“I’ll call Mildred and them and tell ‘em you’re coming!”
“But if I could just know––”
“You just need to go. Thank God you’re here, anyway.”
“Go! Go now!”
And they did.
THE WORST THING IN THE WORLD THAT COULD POSSIBLY HAPPEN
Highway 34 crept out of Abbeyport to the north like something sinister, as though it had much to hide. Vast forests loomed around and over it, still protecting Southern troop movements from low-hovering helicopters, both those belonging to the Federal Army and those belonging to local radio stations and police departments.
“What do you think is going on, Margot?”
“I haven’t the faintest idea. The next few days are supposed to be completely open. No guests are booked in.”
“Who is at The Candles now?”
“Four or five people at most. Our head cook, Mildred. The handyman who takes care of small plumbing problems, wiring issues. It’s an old place, things go wrong. Two or three girls to help them out. But, as far as I remember, the arrangement was for them to spend today getting the place cleaned and in shape—then they were supposed to head into town and take the next few days off.”
“Apparently it didn’t work that way.”
“Apparently not. But I can’t imagine what might have happened.”
“A fire you think?”
Margot, gripping the steering wheel hard, pursed her lips and shook her head:
“I think Maybelle or Lizzy would have told us. Same with an accident.”
“They didn’t seem to be able to say anything.”
“No. They were just panicked.”
“Maybe they saw Sarah Morgan.”
Margot said nothing to this.
And Nina could see nothing but the blacktopped road before them and a strip of sky now pale and colorless—for the weather was certainly presaging a change, though not an imminent one—bisecting the tops of the pines like a ribbon tying the world of forest and Volkswagen neatly together.
There was no traffic, nor had there been since they passed the three-story brown brick Magnuson’s Funeral Home which was, appropriately, the last building to be seen in Abbeyport, when one left the city heading north.
The only other part of the world worth noting was a narrow channel of algae-covered and brackish brush-water that inundated the ditch just to the right of the road’s shoulder. This body of water—it had no name, for it was both too narrow to be a bayou and too stagnant to be a creek—seemed to represent a totally failed Mississippi River, a great natural artery blighted at birth and doomed to remain eternally what it was at the present:
a breeding ground for mosquitoes, a sanctuary for fallen limbs, and a haven for turtles, frogs, and snakes too frightened to enter moving water.
“Here’s the turn-off, Nina. Whatever is going on out here, we’ll know it soon.”
“Where’s your road? I don’t see it.”
“Up there, fifty yards to the right.”
“That’s your sign?”
“Yes, what’s wrong with it?”
“It’s not a sign, Margot, it’s a prank.”
“Now if you’re going to be picky about everything––”
Nina did not want to be picky about everything. But this little sign? A prank it could certainly have been, because it was the farthest thing possible from the elegant billboards she’d seen for several miles past advertising The Waverly Plantation, or Emerson Manor, or Oak Grove Estates, or the other grand structures of Mississippi and Louisiana and Georgia and Alabama that celebrated a magical world long since vanished.
This particular sign—which would have been a foot square if it had been cut that precisely—seemed no more than the end flap of a pasteboard box with the words The Candles poorly drawn across it with dark blue paint.
This was not Nina’s greatest concern though.
Her greatest concern was the road—lane—trail—path—paved concept—Mind of God—that turned abruptly away from the already perilously narrow Highway 34 and snaked menacingly into a dark and massive wall of timber that, but for the trail’s questionable existence, would have seemed completely impenetrable. They bumped over a segment of railroad tracks unconnected to any other north or south tracks, seemingly leading nowhere.
“What are these tracks for?” asked Nina.
“At one time the grandfather of a previous owner preserved them as remnants of a narrow gauge spur that had, years before, rumbled by The Candles. Every owner before us collected anything you could imagine.”
“This is your entranceway?”
“You’re being picky again.”
“But it’s so, so––”
“It’s so very ‘there’s not much of it,’ you know?”
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
“So are you.”
“I know, but big busses full of tourists aren’t supposed to be able to run over me.”
“They’re not supposed to run over our entrance trail, either.”
“So how do people get out here, anyway?”
“We bring them out in limousines, from Abbeyport. It’s the kind of thing that differentiates us from the big touristy plantations.”
“What, people can get to those places and they can’t get to yours?”
“If you’re going to keep on like this––”
“All right, all right. I’ll be quiet. I’m just worried about what’s going on.”
“Me too, Nina. But whatever it is, I don’t think it has anything to do with how narrow our little lane is.”
Margot turned carefully onto the narrow, mud and gravel lane, Nina scanning the sign as they passed within a foot of it and wondering what vacation Bible school class had made it as an hour’s introductory project––and the forest, which was now wrapping around them like a green pine-coned and needled blanket, burst into
The Hallelujah Chorus
as sung by tree frogs and cicadas.
Undergrowth subsumed them.
They crept on:
fifty yards, one hundred yards, half a mile––
––until finally they were no longer in a forest but in an enormous children’s book, light filtering supernaturally through unseen cracks in limbs and trunks and leaves and pine-paraphernalia all about them.
But somehow, there, just fifteen steps or so immediately to the right, there, behind an enormous tree trunk that had fallen naturally or been knocked down by a bolt of lightning or toppled by fire from one of Sherman’s cannon—there, head up now and gazing at them with elemental curiosity and completely ill-advised trust—was a deer.
“Wow,” whispered Nina, falling back on her natural wit and verbal elegance.
“Yeah,” co-whispered Margot.
It was like George Bernard Shaw conversing with Oscar Wilde.
“That’s a deer,” observed Shaw.
“Yeah,” reposted Wilde.
And the two of them, great minds both, sat there in the woods for a time, simply staring into the face of this light brown mottled animal, who, ears pricked upright, could have been a statue, save for the scarcely perceptible rising and falling of its flanks.
Finally it walked away, disappearing into the undergrowth.
There was nothing to say about this entire encounter, the stock of appropriate verbiage—said stock consisting of ‘wow’ and ‘yeah’—having been used up.
So Shaw and Wilde did nothing but put their car into gear again and meander along their way, the right front tire’s dip into a perilous pothole magically offset by the left rear tire’s ascent upon a big flat rock.
The sky, Nina noticed, had changed and was changing even more.
The sun had become a colorless disc.
It made Nina uneasy.
As though something bad was going to happen.
“These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us,” she whispered. “Love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide, in cities mutinies, in countries discord––we have seen the best of our times. Machinations, hollowness, treachery, and all ruinous disorders follow us disquietly to our graves.”
“What are you talking about?” asked Margot.
“How can you remember that stuff?”
But Nina merely shook her head and said:
“How can you not?”
At that point the road turned abruptly to the left—almost 45 degrees. Its narrowness made such a turn impossible at four miles per hour, perilous at three, dangerous at two, and possible only at one.
This then was the speed at which Margot took it, so that a minute had passed before they found themselves looking due North instead of due East.
And there, ten feet in front of them, the road was blocked by a yellow metal gate.
The gate consisted of three bars, perhaps ten feet in length, an inch or so in diameter, and soundly welded to equally yellow posts cemented into the ditches.
Precisely in the center of the gate hung a sign, not much more sophisticated than the one announcing The Candles, but newer.
It was white and not brown.
Two feet square instead of one
And painted with red paint instead of blue.
On it, quite plainly, had been printed the words:
CANDLES IS CLOSED FOR THE WEEKEND
“All right,” whispered Margot. “That’s just what it’s supposed to say. We’re closed for the weekend, and for the whole next week.”
“How can we get through the gate?”
“I have a key.”
“Well, maybe you better––”
The words ‘use it’ did not follow, though, for there was no need of them.
A figure was making its way through the undergrowth.
“That’s Ben Danielson, the caretaker/handyman.”
It could have been Ben Danielson,
Nina found herself thinking, or it could have been The Scarecrow from
The Wizard of Oz
, so gangly was it, so loose of joint, so ragged and hay infested.
And so worried looking.
The Scarecrow reached the gate, leaned over it, watched handfuls of straw and other vegetation fall out of its war surplus clothing, and rasped:
“We didn’t know how to get you, Ms. Gavin!”
“I was down in Bay St. Lucy! I told that to Mildred! I thought I told it to you, too, Ben! I thought I told everybody!”
“Yes, Ma’am. I remember hearing you say that. But we didn’t know how to get in touch with you.”
“What’s going on? We stopped at Obid’s in Abbeyport. Lizzy and Maybelle said to get out here as fast as possible!”
“Yes, ma’am! Yes, ma’am!”
“So what’s happening? Has there been an accident?”
Two blackbirds flew low over Ben Danielson’s big black shapeless hat, were frightened of it, and fluttered on.
“Not really an accident, no ma’am. We could have dealt with that all right.”