And then late evening. The snow resumed, coming down, noiselessly, soft as cotton. The brightness of day had been burned out by the deep blue evening light, the furtive mist arrived, heavy over the landscape like a curse. The forest sat becalmed and silent as a cathedral in the brilliant dusk of spring. The forest life had recoiled into their shelters, all except a team of choughs twittering from the trees in one shrill movement but modulated by the singular syncopated whistle of a bird who appeared to miss the beat. And as in an orchestra one bird conducted, and the others swayed to the rhythm of its guidance. Walter and Ellen sat in the snow sheltered by the tent and warmed by the sustained heat from the fire which Walter made. The tent was luminous with the flames so that its very form appeared like a halo in the night.
Of her own life Ellen revealed little, and only did when the snow was fully bathed in blue light and the tent was filled with the slow rhythmic rasp of their breathing. Walter attached the fish which he had retrieved from the lake on a stick and held it over the flames.
“Did you always like flowers?” Walter said.
“They’re divine. Dad kept a nursery in our backyard when I was little.”
“It was a pastime, we’d help him out on the weekends. When we moved to Newport we just couldn’t find the time anymore.”
In the formative years she had resided with her family of two sisters (whose jealousy towards her led her to sin) and parents along the parched countryside of south. It was the scenery—thrilling in its ugliness—which stayed with her, clung to her, ready to lend itself when she forgot how to live. Along the terrains of Arkansas, atop a crumbling belvedere towards the north, one experiences the town as a fine blend of commerce, obsolete agriculture and precarious recreation: the millers at the bakeries shovelling flour into jute bags—their palms calloused by manual labour, tractors bellowing in the fields operated by tobacco chewing ranchers, the marshy trails snaking their way towards the augurs shed and marrying at a distant point. In the brothels, young girls allowing themselves to be unclothed and giving their bodies up to the care of a stranger whose exit was a bridge to another’s entry.
Ellen’s father had weaved a handsome life for himself and his family through his association with the Klu Klux Klan, a secret he had never revealed to his ailing wife, even in the final days of her infirmity. “In life,” he said on starry nights, “find the right people and cleave to them.” They had made their home in the upscale part of the city with its stately avenues, its gloriously lit alleys, the spires festooned with filigree, the soft music of the sea at night lulling the sphinxes to sleep as they lazed under the moonlight. Together they lived in a marvellous brick house that basked in the shade of a grand camellia, in a manner which the townspeople envied.
“And your love for flowers?” Walter asked, he prodded the flames.
“Dad had a space for a nursery built, we tended the plants in the evenings.” Then her face softened. “It was my hideout.”
“What were you hiding from?”
“Who,” Ellen corrected. “My sisters. Jealousy forced them to do unspeakable things.”
“Ah. The old sibling rivalry.”
“I played the flute like an angel,” Ellen said, smiling as if remembering a familiar face.
The tunes she played were indeed angelic. On Fridays, after dinner, the family would descend to the patio fresh with the tangy smell of guava leaves swaying in the breeze. Then they would elevate her on a stack of old suitcases and textbooks whose theories had become obsolete. And there, under the milky light of the moon, she would reproduce the tunes of long ago composers who had died clutching their records.
“Isn’t she marvellous,” her mother cooed, facing her daughters. “She’ll play for bourgeoisie in grand operas one day.”
And that was the beauty of her scale and the arrival of jealousy. On certain nights the quivering tones sliced into the still air, rising above the glades, into the black of night where it mingled with the geese and rendered their flight rhythmic. On nights heavy with dew the notes danced amongst the thickets till it reached the sea and rippled its face. There it would swell and rise to a tune so intense—of the kind that ferried the dead across the lake—that the ranchers raced to announce the arrival of God.
On each performance, when her father had returned from his trance, he would say: “Glorious. Music gentle enough to tame even the wildest beasts.” Ellen’s sisters would sneer and retreat to the den to gossip about boys and how they preferred to nod their heads to The Smiths.
“Your sisters,” Walter said, “they were older than you were?”
Ellen nodded. “Four years. They were twins. Their names were Hazel and Melanie.”
Then Walter became grave and peered past the flames into Ellen’s eyes. “What did you do?”