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Margaret Lawrence's
A Mystery of the American Revolutionary War
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Chapter One
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The sun is setting pale ivory, like the faces of old faded women. She watches it through webs of ice on the twigs of a quince bush in the garden, noting the minutiae of cloud-drift, the ragged flight of certain birds. On a broken bench with the paws of a lion she sits very still -- a solitary girl not yet thirty, a little mad from her losses, caged since birth in reverberate silence.

A heroine from an old tale in which the blank pages speak loudest. A stone lady mourning her dead.

Her body begins to sway back and forth on the bench, moving to the memory of some secret vibrance that passes over her in waves, like the wind over meadow grass. It lives in the sheer fabric of pale skin pulled tight between her thin, straight nose and the cheekbones that rise, winglike, towards her temples. In the small bones of her back that align themselves in a perfect right angle with the stone slab where she sits. In the delicate soles of her feet. Naked in summer, these vulnerable instruments hear not only music but fire, distant laughter, the footfalls of amimals, the approach of summer storms.

She will never feel music again. All afternoon, she has been taking her leave of such small, keen, human pleasures, and this is the last of them. When it is gone, she will have purged herself of the future.

To be free of the past is another matter. She is thinking now of a certain night when she danced, a mathematical sequence of steps her father taught her in childhood, as he taught her to pick out simple tunes on the spinet -- the purest kind of music, to which the ear is superfluous. As she moved to these geometries, the pale blue silk of her gown stroked the skin of her shoulders and her body gave up a soft scent of herbs from the cornflour powder she wore. The fragrance of dancing, that is how she remembers it. Rosemary. Lemon balm. Monarda leaves, crushed. They were kept in a small bag of fine lace buried deep in the powder box, to perfume without trace.

It is how she conceives of the rest of her life. To walk through the world without footsteps. To live by geometry, giving nothing away, requiring nothing. To dissolve like the fragrance of powder or soap.

She does not bother to wash now, does not own a comb for her hair, which is the color of sumac leaves after an early frost. When she is hungry enough to remember her body, she steals a few potatoes from an unguarded root cellar or an egg to drink raw, straight out of the shell. She is a talented thief, but the scraps are scant use to her. She is almost breastless, thin as a twist of rope.

She has other warrens to hide in, but only this derelict house at the edge of the wide lake sustains her. Where looters have ripped the old boards apart looking for treasure, certain angles of house wall expose the elegant bones of neoclassical structure, a perfect dream of balance in whose ruin she finds rest. In the sloping garden, the stump of a column stands tangled in creeper, at its pediment three marble fingers of startling purity, the hand long since crumbled away.

Along this cove bedded in balsam fir and black spruce and maples, she has stumbled upon an older world oddly at peace with its failures. There is nothing between God and her scorn but the dark fold of Lion's Tooth to the eastward, already huddled in fog.

There are three mountains above the Bay of Spirits. Lion'sTooth. Old Dog. White Lady. Except for these three and the frozen plain of the wooded lake at the foot of the blackened house, the universe is hollow as a cracked cup.

It is six days past the beginning of January, the year 1809.

The soldiers patrolling for smugglers and embargo breakers are nearly out of sight now, specks of gaudy blue and red and buff fading away to the north, where the lake touches Canada. A half-mile up the cove, at the dead end of the Albany turnpike, a dozen dry-docked flatboats make humps like stranded whales under twenty inches of snow. No one can go west now; until the breakup of ice in mid-April, they can do no more than dream of it. Even the tavern road from the smug little town is quiet.

Aside from the exile, the dark man leading a pack mule, and a lamed grey mare, there are no ghosts on the lake.

The daylight is going, a candlewick drowning in tallow. The girl straightens her back, pulls her boots free of the layers of snow-sodden skirts, and goes to kneel beside her dead at the edge of the lake. She has hauled the body here and kept it almost a fortnight in the deep cold of the abandoned mansion, unable to surrender it. For a moment, she bends over to press her face against the cold woolen patches of the old quilt it is wrapped in, making the tying-knots scratch her as she did in her childhood.

But there is no human scent left in it now, and no memory, only the sour smell of lye from the homemade soap she stole to wash the graveclothes. She ties a long strap to the leather thongs binding the wrappings, winds the end four or five times round her arm, takes up the ax she has stolen, and drags her mother's body out onto the lake.

The man sees her emerge from the fog more than a mile away and takes her for an animal crossing the ice. With the burden behind her, she moves clumsily, waddling like a black bear and hunched down to the weight of what she drags. Where she stops, a wedge of pearlescent light cuts the clouds and slants suddenly onto her, and for a moment she is spectral, something he remembers from medicine dreams in the long months during which he was traded like a talisman from village to village in the vast western country.

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Twilight Lane, from Avon Books, at The Online Mystery Network,
is produced and published by Newfront Productions, Inc.

Copyright © 1998, 2009 by Avon Books and Newfront Productions, Inc.
All rights reserved. Do not duplicate or redistribute in any form.