The Secret Keeper

Shadows wander across the dark furniture in slanted lines, stretching to cover the entire front hall before the midday summer sun begins its slow rotation.  Fresh lilacs drape the air with a heavy fragrant scent.  Littered in the center of the large Persian carpet are various shoe-shaped imprints and my steps add to the odd arrangement. 

A woman sits behind a polished mahogany desk in the right corner of the expansive room.  She shoves aside her unruly gray bangs, smiles sweetly in my direction.  I give her my name and cross an oblong shadow on the carpet.   After choosing the middle of three straight-backed chairs, I sit down and wait, although I have no idea who I am waiting for. The latest gardening magazine beckons to be read and I succumb to its charms, not because of my green thumb, but because it’s the first on the pile.  Instead of reading up on the most popular eco-fertilizers, I vacantly stare at the smoke-tinted French doors and wonder about my first-time elderly companion.  At 25 years old, I realize I should possess the fine-tuned ability of taming reveries, but I don’t.   From the depths of my imagination, I envision an elderly masterpiece:  A woman too old and decrepit to speak complete sentences, too senile to remember her own name and too degenerated to urinate without the aid of a catheter... 

A noise startles me so much I lurch forward and the gardening magazine slips from my lap to the floor.  Phyllis the receptionist dropped a large black binder.  Instead of speaking, she smiles again in my direction.  I bend over and replace my magazine to the pile of other ignored periodicals and squeeze my eyes shut, asking myself why I volunteered for this program to begin with.  A crusty old lady is the last addition I need in my life right now.  Simplify, that’s what I keep telling myself.  The muzak distracts me and I try to relax.

“Excuse me, Ms. Michaels, I am sorry to disturb you, but you can go in now.  Last door on the left.” Phyllis is smiling again. Does she ever not smile?  I rise.  Phyllis moves a gray wisp from her eyes before giving me a slight push.  She whispers, “Don’t worry, love, Mrs. Hathaway will surprise you.”

When I reach her room, I try to peek in without anyone noticing me.  Mrs. Hathaway wears a royal blue silk bathrobe and gently rocks in a white wicker chair.   She faces the rustic country view while sipping iced-tea.  Her back is straight as a rod and her shoulders square.  I notice her shining white hair is coiled perfectly into a bun at the base of her neck.  She moves back and forth and stares out the window.   I stand for nearly a minute deciding whether to bolt or not before she realizes my presence.   Draped over the two remaining seats are colorful quilted blankets.  Well-worn classics ranging from Shakespeare to Chekhov line a small bookshelf.  Freshly picked flowers in an intricately sculpted alabaster vase sit atop a crocheted lace trimmed doily on her nightstand and several black and white pictures of two smiling little boys hang next to her bed.

Just as I decide to make a run for it, she turns and glances up at me with a mild expression of curiosity.  A liver-spotted hand emerges from a blue sleeve and waves me in.  I step forward, catch her gaze and say unsteadily, “My name is Cameron, and I’d like to talk with you, if that’s okay.”

She replies in a soft, commanding voice, “I am Mrs. Hathaway and of course my dear.  Please sit down.  We do have much to talk about.”

The following months flow much like the tides, often soothing, sometimes stormy. Instead of dreading my time in a convalescent home, I begin to treasure the hours once a week we spend together. I never really had grandparents and Mrs. Hathaway is the kind of person I can say anything to without fear of judgement. I actually try, unsuccessfully, to shock her. I find myself telling her all my fragile dreams and my deepest secrets.  As I talk, she rocks in her white wicker chair, listening intently. After several months, I realize that one of my best friends has become a 92-year old woman, but I still know very little about her. Every time I ask her to talk about her life or her past, she changes the subject back to me. Once, I get up the courage to ask her about the two smiling boys in the photos next to her bed.

She responds, "Strangers. They are strangers to me now."

Four months after I begin visiting Mrs. Hathaway, everything changes. It’s a beautiful warm, clear day, and I can’t wait to take Mrs. Hathaway outside to the yellow chaise lounges for some fresh air.  But instead of seeing her knitting as I normally do when I arrive, she’s rocking to and fro, talking intimately to the open window.  I stand in the doorway and listen, not wanting to disturb her.

“There used to be a white house on the right side,” she says, motioning to the window like it’s a long lost companion.  “Do you see it?  The one with black shutters and guest house off to the side.  Salt Marsh Road banks softly to the left.  Above the small hill is a bridge.  It marks the beginning of the salt marshes.  Just to the right beyond the marshes is the house all alone, facing the water on its own point. I have always noticed the sand around it is mostly purple with browns and beiges of normal sand mixed in.  An odd combination for sand in these parts, don’t you think?  No, not exotic really, just different.  Very beautiful indeed.”

Her hands flutter around her face and she’s almost leaning out of her chair.  I consider coughing or clearing my throat, but before I’m able to do either, she straightens and continues. “People around here knew the couple who lived in that house,” she whispers to the window.  “The woman is mad, they say.  One of her sons was killed in a convenience store robbery.  He was 17, just 17.  Her other son died in a car accident three years later.  He was only 16.  Everyone said the younger was her favorite.  But he wasn’t.  They both were.”  Mrs. Hathaway’s voice shakes as she speaks.  She rises from her chair and resumes the tumble of words, still with her back to me.  

“When the younger son died,” she explains, “the woman vowed never to leave the house again.  Not even to walk on the beach.  Because of that, people were convinced she was crazy.”

Her head jerks suddenly, hair comes loose from her bun, and she immediately straightens her shoulders.  She crosses her arms and draws the blue robe tightly across her back.  I don’t even realize I’m holding my breath.

“Did you know,” she says, “when there’s a bad storm that particular house gets hit harder than any other house on the waterfront?  I don’t care.  I never cared.  The storms were beautiful.  Beautiful and powerful. We always rebuilt it.  We rebuilt because I always had to stand on the porch and taste the sea.  We rebuilt it because I had to dream of making love once again on the purple and beige sand.  We always rebuilt that house because in the music of the waves, I could hear my sons laughing.  Yes, I’ve always loved that house.  But now I’m here, thinking of that place.  Sometimes I sit in this room that I will die in and I wonder if my children can see me, because I can’t hear them laughing anymore.”

Mrs. Hathaway stares out the window lost on her own world, in her own past. I stand up, hoping to sneak away unnoticed. The floorboard creaks slightly and Mrs. Hathaway’s head swivels around.  Her mascara has run and her foundation is gone around her eyes and nose.  But her shoulders are still square underneath that royal blue bathrobe and her arms rest lamely at her sides.   

When she spots me standing in her doorway, she sighs, looks almost relieved.  Taking a tissue from the pocket of her robe, she smiles but the smile never reaches her eyes.  In a tired voice she says, “We’ve chatted Cameron and I didn’t even realize it.  Now you know all my secrets.”

I nod and try hard to gather myself.  “No, there is one other thing I don’t know.”

“What’s that, my dear?” she asks.

“Your first name. I don’t know your first name.”

“Siriana,” she whispers. “My mother used to call me Siri, which means secret. I always wondered if my mother knew something even then.”

As I turn, I see her take the pins from her hair.  In one shake of her head, waves of white hair cascade down her back.  Heading down the hallway toward the French doors, I wonder how many secrets we can all hold deep inside.
The small hill and the bridge mark the beginning of the marshes.  Just at the end of the bridge on the right, is a paved opening that leads to a steep drop.  Carefully sliding down, I make it to the base of the bridge about 10 minutes before sunset.  I take off my shoes, drop them near the no trespassing sign and walk.  I walk as the beach curves right and water fills in to the left.  I go as far as I have to and sit with my feet tucked under me in the sand. 

Looking down at the photograph in my hand, I make sure I’m in the right place before proceeding. I know I’m standing on Mrs. Hathaway’s beach.  The image in my hand is of the sun setting above a white house with shutters open and the ocean looking magnificent off to the left. In the picture is Mrs. Hathaway with her arms around two smiling boys.  I received the picture this morning, along with a brief explanation from Phyllis letting me know that Mrs. Hathaway died of heart failure yesterday, a few hours after I left her room.  According to Phyllis, Mrs. Hathaway walked into the reception area moments after I left and specifically instructed Phyllis to give me the photograph today.  On the back of the picture in precise cursive is written: Thank you for walking the beach for me. You are my secret-keeper now. –Siri  I accept those words as a direct command, and I know she had meant them to be.           

Beaches in this small tourist town are unique, and I’ve missed them desperately.  The sun will never rise or set on the water.  Instead, it chooses to go left to right.  A soft breeze glides off the water and the sky is streaked with all the colors of day and night whirled together.

Facing the white house on the point, I secretly want Mrs. Hathaway to emerge.  I imagine her standing on the jagged point with her head tilted to one side, straining to hear whatever voices talked to her and her alone.  While I stare at the empty weather-beaten house, the orange-red sun virtually rests on the highest peak of the roofline for nearly a minute.  Briefly, I scan the house for some sign of life, but nothing seems to move and the black shutters are closed.  I sit in the cooling sand, until the joggers and couples fade out of sight, until the street lights above the road click on.  I listen, half hoping to hear her voice on the waves. Who will I talk to now? Who will be my secret keeper? Instead, I hear the crickets and the waves, the tall grass shifting and gulls passing overhead. I stand up and brush the sand off my legs and I swear that somewhere within the depths of the waves, children are laughing, and so is Siri.           


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