Between grief and nothing I will take grief.
Rain splattered against the windshield of the van. The glass fogged. Meg fumbled with buttons on the unfamiliar dashboard, trying to find the defrost. After turning on the radio and flipping on the interior lights, she discovered the correct switch. Putrid air gasped out of the vent. The windshield stayed foggy.
Through heavy static, Meg heard a British radio announcer describe details of a kidnapping. More static and then a distraught mother came on, begging for her son’s return. As her eyes teared up, Meg turned off the radio, not wanting to hear the grief-stricken voice any longer. She had her own heartache to manage. She thought about her daughter staying with her in-laws, an ocean away. When she reached the inn at Chepstow, she would make the transatlantic call. She knew Gracie was safe, but she just needed to hear the child’s voice.
Meg felt a flash of anger toward her in-laws, who had insisted on her taking this trip to Great Britain. Her father-in-law said, “You’ve already bought the tickets and paid for lodging. Why waste the money?”
Her mother-in-law thought that leaving the country for a couple weeks would ease Meg’s pain, would help her heal. Meg didn’t have the energy to disagree. Yet, within 15 minutes of her arrival in Hay-on-Wye, she knew coming to the writers’ festival had been a mistake.
Almost every moment something reminded her of her husband. The last straw was coming across Virgil—that idiot from New York City. He slithered up to her as she stood reading by a new books exhibit.
“Meg, I was so sorry to hear about Peter.” Virgil leered as if he weren’t sorry at all. He combed his fingers through thinning hair, hair plugs still visible across the forehead.
Meg nodded at him and started to move away. But Virgil grabbed her arm. “Really, I am sorry. Why don’t you meet me for a drink tonight?”
Running into Virgil provided Meg with the impetus she needed to leave the conference early. She rented a van from the innkeeper and left Hay-on-Wye. She could understand why it was the only rental vehicle left in town: rusty exterior, torn upholstery, seat belts tangled in a permanently retracted position. She hoped the van would make the two-hour trip to Chepstow in Wales. She planned to visit Chepstow Castle and Tintern Abbey the next day. Then, she’d leave the van in Bristol with the innkeeper’s cousin and make her way to London by train. She’d take the first plane back to the U.S.
The rain beat down harder. Meg had to admit she was lost. Over an hour ago, when it was still light and not raining, she had spotted a small wooden sign saying “Arthur’s Stone” alongside the main road. The arrow pointed to a narrow country lane that wound up a steep hill. Arthur’s Stone was one of the megalithic sites she and Peter had planned to visit after the festival. Peter was going to write an article on some of the ancient burial barrows and stone circles found throughout Wales. He had asked Meg to take the pictures that would accompany the piece.
On impulse, Meg made the turn, deciding to photograph the burial stones, after all. The sign hadn’t indicated a distance. She assumed it wouldn’t be too far.
After 20 minutes of driving into the increasingly remote countryside, Meg realized she must have missed a second turn-off. She gave up trying to locate the stone. Now, lost in the storm, she’d be happy enough to find her way back to any main road.
Hedgerows stood at least ten feet high along both sides of the narrow lane, making it impossible to see anywhere except directly behind and straight ahead. Driving on the left side of the road disoriented Meg. She kept overcorrecting. Branches from the hedgerows scraped along the side of the van. Only a crazy American would try to drive a huge vehicle on this tiny road.
The passenger-side windshield wiper stopped working. Then, the blade on the driver’s side began to make only a half sweep along the glass. Maybe a fuse had blown. Were there spare fuses in the glove box? Even if she found a fuse, she wouldn’t know where to replace it. Cold fury rushed over her. Peter could have fixed this problem in a heartbeat.
Gray wisps of fog floated across the road. Perhaps they were in search of the burial stones, too. Or maybe they were heading for some ghostly gathering in celebration of the storm.
Meg searched for and then flipped on her high beams. Rather than pierce the gloom, the beams bounced back, momentarily blinding her. The van struck something in the road—a downed tree or a plank? She couldn’t tell. As she slammed on the brakes, Meg’s head crashed into the windshield.
Disoriented by the bump, Meg let her foot slip from the brake pedal. She heard a pop, then another. The driver’s-side tires had blown out. The van veered off the road, tilting sideways into a deep ditch.
Meg sat motionless, her mind unable to make her arms and legs move. She felt as if they belonged to another body. Perhaps she was dead. What a blessed relief that would be. Yet, how could she wish that Gracie lose her remaining parent less than three months after the first? A part of her felt too depressed to care.
Fluid dripped down her forehead and pooled in her eye. Blood? Maybe it was just water trickling through the cracked windshield. The engine strained and whined, so she turned it off.
Meg had to get out of the car and find help. She knew that much. Should she risk climbing to the third seat to grab her camera? The crazy angle of the headlights made her think the two tires on the left of the van were off the ground. Crawling back would be too risky. If the van tipped completely, the driver’s door would be pinned against the hedgerow, trapping her.
Meg edged toward the door and inched it open. The door jammed into the hedgerow. She eased her long legs and thin torso through the narrow opening, then slipped ankle deep into a muddy ditch.
Rain splashed down and around her as if some furious water god were releasing the floodgates of heaven. She wanted to open the trunk and pull out her flashlight and raincoat, but she hadn’t thought to take the key out of the ignition.
Where was Peter when she needed him? For a moment, she hated the man. Peter would think of this as an exhilarating adventure. With his pocketknife, he’d carve out a cozy home for them in the hedgerow. Then he’d miraculously find flint, start a fire, and cook rabbit stew in his cap. So many times he had radioed her from some godforsaken place to say something like, “I’m having lunch with a tribe of cannibals. All is well.”
Meg’s heart pounded against her bruised rib cage. Her head throbbed. Cold rain pelted her face and seemed to steal the breath from her lungs. She screamed “Help!” once, but realized the wailing wind carried the sound straight into the hills. Who would hear her anyway?
The van’s headlights shone weakly down the road. Meg decided to walk forward, brushing her hand against the hedgerow and using it as a guide in the blackness. With each step, her feet sloshed in her soggy loafers.
After ten minutes, the road rose straight up. For once, she could see above the tall hedgerows. She spotted a dim light on the left off in the distance. Meg hated to leave her vista at the top of the hill, but in order to get closer to the light she had to climb down the other side into the gloom again.
She shivered as she walked, the rain drenching her cotton sweater and blue jeans. Maybe some farmer would find her dead of hypothermia in the morning. Then again, it was July. Did people die of hypothermia in July?
As Meg stumbled in the dark, she felt a break in the hedgerow. A narrow gravel path led off the road to the left, the same direction where she had seen the light. Was this the driveway to a farm or the path to an empty meadow? Without the hedgerow to guide her, would she wind up disoriented in the center of some pasture?
She decided to take the path. The gravel crunched as she walked straight up a steep incline. At the top of the hill, she saw not one, but many lights. She began to run.
Meg had expected to come upon an old farmhouse. Instead, she saw a large contemporary home built into the hillside. The place seemed as if it belonged on a rocky cliff overlooking a beach in southern California.
Suddenly, Meg heard loud barking. The dog sounded huge. She held her breath and hoped it would not find her. The barking turned into a fierce growl.
“Who’s there? What do you want?” A woman’s voice came from the porch outside the house.
“I’ve had an accident. Down the road. I need help.”
“Come forward. Follow my torchlight. Don’t worry. I am holding the dog.”
Meg walked forward several yards, toward the slender beam of light. “My name is Meg Mathias. I need to use your phone.” Would Meg’s drenched clothes and tangled hair frighten the woman?
“Please step up onto the porch, out of the rain. Hush, Cleo. Sit.” The woman pushed on the haunches of a dog that looked like a small black bear.
Meg climbed three steps and entered under the shelter of a huge wraparound porch. She towered over the tiny woman.
“I am Gabriella. Don’t worry. This dog, she is more stupid than vicious. Already she has forgotten you.”
Gabriella stood less than five feet tall. Her shiny black hair looked as if it had been styled in a Parisian salon. She wore silver earrings and a thick silver and turquoise necklace. Dressed in a plush oversized sweater and black silk pants, she could have been on her way to a cocktail party. Meg tried to determine her age—late 30’s, early 40’s?
“Oh, your head, it is bleeding.” The woman led her into a stone-covered foyer and pointed to a long white wooden bench. “Sit there. I will get a towel and some bandages.”
The room spun. Meg’s stomach felt as if she were plunging in an elevator. She lay down on the bench, as blood from her head steadily dripped on the floor.
Within a minute, Gabriella rushed back into the room. “I know a little about first aid. Please, if you will let me, I will see how bad the cut is.”
Gabriella helped Meg sit up, wrapped a large bath towel around her shoulders, then began swabbing Meg’s forehead with an antiseptic bandage. “Ah, the cut, it bleeds much, but really it is small.”
“The bump stunned me. I cracked the windshield with my head. I hope the owner has insurance.”
“Don’t worry about that tonight.” As Gabriella cleaned the area with alcohol, Meg winced.
Gabriella placed a butterfly bandage on Meg’s forehead. “Luckily my husband keeps these fancy medical supplies for the fishing wounds he inflicts on himself. This will bring the edges of the cut together. No ugly scar, I hope.”
“Thank you for your help. Please, may I use your phone? I left my rented van in the road. I am afraid someone will hit it. I need to get it towed.”
“The phones are dead. In this storm, I am surprised we have electricity. Don’t worry about the van. No one will be out on a night like this. Besides, the closest tow service is many kilometers away. Perhaps, tomorrow I can persuade a farmer at Shepherd’s End to pull your van to Herefordshire. Although on Sunday, you will find no garages open.”
Meg began to cry. “I am supposed to be in Chepstow tonight. My camera, my suitcase, everything is in the van. I don’t know what to do.”
“You’ll stay here, of course. You’ll want dry clothes.” Gabriella led Meg through to a spacious blue and white kitchen. Meg shielded her eyes against the bright lights.
Gabriella dimmed the center light. “I am sorry. Your head must hurt. Come back here to the guest bedroom.”
What kind of accent did she have? She sounded more American than British. But the inflection—was it Italian?
Gabriella rummaged through an ancient mahogany armoire. “Ah, you are the same height as my husband. Here, a sweatshirt and sweatpants to fit you. They will be comfortable, I think, You would like a warm bath, yes? While you are bathing, I will make a small supper for us.”
Gabriella opened the door to the bathroom. Shiny black and white tiles covered the floor. The walls, two sinks, everything else was white. Gabriella left a stack of thick towels on a small wicker stand by the claw-foot bathtub. She turned on both faucets to full strength. “Please adjust the temperature yourself. I’ll knock when dinner is ready.”
“I’m sorry I barged in on you like this. Thank you for being so kind.”
“No bother at all. I enjoy company.” Gabriella smiled and left.
Meg peeled off her muddy wet clothes and slipped into the warm water, her blond hair splaying out in all directions. Her long skinny body fit into the tub, not cramped at all. A miracle. Peter used to joke that they were a perfect match for each other—twins in height and arm length. Meg’s tears slipped into the water around her.
Thirty minutes later, Gabriella knocked at the door. “The soup is ready.”
After making a couple wrong turns, Meg found her way back to the kitchen. This time as she walked down the hallway, she noticed several oil paintings. A few were portraits; most were garden scenes. All were impressionistic in style and splashed with bright color.
In the kitchen, only two lights shone dimly now, one over the stove and one on the long cherry table in the center of the room. Cleo slept on a cushion in the far corner. Gabriella sat with her back to the doorway, hugging herself and staring into a glass of red wine. Meg hesitated to disturb her. She waited a moment, then said hello.
Gabriella jumped. “Oh, I am sorry. Please sit down.” Gabriella motioned to a chair across from her. “Soup, salad, and here is some bread.”
“Thanks. That’s great.”
Meg sat down as Gabriella ladled vegetable beef soup into a deep earthen-colored bowl. She sliced a wedge of bread from a brown round loaf. “You look much better.”
“I feel better.” Meg noticed that Gabriella’s eyes were redrimmed. She seemed as if she had been crying. “Are you okay?”
Gabriella cut a piece of bread for herself. “Ha. You are the one in the accident and you ask me if I am all right.” Gabriella looked at her wineglass. “I am being rude. Would you care for some wine?”
“Just a little. My head is still throbbing.” Meg wondered if she might have a concussion. She probably shouldn’t drink any wine at all, but she wanted to numb her pain.
“I expected my husband to come home tonight. That is why all the lights were on. Lucky for you, yes?” Gabriella took a wineglass from a wooden rack above a marble cutting table.
As she poured the wine, Gabriella said, “Hans is a businessman and travels a great deal. Most of his work is in Taiwan and Thailand now.”
Meg felt a pang of anxiety. “Will he be here tonight?” She didn’t have the energy to deal with another person.
Gabriella took a long sip of wine. “Now that is a good question. We communicate mostly by e-mail when he is gone. He wrote something like, “I am coming home on Tuesday. Please dry clean my blue suit, as I will take it with me when I leave on Thursday. Don’t worry about picking me up at Heathrow. I will rent a car and drive home. I will call when I land. Hans”.”
“Then, he will be home in a couple days?” Meg ate a spoonful of soup and a bite of bread. Her stomach finally felt settled.
“That is what I thought.” Gabriella rubbed her eyes. “This morning I received an e-mail that was uncharacteristic of Hans: “Darling, I will see you tonight. I am counting the minutes. Love, Hans”.”
Gabriella smiled, then filled her wineglass and took another drink. “I thought the message was unlike him, but who can argue with affection? I waited for his call all day. Finally, early this evening, just before the phones went dead, I decided to phone Frederick, Hans’ associate in Taiwan. Our connection was terrible. I asked if Hans would be arriving here tonight. I could tell Frederick thought I was someone else, although I didn’t understand the name he called me.”
“Another woman?” Meg couldn’t believe Gabriella was pouring out her troubles to her, a stranger. Then again, maybe it was easier for Gabriella to confide in a stranger. Perhaps she felt safe because she thought she’d never see Meg again.
“Yes. I have never called the office in Taiwan. Because of the e-mail, I haven’t needed to. The woman must have called before. Frederick sounded familiar with her. He said Hans should be there at any moment and would stay with her in London for a couple days before he headed to the country house. Then the line went dead.”
“I am so sorry.” Meg thought Gabriella seemed remarkably calm. . .definitely calmer than Meg would have been.
“Somehow I am not shocked. Little things have happened. Three months ago someone from our credit card company called me. He asked if I knew that someone in Virgin Gorda was placing large charges on my bill.”
“Apparently. After calling, I discovered that Hans booked a room on the island. He came home claiming he had to follow a client to the Caribbean to get some papers signed.”
“You believed him?”
“Sometimes you believe what you want to believe. Not believing Hans would mean many changes. Legal battles over the business. Now, his infidelity seems obvious.”
“Maybe there is an explanation.”
Gabriella smiled. “That would be nice. Perhaps he will surprise me and show up tonight.” Gabriella took another helping of soup. “And you, you sound like an American. What brings you to these back roads in the middle of a storm?”
Meg ran her finger around the rim of the wineglass. “Escaping reality, I suppose.”
“Ah, too bad. You collided with reality. What are you trying to escape?”
“My husband Peter was a travel writer. Exotic and dangerous travel, usually.” Meg paused and touched the bandage on her forehead.
“Was a writer?”
“About three months ago, he came home sick from an assignment in Benin. High fever, cough. Got off the plane that way.” Meg sighed. She didn’t feel much like talking anymore.
“That is frightening.”
“At first, he refused to see a doctor. Within a few hours, he was delirious. I called an ambulance. By morning, he was dead.”
“Oh, no. Why?”
Meg wanted to say he died because he was so stubborn, so macho. He couldn’t bear the thought of needing a doctor.
But she just said, “Bacterial meningitis. It took the doctors a couple hours to figure out what he had. By then, the infection had taken over. The antibiotic didn’t work. I spent the night begging God for a miracle, but by morning, Peter was dead.”
Gabriella reached across the table and touched Meg’s hand. “I am sorry.”
Meg said thank you, but after a second, she pulled her hand away. She didn’t want pity from anyone, especially not a stranger. She wanted Peter back.
“You must feel some anger, yes?”
“Yes. But against whom? It’s hard for me not to hate God. . .if there is a god to hate.”
Meg took another piece of bread and carefully spread the softened butter. “Peter planned this trip as a special surprise for me. When we were first married, we thought we’d go on assignments together. He’d write the copy and I’d shoot the photos. We took one trip into the wilderness. That was enough for me. I hate sleeping on rocks in a smelly tent.”
“Me too. At night, I like the covers turned down and a mint on my pillow.”
“I kept working, but as a freelance garden photographer. Mostly local shoots. Peter began getting great jobs right out of college, assignments from places like National Geographic and Time. I think editors liked him because he never refused dangerous work. In fact, the higher the risk involved, the happier he’d be.”
“A thrill-seeker, eh?”
“Yes.” Since his death, Meg found herself wondering if Peter loved the thrill of taking risks more than he loved her. Often Meg would beg him not to take an assignment. Peter would half listen to her, make a joke, then head off anyway.
Meg went on, “So this trip to Great Britain was going to be different—we’d be working together for once. After the festival, I planned to photograph the megaliths while Peter collected information about them. Then I’d spend a few days taking pictures of gardens in the Cotswolds. We figured we would stay at inns at night. A nice tame experience.”
Meg leaned backed and massaged her forehead. Then she continued, “After Peter died, his parents talked me into taking this trip anyway. They suggested I go to Hay-on-Wye, then poke around for a week on my own. They thought it would help me feel better. I’ve been such a wreck, maybe they thought my absence might help them recover too. You know, give us all a break from one another.”
“Yes. Sometimes the grief it is magnified when it echoes from one person to another. But, how did you find yourself on this side road?”
“On my way to Chepstow, I passed a sign saying “Arthur’s Stone.” I figured, as a tribute to Peter’s memory, I’d make a detour.”
“Ah, poor Meg. The stones are not far from here. You must have been driving in circles. Easy to do in the hedgerow maze. Tomorrow I will take you there. Now, you must rest.”
Meg woke late the next morning, her whole body aching. Groggy, she reached across the bed for Peter. In a moment, she remembered. Then, she shook herself fully awake as she tried to make sense out of her unfamiliar surroundings.
Thoughts swirled around in her head: the accident. Gabriella. Despicable Hans. Dead Peter. Raising Gracie alone. Calling Gracie. Her camera and suitcase in the van. The broken-down van in the middle of the road.
Her heart began to pound. Meg concentrated on breathing deeply. She could deal with this, one problem at a time.
She glanced at the clock on the marble-topped nightstand. Eleven o’clock—she hadn’t intended to sleep so late. Meg dressed, moving stiffly. When she reached the kitchen, she heard the steady thwack of someone chopping wood.
Meg walked out the back door toward the sound. In a walled garden behind the house, Gabriella stood swinging a large ax against the base of an apple tree. The ten-foot tree creaked, then fell to the ground.
“Gabriella, what are you doing?” The wild look on Gabriella’s face scared Meg.
“This was my husband’s favorite tree. He promised we would grow old together in its shade.” Gabriella leaned the ax against the stump of the tree. “So much for that thought.”
Gabriella made a gesture toward the tree; a hand motion that looked Italian and not too complimentary. Then she took Meg’s arm. “Come back into the house. I have prepared some breakfast.”
Inside the kitchen, Gabriella pointed to the foyer. “There is your suitcase and camera. Mr. Jones towed your van to his farm. He says it is all right, except for the windshield and tires.”
“Did he see what I hit?” Meg hoped it wasn’t an animal.
“He found three broken planks in the road. They must have dropped off of a truck.”
“Wouldn’t the driver have noticed?” Those boards must have made a loud sound.
“Who knows? Perhaps he was very stupid or very drunk. The local pubs are well populated on a Saturday night. Anyway, Mr. Jones can tow the van to Herefordshire tomorrow when the shops open. How are you feeling? Shall we try to find a doctor today?”
“No doctor, thanks. I just have a few aches and pains. Thank you for taking care of the van. You must have been up early.”
“Depends on how you look at it. Up early or up late. I never went to bed. I hoped Hans might arrive with an explanation. I still wanted to believe my suspicions were a nasty nightmare.”
“Wanted to believe?” Meg braced herself to hear Gabriella’s bad news.
“Yes, the phones are back in service. So I called the private airline Hans always uses. They told me he arrived in London yesterday morning. Then I called Frederick, not telling him it was I who called yesterday. Our connection was crystal clear this time.”
Meg carefully lowered herself into a chair at the table. Abrupt movements made her ache. “What did he say?”
“Frederick covered for Hans. He claimed Hans had to make a short unexpected trip to an island in the Pacific—no phone or e-mail service. But Frederick assured me that Hans would arrive home by Tuesday.”
“Is it possible that is true?” Meg wished it were true for Gabriella’s sake.
“Not a chance. I spoke with the attendant who rode on the same flight with Hans. Let’s forget about all that for now. Here is a cup of coffee. You will have some frittata? It was made with the eggs from Mr.Jones’ hens.”
Meg began to eat. “This is wonderful. Are you Italian? You speak American-sounding English.”
“My mother and sister now live in Tuscany, in a little town where my parents grew up as children. Although Tuscany was our home base, my family lived all over the world. My father was in the shipping business. In fact, it is the same shipping business Hans runs now.”
“How did that happen?”
“I was working on my master’s degree in art at a college near Washington, D.C. That is where I met Hans, just before I was to graduate. Hans worked as an instructor in the business school at Georgetown University. He was 43, a full ten years older than I. We met at a party. Here is a picture of him.” Gabriella took a small framed photo from a shelf near the sink.
“Love at first sight?” Meg found it hard to imagine, though. Hans’ thinning blond hair made his high forehead seem expansive. His round black spectacles reflected the light, giving him a bookish and remote look.
“No, not at all. I thought he was too old. But he sent flowers, bought jewelry. He wouldn’t give up.”
“How did he manage to change your mind?”
“He wore me down, I guess. My father’s health began to fail badly. Hans made a point of being around, taking care of things. That summer, I graduated. Then, two weeks later, Hans and I married.”
“Were you ever madly in love?”
“To be honest, I don’t think so. My father was a strong man, took care of everyone and everything. Hans was like him, but more controlling. I knew my father was about to die. Perhaps, I panicked and wanted to find someone else to take care of me.”
“Hans took over your family business?”
“Yes, right after my father’s death that Christmas. He lost interest in me at about the same time. Once he married me, he was off to other challenges. It has been a lonely ten years.”
“Why do you live here and not in Italy with your family?”
“We did live in Italy at first, in Rome. Then, about two years ago, Hans insisted that we purchase this place. He bought partial ownership in a private jet service. London is the hub for the company. At least that is what he claimed. He said this house would be convenient for him and would provide me with a good place to paint undisturbed.” Gabriella stood and brought some of the breakfast dishes to the sink.
Gabriella washed a juice glass, then held it up to the light before she placed it on a wooden drying rack. “I hated to leave all the people closest to me, but I went along with his idea. Now, I wonder if he wanted to keep me isolated while he fooled around.”
“Do you think you’ll return to Italy?” Meg wished Gabriella would live with her mother and sister.
“Who knows? I feel so much anger. Our family fortune is in the hands of this man. My mother and sister still own a controlling share of the stock. Hans and I own the rest jointly. I must think about this carefully. Perhaps, I will not confront him when he gets home.”
“After he goes off again, I will travel to Italy and talk with my mother. Perhaps, we can find an attorney who can help us.”
“Find a smart one,” Meg said as she finished the frittata.
“Yes, a brilliant lawyer. And a good therapist for me. Our marriage has been loveless for years. I was crazy to stick with it. Would you care for anything else?”
“No, thank you. I have dined sufficiently, as my Aunt Margaret would say. I’d like to make a call home, if that’s okay. I have a phone card.”
“Go ahead and call. Don’t worry about your card. We have a great international plan. Hans writes off the cost each year. But, enough of Hans. After you make your call, let’s go for a walk. I will bring you to Arthur’s Stone.”
Meg spoke with her in-laws, keeping the call brief. She didn’t brother to mention any of the harrowing details. No use worrying them. She just wanted to check on Gracie. Of course, four-year-old Gracie chattered away as if Meg were in the next room and not across the Atlantic.
Meg hung up, changed into fresh clothes, then walked into the kitchen. “Gabriella, did you happen to listen to the news today? Last night, I heard about a boy who had been kidnapped. . . .”
“Yes, yes. I heard about that this morning. They found the child in Liverpool. The boy’s father had taken him. A custody battle, I think.”
“He’s okay? That’s a relief.” At least some stories have happy endings, more or less.
“Are you ready to go?” Gabriella led the way as the women stepped out into the walled flower garden. The heavy scent of French lilacs greeted them. Meg felt grateful that Gabriella hadn’t gone after the lilacs with her ax. Three purple-blossomed butterfly bushes stood along one side of the garden. Several rows of white foxglove plants and yellow hollyhocks stood against the other. Parsley, mint, chives, basil, and tarragon tumbled out of wooden barrels. Blue climbing roses ranged the length of the stone wall. Stalks of orange snapdragons guarded the back gate.
Surrounded by such beauty, Meg knew she should feel a rush of pleasure. Normally, she would drop everything to photograph such a gorgeous place. Instead, she felt a dry hollow ache, followed by anger that Peter was not with her and nothing would ever be the same. Meg paused for a moment, learning on a garden bench.
Gabriella turned back. “Are you all right? Is this walk too much for you?”
“No. I’m fine. I’m just looking around. You’ve done a great job. Those pictures in the hall—you painted them here?”
“Yes, the garden is inspirational. But I cannot take credit for the plantings. The previous owner designed the garden. I have tried my best to keep them alive.”
Gabriella opened the back gate. Cleo rushed out past them and in a moment had disappeared into a distant pasture. The women made their way along the edge of a field. Green and yellow hills rolled out in all directions. What a different view from the one Meg had seen on the narrow lane last night.
Meg walked stiffly, every one of her muscles resisting motion. Her camera hung on a leather strap around her neck. With every step, it thunked on her aching chest. She carried it more by habit than anything else. Since Peter’s death, she hadn’t been able to force herself to take a picture.
As they stepped over the broken branches left by the storm, Meg had difficulty maneuvering around the debris. Gabriella took Meg’s elbow to support her. “You must be sore. That is common, you know, the day after an accident.”
“I don’t mind my body being sore. I can handle that. Eventually, my muscles will feel better. I wish I could mend my emotions that easily.”
“You loved him, yes?” Gabriella guided Meg through the opening of a small wooden fence.
Meg felt torn. Part of her never wanted to mention Peter’s name again. It hurt too much. But another part of her did want to talk about him, did want to savor his memory.
She sighed and said, “Peter and I met in journalism school at Northwestern. We were from the same town in Virginia, so we drove back and forth to school together whenever we could. Over the four years, we became good buddies, working on class projects, asking each other’s advice on people we dated. Even then, he seemed bigger than life to me.”
“Oh, he’d always be running off to places—you know, earthquake relief in Central America, helping to deliver vaccines in India, that sort of thing. Peter had a tender heart. Near the end of my senior year, my father died of pneumonia. I flew home immediately. When Peter heard about it, he drove all through the night, so he could be at the funeral. Then he stayed for a week, helping me sort through belongings. My mother suffered from early dementia, so she couldn’t do much. She sat and cried the whole time. I don’t have any brothers or sisters. So, it was all up to me.”
“Peter cared enough to help you.”
Meg smiled. “During that week, he told me he had wanted to date me for a long time, but was afraid to wreck our friendship.”
“So, did you wreck the friendship?”
Meg laughed. “I guess we fell in love. I don’t think either of us expected to, but we did. Peter’s father is an attorney. He settled the estate and arranged finances for my mom and me. Then he helped me find her a good nursing home.”
They walked silently for a few minutes. Then Meg said, “It’s strange. Mom doesn’t even know who I am anymore. Every time Peter and I visited her, we wondered if it would be the last time.”
“Now he’s gone and she still lives. . . .”
“Doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Why couldn’t they both be well?”
“Some questions seem to have no good answers. For example, why did I stay married to Hans so long?”
Meg smiled. “Well, at least that’s something you can remedy.”
“You’re right. And perhaps I will. So, tell me the rest of the story. When did you marry Peter?”
“A year after we graduated. We would have celebrated our eighth anniversary.” Would it have messed up some eternal plan for Peter to still be alive?
“Are you close to Peter’s parents?”
“Very. I know they think of me as the daughter they never had. And of course, they adore Gracie.”
“Yes, your little girl. You are blessed to have a child.”
“Yes, I don’t know what I’d do without her. But the responsibility is scary. I can’t imagine trying to raise Gracie on my own.”
Meg wanted to ask Gabriella why she didn’t have children. She hesitated. It was such a personal question. Yet, they were baring their souls to each other. “Did you and Hans think about having children?”
Gabriella stopped and picked up a blue flower growing by the side of the path. “What nice feathery leaves.”
“Oh, it’s a “Love-in-the-Mist.” I’ve only seen those in gardening books.”
Gabriella gave the flower to Meg. “Children? I would like children, but Hans refuses. He says they are likely to be ungrateful and uncontrollable.”
“He didn’t believe you could raise a well-behaved child?”
“Not with complete guarantee of success. But there was another issue, too. He didn’t want to risk that they would break his heart. One of Hans’ favorite quotes is, “Tis a fearful thing to love what death can touch.” I think his solution is to avoid ever really loving anyone.”
“It is risky to love someone.” Meg threaded the flower stem through her hair. “Maybe Hans is right. Maybe it is too painful to allow yourself to love someone.”
“If that is so, what is the point of life? Would you rather never to have met Peter? Never to have had Gracie?”
“Of course not. What about Hans? Would it be better if you never met him?” At least Gabriella still had a husband, rat that he was.
“With Hans it was different. Maybe there never was real love. I wanted him to give me assurances about my future. I thought that if I married him, I’d always have money and never be alone. Selfish, yes? Perhaps, I have received what I deserved.”
After a few minutes, Gabriella and Meg came upon a set of gray and black rectangular stones standing upright, eight feet high, with a large flat capstone lying across the top.
“Here it is, Arthur’s Stone. The object of your quest last night.”
“They’re eerie looking, just sitting in the middle of this field.”
“Eerie? Well, they were used as a burial chamber by the Druids. People say these stones have been here since 2,000 years before Julius Caesar.”
“I guess an ancient tomb should feel spooky.” Meg bent a little to try to see under the capstone.
“Supernatural, yes. There are many legends.”
“One is that Arthur rides by here on a white stallion on moonlit nights.”
“Have you ever come here at night?”
“No. Another legend is that if you stay overnight by a burial stone you will die, go mad, or become a poet. I could not risk becoming a poet. Being a painter can be frustrating enough.”
“Was this used only as a burial place? Were other rituals performed here?”
“Undoubtedly. Who knows just what? One story is that a wedding occurred on this site. The devil came along disguised as a fiddler. As he played, the wedding party danced straight through the night, right until dawn on the Holy Sabbath. Then the devil laughed and turned them all to stone.”
“That’s cheerful. Love and death.”
Gabriella sat on the ground, bracing her back against a tall gnarled tree. “Oh Meg, you have had your share of death. How do you cope?”
Meg sat next to her, gingerly stretching her stiff legs. “When I was growing up, if anything bad happened, my parents would always look for the silver lining. They’d tell me to find the one good thing that came out of the bad circumstance.”
“Eternal optimists. That can get wearing.” Gabriella picked up three strands of timothy and began weaving them into a braid. “So, what is your one good thing?”
“Loving Peter. I still have Gracie and Peter’s parents. . .but I’ll never stop missing him. Maybe missing him is part of the “one good thing” too.”
Just then, Cleo bounded out of the brush, soaking wet and smelling doggy. “Down, down. You crazy animal.” Gabriella grabbed Cleo’s collar and made her sit. The dog settled between the two women, laying her head on Gabriella’s lap.
Gabriella pulled hay from Cleo’s fur. “Some people say these stones have magical qualities. They talk of peculiar sensations when they touch the megaliths, tingling and such.”
“What do you believe?”
Gabriella smiled. “Nothing and everything. I would like to touch the stone and make my life right again.”
“Wouldn’t that be nice? We both could ask for miracles: a faithful, loving Hans and a living, breathing Peter. Now that would make me believe in God.”
“Ha! Maybe it would.” Gabriella pushed Cleo away, then stood and stretched. “My uncle Nello is a monk who lives in a monastery outside of Pisa. He says experiencing a miracle does not necessarily convince a person to believe in God. He claims it’s on the contrary. People who already have faith in God are ones most likely to experience and acknowledge the miracles.”
“Experience and acknowledge? What did he mean?”
“Nello says we are surrounded by the miraculous, but we fail to notice. For me, maybe it is that I live in the midst of all this natural beauty, that I can paint, that I still have the love of my mother and sister. Perhaps that is the miraculous in my life and often I don’t see it.”
“You’re talking about everyday miracles.”
“Yes. Nello says it’s not so much that God’s miracles inspire faith. But instead, it is more that we believe in God first, and then we see the miracles all around us.”
“I’ve lost my father, my husband and in a sense, my mother too. It’s hard to see the miraculous in all that.”
“I can only imagine. Maybe Nello would tell you to look for God in the middle of the suffering—let go of what you could never control in the first place.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Really, I’m not sure I do either. I felt happy enough to cut that tree down this morning. But maybe the healing comes when I put down the ax.”
Gabriella brushed hay and dog hair from her clothes. “Are you ready to head back?”
As Meg tried to stand, she fell back hard and laughed. “Oh lord, I’m so stiff that I can’t get up.”
Gabriella took both of Meg’s arms and with some effort, tugged Meg to standing. Then Gabriella held her around the waist as Meg steadied herself. They stood like that for a moment.
All at once, Meg felt undone by the quiet, the beauty of the surrounding fields, by the warmth of Gabriella’s supporting hand at her back. She took a few steps, leaned against one of the stones and began to cry. “I don’t know how to let go of Peter.”
“Perhaps it is not that you must let go of Peter. . . .”
Just then, Cleo jumped up barking. She banged into Gabriella, almost knocking her off of her feet. Then the dog raced off after a flock of birds that had landed in the field. “Lunatic dog. That is why I don’t dare have children. I cannot even control my pet.”
Meg and Gabriella began walking slowly back to the house in silence. As they approached the rear gate, Meg said, “Maybe it’s letting go of the anger. Maybe I’ve got to forgive Peter for being dead.”
“Yes. That may be a first step.” Gabriella undid the metal latch and swung open the gate. She smiled. “Maybe I should forgive Hans for still being alive. Yes?”
Cleo barreled past them. The dog picked up a small branch of the apple tree and then dragged it toward Gabriella. “Ah, you want to play a game of fetch?” Gabriella pulled the branch from the dog’s mouth and tossed it to the other side of the garden.
Meg began snapping pictures of Gabriella, Cleo, the house, the pile of apple tree branches, and all of the flowers in the garden. She shot through the entire roll. Then as Meg loaded a second roll into her camera, she said, “When I go home, Gracie will want to see where I’ve been.”