“I can’t believe you let old Edmund live in our converted barn. You knew he’s a murderer!” Natalie practically shouted.
“Calm down, now,” Frank said. “I wish to heavens you’d obeyed me and not researched the family history.” He should have known she’d do something like this.
“This is the nineteen-nineties, Dad,” Natalie told him, as if he didn’t know. “I’m twenty-four years old, and I can darn well do what I please, thank you very much.”
“Doing what you pleased has made us both unhappy, as you can see.” Frank got up from the breakfast table and looked out the window at the graveyard across the street. The sight of it usually calmed his nerves. A thick layer of Vermont autumn leaves covered the ground, making the cemetery look like a park. He remembered ruefully all the times he’d joked about their quiet neighbors. It seemed the dead could come back to haunt you. At least the memory of them could. “You should have left well enough alone,” he told his daughter.
“Mom had those papers. I thought it would be interesting to start a family history. Someone could have told me,” she said, “that my great uncle, who I didn’t even know was my uncle and who lives not a hundred yards from us, had been in prison for murdering my grandfather. I am over twenty-one, you know.”
Not acting it, Frank thought. She’s overreacting, as usual. But maybe that was unfair. Anyone would get upset, under the circumstances.
Frank turned to face her. “Perhaps you’re right,” he admitted. “It’s difficult to find the right time to tell a child something like that.”
She calmed down a little. “So, tell me now.”
He sighed, sat back down and poured himself another cup of coffee. They’d be late opening the drugstore today. For the thousandth time since they’d buried Rowena in that graveyard across the street, he wished her back, alive to deal with their headstrong daughter.
At that moment, his mother came down the back stairs. Both Frank and Natalie looked at each other guiltily.
“Good morning,” Ada said. “You’re running late this morning.” She gave Natalie a disapproving look, as if it were her fault.
Father and daughter rose from the table quickly and took their dishes to the sink, mumbling good mornings. Frank had never understood the animosity that had developed between his mother and daughter since Nat reached adolescence. Ada didn’t seem able to bear Natalie’s impulsiveness and excitability.
Outside, the wind snatched at their coats and scarves as they walked the four blocks to the drugstore. They passed the barn, their eyes drawn to it. The two-hundred-year-old shingled exterior blended into the landscape as though the barn had grown there. A stack of wood rose precariously against its side, almost reaching the roofline. With the money Edmund made collecting and selling wood, cans, and other items, he kept the place up with Frank’s occasional help. Edmund had done a nice job of dividing the interior into rooms, adding plumbing and wiring, all since he’d gotten out of prison eighteen years ago.
To Frank’s knowledge, Edmund had never once stepped inside the old family home since his return. Ada took him a hot dinner at noon and visited awhile, but he avoided Natalie and Frank. Frank didn’t think he’d ever spoken more than two words to Rowena the whole time she was alive.
“The funny thing is,” Frank told Natalie, “I like Edmund. I appreciate him for keeping his distance. Edmund watched you grow up without ever holding you, never speaking to you.”
“How can you like him? He murdered your father!” Natalie’s small face looked pinched, an expression Frank disliked.
“Nat, he killed my father because he couldn’t stand knowing he was hitting my mother.”
“Grandpa abused Grandma?” She sounded incredulous.
“Yes,” Frank said firmly. “Nowadays, lots of people would look on Edmund as a hero, a person who defended his sister against an evil man.”
Natalie, ever one to see everything in black and white, protested. “Hitting someone is not the same as murder. How could anyone think that?”
They were still discussing the issue while they opened the drugstore. “What was Grandpa like? What do you remember about him?” Natalie asked as she turned over the closed sign and went to get her smock from the back.
Frank walked with her towards the pharmacy section, passing the overpowering smell of perfumes and powders, to the, to him, pleasant smell of pills and syrups. He realized he’d never talked to Natalie about his father. Never talked much at all about the family. Maybe that was why she’d been so hot to research their history.
“When he was sober,” he began, “like a lot of men, he could be wonderful,” he said. “He’d play catch with me, tell corny jokes, take me out for ice cream. When he drank, though, look out! I stayed out of his way then. Mother couldn’t. I never saw him hit her, but I saw the results. She always made up an excuse. Edmund must have put two and two together because he tended bar at Winchell’s and knew when Dad tied one on and when Mother, the next day, had a black eye or a broken wrist, or something.”
Frank put on his white jacket and began unlocking cabinets as he spoke. “One night Edmund followed Dad home and waited outside. When he heard a commotion, he busted in and hit him with an iron skillet. Drunk, Dad was an easy target, and the coroner said he probably died before he hit the floor.” Frank had gone over the events so many times in his mind since then that his voice could remain unemotional.
Natalie shuddered as she got the feather duster and began dusting shelves. “How old were you then?”
“Yes, and the judge sent him up for the minimum time. When he got out, he didn’t want to tend bar anymore. Said he’d seen enough drunks to last a lifetime. So we all–my mother, your mother and I–decided to let him have the old barn. Prison made him quieter than he’d been before, so he never was any trouble.”
“But,” Natalie said as she moved some perfume jars to dust the glass shelf under them, “didn’t you worry at all about his becoming violent again if something set him off?”
“It never crossed my mind, Natalie,” he answered a bit testily. Of course it had, but as the years rolled by, he hardly ever thought about it anymore.
“Not even when I was born? What if he’d taken it into his head to hurt me? Or Mom? How would you have felt?”
“He had no reason to hurt anyone else,” Frank said, exasperated with his daughter’s overblown imagination and tired of the discussion.
Fortunately, their first customer entered, and for the rest of the day Frank and Natalie were too busy to discuss Edmund again.
At supper, Frank knew that Natalie wanted to talk about the situation to Ada. He prayed she wouldn’t. But by the time the Indian pudding was served, Natalie could no longer restrain herself.
“Grandma,” she began, “Dad told me about Edmund today.”
“He did?” Ada asked, arching her fine eyebrows slightly.
“Yes.” Natalie wiped her mouth with her linen napkin. “I know Edmund is your brother, but I don’t see how you can condone what he did. After all, he was convicted of . . .”
At least, Frank thought, she had the grace not to say the word. He watched his mother carefully. She wouldn’t take kindly to this conversation. After Frank’s father had died and Uncle Edmund gone to jail, Ada seemed to gain an inner strength. She’d had to. With no other relatives to lean on, she needed to make a living and raise a son. Frank had never heard her say a bad word about either her husband or her brother.
Frank remembered the farm, before Ada sold off pieces of it to help them buy clothes and other things. She had taken in washing and ironing, had kept a large vegetable garden, some chickens and a cow. The town had grown up around them.
“It’s not wise to make hasty judgments,” Ada warned her granddaughter, pulling Frank’s thoughts back to the familiar kitchen.
“What do you mean? Dad told me the whole story. I don’t think Edmund should have come back here.”
“And where do you think he should have gone, miss?” Ada asked, her voice ominously low. Frank watched her fists clenching and unclenching on the table.
Natalie looked at Frank and didn’t notice. “Just somewhere else,” she said.
“We’re his family,” Ada said, her tone icy. “This house has been in the family for generations.”
“He killed my grandfather,” Natalie shouted, jumping up from the table.
“No, he didn’t, actually,” Ada said, that teasing smile on her face that Frank knew so well. He and Natalie stared at her. “He just said he did to protect someone else.”
“What? Who?” Frank asked, his breath catching, heart pounding. “You?”
“You still don’t remember, do you?” Ada asked, her voice pitying.
“Remember? How could I remember? I wasn’t even there.” He felt confused, but scared.
“Yes, you were. I saw you come in. Your father had me pinned against the refrigerator. You took the pan from the kitchen table and you . . . you–”
“No!” Natalie screamed.
“Yes,” Ada said, her chin going up. She looked her granddaughter in the eye. “Your father did it.” She paused dramatically. “Now, do you think we should have your father move somewhere else, miss?”
The look of confusion on Natalie’s face mirrored Frank’s inner feelings.
“I feel for Edmund as you do for your father,” Ada continued.
“You must learn to see all sides of a story.”
“But, Mother,” Frank said, slowly. He seemed to be having some difficulty breathing. “I don’t remember this at all.”
“Of course not,” Ada said, her tone weary. She glared at Natalie. “I said that to make a point. You were right the first time, Frank.” She turned to look at him, the little smile back. “I did it.”
Natalie gasped and sank back down into her chair. Frank couldn’t stop staring at his mother.
“Back then,” Ada went on, “the term battered women hadn’t been invented. They would have sent me to prison. After it happened, I called Edmund. He talked to the police first and told them he did it. I let him. I was weak, beaten physically and mentally. I let life happen to me, without thought. After Edmund went to prison, I realized I had to do something to make a life for us, for you and me. And so I did.”
Frank felt as if he had just run uphill. He stood at the top now, looking over the precipice. His mother, not Edmund, murdered his father. If she had, he immediately forgave and understood her actions of so many years ago. How could he do less? He had forgiven Edmund.
“Why are you so hard on Natalie?” he asked. “Why did you let her think, for even a second, that I did it?”
“Because she’s so much like I was years ago. It frightens me how alike. I married your father against my parent’s wishes. If it hadn’t been for their leaving me and Edmund the farm after that terrible train wreck, you and I would have been in very bad straits.”
Frank looked at his daughter who wore a stunned expression, then turned to his mother. “You really did it? Not me? Not Edmund?”
“Yes,” she said, getting up from the table, clearing dishes.
“Then,” Natalie said, “Edmund should move back into the family home instead of living in the barn.”
“Perhaps I should move out there?” Ada asked, her mouth twisting into an odd smile.
“No, oh, no,” Natalie said.
“Edmund made his choices years ago,” Ada said. “I think we should respect those choices and leave things as they are.”
Frank watched his daughter’s eyes grow wide with understanding. He thought she’d be slow to judge from now on. He looked at Ada. Gratitude washed over him that she was his mother. Somehow she had transformed a terrible thing into a learning experience for Natalie.
His heart gave a little jump. When his mother had talked about his killing his father, it had seemed so possible. He had hated him, after all, for hitting his mother. By the age of thirteen, he had it figured out, and he could remember the long- ago feelings of impotent hate and rage. The same feelings aroused in Edmund, no doubt.
His mother had always liked to tease. With a start, he saw her watching him, and he realized she also liked secrets.
So, he wondered, who really murdered his father?
Then with startling clarity, he remembered. As usual, his mother had told bits and pieces of the story. He had been there, in the kitchen doorway, unable to move, and seen his father beating his mother. When he was done, he turned away and Ada had taken the fry pan and smashed it over his father’s head.
Frank had run then, as he wanted to do now. He needed to get out of the kitchen, out of the house! He rose abruptly, making his chair rock on its back legs. He caught his mother’s eye, and he saw her realization that he had finally remembered everything. He knew it had been easier for him to believe it was Edmund who killed his father.
As he left the house and walked in the opposite direction of the barn, Frank ignored his daughter’s voice calling him back.
He put up his collar against the wind and walked away, knowing he would go back, but not for awhile. Not for awhile.