Iris, whose other name was no longer Bennett, thank God, dropped the last handful of silverware into the drawer unsorted, shoved the drawer shut, poured a rather nice Sauvignon Blanc into the rinsed-out yogurt cup that was the only container she could find, carried it out to her new back step, and had her first hot flash. She knew instantly what it was. Lava, pouring from the core of her body implacably down thighs, calves, toes, out arms, up chest and neck and face to boil at the top of her brain.
“Shit,” she said, and too late saw the next door neighbor glance up from his digging and grin. The old guy with the old frame house that must have been here forever, the last one that faced on Farrell Road before the subdivision entrance cut in. The last one with anything like a real yard. She forced a smile in his direction.
Her own cramped little yard was one of the minuses about Cedarcroft. A square of clay barely wider than the house, backed up to a choked patch of trees and viney stuff that looked like snake heaven: the Green Space the Cedarcroft brochure bragged about. The Green Space was supposed to be a plus. So was the fact that the land directly beyond the flags marking her boundary—a continuation of snake heaven—belonged to the state and was unlikely to be developed any time soon. Gone for taxes long ago, neither owners or heirs still alive.
In its own way the clay square was a plus. The old yard on Westview, generous though it was, had the neediest grass and most weed-ridden foliage Iris ever wanted to deal with.
She focused on her fingers and relaxed their grip on the yogurt cup while the hot flash drained back to its source. All right. Menopause. So now what?
Well nobody’s exempt. If you’re female. She felt a moment of resentment toward Andrew Bennett for one of the few elements of his being over which he had no control.
“We have a number of alternatives to hormone replacement therapy these days,” Dr. Strickland had said the last time he took a pap smear. “I, personally, have no problem with trying some of them when the time comes.”
On that day, Iris had not yet thought of menopause as an event in her immediate future. She wondered if Strickland could tell from what he saw in there, peering through his speculum. A visible drying, thinning, that she herself could not yet detect? Well I, personally, have a problem with this whole damn issue, she told him in her mind. She had planned to have way more lifetime than this. She took a sip from the cup. It tasted like wine and plastic.
The books and articles tell you that menopause is the beginning of a new life if you approach it positively. You try that, Dr. Strickland.
The new life part, though; that she had. That she most certainly had.
She stared at the yard, such as it was. The first time she came out here with the realtor a bulldozer had been grinding back and forth. Huge, mindless creature, prehistoric or extraterrestrial, scraping away all trace of the past, whatever this particular past had been. She hadn’t really wanted a square of clay. She hadn’t really wanted a raw new cookie-cutter subdivision where the houses came in three plans—A, B and C—and four colors—white, yellow-white, something called Antique that looked like gray, and something called Country Russet that looked about like this clay. But she was definitely ready to leave the past behind.
Her house was first on the right on Cedarcroft Way: a Plan B—the small one without the upstairs—in Antique. It had no personality, but it also had not the slightest scrap of history, her own or anybody else’s. And it was within her means, barely.
The neighbor, she saw with dismay, had propped his shovel against a tree and was coming her way, grinning still. He must be at least in his late seventies, but his stride was brisk. He had on dirt-streaked overalls over a blue work shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and a limp khaki baseball cap.
He bore down on her, wiping his hands down the sides of the overalls. “Getting moved in, it looks like,” he said. “I won’t shake your hand, I’m filthy as an old dog. Name’s Stanley Kendall. Thought I’d see if you needed help with anything.”
“Iris Layton,” she said. It felt good to say the old name, the first one she had learned meant her. “And I appreciate the offer, but I think I’m okay. The movers did the heavy lifting, so all I have to do now is get things put away.” She stood up, in what she hoped was a definitive way.
Stanley Kendall stayed put. “So did you just move to this part of the world?”
“Oh no, I’ve been here in town a good many years.”
“In town.” He laughed. “Not so long ago this was way out of town. University keeps growing, so the town keeps growing. Your husband with the university?”
“I am. It’s just me.” She put her hand on the latch of the screen door. “So I guess I probably need to…”
“Well it’s changing around here, that’s for sure. This was always just country, dairy farms, most of them. Same families been farming here for years, since before the Civil War, a lot of them. Kendalls, Downings, Whitfields. My Gram was a Downing. But you know, folks die off, move away, sell. Farming’s not what it used to be. I like having the new people around, somebody to talk to.”
“Well perhaps sometime we can talk a while,” Iris said. “When I’m all settled, maybe you can stop in for coffee some time and…”
“Never did farm, myself, but I’ve lived around here all my life except for a stint in the army. Used to run that little store down at the bottom of the hill till the franchise bought me out. That store was a family business, went back quite a way. Well hell, I figured it was time for me to take it easy and enjoy life.”
He bent and poked a finger into Iris’s clay. “They took off every bit of the good stuff, didn’t they? Used to be pretty decent dirt around here. When you’re ready to get topsoil on that I can give you a couple of names to call. I know just about everybody around here, so if there’s anything you need done I can probably tell you who does it.”
“I’ll certainly know who to come to.” Iris’s smile felt fake on her face. “So right now I think I’d better…”
“They had to dig an awful lot of rocks out of here when they cleared it,” he said. Then he grinned. “You know you’ve got the old witch woman’s place, Miz Layton? Anybody ever tell you that? Not any of those real estate folks, I’ll bet.”
“That’s what they always called her. You know how these stories keep hanging around.”
Iris let go of the latch. The local dead myth, and she was going to get the story, want to or not. He’d hooked her though. She did want to hear it, even though it might mean he’d keep going for the next hour.
She wiped damp hair away from her forehead. “So they thought she was a witch?”
He nodded at her green space. “You looked around back in there yet?”
“Well, not to go into it exactly.”
You could do something with that, the realtor had said, flapping a hand at the tangle of green, then turned her attention to the heat-and-AC unit.
“Go out there some time, take a good look,” Kendall said. “You’ll find where that old house was. Probably see it from here in the winter, when the undergrowth is down. It’s just the foundation left. Stone foundation; that’s the way they used to build them; now they mostly use cement block. The chimney’s there too, except it’s fallen down. Those guys with the machinery never went that far back. Probably took a look and figured they’d already moved all the rock they ever wanted to.”
“They call it green space in the brochure.”
“They would.” He gave a short laugh. “My buddies and me when we were growing up, we used come out here and to try to scare the pants off each other. Made ourselves believe that witch-lady might come floating out any time. God’s honest truth is, we halfway did believe it. We’d dare each other to stay all night inside that foundation, right in it, you know. Clear ourselves a little place in the weeds and throw down some blankets. Nobody ever made it a whole night. First time an owl hooted or a twig snapped you’d get your butt out of there as fast as you could. I tried it two, three times that I remember. Lasted maybe an hour, the longest time. See, she was supposed to of died in that house. That’s the story anyway. Died when it got burned down.”
“It burned down?”
“That’s what they said. That’s why it’s just the stones left. Kids used to say it was the Devil burned it down. She was out, they said, she was okay, but then she ran back in. Devil called to her, they said.”
“But what really happened? When was this?”
He ran a finger in under his cap. “I can tell you the when part, sort of. My Gram told me it happened when she was a little kid, maybe seven or so. That would put it in the eighteen-nineties some time. But the rest of it—well, I don’t guess anybody knows the rest of it, by now.” He grinned. “Maybe it really was the Devil put the match to the place.”
“What made them say she was a witch?”
“Who knows? She might have just been kind of different some way, is what I think now. Might be no worse than that. So go get you a look when you can. Her place is on your lot, pretty much the whole thing. It might go a little into the piece back of you, but not much. Nice place to go for a walk, if you like woods. Anyway it will be, once the bugs are gone.”
He glanced at the sky. The day’s blue had drained away, Iris saw, and it had taken on the high pale look that meant sunset would come soon. “Well I’ve been keeping you out here too long when you’ve got things to do,” he said. “My wife used to say I’d talk forever if a body didn’t shut me up. You’ve got a lot to do and I want to get a couple shrubs in while there’s still enough light. So I’ll be seeing you, I guess. You just come knock on my door when you need anything.”
He started to turn, then paused. “That witch-woman—she’s got her name on one of the stones back there. Maybe you’ll find it. It won’t jump right out at you—it’s pretty rough, not like somebody did it who knew how and had the right tools. The name and some date. Eighteen-hundreds. First name was Hannah—I don’t recall what the rest of it was. Hannah something. Well, you be sure and tell me if she comes around to say boo.”
He laughed hard, the phlegmy laugh of a past or present smoker, touched a hand to his cap in salute, and finally left.