I raised my hand to knock the door, lowered it again and breathed out. My heart was hammering, I felt like I might be sick, might vomit all over the flaking slats of the porch that creaked uneasily under my boots. I could tell myself I was tired. Jet-lagged. Or that it was the airline food that was making me feel so queasy. I could tell myself this, but I’d be lying.
The smart thing to do would be to leave. Come back once I’d had some sleep and a decent meal. The crisp Montana air, filled with the scents of pine and sagebrush and the bite of coming snow, failed to invigorate me. A little stream ran by the house, and near it stood some juneberry bushes, fall foliage the orange-red of rusted iron. These sights only made me feel more wretched and out of place, and like I shouldn’t have come.
I took a half-step back, uncertain. The boards creaked again, a chorus of groans and moans like put-upon ghosts. I glanced back toward the sanctuary of my hire-car, sitting parked in the road just beyond the crazily-leaning fence. I could leave - forget about this place and the people in it and have my vacation instead. I could hang around the bars in Hamilton and write an inflammatory article about hunting for my New York paper. Maybe take a few pictures of the woods and deer. It wouldn’t be a wasted trip.
I knocked, a hollow sound, dead as the cold, still air.
A shuffling step approached the door, across boards as loud as those of the porch. I heard them wailing in protest and gained the impression of a great weight even before the door opened and her huge bulk bloomed in the gap, blocking it as surely as the door itself. The vast swell of her breasts and stomach thrust themselves toward me, rampant as the figurehead of an ancient ship. Her head looked bizarrely small and defenceless, perched on top of this heap of lard, and the blue eyes that blinked at me from between pasty folds of flesh were guileless as a child’s. As she shifted her weight her pink cotton-print dress pulled at its seams, the fabric faded from years of washing. A tarnished silver chain was half-sunk into the greasy folds of fat around her neck. A pendant hung from it. A small green stone, cut in the shape of a cat.
She didn’t speak, only subjected me to an up-and-down stare and waited.
“Are you Ms. Tara Golightly?” I said.
“Oh ye,” she said, in the thick accent I’d been hearing everywhere since I’d gotten off the plane. She subsided into silence again, regarding me with a stolid indifference.
“Born July fourteen, nineteen-seventy?”
“Oh ye,” she said again.
The situation struck me suddenly as ludicrous, her vast calm and my inane questions. I wondered what she’d think if I just said; “I thought so. Goodbye,” and left.
“My name’s Ben Schulenberg,” I said. My throat felt very dry, my tongue unwilling to move, like it had gained ten pounds. “Could I come in, do you think?”
“Anything you want to say,” she said. “You can say it right here.” She planted herself even more firmly in the doorway. I couldn’t have moved her. Five men couldn’t have moved her, without a run-up and a battering-ram.
“Okay,” I said. I licked my lips, cracked from the cold, moistureless air. “Um, I have something for you.”
I eased the pack from my shoulders, undid the flap and handed her a box from inside. She had the box open in seconds, her fat, stubby fingers mauling the thin card and the tissue within. I opened my mouth to protest as she wrenched out the contents, but she became suddenly very gentle and delicate in her motions and her tiny eyes, almost lost in the surrounding flab, softened and filled with wonder. She allowed the box and the tissue to fall, and held the silver wagon in her wide palms.
“What is this? Is there a charge?” This last thought filled her with alarm. She glared at me, as you would at someone who has set a beautiful thing before you and then snatched it away as a cruel tease.
“Your mother was called Rose. Mine too. I mean, I’m your half-brother. Mom had you when she was fifteen. Later she moved to Jersey - she got married and had me. When she died I found in her will she’d left this for you. She wanted you to have it. So, well, I was executor. I could have sent it I guess, but I wanted to bring it. It’s yours now.”
“Mine,” she said. She smiled, and I saw an echo of my mother’s smile.
“I never knew I had a sister,” I told her. “I know Mom used to write to you. I found some letters... but she never told me.”
“I knew about you,” she said. She stroked the tiny wheel of the wagon with one finger. “I knew.”
“So,” I said lamely. “Good to meet you.”
“There’s a story about a wagon. Like a myth,” she told me. “About that road behind you there. When the first settlers came.” She nodded toward the road and I turned briefly to look. Her voice had changed, lost its abrupt harshness. “You grew up in Jersey so I guess you don’t know it?”
I shook my head. “No.”
“I know the story,” she said. “So I get the wagon.”
“So, what’s the story? This legend?”
“That’s my secret,” she said. She smiled again. “Mine.”
The door shut in my face. I turned to go. Fair enough I suppose. I had a parent. She had her secret. Besides, I could always ask in town.