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First Summer by Aracely DuVent
“I’ll need a moment to consider this, Aracely. Excuse me.”
Her napkin was folded neatly on her chair when she stood, bony legs taking her around the corner and up the spiral stairs at a dauntingly slow pace. My father didn’t seem to notice she was gone. He merely lifted my hand and placed it on his own. Before he covered it with his other, I noticed how different we were. My skin was soft and fair and had a pink glow to it. His was blemished and felt like leather. His calloused fingers wove in between mine and his other hand, like a shadow, swallowed my hand whole. All I could feel was the heat trapped between our skin and the pride that filled his eyes. There were no words needed, but I wanted to say something anyway.
He shook his head, the small motion making him now at the point of tears. He struggled for words and when they came, said them slowly like each breath in between had a meaning.
“I feel now like the luckiest man alive. I am so… proud of you.”
As much as I yearned to feel the same way, there was something holding me back. My eyes fell to the stair’s rail, the same that my Mother’s frail fingers had only just brushed against.
“But what if it’s not enough?” I dared. He squeezed my hand and brushed a fallen strand of hair away from my eyes.
“Your Mother? She’ll come round, don’t you worry.”
“I’m not.” I said, realizing the weight in my words and my lie. Of course I was worrying. Pleasing my Mother made pleasing Vin look simple. She was just so complicated. Beyond the skeletal cheeks, the hollow stare, the scraggly mouse-brown waves that swayed back and forth along her shoulder blades when she walked… There were so many faces and personalities she had to try on, and none of them ever seemed to be happy with me.
“Meester DuVent?” A raven-haired head peeked in from the arched doorway. It was the cook’s oldest niece, Risa. Ever since I was young, I had always quietly admired her features. While her dark eyes and nose and full lips were stacked so close together, her floor-length hair was enough to compensate for her small frame and face. Her hair was braided today, some of it in a knot that was secured against the nape of her neck. It looked elegant, although I knew when it was down, it followed at her feet like a curtain. It was, in a way, her shadow. She smiled warmly at me and turned back to my Father.
“We have just received word from the ceety.”
“The train isn’t late, is it?” His hand slid out from under mine, a look of genuine concern now on his face. Risa shook her head and the braid danced with her.
“Actually, the exact opp-ee-sit is true, Sir. The workers will be arriving shortly.”
“Great.” he sounded a little out of breath as his head lowered. Risa darted out of sight.
“Dad?” I asked, stroking his hand.
“Your Mother won’t be happy. She’d planned a dinner and now we have to celebrate a cause she absolutely hates.”
He was talking about our tradition: a customary banquet the night the workers arrived. After the feast there would be a small fire that we would all sit around and reconnect with the ones we hadn’t seen over the months. Afterwards, there was always storytelling and fireworks. The next dawn, everything would return to normal with the exception of the new crowd of children. Infants weren’t uncommon and at any other plantation, they would be forced into work. Here was about making the summer last and making everyone as comfortable as possible. I was proud at my Father in a way. His kindness kept the local buyers interested and workers appreciative of his values.
“Is there anything I can do to help?” It took a moment to realize he was already up and shuffling through papers. When he turned, his green eyes were intense. I met his gaze with determination. He exhaled.
“Bring your mother the Chamomile. You know it’s her favorite.”
I swallowed and nodded slowly. “If that’s what you want.” I walked through the archway that led to the kitchen and lit a match under the kettle. A cabinet door shut behind me and Risa placed a tea cup and saucer on the counter.
“I’m in charge of the banquet’s preparation now.” her tiny frame wove in and out of the dining room doors, bringing with her the bag of scones. She set them on the island and looked to me. The two pieces of china were in her hands.
“Your Father knows eet’s her favorite.” she explained and sprayed the set with icy water.
I blew out all the air in my lungs, hand trailing on my hip. “I know, Risa.”
The two pieces were part of a tea set gifted by the Duke and Duchess. My Mother had played in their hall one night and as a way of saying “thank you,” they gave her the set and introduced her to my Father.
The set itself was exquisite: hand crafted fine bone China with small details of oriental women in kimonos rowing in paddle boats and sitting in the shade with lacy umbrellas perched on their shoulders. The prettiest shade of blue wrapped around the lip of all the other tea cups and pieces, except the one my Mother favored. Her saucer was gilded and the single geisha on the bowl had studded, sparkling rubies for eyes. On the tea cup’s lip was a row of diamonds that circled from one woman to another. The rest of the collection looked dull next to the two and I was sure I seemed extraordinarily plain carrying them. But somehow when my Mother’s chin brushed against the gold rim, her lipstick tone matching the red rubies on the geisha’s face, she seemed equal to the women decorated in jewels, like she belonged there with them and could easily slip in with China’s finest royalty.
Risa eyed me and most likely the look of panic on my face.
“Do you want me to take eet up to her?”
“No… thank you, Risa. Really. It’s something that I’m just going to have to deal with.” I swallowed, “for my father.”
She nodded and lifted the whistling kettle. I turned away at the sound of splashing boiling water and didn’t move until Risa was beside me with a black tray.
“Cream and sugar ees here,” she pointed with her head, braid swaying along her lower back, “And nap-keens- she likes those separately, so you are going to have to geeve her those yourself.” She managed to balance the tray on her fingertips as she handed me two folded silk napkins. I held them at my sides as we walked up the stairs, Risa, surprisingly much quicker than I, even with the tray in her hands.
After the end of the ornate stair rails, the hallway began. The walls were adorned with revived portraits of plantation men prior to my Father. Each man posed with dignity and pride and although their borders were thick pine frames, I felt as though every time I passed by, they reached out beyond the visible restrictions to tell their own stories. The row of photographs was squeezed in the space the five doors on the right left for them. A part of me always knew my Father would take the last of the hallway space before the end of the hallway and the start of the piano study.
The last room on the left was my Mother and Father’s, but Rita continued forward into the study. The red door swung open and I followed her in to see my Mother sitting on the piano bench. Her eyes were closed and her fingers moving as if the fall wasn’t covering the keys. I stared at the grand piano for a moment more and slipped slowly back to Rita. Her eyes were wide as her head waved me forward, braid swiping the floor like a paint brush. I bit my lip and did as silently asked.
“Mother? I am sorry to disturb you, but I’ve been here and I’m not sure if you noticed. I-”
“Aracely.” her fingers stopped as she turned to me, hand removing small-framed glasses from her eyes. “I’ve always said you have the step of a dancer, but I’m afraid, the breathing of a horse. I know you have been here waiting for me and although I should ask you to wait just a moment more, I will go to my room so we can discuss what needs to be and you will follow.”
She rose in fluid movement and was out the door in another. I heard Risa close the door behind us as I followed my Mother out. I cleared my throat when she passed into her room. Risa handed the tray off to me and opened the door.
“Thanks.” I mumbled and she nodded, still a little wide-eyed. With the strong smell of lavender and mint seeping into the hallway, I exhaled and turned to face the doorway. I made sure the tray was steady in my hands and no tea had spilled onto the saucer before entering the room.