Title: Hidden Shadows
Author: Linda Lucretia Shuler
Publisher: Twilight Times Books
Hidden Shadows is a story of connection: to the land, to our ancestors, to others, to ourselves – and to the redemptive power of love:
Cassie Brighton, devastated by the accidental death of her husband, flees to a remote homestead deep in the rugged Texas Hill Country. Alone in a ramshackle farmhouse steeped in family secrets, Cassie wages a battle of mind and heart as she struggles to overcome the sorrows of her past, begin anew, and confront the possibility of finding love again.
Death waited to dance for her through the eye of the camera. It would be a slow dance, graceful as a waltz against a slate blue sky.
She gazed at the view framed in the lens, unaware of danger: Colorado mountains rising all around, glowing pink and purple in the morning sun. Her husband Thomas grinning on the precipice of a sheer cliff, the canyon wide and deep behind him. A golden eagle hovering above, drifting silent in the winds, wings outspread like a dark angel descending.
All she had to do was press her finger, one small click, and the photo would be taken. Yet she hesitated, wanting this moment to last.
Thomas pulled a cap from his jeans pocket and rammed it on his head. “Going to take all day?” he teased. “C’mon, Cassie girl. Everybody’s waiting.”
The air smelled of fecund earth and crushed leaves and coffee warming over a campfire. Cassie glanced toward the scattered tents and the handful of friends who had traveled with them. No one seemed in a hurry. After a long week of roughing it, they likely welcomed the last few hours of leisure before heading separate ways, as did she.
There was something magical about this mountain, this breeze warm upon her skin, the shifting colors and glowing sky, the soaring eagle. And Thomas, standing like a young oak that had sprouted from the rock, a natural part of the elements with wildness in his blood.
The camera was an old Nikon with a bulky zoom, and hung from a strap around her neck. “On the count of three,” she warned Thomas. “One, two...”
She snapped the photo, the sound swallowed by the eagle’s cry. The bird dived into the canyon, the shadow of its great wings sweeping across the precipice. Cassie saw it through the camera’s eye, saw Thomas and his startled response, his head jerking upward, his foot stepping back, the rocks beneath crumbling away.
Time and motion slowed as if in a dream.
Thomas stretched out his arms as though he, too, were about to lift from the ground and fly. Then he seemed to float backward, softly slipping from the cliff edge. His cap lifted away, light as a fallen leaf carried by the wind. He looked directly at her, mouth agape as if wanting to speak, and dropped from sight.
Cassie ran toward the empty space where he once stood, the camera whacking her chest, seeing everything, seeing nothing, aHH scream ripping her throat. Her red hiking boots flashed forward and back as her feet propelled her on and on. Red boots, red as blood, red as the fear roaring in her heart.
She teetered on the precipice. There, far below, sprawled face upward on a jagged outcropping as if sleeping in the sun, was Thomas, still as the stone he lay upon. Wind touched his wheat-gold hair, lifted the hem of his shirt, tasted the blood spreading from the back of his head like the bloom of an exotic flower. Ruby tendrils reached for the edge and dripped into the canyon depths.
“Thomas!” Her cry echoed among the mountains, Thomas! Thomas! Thomas! “I’m coming down!” Coming down! Coming down! Coming down!
She stumbled along the rim in a frantic search for access. The mountains yawned as if cloven with a knife, the sides shimmering, the floor sinking into shadows. Afraid of tumbling into the vast emptiness, she dropped to her knees and crawled along the precipice, pebbles and debris raining down from her scrabbling hands.
God help me!
A root thrust a gnarled arm from the wall some ten feet below. If she could somehow manage to get to it, then to the narrow shelf below that, and then…
How far down had Thomas fallen? Her mind couldn’t calculate. He looked so small from where she knelt, so abandoned, like an unwanted doll.
Oh, God! Oh, God!
She lay flat, the rock-strewn earth digging into her stomach and legs, and stuck her feet over the lip. She could feel the tug of the wind as she inched downward, fingers grabbing at the dirt, her boots seeking a hold. Grit caked her teeth. She was sobbing, unaware of the sound, thinking somewhere in the deep recesses of her mind that she heard the anguished cries of a wounded animal.
Then she was airborne, lifted by a half-dozen hands and hauled onto level ground. She struggled against the arms that held her fast, the clamor of voices, the contorted faces. They dragged her to safety, the precipice receding through her tears.
She couldn’t breathe. Her body shook and turned cold. They laid her on a sleeping bag and wrapped her in blankets, constraining her like a mummy while the sun slid across the sky and the eagle returned to its flight, wings glittering.
Thomas. Her lips formed his name. She looked up and imagined it was he who soared across the blue, gliding in the winds as if his spirit had risen free and now gazed down upon her. The bird dropped closer and closer still, transforming into metal and roaring as it dipped into the canyon and disappeared. Dust whirled in torrents from the blast of its wings.
She tore the blankets aside and lurched upright, clinging to the hands she had once fought. She had no sense of minutes or hours, only of an icy numbness that settled into her bones.
Whap-whap-whap! Propellers rose from the abyss, lifting the helicopter, lifting the basket that swung from its belly and carried her love. Even from this distance she could see the gold of his hair, the silken texture. The helicopter hovered like a giant prehistoric bird, then began its journey. She stumbled after it, the shadow slithering along the rugged mountain, until it vanished into the horizon.
The Ghosts Are Singing
Three years had passed since death danced on the Colorado mountain – one thousand eighty-odd long days of grieving.
Cassie drove with the window down, squinting into the glare as miles slowly passed and the Texas sun blazed hot in the noon sky. Gnarled oak, honey mesquite and cedar crowded for room in the rocky Hill Country soil, crawled up outcroppings and plateaus, and butted against prickly pear cactus, purple-stemmed grass, and the occasional cow or goat. Willow City Loop, the road was called. An odd name, since there was no city. Just a couple of buildings missed in the blink of an eye. And the loop straggled with dozens of turnoffs, gravel-tossed and rutted and often identical, rambling to pastures or buildings unseen from the road. Fortunately, the one she sought was marked by boulders tumbled in disarray like the ruins of an ancient castle, setting it apart from the rest.
She longed to be thirteen again, worry-free and anticipating the summer ahead in her grandmother’s home among the hills. But here she was, old enough to be mother to the girl she barely remembered, driving under that same sun toward the same home, now holding only echoes of long-ago days.
The renovated Thunderbird jounced across cattle guards, through gray-weathered wooden gates, and past split-rail cedar fences. Little had changed since she was a girl traveling this dusty road in her grandmother’s creaking Studebaker. She could almost smell the bitter scent of torn leather and hear the rattling complaints uttered by the car they had christened Methuselah since it seemed destined to live forever. Mimi would drive it like a madwoman, stomping on the gas and grinding the clutch as if in a battle of human against machine.
Oh, Mimi, how I miss you!
Thoughts of her beloved grandmother often came unbidden, and with them the memory of Mimi’s hands clutching hers for the last time.
“Promise me!” Mimi had sighed, pale and shrunken amid the rumpled bed sheets. “Promise!”
“I’d like to, but…”
“Live there one year, that’s all I ask. You’ll make the right decision after that.”
“But how?” Something clattered in the hall beyond the door, followed by a spurt of laughter. Cassie paused, startled. Gaiety seemed out of place in this dreary nursing home. She squeezed Mimi’s fingers, surprised at how spindly her bones had become. “Thomas and I just opened a boutique, remember? Spirit of the Southwest. I may be an old lady before I have time to spare.”
“Go when you can. The land will wait.”
Cassie nodded, “All right, I promise,” loving this worn-out old woman who bore little resemblance to the vibrant soul she remembered. When had her grandmother withered into a husk? She leaned in close, her breath stirring wisps of the silver-streaked hair. “Why me? Why not Mother?”
“She can’t… hear them.”
Mimi closed her eyes, her voice a mere shadow. “The ghosts are singing.”
“There are no ghosts here, Mimi. Just me.” Cassie laughed quietly.
“They sing for you,” she murmured, and said no more. She never opened her eyes again, nor spoke.
There, finally! The marker she was looking for: a jumble of boulders under an arching mesquite, a wooden plank nailed to the trunk. A sun-bleached arrow pointed toward the hill beyond with the words, Spring Creek. She turned and winced. Gravel pinged and splattered under her treasured Thunderbird and exploded from the wheels as she bounced along rutted dirt hard as concrete, winding upward until Willow City Loop became a ribbon curling far below.
There was something in the road, small, gray-brown, unmoving. An armadillo, she realized, her hands already tugging at the wheel to swerve away. Cassie yelped and swerved, bumped over jagged rocks, crashed through prickly pear, then nose-dived into a shallow ravine. The motor sputtered and died.
She sat with hands clenching the wheel and foot pressing the brake. After a moment, she opened the door, almost afraid to look. Briars scratched her bare ankles as she walked up the incline and down again, bracing her hand against the car, eyes sweeping every inch of metal and chrome. Other than tilting thirty degrees and settling on the rim of a flat rear tire, the Thunderbird seemed miraculously untouched, a fine layer of dust powdering the pastel yellow finish.
“Now what?” She groaned. No way could she change a tire at this crazy angle. There wasn’t a soul around to help, nor a house in view. Just the armadillo lumbering along unscathed and a couple of distant goats.
She pulled a scrap of paper from her pocket. On it she had written the name Justin Grumm, followed by his telephone number. Although Mr. Grumm was the caretaker of Mimi’s property and had exchanged letters with Cassie about the estate, she had yet to meet him in person. He and his wife lived about a half mile ahead in a white cottage on cinder blocks that had been there ever since Cassie could remember, the time-warped porch supported by pillars hacked from mesquite. Mr. Grumm had been delighted to hear from her several weeks ago. “Excellent!” he declared after Cassie explained that she was planning to move into Mimi’s home and would need a key. She had liked his voice, warmed by the trace of a German accent.
“Good lord, you’re going to live there a year before putting it up for sale? Why bother?” her mother asked from somewhere in Paris with husband number four or five, Pierre something. Tuff, or Taft. Maybe Tift. In the long-run it wouldn’t matter since Lillian seemed intent upon changing husbands along with the seasons. “Mama’s dead, God rest her soul, and won’t know one way or another. Just clean the place up, throw away all that junk, and put it on the market. You could be in and out of there in a couple of weeks.”
“Promises don’t count when the ears that heard them are buried six feet under.”
“How can you say such an awful thing?”
“You’re throwing a year of your life away! Let the past stay in the past and get on with living. Why isolate yourself in the sticks? What are you running from?”
Cassie couldn’t answer, then or now. Maybe she was running. Maybe she just wanted some peace. Maybe she didn’t know where else to go.
Maybe she was hoping to pull the raveled threads of her life together.
She had tossed luggage in the trunk and back seat, topped helter-skelter with odd items. Her potted rosebush sat alone in the front, belted and secured, crimson blossoms glowing. Long buried amid its roots were two treasures, one already turned to ash and the other rendered so by time. The rose and its roots had traveled with her from one city apartment to another, and now would be experiencing a much different life in the country – as would she.
Telling herself to hurry and do something, she reached into the car for her cell phone, pausing with a start when she caught her reflection in the side-view mirror: raven hair windblown, cheeks flushed, eyes murky as coffee brewed too long in the pot. Tiny wrinkles creased the corners. “Crow’s feet tapping at my door,” she groused. She’d be forty-five soon. Forty-five! Where had the time gone?
She dialed the phone and was met with silence. Disgusted, she flung it onto the dashboard; it skittered off, bounced against the gear shift, and plopped to the floor. No cell, no call to Mr. Grumm, no rescue. She would have to walk.
The rosebush presented a problem; she couldn’t risk leaving it in the blistering heat of a locked car. She hoisted the heavy clay pot into her arms, struggled up the road toward a wild black cherry tree, and dragged it the last few yards into the shade. “Take care, my loves,” she said. “I’ll be back soon.”
One more trek to the car for her purse and keys, and she was on her way. The sky gleamed colorless, with a scattering of clouds to break the bleached monotony. Blackbirds spiraled overhead, satin feathers glinting. Cassie imagined what they saw from their avian drafts, looking down – a lone woman, soft summer skirt brushing her legs as she trudged uphill along a rock-strewn roadway. A bare wind breathed upon her face as the earth fell away behind her, and when she looked over her shoulder she could see an eruption of vegetation-furred plateaus on the horizon, their tops so flat and defined it looked as though God had skimmed them with a buzz saw, while up ahead the hills leaped from the earth rounded and full.
The dry air tasted like scorched weeds. Her feet moved on, their beaded sandals soon swallowed by dust. “Idiotic,” she grumbled. Why hadn’t she worn something more practical, such as… what? Her hiking boots came to mind, red with black laces wide as ribbons, boxed somewhere among her other belongings stored in Houston. Although she had worn the boots only briefly, she was loath to do so again and equally loath to throw them away. So she hid them from sight and from the memories they evoked.
Those memories tugged at her now, pulling her heart along with them.
She had met Thomas Brighton at an outdoor music festival in Colorado. Tall and blond and wide-shouldered, he sat on the sun-warmed Vail slope, eyes closed while the sound of fiddles shimmered among the aspen. As she approached, his eyes opened, vivid blue, and she felt as though she had come face to face with a Viking from ages past somehow hurled into the present. He smiled and motioned for her to join him, offering his hand. She settled next to him, trusting the inner voice that whispered, “Yes.”
Ten years later, while celebrating their wedding anniversary among those very same mountains, it all came to an abrupt, horrifying end.
She buried his ashes in the roots of the rosebush he had planted beneath the bedroom window. When she could stand to live there no longer, when phantoms prowled among the darkened corners and empty rooms, she dug up the bush, put it in a clay pot with as much of the dirt and ashes as it could contain, and left. The roses were the only constant in her life as the years passed, the one thing she treasured above all else, protecting the dust of her youth.
Stop thinking about it! she scolded herself. That was another time, another world, another self. “Don’t dwell on sadness,” Mimi had often told her. “Lift your eyes to the heavens and your spirit will follow.” As much as she loved her grandmother, Cassie knew from experience that the only thing you got from looking upward was a stiff neck.
I’m like a dog with a chewed-up bone, gnawing on old grief.
A train whistle shrieked faintly across the miles. She turned and looked back at the slope she had climbed, the massive stretch of sky. A splotch of yellow marked the presence of her car below, tipped and waiting on three solid wheels. The whistle echoed once again, as if lonely and weeping for something lost.
She shook the dust from her sandals and continued onward, one step following another, the air glistening with heat mirages. Her mind quieted and she fell into an easy rhythm, feet moving steadily, arms swinging. It was almost a surprise when she saw the caretaker’s cottage standing as she remembered – except for one thing.
Or many things. Perched on the fence and crowding the yard were multitudes of angels in all sizes and shapes, constructed out of metal scrap – wings of rusty tractor seats, halos of wagon wheels, billowing skirts of chicken wire, trumpets and harps from shovels or hoes, scissors or hedge clippers. Mobiles of angel forks and spoons dangled from the porch overhang, and several angelic giants with bodies made of barrel hoops appeared ready to launch themselves from the rooftop.
She walked up the steps onto the porch and peered through the screen door. The room beyond, bright with splatters of blues and yellows, resonated with the sound of clocks. “Hello?” she called over the barrage of tick-tocks. A fat white cat, face round as a stuffed pillow, appeared from inside and looked up at her with cobalt eyes. “Hi,” Cassie said. “Is your mommy or daddy home?” She knocked on the door, the frame rattling under her knuckles.
“Ja, I’m coming!” A woman approached, almost a perfect match to the cat – small and plump and silver-haired, with lively hazel eyes magnified behind thick, gold-framed glasses. She smiled at Cassie through the screen.
“Mrs. Grumm? I’m Cassie Brighton, and I…”
“Mrs. Brighton, gut, gut! Justin has been expecting you.” She opened the door, its hinges protesting, and glanced at the road. “Where’s your car?”
“Somewhere at the bottom of the hill. I drove into a ditch and got a flat tire. So I walked.”
“In this heat? Oh, my dear girl, sit down this minute. Let me get you something to drink.” She led Cassie toward an overstuffed chair draped with a floral shawl and scurried away.
Before Cassie could protest, Mrs. Grumm had gone and the chair beckoned. She sank into it and rested her feet on a needlepoint stool, the shredded fabric testament to its daily use. A replica of the cat smiled at her through the worn threading along with the name, Strudel. “How did you rate your own portrait?” she asked as the cat brushed against her legs. Perhaps thinking this an invitation, Strudel leaped upon the arm of the chair and stretched its head toward her lips as if wanting a kiss. Cassie had never been fond of cats but didn’t protest when it curled into her lap and began to purr. “Like a miniature lawn mower,” she murmured, and closed her eyes.
Bong! Tweetle-too! Cuckoo-cuckoo!
Cassie jolted out of her chair, tumbling a disgruntled cat to the floor. From every room in the house clocks clanged, sang, or rang the hour. There must have been two dozen – no, surely more. Cassie spun around, delighted. A tall grandfather clock with a huge round head atop a narrow body chimed in a stately fashion, a minuscule sailing ship tick-tick-whistled, and an intricately carved village with costumed folk danced around a well and tinkled “Edelweiss,” each telling her it was four o’clock in the afternoon.
“Are you rested?” This spoken behind her, the voice deep and obviously amused.
Cassie turned to face an impossibly tall man, all bones and joints, with a toothy smile spread in a wrinkle-grooved face.
“Yes, thank you, but I… was I… Did I fall asleep?”
“Thoroughly. Snoring is healthy, by the way. Clears the lungs.”
“I’m so sorry, I…” Cassie stammered.
“Justin!” Mrs. Grumm scolded. “Enough teasing.” She smiled at Cassie. “Pay no mind to this old man. You napped very lady-like. Now come, I have something for you.”
Justin ran a hand through his fluff of sparse hair as Cassie, pulled along by Mrs. Grumm, entered the kitchen. It was a cheerful place, decorated with crisp white curtains and a blue tablecloth. A pottery jar filled with sunflowers graced the windowsill.
Cassie soon found herself sitting at the table, enjoying a glass of iced tea garnished with mint. “Delicious. It’s been years since I tasted fresh mint.”
“It came from my mother’s garden long ago, in Villach. Every spring it sprouts up more, like weeds.”
“Can’t kill the stuff.” Justin pulled out a chair and sat at an angle, long legs half under the table and half out.
Mrs. Grumm opened the refrigerator and reached for an ice tray. “You want to give her the key, or do you expect her to kick the door down?”
“Stop fussing, Schatzi. I didn’t forget.”
“You left it in the freezer, next to the ice cream.”
“Well, hand it over then.” Justin grinned at Cassie. “That house will be happy to see you. It’s been empty too long.”
“Cold as the devil.” Mrs. Grumm wiped the key with a dishtowel and laid it beside Cassie’s plate. “Sometimes this man of mine is so forgetful I wonder he can find his own head,”
Forged from iron and tipped by an ornate heart bound in vines, the key was longer than Cassie’s hand. “How beautiful!” she exclaimed. “I wonder how old it is.”
Justin shrugged. “As far as I can figure, the olden part of your house – the one in the back that the rest was added onto – was built sometime in the mid 1800’s. So close to a hundred sixty years, give or take a few.”
“I didn’t expect a key like this.”
“You’ve not seen it before?”
Cassie shook her head. “Mimi never locked her doors. She said the spirits in the woods would watch over things. I gave up trying to talk sense into her head.”
“Now don’t you worry about bad spooks. Only good ones fly around over there.”
“There you go again, giving the girl a hard time.” Mrs. Grumm patted Cassie’s shoulder. “We’re surely happy to meet you at last.”
Justin nodded. “What took you so long?”
“Well, I…” Cassie floundered. How could she tell them? What could she tell them? Her troubles were hers alone: the emptiness that faced her, the dreams that plagued her.
“Justin, enough for today. Let the girl tell us all about herself later, when she’s rested.”
“All right, all right. I know I’m a nosy buzzard.”
Relieved, Cassie nibbled on a ginger snap. “These are wonderful.”
“Berta isn’t too bad with the sweets. Except for her grebbel.”
“So you’re complaining about my doughnuts now?” Berta smacked him with the dishtowel. “You ate three this morning, silly old fool.”
“Had to force down each bite. Pure torture.”
Cassie watched the Grumms grinning at one another and something twisted inside – a longing, a regret. She drained her glass and set it aside. “Thanks for your hospitality, but I really must be going. Do you know who I could call to upright my car and fix the flat? Is there a gas station nearby?”
“I reckon so, if by ‘nearby’ you mean within twenty miles or thereabouts,” Justin said with a chuckle. “Guy’s Auto is closer in, but he doesn’t work on Thursdays. Today is Thursday, isn’t it?”
“Yesterday was Wednesday and tomorrow’s Friday,” Berta said, “so unless the world has turned upside down, yes.”
“That settles that, then.”
Cassie’s heart plummeted. “Surely there’s someone around who could help. I’d hate to leave my car and everything in it until tomorrow.”
“Guy may not work on Thursdays, but this man does.” Justin stood and adjusted the pants at his narrow waist. “Come on, then. Let’s get the job done.”
“Stay and have dinner with us afterward,” Berta said. “There’s not enough in your refrigerator for a good meal tonight – just eggs and such. We didn’t know what you might need.”
“How kind of you. I didn’t expect anything at all.”
“Drive straight here once the tire is fixed and I should have something nice and hot for you both.”
“Oh, but I couldn’t. I mean I shouldn’t. I have too much to do. You’ve both been so lovely to me, but I haven’t been to the house yet and…” Several clocks chimed the quarter hour. “And it’s already four-fifteen.”
“It doesn’t get dark until after eight. Please, we’d love to have you.” Berta nudged Justin. “Isn’t that right?”
“Right as blueberry pie – which we’ll have a good portion of tonight, fresh-made.”
Cassie was tempted, but she still had a long day ahead of her, a car to upright and a tire to change, luggage to unload, a house to inspect. “May I have a rain check?”
“Of course! How about tomorrow at lunch?”
“That sounds delightful.”
“Good! I’ll see you at noon. Fix that car good, Justin. And try not getting your shirt dirty. I just washed it.”
“Stop fussing, Schatzi. You’ve scrubbed this shirt so much there’s hardly a thread left.” He leaned to Cassie and muttered, “Berta goes into fits when she sees dirt anywhere except on the ground, and even then it better be clean dirt.”
The roses, secured once again in the passenger seat, filled the car with their heady scent as Cassie followed Justin’s blue pickup truck. A sign with red and white letters was painted neatly on its door: Grumm Clockworks and below, J. Grumm, Master Clocksmith. They parted at the cottage; Justin stuck his long-boned arm out the truck window and waved as Cassie passed by. She continued along the high-rising hill before turning into a rough weed-choked drive. Following its wanderings, she arrived at a wooden gate so old the earth had swallowed part of the supporting frame. Scattered posts leaned into each other, vague remnants of the proud fence that might have been built by her great-great grandfather.
She had always been curious as a child about her ancestors, but Lillian refused to speak about them, saying, “They’re all dead and gone. Let them stay there.” Mimi, who normally talked a blue streak, remained strangely mute – with a single exception. One evening, while the two of them were swapping tales on the porch swing, Mimi let slip that their ancestors had come from Germany long years ago, sailing over a troublesome sea then traveling in an ox cart along the Guadalupe River and upland until they arrived at this very place. “Someday I’ll tell more,” she had promised.
But the day never came.
Cassie got out of the car and pushed the gate. It opened easily enough, although the bottom edge dragged along the ground. The hinges made a low creaking sound, a three-syllable whine, as if saying, come on innnnnn. She gripped the dry wood, suddenly transported to the past, a girl in shorts with her hair in a ponytail opening the gate so Mimi could drive through. Turning, she half-expected to see a ghostly Studebaker swimming in the heat behind her.
She returned to the car and sat, looking through the windshield at the hills humped beyond the fence, the slope on her right shadowed by trees, the driveway snaking around the juniper on her left, and the great spread of land between them. The house, windmill, and barn waited for her around the bend and out of sight, their images hovering behind her eyes, dim and quiet as old photographs in a family album.
“Oh, Mimi,” she whispered, and drove through the gate.