After my Great Aunt Agnes’s death I was gifted a box of her old letters. Among them I have found several to a “Dr. Weiss” with whom she corresponded for many years. In these (mostly incomplete) letters she referenced and shared parts of a novel she had written. The only thing I know about this novel is from the excerpts she sent to Dr. Weiss, I have never found the book in its entirety.

To the best of my knowledge, this is her second letter.

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…didn’t even seem as if she knew what she was saying blathering on and on about her “true beloved” Mr. Oppenheimer and her contributions to the Manhattan Project! Not to mention all of those tasteless jokes about the “atomic energy” between them, it was downright filthy. You, my dear Dr. Weiss, handled the situation with aplomb, as usual. For a moment I thought she would throw her arms around you and kiss you for bringing her a sobering cup of tea! Nothing, I’m afraid, can sober that moony woman.

To conclude my musings on our cards night, I’d be remiss not to mention that I suspect our extended time spent on the balcony was considered in poor taste. You were so kind to help remove the little splinter from my calf, I know better than to slide down banisters! I should not have taken such advantage of your attention and kept you from the party for as long as I did. I suppose I am only mentioning this so that I may visit the memory again. As I hope you also do from time to time.

As requested, I have included in this letter the pages from my novel you asked to review.

Fondly yours,

Agnes

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — (excerpt from Chapter 11 (page 152): A Missing Key)

…with her furs crumpled into a nest in the corner by an open window. She scanned the shambles of her usually meticulous room. Her dresses had also been strewn about, spilling out of the armoir and onto the floor like a tipped over flower vase. It was when she noticed her atomizers drained, empty, not a drop of perfume left that she began to piece the events of the morning together.

A trembling fury overcame her, buckling her knees. She considered her reaction and stepped away from the dressing table to steady herself, plucked a book from the shelf and mindlessly began to flip through it’s pages. The paper was dusty but thick and glossy and it reminded her of old maps and of her father and how they would sit together and trace along with their fingers the routes of trade ships in the Caribbean and the stories he would tell her about his years training exotic birds to perform complicated routines with seashells and she thought about seashells and seashells with opalescent insides and feeling her breath steady a bit she thought of pearls then remembering her pearls she clutched her strand, closed the book and slowly turned to address Therese “these are the moments in which one finds oneself truly challenged”.

Therese nodded absently and pressed her fingers into her palm to admire again how delicate looking her new little ruby ring was. Mother handed the book to Therese and searched her face for any hint of cunning or deception but as usual only found an uncomplicated expression of distance and detachment. “I am not accusing you of anything” she dolled her words out slowly like she was a particular scientist in a lab measuring a complex formula “but I need resolution…” and rolled her “R” so profoundly that she thought for a moment that she had said the word incorrectly and then repeated it. “Resolution” this time transferring emphasis on to the end of the word so that the sound of the “N” was drawn out so long that it sounded as if she was about to say another word. Therese leaned in slightly waiting for what Mother was about to possibly say.

Both women stared at each other.

“Resolution”, Mother clipped, still doubting she had pronounced it correctly. Therese shrugged slightly and agreed “yes, ma’am” and clearing her throat, casually pointed at the blue ribbon peeking out from under the dressing table. Mothers eyes darted to follow the finger and snatched up the ribbon like a bird on a worm. She inspected it. Undoubtedly Algernon’s “sniffing ribbon”, Mother hurriedly stuffed it into her pocket and waved her thin wrist at Therese, “Learn me” she commanded and paused, recognizing that again, the words felt wrong. She evaluated what she thought she just said and spelled the word out to herself. L-e-a-r-n…is wrong. She mouthed the word to herself and flicked her tongue against her teeth to practice.

“Leave” she said cautiously “leave me” not looking at Therese.

“Ma’m?” Therese was understandably confused but also not entirely paying full attention.

Mother smiled weakly at Therese and attempted anew “I have” she swallowed hard “many things” her throat was dry “to attend to now” and sat purposefully on the edge of her bed. Therese nodded and made her way to the door, tripping on the same snag in the carpet she always tripped on and left the room.

(excerpt from Chapter 18 (pages 220–221): Events Leading to the Postponement of Daisy’s Engagement Party)

was what I was saying anyhow before I was interrupted by that uppity hotsy totsy gardener” Warner picked at the dried tar on the sole of his shoe “and if anyone around here knows about how to put down a horse it’s me…how to do it and why to do it and when and damn it…” his thumbnail stuck in the tar and he seemed to become consumed with pushing at the tacky surface. He was visibly frustrated.

Denny mirrored Warner’s movements despite the fact that there was neither tar on his shoe nor was he in the least frustrated. On the contrary Denny was delighted that Warner was here and talking to him about something other than ordinary stable business. Denny studied Warner’s posture and slumped his shoulders deeper into a very incorrect feeling position.

“Yea” said Denny, decidedly “only YOU know that stuff” and watched Warners face for approval. None came and Warner continued, standing now and brushing off the sawdust on his jacket. Denny loved the casualness with which they spoke, rough and raw and improper. Denny cautiously spat in the dirt and dabbed his lips with his cuff.

“Damn it I just know what they’ll all say too. I’ve been here a long time, boy” Warner was now seemingly making eye contact with Denny but he was not looking at the boy. He was looking into his past and his future all in the same moment, playing though the imagined scenario he was about to endure and peppering it with details from past scenarios, he could almost script the scolding he would get from Mrs. Rittenhouse. “I mean, I don’t know a this from a that or a whoseit from a whatsit. And why were those damn things anywhere in reach of damn horse in the first damn place…” Warner spat, too and Denny spat again, estatically. “It’s not my job to know those things. I know horses. That’s my job.”

“They were Hyacinth” Denny offered hastily without thinking about what contribution he was making to the conversation. Immediately he regretted his interjection, he reddened and felt as if he was turning to stone. Warner cocked his head back and coughed.

“What’s that?” Warner seemed defensive.

“Hya-yacinth” Danny stammered and smoothed his hair to the side, fingering for the part in his hair so that he could make it lay perfectly, a nervous tick he had been so deliberately trying to curb. He felt the words starting to erupt inside of him. It was almost as if he saw the words starting to gather at the back of his throat, piling and building into a perilous tower that inched up his windpipe, filled his mouth and toppled down off his tongue. “When Father was in Turkey it was Algernon’s birthday, his 8th birthday and Father was in Turkey so he couldn’t come to Algernon’s party and Algernon threw a fit as he does, you know, his ‘little nursery episodes’ as Mother says, he threw a fit and so Father promised to throw him another party upon his return and promised to have the lawyer change Algernon’s birth certificate to show this new birthday date so that Father could be there on the correct day, you know how Algernon is particular about correctness” Denny giggled mischievously, feeling as if he had just gossiped about his own brother and then quickly continued “and Father asked Algernon what was the one thing that he wanted more than anything for his birthday and Algernon said he wanted a Hyacinth maze and Father told him that Hyacinth don’t grow tall enough to make a maze and Algernon said he didn’t care he wanted to have a crawling maze so it didn’t matter how high they grew and so Father, when he was in Turkey, sent us crate after crate of Hyacinth bulbs and they planted them in the yard for the maze…” Denny stopped himself noticing that Warner was actually looking at him. At HIM, he was seeing Denny and listening to him.

Denny sat straight and smoothed his hair again. He felt as if he was reciting a poem for Warner. Minding his elocution, he continued “And soon the gardner became ill. And the groundskeeper became ill. And so they sent Therese into the yard. And Therese, being…” Denny whispered “Italian…already knew about the flower bulbs and that they can be very poisonous. So Mother said we were never to go near the Hyacinth maze but Algernon would…he would dig them up and keep them in that sack and…” Denny knew he had said too much.

Warner squinted at the boy. “Damn horse should know better anyway is all I’m saying. But you people keep breeding those horses with their kin and I’ve always said, I told them those horses weren’t right and see? See here? Now you’ve got a damn plague on your hands…” Warner squeezed his temples with his hand.

“Well, it’s a poison, actually” Denny corrected, nebbishly.

“That’s what I said, a damn plague. Biblical!” Warner stomped something or maybe nothing in the dirt.

Denny was conflicted. He sat straighter weighing his next move. “It’s actually a poison. It’s not an epidemic, not contagious, not a plague.” He only meant to comfort Warner with his correction.

Warner leaned in close to Denny’s face. Their breath mingled. Denny could smell tobacco and leather and straw and sweat and he tried to keep his wits to prevent him from obviously swooning. “Well now I gotta shoot a damn horse so it doesn’t matter to me what you call it” he snorted and flicked a piece of sawdust from Denny’s jacket.

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