WIDOW'S WALK

By Kathleen Keyes

  "Oh, my God, my God," my father cries.  Grabbing me up in his arms, warm against my cold, bare legs, he cries again, "My God, how could this happen? Maureen!"

He looks through the break in the railing that enclosed the widow's walk, where  I've been huddled against the house for several hours, terrified to move. He buries his face in my shoulder and sobs. I want to cry but I'm numb, inside and out. Why did that lady shove my mother? I don't think Mommy even saw her. Why didn't she push me off, too? I wish she had.

 * * *

"Well, this is it," says the soft-skinned older man holding my hand. "You're going to be fine, Belinda. You're an intelligent, capable young woman with lots of life ahead. You don't want to spend it inside a drab, confining hospital, do you?" Secretly, the answer is 'yes' but I smile and tell him  what he wants to hear.

"I can't tell you how much you've helped me, Dr. James," I say. "I'm going to miss you terribly. "That's no lie. I've been in and out of hospitals my whole life. And while living in an institution may not be ideal, it's as protective as it is confining.

Lawndale Private Hospital in upstate New York is quite a distance from Stamford, Connecticut, where I'm headed. The two-story building at Lawndale and its surrounding grounds are more like a large home with spacious gardens than a hospital. Dr. James and his staff have been the kindest, most patient caretakers I've encountered in the twenty years I've been on this merry-go-round.

He has encouraged me and given me the self-esteem other doctors and caseworkers always seem to want to take away from me. Maybe I can make it this time.

I give him a long hug. It's warm in the fold of his arms and memories of that cold, traumatic day come flooding back. Memories I've stopped sharing with anyone. They don't want to hear them anyway. So I've hoarded them in a small, cold spot in the back of my head, far away from the small, warm spot in my heart where I keep the memories of my mother.

Pulling back, I put on a smile and walk out to the train loading area, where the intimidating, silver "time-machine" is waiting to whisk me back to my father and the house that stole my childhood.  I'm fatigued from anticipation, so I tilt my seat back and close my eyes. The constant clacking of the wheels and muffled chatter of the other passengers is soothing and I drift off.

"Belinda," I can hear my mother saying.

"Guess what I found this morning?" She's dressed in dark denim pants and a light yellow cotton sweater. Her soft auburn hair falls softly on her shoulders. " A secret staircase" she says, motioning me to follow her. " It leads up to the widow's walk. I don't know why they paneled over it. The stairs look perfectly safe to me. Come on, let's go up and see the view!"

Whew, there are a lot of stairs to climb and it is dark. My short legs begin to ache. "We're almost there. Just a few more steps," she encourages.

It takes some effort to push open the narrow wooden door at the top. The cool breeze hits my face and I am completely overwhelmed by the brightness and beauty of the surrounding countryside. My mother laughs and twirls, with arms outstretched. I hug the house, suddenly aware how high we are.

"Witch!" I hear from behind me. I've seen this woman before. She walks in the yard when I'm in bed at night. The lady looks angry as she rushes out on the small landing. I want to scream, warn my mother. . .

I'm faintly aware of a tugging at my shoulder. "Excuse me, Miss," says a man's voice. "We'll be in Stamford in about ten minutes."

My mind is cloudy. Straightening up in my seat, I take a deep breath and become reoriented, thankful the conductor brought me back. It is late afternoon and the autumn shadows are deep. The fiery reds and golds of the leaves dance in the breeze, like flames flickering in a fireplace. I see my father standing on the station platform. My heart races with anticipation.

"Daddy," I sigh, as I throw my arms around his broad shoulders. The memory of a small child cuddling in his arms comes vividly and is quickly followed by the vision of a larger child and then a larger one. Each as fresh as the one before. He has been my solace, my comfort. He is the reason I keep returning. Even with the tragedy of that one awful day, I still think of Gull's Point as my home.

"You look wonderful," he says, pulling back to take a full view of me. "And lovely -- like your mother."

I beam at the compliment. I remember how beautiful she was and her joy for life.

And I know that he loved her. He still loves her.

"I wanted to surprise you by redecorating your room," he continues as we load my bags in the car, "but Lena insisted you've always loved it just the way it is. She stayed home to start dinner. She's very happy you're coming home."

I'll bet she is.

Lena is my stepmother. She came to work as our mother's helper when we moved to the Cape, then stayed on after my mother's death to take care of me -- and my father. They married when I was eight. Two weeks before my first "visit" to a hospital. As the years went by I stopped having visits to the hospitals and started having visits home. This time will be different. Dr. James says I am completely well and capable of living a normal life.

Lena rushes to give me her usual brief hug with an almost connecting kiss on the cheek. "Belinda, dear, welcome home. We've gotten such good reports from your doctor. I do hope you'll be home for good this time." We have been through this routine before.

A glass of wine and some awkward attempts at chit-chat, followed by a lovely dinner of stroganoff and green beans, peach cobbler for dessert.  The menu is always the same because Lena has decided these are my favorites. Coffee in the den and then off to bed.

As Father warned, my room is nearly the same as when I was a child. Another assumption by Lena. The dolls and stuffed animals still stand watch from the corners of bookshelves and dressers. The bedspread and matching drapes are the same pink and red roses my mother let me pick out when we moved here. Even the small white table and matching chairs where we held tea parties still occupy one corner.

I guess I shouldn't be so poor-spirited about Lena. I remember her playing tea party with me before my mother died. But when she tried to play with me later I resisted. She wanted to cuddle me but she could not take my mother's place and I think she resented that.

Sleep comes quickly and my dreams are fresh and sweet like the soft, clean bedding that envelops me. A cool breeze touches my face and I awake as if I had been asleep for hours. The breeze is coming from an open window, the filmy white sheers sway gently. Looking out across the moonlit yard, I see the pale image of the woman no one wants me to talk about. She is dressed in the same long blue dress with navy shawl, a white lace hankie tucked in one sleeve. She stops in the rose garden, looks up at me. I wave. She smiles, then continues walking, her image fading as she goes.

"We've got to go shopping, Belinda. Your clothes are passé." Lena dances as she talks, swooping and gliding between the sink and the breakfast table.

"Give her time to rest, Lena," says my father, observing my lack of enthusiasm at his wife's announcement. "She's only been home a few days. She's hardly unpacked."

"Don't be an old poop, dear. She loves to shop, don't you, Belinda?"

My father never asserts himself more than once. Today is no exception. Gathering his newspaper and cup of coffee, he heads toward his study.

"By the way, Belinda," says Lena, pulling a tattered leather-bound book from a drawer in the antique sideboard near the table, " I found this old book in the attic years ago. It has the history of Stormy Point in it. I wanted to give it to you sooner but your father was afraid it would only upset you."

"Stormy Point?" I ask.

"The original name of Gull's Point. Your mother changed it. Said Stormy Point sounded so gloomy."

"Yes," my heart warms, "she would never call anything beautiful by a dark, gloomy name." The book is fascinating. Hours fly by as I read, experiencing the families who handed the house and its history down from generation to generation. Each chapter includes the lady in the blue dress.

Charlotte Dubois Briggs. The first mistress of Stormy Point. Her husband was a ship's captain for the merchant marines. His ship was lost at sea in their fifth year of marriage. They had two children, who were mostly raised by a nanny, as

Lying on my bed, I can hear her sad moans. They seem clearer tonight than ever before. I go to the window to search for her in the garden. The moon is bright but she is not to be seen. The sounds seem to be coming from above me, not from outside. I am usually terrified to think about going up to the roof but the idea comes calmly tonight. Perhaps she is up there -- standing watch on the widow's walk.  Without robe or slippers I ascend the narrow staircase and open the door. The night air is warm and fragrant. I walk to the railing to scan the panorama below me. A shiver runs up my arms and turn to see a misty form, standing in the very corner I cowered in as a child. She is beautiful. She's the lady in blue.

A voice whispers my name. Another lady dressed in blue stands in the doorway. The same lady that pushed my mother so many years ago. She starts toward me. A chill engulfs me and I stumble and fall to the floor. A weight catches and pulls across my feet. I bury my face at the sound of hideous screams as she falls through the still broken railing.

Then it is completely silent. I can hear my father's footsteps running through the house below me. I can't move but I'm not afraid. There's a comforting presence. It's her-- Charlotte. She smiles softly, her image fading.

"Belinda! Belinda!" my father screams as he gathers me up in his arms once more. "What has happened? Oh God, what has happened?"

I could tell him the truth. It was Lena, my wicked stepmother, who pushed my mother to her death. But the pain in my father's eyes has diminished my desire to avenge the past.

"I must have been sleepwalking. Lena came to help me but we were too close to the edge. She pushed me back and lost her balance. She saved my life." I hold him tight as he sobs. Fading quickly now, the lady in blue blows me a kiss -- and disappears.



Copyright 1999 Kathleen Keyes