I hadn’t visited my great-aunt’s North Carolina home since I was ten, more than twenty years ago, but I would never forget the tale. “It was in June, a hundred and fifty years ago,” I said. “The Civil War wasn’t yet over. A half-dozen bushwhackers dressed as Confederate soldiers came to the door asking for food and Percival Porter invited them to share the family’s mid-day meal. When they finished, they killed him.”
“One of them had a lousy aim,” Aunt Zelma added, and pointed to a chip like a broken tooth at the edge of the marble mantel where a lead bullet had ricocheted.
“Percival’s son ran to the gun cabinet,” I said, “and managed to shoot two of them before they got out the door. Killed one.”
Only a few minutes earlier, six of us from a garden design class in Maryland had arrived at my great-aunt Zelma’s big stone house in Flat Rock, in the Great Smoky mountains of western North Carolina. “I’m so happy all y’all decided to stay with me,” she said. “Welcome to Flat Rock.” Her big black poodle, Andre, sniffed each of us, wagging his tail. He lingered over my jeans, twitching his nose here and there.
“He’s found a new friend,” Aunt Zelma said.
“Probably catching Cookie’s scent,” I said. “…a Dobergirl I adopted last year when her human was sent to an institution that doesn’t permit pets.”
After a hearty Southern-style hug with my great-aunt, I introduced my classmates to her. “Roy Schaffer, our token male, was an Annapolis High varsity quarterback only a couple of years ago.” Roy doffed his cap and bowed theatrically.
I shifted to the tall brunette beside him. “Holly Silverthorne is in her final semester in the Horticulture and Landscape Program. She had a brief career as a bank teller before realizing the error of her ways.” Holly’s smile was generous.
Aunt Zelma said welcome, again.
“And this is Brenda Gale. She’s been my classmate in both the Woody Plants and Design course.” Brenda was a blonde like me, but both her hair and her stature were a bit shorter than mine. “And this is Ellyn Brock. She’s keeping her nursing certification while she pursues the idea of owning a small garden center.”
A the end of the semester, several of us in Landscape Design 101 were intrigued by our teacher’s idea to visit Brantleigh Manor, the final residential design by the famous “Father of Landscape Architecture,” Frederick Law Olmsted. When I realized that Brantleigh was very close to Flat Rock, where my great-aunt Zelma lived, I’d shot her an email. She’d instantly invited all of us to stay at her mountain home, a little more than a half hour from Brantleigh. We were the only ones from our class who could ante up for the trip. At 33, I was the oldest student.
Karen Lerrimore, our teacher, was a statuesque brown-haired 40-something. “You remember me mentioning Karen,” I said. “She organized the trip.” My aunt took Karen’s hand and nodded with a broad smile. “Of course.”
“Thank you for your invitation, Ms. Porter,” Karen said.
“It’s my pleasure, to be sure,” Aunt Zelma replied in her genteel Southern lilt. “But please just call me Zelma.”
Although Brantleigh’s landscaped gardens were the primary purpose of the trip, Karen had recently learned that her estranged stepfather, Wayland Morgan, was a landscape docent there. I was sure that an opportunity to connect with him had also been a reason for her to come to North Carolina.
“I’m curious how you can live here surrounded by all the gruesome reminders of that horrible time?” Karen asked my aunt.
“The War of Northern Aggression,” Aunt Zelma said, with a smug grin for all of us Yankees, “wasn’t very recent. So even though old Percy was our ancestor, his murder seems more like a legend than a family anecdote. But there’s one thing we know for sure about old Percival. When he was in school, before he became a wealthy rice grower, he must have studied Greek, because he named this place Kalorama. It means ‘Beautiful view.’”
When I was a kid, our family drove from Annapolis to North Carolina almost every summer. I have a slew of memories from those summers: sliding on gently-angled waterfall rocks, hiking in the Pisgah National Forest, watching bear cubs play, and canoeing on the French Broad River. The only bad memory I have from those summers is when my little brother Ted drowned in the swimming pool. We had been playmates in spite of the difference in our ages. His death left me with a ruptured soul and a fear of swimming pools. I had wondered if I could bear to be at Aunt Zelma’s house again as an adult. Unsurprisingly, my childhood horror followed me here, even now. I wouldn’t hazard as much as a glance at that pool.
After that summer, our family never came back, mostly, I suppose, because Mother left us that fall. And although my great-aunt had come to Annapolis for her older brother Jack’s funeral a few years ago, she and I hadn’t set eyes on each other since the summer Ted drowned. I hadn’t been at my Grandpa Jack’s funeral because I was half a world away on the aircraft carrier Enterprise, a Navy public affairs officer during the Iraq War.
After we decompressed with liquid Southern hospitality from Aunt Zelma’s drinks cart, and a supper of grilled bass fillets, my aunt showed us her eight bedrooms. We could choose among them. As I’d remembered it, the huge house was a museum. Antiques were everywhere, many collected by my great-great-grandparents (who hadn’t known they would become antiques), others added by my great-grandparents, and several by Aunt Zelma. In the bedrooms, I remembered my aunt’s home-making skills. Her expertise was everywhere: matching quilts and bedspreads, valences and curtains on the old windows, and canopies over four-poster beds. Every bedroom had a fireplace and every mantel displayed family photos and mementos. In stark contrast, my Annapolis condo was plain jane Ikea. I had inherited none of her decorating capabilities.
Karen was apparently still worried about vestiges of Great-Great-Grandfather Percy in the house. At the door of her bedroom, she asked me if his ghost was still in the house. I frowned at her with a you’ve gotta be kidding look, but she wasn’t fazed.
“I’ve never seen him,” I said, honestly, without telling her that I didn’t believe there were such things. “The only ghosts I know here are my memories. From long before my world got complicated with the Naval Academy, six years in uniform, a faithless fiancé, and the madness of public relations—”
Grandpa Jack, Great-Aunt Zelma’s older brother, who always had helped me when I was younger, occasionally passes along observations or advice from beyond the grave. I heard his whisper, Did you know Karen worried about ghosts? Like I said, I hear from him from time to time, but it didn’t occur to me to wonder how he knew about Karen.
On the third floor, I copped the bedroom I’d always had when our family came south in the summer. Karen chose the room next to mine. There were four on the second floor for Roy, Holly, Ellyn, and Brenda. After we’d all claimed a bedroom and stashed our luggage, Karen took the SUV to visit her stepfather at his apartment. She’d told me she’d brought him a favorite herbal tea and hoped she could continue the reconciliation they’d begun by phone.
“Tell Wayland I’ve missed him,” Aunt Zelma told her. “I haven’t seen him since last fall.”
After Karen left, my classmates changed into swim-gear, found brews and went down to the swimming pool. That was the last place I ever wanted to see again.
Aunt Zelma asked me to join her in the kitchen, where, I noticed, she had collected piglets and porkers of every size and color on nearly every cupboard shelf and in every nook and cranny. China, wood and even tin. A bouquet of spring flowers sat in the center of a bright plaid cloth on the table. She opened a low cabinet and extracted a bottle of amontillado which she poured generously into a pair of heirloom goblets. We tinked to each other’s health and took our first sips.
“Your friends seem nice … for Yankees,” she said with a broad smile. After I chuckled at her jibe, she set her goblet down. “Tell me what’s new in Annapolis.”
After six-years in uniform, I’d left the Navy and returned to my home town to pursue the civilian life. A public relations job has kept me and my Maine Coon house-cat, Thaïs, reasonably well fed. Last year, on a whim, I’d signed up for Master Gardener training. It agreed with me and vice-versa. I found that I loved playing in the dirt and decided to go pro. I’d proclaimed myself the Gardener-in-Chief of Summers Breeze Gardens. This was, in my not so humble opinion, a clever play on my name, Penelope Summers. Which explained why I’d taken the design course that led to this opportunity to visit Frederick Law Olmsted’s hundred-year-old design legacy.
“Same town, same stuff,” I said, “but you know what Grandpa Jack used to tell me when I had a lot of projects going?”
“I remember,” Aunt Zelma said. “‘You’ve bitten off more than you can chew.’”
“First off, I shouldn’t really have taken the time to come here. Don’t get me wrong. I love being here and having time with you. And the visit to Brantleigh will be like a design master class. But the math semester in the St. John’s Graduate Institute is, shall we say, challenging. I’ve never been good at math.”
“Your grandpa would have been proud of you.”
“I’m also in the middle of a huge project at my day job … ”
“ … And your gardening business,” Aunt Zelma said.
“On top of that, I’ll be taking more horticulture and design courses. I’m thinking of studying landscape architecture at the University of Maryland.”
“Follow your heart, my dear. But don’t quit your day job until you have some savings squirreled away.”
“I get enough calls to keep me busy most weekends,” I said. They’re small jobs, but, you know, word of mouth is the best advertising. Matter of fact I already have a small design job,” I said, “small part of a big landscape.”
“Using what you’ve learned in Karen’s class, I assume.” I nodded and took another swallow of the sweet wine. “My second client meeting is next week. So I can’t afford to hang around after the weekend.”
For nearly an hour, we caught up with each other’s news. I summarized the project at my public relations job and told her about my short-lived affair with a classmate—even though I’d known we had no future. That had been like all my tentative gropings for a kindred soul that Aunt Zelma had encouraged since I left the Navy.
When I asked my aunt what she’d been up to since we’d last traded emails, you could have knocked me over with half a feather when she said during her morning meditation, she’d had a visit from old Percival.”
I had no idea how to interpret what she’d said. I made myself a mental note: Find out if Aunt Zelma was on the brink of senility.
“Back in a minute,” she said, as she started for another room. She returned with a shallow Cherokee basket of minerals and crystals, just colored rocks to me. She picked up a rough-edged greenish one about the size of a robin’s egg. “I meditated on this emerald,” she said, “and Percival just materialized. It was like he was sitting beside me.”
An errant ray of early evening sunlight projected tiny rainbows from a parade of facets in Aunt Zelma’s cut glass goblet. If I believed any of this nonsense, I shouldn’t have doubted that old Percival’s ghost might hang around his house. But I really couldn’t understand my great-aunt having an ability (in her own mind, at least) to converse with people who weren’t there. I’d thought I knew her pretty well, but I had no idea she meditated on stones, much less conversed with spirits. When, as a pre-teen, I’d been here last, she hadn’t mentioned any of this. Maybe she hadn’t wanted to frighten me. Today, it scared me to imagine her as a psychic crystal cruncher.
Then I had an awful epiphany: I heard regularly from Grandpa Jack. Might I, too, carry a Porter gene for the “second sight”? I hoped not.
“Have you told anyone else about your … uhhh … conversations?” I asked her.
“There’s already enough rumors about me bouncing around Flat Rock. Although the one about communing with Carl Sandburg is untrue. I don’t want to be known as a witchy-woman.” A mental image emerged of Aunt Zelma in a purple cloak blending herbal potions and telling fortunes. It was almost easier to pretend that she had actually had a spirit visit from my great-great-great grandfather Percival Porter.
This was over the top, definitely more than I could grasp. “I’m sorry,” I said, “but I have no place in my brain for anyone or anything I can’t see. Now please don’t misunderstand. I’ll defend your right to believe anything you want, but please don’t expect me to believe it too.” I now knew I’d need to be wary of anything my great-aunt said. “Should I ask him tomorrow if he felt your presence this morning?”
Aunt Zelma sipped her golden wine. My mischievous query hadn’t deserved a reply. Finally, she asked, “How’s your friend at the Naval Academy?” Last year Aaron Hunt and I had sleuthed together to track down his girl-friend’s killer.
“Aaron? He’s stationed at the King’s Bay Submarine Base in Georgia now. He’s the Command Master Chief of one of the sub squadrons. We keep in touch, but we’re just friends.”
My aunt shifted a tulip in the bouquet. “Penny … I’m just saying … King’s Bay is only a one-day drive from here.”
“That would be nice, if I had the time. But I really have to get back to my client next week.”
Later, when I climbed up to my bedroom, I had an involuntary tremble thinking of Aaron. Had we kept in touch all these months because we felt we might be more than friends? Had Aaron been on my mind two weeks ago when I broke it off with Jeremy? Admit it Penelope, I said to myself, the answer to both is Yes. I lay awake thinking of Aaron and his planned visit to Annapolis next month. From this distance I couldn’t make up my mind where we would eat, but I could imagine the warmth of his presence in a candlelight glow.
Finally, I sifted through memories of my childhood visits to Flat Rock. The first was the one I least wanted to remember. It will haunt me forever. At Aunt Zelma’s swimming pool, the summer I was ten, I’d let my attention stray from watching my three-year-old brother while I read The Secret Garden. I remember hearing the little splash. I saw what had happened and screamed my heart out for help. The horrific consequence was that he drowned. Thoughts of that pool, where my classmates were partying, still give me the creeps.
Just after midnight I woke briefly when I heard Karen close her bedroom door next to mine.
It was nearly three when her screams wakened me again. Surely, I thought, visiting her stepfather couldn’t have precipitated such a nightmare. It must have been one hell of a bad dream. Or could have old Percy’s ghost paid her a visit? Or my little brother’s?
Then I remembered I didn’t believe in any of that nonsense. Her shrieks subsided before I could pull myself out of bed and go to her.
Eventually I wandered back into the arms of Morpheus.
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