The girls hadn’t known each other before that day; still, they held hands as they ran off. They wanted to hide because of the thrill of being found. They were too impatient to wait for the ceremony to begin and end and the games to recommence with dress-defiling vigor. They wanted the payoff now. Everything good in the land was happening right now.
The fact that their party consisted of Little Girl, Big Girl, and Middle Girl turned the porridge-bearing tables on Goldilocks. If only for a lost and hungry bear would the reversal be complete. Alas, there was no bear in the cave.
“In here!” shouted the lady. “Quick, in here!”
The girls were startled to see her smiling face and beckoning hand, circling like a windmill toward the secret place from where her top part had emerged. It wasn’t really a cave; more so part of a chopped-off hill with overgrown brush. To the girls, however, it felt like a cave that they ran into.
“Shhh,” whispered the lady. “We can hide here and no one will find us.”
She was small, with a pretty face and wavy brown hair. Her beautifully traced lips were the red of strawberry licorice. Normally Big Girl adored grownup women who weren’t adult-sized—she could imagine putting her feet into their small heels. But here, in this almost-cave, she wasn’t so sure. “You’re not supposed to wear a white dress to a wedding.”
“And why is that?” asked the lady.
“It’s because the bride wears a white dress,” Big Girl replied, “and no other lady can wear one. Kids can, but not ladies.”
“But I’m not at the wedding, am I?”
“You weren’t invited?” asked Middle Girl.
“I guess not.”
Middle Girl looked around at what would normally be a frightening place in which to find yourself. “So that’s why you’re hiding?”
“Hiding? Look at me, standing here in plain sight. Why would I be hiding?”
Big Girl looked but couldn’t see a lot of the lady in the shadowy place. “That dress will get so dirty in here.”
“So let’s go into the glorious sun!” the lady shouted and immediately ran through the thicket and out toward the blinding gleam. The girls looked at each other with suspicion, but because they were children, it did nothing to help. Slowly they emerged from the secret place with its walls of moist dirt. The lady was nowhere in sight.
“Now you three go hide and I’ll find you!” It was her voice come from somewhere, but they couldn’t tell where. All three instinctively moved closer together. The two older girls looked in opposite directions; the tagalong grabbed at skirts.
Now she was on a hill, looking down at them through waist-high grasses.
“How come you’re not all dirty from in there?” asked Big Girl. The three children were grass-stained even before entering the lady’s cave.
“Do you want to know my first memory?” she asked, walking back toward the girls. She now seemed radiant—angelic. Little Girl stared with open mouth, a glistening of saliva on her lower lip.
“My first memory occurred when I was two—yes, two! Younger than you.” She bent down to pull her finger through one of Little Girl’s ringlets. “I remember sitting on the floor and hearing a noise. I looked up and saw something coming out of the wallpaper. Busted right through! It broke through and flew across the room. There was a papered-over stovepipe hole in the wall, and it had fallen down the chimney. It was a large thrush. My mother had said, ‘You couldn’t have remembered that. You were too young.’ But how else would I have known it if I didn’t remember?”
“What’s a thrush?” asked Middle Girl.
The lady clapped her hands. “Do you love weddings so much? Who doesn’t love weddings!”
“Are you married?” asked Big Girl.
“I was married.”
“Did he die in the war?”
“Do you know that I was terribly in love at sixteen?” She nodded to her own question like a nursery school teacher. “It happened in all of seven weeks in May and June. The dogwoods were in flower. He was twenty-two and a ‘wastrel’ like in the George Eliot novel I’d been reading. At the eighth week it ended in a spate of thunderstorms—humid dripping days and then lightning and thunder when you slept with the windows wide open to cool down your booming heart.”
“Did you marry him?” asked Big Girl.
“I was too young for marriage!”
The girl was confused.
“But, yes, I did marry. Did indeed marry in my Mine—by right of the white election dress.”
“What kind of dress is that?” asked Middle Girl.
“It’s this dress,” said the lady, pulling out the skirt with one hand.
“It’s old-fashioned,” she replied, “your dress.”
“Ya think?” asked the lady, continuing to fluff out the skirt.
The eldest girl studied the garment. “Do you have little kids?”
The lady shook her head. “Too young for marriage!”
The girls squinted their sunburned cheeks in bewilderment.
“Besides that,” said the lady, “I was a career girl.”
“What’s a career girl?” asked Middle Girl.
“Rocks!” shouted the lady, using her knuckle to knock on her head. “Crazy, huh? Must’ve had a few rocks loose up here.”
“Are you in the movies?” asked Middle Girl.
The lady laughed.
Big Girl scowled to defend her teammate’s question. “You say things like people in the movies.”
“But of course my passion was books,” the lady went on. “How could any biography get written if the protagonist’s passion wasn’t books? What if my passion had been Atlantic perch or Wedgwood china or Gregorian chants?”
“I like to read stories,” said Middle Girl.
“You do!” said the lady, clasping her hands and then wedging them between her knees as she bent toward the girls.
“Did you come here by yourself?” asked Big Girl skeptically. “Everyone has to come here on a boat.”
“You came here on a boat?” shouted the lady. “How exciting!”
“How did you get here?” asked Middle Girl—so intrigued by the idea of secret powers that she made no effort to restrain her finger from snaking up her nose.
The lady smiled and shook her head. She put her hands on her hips and now paced like a headmaster lecturing boys. “Do you know, my dear old dad would invoke a rule of silence at meals so that everyone could keep his or her head in a book? Some thought this odd, but for us it provided all the more blessed opportunity to read.”
“I have a book called Little House in the Big Woods,” said Middle Girl. “From the lending library.”
“I’m from those very Big Woods!” exclaimed the lady. “Couldn’t get out of there fast enough. Although not as much woods left in Wisconsin.”
Big Girl seized this scrap of evidence with relish. “Is that why you do things with rocks?”
The lady laughed, thinning out her perfect red lips. “Rocks and books!”
“Where do you live?” demanded Big Girl.
The lady looked terribly offended. “Why? Are going to tell my mother?”
Big Girl deflected the reproach, skittishly casting her eyes about. “Do you live on an island close to here?”
“Because if you told my mother,” said the lady sadly, “well, funny thing is—she’s quite alive. And, as it happens, corresponding with Otto Hahn—no relation of course.”
“Who’s Otto Hahn?” asked Middle Girl.
“Oh, just some nasty old German. And you know how we all thoroughly loathe those Germans, we do!” Her melancholy smile made her prettier, like a painting. “But Otto . . . he fell into despair when they dropped the bombs. Nuclear fission, you know—that was all him.”
Big Girl was unconvinced. “Are you even American?”
The lady appeared to be concentrating hard on this question. She pursed her lips and tapped them with her finger, looking up and away. “I never wanted to live in any one place,” she said in a deeper voice, the tone of confession. “Oh, it’s such a cliché, but how else do I convey how it felt to be young? I longed for New York but wanted to see the world! The fatherly men would smile and shake their head, ‘Imagine that—a woman who wants to see the world.’ I wanted to see the world as an American, not as a woman. I wanted to see the world so much I married to do so. I would have begun with the Dark Continent and continued on to the Silk Road. Victoria Falls, ‘the smoke that thunders’—three hundred and fifty-five feet! And the Great Wall—over five thousand miles! You have to climb the steps sideways!”
“What continent is the dark one?” asked Middle Girl.
“Why was that so outlandish a desire?” the lady went on. “Or to trek along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, through Dead Woman’s Pass, where you can see in the mountains an old gal’s profile facing the sky? Oh, the irony of never making it to Dead Woman’s Pass! Was that desire any reason to cut me down?”
“Who cut you down?” asked Big Girl.
“Look at me!” cried the lady, holding out both arms as if to reveal draping sleeves. “Such a scrawny person! And so white in this white election dress! I hate everything white, and yet that’s what I’m stuck with. They put me in this dress. I was tired; I went along with everything. My friend Eleanor said that you’re invisible from public life as a woman, so I guess I might as well be invisible altogether.”
Big Girl, like her father the cement magnate, was not to be hornswoggled. “We can see you.”
The lady narrowed her eyes as she smiled. “Of course you can! Of course you can see me because you are seekers of those who are hiding. And when you grow up, you’ll be hiding from all the seekers.”
Little Girl clapped her hands. “Hiding!”
The lady bent down. “Come here,” she said to the toddler, who happily complied. “Turn around now.” The lady proceeded to untie and then tie correctly the droopy satin ribbon in the girl’s hair, producing a perfectly taut bow. “Oh, you’re such wizened girls,” she said as she stood, “and I believe you can share my deepest darkest secret.”
“What secret?” asked Big Girl greedily.
“The secret is that I have been hiding from the groom for a long time.”
“Why were you hiding?”
“Because I didn’t love him as much as he wanted.”
“But he’s getting married,” the girl protested. “You can’t love him.”
The lady smiled. “He refused to call me by the form of my name I liked—the name those who loved me used. He wanted to have this contrivance over the world, to be the only and the exceptional.”
“What’s your name?” asked Big Girl.
The lady looked at Big Girl’s ankles. “Fix your socks there.”
Big Girl squatted and made a new cuff of the lace edging on one leg and then the other. Middle Girl immediately did the same.
The lady now seemed distressed. “He said Africa was disease-ridden, a place for much lesser statesmen. He joked, ‘You really want to see me in a pith helmet?’ He thought I’d think that’s funny. At my service, he had two young women—girls practically—playing on cello and piano. Fauré’s Élégie opus 24. Depressing! Was that for my benefit or his? Where was the celebration of twenty-five years walking and stalking this earth?”
“What service?” asked Middle Girl.
“When you see Linus,” said the lady, “will you please tell him I told you it’s OK to forget me?”
Big Girl looked up, squinting from where she squatted.
“Will you do that for me?” asked the lady, touching the girl’s shoulder, causing her to stand.
Big Girl nodded.
“Now you girls run over there when I count to ten. Go on. Run over there.”
“Who’s hiding from who?” asked Middle Girl.
The lady laughed. “That’s what we all want to know. Now go count to ten.”
They ran lickety-split through the bramble and scrub, Big Girl holding the hand of Little Girl and Middle Girl directly behind them, as if reaching to pull the sash on the back of Big Girl’s dress. They ran until there was dirt footpath and then they stopped. Someone was calling out names.