“You’re very blunt.” Charles laughed. “Or is it rude?”
“If you think I’m rude, I can leave.” Emily’s hands were folded on her lap. She had no intention of going.
Her remark made him smile. He found her charming, unlike most people. “You’re very observant. It’s called river blindness. Contracted in South America. The cause is a form of worm too tiny for the human eye to see. I swam across a lake in Venezuela that was so deep local people said it reached to the far side of heaven. Unfortunately, it turned out to be hell for me. That was when the world grew blurry. Though I can see you quite clearly.”
Emily let out a short laugh. She held up five fingers in front of his face. As she suspected, he didn’t seem to notice. “You can’t.”
“Impossible,” Emily declared. “I’m invisible.”
“Not for me. I see inside. One of the benefits of my tragedy.”
“Then perhaps it’s not a tragedy.”
“Life is a tragedy,” Charles said pleasantly.
Emily felt the sprig of lad’s love in her shoe prick through her stocking. She had said the very same thing to her sister only weeks ago.
“Shall I prove that I can see what no one else can?” Charles asked.
Emily nodded. “Please. Do.”
They sat there and nothing happened and Emily didn’t know what to think. Then Charles suddenly reached down.
“Did you catch a shadow?” Emily asked, intrigued.
Charles signaled for her to put her hand out. When she did, he placed his hand atop hers and opened it. There was a tiny field mouse. Emily laughed, delighted. “You’re like an owl,” she declared. “You see in the dark.” And from then on, although others might call him Charles or Carlo, she thought of him as her owl.
“He’s yours,” Charles Straw said. “He’s at your mercy.”
WHEN CHARLES’S COUSIN Olive Starr Partridge came to fetch the tray, she was surprised to find a young woman deep in conversation with her cousin, and even more startled to see a field mouse in one of the good Spode teacups. Introductions were made, and Charles immediately asked Olive to give Emily a tour of the house and of the garden that had been planted more than a hundred years earlier.
“Don’t be silly,” Olive said. “I’m sure she has no interest in that old garden.”
“She’s a botanist,” Charles said.
“Amateur,” Emily added.
“And don’t forget to introduce her to the dog.”
“How do you know our Carlo?” Olive asked as she took Emily up to the garden. There were granite steps and a white picket fence. The earth was a funny, reddish color, as if raw pigment had been added to the soil.
“Our paths happened to cross one day,” Emily said. She wondered if dreamers knew they were in a dream while it was happening, or if they had no idea that everything around them was purely imagined until the dream had gone.
“Which day was that?” Olive was a nurse and quite protective of her cousin. Her husband and grown sons had traveled to Boston, but she had stayed to care for Carlo. He was terribly ill, yet he insisted he must return to his travels. He had never been one to stay in one place. His steamer trunks were packed and waiting on the porch.
“Today,” Emily admitted.
They had reached the garden, ignored for many years. It was a wild tangle filled mostly with thistle. A clutch of larks and sparrows took flight when the women approached.
“It must have been lovely,” Emily said.
There was still some scarlet amaranth and a stray crimson larkspur, nearly six feet tall, the likes of which Emily had never seen. There was a scraggly row of ruby lettuce and some bright radishes that Olive had put in, which she now pulled from the ground to have with their dinner. The family lore insisted that only red plants would grow in this stretch of ground. Even those blooms that went in as white or pink or blue turned in a matter of weeks. Emily took a bite of a small, muddy radish. The juice in her mouth was red.
“It’s a shame poor Charles can’t see any of his old hometown before he leaves again. He’s going back.”
“To South America?”
“He insists. The Berkshires aren’t big enough for him. He says our mountains are hills.”
As a boy Charles had spent hours in the library reading journals by James Cook and Lewis and Clark, concocting an imaginary travel journal for himself. While the other boys in town were sledding and ice fishing, Charles was teaching himself Spanish and Arabic in the old abandoned house Emily had passed by. He had always been daring, a naturalist at heart. When he was twelve, he was out with the family dog, a young collie, when a fisher attacked. Fisher cats were large weasels so powerful and fierce they were the only creatures known to kill and eat porcupines, including the quills. Charles and the fisher had fought wildly over the dog. The fisher hissed and growled, arching its back, burying its teeth in the collie’s neck. Charles kept his hands around the fisher’s throat, choking off its breathing passage. It turned and bit him on the arm, but he managed to strangle it before the fight was through.