"Scharper shines in this surprising and engaging gothic novel... Impeccably researched and beautifully told, this is a tale that will stay with readers long after the final page is turned."—Publishers Weekly, STARRED Review
Marged Brice is 134 years old.
She'd be ready to go, if it weren't for Perdita . . .
The Georgian Bay lighthouse's single eye keeps watch over storm and calm, and Marged grew up in its shadow, learning the language of the wind and the trees. There's blustery beauty there, where sea and sky incite each other to mischief... or worse...
Garth Hellyer of the Longevity Project doesn't believe Marged was a girl coming of age in the 1890s, but reading her diaries in the same wild and unpredictable location where she wrote them might be enough to cast doubt on his common sense.
Everyone knows about death.
It's life that's much more mysterious...
"Hilary Scharper deftly mines the beauty and wonder of both the human heart and nature in this haunting tale of enduring love."—Cathy Marie Buchanan, bestselling author of The Painted Girls
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I was about to knock, when I heard someone talking on the other side of the door.
"You mustn't run downstairs like that!" a woman insisted. The vigor of her voice surprised me; I'd been told that Marged Brice was quite elderly and rather frail.
Then I thought I heard a little girl's muffled laugh.
"You'll frighten people. You wouldn't want to do that, would you?" This time the woman spoke more gently. "Come now, promise me that you won't."
I heard a soft thud and then the sound of small feet pattering on the floor. What was a child doing in her room? Edna had said Miss Brice would be alone for the interview.
I gave the door a few quick raps and then slowly pushed it open. "Hello," I called out. "May I come in? It's Professor-it's Garth Hellyer."
There was no answer. I stood awkwardly in the doorway, peering into the dimness. After a few seconds my eyes spotted a shadowy figure in the corner of the room. A woman was sitting quietly in a wheelchair by a large window with her face turned toward the trees outside. She seemed to be stroking the screen lightly with her fingertips. A branch on the other side was tapping against the glass above her-almost as if it were trying to warn her that someone had entered the room.
Suddenly she looked over at me, very startled, and reached into her pocket. She hastily drew out a dark-colored scarf, pulling it up over her head and then drawing it down so that only her mouth was visible.
I took a step toward her when I felt something soft and sticky brush against my hand; a second later the door slammed shut.
"Oh dear," the woman murmured. "I'm so sorry. There are so many new people here, and it's a bit confusing for her."
"No need to apologize," I said pleasantly, shaking off what appeared to be clumps of hair on my hand. "I'm well acquainted with Cookie. She's a very skittish cat and probably thought I had my dog with me. Actually, I almost did bring Farley up to meet you."
"Yes, he's Cookie's canine counterpart at the Clarkson-very friendly and very spoiled by everyone here. Maybe I'll bring him up to meet you sometime."
There was a soft rustle of wind and then a light tapping sound as a bough rubbed against the glass. I pulled up a chair and sat down, laying my briefcase to one side. "How are you this morning, Miss Brice?"
She appeared to be scrutinizing me carefully, so I let her take her time. It was hard to tell just how old she was, and I wondered how I might get her to remove the scarf.
"They told me you would be coming today," she announced after a short pause. "But I was expecting an older man. When Edna said you were a historian and a professor, I thought you would be in your sixties. But you-you couldn't be much more than forty."
"That's an excellent guess. As a matter of fact, I'm turning forty next month."
"Ah, then you're still just a young man."
I laughed and told her that I liked coming to the Clarkson because its residents often told me I was young.
"Oh, but you are young," she asserted. "Your best years are still ahead of you." She leaned toward me, peering intently at my face. "Why...you remind me very much of Andrew!" This time her tone was friendlier. "You're taller, though, like George. But dark," she mused. "Dark like Andrew."
"Tall? Dark?" I jested, "Don't I get ‘handsome,' too?"
She eyed me for a few seconds and then nodded, placing a hand on the arm of her chair; I was struck by how long and supple her fingers were.
"And you're a single man from what I'm told?" she continued.
I couldn't help grinning-so she wasn't all that different from the other grannies at the home. Most of them were intensely interested in my matrimonial prospects. "Who's given away my secret?" I asked.
"Isn't it true?" she retorted icily.
"Yes, it's true. At the moment I'm still available. Can the same be said of you?"
She let me wait a few seconds. "I'm afraid I must disappoint you. I might be single, but I'm certainly not available."
"A disappointment, indeed," I shot back, and watched her mouth curve into a reluctant smile.
We sat there eyeing each other for a minute or so. Obviously she wasn't going to make this easy for me. "Miss Brice," I began gently, "I'm here on behalf of the Longevity Project."
"Longevity Project? Oh, yes, they told me about it. About some group wanting to find the oldest living person in the world."
"Well, yes, although there's more to it than that." I briefly told her about my research at the home and explained that I had been asked to follow up with her because Edna-the Clarkson's director-thought there had been some sort of mix-up with her date of birth.
"There's no mix-up," she told me calmly. "I have my birth certificate. I just didn't want to leave it downstairs in that office. I have it here."
"May I see it, please?"
She hesitated and then reached into her pocket, this time taking out a letter-size envelope. "I know all about your interviews with war veterans here at the home," she said, handing me a yellowed sheet of paper. "But the main thing is that Edna said I could trust you."
I looked down and saw that I was holding the birth certificate of a person named Marged Granger Brice, born November 13, 1878. The document had been issued by L'Église Sainte-Anne in Montreal.
"Whose birth certificate is this?" I asked.
She looked at me steadily. "It's mine."
I did a quick calculation: the birth certificate had been issued one hundred thirty-four years ago.
"There must be some mistake," I started to say.
She laughed and lifted up the edge of her scarf; clearly she was enjoying my confusion. "I told you-you are young! Imagine being my age. But, of course, my circumstances are somewhat unusual."
"Unusual?" I echoed. "‘Unusual' would be an understatement if you were one hundred and thirty-four. Miraculous would be more like it. The average life expectancy for an adult female in Canada is between eighty and eighty-two years old."
"Oh, I was eighty ages ago." She waved a hand airily. "That was in-1958, I believe. I remember because I met the prime minister that year-Mr. Diefenbaker. Such a gracious man..."
"Miss Brice, I might be young in your eyes, but I certainly wasn't born yesterday. Now, whose birth certificate is this?"
"Professor Hellyer-" she addressed me crisply, straightening her shoulders and beginning to bristle.
"Please, call me Garth."
"Garth," she continued, even more crisply. "That is my birth certificate." Then she folded her arms and pursed her lips.
She began to tap the arm of her chair impatiently. "You'd like me to remove this scarf, wouldn't you? All right, then, let's see if I at least look one hundred and thirty-four years old!" Without any warning she abruptly pushed her scarf back from her face.
For a few seconds I was speechless.
"I'm sorry," she murmured contritely, keeping her eyes lowered. "I don't mean to startle you. It's not what one might expect, is it?"
I hardly knew what to say. I had interviewed dozens of elderly people, some of them well over a hundred, but I had never seen anything like her face before. There were several prominent seams that ran down each of her cheeks, but the rest of her face was literally bereft of wrinkles. Her skin appeared tautly stretched, giving the impression of polished stone. As the light from the window cast soft shadows across her features, Marged Brice suddenly seemed made of marble...but a warm, subtle, tractable marble.
"Don't ask me to explain it," Miss Brice was saying as I tried to stop myself from staring at her. "I looked very much like one of those apple-faced dolls for a brief period, but then my wrinkles steadily began to disappear. By my one hundred and thirty-first birthday, they were all gone, and since then my face has remained remarkably smooth." She ran a finger lightly across one of the deep furrows by her mouth. "I haven't lost my character lines, though-but I rather like them." Then she pushed her scarf farther back, releasing an astonishingly thick mane of glossy white hair that came to a soft point in the middle of her forehead.
"The only things that haven't changed are my eyes, not in one hundred and thirty-four years. I can still see perfectly-well, almost perfectly. They're not an old woman's eyes, are they?" She lifted her gaze proudly to mine.
This time I really did gasp. For several seconds I was unable to look away from two very beautiful, piercingly blue eyes. It almost seemed as if a soft light were revolving deep inside her head and casting searching beams of a luminous blue out at me every few seconds.
"No, they're not at all like an old woman's eyes," I repeated awkwardly, even admiringly. What was it I could see in them? Their vividness fascinated me, but I could also discern a lively intelligence in their expression. And an innocence, too. Yes, there was an open vulnerability in her eyes, despite Marged Brice's apparent reserve.
She smiled, evidently very pleased with my reaction. "George called my eyes a Great Lakes blue. But they're not always quite this bright. My eyes always grow brighter with the phases of the moon, and then they fade." She looked away. "That is Perdita. She does it. I don't know why she does it, but you've caught my eyes at their brightest because tonight's a full moon."
I just sat there, silently trying to estimate how old she might be.
"You do understand, don't you, Professor Hellyer?" she continued apologetically. "I really do have to keep this scarf on hand. It's not because I'm hopelessly old-fashioned. I'm more worried my eyes will scare the people here. I had to do it at my home, too, although my nephew Gregory never minded. But I certainly don't want to frighten any of the staff at the Clarkson." She drew her breath in quickly and returned her gaze to the trees outside. "I didn't frighten you, did I?"
"Garth," I reminded her and assured her that I wasn't at all frightened-just surprised. I fumbled around, telling her that one didn't usually meet women-of her age-with eyes quite so intense and-
"Yes, of course. You needn't explain. I've been around elderly people, too. But you see, it's not really me who does it. It's Perdita." Miss Brice sighed deeply. "I know it might sound odd, but I wish I could just age as a normal person does. I used to enjoy the brightness of my eyes and watching my face change from year to year. But I've been ready to die for a long time now. I've even resolved to die, but I just don't seem to be able to."
"Aren't able to?"
"Oh, I dearly want to pass on." She gripped the sides of her chair. "Especially now that I have no home. It would make Ava and her son very happy if I died. In fact, I'm sure they wish for my death. What is it you say when you want something in a hurry? ASAP." She frowned, and I saw a look of deep distress ripple across her face. "Believe me, I'd oblige her if I could, but there's no one who will take Perdita. And I cannot leave her."
It was the third time that she had mentioned the name. "Miss Brice, who's this-?" I swallowed, the words catching strangely in my throat. "Who's Perdita?" I asked, forcing them out.
We both looked up to see the trees bending and twisting in a sudden commotion outside her window.
"Please, I would prefer that you call me Marged."
She continued to stare at the trees and remained silent.
I stole a glance at my watch. I hadn't expected this, but I would give it just one more try. "Marged, could we go back to your date of birth? Do you happen to have any other documents with you? Say your health card or something along those lines?"
"My health card!" She looked at me in utter astonishment. "Do you think that Ava would leave me with anything like that? They took everything! Ava's lawyers are very clever people, you know. You won't find a record of me anywhere. Not even you-a historian-even you won't be able to find anything!" Then she began to twist her hands together fretfully.
"Maybe I should come back another time." I started to get up from my chair, thinking that I'd better get more background information from Edna.
"No!" she cried out, and then immediately calmed her voice. "It's not that I don't want to help you, or your Longevity Project. It's just that my situation sometimes frustrates me. I don't want to be the world's oldest living person-truly I don't! But I can't help it. I just am."
"That's fine," I said soothingly.
She gave me a very hard stare. "But that's not why I wanted to see you, Professor Hellyer."
"You wanted to see me?"
"Perdita," she called out gently. "We could try again. Perhaps we could try again with him." I heard a faint, rustling sound behind me and turned, but I saw nothing.
For the third time I asked, "Who is this Perdita you keep mentioning?"
Miss Brice shook her head and put a finger to her lips. "Wait. You're too impatient, Garth. I must do this at my own pace." She motioned toward her bed, and I was surprised to see my World War II trilogy sitting on her night table. "It's wonderful writing," she said softly. "I think you might be able to help me-just as you helped all those war veterans tell their stories." She reached forward and took the birth certificate back from me. "But this time-this time I'll go one step at a time. I'll go more slowly; that way there will be less danger."
She ran her eyes rapidly across my face. "Do you-do you have a heart condition? Or anything like that?" she asked faintly.
I was a little taken aback by her question, but confirmed that I was in excellent health. Then she carefully pulled open the top drawer of the bureau next to her and stared down into it. "You rely a great deal on people's diaries and letters in your writing," she remarked, drawing out several small, leather-bound books. "All those veterans-and their wives and families-they must have trusted you very much to give you their war journals and letters." She passed two of the books over to me, watching my expression intently.
I took the volumes from her and gingerly lifted the cover of the top one. The pages were filled with handwritten entries-
"I'd like you to read my diaries," she said eagerly. "And then perhaps we could ask Perdita to come to you."
"Miss Brice," I interjected, "really, I'm just here to-"
"I was turning nineteen when I began the diary you just opened," she continued eagerly. "That's the one you are to read first. It was over one hundred and fifteen years ago, but I can still remember everything so vividly. That is where my Perdita began. It was that summer when the Bay knew it could no longer treat me as a child..." Her voice trailed off, and I could see the faint shimmer of tears in her eyes.
Just then I heard Farley barking downstairs; he sounded unusually excited. "That's my dog, Miss Brice." This time I put the diaries down on the table beside her. "I think I'd better go get him."
"Wait! I'd like to-to compensate you for reading them, but you see my nephew's wife, Ava, took all my money, every cent of it."
"Don't worry about that," I said quickly, picking up the two volumes again.
"It was quite a lot of money. I won't tell you how much, because you probably wouldn't believe me." Miss Brice leaned forward earnestly. "George understood, you see. Somehow he knew, and he was very worried about what would happen if I outlived Allan. He even asked Andrew to take care of me..." Her eyes suddenly narrowed, and then her face hardened. "But Ava...George could never have anticipated what she has done. She told everyone that I had hallucinations. She said I would be put in a mental hospital if I didn't sign those papers. And she told the lawyer I was an impostor-that I wanted to defraud George's estate."
Marged took up her scarf, placing it lightly on her head, and then trained her remarkable eyes on mine. "Of course no one expected me to live this long. But none of them know I've still got my birth certificate. Even if no one believes me-even if you don't-it doesn't change the fact that I am Marged Brice."
She waited for me to speak.
I hesitated. "Of course I'd be happy to look at your diaries, Miss Brice-I mean Marged. But really, the main reason I'm here is to look into the record of your age."
"Oh, please! Can't you see I'm asking for help! I've never had to say that to a stranger before, and believe me it doesn't come easily to me. But I must."
Again I hesitated for a split second-and then half kicking myself, I slipped the two journals into my briefcase.
"Thank you," she breathed. "Thank you." She stretched out a pale hand toward me. "I knew you would," she continued softly. "You see, I asked my trees about you."
"Your trees," I echoed vaguely. Farley's barking was growing more frenzied.
"Yes. But I want to know-and you must tell me. What would your trees say about you?" she demanded. "Would your trees tell me to trust you?"
Now the light from her eyes was so piercing that I almost winced. "Oh, I think my trees would give me a good reference," I replied, surprised at how easily the answer came.
"You'll come back-soon? You'll come back to see me soon?" she asked, withdrawing her hand.
"Yes, of course," I promised. "It'll probably take me a few days, but I'll come as soon as I've read your diaries. Why don't we say by the end of the week?"
"I shall trust you, then," she whispered, pulling her scarf down over her face. "I shall trust to your return."