Soft clouds drifted across an almost clear sky, shepherded by the same breeze that whispered through the seemingly endless rows of corn. A raven perched himself on a fence post and surveyed the land as a plume of dust erupted down the dirt road. What eventually emerged into view was a beaten Ford with a raspy engine and a coat of paint that reminded Aoife of tomatoes.
She stared at the fields out of the corner of her eye, hands curled on her lap as she listened to "Strawberry Wine" by Deana Carter streaming through the radio. Uncle John cleared his throat and raised his index finger on the steering wheel.
"These are our fields."
After some time, the corn rows expired and a white double story home with crimson trim emerged into sight. The truck rambled to a stop and John cleared his throat rather awkwardly. "Run along to the house, now, so I can check on some things out here."
Alabama was a steaming oven when she pushed open her door. She was asked by her mother that morning to wear the maxi sundress with the amber and toffee plaid and her hair in a loop at her neck, and this explained why. Several hens squawked around her as she reached for her luggage and stepped out of the old truck and onto southern soil.
As the truck rattled on, she managed another deep breath and moved to the house, whose paint she could not help but notice was peeling as she drew up to the door and knocked softly upon the wood. Without a moment's hesitation, the door swung open and a woman appeared with a smile and an apron covering her turquoise checked shirt.
"Lord, you are a lovely girl!" Kathleen Snyder threw her arms around her niece, then held her out at arm's length. "We have some cherry-vanilla coke and hot molasses cookies here in the kitchen. Please, come in so I can get to know you!"
She disappeared into the house and drew Aoife in behind her. They emerged into a tea room the color of antique lace with a pattern of scattered scarlet diamond shapes and a matching scarlet border. A wooden round table in the middle of the room was covered with a silky scarlet cloth. Painted honey bees decorated the teapot and the pair of teacups on their saucers.
"This is such a beautiful room," she breathed as she trailed her fingers along the back of a scarlet recliner and listened to the creak of the wooden floors.
Kathleen smiled with pride as she moved into the kitchen area to the left and pulled open the oven door to extract the cookies. "We have made it as pretty as we can, but we spent some extra time on it this week to make sure you would enjoy it. Me daughter Eleanor is at her riding lesson and Adelaide is at a piano lesson, else I would have gathered them to meet you."
Aoife drew back a chair and sat down and placed her hands on her lap. She raised them again smooth the rumpled surface. Then she stared down at her cherry painted nails until Kathleen appeared with a platter of cookies and two cans of cherry-vanilla soda beneath her arm. But when she rose, her aunt smiled. "Be seated and soak in the lovely afternoon. I am sure you have realized by now that our summers are much hotter than in Ireland, so you must be sure to keep hydrated. Drink the coke as well as the tea, and keep drinking water all day. You may start feeling right sick if you don't."
"Go raibh maith agat," smiled Aoife. "I appreciate you opening your home to me."
"We love to have you. But I have something to ask, and I hope you don't mind. Your mother was explaining to me that there is some boy in your life right now that is making matters complicated, but I wanted to ask your side of the story. Will you tell me more about him?"
"Liam McCallister is the most amazing person I have ever met. Really," Aoife rushed as if expecting to be interrupted, "Paints always smudge his hands, and there is always a song on his heart that he can play. On Samhain, he made a knight costume out of tin foil and wire mesh. And there is so much love in him, but it's crushed by his anxiety. He hasn't been able to reach his potential."
"Yes, his anxiety," Kathleen dropped her eyes to the table. "Me sister was so scared that his stress and his heart for witchcraft might come between you and the good Lord."
"Liam got lost in the pitch darkness. He needs enough love to illuminate the path to salvation in Christ. I could see that darkness in his life being eaten by the light."
Aunt Kathleen remained silent as she sipped her tea with a distant gaze at the tablecloth.
"Well," she said eventually. "When you are ready, we have reserved the guest room for you. Up the stairs and to the left. You must be exhausted from your journey here."
It was an hour before Aoife made her way up the staircase. She studied the photos as she moved – of ripened peach trees, and portraits of the family. When she reached the top, she noticed a paper sign taped to the door on her left with her name on it.
She softly pushed the door open to see a small room the color of sunshine, with a twin bed pushed against the right wall and a window straight ahead. An antique white desk and a mahogany shelf with books stood beside a standing mirror to the left. She eased herself onto the bed and curled her legs beneath her, tears streaming down her cheeks. She smeared a hand across closed eyes and her breathing steadied.
. . .
Silverware clattering and soft voices downstairs drew her eyes open to see the alarm clock say it was five. She sneaked to the edge of the staircase and peered down into the tea room beneath her. A young woman with pale blond curls at her shoulders was placing plates on the table, and another with smooth brown hair and a slight frame was setting silverware beside them.
"Right in time for dinner," Aoife started with surprise when Kathleen appeared at the bottom of the stairs with a smile, and the young women gathered alongside her. "These are me daughters Eleanor and Adelaide. Girls, this is your cousin Aoife."
She smiled her best as she came down the stairs to accept the hand extended to her by Eleanor, whose brown eyes resembled those of her father. "Great to meet you. Mamma has been so excited!"
"I appreciate that," Aoife answered.
"We will have so much fun together!" Adelaide reached to embrace her, and when she released her, led her to the rectangular table close to the entrance of the kitchen. "Please sit down, and we'll all be ready to eat in a minute."
"Aren't you girls forgetting something?"
Aoife started again at the cracked voice in the corner of the room. She raised her eyes to see a small woman with her hair pulled into a silver bun atop her head peering around the back of the recliner. Despite her solemn expression, her brown eyes sparkled with amusement.
"Sorry! Aoife, this is Grandma Pearl. She lives here as well."
Aoife smiled. "Lovely to meet you."
"Likewise," Pearl nodded affably.
The aromas of fried chicken and pecan pie drifted in from the kitchen. Aoife breathed deeply as she seated herself at the table. Grandma Pearl grunted and eased to her feet with a lavender shawl around her shoulders. Aoife rose and came alongside her to assist her to a chair. The woman complied silently until she eased herself down into the chair with a groan.
"Ain't as easy to move as it once was."
Aoife reseated herself on the opposite side as Kathleen and her girls emerged from the kitchen with a plate of fried chicken and another of watermelon while Adelaide presented a pitcher of sweet tea. The door opened and John came into the room, dusting his hat against his leg.
"Looks like I just made it."
"Come over here, John, and say grace," Kathleen ushered him to the table. When he sat, the family clasped their hands and closed their eyes. When grace was said and heads were raised, the family ripped into the fried chicken and raised their glasses to their lips. Aoife severed a chunk of chicken and received it into her mouth with a smile. A great meal seemed to be a great start to this new adventure.
. . .
Aoife was startled awake around two in the morning by the sharp barking of a hound. She listened with wide eyes as the hound started to howl and soft steps could be heard in the hall outside her door. She tossed her sheet away and eased into a sitting position, swinging her legs over the side of the bed. As she crept toward the stairs, she saw Adelaide sneaking toward the front door and drawing it open.
"Sheila!" she hissed. Almost instantly, a white dog with dark splotches came barreling into her legs. She reached down and stroked the muzzle, beckoning Aoife nearer with her hand when their eyes met. "Aoife, come meet Sheila and Sam."
Aoife made her way down the steps as silently as she could manage and came to the door. A man of seventeen with carmine hair and freckles across his nose pulled the dog back by her collar and raised his hazel eyes with a smile.
"I'm Sam," he reached out his hand. "I'm the girls' cousin on their daddy's side.
"Aoife Sweeney," she accepted his hand with a polite smile.
"And this is Sheila," Sam added and pulled the mottled head up to kiss it. "She's a blue tick hound. We live in a guest house out back, and she sometimes comes to visit in the middle of the night."
Aoife smiled. Adelaide gave the dog a pat on the back. "She's always welcome to visit – except when the chickens are out and about."
"Well, ladies, I'd better jet," Sam straightened and smiled again. "See you tomorrow in the orchards."
"See you," Adelaide and Aoife answered as the shut the door.