Kathleen lay on the massage table and looked up at the casement windows high above her. The sashes were fashioned of rough oak, the glass uneven and bottle-thick. Propped open on green sapling sticks, they were windows from an enchanted castle. Having been a children's librarian for twenty-five years, Kathleen Levine considered herself something of an expert on the subject of enchanted castles.
She smiled and closed her eyes. The massage was a birthday present from her coworkers at Edison Elementary. They'd given her the gift certificate at a surprise party for her fifty-ninth birthday, almost five months ago. When Madge Feeney, the school secretary, had learned that Kathleen still hadn't used it, Madge had harrumphed and made the appointment for her.
Kathleen stretched her neck from side to side. "Comfortable?" asked Marla, who stood at the far end of the table, kneading Kathleen's left instep. Marla Fletcher, who was nearly six feet tall, sounded as though she were far, far away. Like the giant wife in the castle of "Jack and the Beanstalk," Kathleen thought, and smiled again.
She sighed, letting go of the tension of driving from school to this odd, out-of-the-way place. Kathleen had thought she knew every last side street on Cape Ann, but Marla's directions had taken her along unfamiliar roads leading, finally, up a rutted, one-way lane that looped around the steep hills overlooking Mill Pond. She nearly turned back once, convinced she'd lost the way. But then she spotted the landmark: a stone gate, half-hidden by overgrown lilac bushes, weeks away from blooming.
It must have been a stunning estate in its day. Much as she hated being late, Kathleen slowed down for a better look. The great lawn had been designed to show off the pond, which shone platinum in the spring sun. Beyond it, Mill River glittered into the distance, silver on mauve.
She turned the car toward the sprawling hewn-granite mansion. Those windows seemed piteously small to be facing such a magnificent scene, she thought. And the four smaller outbuildings, made of the same majestic stones, with the same slate turrets, seemed oddly grand for servants' quarters.
Kathleen drove past two young couples in tennis whites standing by the net on a pristine clay court. They turned to watch as she pulled up beside the round stone tower, where Marla waited by the door. Rapunzel, thought Kathleen, at the sight of her waist-length golden hair.
Lying on the massage table, Kathleen wondered whether she could translate this amazing place into "once upon a time." She had tried to write children's books, she had even taken classes. But that was not her gift. Kathleen was good at matching children to books. She could find just the right story to catch any child's imagination -- even the wildest boys, who were her pet projects, her special successes. It wasn't as grand a gift as writing, but it was a gift. And in her own private way, Kathleen was proud of it.
Yet, here she was, in a castle on a hill in the woods, stroked and kneaded like a happy lump of dough by a kind lady; it seemed like an engraved invitation. Was this the kind of scene that had inspired Charles Dodgson to become Lewis Carroll? Was this the world that Maurice Sendak visited whenever he set out on a new book?
"Time to turn over," Marla said, draping the sheet so Kathleen remained covered. Warm oil trickled over Kathleen's sloping shoulders, velvet drops that soothed and tickled. "Nice," she said, overcome by gratitude to this pleasant stranger who made her feel so well cared for, so...cradled. Curious word, Kathleen thought. Curiouser and curiouser. She closed her eyes.
The next thing she knew, two warm hands cupped her face. "Take your time getting dressed," Marla whispered. "I'm going to get you a glass of water."
But Kathleen was no dawdler. She saw from the clock beside her that nearly two hours had passed since she had lain down. She swung her legs over the edge of the table and reached for her bra, fastening the hooks in front, bottom to top, just as her sister had shown her when Kathleen was twelve years old, before she needed a bra at all. She had no idea she was weeping until Marla raced back up the winding stone staircase, an empty glass in her hand.
Kathleen tried to regain control of her breathing. "I have breast cancer," she said, staring down at her chest.
"Oh my God," Marla said softly. She sat down and took Kathleen's hand. "I wish you'd told me. I would have brought up my amethyst crystal. I could have burned myrrh instead of sage."
Kathleen sniffed and stifled a laugh. "That's okay. It was a wonderful massage."
"Do you want to make an appointment for another one? That might be a good thing to do."
Kathleen wiped her nose on her slippery forearm and turned the bra around, filling it with her breasts -- first the good one, and then the traitor. "I'll call you after I know when...After..." Her throat closed. Marla put an arm around her shoulders.
The only sound was the volley on the tennis court below. The juicy pop of ball hitting racket, court, racket, sounded back and forth for a long time before someone finally missed a shot. The players' laughter filtered up through the windows, like an echo from another day, another story.
- Genres: Fiction
- paperback: 256 pages
- Publisher: Scribner
- ISBN-10: 0743225724
- ISBN-13: 9780743225724