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At first I thought I was dreaming, for when I woke and opened my eyes, I heard nothing but the low whistle of the wind blowing up from the ocean. The stream of moonlight filtering through my sheer white curtain bathed the walls in a pale yellow glow. My window shutters banged against the clapboard and then, I heard the sound again, this time with my eyes wide. I listened, my heart tapping like a steadily growing drumbeat in anticipation of some important announcement or event. After a moment I heard it once more.
It sounded like a cat in heat, but we had no cats. Daddy hated pets, finding them more of an obligation than a pleasure. The only animals he said had any purpose was a watchdog or a seeing-eye dog, and he had no need for either. Our house was far enough away from the downtown Provincetown area and surrounded by walls ten feet high with an entrance gate Daddy had Jerome, our grounds keeper, lock every night. Daddy also kept his shotgun under the bed, "just in case." It was, he said, a lot cheaper than feeding some mongrel, and that, he concluded, "was the bottom line."
This time the sound was even louder. I sat up so quickly someone would think I had springs under me, but I realized the shrill cries were not in my imagination or from nightmares. The noise was coming through the wall between my room and Belinda's. It wasn't a howl, exactly, nor was it a screech. There was something familiar about the sound and yet something starkly unusual. It was certainly not a noise Belinda would make herself, but there was no doubt it was emanating from her bedroom.
I stepped off my bed, scooped up my robe from the chair beside my bed, and shoved my arms into the sleeves as I left my room. Daddy and Mother had already come out of their bedroom. Mother was still in her nightgown and Daddy was in his pajamas. The dreadful sound continued.
"What in all hell..." Daddy started for Belinda's closed door. I followed, with Mother a distant third, but when Daddy opened the door and realized the horrendous scream came from Belinda, Mother charged forward.
"Winston, what's wrong?" she cried.
Daddy flicked on the light, illuminating the most amazing and alarming sight before us.
Belinda was sprawled on the floor, her nightgown bloody and crumbled up to her breasts. There, lying between her legs was a newly-born infant, the umbilical cord and afterbirth still attached.
Belinda's eyes were wild with terror. The baby's eyes were closed, and it jerked its tiny arm and then stopped moving.
"Jesus, Mary and Joseph," Daddy exclaimed under his breath, his feet hammered to the floor by astonishment.
Mother's eyes rolled back in her head and she folded at Daddy's feet as if her spinal cord had turned to jelly.
"Take her to bed, Daddy," I said. "I'll see to Belinda."
He gazed back at the sight once more to confirm it was indeed still there and not in his imagination. Then he squatted, slipped his arms under Mother and lifted her like she was a baby herself, carrying her back to their bedroom.
I entered Belinda's room, quickly closing the door behind me. Our servants downstairs were surely awake by now as well. Belinda whimpered. Her eyes rolled as if the room were spinning. She had her arms raised, but she was afraid to touch the infant or herself.
"I couldn't stop it. It just happened, Olivia," she moaned. Her whole body shook. I stepped up to her and gazed down at the bloody sight.
"You were pregnant? All this time you've been pregnant?" I asked incredulously.
"Yes," she said, gasping.
Now everything made sense. A number of times during the past few months Daddy and I had made comments about Belinda's gaining weight. She was ravenous at every meal lately and didn't seem at all concerned about her widening hips and bloated face. I really didn't care. It was more Daddy who complained. His precious little Barbie doll was disappearing right before his eyes and in its place grew this self-indulgent creature I called my sister.
Oh, once or twice, I said things like, "Aren't you afraid you'll lose your entourage of boyfriends?"
She didn't seem concerned even though it was true that fewer and fewer young men came around to visit her or ask her to go sailing, take walks on the beach or spend an evening in town. Now that I stared down at her squirming on the bedroom floor, her child quiet and unmoving between her thighs, I realized why she had so adamantly kept me from seeing her naked a number of times. A quick search of her closet would result in the discovery of a pair of girdles in a box. What I also understood now was her sudden and uncharacteristic interest in and desire for those baggy dresses she used to refer to as "Granny clothes" whenever I wore them.
I knelt beside her and put my hand on the infant's tiny chest. It felt cold already and it did not vibrate with any heartbeat, nor did it rise and fall with any breath.
"I don't think it's alive," I said.
She whimpered again.
"Please, Olivia, get it away. I...can't touch it," she said.
I didn't move quickly. I stared at the wrinkled little creature for a while, studying its facial features, its blue lips and its fingers so tiny even one of my own small fingers was the width of nearly all five of one of its hands.
"It was a boy," I said, more as a thought voiced aloud than anything she wanted to know.
Belinda closed her eyes and began to hyperventilate. I watched her suffering for a moment, still dumbfounded at how well she had kept this secret. What would our daddy think of his precious little princess now? I wondered.
"Do you have any idea, even an inkling of an idea, how terrible this is, Belinda? Didn't you consider this inevitable outcome and think about what it was going to do to our parents? Why didn't you come forward earlier so Daddy could have done something about this instead of deceiving everyone and hiding your condition?"
"I was afraid," she murmured and began to sniffle and sob. "I thought everyone would just hate me."
"Oh, and now we just love you?" I countered. She closed her eyes and held her breath a moment.
"Please, please, Olivia, help me," she begged.
"How many months were you pregnant?" I asked.
"I don't know exactly, but at least six or seven," she said quickly.
"That's why this child is so tiny. It's a premature birth. I knew you were having sex with some of your boyfriends, Belinda. I just knew it. I told you this would happen. I warned you. Now look, just look at what you've reaped with your wild, selfish behavior."
She sobbed an apology.
"Right," I muttered. "We'll all just blink and it will be gone."
"Who is the father?" I demanded. She didn't reply. "You've got to say, Olivia. Whoever he is he bears at least half the responsibility. Daddy's going to want to know. Who is it? Arnold Miller?"
He was a boy she had been with a great deal more than the others.
"No," she said quickly. "Arnold and I never went far enough."
"Then who was it, Belinda? I'm not going to play a guessing game with you. Tell me! If you don't tell me, I'll leave you here wallowing in this...disaster."
"I don't know," she wailed. "Please, Olivia."
"How can you not know unless you...my God, Belinda, how many boys have you slept with? And so closely together that you can't pinpoint who would be the father of this...this child?"
At the moment I didn't know what bothered me more: that she had so many lovers or that I had had none.
She just shook her head.
"I don't know, Olivia. I don't know. I don't want to blame anyone. Please."
"You'll have to tell Daddy something, Belinda," I warned. "He won't settle for an 'I don't know.'"
She opened her eyes and gazed up at me, and for a moment, I thought she was going to reveal the father of her baby. Was it someone I knew well, too?
"I can't blame someone if I don't know for sure," she finally declared. "Can I?"
"They're all to blame. You might as well name all of them and let each one sweat," I said, thinking that would be a just and poetic revenge.
"I can't," she wailed. She shook her head so hard, I thought she would tear it off her neck.
"All right, suit yourself. You'll see what's going to happen now. You'll see," I predicted.
I rose and went to her bathroom to get some towels. Then I returned and rolled the dead infant onto one. I placed it and the afterbirth and umbilical cord on the bed just as Daddy opened the door and stepped back into the room. He looked around, his eyes avoiding Belinda for a moment. He gazed at the child before turning to me with a questioning look.
"He's dead, I think, Daddy," I said.
"Most likely," he said and approached the bed. He reached down slowly with his big hand and put the tip of his forefinger on the infant's neck. "Yes," he said. "A blessing."
Belinda began to wail.
"Stop it!" I snapped, hovering over her. "Do you want Carmelita to hear and come running up here?"
Belinda muffled her sobs and turned over on her side.
"Can you get her cleaned up and back to bed?" Daddy asked me.
"Is she...bleeding or anything? Are we going to need a doctor?"
"I don't think so."
"Make sure. I'll be right back," he said.
"I have her calmed down a bit, but she's still trembling badly," he said sorrowfully.
"After I get Belinda into the bathtub, I'll look in on her," I promised.
"Good." He hurried from the room.
"Get up, Belinda. I can't lift you and carry you into the bathroom. I'm going to run some water in your tub. At least cover yourself for now. You look absolutely disgusting moaning and wallowing on the floor," I said.
She whimpered her reply and started to brace herself on her elbows. There was blood on her legs, but she didn't look to be bleeding anymore. She took deep breaths again and sighed so deeply I thought she had passed out.
"Are you in any pain?"
"I don't need a doctor," she said. "I'll be all right."
"Maybe you don't need a doctor, but whether or not you'll be all right remains to be seen," I said.
I glanced again at the dead infant. I couldn't make out the color of its few strands of hair because its head was covered with sticky blood. There was no way to study it and determine who the father could be, I thought, and went to the bathroom to run Belinda's tub.
After I helped her get in, I heard Daddy return to the room. I went to the bathroom door and saw he had brought a small cardboard shoe box along. He glanced at me as he lifted the dead infant, wrapped it more tightly in the blanket, and then carefully, as if it were still alive, put it in the box.
"We've got to clean this up ourselves," he said, nodding at the floor. "I don't want the servants knowing anything, Olivia."
"I'll take care of it, Daddy."
"How is she?"
"She's all right. She'll live," I said sharply. He nodded again and lifted the box in his arms.
"What are you going to do, Daddy?"
"I'll have to bury the poor thing," he said.
For a moment I just stood there staring at him clutching the makeshift coffin in his arms.
"Don't we have to report it to someone?" I asked.
"If we do that, Olivia, this terrible event will be headline news in every home and tavern in Provincetown. It would definitely do Belinda no good, and it would be very damaging to the family. Apparently, she did a good job of keeping all this a secret from us, but question her vigorously and make sure no one else knows about it," he added.
"Don't forget. As soon as you finish with her, please look in on your mother."
"I will, Daddy."
He stared for a moment and then looked at the box in his arms.
"It has to be this way," he concluded, more for himself than for me, I thought. He turned and hurried out of the bedroom with the box cradled securely in his arms.
I returned to the tub and saw to it that Belinda washed herself. I helped her dry her body and then I brought her a new, clean nightgown. After I got her back into bed, I went downstairs to the utility room. I found I was tiptoing and slinking along in my own home, moving like a burglar to keep from waking Carmelita, our maid and cook, or Jerome. I got a pail, a mop, rags and some detergent. Then I returned to Belinda's room and filled the pail with hot water.
Fortunately, she had lowered herself from the bed onto a throw rug and the rug had absorbed most of the blood. I rolled up the rug and then washed away any traces of the horrendous event. Belinda lay there with her eyes closed, moaning softly, occasionally sobbing. As I worked, I rattled off a relentless series of complaints and chastisements.
"You've really done it this time. Mother is beside herself. Daddy looked pale enough to be a corpse, too. We'll all have nightmares forever. What did you think, it would all just go away without anyone knowing?"
I paused and looked down at her wilting little face.
"Did you think being pregnant was like having a cold or the measles? Maybe you damaged yourself forever, Belinda. Maybe now you'll never be able to have a child decently. No one will want to marry you. What were you thinking?" I ranted. How could this be happening? I wondered. How could anyone, even Belinda, do such a thing to herself and her family?
"Please, Olivia. Please, stop. Please," she begged putting her hands over her ears.
"I'll stop. I should stop and let you clean up this mess," I muttered. "Does anyone else know about your being pregnant? You didn't tell any of your bubbleheaded friends at school, did you?" I followed. Most of Belinda's friends were silly, spoiled girls I called the Bubble Gum Club because I thought their brains were full of bubbles.
"No, no one knows anything," she swore. "I always got dressed and undressed in private when I took physical education class, and I never showered at school."
"You better be telling the truth," I warned her.
I went to the bathroom and cleaned up the tub so Carmelita wouldn't find any traces of this tragedy.
Daddy returned, his dark brown hair wild, his eyes full of torment and shock. He saw the rug and the wet rags and picked everything up.
"I'm going to bury all this too," he mumbled. "It must be as if none of this ever happened."
He looked about madly.
"You've got everything, Daddy."
"Good," he said and charged out. I had never seen our father look more crazed. It actually frightened me more than it frightened Belinda, who was lying there with her eyes closed most of the time. I imagined she was afraid to look him in the face now.
After Daddy left again, I went to see how Mother was doing. She was sitting at the edge of her bed, working up the strength to stand and see about Belinda. She still looked quite pale, her breathing labored.
"Mother, you should lie down again," I said rushing to her side.
"How is Belinda?"
"She'll be all right. I got her cleaned up and back to bed."
"Daddy's taken care of all the rest."
"The baby died right away, Mother," I said. "It was premature. Daddy took the baby and buried it someplace. He said he doesn't want anyone to know."
"Buried?" she gasped and shook her head. "God forgive us," she whispered.
I thought she would fall forward to the floor, so I seized her by the elbow and tried to get her to lie back, but she shook her head.
"I have to look in on her, Olivia."
She wobbled when she stood. I put my arm around her waist and helped her to the door. She grew stronger as she walked and returned to Belinda's bedroom.
Belinda started to sob as Mother approached her.
"I'm sorry, Mommy," she whimpered. "I'm sorry."
Mother sat on the bed and held her in her arms, and as Belinda cried, Mother rocked her.
"Poor child," she said.
"Poor child? She oughta be whipped," I muttered, but I couldn't help feeling sorry for her, too, even though I didn't want to give her an iota of sympathy.
"There, there, dear. It's all right. It will be all right," Mother chanted.
Finally, Belinda sucked back her sniffles and wiped her cheeks.
"I know I should have told you, Mommy, but I just couldn't. I was too ashamed and afraid," she explained.
"That made a bad thing worse, Belinda. You can't keep such a secret from your parents, or your sister," she said, gazing at me. Belinda looked at me, too. "We all love you and would want to help you."
"I know, Mommy. I'm sorry," she said.
"How did such a thing happen?" Mother asked in a hoarse whisper, looking more at me than at Belinda now.
For as long as I could remember, Mother turned to me to learn things about Belinda. She always expected I was in charge of my younger sister, but I had been away at finishing school most of this year, and knew about Belinda's exploits only through gossip and the little I observed on holidays. This was Belinda's senior year, and I thought she had been given too much freedom, much more than I had been given. Without me at home, Mother didn't keep a good account of Belinda's whereabouts and activities. She was permitted to sleep at her friends' homes and stay out way past midnight. Daddy was always too busy to notice, I thought, and now look at what had resulted.
"She says she doesn't know who the father is," I declared. "Apparently, there are too many candidates."
"What?" Mother asked, her face twisted in disbelief. Did she think Belinda was some sort of angel just because Daddy always treated her like his little cherub? "Too many? How can there have been too many, Belinda?"
"I don't know, Mommy. Please, I don't want to think about it. Please," she begged and started to sob again.
"We should know," I insisted. "Daddy should know and go see them."
"Maybe it's better we don't," Mother concluded, succumbing to Belinda's teary grimaces and wails. "What good is it going to do anyone now?"
"People should be responsible for their actions, Mother. Daddy's going to want to know," I added firmly.
"I'm thirsty," Belinda moaned.
"All right, honey. All right. Olivia will get you some water."
"I need something colder, something with ice," she demanded.
"So go get it," I snapped.
"Olivia, please," Mother said, turning her soft eyes to me.
"We shouldn't be babying her now, Mother. She's done a terrible thing to all of us," I said, feeling abused too. Mother just held her gaze, pleading with her eyes. I turned and hurried out of the room and down the stairs.
Carmelita had finally been roused by the sound of the footsteps on the stairway and the activity above. She was a tall, very dark skinned, half-Portuguese, half-Negro woman, what we called a Brava on the Cape, and she had been working for our family for the last ten years. She was in her mid-forties, lean, with a narrow face and eyes the color of obsidian. Carmelita was the perfect maid and cook for our family because she was strong, efficient and discreet. She seemed to have no opinions about any of us and kept to herself when she wasn't working.
Her licorice-black hair was down to her shoulders when she emerged from her quarters to greet me. She was in her nightgown and robe.
"Is someone sick?" she asked.
"Belinda," I said.
"Oh. Is there anything I can do?"
"No thank you, Carmelita," I said. "I can take care of it," I said firmly. She fixed those dark eyes on my face for a moment and, expressionless, nodded and returned to her maid's quarters at the rear of the house. I knew she didn't believe me, but even when I was just a young girl, Carmelita never challenged anything I told her.
When I was in the kitchen getting Belinda's drink, Daddy came in through the rear door off the pantry. He stood there a moment, his face streaked with sweat, his hands caked with dirt.
"It's done," he said. "How is it up there?" he asked, his eyes shifting toward the ceiling.
"Mother's with her. I'm just getting her a cold drink."
Daddy nodded and looked at his smudged wrists and hands before looking back at me.
"You understand why I'm doing it this way, don't you, Olivia? The bottom line is it's the best way to protect the family."
"I understand, Daddy."
"She told you no one else knows about this?"
"That's what she said," I replied, not without a smirk of skepticism that Daddy chose to ignore.
"Good," he said. "Good."
"She won't tell me who the father is, however," I added. "She claims she doesn't know."
He shook his head.
"Maybe it's better. We can't go accusing someone and stir up a nest of hornets."
"Whoever it is, he shouldn't get away with it, Daddy."
"It's done and over," he said. "Let it all be buried," he added and then left to wash up before returning to see Belinda. Once again, I thought, my spoiled sister gets away with something terrible.
When I returned to Belinda's room with her water, I found Mother had her lying back comfortably. I gave her the cold drink and she sipped it and smiled up at me.
"Thank you, Olivia. I'm sorry I put you through so much."
"Yes, you did," I said without flinching. She looked like she would burst into tears again and make Mother feel more terrible. "Just rest now, Belinda. You don't want to get seriously ill," I added mercifully. She changed her expression instantly to one of gratitude and then reached out to take my hand.
"You're my best sister," she said. I nearly laughed.
"I'm your only sister, Belinda."
"I know, but you're so good to me."
"She is good to you. She's good to all of us," Mother said smiling at me. "What we all have to do now is get some rest."
"How can anyone sleep after this?" I muttered. If Mother heard, she chose to ignore me.
Daddy came to the door and looked in at us.
"Well?" he asked.
"She's doing fine, Winston," Mother said.
"That's good. It's better we behave as if this didn't happen," he advised.
"You might as well pretend there's no ocean out there," I declared.
"Your father's right, Olivia. It won't do any good to talk about it, even amongst ourselves. Let's close our eyes and imagine it was a nightmare," she suggested.
It didn't surprise me to hear her say such a thing. It was the way Mother handled most of the unpleasantness in her life. Not even an event like this would be any different.
She leaned over to kiss Belinda who smiled at her, and then she left the room. Daddy stood there a moment gazing in at me, at the floor and then at Belinda.
"Everyone just go to sleep," he said and left.
I looked at Belinda. She offered me her small smile, but I just shook my head at her.
"I'm so tired, Olivia," she said. "I feel so weak inside, too, but I didn't want to alarm anyone. Daddy wouldn't want me to have to go to a doctor."
"You'll live," I said. "Just go to sleep."
I checked the room once more and then started out, pausing in the doorway to look back at her. She looked small, like a little girl again. In moments she was asleep.
I lay awake in my bed thinking not of Belinda, or of my parents. I thought about that dead infant whose spark of life went out so quickly and who was interred someplace on our grounds so soon afterward, he surely had no memory of ever being born into this family.
At the moment, I thought, he was the lucky one.
Belinda remained at home for the rest of the week. We told everyone she had the flu. I thought that Carmelita knew something far more serious had occurred. She brought Belinda her meals so she saw that Belinda wasn't coughing or sneezing. However, Mother pampered her and behaved as if our lies were really the truth. I heard her talking to her friends on the telephone, telling them how sick Belinda was.
"One day she was fine and the next, she was as sick as a dog," she rambled, describing the symptoms, even claiming she had phoned the doctor for instructions.
It all disgusted me. I was especially amazed at how quickly Daddy had adjusted to the façade he and Mother had created. The following morning he was up and dressed at his usual hour, already seated at the breakfast table, reading his newspaper as though the night before really had been just a bad dream. The only indication in his face was a quick but sharp look at me when Carmelita came into the dining room and inquired as to Belinda's health. That was when Mother went into her long, detailed explanation, pouring out her brook of bubbling white lies. Daddy looked pleased.
Since I had returned from finishing school, I had gone to work for him as an apprentice accountant. Daddy decided that it would be a waste to send me to some liberal arts college, "just to fill the time, until you find a decent and proper man to marry, Olivia. Any man you marry will appreciate you more for doing something practical," he added.
I wasn't excited about going to college anyway, and I had always been very good with numbers. Daddy claimed I had a good mind for business. He said he knew that even when I was just a little girl selling cranberries from our bog. I set up a stand on the street that ran by our property. Tourists thought it was sweet seeing a little girl behave so seriously about money. What impressed Daddy was that I took my money and had him put it into an interest-bearing savings account rather than spend it in the candy or toy stores.
"At least I have someone in the family to inherit my business," he declared. He had come to accept that he wouldn't have a son, but in time, I believed he no longer thought of me as an inferior substitute. He gave me too many compliments at the office for me to believe that.
Daddy was truly a self-made millionaire, a success story that illustrated the American dream: a small entrepreneur who made good business decisions and gradually but firmly built a bigger and bigger business. He was written up in many regional magazines and once in the Boston papers.
He had begun with a single fishing boat and then bought a second and a third. Before long, he had a fleet of vessels providing seafood for an ever-growing national market. He expanded into the canning of shrimp in Boston and built an impressive financial chain of related businesses, making the shrewd move to get a commanding interest in the trucking facilities so he could control his overhead. By his own admission, he was at times a ruthless businessman, smothering competition, dropping prices to drive them out of his territories. He became more and more influential in politics, picked up government contracts and continued to expand his reach and hold on his markets.
After less than six months, I knew our mother company inside and out, and Daddy even permitted me to sit in on some of his business meetings to listen and learn more. After they ended, he often turned to me to get my opinions, and a number of times, he took my advice.
Belinda, on the other hand, didn't know the first thing about our business. According to the way she behaved and thought, money came into our lives like rain. When we needed it, it was there, and there was never a drought, never a time when she ever heard the words, "We can't afford that, Belinda."
I often lectured her about being ungrateful and unappreciative.
"You take everything for granted as though it's owed to you," I accused.
She gave me that sweet smile of hers and shrugged. I could accuse her of murder and she would do the same. She rarely argued or denied anything. It was as if she believed she would be immune from responsibility and guilt, that she had been given some holy dispensation and could do whatever her little heart desired, no matter what the consequences.
It was even true now, I thought disgustedly, with our parents claiming it was better to pretend nothing happened. Belinda just had the flu. I almost believed Daddy had convinced himself he hadn't buried a premature infant.
The day after when I returned from the office, I wandered out behind our house, curious as to whether I could find the unmarked grave site. Our land behind the house ran nearly a full acre before it reached the cliff that looked out over the Atlantic Ocean. It was a sharp descent to the rocky beach below. There were some safe pathways that led down to the small private beach we had, only a clam shell's toss away. Our yard had sprawling maples and some oak trees, and a large part of it remained uncultivated. Poison ivy grew among the brambles and wild roses and more than once, Belinda had wandered too close, suffering the results for weeks after.
A large lawn was bordered by crocus clusters, Emperor tulips, jonquils and daffodils. There was a gazebo and a pond with benches around it, and I found it so restful to sit there and look out to sea.
Sometimes, I would walk out to the edge of the cliff and watch the tide, mesmerized by the rhythmic movement of the waves, the breakers, the spray shooting up from the rocks, listening to the seagulls scream as they plummeted for clams. I would go to the very edge and close my eyes. I could feel my body sway as if it were tempted to fly off the cliff and crash on the rocks below.
When she was younger, Belinda was frightened by the ocean. She was not fond of sailing, hated the danger of man-of-wars and the smell of seaweed. She rarely, if ever, went hunting for driftwood. The only reason she could see for going to the beach was to have a party and then to stay far enough away from the water so as not to even be sprayed by the waves crashing against the shore. Once, when I was nine and she was seven, I took her out to the edge of the cliff with me and asked her to close her eyes. It frightened her so much she turned and ran back to the house. I thought about that now and wondered what I would have done if she had fallen.
Jerome had just finished doing some weeding when I stepped out back to find the grave. He nodded and headed for the shed. With my arms folded across my body, I walked as casually as I could down the slate rock pathway, my eyes flitting from side to side, searching for signs of dirt that had been disturbed. I walked all the way out to the edge of the cliff without seeing anything. Where could Daddy have put the carton and other things? It wouldn't be just a little hole, would it?
I went around toward the maples and paused when I thought I had found an area under one of the trees that looked like it had been dug up. I stepped closer and when I knelt and inspected the ground, I decided this was the place. It put a shudder in me and I rose as if I expected the dead infant to cry for help, even with its muted voice.
Years later, I would come here again and find the place overgrown, but in the midst of the crab grass and flat emerald weeds, would be a patch of juniper swaying in the ocean wind, reminding me of that horrible night.
At the moment I was angry about it, though. I didn't like feeling creepy and morose. I didn't like burying Belinda's sins because I didn't like lies. When you lie, I thought, you make yourself vulnerable and weak. Daddy was a much weaker man in my eyes because of what he had done, though I was sure that he had his nightmares, too.
I fled from the spot, hating Belinda for putting us all in this horrible place.
Daddy should have made Belinda suffer her consequences and not leave her to be pampered upstairs all week, I thought. I believed he would never bring it up again, but he surprised me one night toward the end of that week. He was in his den going over the family accounts when I walked by and he called to me.
"Close the door, Olivia," he ordered as soon as I entered. I did so and then turned to him. He sat behind his desk stiffly. "We've got to put all this behind us, Olivia. I notice you've been different all this week, looking at me as if you expected me to say or do something more."
"I don't mean to be your conscience, Daddy," I said and he winced as though I had spit at him. "I'm sorry. It's just hard for me to pretend nothing happened."
"Listen to me, Olivia. The most important quality is loyalty. Every family is a world unto itself and every member of that little world must protect it at any cost. Only then can individual liberty, interests and talents be pursued. Build the family first, Olivia. The only rule for morality is what's good for the family is good," he said, his eyes firm. "It's the lesson my father taught me and the lesson I hope you will take to heart.
"Among ourselves, we can criticize and regret, but we have to put it aside when it threatens the family. It's the credo I live by, Olivia. It's the only flag I salute and the only cause for which I will give my life."
I stared a moment. Daddy looked like he was about to cry now. His lips were pressed together so hard, his cheeks bulged.
"Don't condemn me for loving all of you, loving my family name and reputation so much, Olivia. Learn from it," he pleaded.
I took a deep breath. Daddy and I had had many conversations in the past, but I rarely if ever saw his eyes fill with tears. I felt bad for him, felt sorry I had made him feel any guilt.
"I understand, Daddy," I said. "I really do."
"That's good, Olivia, because you're my hope. You will have many decisions to make for our family after I'm gone, and I hope you will always remember this week and remember what I told you to use as your guiding principle."
"I will, Daddy," I promised.
He smiled and rose. Then he walked around the desk and put his arm around me.
"I'm proud of you, Olivia." He kissed me on the forehead. "Very proud," he said.
I watched him return to his desk. He looked tired, like a man carrying too many burdens. I remained a moment until he lowered his eyes to his papers, and then I left him.
His words clung to me even after I had put out the lights that night and lowered my head to the pillow. They lingered with the memory of his tear-filled eyes.
There is a terrible price to pay for being a leader, I thought, a terrible burden.
Maybe Belinda was better off than any of us, especially me.
Look at what she had done and yet tonight, like most nights, she embraced her stuffed animals, closed her eyes, and dreamed of parties, of tinkling bells, of ribbons and music and boyfriends dangling on her smiles.
Whereas my dreams were about a patch of dirt behind the house and my father, lowering the carton into the ground while through his tears he chanted, "For the family. It's all for the family."
Copyright © 1999 by The Vanda General Partnership