My parents were deeply in love. That love never dwindled or ceased to be as some loves do, but increased to such a degree that, at times, it seemed as if all the world was forgotten in their obsession with each other.
Because Papa was part Ute and Mama was white, both their families opposed the union. Their marriage did nothing to bring the races together. Indeed, it strengthened the hatred so much that my parents were disowned on their wedding day. Still, they were happy. They had each other and their Colorado horse ranch.
Their happiness was blessed by the Almighty when Annie, my older sister, was born. Petite and elf-like, she was almost a mirror of Mama, with the same tumbling red-gold curls, ivory, petal-soft skin, and laughing violet eyes. I soon followed. A female version of my father with smooth ebony tresses, brown eyes and copper skin, I was the more adventurous child, eager, despite my skirts, to learn the rough, arduous pursuits of a cowboy.
In my sixteenth year, the autumn came on wet. Rain and wind slammed against the stables and the ranch house, blasting its way past the roughhewn timbers to bathe the rooms in cold and dampness. Mama coughed and sneezed, but laughed, making light of it.
One night, during an extremely nasty storm, lightning struck the big barn and set it ablaze. We all rushed out to save the animals, returning to the house hours later, drenched and exhausted. Suddenly Mama collapsed in the doorway, burning up with fever.
Over the next few weeks, the illness consumed her, body and spirit, until she welcomed death. When at last she passed, we buried her with all honors in her best Sunday frock, her wedding ring still shimmering on her finger.
Papa was never the same. He spent his days staring out the sitting room window, his eyes vacant, his hands clenched, as autumn turned into winter and winter into spring.
Some days, desperate to forget, he drank, but the liquor only seemed to sharpen his tortured memories. When he saw Annie, looking so much like our mother, his wistful eyes would follow her, half hoping, half believing Mama had returned. Sometimes he convinced himself that she had and reached out for her, calling her Margaret, Mama's name.
Gently rebuffing him, Annie would speak to him as if to a young child. "No, Papa! Mama... Margaret has gone to Heaven. I'm Annie, your daughter." Papa would slump back into his chair, bewildered and hurt.
Sometimes when he woke up at night and Mama wasn't laying beside him, he dashed through the house, screaming her name, his ragged, pleading cries echoing and re-echoing in the silence. Our hired hand, Zeke, Annie, and I often found him listening to the ghosts of his own voice, trying to convince himself it was hers. Some nights, he didn't sleep at all, but wandered the house, wailing and moaning his grief like a man possessed or stared until dawn at Mama's candlelit miniature as if he were willing her back to life.
Papa had lost all interest in the ranch, but the rest of us struggled on with the work as best we could. The first pretty spring day, we started the branding, leaving Papa alone in the house. We returned to the crash and clatter of shattering glass and rushed into the sitting room. Papa was throwing Mama's knick-knacks through the jagged windowpane he had broken, cursing her for leaving him. When he saw Annie, he lunged for her, calling her his 'darling'. Frightened, she fled while Zeke and I wrestled with him, trying to keep him from following her. When she was gone, he collapsed, tears streaming down his face as he whimpered "Margaret!"
Zeke declared Papa was haunted and Annie wouldn't go near him if she could help it, but I sat with him evenings, hoping my company would comfort him. I was with him one June night very late. He was studying Mama's miniature by candlelight, his eyes never wavering from her image. Suddenly he raised his head. We had both heard footsteps on the stairs.
Grabbing the candle, Papa sprang up, Mama's name on his lips as he raced out of his bedroom. Worried, I followed as, with joyous anticipation, he ran from room to room, searching for her. When we came to the library, Annie was standing in the middle of the room in a long, white nightgown, her titian hair shimmering in the light of the candle she held. "Margaret!" Papa cried.
Annie didn't stumble backward or send me a silent appeal for help as she usually did at Papa's approach. Instead, she opened her arms, smiling. When she spoke, her voice was Annie's and yet it was not. Full of that special love Mama's voice always held for Papa, her words danced and swirled through the room like eerie music. "My dearest love, despair no longer. Soon we shall spend eternity together. Hurry! I'm waiting!" Her laughter, like distant bells, seemed more a memory than a sound as she floated past us through the doorway.
Papa and I raced out of the room, following her into the hall, but she had vanished.
Shrugging, I trailed Papa as he headed toward to his bedroom. Since I was passing Annie's door on the way, I stopped to question her. "Annie! What sort of trick�" In the light from the candle she had used in the library, I could see that her bedclothes were twisted and tangled around her body, her eyes firmly closed, her chest rising and falling with each rhythmic breath. She had obviously been sleeping for hours.Putting out Annie's light, I rushed to Papa's room. In the warm, loving glow of his candle's flame, he sat at his desk, his head lowered. A gentle breeze blew through the open window, billowing the curtains and tussling his hair as if unseen fingers were sliding through it.
"Papa?" Venturing closer, I saw that his head was resting on the desk. A tender smile, the sort he had always reserved for Mama, slept on his lips. He clutched her miniature in one hand and in the outstretched palm of the other lay his wedding ring coupled with the one Mama had worn on her pale, cold finger as she was lowered into her grave. As round and whole and flawless as the day they had been forged, the simple gold bands were linked together forever in Papa's lifeless hand.
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