© Christine Power
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The cemetery was nestled beneath the rugged range of West Coast mountains: a suitable setting for Anjelica’s dramatic end. I felt her mischievous spirit with us still, as the pale sunlight played hide-and-seek between moldering gravestones. Tall pines stood solemnly at attention beyond the grey stone walls like mourners gathered at the burial ground.
Bill squeezed my hand. As ever, his steady presence gave me strength. He knew I sorely grieved the loss of my sister, my best friend, Anjelica.
The shrill screeching of a lone seagull drowned out the priest’s voice but I was only half-listening as my thoughts and feelings were hostage to a jumble of memories. I’d grown up with many of those standing around the grave; we’d gone to school together, then onto college, brim full of aspirations and expectations. Even when we followed our various career paths, we vowed to stay in touch. And so we had, adding assorted boy and girl friends, followed by husbands, wives and children. Some of our circle paired off and married early, like Anjelica and Sean who were childhood sweethearts. Bill and I took longer to decide we were soul-mates
We were all in our early thirties, much too young to have suffered such a loss. Tears glazed my eyes, blurring the figures, as though I were watching an old disjointed black and white movie. From beneath my black-veiled hat, I examined each familiar face, wondering who else, like me, had played a part in the bizarre events that led eventually to this graveside.
“Ashes to ashes,” I muttered.
The words carried me back on a cold wind of remembrance, back to that morning when a frisky mountain breeze scattered black, grey, and white ashes: a powdery residue from the camp-fire we’d built the night before.
Sean and Anjelica had joined us on a trip up the Fraser River. It was a weekend of surprises. That morning, too, tears filled my eyes when listening to Anjelica’s confession. I was left speechless by her revelations. Revelations that had me wondering, which of the men, heads bent respectfully, was the one. Which one must be relieved, his secret safe now that it was all over? Would I ever know the full truth?
The sound of earth dropping onto the varnished lid of the coffin brought me back from my recollections. Dust to dust. The priest was bringing the ritual to a close.
As people broke up into groups, I remained by the grave. The subdued chatter and muffled sobs faded as mourners drifted back to their cars. Bill murmured his condolences to some relatives. Trust him to be so caring. Then, his words drifted over my head as I brooded over the facts as I knew them.
Sean and Anjelica’s relationship had seemed untouched by the laidback attitudes of the Seventies towards sex and marriage. Others did not fare as well. One by one, many of our friends’ relationships ended up in divorce courts. Anjie and Sean, on the other hand, were still madly in love after a dozen years of marriage.
Funny, I never could understand what she saw in him. Smaller than Bill, his flaxen hair and pale eyelashes somehow gave me the creeps. He was nice enough but quiet, too quiet, as though he was always sitting back sizing us up, and judging us.
Perhaps because Bill enjoyed being center stage, he remained good friends with Sean. They were both realtors and had mutual interests and associates. However, they seemed an unlikely pair. Looking like the herd leader with his untamable mane of dark brown hair, Bill towered over Sean.
He never could understand why Sean had married Anjelica, didn’t like her weird sense of humor. I wondered sometimes whether it was because she took the spotlight off him. I never let that stop us spending a lot of time with them. I really liked Anjie. She always made me laugh and we could talk for hours. Although Anjie religiously attended church on Sundays and often helped with flower arrangements for the altar, she told the most risqué jokes.
She had the body and face of a sex goddess with unmissable long red hair which I’d always envied, my own being boring brunette and my hips just a tad too wide. Her beauty was like a magnet and, at parties; she was always surrounded by men. None of them cut any ice with her.
“I’m heartily sick of being asked if my hair is as red ‘down there,’” she told me, pointing south while raising her eyes to the sky. However, she always parried their schoolboy approaches with good humor.
On a girls’ night out, she had us in stitches with descriptions of men who tried, unsuccessfully, to talk her into bed.
Holding her stomach which hurt from laughing so much, she snorted,
“He was like a lovesick teenager. His eyes were glued to my cleavage. I swear if I had decided to jump off a cliff, he would have followed.”
She cheered us up on wet winter nights in rain-forest downpours, times when we felt as though we were about to develop webbed feet and cabin fever.
However wicked she was and no matter how much she may have joked about their advances, Anjie made no bones about having eyes for no-one but pale-faced Sean.
Therefore, I was totally unprepared for the revelations last summer.
We’d invited Anjie and Sean to spend a weekend with us at our retreat on the Fraser River. Bill’s father had left him several acres of woodland on which there were a couple of small log cabins close to the river’s edge - a little paradise, until it rained. Bill and the guys frequently used them as a base for hunting and fishing trips.
On that occasion, Bill had seemed even more irritated about having Anjie along. Eventually, I’d talked him around when I pointed out that he and Sean would be upriver most of the day. I’d little interest in either fishing or shooting, so Anjie would be good company for me.
We got off to a good start on the Friday morning. The weather forecast promised a scorcher and lots of basking in the sun. Little did I know that, for me, these few days were going to become as uncomfortable as walking across hot cinders.
I’d looked forward to four days of barbecues, booze and banter. Sean and Bill brought their fishing gear, but I planned to settle myself into a deck chair to sunbathe, gossip, and read.
Even before we reached the cabin, though, I became aware that Anjie and Sean were unusually quiet, both seemed a little preoccupied. I just put it down to the heat, or a hangover.
Between loading and grappling with the canoe and paddling the mile or so up to the cabins, we were all overcome by the sweltering heat and exasperated by huge, hungry mosquitoes. We were also pretty well sozzled by the free-flowing booze, so we took off to our separate cabins to spend the afternoon hiding from the sun. As the cabins were a few hundred yards apart, Bill and I took the opportunity to enjoy lazy, lingering love-making.
Later that evening, sitting around a blazing wood-fire, logs crackling and spitting at us and the smoke keeping the insects at bay, we gorged on charred steaks and dark-red Dao wine.
As sluggish as I was from the food and alcohol, my cheeks burning as the fire blazed hotter, I was aware of undercurrents surfacing. The exchanges between Anjie and Sean crackled like dry kindling ready to burst into flames. By the time it was getting dark, red-orange sparks spat from the fire, as did their spiteful jibes. At the time, I put it down to tiredness and the heat. Anyway, my eyelids were drooping and all I wanted to do was to crawl into bed. I made my apologies and crept off to our cabin.
At breakfast, we were subdued and mumbling, suffering from hangovers. It was like many other mornings-after-the-night-before. Bill and Sean joked about the “hair of the dog” and assorted other disgusting antidotes.
The guys doggedly sorted out their fishing gear, Anjie and I blearily kissed them goodbye and went back to bed. Not that I slept. I just got tangled in the sleeping bag, sweaty and troubled with dreams that had an insistence to them. Although the details faded as soon as I woke, I was left with a lingering sense of foreboding.
Anjie didn’t join me at the river’s edge until early afternoon. She looked as dozy as I felt. I noticed, for the first time, just how thin she’d become. I was envious. Before I could ask her what diet she was on, she flopped onto a deck chair, mumbled “hi” and promptly closed her eyes. I read a few more pages of my latest Grisham novel, and then succumbed to the pleasure of the warming rays of the sun.
Gentle ripples of glacier-fed river foamed up to tickle my bare toes while, around me, giant dragonflies and other insects buzzed. A woodpecker tapped a tattoo in the forest behind us, while the breeze played its own gentler airs through the branches and leaves. All conspired to lull me away from any cares and worries about work.
That is, until I became aware of discreet gulps and sniffles. I opened my eyes. Anjie was trying unsuccessfully to muffle the sounds with a wad of tissues. When she became aware that I was awake, she lost all control, convulsed in a hiccupping, sniffling, snorting deluge of snot and tears. I was bewildered. I’d rarely seen Anjie anything but cheerful and upbeat. I wasn’t sure whether to speak, hold her, console her, or what. By the time she recovered her composure, she had also clearly made a decision to keep her problems to herself.
“It’s OK. Fran, I’m fine,” she protested, cutting off further conversation by closing her eyes and lying back in the chair.
This was not the Anjie I knew and loved. We shared everything together, had no secrets from each other. For God’s sake, in some ways, I was closer to her than Sean was, like the time she spent a fortune on a new dress without telling Sean.
“Come on. What’s wrong?”.
“Nothing,” she replied.
“Is it Sean?”
“No,” she said, opening her eyes again and shaking her head vehemently.
I felt really hurt. There was definitely something she was keeping from me.
“Is it me? Have I done something to upset you?” I was, after all, noted for being too direct sometimes.
“Good God, no,” she shook her head.
“Can I get you a drink?”
“Yes, please,” she nodded.
We spent the rest of the afternoon being polite but uncomfortable. This was unlike her. I tried to read, but found it difficult to concentrate, trying to remember if there had been any clues to Anjie’s distress. There was certainly something amiss between her and Sean. Why did she not tell me?
I was relieved when the men returned, clucking over the fact that they were empty-handed.
The evening was a much more subdued repeat of the previous night. We were all so dog-tired that we were happy to retire early to our separate cabins.
I told Bill about Anjie’s outburst. At first he didn’t comment. Then, when we were cozily tucked up to each other in bed, he asked, “Do you think Anjie would harm Sean?”
“What?” I thought I’d misheard him.
“I know this sounds absolutely crazy but Sean thinks she is trying to poison him.”
“Hmm. Seemed pretty far-fetched to me too. I told him to cut down on the pot: it was making him paranoid.”
“Whatever gave him such a bizarre notion?”
Irritatingly, Bill, as usual, ignored my question and carried on with his own line of thought. I was used to it. Whenever he came back from business trips, I wanted to hear all about it; how much the house owners wanted (usually too much), what the house was like, what his commission would be, but I might as well have been talking to a wall. He’d always make up for it later, in bed, explaining he had been tired from the long drive.
Just as I was returning to that soft and cozy black mist into which I had been gratefully sinking, he spoke again.
“Did Anjie say anything at all when she was crying? Did she talk about Sean? Or another man?” He probed.
“No,” I mumbled.
But, now I was intrigued. I sat up in bed, sleep dropping from me.
“Sean asked me if I knew what was up. Said she had been acting strange for the last month. Come on, she always tells you everything...”
“No. Not today,” I said. “It was most peculiar. And upsetting. And, quite honestly, with what you’ve been saying, rather disturbing. She was in a terrible state.”
“Hmm,” Bill murmured.
Then he drew me closer to him, spoon-fashion.
* * *
The next day, we were all up early. The men were off at before dawn with their rods and maggots and I was left again with Anjie.
All morning, the questions raised by Bill’s words itched for answers.
By the afternoon, when Anjie and I were sunbathing down by the river, I tried again.
“Anjie, I know you, I know there’s something the matter. What is it?”
She wouldn’t look at me, just focused on the mountains across the other side of the river.
“You know you’ll end up telling me.” I said, chuckling, “You are the last person on earth to keep a secret!”
We’d always been able to share our problems, usually ending up with tears of laughter afterwards.
Finally, she turned her soulful brown eyes towards me, winding a lock of her red hair around her finger, like a little lost child. She seemed to be weighing me up, as though trying to decide whether or not to confide in me.
Still, she hesitated.
Then she seemed to come to a decision.
She pulled herself up straight and took a deep breath before taking another slug of her wine.
“I just don’t know how to tell you.” she said, “but I don’t know how much longer I can keep it to myself.”
”I,” she paused and took a deep breath, “I do owe you an explanation.”
I kept mum this time; I didn’t want to say anything that might stem the flow.
She looked down at her clenched hands, and for a while I thought she’d changed her mind.
“It’s really difficult to know where to start. It’s all got a bit complicated. I don’t know how to say it.”
She wrapped her arms around herself before looking directly at me.
“I have cancer,” she said.
I was stunned. It was quite unbelievable. She was thirty and looked so healthy despite the weight loss.
“Anjie, I don’t know what to say.” I was shaking my head as though I did not believe her.
“I know. It’s a bit much to take in. I’m only just over the shock myself. Sean isn’t coping that well with it. That’s why I’m so grateful that you and Bill have been so good to him. To both of us.”
“It’s in...” she paused, her eyes awash with tears, “...inoperable. They caught it too late. Ovarian.” She gulped, “I just thought it was indigestion.”
Dear God, I thought, help me be helpful. What do I say? At the same time, I felt a sliver of gratitude that it was not me. Instantly, I was ashamed to find myself having such a thought yet couldn’t help wondering if it ran in families. Then I reminded myself that she was my baby sister. How could I be so self-centered? Anjie needed my support.
I wrapped my arms around her and hugged her tight. I felt my own tears welling up. The dreadful prospect of losing her hit me. What would I do without her?
“Anjie, if there is anything I can do, anything, just tell me.”
She didn’t speak; just grabbed my hand, squeezing it tightly. We stayed like that for some time, me holding her and Anjie shivering like a little puppy.
Then she gently pushed me away from her.
We sat some time without speaking. I was trying to absorb the news and she seemed off somewhere else.
Then, she spoke. “Anyway, that’s not the worst of it.”
As though the fact that she had cancer were not enough! What on earth could be worse than that, I wondered?
“There’s more…” Her voice was hesitant and guilty, like a naughty child expecting to be smacked. Her hand hovered over her mouth, like a muzzle, as though she had already said too much.
All around, it seemed to me that the world had gone quiet: the birds silenced, the woodpecker’s drumming ceased although a persistent buzzing bee hovered around us. I swatted at it, irritably. I wasn’t sure I could handle any more bad news, wasn’t sure I knew what to say, what to do.
“You know how much I love Sean. What I have to tell you has nothing at all to do with the way I feel about him,” she said.
I was mystified. Where was this going now? Then I remembered what Bill had said the night before.
She seemed to be fighting with herself, unable to carry on. She grabbed a bunch of tissues, and picked at them, tearing them into shreds. It was some minutes before she spoke again.
“There is no-one else I can talk to. My priest would recognize my voice and, if I am to die, I must tell someone. Get it off my chest.”
After another deep breath, she blurted out, “I had sex with another man.”
“You know I’ve always been faithful to Sean. He was the only man I ever had sex with. There was never anyone else.”
“When I realized I may not have much longer, I don’t know how to explain …I mean, I don’t know what came over me, I was just obsessed …”
She could not go on, just kept ripping the tissues into shreds. Then she got her nerve back.
“I know it sounds insane. He’d hugged me when I was vulnerable and it went from there. I couldn’t help myself. I became obsessed, wondering what it would be like to make love to him. When he kissed me, I lost control.” Then she began to weep.
“Who?” I asked, trying to remember the last time she had taken the piss out of one of her admirers.
As bad as it was, remembering Bill’s question about poison, I knew there must be more.
I just blurted it out.
“Is that why you are trying to kill Sean?”
“What are you talking about?” she gasped.
“Sean thinks you are trying to poison him.”
“Oh that …” she said, shaking her head.
My God, I thought, how can she be so cold-blooded? This is so unlike Anjie. Had she been sent crazy by the diagnosis, or had the disease reached her brain? The world seemed to turn upside-down.
The peaceful forest seemed to erupt. Birds squawked and the waters of the nearby creek thundered in their never-ending rush to join the river. Somewhere way off I could hear a rifle shot. Surely, Anjie had lost her mind.
“So, it’s true?” I said weakly, feeling as though I were in some crazy horror movie.
“Well, not exactly.”
“Not exactly.” Either she was, or she wasn’t, trying to poison Sean just after she had confessed to me that she had slept with another man. I did not want to be hearing this. I wondered what had happened to my restful weekend. Would we all be killed in our beds tonight?
By this time, it was I who was ripping tissues into shreds.
“I was trying to cure him.”
What kind of crazy person was this?
“Yes, you know . . . medicate him.”
“I think you’ve lost me.”
God give me patience, give me strength. She was right round the bend.
“The man I slept with.”
“What about him.”
“He’d been infected. The clap. I wasn’t the only one he‘d been playing around with. The rat...”
This was going from bad to worse to insane.
“I don’t follow you. In fact, I think I’d better get us a drink.”
Anything to get a bit of space, clear my head.
She followed me up to the cabin and accepted a tumbler of straight bourbon.
“I couldn’t tell Sean. Couldn’t confess that I had been unfaithful. Certainly couldn’t tell him about the clap. I couldn’t have him hate me, not when I am dying, could I?”
I felt my face twisting into disbelief. What could I say?
“Anyway, when he came out of the bathroom and said he was having trouble with his waterworks, I panicked “
She looked down again.
“Do you remember when I asked for the name of your doctor?" she mumbled.
“Yes, I do. You said you were unhappy with your own doctor.”
“I lied,” she said. “I went to your doctor and told him I’d been infected. He checked me out and gave me a prescription for penicillin.”
She paused, then added, “I couldn’t go back to my own doctor, could I,” she pleaded, seeming to turn me into an accomplice, “I’d already been prescribed penicillin for my own dose.”
She looked up at me, her brown eyes pleading for understanding.
“I couldn’t hurt Sean by telling him the truth, so I put the penicillin in his food. To cure him. Thank God he loves curries.”
I just didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Was this a gag? Was this just Anjie’s notion of a joke?
“Who was the other man?”
“I can’t tell you that. He’s married.”
Then, after a pause, she hurriedly added,
“He has children to think of. I’ve already done enough damage. His identity will go with me to the grave. And that’s not so far off.”
She took a big gulp of the bourbon and held the tumbler out for a refill.
I poured out two more. The two of us sat silently sipping until we reached the bottom of the bottle.
* * *
No matter how drunk she got, she never told me the name of the other man. Not then nor in the difficult days of her progressive illness.
All of us rallied around in the few months she had remaining. Throughout it all, Bill was my rock. Despite his opinion of her, he gave me every bit of support. He never complained when I, or both of us, spent more and more time with her as she shrank before our eyes. When she died, she looked more like a skeleton; the once beautiful high cheekbones inherited from our mother (which I’d envied), jutted out above sunken cheeks.
To press for the truth would have been cruel.
With her death, I thought that was the end of it.
* * *
Some months after the funeral, I was clearing out the rumpus room, a long overdue chore. After returning from that last trip to the cabin with Anjie and Sean, we dumped all the gear in a corner. I forgot about it, perhaps reluctant to be reminded of that harrowing weekend.
In amongst the barbecue tools and fishing gear, was Bill’s favorite hunting jacket. As usual, I checked through the pockets to see if anything had been stuffed into them: keys, money, or fishing tackle.
Jammed into an inside pocket was a small cardboard carton. I pulled it out.
On first reading the label, it didn’t register. Or, perhaps I refused to let it register. It bore a drug store label. Penicillin. Although in Bill’s name, the physician’s name was not that of his own doctor but Anjie’s. The date? Well, I have no doubt by now you have guessed: just a few weeks before our trip to the cabin.
What can I tell you? How did I feel? Numb, at first. I could not believe what I was seeing.
Then it all came back. I remembered how solicitous Bill had been at that time. In the weeks before we went on the trip with Anjie and Sean, I’d been particularly busy at work. He’d been wonderful, taking over all the cooking chores for me, experimenting and showing off his skill at producing hot and spicy curries.
As I crumpled the carton, I realized he must have added the penicillin into my own portion.
I felt devastated and humiliated. I recalled Anjie’s words, “He’d been playing around.” When I’d asked who he was, she’d added the children to hide the truth.
Over the next few weeks, like gradually piecing together the last pieces in a particularly challenging jigsaw, I recalled all the times I wondered why, as a local realtor, he’d needed to make so many out-of-town trips on business.
Thereafter, every time he returned from his frequent trips, I began checking his clothes for the smell of another woman’s perfume, collars for lipstick stains, and the pockets for any clues of another betrayal.
The discovery of that carton plagued me.
Betrayed, I was distraught. So recently losing my sister, I now lost faith in my marriage.
But what could I do? I wondered which of our other friends he’d been fucking behind my back. The anger seemed to form a lump that stuck in my throat, a lump that prevented me from telling him that I knew, what I thought of him, that I hated him.
After he left to host an ‘open day’ one Saturday, my rage erupted. I wielded my rolling pin and battered the hell out of the mattress. I was out of control, screaming, and swearing. Then, exhausted, I buried my face in the soft pillow, convulsively sobbing out the pain.
For weeks, I slept fitfully, hardly bearing to be in the same bed as Bill. I lay awake for hours, unable to sleep, rest, or find peace.
I knew I must confront him, get it out in the open.
The opportunity came when Bill suggested another weekend trip up to the cabins. However, he then said he’d already invited Sean. Ever since Anjie died, we’d included Sean to make sure he didn’t bury himself away. This time, I wished he hadn’t for I was aware that Sean was becoming more and more dependent on me for emotional support.
The second day out, the two men brought back a huge glistening salmon. Bill celebrated, knocking back glasses of Jamieson’s Irish whiskey, an acquired taste to which he’d become addicted. Sean stuck to a bottle of Labatt’s Blue.
Once Bill prepared the salmon, leaving it to bake on the red-hot stones in the camp fire, he decided to gather some mushrooms. Obviously suffering the effects of the hot sun and whiskey, Sean and I insisted we go with him.
Bill was an expert on mushrooms. As we walked through the forest, he pointed them out, especially the ones to avoid. I’d always been hesitant about eating them. I’d read somewhere that even experienced people made mistakes and suffered dire consequences. I’d learnt that even touching a poisonous mushroom was risky, so I wore gloves.
As we followed Bill, who staggered drunkenly ahead of us, it was as though I were meeting a new man. It seemed as though Sean was emerging from Anjelica’s shadow and I discovered we’d a lot in common.
Then, he stopped and turned to look me in the eye. “Anjie told me everything before she died.”
I wasn’t sure whether he was talking of her secrets so I said nothing.
“I know who it was,” he said more firmly.
Then he walked over to Bill who was bent over a patch of mushrooms, and helped him fill the basket.
By the time we got back, Bill was legless. Sean sliced up the mushrooms, frying them in garlic butter – the way Bill liked them.
* * *
The next day Bill experienced stomach pains. By the day after that, he was suffering dreadfully and was unable to move from bed. By that time, he begged Sean to fetch a doctor.
By the next day, despite the best of medical care, Bill was dead.
An autopsy discovered the cause of his death. The report said he had been poisoned by the mushroom with an umbrella-shaped death cap, ‘amanita phalloides’. The inquest referred to records of the many deaths across the globe attributed to eating the deadly mushrooms after mistaking it for an edible variety.
Many of Bill’s friends were aware that Bill was an avid mushroom-picker from the days when he, along with hordes of other hippies, spent happy hours foraging for ‘magic’ mushrooms in cow fields. They were able to confirm Bill’s passion for picking and eating wild mushrooms.
A verdict of death by misadventure was recorded.
* * *
On the day of Bill’s, funeral, Sean was there to help me through my grief. He was my rock throughout the service.
As he reassuringly squeezed my hand, I had a sudden flashback to that day in the forest. How strange that I had not noticed then that he, too, wore protective gloves when we foraged for fungi on that fateful day. As his hand gripped mine more tightly, I realized we had an unbreakable bond.
“Ashes to ashes,” said the priest and I threw a handful of earth onto the varnished coffin.
Stepping back from the grave, I glanced up. A shiver snaked its way up my spine. A predatory bald eagle, its white head-feathers giving him the appearance of a bewigged judge, observed us from the top of a swaying pine, with enormous accusatory yellow eyes. It is an image that haunts me still.