It was time to move. Victoria Karenin Stanford stood in the kitchen of the fieldstone farmhouse where she had grown up. She took the last glass from the cabinet, wrapped it and placed it in the cardboard box. When she finished taping the box, she walked over to the screen door.

Across the weed-filled driveway, she saw the barn. There, wide swaths of gray, unprotected wood showed where paint had peeled away. She heard the barn’s back door creak as it swung on its remaining hinge.

The farm, Canacadea, had been in her family for over a hundred years, but they could no longer afford it. Six months ago, Victoria had turned twenty-three, married and moved out. Since she learned of the move, though, she returned every day to pack.

Out of the corner of her eye, Victoria caught sight of a man coming down the hill. She lifted her hand to shade her eyes and squinted into the sunlight.

Victoria saw black hair.

Her heart pounded, her vision blurred. She blinked hard but still saw long hair, black as her own, and bronzed skin. It had been years since she saw that strong, steady stride, and she would have recognized it on the far side of the world. She saw work boots, worn jeans and broad shoulders in a faded tee-shirt streaked with dirt. Victoria’s breath caught in her chest. “Oh—”

Christian.

Then the man walked into the shade and she recognized her husband, the Reverend Paul Stanford. Victoria’s cheeks flushed and her shoulders fell. How could she have mistaken Paul for Christian?

The things she kept secret from her husband and from her family weighed on her. At times, Victoria believed if she went to the creek and waded into the water, she would sink straight to the bottom with neither regret nor struggle.

As Paul descended the hill, she watched him pass through shade then sunlight. Paul was all lightness, short golden hair, tanned skin, amber glints in hazel eyes. His loose stride reflected a mind at peace with itself. Victoria envied his calm.

“When’s Paul coming?”

Victoria jumped. She turned to see her sister, Evvie, standing behind her. She hadn’t heard her enter.

“He’ll be here any minute,” Victoria said.

She put her hand to her chest, and waited for her heart to slow. She wondered if her guilt showed in her red cheeks.

Evvie didn’t seem to notice. “Phillip still hasn’t called.”

Their older brother, Phillip, had gone to Harrisburg that morning to complete the sale of Canacadea. They were waiting to hear whether the sale closed. At twenty-seven, Evvie was a year younger than Phillip. Once, they’d been close, but years of arguing about the farm had taken its toll.

“Why would he let us know what’s going on?” Victoria asked. “He never has before.”

Beyond the driveway, Victoria saw the fields where dead, half-fallen cornstalks littered the ground. Rich, fertile soil went unused, except to nourish the Queen Anne’s Lace and dandelions that flourished there.

Once, the fields rippled and whispered with the constant brush of the corn’s rough leaves. Even on the hottest, stillest afternoon, the corn spoke in its low, constant murmur. After Victoria’s father died, Christian kept the farm alive. But he, too, left and under Phillip’s management, the farm died a slow death.

The farm sat in the shadow of the Appalachian Mountains near the southern border of Pennsylvania, and covered twelve hundred acres. Despite living two and a half hours away with his wife and children, Phillip retained management of the farm.

That was a joke, Victoria thought. She had watched Canacadea fall apart because of his neglect.

“I don’t know why Phillip lied about the loan from Uncle Ethan being a sure thing.” Evvie said. “The truth always comes out.”

Victoria’s heart stuttered. Her cheeks burned once again at the thought of her own lies. “What loan?” she asked.

“Yesterday, he told Mom that Uncle Ethan offered to cover the mortgage for six months. Then we could back out of the sale, and refinance in the spring. It’s worth the penalty, Phillip said.”

“Penalty?”

“For backing out of the sale.”

Apparently, breach of contract meant nothing to him, Victoria thought. But that was Phillip. Always sure he could find a way out of an obligation. Always ready with a lie to cover his ass.

Evvie continued. “Phillip asked Uncle Ethan for a loan, but it’s not a sure thing.”

For months, Phillip kept the seriousness of the farm’s financial distress to himself. He didn’t tell them about the sale until two weeks ago. It came as no surprise to Victoria that Phillip had lied again.

The screen door opened, and Victoria’s husband, Paul, entered the kitchen. He put his arms around her and kissed her. His hands felt hot on her skin and Victoria suppressed the urge to push him away. She told herself it was just the sticky afternoon heat and irritability fueling her impulse.

“I’m glad you’re here,” she told him.

She meant it. Paul was the pastor of a small Lutheran church, and a calming influence within her family. She knew her mother and Evvie found comfort in his presence.

As Evvie caught Paul up on the Phillip situation, he frowned and ran his fingers back through his blonde hair. The slight disarray made him look younger than his thirty-four years, Victoria thought. How had she mistaken him for Christian?

Victoria saw her mother, Corinne, appear in the doorway. Corinne had spent the morning packing the dining room. She flashed Victoria a quick smile.

Corinne and Evvie had identical tea brown eyes. Both had shoulder length, dark blond hair untouched by dye or highlight. Both had small hands whose grace disguised their strength. Even Phillip shared their coloring.

Victoria felt out of place. She was taller, and she had inherited her black hair and gray eyes from their father, Aleksandr. Only her grace of movement came from her mother. She and Corinne shared similar gestures, a way of waving a hand, a lightness of step, a tilt of the head that were uncannily alike.

As Corinne crossed the room to hug Paul, sunlight revealed a web of fine lines around her mother’s eyes Victoria had never noticed before.

“I just came in to say hi to Paul,” Corinne said.

“Why don’t you go help Mother in the dining room,” Victoria said to Evvie.  “It’s easier if you keep busy.”

Evvie grabbed extra boxes and headed down the hall. Corinne followed. Paul and Victoria sat down at the table.

“Phillip hasn’t called?” he asked.

Victoria shook her head.  Her throat grew tight and tears stung her eyes.

“It doesn’t belong to Phillip,” Victoria whispered.  “The land, the house, the money. It belongs to my mother. No one else is entitled to it—not Phillip, not Evvie, not me, not—”  Victoria stopped.

Paul took her hand. “Your mother chose to let Phillip handle it,” he said. “You have to respect that, even if you don’t like the way it turned out.”

For a moment they sat in silence. Phillip had to have a Lexus, a Land Rover, and a six thousand square foot house. He had to send his children to a private academy. He had mortgaged and remortgaged the farm, and contributed nothing while the rest of them struggled. Corinne and Evvie were losing the farm. He lost nothing.

After their father died, Phillip started learning to manage the family trust. At Corinne’s urging, he worked with Ethan and the family’s financial advisor. Two years ago, Phillip assumed complete control of the trust. Since then, he benefitted and the farm suffered.

These days, Victoria kept moving. Whether packing or working in the church office, she tried not to think about Phillip or the sale of Canacadea.

So many scents she associated with the farmhouse now overwhelmed her with a sense of loss – a whiff of blue jasmine; damp, freshly mowed grass; rich, dark soil just turned in the fields. The scent of honeysuckle could stop the words in her throat, stealing her breath and stunning her into instant remembrance of her childhood.

Victoria crossed the kitchen to the screen door. A hot breeze blew across her face as she looked out at the dead grass and empty fields. She had always loved the feel of the sunlight’s warmth on her face.  Growing up on the farm, she’d spent as much time as possible outside.

“You’re as brown as an Indian,” her mother would say, then bite her lip, as if she’d let a swear word slip.

And Victoria would always reply, “I’ll be as brown as Christian.”

Victoria turned away from the door and picked up a cardboard box.  She met Paul’s eye and tried to smile.

“There’s still a lot left to do,” she said.

 

The above selection is an excerpt from In That Quiet Earth, Jeanmarie “Teri” Meadowcroft’s work in progress.