Part II of Chapter 2
I stared, and he approached. “Are you Jessamyn Archer? I’m Simon Ennis, a friend of Killian’s, and he asked me to meet you.” I shook his hand mutely. He had hazel eyes and long eyelashes that a woman would have used to veil her thoughts. He was also very friendly and warm, and talkative as I tried to contain a bit of sudden shyness. “You look like what I expected mostly. But that baby distracted me. He was very cute.”
That line caught me and I said, “Yes, he was a cute baby. And yes, I’m Jessamyn.” And when I had spoken I was able to conquer the sudden uprush of panic and try to behave normally. So I smiled at Simon and said, “What were you expecting?”
“Killian thought you might be dressed as some kind of nun.” My eyes widened and the smile vanished. “Or not.” He was quick to read my face. “But let’s go. He asked me to drive you to the hospital where Duncan, Mr. Vester, your great uncle is. He’s going to pick you up there later this evening and take you back to Mr. Vester’s farm for the night. I think. Where’s your luggage?”
“It’s very kind of you to pick me up, Mr. Ennis, but I don’t have any luggage. I came in such a hurry. ” His eyebrows lifted briefly, but he didn’t say anything immediate, and we left the building. The sky was still light outside though the sun was close to setting, and the air was cool. I shivered momentarily and thought I should have done something about my limited wardrobe.
“Are you cold?” Simon’s voice interrupted my thoughts and I saw that we had reached his car.
“Just a little. I think it’s been a long and surprising day. And I’m not a nun but maybe a big sweeping habit would be warmer.”
The car started and Simon turned on the heater. His friendliness was unabated. When we reached the highway he said, “Call me Simon. I’m actually excited to meet you. I’ve heard about you for many years and seen pictures; you’ve been described to me in great detail.”
I was intrigued but also wary. “I don’t know whether to ask what were you told, or who told you, or why.”
“Your great-uncle said that you had long blonde pigtails, dark eyes, and were very competent. And someone who can get on a plane in three hours and simply appear three states away fits that description.” His glance sideways at the braid on my shoulder was fleeting.
“Or it might be that I’m so disorganized and incompetent that there’s nothing that I have to worry about if I go away… Anyway, how did you know my great uncle? Is that the last description you had of me? Kind of out of date. I visited him when I was nine years old and I’ve never seen him since then. We’ve always written…. “
He glanced sideways again. I wondered if he could hear the tightness in my voice. “I still know your great uncle; I even worked for him as a hired hand. In fact that was soon after you had visited. He talks quite a bit about you and I always wanted to see what you were really like. Killian wasn’t any help.” There was laughter in the voice that I didn’t quite understand.
“He probably doesn’t really remember. I was nine and he was fifteen, so old in comparison.” And deep in my mind something stirred. “You are Simon.” Not the brightest remark I could make. That’s how he introduced himself.
And it made him laugh and say, “Yes, I am Simon.”
“I mean… Oh, I haven’t thought about this for years but my great-uncle wrote about a new hired hand who asked him if the black color on a black sheep would stain other things. I loved that. I wondered the same thing.”
“That was me. I was really ignorant. Neither of my parents was in farming but I wanted to try it.” He went on. “I grew up relatively near Duncan’s farm and went to high school with Killian and his sisters, Anne and Chesca, your uncle’s neighbors. I gather that you are Duncan’s only relative since his wife died although there are a lot of other Archers around here.” There was a faint question.
“Umm. No, I’m not. His only living relative I mean. Well, you probably know Duncan better than I do. My grandmother was his sister and my grandfather is the one who was an Archer. They are both dead, of course. He was from around here but he and my grandmother moved away. I guess there’s a story about that which I don’t know. But my father is actually Duncan’s nephew and he is still around… I think.” I wished I hadn’t said that. I rushed on. “Couldn’t you tell me what happened? Killian just said — terrible accident.”
He shrugged. “No-one is entirely certain. Duncan’s dog came to Killian’s farm barking and growling in the middle of a rainstorm last night. He seemed to have been attacked.”
“The dog. And evidently the man as well. Killian rushed over to the Vester farm and found Duncan out cold on the ground, in the damp. There had been a late rain, just a bit of thunder and lightning as well, and from tracks in the field it looks as though there had been a truck there and someone had done a hit and run on Duncan. Possibly just a side swipe.”
“He was hit by a, a vehicle, a truck? Why?” I was struggling to keep up with him mentally and physically as the drive lengthened. “How awful. He’s seventy-five years old!”
“Nobody knows why. Chesca had called an ambulance and they took him to the hospital but he can’t go home and be alone, so Killian started looking for help, so he told me. But it seems Killian had quite a struggle to find you.” There was a hesitation in Simon’s voice. He continued, “I think that Killian or Chesca would normally have tried to deal themselves even though this is a bad week for Killian, but from what I gathered the hospital got very sticky about papers, and the person who has papers is you. Yes?” Simon glanced sideways briefly, almost dubiously.
“Yes. I have them and brought them.” I went on, “For the last few years I have done quite a bit of home health, regardless of papers I might be holding. I think I’ll be able to take good care of an elderly man even if he is my great-uncle. Though hit and runs aren’t quite my speciality.” That made Simon smile. I went on, “Why is this a bad week for Killian? Why did he send you to pick me up instead of coming himself?”
“We have a relatively new show here on TV that’s like physical challenges for farmers, the more outlandish the better.” I was looking at him in bewilderment. “Well, climbing silos, or crawling through tubes, or swinging on an Archimedes screw while it is turning. I’m sure you’ve heard of similar shows.” I refrained from saying I hadn’t seen much TV for nearly four years. Nannies, at least very superior nannies, aren’t even supposed to watch very many kid shows and of course Group didn’t. “Killian has been competing and this week he’s filming the next set of challenges and, I suppose, either winning or losing them.”
“I see. So that’s where he’s at now and he’ll come get me at the hospital when he’s done? Isn’t that a long day?”
“That’s okay.” Simon was off-hand about that part.
“And are you also a competitor?” I flinched slightly as I realized that if so he had already lost.
“Oh no, I work at a university. School’s out. I’m correcting finals so I’m easily available. And as I said,” there was definitely mischief in the voice, “I’ve wanted to meet you for years.”
I ignored the mischief again. “Finals. What class were you teaching? Are you at the college that’s right near Duncan? I wanted to apply there when I was seventeen but my parents wouldn’t let me.”
It’s probably just as well your parents said no to Tridelphia College. They’re a little rocky. Did you study animal husbandry somewhere else?”
“Well, no. Is that what they specialize in?” He gave me an incredulous look. “All I cared about was that they were right close to Uncle Duncan. I don’t think I have ever laid eyes on the campus. I was applying from Kazakstan anyway so I wasn’t too careful.” It wasn’t a happy memory. He might have heard the strain in my voice.
But if he did he ignored it. “I wouldn’t say Tridelphia specializes in anything. They tend to hire people and then teach whatever that person cares about. So they’ve done pottery and art, quite a bit of American literature, and a bit of animal husbandry. Mostly sheep I think, but some chickens and possibly ostriches.”
I mulled over that for a bit. “It sounds crazy. Do people really get degrees like that? I mean, from there?” I thought some more. “I guess I mean from anywhere! It isn’t getting more sensible as I think about it….”
“Well, there were three brothers who had money sometime during the sixties or seventies, and they bought the piece of land where Tridelphia is situated. It had one of these old mansions that were built in the 1880’s, absolutely huge, completely impractical nowadays, but it had lots of space for them to try out their cranky ideas. I think there was also a farm nearby so they got farm buildings in the deal. It was very much a hippie commune deal but with aspirations to credentialing.” Simon’s voice flowed over me. The college seemed interestingly ridiculous and I didn’t care what we talked about on this drive as long as it wasn’t too personal. He went on. “There was a bit of trouble with them in the early 2000’s over their pottery. They were getting the clay off Duncan’s land without asking. They have a reputation around here as being a bit wild and not too interested in following any rule they can get away with breaking.”
“How did they get credentialed? I am sure there’s a process for that and if I had to guess it is designed to weed them out. Not them exactly, maybe, but you know what I mean.”
“Yes, I know what you mean and I don’t actually know how they were credentialed. There are definitely some very way out there places that have accreditation. But obviously there are ways, and if there’s a way, they were the kind of people who would find it.” He laughed. “They want to start some kind of earth science degree and have been after me to help them out.”
“So why you, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“I don’t mind. They want me because I’m an expert on the geology around here including the clay they were poaching and of course, also animals, so they feel that I would be a very versatile faculty member.”
“And you aren’t interested.”
“Not a bit, and since I am already a full professor where I am, there isn’t much they have to offer to tempt me.”
“Aren’t you a bit young to be a full professor?” Then fearing that that might be too personal I rushed on. “And what were you saying about Chesca?” I hesitated over the name.
“I had some very lucky breaks with my job.” Simon smiled at me. “Francesca was supposedly only in for the weekend; she stayed as long as she could. She’s at a new job, some law firm up north, so taking time off was really bad. Anne is having her first baby so Mrs. O’Reilly is in Arizona. Anyway, here’s the hospital. I’ll go in with you.”
We entered the hospital, asked for Duncan Vester, and went upstairs, just beating the deadline for visitors.
At the nurses’ station Simon said he’d brought Duncan’s niece. “Oh yes,” said the nurses. “We heard you were here. Down the hall, last room on the right.”
“Thanks.” There was something odd about that comment but I was trying not to shake with tiredness and hunger and stress from the long day. Maybe, I thought, the nurses were just friendly.
I entered my Great Uncle’s room with trepidation. Nearly sixteen years had passed since I had seen this man; he had aged and he was also suffering from the effects of his accident including a giant bruise on the side of his face, but he was still recognizable. I on the other hand had gone from nine to twenty-five, and though I had sent pictures I wasn’t really surprised that he looked completely blank for a moment.
“Uncle Dunkle?” The old name rose to my lips without conscious thought as I bent down to press my cheek to his. “Are you okay? I’m sorry I didn’t come sooner.”
A faint smile appeared. “I’m better now. You look properly. I was confused earlier.” His voice was weak. I looked around, pulled up a chair, sat down, and took his hand which was resting outside his covers.
Simon walked to the other side of the bed and said, “Hi Duncan. You are looking a little tough.”
The old man smiled faintly. “Simon.” His voice was whispery. “Found the Holy Grail yet?”
Simon laughed softly. “Not yet. I’ll keep looking. I’m going to leave your niece here for Killian to pick up. He’ll call her phone when he gets here. They won’t let him in downstairs, you know.” I could see that this comment was meant for me and nodded. He held out his hand and I put mine in it, glancing up as I did so. He was looking at me with great seriousness. “Take care of Duncan and yourself,” he said. He dimmed the lights as he left and I promptly forgot about him.
I settled into the chair beside my Great Uncle Duncan prepared to wait for whatever would come next. Duncan himself did not look strong enough to discuss anything so I just stroked his hand and watched him. The memories of the nine-year old Jess were rising and I found myself playing for a moment with his signet ring as I had done long ago.
“Little Jess,” I heard him whisper. He turned his head to look at me. I wanted to cry. “How long will you stay?”
“As long as you need me? As long as you’ll let me?”
A faint smile quirked his lips. “Good. Take me home tomorrow. As soon as possible.” His hand in mine tightened briefly then relaxed. I patted it gently once more and he fell asleep.
Then in that stillness I considered what I had done that day. And I wondered what I still needed to do. Perhaps I should call my housemates again to let them know I was really out of the city for a while, along with both my jobs. I was a little reluctant. I didn’t want to make noise in that hospital room; I didn’t want to risk missing Killian’s call; I didn’t want to look back at the life I might have just tossed into the trashcan. I didn’t want to think about why I had been willing to do it. Oddly, one of the ways that I dealt with my fears was to remember that Marielle, Group Leader herself, used to say we should be ready to drop everything else to do a good deed. I pulled out my knitting.