PREVIEW of a novel about two sisters, a cottage in Italy, and the spirit of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.
Chapter One. Family Spirits. Saffron.
Saffron glared at her black-suited sister across the grave in Rome’s Protestant Cemetery. It was nearly empty for their father’s funeral, only Elinor, this small bunch of grim-looking people also wearing black, and herself, in lavender. The sooner this thing was done, the sooner she and Ellie could fly back to Berkeley and their carefully separate lives.
Ellie had written a solemn ceremony, as if Dad would have enjoyed the pomp. Okay, maybe he was enjoying it, but Saffron knew he was hating being dead.
Her sister looked embarrassed tossing red rose petals onto the casket. Good, she should. The cheesy petal-tossing idea had been Ellie’s. But then Saffron remembered she didn’t want to be judgmental, especially not with her critical, bossy sister. She tried to put on a hopeful expression, to please Ellie—and then she remembered Ellie wouldn’t like to see her smiling at the funeral.
The judgmental atmosphere really flowed from Ellie, who was always embarrassed by something. Often it was Saffron and her spontaneity, which was, yes, a little messy. And what Elinor dismissively called imaginative. To Ellie, goofs like Saffron’s with the plane reservations proved yet again why Saffron’s approach to life didn’t work. When Saffron booked the wrong dates, Elinor took over with a flourish. Her sister loved to take charge. Ever since childhood, Ellie had honed her management skills by running Saffron’s life.
Yes, it was true, Saffron needed help. Yes, Saffron wasn’t perfect. Okay, she was about to turn thirty and hadn’t yet begun adulting. At this moment, she was proud of herself and her choices—as proud as you could be with drizzle plastering your hair onto your face, your boot heels sinking into the spongey lawn, and your sister frowning at your smile.
Suddenly, Saffron saw all her mistakes shatteringly close in the rear-view mirror. On this trip to Italy to claim their inheritance from Dad, could she show Elinor she was able to take care of herself? In the last few years, Saffron had felt her sister couldn’t see her at all, let alone tolerate their differences. True, Elinor had bailed Saffron out when her pet shelter business failed. Ellie had picked up the pieces when Saffron was evicted over a silly misunderstanding.
But Elinor never gave her the benefit of the doubt. It was almost as if Elinor relished her screw-ups, so she could swoop in as the competent one. As Saffron listened to the minister’s gloomy thoughts on Heaven, under this grunge sky, in this odd country where no one wore lavender, she felt very alone.
She had come along to see if it was even possible to reconnect with her sister. Saffron knew if she hadn’t come, Ellie would make this a week-long jaunt. She’d stay just long enough to pick up the pieces after their father’s fatal heart attack at his home on the Italian coast. If Saffron hadn’t come, their father’s spirit might not be soothed and brought to peace. That was Saffron’s gift, while her sister’s was to calculate profit margins.
Without Saffron to inspire her, Ellie wouldn’t sample Italian delicacies or explore Dad’s cottage and the area. She’d eat in the hotel dining room and order nothing more adventurous than Pasta Bolognese and house wine. Life had squashed Ellie. Maybe there was a way to un-squash her.
The trees quivered with a gust of rain. A shower of phosphorescent sparks dazzled up from the open grave as a bird swooped low over their heads. Saffron’s stomach lurched, at the presence. Its sparkling atoms swirled up and twinkled through the leaves.
Not right now, with her sister watching.
It was probably Dad. He felt anxious, probably thinking he was going to stay closed in that box with the polished lid. He didn’t like having his blood stilled and his body frozen. He’d always been active, doing things, mostly unexpected things, and now he was surprised at being dead.
A ripple of fear shot up her spine, probably Dad’s uneasiness with his being in The Room Over There. He’d settle down soon. They all had to. Invisibles often came to Saffron for help finding their way. Dad would soon realize where he was. She’d nudge him, maybe they’d talk, and then he’d walk calmly away. And if he didn’t walk voluntarily, she’d bully him, the way he had bullied her to improve her grades.
The thought made her smile. She glanced at Ellie, but her sister hadn’t caught her finding something funny. She didn’t see them. Elinor was the kind of woman who didn’t see anything she didn’t want to.
With a deep sense of irony, she understood Dad’s panic now. When he’d sent her away, after her mother died, and she had to go live with Ellie and Mom-Betsy, her fear had weakened her whole body, until all she wanted to do was sleep. But she had learned to soothe herself, and then she had learned to soothe Invisibles. Each time she helped one, a soft ache of gratitude blossomed in her heart and then fluttered away as they moved on.
The minister was going on about Heaven—what did he know about the afterlife? She watched the sparkles billow higher, translucent, unnoticed by anyone else. Dad would have preferred to write his own eulogy, something poetic and perhaps slightly funny. But what did he expect Saffron to do? If he expected her to criticize Ellie’s writing, he had another thing coming. What this funeral needed was a few streamers and some barefoot dancing. In Berkeley, they would have finished with a Greek line dance.
The mass of fiery dots danced in midair, as if communicating by Morse Code. Maybe it was supposed to be metaphorical—after all, Dad had been like fireworks. Or maybe he was saying a spectacular Sorry to Saffron in these dancing lights. As he should for abandoning her.
The phantom twisted itself into eyes, nose, and a mouth. A sad face with large, watery eyes. Not Dad, but his favorite poet, his academic specialty, Percy Bysshe Shelley. Was Dad sending the sad poet?
A small figure darted into her peripheral vision. At her feet was a small gray squirrel. He had run across the toe of her boot to grab crumbs of hotel crackers that must have spilled from her pocket. She fished around, trying to find more. He rushed back, carrying off his find to a safe distance. Sitting upright while keeping an eye on her, her munched. Obviously a squirrel used to pilfering from mourners. Well, why not. Invisibles and tame squirrels at Dad’s funeral. Perfect.
She turned out her pocket, shaking down the last crumbs. She looked up again. Shelley was just vanishing. Had Ellie seen the squirrel? No. Her stoic, prim sister was furtively looking around, clearly judging everyone. She felt sorry for Elinor, always having to assess people instead of savoring them. Having opinions about what was wrong with them instead of letting them be.
The squirrel edged nearer again. Saffron realized his dilemma and stepped aside so he could scoop up the crumbs. She loved animals., They followed no rules and made no judgments, except about food.
If only she could confide in Ellie the way she used to. But she couldn’t ever again mention the Invisibles to her sister, not after Ellie had undermined Saffron’s relationship with her friend Jack by telling him about Saffron’s secret game. When they were kids, it had been different. Saffron had trusted Ellie and told her about the Invisibles, and Ellie had accepted it, even though she couldn’t see them.
This week, Saffron would be willing to forgo the apology she deserved from Ellie, one of many, if only they could get back to some level of understanding. Despite all of Ellie’s meddling, Saffron had missed her.
Shelley’s face returned, hovering in the air, smiling and yet even sadder looking.
I’m waiting for you both at my cottage.
A tingle raced up the back of her neck. Well, triple hella damn. They really had to go see Dad’s house, the biggest part of their inheritance. If they were going to sell it, as Elinor insisted, Saffron needed to feel why Shelley had just called it his house.
I want my heart back.
Whaaaat? But he’d gone again. Saffron shook off the chill.
Saffron found a peanut in her pocket, left over from the plane flight. She tossed it on the ground and watched the squirrel leap over to grab it. Ellie was watching too. She must think it was very inappropriate, feeding wildlife while burying your parent. The somber Italians, hunched and hatted, clearly agreed. They looked disapproving, probably of Saffron’s style. Well, why shouldn’t she look festive? Dad was just changing from one form of existence to another. Understanding this, funerals in Berkeley were more like weddings. People wore colors. They chanted and danced. Bells were heard.
Death was a myth, and most people only half-lived anyway. Like her sister, moving through life without fully using her senses and intuition. If you could make a spreadsheet of your dreams, Ellie would. As a teenager she had thrown away her pointe shoes and wrapped up her box of poems and stowed it on a high, cobwebbed shelf in the garage. She had traded her youth for a calculator.
Would the minister never come to the end? “Nathan Greene, a man of faith, so important to his community.”
A man of faith? Faith in his own ego, maybe.
Saffron wished she had brought a sweater. And an umbrella. Ellie began jerking her head with vehement little snaps, signaling Saffron: Stand up straighter, look sadder.
She felt sorry for Elinor, whose life so far had been rigidly disciplined. What had it gotten her? Infertility, being cheated on, a brutal divorce, and coming down from a luxurious home in the Berkeley hills to a cramped condo. Slaving away in a hospital and cementing her pact with bottom lines and dollar signs. After the breakup with her husband, Ellie had retreated into her spreadsheets and outperforming others. Her poems that used to touch Saffron’s heart and allow her sister’s elusive imagination to roam like a forest sprite, were long forgotten. But that could change here in Italy.
What Elinor needed was time away, and Saffron couldn’t go back to Justin and the pizzeria right now. She needed time away too.
The minister gave a final prayer. Hands were shaken, solemn nods given, everyone left. Praise the Goddess—it was over.
The Invisibles is forthcoming in Fall, 2019! My readers will get advance notice and a preview of the cover design in September — plus special deals. Be sure you’re on the mailing list!