On this day’s outing, the aunts had brought their knitting along. They were working on a throw for Kylie’s crib, made out of the finest black wool, a coverlet so soft that whenever Kylie would sleep beneath it she’d dream of little black lambs and fields of grass. Antonia was beside the aunts, her legs neatly crossed. Kylie had been plopped down on the grass, where she sat motionless. All of them wore black woolen coats, and their complexions seemed sallow in the afternoon light. Antonia’s red hair looked especially brilliant, a color so deep and startling it appeared quite unnatural in the sun. The aunts did not speak to each other, and the girls certainly did not play. The aunts saw no point in jumping rope or tossing a ball back and forth. In their opinion, such things were a silly waste of time. Better to observe the world around you. Better to watch the swans, and the blue sky, and the other children, who shouted and laughed during wild games of kickball and tag. Learn to be as quiet as a mouse. Concentrate until you are as silent as the spider in the grass.
A ball was being walloped around by a bunch of unruly boys, and finally it was booted too hard. It flew into the bright blue air, then rolled along the grass, past a quince in bloom. Antonia had been imagining that she was a blue jay, free among the branches of a weeping birch. Now she happily jumped off the bench and scooped up the ball, then ran toward a boy who’d been sent to retrieve it. The boy wasn’t more than ten, but he was still as death, pale as paste, when Antonia approached. She held the ball out to him.
“Here you go,” Antonia said.
By then all the children in the park had stopped their playing. The swans flapped their big, beautiful wings. More than ten years later, Sally still dreams about those swans, a male and a female who guarded the pond ferociously, as though they were Dobermans. She dreams about the way the aunts clucked their tongues, sadly, since they knew what was about to happen.
Poor Antonia looked at the boy, who had not moved and did not even appear to be breathing. She tilted her head, as though trying to figure whether he was stupid or merely polite.
“Don’t you want the ball?” she asked him.
The swans took flight slowly as the boy ran to Antonia, grabbed the ball, then pushed her down. Her black coat flared out behind her; her black shoes flew right off her feet.
“Stop it!” Sally called out. Her first words in a year.
The children on the playground all heard her. They took off running together, as far away as possible from Antonia Owens, who might hex you if you did her wrong, and from her aunts, who might boil up garden toads and slip them into your stew, and from her mother, who was so angry and protective she might just freeze you in time, ensuring that you were forever trapped on the green grass at the age of ten or eleven.
Sally packed their clothes that same night. She loved the aunts and knew they meant well, but what she wanted for her girls was something the aunts could never provide. She wanted a town where no one pointed when her daughters walked down the street. She wanted her own house, where birthday parties could be held in the living room, with streamers and a hired clown and a cake, and a neighborhood where every house was the same and not a single one had a slate roof where squirrels nested, or bats in the garden, or woodwork that never needed polishing.
In the morning, Sally phoned a real-estate broker in New York, then lugged her suitcases out to the porch. The aunts insisted that, no matter what, the past would follow Sally around. She’d wind up like Gillian, a sorry soul that only grew heavier in each new town. She couldn’t run away, that’s what they told her, but in Sally’s opinion, there was no proof of that. No one had driven the old station wagon for over a year, but it started right up and was sputtering like a kettle as Sally got her girls settled into the backseat. The aunts vowed she’d be miserable and they shook their fingers at her. But as soon as Sally took off, the aunts began to shrink, until they were like little black toadstools waving good-bye at the far end of the street where Sally and Gillian used to play hopscotch on hot August days, when they had only each other for company and the asphalt all around them was melting into black pools.
Sally got onto Route 95 and went south, and she didn’t stop until Kylie woke, sweaty and confused and extremely overheated beneath the black woolen blanket that smelled of lavender, the scent that always clung to the aunts’ clothes. Kylie had been dreaming that she was being chased by a flock of sheep; she called out “Baa, baa” in a panicky voice, then climbed over the seat to be closer to her mother. Sally soothed her with a hug and the promise of ice cream, but it was not so easy to deal with Antonia.