The Silver Leash
by Beatrice Rordame Parsons
Synopsis: LaRue Harding, an orphan, who has lived since childhood in California with an aunt, goes to Fivelakes, Arizona, after the death of her sister, Amelia. LaRue finds that her brother-in-law Herbert Vetterly is confined to a wheelchair and his children seem to be alienated from him, and hostile towards LaRue. She tries to make friends with the children, and Connie shows her the town, including the Jonas Harding Hospital, where she meets Dr. Alan Rutherford and his fiancee Gladys Drew.
A few mornings later, LaRue awoke to find shadows moving against the outside of the Venetian blinds. She thought fearfully of Gila monsters and small green lizards, then was ashamed of her vivid imagination as she realized that the shadows were nothing more than the branches of trees stirring sleepily in the desert wind.
But she was sure that something had awakened her. An unaccustomed sound. She listened tensely. There it was again, a timid rap at the panel of her door.
She found her voice to call, shakily: “Who is it?”
Connie’s brown, tousled head appeared in the open door. She wore a blue robe, blue scuffs, and she smiled when she saw LaRue.
She asked, plaintively: “Aunt LaRue, Erma won’t talk to me. Mommy always talked to me when I woke so early in the morning. Can I talk to you?”
LaRue glanced at the clock. It was a little after five, but the dawn was already pink in the sky outside the blinds. She found something pathetic in Connie’s words, and made a place beside her.
“I’ll be glad to talk, darling.”
Connie crept up on the bed and arranged her blue robe closely about her. Her eyes caught the amber, cut-glass bottle on the empty dressing table, and she wrinkled her brows.
“It’s very pretty, Aunt LaRue. It looks very old. Why did you bring it with you?”
“Because,” said LaRue with a smile, “I’ve had it a long time. Since I was about your age. Your mother gave it to me when she went away from San Francisco. I’ve kept it as a symbol …”
“Symbol?” Connie didn’t know the word.
LaRue explained: “A symbol is something … a dream, perhaps …” Was Amelia really only a dream? “It’s something we want …” She was conscious of how much she wanted Amelia’s love. She hurried on: “A symbol is something or someone we love very much. We all have symbols, Connie.”
Connie shook her head sadly. “Daddy doesn’t. Not since Mommy died.”
The child’s words cut into LaRue’s heart. She drew her closer and nestled Connie’s brown head against her cheek. Her words came tenderly.
“Your Daddy has three symbols, darling. Erma, Joel, and you!”
Connie laughed, and her eyes sparkled for a moment. “Funny symbols!” then the sparkle fled and she said: “Daddy has forgotten us, Aunt LaRue.”
LaRue tried to deny it. “He hasn’t forgotten you. It’s just that he …” How could she tell Connie that her father was like a hurt, wounded creature hiding from life?
Connie said softly: “Aunt LaRue, does God hear our prayers?”
LaRue could assure the child of that. “He always hears them, Connie, if we have faith. He always gives us what is best for us.”
The child’s face was pinched, doubtful. Her voice was tremulous.
“But I’ve prayed and prayed that Daddy would listen to Dr. Alan. That he would have an operation. But Daddy is … scared!” Connie was scared, too, LaRue knew.
She also knew that Herb would be taking a chance. It seemed pointless to raise Connie’s hopes by promising that her father would soon get well. LaRue felt that they should change the conversation. She hit upon an idea.
“Let’s you and I surprise Mrs. Jonstone and get breakfast ready this morning.”
“Oh, let’s,” cried Connie, clapping her hands, sunshine breaking out in her small face. She rushed to her bedroom to get dressed, and joined LaRue in the kitchen.
Sun-ladders climbed the pretty wallpaper in Amelia’s neat kitchen as the light came through the snowy curtains. LaRue found a blue tablecloth, and Connie set yellow-sprigged dishes at each place in the breakfast nook.
Erma came in, her eyes wide with astonishment to find LaRue at the stove. She gave her aunt a brief “Good morning,” and sat down at the table.
Joel came in. His brown crewcut was still damp from his morning shower. He, too, was surprised to see LaRue turning eggs in the frying pan. But he just grunted his “Hi,” and took his place.
Herb rolled his rubber-tired chair to the table and asked for the blessing. Connie bent her head until her long braids fell over her shoulders and said the words.
As soon as she was finished, she cried happily: “Aunt LaRue cooked French toast. She always cooks it when she’s in San Francisco.”
Erma and Joel ate in silence. Herb said: “It’s very good.” But he ate very little.
LaRue thought painfully: They are all so quiet. As though they were strangers. Breakfast, she told herself, should be a family time. The time when a family, rested, calm, meets for the first time in the day feeling happy, for family prayers.
But there was no more prayer – except, perhaps, the ones which each uttered in silence. Erma and Joel lost no opportunity to be sharp with each other and Connie. Connie chatted continually, filled with gossip which she had overheard. She had been too much with older people since her mother died. She was whispering to her aunt in a tone that carried around the silent table.
“Aunt LaRue, did you know that Gladys Drew was engaged to Earl Meeghan before Dr. Alan?” She looked proud of her knowledge. “I heard one of the neighbors telling Janice’s mother that Gladys and Earl had had a fight. He rushed out of town because he’s a salesman. Then Gladys got herself engaged to Dr. Alan out of spite. But Earl’s coming home for the Festival. Then maybe Gladys will change her mind and …”
Her father’s tone was loud, imperative. “Connie, that’s only gossip. I wish you wouldn’t eavesdrop on the neighbors’ conversations. Besides, your aunt isn’t interested in …”
“She is so!” said Connie insistently. “She’s asked a lot of questions about Dr. Alan.”
LaRue flushed, confessed: “I did ask questions. About the hospital …” Her voice failed. She had asked other things. “Please don’t blame Connie. Perhaps I’ve encouraged her to gossip …”
“Nobody needs to encourage her,” snapped Erma crossly. “She tells everything she knows.”
“I like to tell,” said Connie shamelessly. “People are interested when I talk.” Her smile was triumphant. “I know you went out with Bob Powers last evening. I saw his car waiting around the corner. He didn’t come in.”
“I didn’t ask him,” said Erma angrily.
Connie turned to LaRue, said conversationally: “I think they probably went to the drugstore for a soda. Bob goes to the U, and he doesn’t have much money. He can’t afford …”
“Father!” For the first time Erma appealed to Herb. “Does that awful child have to tell everything? It’s nobody’s business …”
“It’s my business,” said her father, levelly. “I wish you’d bring Bob in. I’d like to get acquainted.” He turned to Connie, said with authority: “Connie, after this, don’t tattle on your sister. She can explain.”
Connie, close to angry tears, said raggedly: “But you haven’t asked Joel to explain about those things that got stole from the used car lot. The police were asking questions. I heard Mrs. Jonstone talking about it to one of the neighbors, and …”
“What is this, Joel?” His father’s voice was explosive. “I’ve heard nothing of it!”
There was a stubborn line to Joel’s chin. “It wasn’t I!” He grew belligerent. “Connie doesn’t have to tattle. What if some kids did take some things? I can’t blame them. They need things. They don’t have much money …”
“Joe,” his father’s tone was thunderous, “you’re losing your sense of value. You know it’s wrong to steal.”
“I said it wasn’t I,” muttered Joel.
“I want you to stay away from those boys,” said his father angrily.
Joel sulked. “A fellow’s got to have a pal, hasn’t he?”
LaRue saw by Joel’s face that he was remembering that his father had not been his pal for a long time.
Silence stretched about the table. The children sat there, hurt, angry, without looking at each other. Herb’s face was pale and strained as he excused himself and wheeled his chair into his bedroom.
Erma folded her napkin and left the table. Joel tossed his at the side of his plate and left the house. Only Connie remained, anger going slowly out of her face. As LaRue cleared the dishes, Connie tagged at her aunt’s heels, spreading gossip like jam on bread.
LaRue spoke sharply: “Connie, you’ve been too much with older people. Don’t you have anyone to play with?”
Connie’s face was suddenly still. “Of course. There’s Janice and Ethel, lots of other girls. But I like to be with you.”
LaRue’s heart was touched, but she said: “Connie, your father doesn’t like you to gossip. It’s a very bad habit to get into. After this, please go out and play with the other girls.” She saw that Connie was hurt, and said quickly: “Try to understand, darling. It’s only that …”
“You don’t love me,” said Connie harshly. “You don’t love any of us, Aunt LaRue. You just want to go home and leave us all alone.” She began crying passionately: “I wish my Mommy was here!”
LaRue knew she’d been clumsy in her attempt to correct the child. She hadn’t meant to hurt her. She tried to take her into her arms. But Connie was too hurt. She pushed her aunt away and ran outside. LaRue went calling her but she had disappeared.
“I haven’t earned the right to correct her,” she told herself. Connie thinks I don’t love her. I do! I do! I’m beginning to love them all. Especially Connie. The child seems closer than the others. I’ll find her. Tell her.
She walked about the garden, but Connie was not there. The great, weird, stone-carved mountains frowned upon her. The brilliance of sun-flecked distances hurt her eyes. The beautiful scarlet blossoms of the cacti in Amelia’s garden beckoned fragrantly, yet repelled her with sharp spears. She longed for Connie’s elfin face to appear among the fronds of the tamarisk. She remembered how close they had been that morning, sharing confidences. But Connie had flown away, just as the huge orange-brown butterfly which had sipped honey from the flowers had flown away from the garden.
LaRue was alone, lonely. She went into the silent house. Herb, as usual, was shut away behind closed doors. If Erma was inside, she made no sound. In her loneliness La Rue longed for Aunt Mettie, for Amelia! She thought of how Amelia had loved her children. Had loved her husband.
Though there was not a speck of dust under Mrs. Jonstone’s meticulous housekeeping, memory spread over everything in the room thicker than any dust. How happy Amelia must have been selecting the neat, pretty things for her home. How shining in her desire to make and keep things fine, beautiful for her family!
LaRue thought: Amelia was always so sure!
They had been different – these two sisters. LaRue was timid, shy, afraid of things. Perhaps a little selfish. But Amelia had been so sure!
The truths which the sisters had been taught since childhood had meant so much to Amelia. She had never doubted. She had given her sister a tiny symbol of her love in an amber bottle. She had given her husband the symbol of her love in their three children.
Amelia’s steadiness had helped Herb in his guidance of the children when they were little, but he had lost Amelia’s steady love. LaRue had seen his confusion in trying to make his son see that it was wrong to steal. He had let himself grow angry, as he would never have grown angry before Joel’s mother!
Herb needed Amelia’s wisdom, now. He must not let his children drift. Erma and Hotel were at a dangerous point in their lives. The three of them – Erma, Joel, and Connie – needed their father’s confidence in them.
They needed their mother’s love – her closeness – now more than ever before.
Her love is here! thought LaRue, touching one of her sister’s small possessions with trembling hands. “Amelia is gone. But she left her love.”
LaRue’s heart swelled with happiness. Suddenly she knew why she had come to Fivelakes. She had come to help Herb and his children find Amelia’s love …