The scarf around the teenager’s neck was a gift from her aunt. But Philomena, the dead girl – also affectionately referred to as Mina, rarely showed excitement with the glossy packages tied with French ribbon.
It had become routine, Aunt Katherine standing before the girl chanting,
“Open it Mina. Open It!”
And Mina would comply.
“Oh Aunt Kay, how beautiful. You shouldn’t have.”
“Don’t be silly,” Katherine would reply. “It suits you.”
Both teenager and Aunt knew these gifts came as silent apologies in lieu of justice. Yet both continued to participate in the awkward exchange.
Katherine could not be certain her husband was abusing Mina. After all he was the girl’s Uncle. But her intuition made it impossible to ignore. If she were correct why not speak out and save the child? Even more perplexing was her devotion to a marriage with a man she thought might be a monster. Certainly devotion had its limits.
Truth be told her husband’s reputation existed far longer than their courtship. Why then did she marry him? Perhaps it was because she had few suitors. Despite this, she was from a wealthy family and blessed with an attractive figure. It was this that intrigued her future mother-in-law. By the time she turned twenty- three Katherine’s mother, Millicent Ardmore, was certain her daughter would never marry. Even more worrying was young Miss Ardmore’s ease with the possibility of spinsterhood. So when the matriarch of the Cheswick family invited Katherine and her mother to tea, Katherine’s mother responded yes.
Millicent Ardmore knew that Mrs. Cheswick was eager to find her younger son a match. There were certain distasteful rumors as to his moral character that made it increasingly difficult to find a debutant willing to meet him, let alone marry. But fortunately for the Cheswick matriarch, Miss Ardmore and her mother were use to gossip; an undercurrent of ugly whispers followed their family as well. Both women found it easy to remain ignorant concerning the Cheswick bachelor’s penchant for young girls. Without proof, Katherine was satisfied that if they were to wed, her husband would remain true.
Fourteen years later, Katherine Ardmore Cheswick’s marriage had proved arduous. For the most part her husband remained generous and well mannered. But from time to time darkness enveloped their home in the form of neglect. Like a feral cat, he disappeared days at a time, returning home withdrawn and sullen. But then, as if someone else had taken his place, he would begin again to engage his wife in a jovial and playful manner. All distrust would dissolve. He would apologize, blame it on business, and promise to better, to keep her informed of his “trips away,” and to “adore her as she was meant to be adored.”
The first time she sensed her husband’s unmentionable cruelty toward his niece she refused to entertain the possibility. But when the same feeling returned a few months later leaving her flushed with nausea, she called Cartier in New York City and bought the child a delicate gold watch. After that it was a Hermes Birkin handbag. But it was the discovery of the child’s pregnancy that sent Katherine to Paris to purchase the Dior scar, which she gave to her niece on the day she returned from seclusion. Mina and her mother had retreated into the confidence of nuns that made it their business to care for privileged “girls in trouble.” In the pleasant, cloistered convent that was nestled in the heart of the Adirondack Mountains, Mina’s identity would be well protected in exchange for a healthy endowment.
In due time, the mother and daughter arrived home with the newborn girl; the Dior scarf in a sorbet swirl of colors waited in an elegant box to be claimed.
Absolution, Katherine had decided, was a joke. She had long since given up her faith, instead, replacing it with the giving of gifts. Prior to that, she prayed for salvation and strength. She prayed for the soul of her husband, and the life of her niece. Despite hours of prayer, despite calloused hands, god had turned a deaf ear. So Katherine directed her attention toward the golden calf. There she worshipped idols made of precious metal found on streets of Place Vendome, Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore, and Via Dei Condotti. She prayed at the alter of Dior, and Cartier, and Bvlgari, bringing home tokens of beauty for the damaged bird that was her niece Mina. But these exquisite gifts from glamorous countries were nothing more than trinkets. They held no escape, just shame. Mina had little use for them. She tucked them away in closets and wardrobes giving them little thought. That is of course until February fourteenth, 1958, when she made use of the beautiful, Dior scarf.
A winter chill clung to the mid - morning sun as it filtered through the beveled glass doors. Outside, on a knotted oak a cardinal sat singing. Just beyond the skeletal branch that held the bird, the body of the teenager hung in perfect alignment to the beams of light causing her shadow to be cast across the dining room table. Her arms lay still by her side. Her flaccid legs swayed in the silence of a winter draft. White sneakers and ankle socks peeked out from beneath beige trousers. Her eyes were open, but saw nothing. Once pink, her porcelain skin was now a pasty veil of white, her delicate lips blue. She was clearly dead, her body another possession in the room, lifeless and acquired for display at too great a price.