Scent of Darkness by Ted Morrissey
It’d been Rhonda Holcomb’s idea to approach Mrs. Espejo about directing the Passion. It was Bob Abernathy’s turn to direct but something was going on with Mr. Abernathy. There were rumors he sat in his basement every night smoking and tinkering with his model airplanes until the small hours of the night (model-size packages did arrive by post once a week or more, that was confirmed by several). Then Mrs. Abernathy spoke to the mayor, over spears of broccoli at Wilson’s Grocery, and told him Bob wouldn’t be able to direct the Passion. No one was quite sure what to do; no one had ever forfeited the opportunity to direct. But Rhonda Holcomb felt it her duty to solve the dilemma since David was to play a leading role—and her husband was looking forward to it so. The Espejo woman, Carmelita, had moved to the village the previous fall, by herself, and purchased the old Johnson place. She was a widow, apparently, who’d come from back east. She always wore black or white—something that called attention to her dark features, by complement or contrast. Rumor had it she was nearly fifty but the foreignness of her look made it difficult to say. Mrs. Espejo came to church every Sunday, and she said her good-mornings to Pastor Phillips and the other congregants, but she sat alone in the farthest pew. People claimed she was working a rosary, praying silently—but if she was Catholic she could go to church in Crawford: In fact, why hadn’t she moved there?
So here stood Mrs. Holcomb on the widow’s gray-painted porch (the gray had begun to peel), on a Thursday morning, with a pan of monkey-bread, turning the bell-key. Perhaps Mrs. Espejo wasn’t at home. The others thought Rhonda was daft when she suggested the widow. It might bring her into the community more, to be part of something important. Yes, they said, but directing the Passion? She’s from back east—she must know a thing or two about plays.
Mrs. Espejo answered the door, seeming only mildly surprised to see Rhonda Holcomb. Perhaps she’d been expecting a visit of some sort. Up close, the widow wasn’t as darkly featured as Rhonda believed, but her hair was black, truly black (no one else in the village had truly black hair, not even Mrs. Wilson, who was known to dye hers); and the widow’s eyes, which rested on high round cheekbones, were of a liquid brown that seemed to seep into you, the way the juice of a hickory nut can and stain your skin for months. The widow was in a black dress but Rhonda wondered if it was in fact a dress of mourning—it was too lacy about the collar, and the cuffs were too pretty. Maybe it was merely a style that the widow preferred, something she’d acquired back east. Maybe Carmelita Espejo wasn’t a widow at all.
At coffee and cards, in Mrs. Reynolds’ kitchen, the other wives were anxious to hear what’d happened. Rhonda gave a disappointingly brief report. Mrs. Espejo agreed to direct—she enjoyed local theater—and she looked forward to reading the script. Jean Reynolds had stopped pouring coffee to hear the news. After a moment’s pause she returned to pouring.
Rhonda could’ve said more. She could’ve said how the widow was dressed. She could’ve commented on the inside of her house: the hallway’s bookcases brimming with books whose spines spoke of biology and anatomy; the kitchen with its shelves of unique utensils and unnamable gadgets, and more books, these with a foreign language upon their covers, possibly French or Italian; the curtains of heavy black velvet which must’ve shut out every morsel of light when drawn; the table and chairs of darkest wood that were as fancy as the architecture of old buildings; the fact that the widow pressed her coffee instead of percolating it, and the beans were as black as the curtains, as black as her hair; the widow sweetened her cup with cinnamon instead of sugar; and served the monkey-bread on china as light as the steam rising from the fragrant coffee. Rhonda might’ve mentioned that the whole time, the widow smiled like the martyrs in the old paintings that she’d seen in a book at the library. Like she was both doomed and blessed.
And she could’ve said she wasn’t certain the widow was a widow at all.
But Rhonda felt a sort of uneasy possessiveness about Mrs. Espejo, a woman at least ten years her senior. She wanted these observations and impressions for herself, for the time being anyway. Thus she left her friends with the mystery of her visit, and the widow’s easy agreement to direct the Passion.
David’s costume was hanging in the breezeway. Mrs. Perkins said it’d been dry-cleaned, up in Crawford, after her husband had worn it the previous year, but it didn’t smell quite right to Rhonda, so she hoped a good airing would help. The sun was already low, low enough to drop below the treeline of Hollis Woods, and the Holcombs’ backyard was in a kind of twilight. Against that backdrop, the Plague costume took on an especially sinister character. Three years before, the costume gave the Jones children nightmares so Mrs. Jones returned it to the church’s storeroom, and there it stayed between rehearsals. No doubt Mrs. Jones was pleased when the Passion was performed and the costume was no longer their responsibility.
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