The house was not as big as she remembered. Or as dark, though you couldn't call it bright either. It stood there surrounded by grass that almost reached Roxane's waist. Thornberries, cockleburs, chickweeds and thistles... Like the rusted gates and weathered walls, they reminded Roxane of how much time has passed.
"Who are you?"
A girl had appeared at the doorway, looking at her suspiciously. She gripped the broomstick in her hands as if she was ready to hit Roxane with it.
"I'm... looking for the mistress of this house," Roxane. Her tongue moved clumsily around the words.
The girl's scowl cleared. "Oh, are you a friend of my grandmother's?" she asked, smiling. And now Roxane knew why the girl looked familiar, and not because she was a ghost from the past. "Yeah, she's here. You want to see her now?"
The answer came easily this time. "Yes, I do."
The girl shrugged. "Follow me. Take off your shoes first, though."
Roxane hid her smile as the girl led her up the stairs with the look of someone who didn't receive guests very often. "Why do you wear your hair loose like that? My mother pins it up. I don't want to pin mine up, but if she catches me she'll scold me for not behaving myself. My mother scolds me for a lot of things. That's why I like it better at Granny's. My mother doesn't come here, she doesn't seem to like my grandmother very much. Oh - don't tell her I said that!"
The hallway was narrower and the ceiling lower than Roxane remembered, too. She looked at the paintings hanging on the walls. These were the only things that hadn't changed.
"Hey... you look kind of like him!" said the girl, tiptoeing to look over Roxane's shoulder. "Especially around the eyes... Though of course you're a lot prettier. Are you one of my cousins?"
Roxane looked back at the painting. "You can say that," she said softly.
The girl took Roxane's hand. "Why didn't you just say so? Granny would love to see you! Come on, Auntie, she's in her room!"
She smiled at Roxane as she pushed the door open. When Roxane hesitated at the doorway, the girl gestured impatiently. "You'll have to speak loud," she whispered to Roxane. "Granny's hearing is really bad."
Roxane approached the bed. Her head felt numb, and her heart was thumping wildly in her chest. It took only this moment for Roxane to feel like a little girl again.
"Granny!" yelled the girl, crouching down beside the lump under the bed covers. "Time to wake up!" The girl pulled back the covers, adjusting the pillow. "I brought a visitor, Granny. Someone is here to see you!"
The girl finished and stepped aside, and Roxane's breath caught.
An old woman laid on the bed. Her hair hung down near her face in stringy, matted white-gray curls. Her skin was pale, blotchy, and so transparent you could see the veins. She was dressed in a thin fraying gown, and her neck was bare of jewels. Then there was the face. Her lips, as colorless as water. Dried drool on her chin. And... the eyes. They turned to land on Roxane slowly, so slowly. They blinked sluggishly as they stared up at her.
"Who...?" The voice was hoarse. As soon as she spoke, she gave several dry, heaving coughs.
"Have some water, Granny," said the girl. She looked at Roxane. "Say something! Something so she can remember you!"
Roxane opened her mouth, but no sound came out. She swallowed. "I - I'm Roxane... ma'am. I've... I've come back."
The old woman's eyes found Roxane again, with difficulty.
"Keep talking," prompted the girl.
"I just want to say... I came back so that I can..." I can't do this, thought Roxane, but she gripped her dress so hard she could feel her nails digging into her palm and forced herself to meet the old woman's hazy, unfocused eyes.
"They told me," Roxane said quietly, "they told me everything. How you paid them off, how you paid the driver of the wagon as well, how you told them exactly where in the woods to find me, how you said to look for the little girl wearing an ugly hat. And they told me, too, that you said to keep all this a secret from me, must never let me know who planned it all. But no matter how cunning, how clever you are, how far you thought of everything, you didn't foresee this, did you? That when people witness a good heart, they can't keep quiet? They just can't... not for long."
The girl was gaping at Roxane, but Roxane ignored her. She didn't bother to brush away her tears. Carefully she sat down at the bed, and took the old woman's gnarled, cold hand in hers.
"You once said to me that you don't expect a stupid child like me to understand... But I'm not a child anymore, I'm all grown, and I do understand now. I understand that you didn't kill my mother, but you saved her life. I understand that all the hate and spite you've shown me those early years were nothing but your bitterness and your pain. I understand that you were always there, helping me when my spirit broke, defending me from even your daughter and your son, keeping me in this house not to imprison me but to protect me, even though it hurt you to see my face every time..."
Roxane touched the woman's cheek. The old woman no longer smelled like perfume. She just smelled like herself, and it wasn't such a bad smell.
"How proud you were, prouder than I am or my daughter... the proudest of us all," said Roxane. She smiled through her tears. "Do you remember what you told me that night I left? That there are two kinds of women in this world? I know which kind I am now, and I owe it to you. I owe everything I have today to you." She took a deep breath. "I know which kind you are, too. You might have always hidden your face, hidden your true self behind harsh words and cold sneers. But you should have known, that other people have eyes. They only had to look."
The girl gave Roxane a handkerchief. Roxane took it. "How old are you, child?" she asked.
"Twelve," the girl said.
Roxane laughed lightly. "That's a good age," she said. "A good one."
The girl was still looking at her. She didn't understand what was going on, Roxane could see that in her eyes, but she seemed to understand enough. Enough not to say anything as Roxane stood up and gently tucked the old woman in.
Roxane looked around the room. With the drapes pulled back and sunlight streaming in, she could finally see it clearly. The books on the bookshelf, the painting of the woman on her wedding day, the embroidery still left on the dresser, covered in dust.
"Thank you," said Roxane, saying the words that were overdue, long overdue. She bowed to the woman, and held it for a while. Then she straightened up, nodded to the girl, and started to walk to the door.
"Roxane," spoke a voice. So low Roxane almost didn't hear. "You're... Roxane."
Roxane looked back. The old woman was still lying there, her eyes closed, breathing peacefully in deep slumber. You would have thought it was only a whisper of the wind that had spoken those words. But Roxane knew better. She smiled to herself as she closed the door.