Mother urged me to sit on the cushioned stool in front of her armchair, seating herself in a graceful flutter of skirts, and I cast another look at the quiet Jason. He was somehow monotone, the sort of young man you would pass on the street and not notice. Maybe that was a good quality for a mediating host.
He had resettled on the rug, but his lanky height had an awkward look even in sitting, and the big hands, despite their work-toughened strength, contributed to the gangly image. He kept his face turned down in apparent contemplation of the rug. His hair—thick, straight, and shaggy—was a neutral brown, sun-streaked lighter to blend into the sun-dark skin. The brief glimpse of his face had left me only an impression of broad cheekbones and the indefinably colored eyes that somehow matched his overall tawniness. I wondered what had attracted Helen to him. She could have her pick of men.
She and Sam reclaimed my attention. Their questions were too eager, Sam’s laughter too hearty, but I pretended not to see the puzzled tilt of Sam’s head, the banked coals of Aaron’s glare, and the warm vivacity that masked the concern in Helen’s eyes. They told me more than I wanted to know.
I listened to my brittle voice produce an amusing story of the travels that had taken me a roundabout course from the humid tedium of a year on an orbiting hydroponics station to the perpetual glittering night inside Casino. I didn’t tell them I designed gambling games. No need to get Aaron started on “the wages of sin.”
I couldn’t answer the questions they really wanted to ask. “I’d love to hear you sing, Mother. It’s been a long time.”
“Your lyre is still upstairs, waiting for you. I suppose it’s silly, but I felt sorry for it when you left.” Her eyes managed to convey at once gentle reproach, quick forgiveness, and the shared feminine secret of our music. I felt myself stiffening against the response she could trigger as easily as plucking the strings of her instrument.
She turned to reach for the lyre Sam was holding out, her hands pale against the dark wood. The lotus-leaves which heal the wounds of Death lie in thy hand . . . No, Mother.
She began softly, an old ballad, one she knew I loved. Her voice was the balm she meant it to be. Still stiffened in resistance, I closed my eyes, but suddenly weariness flowed over me with the gentle notes, and I stopped fighting. Her voice melted the song into warm waves. They rose and fell against me, then crested to carry me into the final passage of the ballad. I opened my eyes and she was no longer Helen, no longer Mother, but purely the lovely instrument of the song.
My voice was lower than hers, and huskier, without her rich resonance. But it formed a pleasant enough alto harmony in the falling chorus.
I didn’t care if my face mirrored her serene smile, that she was charming me as she did the men. She leaned forward in a smooth movement to place her lyre in my hands. It was pleasant to hold, the balance fitting naturally into my shoulder. The wood was warm where she’d touched it, but cool beneath, and solid. Light gleamed from the strings as my fingers sought a chord, drew it forth from the sinking flames. It moved out into the room, reverberating . . .
My palms closed abruptly on the strings, killing the sound.
I handed her the instrument, keeping my voice light. “It’s been too long. I’m afraid I’ve lost it.”
She accepted it, content for the night. “What nonsense! You’ll never lose that gifted touch, Ruth.” Her fingers barely brushed my shoulder as I turned away to watch the fire.
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