She welcomes me in with a warm smile and gestures to a well-preserved chaise longue that I’m sure I’ve seen in an antiques magazine. While I sit, breathing deeply to appreciate the fragrance of hot-house flowers crowding the bay window nearby, she carries a silver tea tray to the oval serving table between my place and the egg-shaped rattan swing she has lined with colourful patchwork pillows. Her waist-length dark hair cascades over her shoulder, rippling as finely as a waterfall, as she gracefully pours the steaming Earl Grey into the delicate bone china cups on the tray.
Everything in the sitting room flows. As she settles into her swing with a contented sigh, my eyes roam over the sheer drapery flung casually over unpeeled slim tree branches, the trailing vines of hanging plants and strings of crystalline beads spinning gently in the cool breeze of the open windows. Her walls are crowded: there is a chair rail visible, but only where the bookshelves end, and above their stacked and dusty tomes there are portraits from many eras, some behind glass and framed in gilt, and I wonder if they are originals. At intervals, there are bronze and pewter sconces with marks of soot and melted candles — I don’t know how on earth she trusts that the drywall won’t just burst into flame when she lights them. It’s a luxury I’d enjoy in my own home, but I know my husband would be too anxious to let me try.
To my amazement, I hear chirping, and I realize that there are canaries and yellow finches perched on the picture frames; I watch a bluejay flit down to help itself to a crumb from the plate of scones, and I wonder how it was I didn’t see them before.
“They rather blend in with the wallpaper, don’t they?” she smiles over her cup. “And they are quiet when someone new comes in. Shy little things.”
I want to ask how they avoid pooping on everything, or what she does if they do, but it feels like that would be so . . . wrong.
“So, I understand that you are a researcher?”
I nod, and for lack of anything better to say, I nod again. “Geneological. I’m just interested in my family’s roots. It’s really for a historical essay due in a few months for my professor.”
“I’m hopeful that I can be of a help to you, then.”
“The curator at the museum said you might be,” I tell her. I open my messenger bag to take out my notes. “He said you have some books of old records, births and deaths and weddings. I take it that you’re a collector of antiquities.” I wave lamely at the eccentric and opulent room.
“Something like that,” she chuckles. Her brown eyes crinkle when she smiles at me.
I’m taken aback by how beautiful she is. No, not just beautiful — elegant. I should have showered three times before even stepping foot into her home. It’s hard to get the words out, I feel so intimidated. I’m not used to anyone ever telling me I’m pretty, much less beautiful, and she must get it all the time. What must that be like?
When I see her eyes move to the sheaf of papers in my hand, I shake off my nervousness, or try to. “Well, um, I’m tracing the path of my mother’s mother’s people. My great-great-grandfather was an orphan, so it’s difficult to find any evidence of his origins, so I was hoping to follow his wife first and find clues along the way.”
The lady leans forward, her eyes glittering as merrily as the beads wound around her slender wrists. “May I see?”
I don’t even hesitate to pass her my research.
We spend the next hour and a half poring over my notes, she asking questions and I answering as best I can. Once, she pauses to put her hair back into a French knot, spearing it neatly with a sharpened pencil. I’ve never been able to do that, much less leave the charming sweeps over the tips of the ears. Mine have always been slightly pointy, earning me taunts of being Spock’s daughter when I was in high school, so I generally try to keep them hidden until I can afford surgery to make them look more . . . normal.
“Well, there are some books in my library that we may find helpful,” she tells me at last. Rising easily, she crooks her finger at me and I follow her to the bookshelf nearest the door. She kneels there, her long sleeveless wrap pooling around her ankles, and I copy her with far less grace. For the first time, I start to wonder how old she is. The tomes she is running her long fingers over — I’ve seen leather bindings like that before, but only locked behind temperature-controlled doors in museums and monsteries. She doesn’t live in a mansion, so I can’t judge her net worth, but how did someone so young come by such priceless treasures?
But the way she moves isn’t the confident gait of an energetic 30 year old, or even the measured pace of a woman in her 40s. Neither does she creak or groan at the bending of her joints. She almost appears . . . ageless. But for the streaks of silver in her hair, the slight lines around her mouth and eyes, I might not even be able to guess older than 25.
“Here,” she says with not a little satisfaction, handing me a long rectangular folio. Its pages rustle; the contents are printed on paper, but also on parchment and vellum. “From the names you’ve given me, I think that this will help.”
I open the cover right then and there, pausing only to get up and retrieve the cotton gloves I’ve taken to carrying with me on research outings. She’s right — there are whole families registered in this volume. There are pages (I find myself hoping at first that they’re copies and not ripped out of the original books) from passenger manifests and church records, agreements for land purchases and legal documents concerning leases. I run out of ink in one pen and she hands me another. Eventually, I realize that I’m squinting because the light is fading, and she begins to walk the room with a long taper, lighting her candles.
“I’m so sorry,” I start, arching my back and massaging my tailbone. “I’ve wasted your afternoon, and it’s well into evening now.”
“That’s all right,” she murmurs. She glances at me. “I enjoy the company. It’s not often that I am able to host someone so inquisitive, polite, and pleasant.”
“Me?” I’m incredulous. “Honestly, I’m — well, I haven’t said much about anything other than the work. I’m pretty shy, in real life.”
“Why would you say that?” She blinks at me. “About ‘real life’?”
“Because all of this just feels so — surreal.” I get up, shakily because my legs are all pins and needles, and show her the timelines and branches I’ve jotted down. “Everything I needed to know is here. I don’t have to go anywhere else. It’s like finding a pot of gold, and I’m stunned. But even though all my questions were answered (and thank you so much for that!), now I’ve got even more.”
“Well, here . . .” I point at where the originating branches unite. “There’s a woman who is referenced over and over in family lore as being the game-changer. There are legends written down in diaries and letters about her, stories passed down from mother to daughter or father to son, how nobody knew where she came from or why. Just that my ancestor was smitten with her and it all went from there.”
“Smitten.” She laughs softly, her hand over her heart. “Such a funny term for love.”
“Well, the really funny part is that while the rest of the family’s pretty thoroughly documented, as you can see here, her birth and death records are missing. It wouldn’t be unusual, except that it’s the only gap.” I hold up the evidence, both in the primary sources and in my own notes. “See, even her husband’s family’s documentation goes further back, almost to the Dark Ages. But of this Arwen? There’s nothing. Not even a maiden name. And she came to the marriage with a son, but there’s no record of his birth either.”
“Ah, but her maiden name was real.” She puts the taper down and steps toward me, looking at me intently. “And you know about her child?”
I’m taken aback. “Well, yes. I’ve tried to be thorough. After all, he’s really the start of my bloodline — or, through him, she was.”
“I apologize. This was my error. I thought you were researching the second son, the first child of their marriage.” She’s twisting a ring on her finger, now, and pacing the room. “Like the others who have come before.”
“I’m sorry, maybe I wasn’t clear.” I kneel down to tidy up, gathering my things. “If I’ve made you uncomfortable –”
“No, dear, I’m not uncomfortable.” She slips down beside me, taking my hand. Her eyes are huge and her full lips are trembling. “I just wasn’t expecting you today.”
“But who are you?” I’m suddenly frightened.
“Don’t be afraid, Granddaughter,” she whispers. “The name I gave you before was a lie. I am Arwen, daughter of Elrond. And I have been waiting for you.”