THE LEGEND OF THE ALBINO FARM
On the northernmost border of Springfield, Missouri, there once was a great house surrounded by emerald woods and lake and meadow, a home place and farm that, to the lasting sorrow of its owners and heirs, acquired a terrible, nonsensical legend marring all memory of its glory days irreparably within the city, for the estate became known and is still known, if it is remembered at all, as The Albino Farm.
Hettienne Sheehy marked that summer of 1946 on The Old Sheehy Place with much trepidation. Beneath the tan sunlight lancing through wide-flung windows, something was breaking open, she could feel it, like the rupture of damaged, peeling skin beneath which shined startling, new, white flesh.
At the oak table in the library, the three Sheehy brothers whetted greedily upon every word Hettienne’s father released about the closing of the Office of Price Administration and what that could mean for wheat and oats. Uncle Simon, Uncle James, and her father, John, were so tall their chairs and tumblers appeared miniaturized. The three brothers seemed carved of the same tree, with hands so big and blocky, they overflowed their knees. When resting, their small mouths perched in sated but flat smiles upon their square faces, which were all three topped with full, reddish-brown hair. Hettienne imagined them as giant, rough children Picasso might have painted in cubes and earth tones. Fashioning them in that Spaniard’s brute light brought something of Chicago here to the Ozarks and calmed her. For on this summer stay at The Old Sheehy Place it was becoming painfully obvious how she was the only child to bear the last name Sheehy. Those men scheming at the table, the acres of forest, lakes, and fields of wheat and oats, even the storied glory of Emerald Park and its legendary past held a kind of claiming tag upon her. It might be, she reckoned with agitation, that the joyous sprint of her childhood was nearing an end.
The heart-shaped face of cousin Johanna Ormond loomed toward her with urgency, for the Ormond boys, more of Auntie Kate Sheehy Ormond’s brood, grew loud and insistent. In the library waiting for supper, the seven of her Ormond cousins present wanted a story told, and Hal and Brent chiefly cajoled David Ormond, Hettienne’s favorite and the eldest.
“Nineteen ships blowed up by one bomb,” Hal insisted, holding a finger up, then spiraling that finger atomically downward. “Spooky decks! Two sailors abandoned to fate! Tell that, David.”
“Flying Saucers!” Brent pounded his thighs with his fists.
Both David and Hettienne wondered why it was so often David Ormond asked to tell the stories. He wasn’t particularly gifted at storytelling, and his Ozarks accent made even tear jerkers seem comedic to Hettienne. Maybe it was just his spacious memory that caused the cousins all to demand every story come from poor David?
“Flying Saucers?” Johanna grunted. “And who cares a red cent what Harry Truman blew up in The Middle of Nowhere Atoll?! I want a story with a Celtic princess. A castle besieged. A mysterious white knight from far off lands.” With this she reached out her freckled, plump arms and round fingers imploringly. “Hettienne, tell a tale of old?”
On the big sofa in the midst of the library Hettienne Sheehy had drawn her long legs up to her. Surrounded by her Ormond cousins, she seemed to David Ormond like a sparkling white vein of quartz embedded in dull, red chert. Now that she was thirteen, though, something strange was come over her. Those blue Sheehy eyes beheld Cousin Johanna as if the Ormond girl were a foreigner. Instead of clasping Johanna’s hand and commencing a legend about castles of yore, Hettienne stretched out her thin, lengthy fingers. In the mote-strewn sunlight of the library window, they were a pearl’s white. She hovered at but did not touch the meat of Johanna’s palm with her fingertips, while her long face fell into a strange, slack-jawed, fish-like gape David had seen on the faces of Aunts Agnes and Helen when they dozed. It was not the Sheehy family’s most pleasant aspect, and on Hettienne’s normally poised face, the expression proved somehow even more unsettling. The moment lasted so long that the Ormond siblings glanced warily at one another. Johanna, usually bullish, drew her hand away suddenly as if it had met ice.
“Hettienne?” David asked.
Her father, John, stood. The men at the table quietened.
Hettienne’s face lost its awful slackness at David’s voice. “It is…” But then she halted like a locked engine, a pause of excruciating duration. John moved quickly to stand behind the sofa and be nearest his daughter. “Tell about Emerald Park, David,” she gasped at last, as if she had surfaced from deep under the lake. “How all Springfield loved to come. Everyone likes that olden day’s story. Please. Tell that, David.”
* * *
It was Hettienne that the Sheehy’s worried most about. The young girl had been vigorous, giddy, with fine and flowing blonde hair and symmetrical if very long proportions and a penchant for any game that involved running and screaming. But in her thirteenth summer she suddenly exhibited episodes of catatonia, somnambulism, and jags of mystifying talk that referenced places and relations she could never have known, or related events that had never to anyone’s ken happened. Yet from the moment she stepped down from the train, it was clear to Aunt Helen and Cousin David how she had transformed. She had certainly appreciated most of the Sheehy’s astonishing though predictable growth spurt in height. But, from the way she accepted the conductor’s hand, surveyed the North Town train station, signaled to and thanked the porters, then strode to Aunt Helen and David Ormond ahead of her mother and father, she seemed to have bypassed all awkwardness and retained a wondrous, athletic poise. In the shimmering edges of her ivory traveling dress, in her white and flawless skin, in the hint of muscle at her shoulders and forearms, in the sure movement of this stately girl both Cousin David and Aunt Helen could project, with no strain upon the imagination, a stunning, pale, and long woman soon to be. How disturbing, then, that an outward grace would house such an inward turmoil.
Among the Sheehy’s, children were a treasure not to be spent. Of the three sons of the late Mike Sheehy, only John, Hettienne’s father, married, and he promptly removed from Springfield, Missouri, to Chicago. Of four daughters of Mike Sheehy, only Kate wed, early and verging on scandal and to an Ormond, a sheet metal worker and volunteer fireman. Adding insults to injuries, Kate’s marriage proved exasperatingly productive, nine live births, eight living children, all of them thoroughly Ormond’s. With every one of Simon Sheehy’s nine nieces and nephews returned to the twelve-room sprawl of the farmhouse at Emerald Park on the Eve of the Feast Day of Saint Maelmuire O’Gorman, the only child to bear the last name of Sheehy, the teen Hettienne twice was observed to lose all connection with the activities around her. In the morning light, her gaze capsized into a void. She froze amidst the preparations for fireworks at the lake and the horse racing and plates of food steaming from the kitchen, froze stock still like a rambler that’s mistaken a shadow for a serpent. Then at dinner, her eyes glassed over, and she stared so long in torpor at Cousin Lilliana Ormond that the toddler plunked her cornbread into her milk bowl, pointed, then wailed. When Hettienne did not relent, the toddler grew hysterical, and the rest of the dinner table hushed. Bolting up like flushed quail, Agnes, Margaret, and Helen, the three spinster aunts, murmured urgently.
Simon stepped behind Hettienne and placed both of his broad, knotted hands on her shoulders. Everyone halted. “All of you, help Agnes clear,” Simon said firmly. “Dinner has ended. Children are excused.”
And clear they did, rapidly, whispering, wide-eyed. At last it was just Uncle Simon, Uncle James, and her father and mother with Hettienne. Tears of embarrassment streamed down her cheeks, silvered droplets wetting her white-collared blouse so her pale flesh now showed there in oval washes. She made no move to wipe her tears, but stared straight forward at the empty tablecloth and looked for all the world like one of those poor German girls who gazed out in dismayed resignation from bomb-shattered ruins in newspaper photographs.
“Child,” said Simon, “tell me that you know where you are.”
Once the hope of all the Sheehy’s, this lithe and healthy blonde, who, it was speculated, would marry grandly and high for them like some princess of old, she swallowed. She looked at her Uncle Simon coldly. And then, still with a trace of that stoned daze, a dull weariness in her eyes, she began to drone loudly and plainly, sounding almost like a sleepy young man reciting at the schoolhouse. “Up the Aerie Mountain. Down the shady glen. / We daren’t go a’huntin’ for fear of opal men.” In that old rhythm spoken so low and coming from her stoned face there seemed a supernatural threat. At the long cherry wood table in the great room decorated with its red, white, and blue table cloth, the only moving things now were the lime green shadows of willow leaves shivering like feathers in the sun that streamed through the open windows. For a long time the only sound was the simmering hiss of the wind passing through those wands and leaves.
“Sídhe,” Simon whispered. “You have taught her the old legends, John?” he asked, his voice much subdued, even hinting at approval, one hand now stroking the poor girl’s head. Blonde, straight hair, from her mother, the first Sheehy ever to carry such a head of hair.
“I don’t know what she means. It’s 1946. I’m not trying to make her more Irish.”
A frown. “She has read that poem somewhere, then?”
“She’s a very popular girl at Our Lady of the Angels,” her mother inserted. “No time for silly, blaspheming books. Tell your uncle, Hettienne!”
When Hettienne did not move, did not answer, her father stepped forward and held a hand out to her. She took it and rose from her chair. “She has been speaking in rhymes lately. Losing her concentration. Day dreaming.” Turning, he sharply pointed at her mother. “Once we are back in Chicago, Mother will get her to a doctor.”