Scent of Summer Magnolia by Kat George
Misconceptions, tea and scones, and murder. A mystery-thriller set in the Danish settlement of Daneby, in New Zealand. Widowed Charlotte wants to rebuild a quiet life with her children but it seems there are family secrets that threaten their lives. With ghostly whisperings in the old house, a shadowy stalker and the odd behaviour of her matriarch aunt, she realizes she must investigate before anyone else dies.
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The earth felt warm beneath her bare legs, the grass smooth and slippery. She wiggled harder into the hillside, making the slim layer of grass give, to let her closer. She liked to feel close to the earth, liked to imagine the deep heart beat way beneath her, sounding out the silent passage of time. She lay back into the dent she had made for herself on the ribs of the great hill, and let her hand with the letter fall loosely to one side. She gazed slowly upward, closing her eyes against the stab of sun-dazzle through leaves far away.
Standing tall behind her, towering skyward — the old Rimu that could be seen from anywhere in the valley. From her languid position at the roots of the tree, squinting backwards, her eyes fastened on a spot half way up the mighty trunk of the Rimu, with its strips of red dusty bark hanging there. She allowed her eyes to slowly climb the shaggy bark, up, up to the dizzying heights where the air was surely thinner. A poem began to form somewhere in her mind, about this old Rimu. How long he must have stood, old as the hills, sucking life up from the depths of the earth in great powerful surges drawn up through the roots of him with every heart beat of the earth, then sighing that life out again from the tops of his branches, releasing it into the cool thin air far above.
A warm breeze lifted the pages of the letter. She swatted them down onto her chest, folding her hands over it like a dead woman, and sighed. The bush was still, absorbing the wafted air instantly. There was no sound, just the empty hot sky, the white sun, and the black-green bush shrouding the hills. Charlie lifted the pages of the letter up with two hands on heavy arms to read the spidery writing again. Emotion spilled from the words as they ran over the page.
‘Please won’t you come home again? I do miss you and those little boys so much. I have to face it, Charlotte, I’m probably getting old. You never know, I may not be long for this world. Please don’t leave me here to die alone, without ever seeing those dear little boys again’.
The writer went on to describe the aggravating inadequacies of James, a person that appeared to be either in her Aunt Kirsty’s employ, or a neighbour that helped out about the place.
‘He just doesn’t understand how we do things. He’s so rude to me too. He thinks I don’t hear him when he calls me names under his breath, but I hear what he says alright, and it’s not pleasant at all’.
Then came the part again that made Charlie sit up to read.
‘He said he would kill me in my sleep. I’m too afraid to take a nap these days. Of course he would never have the nerve, the ignorant wretch. But he has taken away all the garden tools and the axe from the shed. To sharpen them, he says, but now I can’t even do the garden and I’m rather sorry that the weeds are going to get the better of me. It’s so tiring pulling everything by hand’.
Aunt Kirsty had never used the word ‘afraid’ in her life. Charlie would have doubted the authorship of the letter had it not been the third such letter she had received in as many weeks; something was obviously wrong. It was clear that Charlie should end her sojourn in the bush and return. But how on earth could vague Charlie, day dreamer, poet, and accidental mother of two, be of any use to such as the great Kirstine Christensen?
The pages gleamed white, reflecting the sun harshly so that the fine spidery writing melted into light. Charlie closed her eyes, seeing in the soft darkness there, a blood red page… too afraid to take a nap…
She heard a tiny sound, the far away lonely growl of the school bus climbing the hill by Newson’s corner; the tone rose as the gears were shifted one higher for the final grunt. Charlie rolled over onto her front and her left hip sank into the hollow she had made for lying in. Pressing her face against the grass for a moment, she listened one last time to the heartbeat far beneath her in the belly of the Earth. A gentle voice whispered, ‘you are safe here with me little bird’. The rich, fecund smell of the soil filled her nostrils and made her head swim.
Over on the east side, where she had grown up, the ground smelled as it felt — hard, uncompromising and severe. She had lain like this often as a young girl, listening to the deep heart beat, but on flatter, much cultivated hills far away from this rugged and vitally odorous one. Kirsty’s Father had an architect design and build Skovgaard homestead on the highest plateau overlooking their land. To the East, a valley of rolling downs and river flats stretched before the house, and behind the home paddocks, hills climbed steadily toward the mountains in the west. It was a beautiful farm. Charlie sighed again.
But with one appalling stroke of dark passion, everything changed, the Universe rearranged, and Kirsty and Charlie now were left blinking at each other beside a great smoking chasm.
Come home, Kirsty? What should she come home to? If she did return to Daneby, could anything at all rise from those ashes? Was she indeed well enough yet? The chasm opened immediately at her feet, drawing her toward its impossible depths, inviting her to step over the edge. Charlie’s thoughts slammed closed. Even now, three years later, she would not allow herself to try to remember.
She stood up. The bus would be at the end of the valley in a few minutes, it was time.