Story Excerpt

The Wedding Ring

by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
 

WeddingRing_Laurie-Harden
Art by Laurie Harden

Victoria Hoyt Gardner was as delicate as her china: very thin, very old, very expensive.

Seated in a massive carved armchair beneath the head of a snarling jaguar, she poured tea from an antique silver pot and said, “You shatter all my preconceptions, Dr. Webster. I expected an anthropologist as old and dried up as myself and here you are so young and pretty.”

Her face had appeared in too many society pages and her family was too much a part of Carlisle College’s history for me not to have an accurate impression of her.

“My doctorate’s in archaeology,” I said as I took the fragile cup she offered.

Biff Oliphant gave me a glare that was the visual equivalent of a sharp kick to the shins. “Archaeology, anthropology, all those -ologies confuse me too,” he chuckled.

Biff is Vice President of Institutional Advancement. He is not Carlisle College’s gift to academia, but he is very good at what he does, which is getting blood from turnips. Or, as Biff himself describes it, his job is to seek out wealthy individuals and corporations and “present them with opportunities for giving.”

Ever since Mrs. Gardner returned to the area last autumn and opened up the old Hoyt mansion that abuts the campus, Biff has tried to interest her in renewing her family’s past financial ties to the college, a nondenominational school here in Raleigh. From where we sat, we could look out through French doors to the 1947 Hoyt Golf Course given by her father. Beyond are the 1898 Hoyt Chapel and a 1923 Hoyt Dormitory, both endowed by her grandfather. Biff had burst into my office yesterday afternoon almost giddy with excitement because he thought Mrs. Gardner might donate a Hoyt-Gardner wing to the library.

Ordinarily, he considers me too socially unreliable to be taken along on a fund-raising mission, but Mrs. Gardner had specifically asked for someone in anthropology, which is how I came to be sipping tea in this wood-paneled hall surrounded by the stuffed heads of many animals now on the world’s endangered-species list.

“Carlisle College isn’t large enough to support separate departments, so anthropology and archaeology are lumped together in the history department and I get to teach both,” I explained.

“Dr. Webster is too modest,” Biff said heartily. “She’s an authority on Aztecs and her courses always close out. Very popular.”

Aztecs are Johnny-come-latelies compared to the Olmecs, my particular specialty, but Biff muddles all pre-Columbian cultures and I’ve quit being outraged by administrative ignorance. Small private colleges usually teeter too near the edge of financial insolvency to afford the luxury of intellectual administrators and Carlisle was no exception to this general rule. After all, someone has to raise money for salaries, Xerox machines, and red tape.

While the pleasantries continued, I studied our hostess’s face.

 

Victoria Hoyt Gardner had been a great beauty in her youth. I’d stopped by the library that morning to read up on her family’s history and in one of the yearbooks I’d found a grisly picture of her on safari with her grandfather.

Her thick brown hair and a rather hatchet-shaped nose had combined with enormous brown eyes to give her face an exotic symmetry that must have been bewitching. She wore khaki pants and shirt in the photograph and her booted foot rested carelessly upon the head of a dead lion.

Three lionesses and several slaughtered gazelles were arranged around the girl, and her grandfather, in a pith helmet, leaned upon his gun and beamed at her across the carnage. Her “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” essays must have turned this all-female college on its ear before she dropped out.

Good bones always remain even after the skin that covers them grows slack and wrinkled, and Mrs. Gardner was now well past seventy. She was thin almost to emaciation, with long bony fingers and long narrow feet, but her face still held the ravaged remains of that oddly compelling beauty. Her once-brown hair was clipped short now and covered her skull like a helmet of white egret feathers, contrasting with skin that seemed permanently tanned from her South American days.

In the mid twenties, she had married a famous playboy-sportsman and for several years they had amused themselves by leading safaris across the Peruvian Andes until Gerald Gardner disappeared one night while tracking a wounded jaguar. It was thought that the animal’s mate had ambushed him and dragged him off into the underbrush, never to be found.

This was in the late thirties, around the time Mrs. Gardner discovered that the back pains she’d ignored for a couple of years were caused by tuberculosis of the spine.

After the war, she had sold her cocoa plantation, parked her own trophies and keepsakes with her grandfather’s collection here on the Hoyt grounds, and then spent the next thirty years in and out of hospitals and health spas all over the world, seeking first a cure for her disintegrating spine and, finally, simple cessation from pain.

It was assumed that she had come home to die.

She seemed well enough that spring afternoon, though, even stylish in a high-necked dress of coral linen. Her only piece of jewelry was a chain of beaten gold with some sort of primitive bronze medallion.

She saw my curious glance and slipped it from the chain so I could hold it.

“A fertility totem?” I asked, ex-amining the heavy-breasted figure engraved on the reverse.

Her dark eyes became veiled. “Did no good, I’m afraid. I’m the last Hoyt. Last Gardner too, for that matter. Do you have children, Dr. Webster?”

“A little girl,” I said. “She’s three.”

Biff broke in on what he considered an awkward moment. Even though we’re almost ten years past Woodstock and Carlisle College has moved with the times, this is the Bible Belt and he still finds it a bit uncomfortable to acknowledge a faculty member who’s had a child out of wedlock.

Me.

Everyone knows about Jenny. I certainly hadn’t kept her in a closet, but Biff launched a discourse that tactfully maneuvered Mrs. Gardner back to her plans for Carlisle.

“It’s my grandfather’s collection,” she said. “I want to create a museum in his memory.”

 

Although her father had hunted occasionally, his real killings were on Wall Street, where he had parlayed a comfortable family fortune into enormous wealth. It was his father, Mrs. Gardner’s grandfather, who had manfully gunned for big game from the Arctic to the Argentine with a few side trips to Africa and Asia thrown in for variety. In addition to the animal heads in this room, he often stumbled upon the ruins of ancient cultures and, with the indiscriminate pack-rat acquisitiveness of the nineteenth century, he had simply carted it all home with him.

He shot alligators in the Florida swamps and brought back Seminole pottery; he tracked mountain lions in the Rockies and discovered flint projectile points beside the remains of an imperial mammoth. Returning from an expedition to bag polar bears near the Arctic Circle, he had stopped off long enough in the Pacific Northwest to collect three Chinook totem poles.

“The barn is crammed to the rafters,” said Mrs. Gardner. “This house has been standing a hundred and sixty years and architects assure me there’s no reason it can’t last another two hundred. I propose to leave it and the grounds and a sizeable endowment to Carlisle College.”

On the couch beside me, Biff tried not to quiver.

“The outbuildings can be torn down, but the house will become a museum. My grandfather’s discoveries will form the core collection and for that, Dr. Webster, I need an expert.”

“Me? But I’m an archaeologist,” I repeated. “I know absolutely nothing about setting up a museum or—”

She brushed aside my objections with the airy wave of wealth. “Architects will supervise the physical conversions and the endowment will eventually salary a curatorial staff, but that comes later. First, someone must go through everything crate by crate, to inventory and evaluate. I hope that will be you, Dr. Webster.”

She shifted her small frame and pain shadowed her face even though the capacious chair was heaped with cushions.

From nowhere, a stocky, dark-skinned woman with straight blue-black hair glided across the room. I had heard that Mrs. Gardner’s personal companion was from the Peruvian Andes, but this was the first time I’d seen her. She gently repositioned the pillows behind Mrs. Gardner’s back and disappeared as silently as she had come.

Biff seemed not to have noticed. Visions of acquiring the Hoyt property for Carlisle had dazzled his eyes.

“Isn’t it lucky, Ellen, that you decided not to go to Mexico this summer?” he exclaimed.

“Very,” I answered coldly.

My old mentor from the university had pulled several strings so that I’d be offered the assistant directorship of an important excavation in Guerrero this summer, but I’d had to turn it down.

Academically, it was a brilliant opportunity. The pay, however, would barely cover my expenses down and back and I desperately needed more money. Dahl Mackey’s the best lawyer around, but very expensive. So instead of participating in what looked like the most promising Olmec discoveries in years, I’d contracted to teach summer school at Carlisle. Two classes a day, I reminded Biff.

“Someone else can teach them,” he said.

Mrs. Gardner murmured that she would make it worth my while, and since the figure named was nearly three times what I’d make teaching, we shook hands on it.

Her hand in mine was like cool bone china.

 

When I got home that afternoon, Jenny and her sitter were squirting each other with water pistols. Naked except for a pair of Minnie Mouse underpants, Jenny ran barefooted across the grass and flung her wet arms around my knees.

“Dr. Bob bringed us some fish,” she announced.

Brought us, you ungrammatical imp,” I said, dodging a blast from her water pistol.

Bob Carson’s a dentist who lives next door. Widowed now and nearing retirement, he loves to fish, but hates to scale and clean them. I grew up on a working farm that still slaughters its own pork, beef, and poultry, so gutting a few fish doesn’t faze me.

“He left them in a bucket on the porch, Dr. Webster,” said Gail. “They’re still alive.”

Gail’s one of four undergraduates who share Jenny’s care this semester during my working hours. They tidy up and throw things in the washer, but I’ve always made it clear that Jenny was the only reason they were hired.

The telephone rang as I finished cleaning the fish and my stomach knotted at the sound of my lawyer’s voice. I took a deep breath, prepared to hear the worst.

“Good news,” Dahl Mackey said briskly. “The judge agreed to the restraining order, so if Dr. Davis attempts to speak to you or Jenny before the hearing, he’ll be in contempt.”

Relief at winning the first skirmish over Jenny made me almost giddy.

Mrs. Gardner was being diplomatic when she called me young and pretty, but Jenny could pose for Gerber ads. While I don’t exactly stop clocks with my face or gross out the men with my body, people do tend to use tactful adjectives like “healthy” or “sturdy” to describe my build. Jenny has my fair hair and blue eyes, but she’ll be truly beautiful someday because she dipped into the genetic pool and came out with Aaron’s slender frame, sidelong smile, and devastating eyelashes.

 

Aaron is Aaron Davis. More properly, Dr. Aaron Davis, Ph.D.

He was an ambitious grad student still fumbling around for a thesis subject when we met four years ago at a dig in Mexico. One kiss behind the processing tent and I had gone right up in flames.

Friends tried to douse it. They said he was a user and a taker, but I wouldn’t listen. Our fiery summer passion burned into autumn—just long enough for him to finish outlining a doctoral thesis based on my original observations before he dumped me.

But not before I was pregnant with Jenny.

At first, in my hurt and bitterness, I considered an abortion. Then I got logical: I was twenty-eight, already tenured, and happily climbing the academic ladder. I might never marry, so why throw away this one sure chance at motherhood?

Until this spring, it had worked out beautifully. Friends were supportive and, when I was in class, responsible students looked after Jenny. Even summer digs were no problem. I simply bought an extra plane ticket for Jenny’s sitter and took them both along. My work was starting to be published in various scholarly journals and I honestly believed I was going to get it all.

Then Aaron showed up on my doorstep this spring.

He was teaching anthropology at the university here. Through the grapevine, I’d heard that he’d married the daughter of one of the trustees. I also heard that he wasn’t publishing. Perhaps it was professional jealousy or maybe his wife couldn’t conceive or maybe it was pure ego that made him think he could get away with it. I really didn’t care what his motives were.

All I knew was that once upon a time, I had given Aaron my love, my body, and my notebooks on Olmec culture. No way would I give him Jenny too.

“Unwed fathers have rights,” he said smugly.

“Like hell!” I’d snarled. “You don’t get rights without responsibility and you haven’t contributed a penny to Jenny’s upbringing. No judge in the world will give you any rights to her at this late date.”

“We’ll see. There’s no father figure in her life. I can give her paternal love and a full-time mother too.”

“Big deal,” I’d sneered inelegantly.

“It may be enough to get her for the summers,” he said. “A normal American summer in a two-parent home instead of being dragged off to a primitive camp in a backward region where she nearly died of dysentery.”

“I see your data’s as faulty as ever,” I answered. “Jenny had a light case of chicken pox last summer, not dysentery. And Acapulco’s hardly a backward region.”

Aaron flushed at the reference to flawed data. That was what had gotten his foundation grant withdrawn the year after we split up. Archaeology may seem a dry subject to outsiders, but those within the field care passionately about accuracy. Speculations and theories, when labeled as such, are allowed. Falsifying the evidence isn’t.

“Okay,” Aaron had snarled. “You want a fight? You’ve got it.”

He began legal action that week and I retained the very expensive Dahl Mackey, who warned me that I might indeed have to share Jenny’s custody.

“I’ll swear he’s not the father.”

“Unless a blood test excludes him, it’ll just be your word against his,” Mackey warned.

The hearing was scheduled for the end of summer, but Aaron had developed a nasty habit of showing up at the house while I was in class, bullying the sitters and confusing Jenny with talk of a new mommy and daddy.

At least the restraining order would keep him away for the time being.

 

I turned in my final grades a week later and the very next day met at the Hoyt barn with Mrs. Gardner and Eustis Hill, the handyman who had used a dolly to bring several crates into a large workshop area of the ground level where there was a stone sink and several long tables for spreading out my finds.

“This was my grandfather’s favorite place,” Mrs. Gardner said, stroking an enormous Kodiak bear that guarded the door with wicked claws and bared fangs. “He was an accomplished taxidermist and mounted his own kills.”

For a moment I was surprised that a young society girl would be exposed to the bloody reality of taxidermy, but then I decided it wasn’t that much different from my own upbringing on a working farm. No one had ever worried that my girlish sensibilities were being violated during the annual hog-killings or when I was sent out to chop off a chicken’s head, then clean it for Sunday dinner.

Mrs. Gardner lingered only long enough to show me where her grandfather’s journals were shelved before returning to the house. Her spine had so deteriorated that sitting was almost as painful as standing.

I was pleased to learn that William Pierson Hoyt had documented his hunting trips—the animals shot, the oddities collected. There were separate three-by-five-inch pocket notebooks for each year and while his entries weren’t as precise as I could have wished when he wrote about inanimate objects, they would help authenticate the provenance and geographical origin of the artifacts, a thing of crucial importance.

To use a simplistic example: If you should pick up a carved elephant’s tusk while rummaging in an East Indian antique shop, you’d have a nice souvenir of your trip. But if that elephant’s tusk came out of a pre-Columbian burial mound and you could document your discovery, you’d set off shock waves in the archaeological world. The earliest known elephant in our hemisphere arrived with a circus around the turn of the nineteenth century, so you’d go down in history as the first person to prove a definite link between the Old World and the New after the original inhabitants crossed over the Bering Strait, about thirty thousand years ago, give or take a few thousand. It is thought that Pacific currents could have swept Asians with later knowledge and later skills out to sea to fetch up on the coast of Ecuador or Peru, but it’s never been proven.

 

Eustis Hill and I spent the first few days shifting everything around by way of the large freight elevator in the center of the barn. Europe and Africa on the top floor with the Americas on the second.

If I couldn’t be in Mexico, I had to admit that cataloging William P. Hoyt’s collection was the next best thing. It was Christmas every morning with unexpected treasures in almost every crate.

Beefy, middle-aged Eustis was more phlegmatic. The only time he showed any real interest was when he pried the lid off a long box and said, “Is that a coffin?”

It was a battered blue-and-rose mummy case with faded hieroglyphics. I checked the journals and found an 1887 entry: Mummy case. Gift of the Khedive.

His pudgy face went pale when I lifted the lid. . . .

 

Read the exciting conclusion in this month's issue on sale now!

Copyright © 2018. The Wedding Ring by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

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