Helen grew up believing that a chest of drawers, the piece of furniture pushed against the wall of almost every room in a house, was a caretaker of life. Chests of drawers were necessary. Everyone has at least one, and it stands among the tables and beds like a dark old man, its drawers closed, sometimes locked, holding undergarments, diaries, sweaters, letters bound by ribbon—love letters and letters from a mother, the odd gun. Some are kept as orderly as a bank vault, others tossed about like a weather-beaten shed with tools, bags of molded seeds and old tarps. They are the keepers of secrets; they are the keepers of stories, the makers of stories.
From the time Helen could sit in a crib, she had watched her father make chests. She could sleep through the noise of a saw whirring. She wasn’t afraid of the sudden crack of a hammer. She played with scraps of smooth wood, beating them like drumsticks against her crib walls, laughing a baby’s translucent laugh. Norman laughed with her, swooping her up, sometimes, and they waltzed around the workshop, her tiny right hand cradled in his. When she was old enough to understand differences between people, Helen was especially pleased with her eyes, light silvery green like the back of a willow leaf. Her father’s eyes in her face. She was a lanky child, who showed early on the promise of her mother’s height and build. Long waisted, elegant, most said. But it hadn’t come together in Helen yet, and she seemed always to have a skinned elbow or knee. She stumbled and tripped. She ran into things.
“Your mom’s coming home early this afternoon, Buglet, with Chinese.” Norman glanced over half-moon reading glasses, low on his nose. He was sliding a drawer in and out of an almost finished mission chest, a pencil tucked behind his ear and a square of fine sandpaper lodged in his shirt pocket.
Buglet was Helen's pet name. She liked it when she was little; she liked anything that hinted of an exclusivity with her father, something no else could share, and no one else was “Buglet" to Norman. She’d recently begun to wonder though, and it was a new kind of worry, if his choice of the endearment had something to do with her features. She studied her face critically in the bathroom mirror at night, pulling her hair this way and that to see if it made a difference.
Helen’s mother, Elizabeth, was that rare mix of ethnicities that gave her an unknowable kind of beauty. Finely chiseled face, skin like sunlight. She was supposedly descended on her mother’s side from an English nobleman (Helen’s grandmother liked that part of the story) who sold his title and migrated to the west coast of Africa to set about a more exciting life. Exciting but highly illegal. That was what Elizabeth understood. As a girl, she had overheard a conversation between two of her uncles, seated on folding chairs, sipping tumblers of bourbon at a family gathering.
“Bet you didn’t know, Elizabeth,” he had said, noticing they’d caught her attention, “that you had this sordid blood running through your veins.” His eyes scanned her face thoughtfully for a second. “But I must say, it worked magic in you. You’ll be a beauty one day.”
“She’s a beauty now,” remarked the other. “Who does she look like? Not Eleanor, not at all.”
The story had been handed down like an old coin, worn smooth, any value contained in what loose flights it might provide to the imagination. Helen’s grandmother, however, could have done without this splash of intrigue in her family tree. She was not pleased to be linked, even generations back, to theft and murder, although such things, she realized, did not necessarily wipe the slate clean of redeeming points. The ancestor in question had been classed by birthright above the gentry, after all.
“I have criminal blood in my veins,” Elizabeth had said to her afterwards, thrilled with the idea. “No wonder I’m a difficult child.”
“No, Elizabeth,” her mother replied dryly, “you do not. ‘Criminal’ is not an ethnic origin. And please don’t tell people that you are the offspring of marauders or any such nonsense.” Whether the story could be traced back to fact was beside the point. The truth could be bent, she felt, for the sake of expediency with no real harm done and sometimes quite the opposite: Carefully nuanced truths might accomplish a better end. Indeed, the art of etiquette was based on no less.
Elizabeth. Eleanor had given her girls traditional names they weren’t permitted to shorten: Elizabeth and Cecelia. They were expected to make something of themselves, and a proper name was the least advantage a parent could confer upon a child.
“Why early?” Helen asked. She wondered if her mother was sick. Coming home early was something Elizabeth seldom did, except on Helen’s birthday and sometimes not even then. Her tenth birthday had had a cake with her name on it, balloons that floated stiffly toward the ceiling on taut strings, and friends whose gifts were jumbled on the sofa. Aunt Cecelia was there but not Helen’s mother. Elizabeth had slipped into Helen’s bedroom late that night and sat gently on the corner of the bed. Helen could feel her eyes, hear the light whisper of apology. She’d kept still—this broken promise, for whatever good reason her mother had, she had catalogued with the rest. She faked the regular breaths of sleep until Elizabeth stood, smoothed the covers and left...