The Storytellers, a three-part novella, first appeared on Faith Hope and Fiction in 2007 under the title, The Legendary Storyteller Sisters. We are pleased to share a slightly updated 10-year anniversary version here.
Ihad slowed down since arriving in West Palm Beach three months before, my pace leisurely and fluid. My life here was different; I was different, a change that seemed both gradual and radical. For one, I was more relaxed and more creative, an impossible combination back in New York. The proof was in the nearly one hundred pages of my new novel, Special of the Day, that had poured out of me in eight weeks. I spent several hours a day immersed in my protagonist, Cindy Sinclair, who left the corporate grind for a small-town diner she’d bought on a whim. Her inexperience resulted in near disaster, but each time she reached out for help it materialized. The more adversity I piled on Cindy, the more it buffed a shine on her character.
On early morning walks, I invented scenes that would later take shape at the keyboard—a far healthier preoccupation than my obsessive bouts of “where is Dennis now and when will he call me.” We saw each other about once a week when he was in town and kept in touch with the occasional text or email while he was traveling. I loved being with him so much it made the stretches in between unbearable. Days would go by with my text as the last one sent and no reply from him. Just when I couldn’t stand it anymore, he’d call and make a date, and all would be well.
One morning, I changed my walking route, crossing the Southern Boulevard Bridge into Palm Beach, then strolling along Ocean Boulevard. The first swimmers bobbed in the waves and a few sun-worshipers staked their claims on the white sand. Taking off my sneakers and socks, I walked barefoot to the edge of the water.
In a moment of clarity so strong, as if a voice commanded me, I knew I was not going back to New York. My practical mind took over, tallying what I could probably get from the sale of my condo, my savings, and my stream of income. I could make it happen. Leaving the beach, I indulged in anticipating how I would tell Dennis my decision. Even though he was in commercial real estate and not residential, he would be more than happy to help me.
I took the long way home through the side streets. It was still early—not quite seven-thirty—and traffic was light. At the next intersection, I ignored the “do not walk” signal and strolled across the street toward a sandwich shop, hoping to get a cup of coffee and maybe a bagel to go. I never got to the front door.
A familiar car was parked at the curb. The door to the shop swung open, and Dennis emerged with a paper bag under one arm and a woman on the other. They leaned toward each other, as if sharing some secret. The woman threw back her head and laughed, her neck arching swan-like. I watched as Dennis kissed her on the lips then opened the car door for her. My fingertips fluttered to my mouth, remembering how and when he had kissed me like that.
Then Dennis saw me. “Kate,” I heard him say, but I walked away as fast as I could without running. My so-called boyfriend was dating another woman and probably more than this one. His assiduously kept schedule of our dates did not just accommodate his work demands, but his social ones as well.
I walked dry-eyed across the bridge to West Palm Beach and along Flagler Drive to The Sisters’ house. Eerily calm, my shock hardened to conviction, I decided to leave immediately. My Manhattan condo was sublet for another three months, but I’d buy my tenant out of the lease. If I couldn’t do that, I’d find another place to stay even if it meant sleeping on somebody’s sofa.
I entered the house and slammed the door behind me.
“Only one thing could upset you like that,” Bess said from the hallway. Standing there, tall and regal, she suddenly seemed like one of those TV matriarchs who meddle and manipulate. That’s what she had done to me.
I whirled around to face her. “You knew about Dennis, didn’t you? You knew all about his pretenses—his lies. You knew it and you didn’t warn me.”
“How would we know?” Lillian, short and round, fluttered in from the direction of the sunporch and stood beside her sister.
“Don’t give me that crap—unless you admit that everything you tell people with your stories is complete fabrication.” I threw my hands up in the air and let them fall with a smack against my thighs. “Of course it is. You don’t have any ability other than to tell a really good story and get people all worked up in your little fantasy tales.”
“Dennis is seeing someone else.” Bess stated the fact with such detachment, I wanted to yell at her for her insensitivity.
“How long have you known?”
Bess smiled faintly, her eyes telegraphing what I took as pity. “The minute you walked in here.”
“You must have known he was a womanizer.”
Lillian’s face regained a little of its color. “We never told Dennis the whole story of his life. He never wanted to know. We don’t tell unless people ask.”
“Did I ask?” I spat back. “Did I ask for you to meddle in my life, which was going along pretty well? Did I ask you to upset everything?”
“Didn’t you?” Bess replied. “Haven’t you matched us question for question, taking bold steps that we didn’t force on you? Coming here was your own choosing.”
“You told me if I stayed in New York I’d be on the trajectory toward mediocrity, or don’t you remember?” Tears that had been stinging my eyes began to flow.
“You had no life in New York, dear,” Lillian said softly. “You were only existing, the way you always had. You needed to break that pattern in order to move into what you are capable of.”
“And all this talk of the book I was destined to write and the man who would break down my barriers.” I shook my head angrily. “I fell for it.”
“So tell me,” Bess continued, “aren’t you writing a book that your agent can’t get you to finish fast enough? Haven’t you been in a relationship that helped break down the barriers you have inside?”
“But that’s not what I wanted. I wanted a relationship, not a man who would break my heart by cheating on me.” My words drowned in my sobs.
“Your story is far from over,” Lillian began.
“Stop.” I raised my hand and turned my head away. “I can’t hear another word.”
Retreating to my room, I fell across my bed and cried. Exhausted, I slept and then awakened so disoriented I thought for a moment I had only dreamed the events of the morning. I stayed in my room the rest of the day and into the evening. Dahlia brought me dinner on a tray and called to me through the closed door. Dennis texted me a few times, but I refused to reply. Then he went silent.
On the third day of my exile I phoned my mother and sobbed the whole long story to her. She listened sympathetically and offered to come to Florida, but I wouldn’t be staying there long enough for her to make the trip. “Then come home,” she said. “Why can’t you do your work here?”
Suddenly, I knew what I was going to do: I would return to my childhood home in northern New York State—just twenty or so miles from where Giselle du Mont, heroine of my first novel, had once lived. I had to get away from Palm Beach, The Sisters, and everything I associated with this place.
I found Bess and Lillian in the kitchen and told them I was leaving just as soon as I could arrange the flight.
“Just one question,” Lillian interrupted.
“Please don’t do this,” I begged. “You’re not responsible for my choices—I am. I gave you more power and authority in my life than I should have.”
“Why did you come to Palm Beach?” Lillian continued.
I shook my head. Talking to the two of them was futile.
Bess picked up from there: “We told you to make this move only if it was what you felt destined to do. If you moved because of Dennis or because of us then you came for the wrong reasons.”
Over the past few days I had asked myself repeatedly why I had come. For Dennis? Partly. Because I thought The Sisters could help guide my life? Perhaps. Had I come because I was enchanted by the idea of having an adventure? Absolutely. So I had come for myself, after all. But now that same self—deeply wounded and bitterly sorrowful—wanted to go someplace safe. “I called my mother. I’m going home.”
Bess’s eyes bore into me. “When you say ‘home,’ do you mean the place where you were a little girl who felt completely out of step with everyone around her? Or do you mean your condo in New York where you locked yourself away from the world? Why not stay here where you have lived more in three months, for better or worse, than you have for years?”
I sank into a chair at the kitchen table, put my head down and cried.
Over the course of the next week, I took in the soup that Dahlia cooked and the moments of conversation The Sisters offered. I explained to my editorial clients that I was ill, but assured them I would soon be back to work. Special of the Day, however, remained frozen in a time that would never be again. I couldn’t work on that novel without thinking of what had created it: my optimism and belief that I could invent a new life for my protagonist, Cindy, as I reimagined my own.
Two weeks later, I was still in Palm Beach and back into a routine that included my morning walks and work on client projects. Busyness was balm for my wounded heart, and I kept up a pace that more than made up for my previous delays.
Early one Thursday morning, a pounding noise interrupted my concentration and drew me outside. On the south side of the house two men were breaking up loose pieces of stucco, no doubt to prepare the area for patching.
“Did we disturb you?” Danny Collins asked as he rounded the corner of the house.
He and I had never talked about the incident when I found him in my sitting room, reading my manuscript. After his written apology I figured that we’d just pretend it never happened. Our truce meant avoiding each other. “I heard the noise and was curious what was going on.”
“Bess and Lillian found a small crack in the stucco and, even though I told them it’s just a surface crack, they insist on getting it repaired,” Danny explained.
“They do seem a little diligent in their house maintenance,” I added.
“I think they just like keeping things in order. Sometimes people of a certain age, well, they get concerned about how things might be later on.”
So spry and lively, The Sisters never looked or acted their ages, although I knew they were in their mid- to late-eighties. “Well, I had better get back to work,” I said.
“How’s the novel coming?”
Studying my sandaled feet, I weighed my answer. “I’m really busy with some other projects so I haven’t had much time to work on it.” I headed back into the house.
I did try to work on Special of the Day after that, sometimes late at night when I couldn’t sleep or first thing in the morning before I set off on my walk. My wooden sentences lacked all emotion and I deleted much of what I wrote. When my agent inquired, I told her I had hit a block and needed time. She spoke encouragingly and urged me to keep going.
Flowers arrived for me the next day. Dennis, I thought, my heart rising on a little tide of hope that he felt completely desolate without me and was willing to do anything to get me back. The fear followed that hope, and I knew then that I didn’t want to go back to him. I was still too fragile and Dennis had not proved himself anywhere near trustworthy with my feelings.
The message on the florist card was typed: “Don’t give up the novel. Keep writing.” It wasn’t signed.
My agent, I smiled, remembering how she had encouraged me as I revised Grand Dame of the North Woods for a second time, and had talked me through the jitters when my novel was in editorial committee review at my publisher. I didn’t need to see her name to know her trademark.
“Take them with you,” Bess encouraged me. “Nothing inspires art like beauty.”
Upstairs in the sitting room where I worked, I sent an email, thanking my agent for her kindness and encouragement, recalling what a faithful supporter she had always been. I told her the flowers were beautiful and inspiring me to write. Her note was a quick and happy reply: “Glad you’re back to writing. Keep looking at those flowers! Florida must really be in bloom now.”
Within a week, I was writing regularly again, picking up where I left off, although Cindy Sinclair faced a new round of disappointments and setbacks that left her questioning every decision she made. As she muddled through, slipped, and regained her footing, I found my own strength.
My mother called more frequently, cheered that I was feeling better and back to writing, and assured me that Dennis was “just one fish in a great big ocean and the right one would come along.” Pleased with her metaphor she added, “Too bad he turned out to be a shark.”
“Don’t worry, Mom; I’ll only date guppies from now on,” I told her, and we both laughed, which felt very, very good.
I sent more pages to my agent, which pleased her very much, including the developing depth of the character. She suggested I go to New York soon to have lunch with my editor, who had seen the first chapter of Special of the Day. When I got off the phone with my agent, I ran excitedly down the stairs to tell The Sisters that I was off to New York. I searched through the house, calling out their names, but couldn’t find them. Outside I found Danny and his crew working on another stucco crack.
I shielded my eyes against the sun as I walked barefoot across the grass. “Where are Bess and Lillian?” I asked.
Danny walked over toward me, his expression somber. “Lillian didn’t feel well, so Bess took her to the doctor.”
“What? When?” I gasped. “We had lunch together about two hours ago and she was fine.”
“Right after that,” Danny told me. “I offered to drive her, but Bess told me she could do it.”
“Why didn’t someone tell me?”
“You were busy working, and Lillian demanded that no one disturb you. It’s very important to Lillian and Bess that you keep on writing. You have to respect that.”
“No!” I shook my head. “Writing is writing. This is Lillian.”
Danny drove me to the hospital where we found Bess, who explained that Lillian had suffered a stroke. As she spoke, Bess looked her age, her skin papery with deep lines around her mouth.
We sat together, waiting for a doctor or nurse to tell us something other than what we knew. I had five minutes in ICU with Lillian, who seemed to have shrunk in the past few hours. I was looking at a shell left on the beach; the beautiful creature who was Lillian had all but fully departed.
“Let’s go home,” Bess said, rising from her chair. “Read me some of your story, Kate. I would like that very much.”
We sat in the kitchen as the last of the sunset painted the slats of the shutters. Danny poured three glasses of lemonade while I started to read. When I finished, Bess smiled and told me that, yes indeed, this was the book I was destined to write. Danny said nothing, but gave me a nod and a wink.
The phone rang shortly thereafter. It was the hospital. Lillian had another stroke, much more severe this time. Danny had his keys in his hand before I could even find my shoes, and the three of us went together to the hospital.
Lillian died the next morning. I’d like to say I was a support for Bess, but it was the other way around. The funeral at the little church The Sisters attended was simple, and every pew was packed. Dennis was there alone and nodded to me, but we kept a respectful distance from each other. Toward the end of the service, Bess walked unescorted to the lectern and briefly eulogized her sister and best friend.
“Lillian loved life and she lived well. If you remember anything about her, please remember that. Living well means knowing when it is time to leave the party, before you overstay your welcome. Lillian has left our party for a bigger one. She’s waiting there, getting everything ready, and when we join her, we’ll pick up where we left off.”
Bess didn’t get out of bed the next morning. Given the emotional trauma and physical strain of the past few days, it was to be expected; Bess was, after all, eighty-eight years old. When I tapped lightly on her bedroom door, after Dahlia had brought up her breakfast tray, I knew it wasn’t just fatigue. Bess was getting ready to join her sister.
Sadness pulled me down to a place of utter abandonment. These women whom I had known only a few months had truly become my family.
“There are some things I need to tell you,” Bess began, digging her fists into the mattress to pull herself up.
I wrapped my arms around her, feeling the delicateness of her bones, and hoisted her upright against her pillows.
Bess asked for her teacup from the tray, and I handed it to her. And then she told me the story of her life. When she was a child, Lillian was orphaned, so she was taken to Bess’s house. The Sisters, it seemed, were really first cousins. From the time they were very young, they told stories. Other children gave them a penny or an apple, and adults who learned of their tales paid them a quarter or fifty cents. Their stories brought out the truths, dreams, and longings held deeply inside others. Then it was up to each person to live according to the story of what was possible. Those who did may not have had all their dreams come true, but their lives were certainly more satisfying than those who didn’t try.
Lillian told me about Leonard, a dashing young soldier whose best friend courted Bess. During the war it was easy to be reckless in love, to give away one’s heart on a whim. Every soldier you saw on the train, in the bus station, even on the street was someone who could be killed within the next few weeks or months. When Lillian saw Leonard, she gambled with her heart, married after six weeks, loved her husband fiercely, and sent him off to battle. Lillian did the same; so many young women did. Bess was the first to be informed of her husband’s death, and then it was Lillian’s turn.
“I did not have enough time with Leonard to mourn what we lost, only what could have been—the years together, the children we never had. And as brief as it was, I knew that love was the one for my life,” Bess said. “I thought Lillian might remarry—she had a steady gentleman friend for a while—but in the end, she did not. When I asked her, she said there wasn’t enough room in her heart for two men.”
Bess’s eyes met mine. “I want you to understand that it wasn’t the loss that crowded out everything else, it was the intensity of the love I had known with Leonard.” Her gaze drifted to the opposite wall. “I fancy sometimes that Leonard is waiting for me, still looking dapper in his uniform. I do hope that when I get to heaven, I’m not sixty years older than he is.” She winked at me and we both smiled.
The story continued; how she and Lillian had returned to the family farm, taking care of Bess’ parents, whom Lillian loved as her own. After Bess’s parents died, they sold the farm and started moving to new places. Every few years, they picked a different city and state, just for the adventure of it. They made new friends, especially those who were drawn to their storytelling gifts. A few times they had to take regular jobs: Bess as a typist and Lillian as a secretary. Mostly they lived off the well-invested proceeds from the farm and the modest income they made from telling stories.
“But there was one story that was different from all the others.” Bess brightened; there was nothing she loved more than a good tale to tell: “We met a woman named Mary who was very worried about her son—a brilliant young man, but taken to daydreaming. Computers were new then, and he spent hours in a university lab, even though he was just a kid. Mary worried so much about him. She couldn’t understand why he wasn’t exactly like her—talkative and outgoing. We told Mary that if she stayed out of his way and just loved him, he would become all he was capable of being.”
“And did she?” I asked, knowing everything must have turned out okay, otherwise Bess wouldn’t be telling me this story.
“You tell me.” Bess gave me a conspirator’s smile. “Mary’s last name was Gates, and her son was Bill.”
It took a heartbeat for it to register.
“Mary told her son what we’d done for her. He was so grateful that when he started his company, he gave us some stock. That has turned out to be quite a generous gift. Bess and I have lived quite comfortably because of it. After that, we never had to charge anyone a dime for storytelling. Everything we did was for free—just to help people.”
Bess closed her eyes and her cheerfulness faded. “There is one more part of my story that I must tell,” she said quietly. “You must listen and not interrupt.”
Her breathing was labored and I wanted her to stop, but Bess pushed on. “I always knew I would have a daughter to whom I would bequeath everything. I’ve known this all my life, from the time I was a little girl. After Leonard died, I thought perhaps I would mother some orphan left on my doorstep. I waited, but no one ever showed up. I began to doubt my own story. Then you came.”
I opened my lips to speak—my father was dead, but I had my mother. Then I remembered my promise not to interrupt.
“From the moment I saw you, I knew you had so much talent and life within you, but hidden like the proverbial light under a bushel. I wanted to help you let your brilliance shine. And yes, I did know Dennis wasn’t the one for you, but I couldn’t interfere. When I saw how much spunk you had, how well you managed your loss, you reminded me of myself. I knew you were the one I waited for.”
“Thank you,” I smiled, not bothering to wipe away the tears that flowed down my face. “I will never forget this time that we had together.”
A smile spread slowly across Bess’s face. “I know you won’t forget it, because it’s all yours: the house, the stock portfolio—everything except the car. We gave that to Danny.”
“No, that’s not necessary. The family—I mean, what will they think?”
Bess gave me a look of exasperation. “They’ll think that you moved to Florida to bilk your old distant relatives of their fortune. What do you care? It’s not the truth.”
I reached for Bess’s hand and held it a long while, watching as she settled back into her pillows. The nurse came in and checked Bess’s vitals, but I stayed. At some point, I dozed off too, and Bess’s hand fell slack against mine.
The second funeral was a replay of the first, and at the end of it I was too exhausted to move. I took to my room for a week and grieved.
In the weeks that followed, the pace of my work soothed me and brought me back into the rhythm of my life. Special of the Day was coming together well—my tribute to The Sisters who had given me the precious gifts of time, space, and encouragement to write. I told my agent and my editor the initial draft would be finished in two months.
Taking a break one day, I went out to the patio and sat beneath the umbrella with a glass of lemonade, feeling the heat and humidity that wrapped me like a blanket. It was too much to endure for too long, but there were still spots in the depth of my bones that needed warming.
The back gate opened and Danny appeared. I hadn’t seen much of him since the funeral. “Got a minute?” he asked me.
I pointed to the chair opposite me. “Have a seat.”
“I have one more obligation to Bess that I have to fulfill,” Danny began. “So if this is a good time, can we take care of this right now. I have Bess’s instructions to follow, and I want to do this right.”
I went inside, found my sandals and grabbed my purse. Danny was at the front of the house in the Rolls, the engine running.
We didn’t drive far, about a half dozen blocks, and stopped in front of an old house, a weathered shell of the glory that it had been, now encased in scaffolding. “This is my house,” he said simply. “Bess made me promise that I’d take you over here and show it to you.”
Danny told me he started rehabbing houses twenty years ago, first working for someone else and then with his own business. “I’d buy a property, fix it up, sell it, and invest the proceeds in the next property,” he explained. “As much as I like new construction and I’ve made a good living at it, my heart has always been in restoring these old ones. It makes my mother proud.” I smiled at his comment, realizing it was the first I ever heard of Danny’s family.
“I taught history for a few years, English too, which is why I’m more qualified to appreciate your writing than you realize. But I had always worked construction during the summers, from college onward, and it called to me. When I switched careers, my mother was heartbroken until I told that instead of working in dusty old volumes, I now work in dusty old houses. This is the history that I preserve, in a very tangible way.”
Donning hard hats, we toured the gutted interior: a graceful curved staircase, leaded glass windows, five bedrooms, three bathrooms in dire need of upgrading, a formal dining room, a small parlor, a den that was being converted into a family room, and a spacious kitchen and butler’s pantry.
Then Danny reached for my hand, pulled me toward him, and kissed me. Stepping back, but not letting go, he looked up into the expanse of the house. “So are you writing?”
“As a matter of fact I am.” I hoped he would kiss me again—him, not Dennis. “Good. When I figured out you’d stopped, I sent you those flowers. But I was afraid that if you knew they were from me, you’d have burned them and your manuscript out of spite.”
He had sent the flowers? No wonder my agent had responded a little cryptically to my note. “I never thanked you—I didn’t know. And I guess I owe you an apology for being mean to you.”
“I’m just glad you stopped verbally eviscerating me for reading your pages,” Danny smirked. “Not that I had any right to do that. I am sorry.”
I pulled him toward me this time. “Well, you read the first pages and you heard most of the middle when I was reading to Bess. I suppose you want the whole thing when I’m done.”
“Uh-huh,” Danny said. “I like your stories, Kate, and I’d like to read them for a long, long time.”