ONEFive Years LaterAir France 321, scheduled to leave Boston's Logan Airport at
7:50 that night, was full. Susannah Connolly sat in seat 22A; she had her tray table stowed, seat in the upright position, and carry-on bag tucked under the seat in front of her. She'd slipped her passport into her jacket pocket, and at this very moment, she was missing a surprise party—hers.
Her seat belt was tightly buckled. She had the window seat, and two strangers—a couple, whispering comfortably to each other—had the middle and aisle. She had a novel, a magazine, and a guidebook to read. She hoped the party guests were enjoying champagne and birthday cake. She couldn't think of many things she felt less equipped to do than pretend to be having fun at her own surprise party.
Every seat on the plane was taken. The captain's voice crackled over the loudspeaker, telling them they were third in line for takeoff. His French accent was soft, alluring, and sexy, but she barely noticed.
Staring out the window, she felt the plane begin to move, its wheels bumping slowly along the accessway. Susannah traveled a lot. Her passport had been stamped so often, the customs officials had to search for a clean page. Work had taken her away from home a hundred times in the last few years. But this was different—brand new territory: this was a journey for herself, to connect with her mother.
Her mother . . . Although she had died six months earlier, it still didn't seem real.
Susannah was a cultural anthropologist, on the fast track in a competitive field. She taught at Connecticut College, but this was a sabbatical year. Her specialty was cave paintings—specifically those with a spiritual bent—with a concentration on horse illustrations. Cave dwellers had looked to the sun, the sea, the great bear, the forest deer, the blue whale, the wild horse. They'd created saints before the birth of the church, and she'd always been impressed and moved by the inspiration they'd found in the world around them.
Susannah had traveled the world to crawl, wriggle, dive, and spelunk into the planet's deepest, most hidden crevasses—dark, usually slimy, frequently precarious holes, where other humans had gone before, to leave messages, stories, splashes of hope, despair, and beauty.
She had crawled deeper into caves than anyone else would dare to go. She'd lie on her stomach, inching forward as the rock walls closed in on her, fighting claustrophobia, knowing that if only she made it a few feet farther, she'd be rewarded with the sight of something no one had seen in thousands of years.
Ian had seemed to understand. He'd often traveled with her, but rarely entered the caves; he'd wait outside, review the data she sent back via the miracle of fiber optics. He'd had a phobia of being trapped, and no matter how hard he'd fought it, he couldn't overcome the fear—but it hadn't mattered; his analysis of the images had been without peer.
Susannah had met him when they were both grad students at Yale. They'd started out studying together; they took the same classes, had the same professors. The work was hard, so they encouraged each other. Susannah would get lost in her research, the love of her subject matter, and Ian would remind her to apply for grants, submit her work to journals.
Once they were studying in his room, and Susannah fell asleep on his bed. It was December, just before break, and an icy draft was coming through the old windows. She woke up to find him curled beside her, and she pressed against him for warmth. They lay there for a long time, and then he began to kiss her.
His arms were around her. She felt so cold and tired, and she knew she should stop him. But he stroked her hair, and whispered that he'd been feeling this way for so long. Susannah let him hold her, shivering in the cold. Her father had died not long before, and she'd buried herself in work, and she felt starved for closeness.
Susannah remembered that moment so well—the instant they'd gone from good friends and work partners to something confusing. They studied so well together, balanced each other out. She delved deeply into the raw subject matter, and he organized the material. They worked separately on their own dissertations, but coauthored several papers published in journals. Ian never missed a chance to publish. . . .
Ian gave her jade earrings for Christmas, red roses for Valentine's Day. Susannah had felt herself becoming part of a couple—almost by accident. She had so much in common with Ian. He was always there. Curious about her work, involved in her research, interested in her discoveries, sympathetic when they found her mother had lymphoma.
But was this love? He began talking about what they'd do after leaving Yale. There seemed to be an assumption that they'd be making decisions together. And since he had his mind set on Stanford, Susannah felt herself being pulled to the West Coast. She'd resisted at the time—told Ian she wanted to accept a position at Connecticut College.
He hadn't understood, but he also hadn't given up. Although they'd made their academic homes on opposite coasts, Ian kept trying to convince her they should be together. Years went by; they both advanced, working together on projects when they could. He kept up his campaign, telling her they already knew each other so well; they were passionate about the same field; and he'd spoken with the publisher of an academic press, who thought the idea of a couple visiting sites together could make a wonderful series of books.
Susannah's mother had tried not to laugh when she told her.
"Oh, darling," Susannah's mother said. "How romantic . . . he's courting you with a book deal!"
"Mom," Susannah had warned.
Margaret Connolly chuckled. She was thin and pale, her skin yellowed from the disease and treatment. But her eyes were as bright and blue as ever.
"Sweetheart, tell me your hopes and dreams . . ."
"About what, Mom?"
They were sitting in the oncologist's office on Temple Street, waiting for Margaret Connolly to be seen. Her lymphoma had come back. It had been in remission for years, but now it had returned and spread. Susannah sat by her side, waiting to hear the results of the latest radiation treatments. At that moment, she wanted never to leave Connecticut again. She wanted to be with her mother every second she had left.
"My hopes and dreams? To plant a garden, to walk on the beach, to ride again . . . on a beautiful white horse . . ."
"Those are mine, too," her mother whispered.
"We'll do them together," Susannah said.
"Okay," her mother said, smiling. "Maybe we'll finally take that trip together . . ."
"The Camargue!" Susannah exclaimed. "To see Sarah! Could we? Do you really think . . ."
Her mother just looked over, her gaze full of love and sadness.
"No," Susannah said, answering her own question. "No, we'll stay home instead. We'll garden, and walk on the beach . . ."
Her mother shook her head. "No, Susannah . . . that's not how it will be."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that you're not going to stay home and wait. . . . I want you to take that trip."
"Mom. Not without you."
"Yes, sweetheart. And others, too. Your work takes you where you need to be, and that's how I want it."
"Not now, though," Susannah said. "I should cancel everything. Lascaux, Istanbul . . ."
"Listen to me. You're the best daughter anyone's ever had. I know you'd do anything you could to make me well. You'd find a cure for cancer if you could, and I know that. But that's not your work . . ."
"Work doesn't matter now," Susannah whispered.
"Yes," her mother said, nodding. "It does. Life's work matters so much. It's the distillation of who you are, what you believe. You care about the past, because you love everything and everyone, and you want to learn all there is to know."
"You taught me to be that way."
"I tried," her mother said. "Your father and I both did. And we're so proud of who you've become. So don't hold back now, Susannah. . . . Go see Sarah."
"Maybe Ian and I should—"
"Not Ian," her mother said, her voice surprisingly sharp.
Susannah looked deeply into her mother's blue eyes.
"You think Ian is as passionate about anthropology as you are," her mother said. "But he's not. He's ambitious, darling. There's a difference."
If Susannah hadn't already known that, her mother's words might not have rung so true. The more Ian pushed, the more Susannah pulled back. And then early last fall, on a trip to Lascaux, he'd unexpectedly arrived and surprised her with a question. Susannah sat back in her seat, eyes closed, remembering it now.
He'd planned so well; he'd known how excited she'd be after exploring a new chamber, seeing cave paintings she'd never seen before. And he knew, too, how worried she was about her mother. Susannah had continued her work, her travels, because her mother insisted. But her entire spirit was pulled home, every minute. She felt ripped in half.
Susannah walked out of the cave, and Ian caught her in his arms. She was sweaty, covered with dirt, but he didn't seem to care. He held her, listening to her describe the delicate drawings, the subtle colors. She'd seen images of a mother and children, close by the fire, and tears streamed down her cheeks as she thought of her own mother.
"Those drawings," he said, "are our future."
"You'll document them, I'll get everything ready for the publisher. We're a team, Susannah. You don't want to come to Stanford—fine. We'll go somewhere else, but we'll do it together. It just makes so much sense. . . ."
"Ian . . ." She wanted to ask him: Weren't you listening to me?
But she held the words inside. He just kept talking, making his plans, and she stood there, rocked by the beautiful, ancient paintings of a mother and her family.
"What's wrong?" he asked, finally noticing her tears.
"I'm just thinking of my mother," she said.
He stood there, silent for a moment. She suddenly felt overwhelmed. She wanted him to hold her tight, understand the grief she felt—knowing her mother's illness was advancing, and there was nothing they could do.
"You're so sad," he said.
"I am," she'd whispered. Something about the cave, the earth, the almost eternal quality of the paintings, had made the idea of losing her mother all the more vivid.
"Susannah, maybe if you rethought your priorities . . . made other choices . . ."
"What are you talking about?"
"Taking time for the people you love. Relationships," Ian said, "take work. Even now, with your mother dying, it was your choice to come here . . . "
"I want us to be together," he said. "Really together. Working, traveling . . ."
She stared, in shock.
"Will you marry me, Susannah?"
"Oh, Ian . . ." She felt her eyes flood again. He knew by her non-answer what her true answer was. They stared at each other for a long moment. Susannah's face was streaked with dirt and tears. Ian looked immaculate, as always.
"You're making the wrong choice," he said, and it sounded like a warning. "But then, I've watched you do that for years."
Sitting on the plane, Susannah thought of Ian. He was for the most part gone from her life now—she'd told him she needed a break, and although he'd made some recent overtures, they hadn't seen each other since then. But his words haunted her.
After fighting the cancer so hard for so long, her mother had died. Susannah had been in Istanbul. She'd rushed back from the Pavan Caves, but she'd been too late. And now in April, half a year later, it was Susannah's birthday, the first without her mother, and she'd known it was finally time to take that trip. . . .
"Flight attendants, prepare for takeoff," the pilot said in French.
The cabin lights dimmed. The big jet began to lumber down the runway. Slow, faster, gathering speed. The engines droned and roared. Susannah's seat shook slightly. The plane rose.
When she'd lost her mother, she'd lost her cheering section. She could hear her mother's voice; after returning home from Lascaux, Susannah had told her what he'd said, and her mother had replied, eyes flashing, "Ian doesn't know us, sweetheart. How could he even try to make you feel guilty? You don't, do you?"
"He said it was my choice . . . to go to France, instead of staying with you."
"What does he know? Besides, he's not your true love."
"What if he is?" Susannah had asked.
Her mother had smiled, taken her hand. "If he was, you'd know it by now."
"I hope you're right."
"You'll feel it—with someone else, when the time is right," her mother had said. "It will have nothing to do with your head, so stop thinking about it. You'll feel it in your heart."
As the plane gained altitude, nose pointing into the sky, Susannah's back pressed into the seat. She stared out the window, gazing down through the darkness at the beautiful yellow lights painting New England, highways straight and roads winding, neighborhoods hugging the coastline, the great black expanse of the North Atlantic stretching out beneath them in never-ending waves as the plane flew on and left the eastern seaboard of the United States—and her surprise party back in Black Hall—far behind.
With her mother gone, Connecticut seemed cold and empty. Susannah had missed the chance to say goodbye. But there was another place, where Susannah knew she could find her mother's spirit. . . . They had always talked of going there together, but then it was too late. Before her death, Margaret Connolly had made her only child promise to make the trip herself. Until now, that promise had never been kept.
Flying east, Susannah thought of her mother, and slept.
Hours later, after landing in Paris and connecting to Arles, Susannah drove out of the rental car lot, both hands on the wheel. Black parasol pines and olive trees, leaves pale green and silvery, lined the sides of the road.
Arles was a canvas by van Gogh: wild colors everywhere. Terracotta terraces, ochre and sepia walls, houses the color of sunflowers, the shadowed black arches of the Arènes. It was a celebratory city, light exploding from the river's surface and reflecting in bright shimmers on ancient Roman walls, markets alive with produce and flowers so beautiful they might have been painted by Vincent himself. Susannah bought a fresh almond croissant from the boulangerie
; passing a market stall selling brightly colored silks and other fabrics, she stopped. On a whim, she bought herself a birthday present: a red hair ribbon.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Light of the Moon by Luanne Rice. Copyright © 2008 by Luanne Rice. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.