Maria Dark flew north, from one America to the other, with a bag of treasures between her feet. The man beside her spoke Spanish into a cassette recorder. He seemed hardly to notice the lightning at their wings. The plane lurched, then continued to glide; orange strobes reflected on the clouds that surrounded them. A flight attendant cruised the aisle, checking seatbelts.
"What time will we land?" Maria asked her.
"We're in a holding pattern over Philadelphia," the woman said. "This storm is turning to snow in New York."
"You mean we might land here?" Maria asked.
Lightning split the sky, and for one instant Maria wished to be on the ground anywhere: Philadelphia, Miami, Machu Picchu. Then she thought of Sophie and Nell, waiting at JFK, ready to drive her home to Hatuquitit; almost absently Maria reached into her bag for a talisman to guide the plane safely north. Her hand closed around the gold goddess she planned to give Sophie. She felt like the mysterious stranger going home, bringing storms with her.
"Pretty," said the man beside her, admiring the small statue. "Is it Incan?"
"No, she's Chav’n," Maria said. During their excavation at Chav’n de Huentar, she and Aldo had found several statues like her, and Maria, thinking of a present for Sophie, had commissioned a local goldsmith to copy one.
"That belongs in the national museum," the man said reproachfully.
"She's a replica. A present for my sister," Maria said. Aldo had taught her that foreign archaeologists were always suspected of trying to remove antiquities.
"That's too good for a present," the man said. He flinched at a crack of thunder, then resumed recording.
Maria figured he thought she'd robbed a grave. She'd have to tell Sophie about it; it would add to Sophie's pleasure in the goddess. Sophie would want details: the fact that the man wore thick glasses and had hairy nostrils, the fact that he began every other recorded sentence with "And furthermore." From his litany, Maria pegged him as a low-level lawyer for the local government.
Sophie and Nell would be at the airport by now. Just before leaving the mountain, Maria had called Sophie; the connection had been terrible, full of static, but Maria thought Sophie had said she and Nell would come alone. Like the old days, Maria thought. Before Maria married Aldo, before Sophie married Gordon and had Simon and Flo, before Nell married Peter and became their sister-in-law and Andy's mother instead of just their best friend.
The plane had been veering right, circling for forty minutes, but suddenly Maria sensed it change course. Heading for home, she thought she could smell north. She opened the hand clutching the statue for one quick look. The goddess was fine and slender, nearly as beautiful as Sophie.
For one moment Maria wondered whether Hallie would meet her at the airport. Of course she would not. Sophie had a ringleader's knack for setting a scene, assembling a party. Sophie would know that their mother had no place at this homecoming. Hallie wouldn't think it seemly to stage a big welcome for a daughter who had left her husband to his glamorous dig, to Chav’n mysteries, to the thin mountain air, who had left him to all those things forever--and for what?
To return to a place where she hadn't lived for seventeen years, where her mother's house sat on a hill overlooking meadows bordered by Bell Stream on the east and the Hatuquitit Correctional Institute for Women on the west. To return to a town settled by Puritans who had called the Native Americans "fiends of hell."
To find work in a place where archaeologists taught at colleges or lectured at local Native American museums instead of making discoveries destined for display in the Smithsonian or the British Museum.
Hallie would never understand why her only child to escape the ordinary would want to return to it.
Or so Maria thought as the plane from Peru rode the storm's front edge northeast and became the last flight to land before JFK closed down.
Sophie and Nell stood amid the crowd, whistling and waving so that Maria would see them. Sophie's whistle, incredibly piercing, was unmistakable and took Maria straight back to when the three of them would roam the Hatuquitit hills pretending to be Indian scouts. Now their thick New England clothes--red and blue down jackets, corduroy pants, Nell's sailcloth purse--looked startlingly bright in the fluorescent light.
"Anyone escaped lately?" Maria called across the crowd. To children growing up next to a women's prison, that question had been as natural to them as "How are you?" or "Do you like the weather?"
"Not this week," Sophie called back.
Suddenly the three of them were holding each other in a tight circle. Maria had to drop her bags to hug them properly. Then Sophie and Nell dropped theirs--their six legs formed a cage around the bags, protecting them from the thieves they imagined swarming around the arrivals area.
"Are you okay? Did you have a good flight?" Nell asked.
"It was bumpy," Maria said.
"But are you okay?" Sophie asked, her question meaning something different from Nell's. Maria took a second before looking straight at Sophie. Sophie, like all the Darks, had black hair, fair, unfreckled skin, and blue eyes that hid nothing. Right now they were full of grief for Maria's marriage. Their depth of sadness distracted Maria from her first shocking thought: that Sophie had gained a dangerous amount of weight.
"I wanted to leave," Maria said. "It was my idea."
Sophie nodded as if she knew better. Maria, three years older, had felt like Sophie's mother when they were children. But somewhere in mid-adolescence the roles had shifted and Sophie had taken charge.
"Let's get on the road," Nell said. "We want to beat the storm. . . ."
"How is everyone?" Maria asked on the way to the car. They shouldered into the driving snow. Her bags had been evenly divided among the three of them; she carried the heaviest two herself--a big metal one full of photographic equipment and a canvas one full of presents. The icy February wind stung her face and reminded her of nights on the mountain, at the dig site near Chav’n de Hu‡ntar.
"Peter wanted to come," Nell said. "I made him stay at home with Andy. They're having dinner with your mother tonight. Someone has to keep her at bay--otherwise she'd freeze her ass off waiting for you at the end of the driveway."
"The driveway of her mind," Maria said, and Sophie snorted. Their mother would wait in the driveway for no one; she had perfected utter devotion to her family without ever showing any overt signs of affection. Somehow, Nell refused to see this.
"Here we are," Nell said, stopping at a red Jeep four rows into the short-term parking lot.
"Aren't you forgetting something?" Sophie asked Maria while Nell checked all her pockets for the car keys. Ice crystals frosted Sophie's black lashes. She smiled expectantly.
"What?" Maria asked.
"To ask about Gordon and the children. They're fine."
"That's great. I'm sure they are," Maria said. She wondered why Sophie wanted to make her feel guilty for not asking, but Sophie continued to smile. If her face was plump, it was as radiant as ever.
"I'm just so proud," Sophie said. "I'm an idiot on the subject. Gordon's planning to put a gazebo near the brook. He knows I've always wanted one. . . ."
"A gazebo? Everyone has those now," Nell said, letting Sophie into the front and Maria into the back. She revved the engine.
"Gordon's will be different. He's designing it himself," Sophie said, giving Nell an oddly triumphant look.
Nell pulled up to the parking lot attendant and handed him the ticket. She rummaged through her bag. "Oh, no!" she said.
"What is it?" Maria asked, leaning forward.
"My money," Nell said. "Where did I put it?" She stared into her wallet, riffled through papers in her bag.
"That airport is full of pickpockets," Sophie said, grabbing her own bag to check for anything missing.
"I'll bet it happened when we put everything down to hug Maria."
Maria smiled; she had lived away long enough to have lost the New Englander's provincial view of New York as a den of crime.
"No, a pickpocket would have taken the whole wallet," Nell said. "I'm sure I left home with money . ..didn't I pay the tolls? Did I drop it?"
"Here's five," Sophie said when horns behind them started to blow.
Maria felt exhausted and wished she were home. But where was that? Her mother's house in Hatuquitit or Aldo's tent in the Andes? An image of night in Peru filled her mind: the mountain air so clear and cold no scents came through it. She saw herself wrapped in her sleeping bag listening to Aldo in the next tent with his students and assistants. She would fall asleep to his voice lecturing and waken to it whispering "Buona notte." She heard herself sigh.
"What's wrong?" Sophie asked.
Maria opened her eyes, shrugged. She heard the click of a seatbelt buckle and saw Sophie hoist herself over the front seat into the back. "You need a traveling companion," Sophie said, settling next to her. She slid her arm around Maria's shoulders. "Take a nap. We'll be home in a jiffy."
With her head on Sophie's shoulder, Maria thought her sister felt ample, just like a mother. The extra weight gave her a lush roundness about the cheeks, breasts, hips.
"Do you want to tell me about it?" Sophie whispered in a voice too low for Nell to hear. "Did he find another woman?"
"No," Maria said. "We just stopped loving each other." That was the truth, but who could believe anything so bizarre? She had been brought up in a town choked with Puritanical roots, where decent people divorced only after suffering heartbreak, betrayal, flagrant infidelity. She and Aldo had been student and teacher, then lovers, then husband and wife, now friends. Maria believed that everything would be easier if they were not, if she could hate him. The discoveries of treasures and civilizations had made their days wild and exciting. But at night in the tent she would fall asleep alone while Aldo shared his rapture with his students.
"I can't imagine it," Sophie said. "I'm sorry. I could never stop loving Gordon."
"Then you're doing something right, you two," Maria said.
"We all thought you were so happy," Sophie said.
"I know," Maria said. She had heard that so many times already from professors and archaeologists and students on the dig: Maria Dark and Aldo Giordano, the husband-and-wife team known for their meticulous excavations, their investigative approach. One critic had called them archaeological detectives, saying that they uncovered lives--the people of the culture, not only the artifacts. Their faces and stories had been in Geo, National Geographic, Smithsonian.
"The good part is, you're coming home," Sophie said.
"Home" to Sophie had always been Hatuquitit. She had commuted to college in New Haven, married a man from the next village, persuaded him to cross the town line and build a house on Bell Stream.
"How's Mom?" Maria asked.
"You know Mom," Sophie said in a voice inviting Maria to complain about their mother. Maria recalled Sophie once telling her that she could not remember her mother ever hugging her, not once, all through her childhood.
Nell sped them east on the New England Thruway. They flashed through blocks of orange light thrown by the highway lamps. Snow fell steadily. Maria shivered slightly and Sophie tightened her grip. Plows heading in the opposite direction sprayed snow into the air. Nell switched on the radio, found a jazz station. Maria felt the rhythm lulling her, felt herself nodding.
She must have slept. The sound of paper rustling wakened her. Her head rested against the Jeep's door; her neck ached in the thin stream of cold air blowing through a crack. Maria opened her eyes. Sophie was bent forward, rummaging gently through Maria's bag of presents. Maria watched, and from Sophie's measured movements Maria knew she was trying not to disturb her. Suddenly she stopped, as if she had found what she was looking for. She withdrew her hand and there, closed in it, was the small Chav’n goddess. Her eyes wide open, Maria watched Sophie slip the gold statue into her pocket. Then, just as Sophie was turning toward her, Maria closed her eyes again and pretended to sleep.
Wide-awake in her bed the next morning, Maria heard a pebble strike the house. The sun was just up. She nearly tripped over her long flannel nightgown getting to the window that overlooked the long snowy meadow leading to Bell Stream. Golden marsh grass spiked through the snow; the rising sun turned it pink. Maria peered into the driveway where Nell stood waving. Maria waved back. She threw on her old plaid robe and hurried downstairs.
"It's freezing out there," Nell said, stamping snow off her boots. "Is Hallie up?"
"Not yet," Maria said.
"And she was sleeping when you got home last night?"
"Yes," Maria said. "I sort of thought she'd wait up."
"Well, she'll be up soon," Nell said, filling a kettle with water, measuring coffee into a filter, just as though it were her house.
Maria turned up the thermostat. Nell wanted to ignore the fact that Hallie had gone to bed and Maria might be hurt. But Sophie had understood. Last night, walking into the empty kitchen, Sophie had given Maria a knowing shrug and a kiss good night. But by then Maria had seen Sophie steal the goddess and felt too bewildered to accept her comfort.
"What brings you here so early?" Maria asked. Sitting at the old oak table, she traced the familiar grain with her thumb. This had been her "place" since childhood, and at various times she had seen in the oak grain a witch, her father's nose, mountains, sailboats, a Pequot sachem.
"This is hard to say," Nell began, frowning. "I know how close you are . . ."
"It's about Sophie, isn't it?" Maria said with an ache in the pit of her stomach.
Nell nodded. "Something's happening to her. Most of the time she seems the same, but not quite."
"Did you hear her last night, when I'd forgotten to ask about Gordon and the kids?" Maria asked.
"I know," Nell said. "She took it as some sort of insult. She gets very defensive about him. She always imagines you're slighting him--when it's actually the last thing on your mind."
The coffee was beginning to smell good, and Maria craved a cup. She wanted to tell Nell about the goddess, but she hesitated. Nell's theory sounded crazy: Sophie imagining people slighting Gordon? As much as Maria loved Nell, she knew that Nell tended to exaggerate and romanticize the Dark family. "What does Peter think?" Maria asked.
Excerpted from Stone Heart by Luanne Rice. Copyright © 2005 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.