She can’t remember who took her first kiss.
It seems the sort of thing a girl should treasure; a first kiss should be examined and re-examined, locked away in a keepsake box, the memory aired only at night so she could watch it play out over her bed. But she recalls many first kisses, and she isn’t sure which of them are real.
In 1840, she weaves between the sheets hung up outside to dry. Mary Whitney is hidden somewhere amongst them, and Grace is determined to find her. She leaps from sheet to sheet, running her hands over the fabric to feel for human shapes behind them.
Despite her vigilance, Mary Whitney sneaks up on her. She pounces from behind, grabbing Grace by the waist to scare her, and Grace jumps and screams as she’s expected to. But when she whirls around with a big smile on her face, Mary Whitney doesn’t step away.
They’re far too close to each other.
Mary Whitney smells of spring air and the lavender sprigs she’d spent all morning drying. She smells like the soap they used for the laundry that left their hands chapped and red.
But her lips are gentle, and they feel more like a feather brushing against Grace’s mouth than anything else.
I’ve always wanted to kiss you, Grace, Mary Whitney says.
Or maybe she doesn’t. Maybe Grace has spent so long wishing and dreaming for this that she doesn’t know what’s real.
Maybe it’s merely a misremembered dream.
The housekeeper doesn’t like it when Jeremiah performs tricks inside the house — at least, she pretends not to. She always tells him, Just one, Jeremiah , in her stern-but-indulgent voice she only uses for him, and possibly for the lords of the house, when they were young.
So today Jeremiah swallows a fork for them, and they all ooh and ah, but Grace isn’t satisfied. She buys a handkerchief from him before he leaves, and then she follows him out of the house. He pretends he doesn’t see her, but she knows he does, and finally — when they reach the well — he stops and turns and smiles at her.
I want to see another one, Grace says.
He’s an obliging man, is Jeremiah.
Roll a cigarette for me, he says. She’s never done this before; he takes a pouch of tobacco from his own pocket and a packet of slim, translucent papers, and he sets them on the stones of the well and shows her how to do it. His shoulder bumps against hers; he guides her fingers; his voice is low and rolling, hypnotic, so soothing Grace almost misses every instruction he gives her. The sharp, spicy scent of tobacco burns her nose.
The cigarette is done. He places it between the two fingers of his left hand.
Watch carefully, he says, and suddenly the cigarette is not between his fingers anymore; it hovers in the air beside him. It rotates around his wrist, and then around entire body, circling him at the shoulders and then at the neck. It rests on his head, and with a smile Jeremiah tips his chin down and lets it fall, but it doesn’t hit the ground. It stays suspended in the air near his left hand again.
Jeremiah brings his fingers to his mouth, forming a circle with them. Before Grace’s wide eyes, the cigarette floats through that circle and comes to rest between Jeremiah’s lips.
The trick is over. This much is true: she followed Jeremiah to the well, and he taught her how to roll a cigarette, and impossible as it may seem, he levitated that self-same cigarette as easy as smoking it.
But did she really kiss him after? She remembers his lips were soft and firm. His beard scratched at her and she tasted tobacco for the first time. Does that mean she swept her tongue over his lips? She must have. And he must have leaned down to kiss her, because he was so tall and she was still rather short for her age, and he put his hands on her waist, and his hands were broad and gentle and warm.
And if she kissed him, surely he must have pulled back afterward with a hint of sadness in her eyes. Perhaps this is where he said to her, You are one of us, with his hands still resting just above her hips and his peddler’s haul strapped across his back. Or perhaps he said something else this time. Perhaps he said, We two are the same.
She wakes up and Mary Whitney is dead and alone in their bed, her body cold, her petticoat soaked with blood.
She wakes and she is in the bed as well, and she rolls over and finds Mary Whitney dead, with the blood staining Grace’s shift as well.
She wakes and she has time to say goodbye. More than anything, she suspects this version of events is just a fantasy. But she can’t convince herself entirely, not when she remembers it so well.
She wakes to the smell of copper thick in her nose and her fingers tangled in Mary Whitney’s hair, as she often clutched for Mary while she was sleeping. Mary Whitney feels no pain as Grace extracts her fingers; her skin is pale, paler than it’s ever been, and she is still, and her chest is still. It does not rise or fall.
And her lips are lifeless and cold and chapped, and Grace kisses them anyway. She closes Mary Whitney’s staring eyes and kisses her there, too. She lays her lips against Mary’s forehead, she kisses her neck, she kisses her hair, and she kisses the left side of Mary Whitney’s chest, where no heart is beating.
It’s a kiss that tastes of salt, of tears, that smells faintly of rose water and blood. Drops of water fall from the end of Grace’s nose to stain Mary Whitney’s dress, and maybe she sobs, but maybe she doesn’t.
Maybe she kisses Mary Whitney again.
She can’t remember who took her first kiss.