I was about to knock, when I heard someone talking on the other side of the door.
“You mustn’t run downstairs like that!” a woman insisted. The vigor of her voice surprised me; I’d been told that she was quite elderly and rather frail.
Then I thought I heard a little girl’s muffled laugh.
“You’ll frighten people. You wouldn’t want to do that, would you?” This time the woman spoke more gently. “Come now, promise me that you won’t.”
I heard a soft thud and then the sound of small feet pattering on the floor.
I wondered what a child was doing in her room. Edna had said she’d be alone for the interview.
I gave the door a few quick raps and then slowly pushed it open. “Hello,” I called out. “May I come in? It’s Professor—it’s Garth Hellyer.”
There was no answer.
I stood awkwardly in the doorway, peering into the dimness. After a few seconds my eyes spotted a shadowy figure in the corner of the room. A woman was sitting quietly in a wheelchair by a large window with her face turned toward the trees outside. She seemed to be stroking the screen lightly with her fingertips. A branch on the other side was tapping against the glass above her—almost as
if it were trying to warn her that someone had entered the room.
Suddenly she looked over at me, very startled, and reached into her pocket. She hastily drew out a dark-colored scarf, pulling it up over her head and then drawing it down so that only her mouth was visible.
I took a step toward her when I felt something soft and sticky brush against my hand; a second later the door slammed shut.
“Oh dear,” the woman murmured. “I’m so sorry. There are so many new people here and it’s a bit confusing for her.”
“No need to apologize,” I said pleasantly, shaking off what appeared to be clumps of hair on my hand. “That must have been Cookie. She’s a very skittish cat and probably thought I had my dog with me. Actually, I almost did bring Farley up to meet you.”
“Yes, he’s Cookie’s canine counterpart at the Clarkson—very friendly and very spoiled by everyone here. Maybe I’ll bring him up to meet you sometime.”
There was a soft rustle of wind and then a light tapping sound as a bough rubbed against the glass. I pulled up a chair and sat down, laying my briefcase to one side. “How are you this morning, Miss Brice?”
She appeared to be scrutinizing me carefully and so I let her take her time. It was hard to tell just how old she was and I wondered how I might get her to remove the scarf.
“They told me you would be coming today,” she announced after a short pause. “But I was expecting an older man. When Edna said you were an historian and a professor, I thought you would be in your sixties. But you—you couldn’t be much more than forty.”
“That’s an excellent guess. As a matter of fact, I’m turning forty next month.”
“Ah, then you’re still just a young man.”
I laughed and told her that I liked coming to the Clarkson because its residents often told me I was young.
“Oh, but you are young,” she asserted. “Your best years are still ahead of you.” She leaned toward me, peering intently at my face. “Why . . . you remind me very much of Andrew!” This time her tone was friendlier. “You’re taller, though, like George. But dark,” she mused. “Dark like Andrew.”
“Tall? Dark?” I jested, “Shouldn’t I get ‘handsome,’ too?”
She eyed me for a few seconds and then nodded, placing a hand on the arm of her chair; I was struck by how long and supple her fingers were.
“And you’re a single man from what I’m told?” she continued.
I couldn’t help grinning—so she wasn’t all that different from the other grannies at the home. Most of them were intensely interested in my matrimonial prospects. “Who’s given away my secret?” I asked.
“Isn’t it true?” she retorted icily.
“Yes, it’s true. At the moment I’m still available. Can the same be said of you?”
She let me wait a few seconds. “I’m afraid I must disappoint you. I might be single, but I’m certainly not available.”
“A disappointment, indeed,” I shot back, and watched her mouth curve into a reluctant smile.
We sat there eyeing each other for a minute or so. Obviously she wasn’t going to make this easy for me. “Miss Brice,” I began gently, “I’m here on behalf of the Longevity Project.”
“Longevity Project? Oh, yes, they told me about it. About some group wanting to find the oldest living person in the world.”
“Well, yes, although there’s more to it than that.” I briefly told her about my research at the home and explained that I had been asked to follow up with her because Edna—the Clarkson’s director—thought there had been some sort of mix-up with her date of birth.
“There’s no mix-up,” she told me calmly. “I have my birth certificate. I just didn’t want to leave it downstairs in that office. I have it here.”
“May I see it, please?”
She hesitated and then reached into her pocket, this time taking out a letter-size envelope. “I know all about your interviews with war veterans here at the home,” she said, handing me a yellowed sheet of paper. “But the main thing is that Edna said I could trust you.”
I looked down and saw that I was holding the birth certificate of a person named Marged Granger Brice, born November 13, 1878. The document had been issued by L’Église Sainte-Anne in Montreal.
“Whose birth certificate is this?” I asked.
She looked at me steadily. “It’s mine.”
I did a quick calculation. The birth certificate had been issued 134 years ago.
“There must be some mistake,” I started to say.
She laughed and lifted up the edge of her scarf; clearly she was enjoying my confusion. “I told you—you are young! Imagine being my age. But, of course, my circumstances are somewhat unusual.”
“Unusual?” I echoed. “ ‘Unusual’ would be an understatement if you were a hundred and thirty-four. ‘Miraculous’ would be more like it. The average life expectancy for an adult female in Canada is between eighty and eighty-two years old.”
“Oh, I was eighty ages ago.” She waved a hand airily. “That was in—1958, I believe. I remember because I met the prime minister that year—Mr. Diefenbaker. Such a gracious man . . .”
“Miss Brice, I might be young in your eyes, but I certainly wasn’t born yesterday. Now, whose birth certificate is this?”
“Professor Hellyer—” She addressed me crisply, straightening her shoulders and beginning to bristle.
“Please call me Garth.”
“Garth,” she continued, even more crisply. “That is my birth certificate.” Then she folded her arms and pursed her lips.
Now Miss Brice was watching me carefully. “You’d like me to remove this scarf, wouldn’t you? All right, then, how old do you think I am, Professor Hellyer?” Without any warning she abruptly pushed her scarf back from her face.
For a few seconds I was speechless.
“I’m sorry,” she murmured, keeping her eyes lowered. “I really didn’t mean to startle you. My face—it’s not what one might expect, is it?”
I hardly knew what to say. I had interviewed dozens of elderly people, some of them well over a hundred, but I had never seen anyone like her before. Her face was literally bereft of wrinkles. Two prominent seams ran down each of her cheeks, but otherwise her skin was without a crease. Her face seemed as smooth as polished stone—as if she were made of marble, but a soft, almost translucent marble . . .
“Don’t ask me to explain it,” Miss Brice was saying as I tried to stop myself from staring at her. “But by my hundred-and-thirty-first birthday, all my wrinkles had disappeared, and since then, my face has been remarkably smooth.” She ran a finger lightly across one of the deep furrows by her mouth. “I haven’t lost my character lines, though—but I rather like them.” Then she pushed her scarf farther back, releasing an astonishingly thick mane of glossy white hair that came to a soft point in the middle of her forehead.
“The only things that haven’t changed are my eyes—not in a hundred and thirty-four years.” She lifted her gaze proudly to mine. “I can still see perfectly—well, almost perfectly. They’re not an old woman’s eyes, are they?”
This time I really did gasp. For several seconds I was unable to draw my gaze away from two piercingly blue eyes. It almost seemed
as if a searchlight were revolving deep inside her head and casting brief but intense beams of blue out at me every few seconds.
“No, they’re not at all like an old woman’s eyes,” I repeated rather awkwardly.
She smiled, evidently very pleased with my reaction. “George called my eyes a Great Lakes blue. But they’re not always quite this bright. My eyes always grow brighter with the phases of the moon and then they fade.” She looked away. “That is Perdita. She does it. I don’t know why she does it, but you’ve caught my eyes at their brightest because tonight’s a full moon.”
I just sat there, still a little dazed.
“You do understand, don’t you, Professor Hellyer?” she said apologetically. “I really do have to keep this scarf on hand. It’s not because I’m hopelessly old-fashioned. I’m more worried my eyes will scare the people here. I had to do it at my home, too—although my nephew Gregory never minded. But I certainly don’t want to frighten any of the staff at the Clarkson.” She drew her breath in quickly and returned her gaze to the trees outside. “I didn’t frighten you, did I? Professor Hellyer—”
“Garth,” I reminded her, and assured her that I wasn’t at all frightened, just very surprised. I fumbled around, telling her that one didn’t usually meet women—of her age—with eyes quite so intense and—
“Yes, of course. You needn’t explain. I’ve been around elderly people, too. But you see, it’s not really me who does it. It’s Perdita.” Miss Brice sighed deeply. “I know it might sound odd, but I wish I could just age as a normal person does. I used to enjoy the brightness of my eyes and watching my face change from year to year. But I’ve been ready to die for a long time now. I’ve even resolved to die, but I just don’t seem to be able to.”
“Aren’t able to?”
“Oh, I dearly want to pass on.” She gripped the sides of her chair. “Especially now that I have no home. It would make Ava and her son very happy if I died. In fact, I’m sure they wish for my death. What is it you say when you want something in a hurry? ASAP.” She frowned and I saw a look of deep distress ripple across her face. “Believe me, I’d oblige her if I could, but there’s no one who will take Perdita. And I cannot leave her.”
It was the third time that she had mentioned the name. “Miss Brice, who’s this—” I swallowed, the words catching strangely in my throat. “Who’s Perdita?” I asked, forcing them out.
We both looked up to see the trees bending and twisting in a sudden commotion outside her window.
“Please, I would prefer that you call me Marged.”
She continued to stare at the trees and remained silent.
I stole a glance at my watch. I hadn’t expected this, but I would give it just one more try. “Could we go back to your date of birth? Do you have any other documents with you? Say your health card or something like that?”
“My health card!” She looked around at me in utter astonishment. “Do you think that Ava would leave me with anything like that? They took everything! Ava’s lawyers are very clever people, you know. You won’t find a record of me anywhere. Not even you—an historian—even you won’t be able to find anything!” Then she began to twist her hands together fretfully.
“Maybe I should come back another time.” I started to get up from my chair, thinking that I’d better get more background information from Edna.
“No!” she cried out, and then immediately calmed her voice. “It’s not that I don’t want to help you, or your Longevity Project. It’s just that my situation sometimes frustrates me. I don’t want to
be the world’s oldest living person—truly I don’t! But I can’t help it. I just am.”
“That’s fine,” I said soothingly.
She gave me a very hard stare. “But that’s not why I wanted to see you, Professor Hellyer.”
“You wanted to see me?”
“Perdita,” she called out gently. “We could try again. Perhaps we could try again with him.” I heard a faint, rustling sound behind me and turned, but I saw nothing.
For the third time I asked, “Who is this Perdita you keep mentioning?”
Miss Brice shook her head and put a finger to her lips. “Wait. You are too impatient, Garth. I must do this at my own pace.” She motioned toward her bed, and I was surprised to see my World War II trilogy sitting on her night table. “It’s wonderful writing,” she said softly. “I think you might be able to help me—just as you helped all those war veterans tell their stories.” She reached forward and took the birth certificate back from me. “But this time—this time I will go one step at a time. I will go more slowly; that way there will be less danger.”
She ran her eyes rapidly across my face. “Do you—do you have a heart condition? Or anything like that?” she asked faintly.
I was a little taken aback by her question, but confirmed that I was in very good health. Then she carefully pulled open the top drawer of the bureau next to her and stared down into it. “You rely a great deal on people’s diaries and letters in your writing,” she said, drawing out two small, leather-bound books. “All those veterans—and their wives and families—they must have trusted you very much to give you their war journals and letters.” She passed the two books over to me, watching my expression intently.
I took them from her and gingerly lifted the top cover. The pages were filled with handwritten entries—
“I’d like you to read my diaries,” she said eagerly. “And then perhaps we could ask Perdita to come to you.”
“Miss Brice,” I interjected, “really, I’m just here to—”
“I was turning nineteen years old when I began those journals,” she continued. “That was over a hundred and fifteen years ago, but I can still remember much of it so vividly. That is where Perdita begins . . .” Her voice trailed off, and I could see the faint shimmer of tears in her eyes.
Just then I heard Farley barking downstairs; he sounded unusually excited. “That’s my dog, Miss Brice.” This time I put the diaries down on the table beside her. “I think I’d better go get him.”
“Wait! I’d like to—to compensate you—for reading them, but you see my nephew’s wife—Ava took all my money, every cent of it.”
“Don’t worry about that,” I said quickly, picking up her diaries again.
“It was quite a lot of money. I won’t tell you how much, because you probably wouldn’t believe me. George understood, you see. Somehow he knew and he was very worried about what would happen if I outlived them all. He even asked Andrew to take care of me . . .” Her eyes suddenly narrowed and then her face hardened. “But Ava . . . George could never have anticipated what she has done. She said I had hallucinations. She said I would be put in a mental hospital if I didn’t sign those papers. And she told the lawyer I was an impostor—that I wanted to defraud George’s estate.”
Marged took up her scarf, placing it lightly on her head, and then trained her remarkable eyes on mine. “Of course no one expected me to live this long. But none of them know I’ve still got my
birth certificate. Even if no one believes me—even if you don’t—it doesn’t change the fact that I am Marged Brice.”
She waited for me to speak.
I hesitated. “Of course I’d be happy to look at your diaries, Miss Brice—I mean Marged. But really, the main reason I’m here is to look into the record of your age.”
“Please, I need some help. I’ve never had to say that to a stranger before, and believe me, it doesn’t come easily to me. But I must.”
Again I hesitated for a split second—and then half kicking myself, I tucked the two journals into my briefcase.
“Thank you,” she breathed. “Thank you.” She laid a hand on my arm. “I knew you would,” she continued softly. “You see, I asked my trees about you.”
“Your trees,” I echoed vaguely. Farley was barking again.
“Yes. But I want to know—and you must tell me. What would your trees say about you?” she demanded. “Would your trees tell me to trust you?”
The light from her eyes was so strong that I almost winced. “Oh, I think my trees would give me a good reference,” I replied, surprised at how easily the answer came to me.
“You’ll come back—soon? You’ll come back to see me soon?” she asked, withdrawing her hand.
“Yes, of course,” I promised. “It will probably take me a few days, but I’ll come as soon as I’ve read your diaries. Why don’t we say by the end of the week?”
“I shall trust you, then,” she whispered, pulling her scarf down over her face. “I shall trust to your return.”