From age twenty-two to thirty-three Peg had a few affairs, several friendships and always her family, but most of her time she was alone. She saw her sister daily, but she spent her mornings wandering the fields in search of plants and birds, and her afternoons reading or assisting at the hospital. She visited her brother and sister-in-law when she had to; she welcomed her nieces and nephew whenever they came downhill to her place. Peg didn’t like Sam’s house; she fashioned excuses to get out of visiting there then which she later used to avoid any human connection at all.
She was happy in her house. Really. She just wanted to be left alone.
The fire didn’t start at Sam’s that September Monday, but his big house was in its path. Peg wasn’t spotted near the action, and she never confessed or admitted anything. No one who witnessed that awful conflagration could think it caused by one heartsore being.
For herself, she might have tolerated the situation forever. She was used to Sam. As a child she adored him. She was only six when he first visited her room, rough hand on her mouth, hard weight on her chest. It didn’t happen often. It was better to endure him than to bust him. And he wasn’t sure about their relationship; maybe they weren’t blood. But he couldn’t say that about his daughter. His daughters. No.
Sam’s house was destroyed and his remains were found later. Just his. Mary and the kids were in Wildcat Canyon with Alice and Peg when the fire started; they were nowhere near where it went. They hunted for late blackberries and didn’t notice when Peg walked one way and they another. For her part, Peg’s only target was her brother’s beloved lodge. She wasn’t aware of the hot dry wind even when it hampered her attempts to strike the match.
Alice’s and Peg’s houses were not damaged in the big fire. Their neighborhood was spared, while all of the buildings two blocks east and up were consumed. Their gardens received a coating of soot and looked grayed out for a few weeks, but the ash acted as excellent fertilizer for the highly-acidic soil. The sisters’ houses were fine but Peg stopped going out. She seemed stunned by the devastation.
She wouldn’t even attend Sam’s funeral. Mary and the kids stayed at her little place until the burial, and Mary always maintained afterward that she felt embraced by Peg’s little house, embraced and beginning to heal, but Peg was then immobilized; she refused to see her brother’s corpse into the earth.
She remained housebound until 1930. Gradually she became an old-crone legend among the children in the neighborhood. Her neglected garden was described as haunted.
But her house cared for her. Within that small space she wrote poetry and contemplated creatures and felt safe to feel. It took eight years before she grew strong enough to leave the little place and resume living, elsewhere. Then she used some more time, selecting the new owner for her house. Finally she hugged Alice goodbye. She squatted by the edge of the creek, right knee down, and stuck her hand into the cold water. Felt, heard, smelled the creek. Brought her wet hand to her mouth and tongued her own palm. Looked once more. Left.