Asia has lived with elderly Ira and his wife Maddy on their farm for as long as she can remember. When Ira has a heart attack Asia's world is turned upside down. Faced with the possibility of losing the only family she has ever known, Asia is frightened but fascinated by the appearance of a ghost that only she can see and hear.
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NEVER to be TOLD
ORCA BOOK PUBLISHERS
Text copyright © 2006 Becky Citra
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system now known or to be invented, without permission in writing from the publisher.
Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication
Citra, Becky Never to be told / Becky Citra.
PS8555.I87N49 2006 jC813’.54 C2006-902720-X
First published in the United States, 2006Library of Congress Control Number: 2006927095
Summary: Twelve-year-old Asia’s world is turned upside down by family secrets and ghostly encounters.
Orca Book Publishers gratefully acknowledges the support for its publishing programs provided by the following agencies: the Government of Canada through the Book Publishing Industry Development Program and the Canada Council for the Arts, and the Province of British Columbia through the BC Arts Council and the Book Publishing Tax Credit.
Design and typesetting: Christine Toller Cover artwork & cover design: Cathy Maclean
Orca Book PublishersPO Box 5626 Station B Victoria, BC Canada V8R 6s4
Orca Book PublishersPO Box 468 Custer, WA USA 98240-0468
www.orcabook.com Printed and bound in Canada
09 08 07 06 • 6 5 4 3 2 1
for Janet BC
One crow for sorrow
Two for joy
Three for a girl
Four for a boy
Five for silver
Six for gold
Seven for a secret
Never to be told.
English counting rhyme
…from the diary of Miranda Williams
May 18, 1915
Today a stranger came to Cold Creek. He rode out of the mountains, mounted on a big black stallion and leading a packhorse. Our farm is remote but we have had visitors before. I don’t know why I feel this sense of foreboding.
His name is Ridley Blackmore, and he is looking for work. Since George is away until tomorrow buying cattle, I instructed the man to pitch his tent by the creek, where there is plenty of dry wood for a fire, and wait there.
As he turned to go, a movement on the back of his packhorse caught my eye. For one foolish second I thought I saw Daisy’s face peering from a bundle of furs. My legs turned to jelly, and I am sure my heart stopped beating.
A little girl wiggled out of the furs, and I saw then that she is not at all like Daisy. Her face is thinner and her hair is straight and dull. Blackmore introduced her, rather indifferently, as his daughter Beatrice.
I know I was staring. Beatrice looked about three, the same age our Daisy was when the Lord took her away. I said hello to her, but Blackmore informed me abruptly that she doesn’t speak. Doesn’t speak! When I think how well Daisy spoke at that age!
I am sitting by the window as I write this. I can see Blackmore’s shadow moving between his tent and the fire. I can’t see Beatrice, but of course she must be fast asleep by now. I will never tell George that I mistook the stranger’s little girl for Daisy. He would look at me with that mixture of alarm and pity that I hate so much. He would say it is one more reason that I must consult a doctor.
Montgomery has just come home, and he is meowing for his supper. I am exhausted, but I know I will not sleep tonight.
Asia found the moth on the kitchen windowsill behind a pot of parsley. Its fragile wings, the color of milk, were tinged pale gray at the tips. She cupped it in her hand and gently touched its furry body.
“It’s so beautiful!” she breathed, carrying it carefully to the pine table where Maddy was kneading bread.
Maddy stared at the moth. Her face turned as pale as the moth’s wings. She said quietly, “Put your other hand over it.
Don’t let it get away.”
Asia covered the moth. It fluttered in the warm pocket of her hands. Something in Maddy’s voice frightened her.
Maddy saw signs in everything. She had taught Asia to keep her eyes peeled for four-leaf clovers, to slice the bread from one end only and to tuck a lucky penny in her shoe at night.
“What’s wrong?” said Asia.
“I just don’t like it, that’s all.” Maddy opened the screen door and pushed Asia out with a floury hand. “Make sure you take it far away from the house before you let it go.” She closed the door firmly behind her.
Asia blinked in the bright sunshine. From the porch she gazed across the banks of Cold Creek, over the sloping meadows and pine-covered hills, all the way to the slate-gray peaks of the distant mountains. It was going to be another blazing hot day. Already the sky was a dark hard blue. Maddy’s sheep huddled in the shade of the trees beside the house, and the chickens had disappeared inside their shed.
On the other side of the creek, a man in faded brown coveralls and a wide-brimmed hat trudged across the meadow toward the log bridge. It was Ira, and he was carrying something in his arms. Something big and bulky. Asia frowned, trying to make out what it was.
The moth bumped against her fingers. She stepped off the porch and walked through the grass, holding her hands close to her chest. When she thought she was far enough from the house, she opened her fingers and the moth fluttered away like a ghost. She glanced back and saw Maddy at the window, watching her. Then she ran across the bridge to meet Ira.
His arms were full of yellow and brown fur. It was Dandy, the old dog who had been part of Cold Creek since before Asia came to live with Maddy and Ira. Dandy’s milky eyes stared dully at Asia.
“I found him over at the gopher hill,” said Ira. He carried Dandy the rest of the way to the house. Her heart pounding with fear, Asia ran ahead. “Maddy!” she yelled. “Maddy!
Maddy came outside, wiping her hands on her apron, the screen door banging behind her. She glanced at Ira’s face and then rested her hand on Dandy’s still body. The dog gave a sudden shudder and slumped even deeper into Ira’s arms.
“He’s gone,” said Maddy. She looked terribly sad, but not shocked. She stroked Dandy’s yellow ear, the one with the tear in it. “Good old fellow,” she murmured. “Good dog.”
Tears flooded Asia’s cheeks. Maddy drew her close, pressing Asia’s face into her apron. “Oh, my girl.”
Asia breathed in Maddy’s warm bread scent. “You knew,” she whispered. “How?”
“It was the moth.” Maddy held Asia tighter. “A white moth in a house is a messenger of death.”
“Dandy was old. He would’ve died, moth or no moth,” said Ira. “He was…let’s see, ninety-eight in people years.”
He and Asia were in the workshop, a log building with big windows that faced the creek. Ira was making a cross for Dandy’s grave.
He glanced sideways at Asia, who sat on a stool beside him, sifting sawdust between her fingers. “Sometimes our Maddy gets carried away with her superstitions.”
He smoothed the rough edges of the pine boards with a scrap of sandpaper. “You have to set your mind on all the good times in Dandy’s long life. Hunting gophers in the meadow, chewing stew bones, sleeping in his basket by the woodstove.”
“Going for walks along the creek. Chasing Maddy’s chickens, ” Asia added.
She felt drained. With a sigh she pushed the sawdust into a tidy pile and slid off the stool. She wandered around the workshop, looking at Ira’s handcrafted boxes.
The boxes, lined up on long shelves, were ready to be wrapped and mailed to customers, or taken to Cariboo Curios, the gift shop in town. They were all different sizes and had smooth polished sides and lids inlaid with delicate pieces of dark and light wood in the shapes of birds and animals.
What Asia loved best about the boxes were the secret compartments. Every box had one, tucked under a false bottom or behind a drawer or even in a lid. Asia knew all of Ira’s tricks. For as long as she could remember, she had watched him work. When she was little, while Ira measured and sawed and planed, she had sat on the floor and gathered handfuls of pale wood shavings and dropped them like snowflakes on her hair. Now that she was twelve, she helped Ira, sanding the boxes until they were satiny smooth and polishing the gleaming wood with a soft rag.
Ira finally put down his tools and held up the finished cross for her approval. “You take this back to the house and put some words on it. Something fitting for a fine dog. And then we’ll get Maddy and say a proper goodbye to Dandy.”
“The gopher hill was Dandy’s stomping ground,” said Maddy.
“It’s only right to bury him in the place he loved best.”
So Ira carried him back across the bridge and through the meadow, this time wrapped in the old wool blanket from his basket. Maddy brought a shovel and Asia carried the cross. She trailed behind, setting the cross down in the long grass from time to time to pick wild daisies and purple fireweed for a funeral bouquet.
The ground at the gopher hill was hard. Ira was sweating and rubbing his brow by the time he’d dug the hole. He laid Dandy’s body at the bottom and filled the hole in with dirt. Then he dug a smaller hole for the cross, on which Asia had carefully printed Dandy, August 14, 2005. He will be deeply missed.
Asia placed the flowers beside the cross. For a second, she had an odd prickly feeling that someone other than Maddy was standing beside her. A faint sound brushed her ear, and she heard a voice whisper death. She glanced around, astonished. A gentle breeze had picked up, rippling the long grass in the meadow. She frowned. There was no one else there except Ira and Maddy, and the only sound was the rustling of the aspen leaves by the creek.
They piled rocks on the grave to keep the coyotes from digging it up. Asia scrambled down the bank to the creek bed for one last look around. She couldn’t escape that peculiar feeling that someone had been standing beside the grave, someone who had said the word death.
“Come on, Asia,” called Maddy a few minutes later.
“We’re going back now.”
Asia tossed a flat stone in the water and then climbed up the bank. On the way home, Ira had to stop for a few minutes, his hands resting on his knees as he took in big breaths.
“It’s nothing,” he protested when Maddy hovered. “Quit your fussing, woman. I’m just a bit played out from all that digging.”
Asia gazed back across the meadow, her long black hair blowing away from her face. The tall grass shimmered in the heat. Dandy’s cross stood pale and new against the dark blue sky.
Cold with shock, Miranda slipped into the grove of aspen trees. She hadn’t meant to startle the girl. She hadn’t meant to speak. The words had slipped out at the dog’s grave. Too much death. And the girl had heard her. Miranda Williams had been dead for forty years, and this was the first time since her death that anyone had heard her speak.
She had been away from Cold Creek for a long time. Something had brought her back. Maybe it was the death of the old dog; she wasn’t sure. She stared at the girl standing beside the grave. The woman had called her Asia. She had seen her from a distance on her other visits to Cold Creek, playing by the water or walking in the meadow, her long black hair blowing every which way in the breeze, but never before had she been this close to her.
A cat sprang out of the long grass and landed lightly on Miranda’s shoulder. “There you are, Montgomery.” She stroked his sleek gray back. His tail lashed from side to side. “You feel it too,” she whispered. Her excitement grew, swelling inside her. Too much death. Her words hung over the dog’s grave. And Asia had heard. After forty years, Miranda had made contact with a living person.
She was distressed at the changes in the man called Ira and the woman called Maddy. Ira’s hair was now as white as snow, his face marked with deep lines. And Maddy grimaced when she stooped to pat the old dog one last time. Miranda knew all about growing old. She took one last look at Asia, who was trailing across the meadow behind the old people, and then turned the other way and walked over the hill toward the Old Farm.
The Old Farm was about half a mile from Maddy and Ira’s house, at the bottom of a hill beside the creek. Miranda had come there as a young bride almost a hundred years ago, before the Great War. She paused at the top of the hill and gazed down at her old home. The roof on the log barn had collapsed, and a few scattered fence rails poked through the long grass. The two-story frame house was surrounded by weeds and nettles, and the porch sagged into the ground. “No,” she whispered angrily. “Not again.”
It was like this every time she came back, but it was always a shock. Her beloved home in ruins. Every time, it was harder to summon the strength to reverse the destruction. Her face contorted with effort as she shut out the image of the ruined farm and visualized instead lace curtains at the windows and flowers blooming around the porch. The back of her neck and spine tingled. The picture in front of her wavered and blurred like a reflection in a pond. After a few minutes, the tumbled-down buildings disappeared, and in their place nestled a snug, well-kept farm. Her breathing slowed. Everything was right again, and it would stay that way until she left.
Miranda drew in a breath and started down the hill. As she approached the house, her eyes were drawn reluctantly to the small square window tucked under the peak of the roof, the window in Daisy’s little pink bedroom. Her chest tightened and she felt the familiar urgent need to go to her little girl. She closed her eyes and shuddered. Daisy was dead.
She had been dead for over ninety years. Shivering, Miranda pulled her shawl around her shoulders. She had one more grave to visit, and then she would go inside her old house to rest. Even on this hot summer day, she was cold.
Maddy always said it didn’t pay to ignore signs. A white moth in a house means business. It was foolish to let Ira take the tractor to the home meadow on a day so hot you could fry eggs on a rock, especially when anyone could see he wasn’t feeling well. Losing Dandy had distracted her from the real danger.
“And of course,” she would say later, “you can’t tell a stubborn man like Ira anything. He wanted to finish the haying before the weather broke.” When there were cattle at Cold Creek, Ira had hayed the upper meadow as well, working right through the long hot days of August and early September, until the hay shed was filled with sweet-smelling bales. Now there was only Maddy’s handful of sheep to feed in the winter, and Ira could cut and bale enough hay in the home meadow in a few days.
Maddy rested in the shade on the porch, and Asia moved into the hammock under the trees with her new book. Asia could lose herself for hours in a good book, but this time her mind kept jumping back to Dandy. She had only read a few pages when Maddy squinted at the sky and then disappeared inside the house. She came back with a thermos of cold tea for Ira. “Go see what’s keeping the old rascal,” she said, with a hint of worry in her voice.
Asia got her bicycle out of the garage and strapped the thermos onto the back carrier. The road to the home meadow was just two ruts in the grass. She bumped along, missing Dandy’s company. The sun burned through her T-shirt, and her long black hair felt like a heavy blanket on the back of her neck. She stopped once and sneaked a sip from the thermos. She rounded the last bend through the trees and paused at the edge of the meadow. Long rows of pale green cut grass shimmered in the sun.
Ira and the tractor were halfway down one row. Ira was slumped over the wheel, his hat fallen somewhere in the hay. The only sound was the click of a dragonfly’s wings and the distant tap tap tap of a sapsucker.
Asia jumped off her bike, letting it topple to the ground, and ran to Ira.
Asia stood beside the tractor and watched Maddy hurry across the field toward them. Maddy could sense trouble, and she must have waited just a few minutes before something told her to follow Asia.
Maddy took one look at Ira. Her face went white, but she said calmly, “Go back to the house and phone the Hildebrands. And then get the van.”
Her voice faltered a tiny bit. “Hurry.”
Asia gripped the steering wheel, bouncing on the hard seat as the van bumped across the field. Ira’s tractor looked like an orange island in the middle of a pale green sea. She beeped the horn to tell Maddy she was coming and jammed the gas pedal down hard, ignoring the protesting whine of the tired engine. The van broke down all the time. Please, please don’t choose today, she prayed.
Asia jerked the van to a stop beside the tractor. She jumped out. Ira had straightened up and was leaning against the back of the seat. His gray face glistened with a damp sheen of sweat.
“Get that old blanket out of the back,” said Maddy. “ Ira can lie down on it and we’ll lift him in.”
Ira had been staring at nothing, his breathing coming in ragged gasps. But he stirred at that. “Now, Mother,” he said in a surprisingly clear voice, “I can walk to the van. Just give me a minute.”
Ira sometimes called Maddy Mother, even though Harry, their only child, had grown up and left home twenty-five years ago. Goose bumps popped out along Asia’s bare arms when Ira spoke. He was going to be okay.
She made a bed in the back of the van out of the old blanket and some empty feed sacks. Then she held onto one of Ira’s arms and Maddy took the other and, step by slow step, they eased him off the tractor and into the van.
At the last minute, Ira said he couldn’t go to town without his hat. Maddy said it was typical of Ira to turn stubborn in the middle of a crisis, but Asia spotted the hat on a mound of mowed grass and grabbed it.
It was a lucky thing that Ira had taught Asia to drive when she turned ten. He had tried to teach Maddy when they were first married. She had moved the car exactly two feet, let the clutch out too quickly and gasped when the car lurched to a stop. She sat there for a minute and then got out of the car and went into the house. That was the total of Maddy’s driving experience.
Asia loved driving. By the time she turned twelve, she had driven the van, the tractor and the pickup truck all over Cold Creek, helping Ira haul water and bring in hay and firewood.
Asia glanced over her shoulder as the van bumped back across the field and up the grassy track to the road. Ira lay with his eyes closed, and Maddy was stretched out beside him, holding his hand.
When they turned onto the logging road to town, Maddy sat up and crawled into the front seat. “Keep over to the side more…there’s a big pothole coming up around that corner…Lord, I hope we don’t meet anyone.”
Asia ignored her. If it weren’t for Ira scaring her so badly, she would be enjoying this. Driving on the logging road was no different than driving through the fields. Easier actually. There were fewer ruts.
“Slow down a little,” said Maddy.
“I phoned the Hildebrands,” said Asia, to get Maddy’s mind off her driving. Gert and Hans Hildebrand were their nearest neighbors, and they had known Maddy and Ira for years.
“They’re out, but Anna will tell them as soon as they get back.”
“Good,” said Maddy.
Anna and her younger sister Katya would be wildly jealous when they heard that she had driven the van to the hospital. Anna and Katya were the Hildebrand’s granddaughters, and Katya was Asia’s best friend. Anna and Katya spent the summers on their grandparents’ ranch but they lived the rest of the year in Calgary where Katya said nobody Asia’s age knew how to drive.
Suddenly Ira opened his eyes and said, “I don’t like to complain, but I’m cooking back here.”
To Asia’s relief, Maddy disappeared into the back again.
The side window creaked open, and Maddy settled herself against the side of the van. “I don’t know why you keep doing this to me,” she said.
“Now what’s that supposed to mean?” said Ira weakly.
“We’ve been through this before. I blame it on your stubbornness. It was the same thing the day Asia came to live with us.”
“Now Mother, that was nine years ago,” protested Ira.
Asia could tell that Maddy was warming up. “Yes, and I distinctly remember telling you not to use the chainsaw that day. I told you I saw an owl sitting on the fence plain as day in the bright sun. You can’t ask for a clearer sign of trouble. And sure enough, the next thing I knew, you were flat on your back by the woodpile.”
Ira chuckled. “The blood was everywhere.”
“How would you know?” said Maddy. “You were out cold.”
Asia grinned. This was one of her favorite stories.
“I ran outside and said, ‘Ira, you old fool, now what am I going to do?’ Then I heard Asia and Sherri coming down the road.”
“To be accurate,” intervened Ira, “at the time, you didn’t know Asia and her mom from a bean in the bush.”
Maddy looked at Ira coldly. “Who’s telling this story? I knew help was coming, didn’t I? Sherri’s truck had no muffler and it was making all kinds of racket. I ran up to the gate, waving my arms and hollering at her to stop.”
Ira jumped in again. “I opened one eye and saw this tiny girl with pink cheeks and black hair shining down at me. I knew an angel had come to save me.”
“Huh,” said Maddy. “Asia is our angel, but you didn’t know it then. You were in no state to be looking at angels. You were bleeding to death.”
Asia suddenly thought of something. “Why were my mother and I just driving around that day? Were we supposed to be going somewhere else?”
There was a moment of silence in the back of the van before Maddy said, “There was a commune up past Cold Creek on the old King ranch. At the height of it, there were about six families living there. Sherri was trying to find it. Only problem was, the commune was gone. It just kind of fizzled out.”
“Oh,” said Asia. She tried to imagine living with all those families. She couldn’t.
“But I know one thing,” said Maddy. “It was meant to be.
Your mother slid Ira into the back of her truck like he was a stick of firewood, and we all went straight to the hospital.”
She sighed. “Just like we’re doing today.”
Maddy was quiet for a few minutes. Asia opened her window and let the hot air blow on her face. She thought about the rest of the story. The doctor had kept Ira in the hospital for a week. Three-year-old Asia and her mother had stayed at Cold Creek to help Maddy. There were still a few cattle left and the garden to harvest. And when Ira came home, as good as new except for a pair of crutches, there was all the firewood to cut for the winter. One thing led to another.
Maddy offered Sherri and Asia their son Harry’s old bedroom at the top of the house. Maddy washed the curtains and put quilts on the four-poster bed, made up a little cot for Asia and the two of them moved in.
Ten months later, on a long hot day in August, Sherri left.
She took one small bag and left the rest of her belongings, including Asia, behind. She sent one postcard from a town in Saskatchewan. When Asia was old enough to understand, Maddy read her the postcard. I’m sorry, Maddy. I love you Asia, and I will come back to get you. Sherri. But Sherri hadn’t come back, and the only explanation Maddy could come up with was that Asia had been born too early in Sherri’s life and that Sherri had never had a chance to finish growing up. Eventually, Maddy put the postcard away with Asia’s birth certificate and medical card in a box in her dresser drawer.
“Where in the world are we now?” said Ira.
“Just coming down the hill to the road into town,” said Asia. Her stomach tightened at the thought of traffic lights and cars.
“I think Asia is a driver sent from heaven, don’t you?”
Ira’s voice broke off. His eyes blinked a few times and then closed.
Maddy sounded worried. “Be quiet now, and let our girl concentrate.”
Asia drove smack through the middle of town, staring at all the familiar landmarks as if she had never seen them before: the Royal Movie Palace, the feed store, Cariboo Curios, the Blue Lotus Cafe with the Friday-night Chinese smorgasbord, where Ira sold his boxes, the post office.
Everything looked different from the driver’s seat.
She managed three intersections, stopping carefully for the red lights, but at the fourth intersection something went wrong. Brakes squealed, a car horn blared, and someone rolled down a window and shouted. Asia hunched her shoulders and kept going. She glanced over her shoulder to see if Maddy had noticed, but Maddy was fanning Ira’s gray face with a piece of torn feed sack.
Then a police car slid up on the passenger side.
Maddy noticed that. “Sit up as tall as you can and stare straight ahead,” she advised.
The police car glided past and at the next corner, her heart thudding, Asia turned left into the hospital parking lot.
Maddy and Asia waited in a small room with two rows of vinyl chairs, a vending machine and a stack of worn magazines on a round table. As the minutes ticked into hours, a nurse tried to persuade them to go to the cafeteria for a proper meal, but Maddy refused to budge from the spot where they had wheeled Ira away. She stared straight ahead while Asia thumbed through tattered People magazines and read over and over a poster called Alcohol and Your Unborn Baby.
Finally Asia got up and went for a short walk. The lights in the hallways were dimmed. A man pushing a broom yawned as he walked by. Two nurses leaned against the wall, their heads together, laughing. Asia forced back tears. How could they be joking around? Didn’t they know about Ira?
She went back to the waiting room and slumped in a chair. The hands on the big round clock on the wall crept by with a jerky clicking sound. People came and went—a man with a screaming toddler, a teenager holding his wrist, one girl comforting another, whose face was bleeding.
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