She finished spooning dirt over the last plate. They were all there now, beneath the willow. Where they belonged. Of course Mother wouldn't think so, would she?
Here she came now. Assume innocent look.
'What are you up to, Claire?'
'Nothing.' Great. Now she was sure to suspect something. But she seemed distracted.
'Have you seen your sister? She was going to play tea with her dollies, and I'm missing my Blue Willow plates. You don't think she'd have taken them, do you?'
'No Mum. We all know they're off bounds.' She managed to turn away subtly, feeling her cheeks flame up.
'Not exactly, Claire, just until you're older. They need to be kept safe. Have you seen her? I'm a little worried...Those plates - they're dangerous.'
Claire felt a knot of fear in her belly.
'Why are they dangerous Mum?' She asked quickly.
'Never you mind. Oh! I do think I see your sister.'
As her mother hurried off, Claire looked down at the ground. The dirt wasn't even disturbed. Funny. She distinctly remembered piles of earth, like moles had been digging a palace.
She shrugged and ran off after her mother.
***As Claire woke, she heard her mother talking quietly.
'She says she didn't take them. She seems to be telling the truth. Why wouldn't she? No, no. Claire would never. It just has to be Sue. The plates are beautiful, she must have wanted to use them for her tea party, and forgot she took them. You could be right. I don't think she'd be that afraid to tell me though.'
Who was her mother talking to? Claire hadn't heard the other voice. It didn't seem like it could have been her father.
Claire hurriedly shut her eyes as her mother came into the room.
She gently shook her awake.
'Claire. Claire, I need to talk to you.'
'Did you take the plates? Please Claire, it's very important.'
Claire wanted to say yes, she couldn't bear the desperation in her mother's eyes. She shook her head.
Her mother sighed.
Claire wiped her eyes as she stared at the willow. It was dead.
Her mother was emerging from the doorway when she saw the tree. She put her hand to her mouth and sank to the ground.
Claire wanted to run to her, but something made her stay where she was.
Her mother reached out a hand to Claire.
Claire turned away, afraid of what she would see in her mother's face when she realised she wasn't going to help her.
When she turned back, her mother was slumped against the door-frame. Claire walked slowly toward her; her legs felt like dead wood, straining to move faster.
When she reached her mother, she let out a sigh of relief. Her mother was looking at her. When she held out a hand to help her up, her mother didn't take it. Her eyes were glassy. She was dead.
Claire shrieked. Her sister came running from the house. She took everything in in one glance and burst into tears.
Their father built the coffin from the willow tree, and they buried her where it had stood.
When he dug the spade into the earth, they heard a clink. The set of blue willow was there, much deeper than Claire had buried them.
One plate was missing. Claire found a shard of it by the grave the next day. It showed two birds in flight, above a tree.
A magnificent willow tree grew over her grandmother's grave. Alice sat beneath it every day.
Today she felt odd, but she couldn't place why. She had never liked the set of Blue Willow plates, but she wanted to hold them. She could bury them! Wouldn't that be fun? Mum had said "off limits," but surely she wouldn't mind that much would she?
When she held them, she felt sudden urge to run to the shed, take a shovel, and bury them as fast as she could. She held one up before she buried it. It was marked on the back. It said Claire. She turned another over. Alice.
She jumped and dropped it. Her mother had said they were hundreds of years old - that's why she couldn't touch them - but it had her name on it.
Alice watched it as it fell, like the world was holding it's breath. It hit a root and cracked. Alice gasped, she had felt a pain near her heart, like when she had broken her wrist, but much worse.
It rolled down the hill. Alice couldn't move, she was rooted like a tree, watching it spin away. It hit and rock and flew into the air. Alice felt a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach as it landed and shattered. The world spun, and she felt exhausted. She closed her eyes.
She thought she could hear her mother faintly. She wrenched her eyes open. Her mother was standing over her. She was clutching a Blue Willow plate to her chest. It had been glued together, but the cracks still showed. And a shard was missing.
'Alice, I was afraid - ' she sobbed into her arm. 'I thought - " She reached out and hugged Alice to her.
Alice wrinkled her nose. It smelt here, and there was an annoying hum behind her.
'You're in hospital darling,' her mother said, recognising her confusion. 'Alice, I know you're tired, but I must ask you - Where is the other shard? Do you know?'
Alice blinked. Did she? She remembered looking at the plates, then seeing hers fall and roll. She shook her head.
'Sorry,' she whispered.
'Oh darling, it's okay.' She sniffed violently.
'It rolled, by a rock. Then...' Then she couldn't remember.
'I'll find it, don't worry Alice.'
Alice nodded and closed her eyes. She was tired.
Claire dug into the earth with her hands. There wasn't a rock within yards of the tree. She had remembered her mother's death, and the shard she found afterwards. And the other plates, buried in the ground.
She couldn't find the missing piece. She cursed the willow. If she hadn't buried the plates that first time, her mother wouldn't be dead, but Alice might be.
She ran to the shed and grabbed an axe.
She roared at the willow as she swung it into the trunk. The tree creaked. She hacked at it again and again, until it fell. Then she chopped it. It was hard work, and her axe must be dulling. When she ran her finger across it, she bled. It was still sharp.
Claire didn't rest until the willow lay around her in sawdust and wood-chips. She hadn't noticed, but it had gotten dark.
The moon cast blue light over the scene. Claire laughed as she saw a shard of Blue Willow embedded in the trunk. It fit Alice's plate perfectly.
Alice searched the boxes for the set of Blue Willow. Her mother must have kept them somewhere. Funny though, she hadn't mentioned them in her will. Come to think of it, Alice hadn't seen them since she had returned from hospital all those years ago.
She shrugged. Who cared about some plates anyway, when she had a beautiful daughter and a lovely husband?
Alice laughed at herself a little bit as she walked toward the car, passing beneath the majestic oak tree that had grown up over her grandmother's grave.
She ran to the shed quickly. She suddenly felt the urge to bury that set of ceramic bowls.
One said Alice on the bottom.