We were assembled haphazardly upon decrepit benches, sunken couches, and metal lawn furniture along the rambling front porch of Mirror Vale, a former country inn. Each of us was an artist, a writer, poet, painter, composer, sculptor, director, and potential killer. During a bonfire beside Silver Lake, there had been jokes about how a rural arts colony was the perfect setting for a murder. As our s’mores smoldered, we took stock of one another and issued a verdict: Agatha Christie could not have found a juicier entourage for fomenting mayhem and bloodshed. Who and what was to be murdered? Well, that was a question of perspective. Perhaps each of us present that sunny Sunday morning was already a ghost, a phantasm stretched between who we had been before and what we might have become, during a four-week shadowy sojourn in the bear-laden woods of upstate New York.

The weather, like our hearts, had shifted abruptly from blazing heat to deep freeze, finally melting into the waning warmth of early October. Emerald trees surrounding Mirror Vale denied the change of season and I shared their stubbornness. Having turned 54 a month earlier, I wanted to believe the past decade spent writing my novel had been worth it. An agent and publication still eluded me, but I was grateful to have been plucked from the residency waiting list and plunged into cross-fertilization with creative folks pursuing their ambitions, obsessions, and dreams.

In addition to being assigned a separate mountainside studio, each colony attendee had been given a choice between dwelling types: social or isolated. Those of us who stayed at Mirror Vale were older, earlier to bed and to rise, but no less embattled with our projects or engaged with the wider political world than our youthful counterparts. For some of us, this residency was a first and last chance at self-realization and, perhaps, greatness. At each sunrise and sunset, we confronted unspoken questions: what might still be possible for us in our late thirties, forties, fifties, sixties, and seventies? What might not be? The younger participants had no such fears. They rose from their beds late and worked into the wee hours. Without spouses, mortgages, or children, time existed only as potential for closing the gap between what might be birthed in the mind and shaped into material expressions of significance. For them, the world was open and endless. There were landscapes to conquer and prizes to be won. Surely proper recognition of gifts and talents would arrive in due course?

Late night partying on the Mirror Vale porch antagonized those mid-life residents who needed consistent sleep and sobriety. Eventually, the younger folk were prodded to relocate their evening of drink and song into chilly vacant classrooms or to the wooden terrace of their cabin (Aurora’s Cupboard), nestled closer to posh second homes and a Buddhist monastery. There had been nightly turmoil and subdued relocations of artistic elders from the periphery of Aurora’s Cupboard to the sprawling, ramshackle Mirror Vale metropole, whose denizens turned into pumpkins at 10pm. Within Mirror Vale, there were diplomatic room transfers by those who could no longer tolerate the noise from the porch. Although a tad resentful, the younger set eventually shifted the site of their celebrating. Their departure was, for some of us, bittersweet. We were grateful to join them for a bulbous glass of wine, the reading of Tarot cards and outstretched palms, games of ping pong or billiards. When they headed up the hill after two rounds of cocktails, bubbling with laughter, they took a part of us with them.

As days of muted bonhomie unfolded, nascent musical compositions stalled in their tracks and poems failed to reach the birth canal. My novel became an “information management task” as I formulated a “story egg” and documented character trajectories by attaching multi-colored Post-It notes to a large piece of foam board. Less creating led to more cooking and attendant clean up duties. Higher standards of orderliness prevailed as copper pots and faded linoleum flooring received an advanced level of care. As midnight approached, I found myself carefully drying wineglasses so they would not break in the dish drainer, but did not succeed in preventing all casualties. The ghosts of Tom and Daisy Buchanan haunted me as I wiped each delicate goblet. While placing them upon designated shelves, I decided that, if a glass shattered at an arts colony instead of a Jewish wedding, it embodied homage to the Muse.

Although disruptive and argumentative at times, none of us were extreme in our negative conduct. The only decadence beyond late-night chatter and smoking (at a safe distance from the non-fireproof buildings) involved consumption of alcohol in every form. Not a single orgy, but, given the overflowing contents of our overstuffed recycling bin (Pinot Noir! Cabernet Sauvignon! Merlot! Chianti! Shiraz! Malbec! Burgundy! Red Zinfandel!), Bacchus would still be proud…

On this final Sunday morning of residency, our bohemian congregation embodied the compromises necessary for a communal refuge to endure. We were set to bask in our triumph of having (mostly) balanced the needs of individuals with those of the group. Nobody had committed a capital crime. Even one of our members who had left early (due to an ill cat) had managed to return in time for this group photograph. Egg whites and hazelnut coffees consumed, we were now waiting for the program administrators to conclude paperwork and preserve us for eternity on film. There was impatient small talk as we waited for our fearless leaders to emerge from their offices. After weeks of intense creative labors, we needed to prepare for the public readings and open studio visitations planned for later in the day. We had grown accustomed to mastery of our schedules and found ourselves increasingly irritated by the delay. It was time for us to take our bows and move ahead.

Mirror Vale residents were mostly straight women in a certain season of life—married, divorced, widowed, some always single–numbering a coven—so there was a fleeting, reverent silence when the stunning young man materialized. He surfaced in the gravel driveway and then approached the crumbling porch—tall, dark, handsome, in a smooth black leather jacket—much more striking from afar than he would be close up. We collectively held our breaths and wondered: who was he? Seconds later, his enticing presence was explained. A boyfriend, belonging to Emily, the gorgeous redheaded painter, whose demonstrable comfort in a yoga poetic body reminded us of fluidity lost across the decades. For a fragment of time, I wanted to compete, to receive male attention and capture his heart. The moment swiftly dissolved as I realized he must be the same age as my son and, thus, doubly verboten.

As the young man took a seat upon a nearby wooden bench, our conversation became subdued. We made only brief, non-committal, respectful inquiries. The legs and arms of our coven were collectively crossed as the duo embraced and cuddled. We denied having been shaken and stirred. Instead, we were determined to delight in beauty of a fabulous young couple, live-ins of nine months, who shared cell phone photos of an oversized brand new and buttery leather couch improbably inhabiting their Crown Heights apartment. Their mutual attraction unfolded with grace, she curled upon his lap while he stroked her hair. Our Emily is the Fairest of Them All. This is her season, to wear tight red jeans and scarlet form-fitting tank top, nipples protruding, to be dewy in the arms of a trusted lover, to glow in our company and ultimately outshine our bodies, even as we have dolled ourselves up for posterity. My skin prickled as I sensed each member of the group silently comparing her beauty to that of Emily. Although alluring in our distinct ways, none of us holds a candle to her. We kept chatting on autopilot, pretending the sensuality inadvertently exuded by Emily’s entrancing companion did not exist. Within my bones, an insistent whispering: “Shall I ever reign over a man’s heart once again? Or, am I a fool to think this might happen? Surely that door has closed…”

We discreetly admired the brown-eyed boyfriend and carefully assessed his worth. Social skills, brains, fine manners, and faithful were among the boxes checked. He had eyes only for his girlfriend, and if we were ebony-cloaked crones who could cluck with approval and adoration, you would hear us from across a village square. Emily had briefly mentioned the resentment of her new boyfriend’s closest female friends from college. Familiarity had prevented those young women from fully appreciating the radiance of this young man, who was part of their social circle. Now, a willful and talented upstart from nowhere, with nothing to her name, had claimed his heart. They’d had their chance and blown it.

Even as my downcast eyes were magnetically drawn towards the kissing couple, I forced them to commune with my hands, folded in my lap like an obedient fourth grader. The teacher has left the room and I must sit, sit, sit so very still and not misbehave, fingers intertwined, until her return…I will not look at them again, and then I do…his fingers twirl auburn strands, her left hand rests lightly upon his thigh. My companions, artistic enchantresses who have sent spouses packing because of unfulfilled dreams of what love should be, who claim to have mastered loneliness, also held their tongues while witnessing unbridled desire. But I can hear the witchy comments we’re not making:

SAMANTHA (eyebrow raised): “Isn’t this a bit much?”

SERENA (rolled eyes): “Such a public display of affection so early in the morning!”

SABRINA (stubbing out cigarette): “And how long have the two of you been separated by oceans?”

I can also hear our unspoken blunt honesty.

TABITHA: “Why is it her turn? Why isn’t it mine?”

Only now do I truly understand the hatred a wicked Queen bore Snow White. Only now do I appreciate how the next generation of brilliant and talented women ascending might make an old artistic guard burn with rage.

Even as primal blood boiled and the bile of our flaming “green monster” bubbled towards the surface, pulsating on the fringes of verbalization, repression remained the order of the day. None of us would tell this young couple to “tone it down”; we’re way too cool for that. We remembered how it felt to be the Lucky Girl, the Chosen Girl, enfolded within a lover’s strong arms. They’ll be no hexing or howling beneath luminous full moons, no poisonous apples concocted and served to Emily upon a platter of healthy hors d’oeuvres. Unlike in Agatha Christie’s novel, there are no cats among these pigeons. Although intensely jealous, we are not driven to kill by lust, vanity, and greed.

Reaching inside an overstuffed messenger bag, I extracted a hairbrush to tame stray, graying locks that framed my face. At Mirror Vale, I hadn’t been woman, wife, or mother, but a creator, due respect on the basis of literary achievement, a cherished colleague mastering craft. To destroy Emily, to steal her lover, would be to kill a younger self. Blessing the couple means that I, too, may find love once again.

The arts colony administrators finally emerged from their dusty cubicles. They asked us to stand in size place order and array ourselves along a creaky wooden staircase. Rising from my seat, I glanced surreptitiously at my mid-life comrades, each aflutter with combs, compacts, and eyeliner, making last minute modifications deemed necessary for optimal self-presentation. Chins lifted upwards, we tossed our hair and smiled for the camera. Unforeseen creative passion has been knitted into our lives, our complex and vulnerable selves have been lost, found, lost, and found again. Doesn’t this stunning group photograph prove that better days came and are still yet to come?