It had been coming apart in the woods behind our house for many years—well before Mama went away and Gammy came to live with us, before my sister Gertie and I were even born. It was an abandoned access road. A faded strip of grey carved through the trees. And this road had been our hideout.
The asphalt was cracked through; it was like ice breaking on a pond as the cold begins to thaw, and those cracks would get swollen with weeds and wildflowers in the summers when Gertie and I would play there—making circles of daisy chains to wear on our heads, laying pictures in chalk on the road’s empty spaces. Sometimes we’d lie down on the warm asphalt under the easy New England sun—birch trees high and fair on either side of the broken road, their shadows softening the heat around us—to watch the clouds make faces, to watch birds sailing against the sky, their bodies dark crosses above us.
In that first summer after Mama was gone, when I had just turned nine, and Gertie was six, we still played there, but it was different now; most of those days we’d end up talking about her—we couldn’t help it. For our mother had vanished one September afternoon on no reason that anyone could say, and we’d had nothing, not a word from her since. We had questions, though, hard ones, wondering what had happened, and why our mama had left. But with no scent to lead us after her, these questions, at least in me, would get carried like stones, their tension a grief I’d not easily be rid of. I would wait a long time before I discovered the answers. And then I wished that I could have them out of me; which is to say, I did not hope to remain myself.
Out on our road my sister and I would tell each other stories—imagining what Mama was doing, and where she might be, or whether she still looked like Mama, the one in the pictures on our father’s nightstand, and in the leather photo albums etched with fancy gold lettering that were put away in neat stacks under his bed. Many times we’d pull those albums out when our father wasn’t around, pointing out the pictures we liked best, pressing our small fingers against them, as if touching the image of our mother’s face could bring back the feeling of skin.
Mama was beautiful, we could see that, and later would almost remember it, with long chestnut curls, and a warm face that showed a wide smile with a thin, straight gap running between her front teeth. We especially loved the photos where Gert and I were both with her—outside in a lawn-chair, balanced on her knees; or all of us gathered under one of the big oak trees by the house, with our father—his features, in those days, still clear and boyish—crouched into the edge of the frame before the timer went off; slivers of pale hair falling over his brow, looking a bit awkward sometimes, but happy.
What with our Mama’s hair—full-on red in the sun—and all that green glossing through the trees and the grass; what with our childhood skin, as luminous as a moon, beside our father’s T-shirts, a staple, which showed up in almost every shade you could think of—even the ones I used to say had fancy-sounding names like mauve or khaki or maroon—I swear, the color in those photos was so high, and so immaculate, it looked almost untrue.
For my sister and I, the world in those albums was what we knew of the good. But it had been something else, too, the way we’d go back to them like touchstones, again and again. There is no mystery in this; we did it because we needed to be sure. You see those photos had become fossils for us, bittersweet reminders—thin plastic covers dulled by fingerprints—that we were once a whole family.
We had different stories we’d tell about our mother, my sister and I, though one thing would run through all of them: we were careful to excuse Mama her leaving. The heroine can leave the story if she is lured cannily off stage, or something grave and untoward has happened, but she does not leave willingly. This we understood.
And as so often happens, over time the stories got more set down, and we began to have favorites. Gertie’s was right out of an old movie we’d seen—she’d tell how our Mama had been discovered, taken out to Hollywood, in California; brought there by some high-flying movie man who happened to be passing through town the same day Mama had disappeared. Because in this story, Mama was going to be famous; a movie star whose face would look out from the covers of gossip magazines and the manic roulette wheels in Las Vegas.
The hard part—I admit, I’d helped Gert work out some of the details—was how we wouldn’t be hearing from our mother for at least a couple of years; the whole far-fetched thing was meant to be one of Mama’s surprises. But after our mother had made her name—a new name—and was done with being in movies, she’d come back to us, and to Daddy, and life would go back to the way it was before she’d left.
I was pretty sure my sister’s story was a fairy tale, but I kept that to myself. My own imagination was darker, I suppose, sewing stories in place with something altogether more troubling. I’d decided the only thing could make sense was that Mama had suffered an amnesia; that she’d lost her footing while out walking through the woods running roughshod over the hills of western Massachusetts, hills that went on for miles and miles, passing through our Ashfield and its neighboring towns, and on through their neighboring towns as well.
Growing up I used to love walking through those woods; they were another world—fatted up with enormous trees, and rubbery ferns, and hundreds of other living things, many of which I’d come to know by name: the milkweed and juniper, the dogwood and wild garlic—but also the stealth forest animals who Gert and I almost never saw when we were very young. Most likely they’d have been asleep, waiting for night to come on, but it’s also true my sister and I had been far too blithe then, announcing our selves in those woods with bright, running voices and careless steps; any nearby creatures would surely have slipped away without detection.
I was certain of it: Mama had lost her footing out there, had hit her head on an old tree that I knew lay prone and rotting in the woods, and she’d been knocked unconscious. But when Mama had come to, her memories were gone, and she’d wandered off in the wrong direction to find herself in an altogether different town from the one we lived in. And because she couldn’t remember anything of her old life, of Daddy and Gertie and I, and of our pretty, white gabled house, she’d gradually been absorbed into the day-to-day workings of some other place, starting a new history there without us.
Sometimes I’d have the culprit in our mother’s amnesia come falling out of the sky—a heavy branch maybe, or a plank from the broken-down tree house in the woods out back. But whatever the reason, it was comfort, a way out: Mama had never wanted to leave, it had all been a horrible mistake.
You understand, I had to believe the stories; otherwise my life would be a lie. And not knowing yet how to break my own heart, I did believe them—despite those times I’d lie awake in bed, with everyone else asleep, the distance to my mother bigger than anything I could imagine, and it felt like nothing was true anymore. Come morning, though, my stories would again hold sway. They were the light to get me from my bed, they kept me going those days when it seemed the world had it in for me.
I’d told Gertie: “If we can just get Daddy to drive us to Shelburne Falls, or maybe to Hawley—or all over the place—we’ll find Mama, I know we will. We can bring a photo, we can ask people if they’ve seen her. We’re so close to her, and she doesn’t even know we’re here. Daddy has to see that.”
But my hope was stitched to despair; it made of me a half-light creature that could not be sure of its direction. Because whenever I brought my plan to our father, his voice would get real slow, and it was almost always the same thing: “I called the police, Maggie. Back when your mother first went missing. They combed the woods around us for days, remember? There was no sign of her. They couldn’t find evidence anyone had been there—they said the ground hadn’t been walked on for days. So please, sweetheart, I don’t think Mama had any kind of amnesia. Do you see?” Then most often he’d smile—not a big smile, mind you, more like the kind a priest would give you after confession—and God it would be heartfelt, I mean I could see that; or maybe he’d set an awkward hand on my back, but each time I’d go away less buoyant, troubled that our father wouldn’t even consider my plan, until eventually I realized there was no point asking anymore.
Over time, the conversations my sister and I had would get harder. More true. We’d wonder if Mama still thought about us, or why she’d gone away in the first place. And whether she still loved us. We were too young then to know about things that could go on between a husband and a wife, too young to know how sadness could creep inside a person and make them wish they were someone else, a someone else living a different life in a somewhere else entirely. These were things we learned much later, just by living, by listening to stories from our friends, the ones with parents who didn’t like each other anymore, or whose homes were drawn by indifference. We couldn’t yet understand the adult world of trouble kept close to the bone, of silences that widened between things and broke people apart; so we wondered if we’d been bad, if we’d made her life too hard— what might be called, irrevocable.
Beyond our stories, then, there were days on our access road when Gert and I would exchange the damp, private guilt we both now held, and that I could often feel rusting inside me: how I’d pester Mama to let me sit in the car and listen to the radio, or how Gertie would try on Mama’s lipsticks and eye shadows when she wasn’t looking, leaving a map of stubborn color on the bathroom counter; or even just the noise and squabbling that went on between Gert and I—though these things, in retrospect, weren’t so bad. But like most kids, we couldn’t know the measure of our behavior; we couldn’t put childhood mischief into perspective, and we wished, somehow, that we’d been better.
My sister and I were lucky to have that road, lucky that Massachusetts had changed its mind, building the new highway, instead, near a different town in someone else’s backyard; leaving Gertie and I with our hideout. We would go there whenever we could, would go there until we were too old to care about going anymore, when we’d stopped inventing reasons for our mother’s disappearance because that was a thing that just was.
I was the older sister by two years and a few months, but by the time I was eleven, Gertie was taller than me by a good few inches, and that never changed. Until then, we pretty much looked like twins, with our bright, expectant faces, and slip-of-the-wind frames, except that Gert had fine, sun-bit hair, and I had our mother’s darker curls; I guess that’s why people said I took after her, but I thought my sister was the pretty one, and I know Gammy did too. There was one time, a couple of months after my twelfth birthday, when Gammy had stopped me in the breezeway as I was coming home from school. She’d clutched my arm like there was a pressing thing to be discussed. And then stepping back to get a clearer view, she’d looked me up and down with a hawk-eye if ever I saw one.
I remember exactly what she’d said, and the too much fever in it: “You’ve got some pretty hair on you, Margaret Gilley, there’s no denying it, but you’re skinny as a rat’s tail, and I don’t know where you get that nose of yours—it doesn’t fit the rest of your face, honey. It’s just not right.” Then she’d taken my chin between her hands and turned my head to profile, looking hard at me, I remember. “We can only hope you’ll grow into it. Lord let us hope so.” As if she were giving me advice—something I could use.
Then she’d turned and walked back into the house, leaving me thrown-off; hurt in the marrow-bitten way that kids can hurt, because I didn’t understand, hadn’t learned, there are other ways to be in the world than earnest.
I remember hours crying into my pillow, and for months after, too much time spent prodding my nose, looking at it this way and that in the bathroom mirror. I didn’t really think it was so awful, maybe a little too turned up or something, but even so, Gammy had made me feel discouraged by the fact of my nose. She could be mean, that was the truth of it. She wasn’t that way with Gertie, but I came to learn—I couldn’t figure out why—my grandmother just didn’t like me.
Gammy was our mama’s Mama, from Macon down in Georgia where Mama was born, and she’d come to live with us after Mama went away because our daddy was too messed up to keep us going. She’d come up two days after Mama went missing, and she never left, forever altering the way things were in our house, though especially for me. Maybe that’s why I never stopped thinking about our mother’s disappearance, though it did change form, turning helplessness at our father’s reluctance to do more into a kind of grit. Because, eventually, after I’d come to accept that our household, my life, that these things aimed to go on without our Mama, I vowed to find out what really happened, and where she’d gone. I would have to wait until I was older, old enough to do things on my own without roadblocks laid down by any kind of grown-up. It was an ambition I kept tucked away from almost everyone, coiling soundlessly inside me like Ariadne’s thread. A patience to one day be followed.
But I suppose I should start from the beginning. On the day that everything turned.
September 13th, 1968
“Girls—. Maggie, Gertie.” Our father was knocking on our bedroom door, and though his voice wasn’t loud, I could tell he meant it. “I need you to come downstairs, girls.” There was a pause. “Please. I need to speak to you.” Then silence.
“Okay,” I called out, trying to sound more alert than I was. I listened to his footsteps move down the hall, and then their tread on the stairs. Gertie and I were still in bed—it was Saturday morning and the weekends we usually slept in some, but when I looked over at the bedside clock it was only six-thirty. I was still tired; a noise had woken me in the middle of the night, probably just a truck battling down the road, something louder than usual, I don’t know—but I’d had a hard time falling back to sleep.
“What’s going on?” asked Gertie, her voice in a fog.
My sister Gertie and I shared a bedroom, and even though we didn’t have to—there was a perfectly good extra room down the hall—that’s what we wanted. Our room was a large one, painted a pale blue with white trim, and we each had our own side, our own bed; and I liked having my sister there when the world got dark, or when the willies got to me for no real reason, just because they did sometimes.
“I don’t know,” I said, pushing my covers back. I grabbed my moccasins and slid them over my feet. But even as I said it, I wondered if my father had noticed the car; if that’s what this was about. Because, the day before, I’d climbed into the Oldsmobile—our family car—to listen to the radio. I wasn’t supposed to be there by myself, and I’d been clumsy, somehow I’d pushed the emergency brake out of place. The car had rolled back—not much, maybe one or two feet—before I realized what was going on, but I’d stopped it, I mean nothing bad had happened; the car and I had both been fine. Yet here was guilt making me look elsewhere: “Did the back door get left open? Maybe a raccoon went into the garbage again. Mama wasn’t happy about that.”
My sister cut in. “It wasn’t me this time,“ she said. “Honest, it wasn’t.” She looked miserable for a Saturday morning.
“So, silly, don’t worry. Maybe it’s not even anything bad.” I tried to get her to see I was smiling, though I knew something was up. I took hold of my sister’s hand, guiding the two of us towards the door. “C’mon, let’s go downstairs.”
Gert and I didn’t bother to get dressed; we went in our pajamas, my sister bringing her corduroy monkey, Feebs—and me leading the way. You could tell Feebs was a favorite because he looked like road kill: one of his little brown ears was missing, and he was as flat as a moon, almost all his stuffing squeezed out of him over the years. That monkey was the one she’d ask for at bedtime, and he always came with us on the long drives we’d take with Mama into the country.
It didn’t matter where we’d go on those drives because Mama would turn on the radio, and that was already the best part; she’d join in if she knew the song, and Gert and I would sing made up words just to be part of it. After Mama disappeared, those drives in the country, those were some of the times I missed most. And the rest—the drives there should have been—those I would come to think of as stolen days. They were my frustration against a thing I couldn’t yet name: the plain indifference that is simply fate.
“Girls,” our father said quietly as we came round the corner. My sister and I both stopped; it was automatic. Gertie must have felt it too—the air in that room, it’s hard to explain it, but you could just tell something was wrong. I didn’t want to go closer, but our father gestured to where he was sitting in one of the two wingchairs, high-backs— the ones Mama had brought back from Boston—and I knew we had no choice. As soon as we got near enough I could see his face was swollen, and behind the glasses his blue eyes had hard rings underneath, the white part shot through with a haze of redness; you couldn’t miss that he’d been crying. I had never seen him like this. I didn’t want to.
Gertie and I stood carefully on either side of him, leaning against the white upholstered arms, and I felt queer, like my feet weren’t touching the ground. Like I was somehow not breathing anymore. Our father, usually so lean and tall and straight, looked pushed in, he looked uncomfortable, and when he moved forward to circle an arm around each of us, he smelled sour, like hot metal, and it scared me.
“Girls,” he repeated slowly, sort of looking at each of us, sort of not. As if he was looking at some near but invisible thing. “Please, I need you both to be brave because—.” But before he could finish, Gertie had started to cry. Needing to be brave was code for visits to the doctor, for needles, and stitches, and things that would hurt us. We didn’t want to have to be brave.
Daddy set his mouth down on the top of Gert’s head, and he left it there for a long time, like there was a good smell in my sister’s hair for just this reason. He tried to quiet her, while I just looked at him, black-eyed, waiting.
Finally, he’d said it very quietly: “It’s your mama, girls. Your mama is gone.” His eyes. I could see it happening, his eyes filling with water, but that’s as far as it went; somehow in that moment, his cheeks stayed dry.
“Where did Mama go?” Gertie’s face stopped breaking; she snuffled, sucking up a trail of snot. “She went to Boston?” She’d heard what our father said, but that was only words for her, and they weren’t big enough; they hadn’t taken on any meaning yet.
“No, Gertie, not like that.” Daddy paused. “No, your mama has gone away.” He hesitated over what was coming next; we had to wait, the moment spreading over us like a slick of oil. And when he did say it, he let us down, and it was almost a whisper: “It’s not her aim to be coming back.”
My sister didn’t say anything, unsure of what was going on, but I understood him right away. And though my father was so clearly derailed, my first response was refusal. I didn’t believe him. “Why?” I asked, almost hotly. “Did she tell you?”
“No.” He pulled off his round, wire-rimmed glasses, pushing his palms against his eyes. “But I know.”
“But I saw her yesterday,” I blurted. “After school. She was going to Mrs. Huston’s, that’s what she told me. She was taking food over because Mrs. Huston’s sick. Mama said she’s got a fever.”
The night before, Mama hadn’t tucked us into bed, but that happened sometimes. When she went visiting in the evenings she often stayed out late, and then Daddy would get us into bed. That was the way we did things. Our father wasn’t as good about the sheets and the blankets, he never got them really snug over our chests the way Mama would, but it didn’t matter, I liked having one of them there to send us off to dreaming—a gate-keeper wishing us well before the journey.
I let myself out of Daddy’s grip, and turned round to sit on the wood coffee table facing him and Gert.
“Yes, Maggie, but after that—.” My father looked down, his voice thinning. “She didn’t come home last night. Some of her clothes are missing.” He’d paused there, letting his chest take and let go a visible current of air. “I’m afraid Mama didn’t leave a note. She didn’t tell me where she might be going.” He raised his head, his gaze shifting to Gert and I in turn. “But I do know one thing: she’d want me to tell you how much she loves you girls. Because she does. Do you understand that?”
Gertie and I both nodded.
“This has nothing to do with you.” For a second he looked almost fierce, his eyes searching our faces, but this fire passed quickly out of him, and was gone.
My sister had crawled up into Daddy’s lap, still holding Feebs, worrying the one good ear, and staring into space like she did when she was sick, her forehead unsmoothed by some of its first real trouble. She pressed in close to Daddy’s side, sort of buried there, curling in on her self like a skin starting to shrivel.
“I don’t understand. Where did she go?” My fingers were wrapped hard around the edge of the table, nearly clinging to it. “Maybe she stayed overnight at Mrs. Huston’s?” I offered. “Maybe she couldn’t call—maybe Mrs. Huston’s phone wasn’t working. Daddy, I bet….”
But before I could finish, my father raised a hand to stop me: “I called Mrs. Huston last night, Maggie, after you girls went to bed. Your mama never got there.”
Gertie was whimpering, her chest moving in and out too fast; I reached over to take her hand—our two small palms making warmth for each other, some makeshift reassurance against the cold wind pushing through the walls and breathing around us now, as coy and menacing as a shark.
“We have to find her. We—we can get policemen!” I leant into the words, I drove them at our father, excited by how much ground they could put under things, how much difficulty they might take back.
“Yes, that’s right, Maggie,” he’d said slowly, nodding agreement. “I’ll go round to Shelburne Falls later.” And making sure to look straight at me, his forehead curdling with wrinkles, he’d handled it carefully: “Now, Maggie, you have to remember, even with trying, she might not be found.” His voice had got quieter, but he was still looking at me. He reached out to take a hold one of my knees. “Sometimes it happens, Maggie, a person might not want to get found.”
I didn’t believe it; what he was saying couldn’t be right. “Why wouldn’t Mama want to get found?” I don’t think I realized what a dangerous question it was.
“I don’t know, Maggie. I only want us to be sure of things, okay?” He took his hand from my knee.
It was no answer, but I nodded as if it made sense.
“We might—things might be harder for a while. But we’ll have help.” He looked to Gertie and I in turn, forcing a brightness. “We’ll be all right, girls. You don’t need to worry. We’ll be all right.” He was trying to make us feel better, but it wasn’t like battening the hatches against a squall; nobody can smile over actual grief without the cracks showing through, and I was old enough to know that it wasn’t better. I knew that if it was true, and our mother was done and gone, then it was hardly a step to wonder if we could ever be better.
How strange it was; everything was the same. The morning sun was letting itself in through the big bay window, our toys were scattered on the throw rug beneath it: shiny Lego blocks, a bunch of our books, and the little puppet theatre made out of bright wire and balsa that Daddy had given us for Christmas last year. But it only looked the same.
“Girls,” our father said. “I called your Gammy.” He turned to Gert. “You remember Gammy, don’t you, Gertie?”
Gammy was the only grandparent we had; the others had died before we were able to know we'd met them. She’d come up once a year to visit, maybe twice, and sometimes we’d get a present when she did, but I didn’t remember much about her then, except for sharp eyes and a different kind of voice, and she and Mama sitting in the kitchen, or out on the porch, talking and laughing like there was always a party going on, but our grandmother didn’t really pay much attention to Gertie and me.
“Your Gammy— it’s good—she’s agreed to come stay with us. Until—we get used to things. ”
My sister nodded. But I wasn’t ready to hand it all over: “She’s just staying until Mama comes back though, right?”
“I don’t know how long she’ll be staying, Maggie. I just don’t know.”
“Until Mama gets back,” I said clearly, the gap between the certainty of my words and the doubt I harbored much too large. But I didn’t know how to know that.
This time my father didn’t respond, he just went on, only slower: “I’ll try to get Julia over.” My father’s voice had gone flat, like he was really talking to himself. “You girls like her. She can help until Gammy comes.” He smiled again, but it was made of tissue; there was no faith in it.
Julia was one of our babysitters, and the one I liked best; she didn’t talk down, or act superior because she was older, and she let Gert and I stay up later than the other sitters did. But she’d also told me Mama was one of the kindest people she’d met, and I held to that; I knew I wanted Julia to be the one coming over, even as I believed our mother would be back before night began its closing in.
I remember too well how that day felt inside me; its moments are burnt into glass. They are something unnatural. There was too much space between familiar things, between me and the chairs and the walls and the ground. There was too much space between these things and the me inside of me moving amongst them; there was no determining. No matter what I did, it felt as if I were dissolving in air.
I remember Julia coming to our house before the morning was done, and I remember many phone calls, and words being spoken in private, and our father going out, and then disappearing upstairs into his room for a long time; and I remember Gertie asking me questions about when Mama would be home, and me making things up—the beginning of our stories, I guess. And, still, I didn’t cry.
But it’s true how the bottom of yourself will show up when things gets hard. Even then I could call on some kind of resilience, an ability to get along no matter what; to buck it up and keep going. I kept my sad hidden, turned away so I wouldn’t fall apart. I did it without thinking. I did it then, and would do it many other times in the years to come.
Before, I had one life. But now there were two: the one before my mother left, and the one after. The second one took things away. It would happen daily—things went missing that I never thought could: Mama painting in the garden, the twigs and flowers and green world springing out of her hand like she was a magician; the warm bread smell of her skin when she’d lean into me; the days she let us stay home from school because the weather was bad, gathering my sister and I close so she could read us stories; and the so many other ways she was and that I wanted to keep, even as they were being carried away from me like stillborns.
It was Julia who had finally taken us up to our room—and it was far past anything like bedtime. She told us our father had to go somewhere, talk to somebody, and maybe it was true, but when I think about it now, he probably couldn’t stomach looking at us, our faces more like ghosts than his children. He would have been as scared as we were, probably more: he knew things we didn’t. But, mostly, I imagine our father was too messed up to make words be like anything good.
I still see Gertie and I getting into bed that night, both of us in my single one. We held hands, pressed in close to one another on our stomachs, but not talking anymore because we were too tired, and confused, and Mama still hadn’t come home. And when I did finally sleep I dreamt I was being taken down a river on a thin, inflatable raft, whitecaps of fury rising against my boat, and I was lying on it, soaked through; being hustled along to the edge of the known world.
For several months after our mama’s disappearance, though it seemed like ages slicing into stone, our father would shut himself up in his bedroom, sometimes for days at a time. He’d lock the door, and even when Gert and I begged him to come out, he’d tell us from the other side that he was tired, that he’d come down when he felt better. And if we kept at him too long, eventually we’d get only silence. Sometimes Gertie or I would press an ear to the door, listening really hard for some sign of him in there, but it was pointless; we didn’t hear a thing.
“You leave your Daddy alone,” Gammy would say when she’d catch us there. “He’s having a hard time. He’ll come out when he’s good and ready, and you’re both going to learn to be patient. Now scoot.”
We’d go back to our room, or downstairs, and Gert and I would start playing again, though for me, it wasn’t so simple anymore. Where once there’d been uninterrupted pleasure, disquiet now dogged me, and I couldn’t quite get back to my earlier self, because even if I did, it was as if I’d all of a sudden notice it too much; and that would stubbornly remind me again of what had happened to us, and I knew I was different now.
But I’d try to get on, there wasn’t much choice, and Gert did too, though neither of us could know—how could we—the nature of the other’s experience. My sister was quieter those first months after Mama had gone, we both were, but one morning end of October, I saw it—my sister, smiling, lining up her ark of wooden animals, arranging them from smallest to largest, the field mice coming first and the elephants at the very end. And it wasn’t a moment, I’d looked over several times, her face still lit up, and it was good to know—better than me, it seemed—she was doing okay.
In those early days, Gammy barely stopped moving. She took to our household seriously, her mind keen to straighten and scrub and shine, humming quietly or singing some small refrain as she did. It was the bright smell of lemon, its astringent gloss, which made its way through those first months of our unfamiliar, our less happy existence; but I would carry that with me, that smell, and the feeling that went with it, a melancholy I had no trouble retracing.
We had all been strung up by fate, though it appeared, at least at first, as if Gammy were having a better time of it—that is until I’d caught her unawares; it was a rare moment she wasn’t busy talking with us, or bustling around the different rooms, but I’d come up behind her at the doorway to the kitchen while she was in there drying dishes; I’d only wanted a drink of water, but my grandmother hadn’t heard me, and when she’d turned away from the sink—I can tell you, it was as plain as ice—I’d seen. Her face was different, there was a queer stitch to her eyes, like they couldn’t hold a focus. I don’t know—it might have been a whole city had passed over her features; she looked undone. But as if she could simply will herself out of a bad place, when my grandmother found me hovering by the entrance, she’d gone back to her regular self, her sorrow disguised just like that. I don’t think I ever saw it again.
I came to know how everyone has a way to make it through the bad parts; not necessarily chosen, something more natural, like a fingerprint. So while my father had entered a kind of chaste solitude, and my sister, in her confusion, had whimpered or cried; I had waited and watched as the thickness in my head gathered and turned. But Gammy, she had adjusted to loss through the completion of small orders, the world reduced to its tasks and hours.
She was almost seventy, our grandmother, which sounded ancient to my sister and I back then. But to me she was only halfway old. It’s true she had the kind of plain legs old people often have, with all their curves removed, but she was full of activity and purpose, and she made me think of an engine; there was that kind of solidity to her—she wasn’t tall, but she was ample—and she’d breathe heavier when she was especially tired, though this was never very often, making chuffing sounds like the car did when it started up in the cold. But I can honestly say, I rarely saw Gammy bothered by aches and flus; or if she did have them, she didn’t complain.
The impression she gave was more complicated though, what with her glossy bangles and proud rings, the dangly earrings she favored, and when she was inside our house, on her feet—I remember thinking how pretty they were—a pair of silvery, beaded slippers. She was more of an engine adorned, a vivid presence stepping in when our family’s understanding of itself had been broken beyond recognition, though it would take years for me to see clearly what we did instead become.
And then—I can’t forget it—there was my grandmother’s hair: that was a world in itself. Long, wavy hair—as white as a cloud—which she usually wore in two loose braids, but that fizzed at the bottom when she let it out, like the ends were trying to rise; and she’d told me it was the best thing she’d done to stop dyeing it because down south respect for one’s elders was still a thing observed; she’d get a kick out of watching the young clerks at her local grocery stand themselves straighter, or give a nod and a “Ma’am,” as she went by. “It’s good to know,” she’d said, laughing, “that if a person can just live long enough, they’ll have accomplished something worthwhile.”
I couldn’t say how many times Gammy had visited before she came to live with us, but the last time she’d given both Gert and me a copy of the Bible, each with the same hand-written inscription: “now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen: Hebrews 11:1.” I liked the feeling of those words, though the meaning wasn’t at all clear; they held a mystery I didn’t know how to get out of. I imagined the day-to-day with real and actual things folded into its air. So that if you reached for just the right place, even if it was only above your head, you might discover a door, or a passenger train, or perhaps, even, an entire, swaying ocean. Sometimes I imagined that the feathers I’d come across in fields and woods hadn’t molted from birds at all, but were winking signs from this other, invisible world.
But my sister and I had been far too young to read the bible then—Gert was only just learning to recognize words—and besides, the print was too small for my big eyes, and a lot of the words appeared standoffish, the way Burnt Sienna did in the 64 Crayola pack.
Mama had stacked the two leather-bound bibles on one of the shelves in our room, and told Gert and I they’d wait for us until we were ready; but Gammy believed in what she called “spiritual instruction.” She said it was something you’d need if you were going to live with peace in this world, and better to get on with it.
“You’re getting the Bible first,” she’d informed us. “Then I aim to read you all the great works. Just like I did for your mama.” But that was only half-true. Gammy had read us the Bible from cover to cover, a little each night before we went to bed—this had taken nearly three years—but she never got around to the other books she’d talked about, like the Koran, or the one she called the Zohar, making sure we knew this was something mystical, and not to be handled lightly. If we were curious, we’d have to find a way to those books on our own.
I’d never heard of a Theosophist, but that’s what Gammy called herself. Gertie pronounced it the offices, which Gammy had gleefully adopted for a time, but whatever it was, it sounded exotic, and made me think of serious rooms where people spoke in hushed voices about amnesia or how to find missing people; though my Grandmother, as much as my father, seemed to accept my mother’s going. Neither of them wanted to speak of it, and I thought maybe this was just a grown-up thing, even as it bothered me if they felt that I, because I was a child, couldn’t recognize an explanation with reason in it. And their reluctance didn’t stop me, not one stubborn bit, from wanting to understand about my mother.
But being a Theosophist made my grandmother seem special, and I’m sure that wasn’t lost on her. She told us it meant she was open-minded, and that whatever else she did in this world, she was going to make sure we were open-minded too.
“It’s what your mother would have wanted,” she’d said. “And your Daddy, I’m sure he feels the same way, only he doesn’t have enough spirit in him now to teach you girls about anything. Frankly, I’m not sure he ever did.”
Until our father got better, he took most of his meals upstairs. Gammy would bring food on a tray, which she’d set outside his room. She didn’t go into his room; nobody did. His privacy was rigorous, his door conspicuously locked. In the evenings, Gammy would have dinner with Gert and I in the proper dining room, continuing the Gilley custom to make the evening meal a family occasion. But the substance of our family had been perverted, as if someone had crudely blacked out several faces from an intimate group portrait.
Gammy would sit at the head of the table, adopting our father’s place, with my sister and I on either side; and while I’m quite sure we talked about different things, mostly, Gammy told stories about Mama. We wanted to feel like she was still there with us, but the queer truth of it is how much of her did remain: it was in the life of objects, the way they held her, like a fingerprint on glass, or the heat left on an empty chair.
She was there in the houseplants—the English Ivy, and the Fatsia, the terra cotta pots of Chinese Evergreen—who lived beside the bay window in the living room, and on the big counter at the front of the kitchen. They were her “quiet children,” she’d told us with a smile, and they’d been doted on, that was true, what with her cooing at them, and fussing over their appearance—trimming and watering, encouraging their leaves up and out with her hands.
And she was there in the front hall, in the stack of a half-dozen hats still resting on a bench. Nobody had wanted to put them away, not in the early days. Our mother almost always wore a hat when she went out for her walks, and this was nearly every day, even in winter. I’d seen her in each one of them: the big-brimmed straw hat with pretend flowers on it; a similar, smaller one, though plain; a blue knitted cap with ear flaps; and a bushy, furred hat for the cold that I had especially liked, and would try on when I was looking for something to do, capering in front of the mirror, pretending to be my mother; though I stopped doing that altogether after she left. But her favorite hat was missing—the blue fedora—the one she was wearing the last time I saw her.
But where she remained most entirely were in the small watercolors she’d made of the garden; I suppose because they’d come from out her eyes and hands, out of her having been there. We had three of them hung in a row on the far living room wall—impossible to miss if you were really making your way into that room; and in one of these paintings you could see me sitting on a rock, surrounded by tumbling wildflowers in strong sunlight, only you wouldn’t know it was me unless you knew that it was, actually, me.
I had an ache to put my hands on these things, to feel and linger at them, imagining those stories of genies who could live in bottles and who would come out when their peculiar dwellings were rubbed; I half-convinced myself that my mother was hiding in plant leaves, or the brims of her hats, and in the daubs of paint on canvas—but no matter how many times I went to these things, I never brought about the desired magic.
My grandmother relished telling a story; she was a full-on performer who thrived by being the center. Her whole bearing would change when she was holding forth—it was perfectly visible—she’d sit higher, the gestures of her hands becoming more deliberate, and what was most noticeable: the way her eyes would grow brighter, or slit with dark suggestion, depending on what she was coaxing out of the air; whether funambulists and delicate, floating glitter, or chunks of ice and sheeted drawing rooms.
Gert and I could not have been a better audience—I mean, we were ready-mades; we so earnestly wanted to hear about our mother. We wanted to know what she was like when she was growing up, what kinds of things she did; we wanted to know how she’d met our father—in truth, we were anxious for any word about her, no matter how small. Some of these things we already knew, but in a less careful way, more indistinct, because we’d carried them only loosely; we hadn’t known how soon our mother would be gone, we hadn’t realized how much the things she’d told us would matter. Even if we’d heard some of the stories before, we didn’t care; they had enormous power to hold us to them.
Most often Gammy would get her words going the same way—about how kind, and how high in spirits our mama was, how Gammy had been lucky to have a daughter like that; and there was something satisfying about this, like the lights slipping down at a movie theater. Then Gammy would get into the thick of the thing: a story, an earlier time remade in telling that would let us be with our mother again. And I knew that it would only be a matter of time before this was true. That was the only ending I saw, and I’d made sure Gert had seen it too. Our stories—they were the air we breathed, but they were still only placeholders, they were our just-for-the-meantimes.
But there was one occasion—barely a month after Mama had vanished—that I remember too well; Gammy had really outdone herself, but she’d also showed us something irretrievably dark, some bitter seed in her that in the end would change me, make me wary for good. It had been an October evening, darkness coming earlier; one of those evenings that seem to carry with it a foretaste of winter. And the three of us—Gertie, Gammy and I— were at the dinner table, we were having our supper; our father wasn’t there.
“I’m sure I’ve no need to be telling you girls this,” our grandmother had begun, “but your mama—it’s just plain truth—your mama was as sweet as sunshine. And not because she’d had it lessoned into her, mind you. O-h-h no, that’s just the way she was. Always good to people—sharing her candy with the kids next door, rescuing wounded birds and other animals that might be needing help.” She slapped the table, but only lightly. “Yes, yes, yes. Your Mama, she was a good one.” Gammy gave us a watchful look. “But, there was another thing—.” She’d deliberately paused then, looking carefully at my sister and I in turn, no doubt eyeing the curiosity that was so considerably at her mercy. And when our fidgets, and cries of “what was it?” had satisfied her that we wanted more, only then did she continued: “It’s just, your mama had her own way about her. Something you’d have to say was special.” Our grandmother held herself a moment, then she’d suddenly clapped her hands, the plenty of bracelets she wore erupting in a light, silvery trail: “Oh, you girls will love this—.” She’d reached her arms straight out, her palms flat against the table, her eyes fairly dancing with high purpose. “So—.” She took a deep breath, her entire being appearing to grow larger right in front of us. “When your mama was a girl she used to make these snowflakes, sometimes. The kind you cut out of folded paper. You know the kind I mean, don’t you, girls?” Gammy looked at us, eager to find recognition.
We nodded; we’d made them too.
“Well, there was this one time when it was hotter than it’d ever been—and let me tell you, most summers in Macon you could practically fry your breakfast on the sidewalk. But, on my word, this time the heat was something inhuman. I mean, there were lamp-posts just melting to the ground, leaving pools of metal in their place. And the tar on the roads was like a glue, the cars would just sit there, stuck, they couldn’t move at all. And that’s the day when your mama had set to making her snowflakes, because you know what she’d done?”
“What?” asked Gert, quickly. She was all hunched forward, squirming in her seat.
“You see, the thing is, your Grampa Ellis—a God’s teeth shame you girls will never know him—oh, he had an awful time in the heat. Used to get all fouled up, couldn’t sleep at night even with the fan running. He liked to spend as much time as he could over at McGarrety’s—that was the local men’s club—they had air conditioning going all summer long. Now me, I had to contend with the fan, but never mind that, I was tougher than Grandpa.” Gammy stopped to take a breath. “Anyhow, this one day—and like I said, we might as well have been walking around on Mercury—just so you know, girls, that’s the planet closest to the sun—because it was that kind of a heat. And your Mama, well— this is when she decided to make a winter for her father. Your grandfather.” Gammy had given us another pause, the kind you feel on your skin—an alertness—as we waited, dying to know what she meant. “Well, I believe your mama must have cut out well over two hundred snowflakes, and I don’t remember where I was when she did it, but she’d managed to attach bits of string to some of them; and then she’d gone and taped them all over the house, from the ceiling fixtures, from the rims of the standing fans, off the doorknobs, straight onto the walls, and—this was the best part—she’d laid snowflakes all over my and your Grampa’s pillows, and tossed the rest onto the bedclothes. Let me tell you, it looked like the ceiling in our house had opened wide, and winter had just fallen through onto our bright blue covers, right there in the middle of summer. Good lord—I mean it was some kind of a riot!”
I remember loving this story; it was wholly new, my sister and I hadn’t heard any of it from Mama. And when I’d looked over at Gert—her manner still shy in front of Gammy, but her eyes unmistakably wide—I could see that she was under the same spell I was; the image of our mother turning her childhood home into a snowflake lab was irresistible.
Gammy had gone on: “When your grandfather came back from McGarrety’s, he just about died laughing. I didn’t say a thing, I just let him wander through the house finding snowflakes, your mother coasting beside him, both of them looking so pleased—and at least for that one night, your grandfather, he didn’t complain to me about the temperature, he was too tickled to be cursing about weather.”
Gammy had stopped there, taking a moment to enjoy the effect she’d had on us—our faces brighter, almost flushed, as if her words were made of light. Despite our ‘situation’—that condescending euphemism too many people used to describe our mother’s absence—and despite our confusion, we were still able to get pleasure hearing about Mama’s life; of what had come before we’d loved her, before the air we lived in had swallowed her whole.
“What happened to the snowflakes?” asked Gert, genuinely worried. By then, my sister had turned her entire self towards Gammy—even her chair had moved closer—but it was hard to avoid; our grandmother was a sun, and she drew others naturally in her direction.
I leapt in, getting down to Gertie’s concern: “Did you keep them?”
“Oh, we sure did!” Gammy’s elbows were resting on the table, one hand draped over the air, the other gesturing into it with broad sweeps, and the smile on her face so shiny and big-teeth and wide, it was just about unbeatable. “I’d put a guess we didn’t take those snowflakes down until at least a good six months later.” Gammy let out one of her great laughs then, the kind that broke out of her belly and rushed up her throat to catch us inside it. I didn’t know what was so funny exactly, but it didn’t matter, I wanted to laugh along with her.
But then, on a dime, our grandmother had turned, all that gaiety finished, and shaking her head with theatrical gravity, she’d spoken almost as a warning: “All that’s well and good, but you girls should know your mama also got up to some serious mischief.”
Those words couldn’t help sparking my imagination; mischief just happens to be
intriguing, there’s no way around it. And I was pleased for another reason, too; I admit it.
Because what she said had let my sister and I off the hook: if we wanted to be like Mama,
we wouldn’t have to be all hemmed up and two-shoed and pearly. And though I might
not have realized it at the time, to understand this was a gift because I already had a
growing sense of a less than all good self. Of having shortcomings. Though Gammy,
she’d certainly prove a knack for finding them too.
“Because there was this one occasion, oh my Lord. Your Mama must have been about the age you’re at now, Gert, just about six. And I have to tell you, she really got the what-for treatment, and there was nothing to make me see it otherwise. But you girls wouldn’t want to be hearing that story now, would you?” Gammy looked at the both of us and winked.
“I do,” blurted Gertie, her small frame springing up like a jack-in-the-box. I smiled to myself; I knew we were going to hear the story, I knew more of Mama was coming forward to meet us, and as I reached over to take one of Gammy’s home-made biscuits from their basket, I was starting to believe we were lucky to have our grandmother with us. Besides all the everyday things Gammy took care of—getting us fed, and dressed, and sent off to school at the right time—she was a steady pipeline leading us straight to Mama. She was our story-teller. Our resident enchantress.
And, of course, that’s when it happened. Without any warning, my grandmother grabbed my wrist and slapped down hard on it with her other hand. It hurt, though I hadn’t been keen to admit it, but mostly it just surprised me, and I’d let out a gasp.
“Don’t you be leaning over the table like that, Margaret Gilley,” said Gammy, her voice suddenly clipped, all the butteriness gone out of it. “Don’t you know that’s bad manners?”
“I’m sorry.” I felt stung, ambushed.
Gertie and I went quiet. So did Gammy. It was the too quiet of being in trouble, but I didn’t really know what I’d done, and that was probably the worst of it. In the radar quiet I could hear the black marble clock on the side-table—its ticking voice magnified—bits of time being snipped off and discarded. In my distress, those steady measures of time felt like a further reprimand; I was guilty despite my confusion.
My grandmother hadn’t done anything like this before, and it scared me—the slap, the roughness in her voice; I had no idea what would happen next. But I knew enough not to make any sudden movements. Or to cry.
“Well, keep it in mind. And don’t do it again.” Gammy looked like she was smiling, I could see all of her teeth, but I didn’t think she really was smiling, her face looked stiff and I didn’t like it. But I still remember how very suddenly she’d resumed herself—like some bit of warmth releasing a flower from a morning chill—and with newly composed grace, had said, “Please.”
I knew it then. There were holes in the world that a person could fall into; and there was little to be done but to hold on there with everything you had.
Gertie looked at both of us, her face wincing. “Don’t be mean, Gammy,” she’d said. “Maggie didn’t know.”
“Don’t you worry, Gertie. I’m just trying to bring you girls up with some right sense, that’s all.” Gammy laid one of her seamed hands atop my sister’s small, milky one, gently patting it; not wanting to look at her, my eyes dropped there, got held on a large speckled stone set in silver filigree that was weighting one of my grandmother’s fingers.
Imagine the hand of an old dowager Queen, that chalky imperiousness, that’s what Gammy’s was like; and it made her seem correct, unassailably correct—at least that’s about how it felt to me that night. I didn’t defend myself, I couldn’t; my own reason wasn’t sure enough. It didn’t know how to support what was only an echo: the sense that I’d been wronged.
Gammy looked around like nothing had happened. “Now where were we?”
“Mama’s naughtiness?” I’d offered it too fast.
“That’s right. Thank you Maggie.”
I still wanted to hear the story, but I felt dampened, and I wanted Gammy to get on with it because then I could mostly forget what had happened, though the night was already different; I had the most unsettled feeling—as if it was making faces at me out there in the rolling dark.
“Now, you sure you want to hear the story, Gertie?” asked Gammy. She leant into my sister and smiled. “’Cause your Mama, she sure got a whooping that time.”
Gert was adamant: “I don’t wanna’ hear the whooping.”
“Well, all right, honey. But if I do tell you, I don’t want either of you girls going and getting any ideas, because it’s a doozy. And believe me, you’d be in the same sort of trouble your Mama was. Especially you, Maggie.” Gammy pointed a finger. Then making sure each word was a separate and distinct thing, she’d said: “’Cause you’re the older sister and should have more sense to you.” Quite crisply, she’d brought both hands together on the table, one on top of the other. “At least that’s the way it’s supposed to be.”
I felt heat burning my cheeks. I couldn’t help feeling how Gammy expected catastrophe to come rolling out in front of me like it was my own personal red carpet. Sometimes, I got the feeling she was leading me to it. I didn’t know what she wanted from me. I only nodded. But I guess that must have satisfied her; she turned back to the story.
“I get a kick out of it now, girls, but at the time I thought it was the worst thing I’d ever seen.” Gammy made a clucking sound, shaking her head, but her mouth was turned up, I could see that. “I’m sure your mother must have told you how much she loved her dolls.” She turned to Gert. “Just like you love your Feebs, honey.”
My sister gave one of those off-kilter six-year-old smiles, her small front teeth biting into her bottom lip, and we both nodded. We knew all about Mama’s dolls—she’d showed us a picture once, five or six of them in a row, silent sisters supported by the pillows on her bed—and I told Gammy how we’d seen them.
“Well, then, you already know your mama had a real good few. But there was one doll I’d brought her from a place that’s called New Orleans—I used to go down there, oh, maybe once a year with your Grampa—that’s where he and I had our honeymoon, just after we got married.” Gammy waved a hand through the air. “But don’t let me get started with all that.” She stopped briefly to take a sip of water. Gert and I didn’t say anything; we were both passengers, and we knew it.
“Well, this doll was the favorite—Jessie is what your Mama called her. After the dog we had back then. A fox terrier. Good Lord he was a yappy thing. Used to drive me crazy how he’d bark at just about everything. I swear, girls, sometimes I’d catch him barking at the walls. But your mama loved that dog, and he loved her too. Used to sleep with her every night, right up with your Mama on her bed, and he’d follow her all around, inside and out, like she was its true mama dog.” Gammy snorted. “Jessie.”
I’d snuck a longer look at her then. I was watching her, I suppose. Trying to see the other person in there, but I couldn’t. My grandmother: she would prove a cipher to me for a long time; she led down too many roads at the same time.
“Did he bark at Mama?”
“Oh ‘prolly, Gert, but it didn’t mean anything.” Gammy smiled, her eyes giving off that wild shine they had sometimes. Like silvery fish had decided to swim around in them for a while. “That was just Jessie. Well, anyway, I remember thinking this was overuse of a name, but your Mama didn’t care; that’s what she wanted and that’s how it was going to be. So, it was two Jessies.” With barely a pause for air, Gammy went on. “But your mama had gotten it into her head that Jessie’s dress wasn’t right—this is the doll I’m talking about now, girls, you’ve got to pay attention.” Gammy winked at us again, and when I looked over at Gert—well, she was just caught up, her face gleaming away like it was Christmas morning. “I’m trying to recall what it was, maybe she didn’t think it was the right color—Jessie had hair like your mama, I think she wanted a dress to match it.” Gammy waved it away. “I don’t know. It was something. Anyway, she thought it was a dress made for a different doll. Lord knows your mama had some definite ideas about things, even when she was a little girl.”
Though Gammy could easily have gone on with this meandering until well past our bedtime, right then she’d abruptly cut the flow of words. And giving Gert and I each a look, like she was peering at us over glasses, she’d asked the only question that mattered: “So. Do you girls know what your Mama did?”
“What?” Gertie was so keen she nearly fell off her chair.
“Well, I’m gonna’ tell you.” Gammy leant forward, gesturing us both closer; this was just between us three, this was special. Under the distinct cone of our overhead lamp, the windows offering only the thick night that contained us, we were in our own private, story-telling world. A clean shiver ran down my spine. I was no longer outside the circle; my grandmother had brought me back.
Then laying both her palms flat on the table, pushing one towards me, one towards Gert, Gammy got down to it: “Now, this day seemed a day just like any other, girls. I’d come upstairs looking for your mama—she’d gone off on her own, but I wasn’t really worried. She used to do that. Being an only, she’d learned how to entertain herself early on.” Gammy nodded a couple of times, her gaze indistinct, not looking at Gert or at me, so that it seemed like she was agreeing with herself. “Yes, that’s the truth.” And she’d nodded again. “Your mama never had any trouble contenting herself.” Gammy shifted her chair, bringing it closer to the table. She leant in further, her presence just about swallowing us.
“This time I’d found your mama sitting on the floor of the hall. There she was smack down in a warm square of sun, with a pair of scissors at her feet, and a mess of colored scraps lying about.” Gammy shrugged. “That was fine, I didn’t mind a little mess, that’s what you kids do. Well, when I looked closer, I could see she was trying to glue some pieces of fabric together—and very pretty pieces of fabric they were too. Lots of color, and the designs were just to my liking—not too flashy, just real nice.” Gammy took a brief scan of her audience—she must have seen how fully we were in her hands—and went on. “I remember thinking my little Maddy looked so sweet there, quietly working away. I knew it had to be some kind of project, so I asked her what she was up to. She told me right off—said she was making a new dress for Jessie. Well, I wasn’t surprised—she’d been going on about how she didn’t like that dress for some weeks already.” She shook her head, sighing. “I should have just bought her a new one, or made one for her myself.” Gammy sighed again, more drawn out. “Well I asked your mama where she’d found such pretty fabric.” Gammy stopped short. When she spoke again, her voice had gone thick. And it was loud. “Do you know what your mama said?” She started wagging one solid finger in the air. Gert and I were dead quiet. I’d almost forgotten about the spanking, but it sure was back again, I could feel it. “Your mama pointed to my room, and told me very plainly, she’d said, ‘in your closet.’” Gammy let her arm drop conspicuously onto the table.
I didn’t wait. “What was in your closet?” The sincerity with which I said this—it’s hard to imagine it failed to move my grandmother.
“Well that’s just it, Maggie. When I opened the door, I saw what was going on, and, I tell you, I nearly fainted. Maddie had taken several of my dresses, including my best silk evening dress—oh, it was the prettiest thing ever—a gorgeous blue with yellow and white orchids on it. And she’d cut the sleeves off! Not the whole sleeve, mind you—just a couple of inches off the ends!” Gammy seemed to slump forward—she set one elbow on the table, so as to cover her mouth and chin with her hand. And she’d closed her eyes now. They were tiny shivering moths.
She held herself like that for a good few moments, visibly suffering. I suppose she was putting it on, though it sure seemed real to me back then. I wasn’t sure she was going to say anything more, or whether we should do something, but finally, she just snapped out of it: “Your mama didn’t think a few inches would matter, didn’t think I would care that a bit of fabric was missing.” Gammy paused—she looked like she was trying to tuck her mouth inside itself. Then she smacked a hand down on the table, loud enough to make us start. “Well, I was so angry I nearly burst my spleen. Those dresses were ruined.”
Gert and I were staring at her. Gammy was so fired-up, it felt like we were the ones in trouble. My sister had clamped her hands over her ears, but she watched as Gammy put a hand up beside her mouth, watched her as she leant in my direction to announce in a full-on stage whisper: “This is where the whooping came in.”
All that thunder had got to my sister; I could see that her bottom lip was trembling, she looked like she was about to cry. But I guess Gammy must have felt bad; she’d started clucking and cooing, her mouth all pouched up small and round. “Don’t you worry, Gertie,” she’d said, her voice gone smooth again. She put a hand round the back of my sister’s head: “Your Mama got over it, honey. I promise.”
It used to be that when dinner was finished, Gertie and I would scamper off to the living–room to play. We almost always got away with it. Even if Mama would protest on occasion, she wasn’t strict about bedtime, and we knew it. Sometimes she’d get down on the floor with us, helping with our towers, and our puzzles, the pencil drawings we liked to make; but Gammy, she laid down the law: there was to be no more “lollygagging” downstairs. As soon as dinner was done, she’d shoo us up the stairs caboose-style, most times Gert going first, determinedly moving our train forward.
But there was one thing in those days that stayed very much the same. Because when my sister and I were under the covers, scrubbed-down and tooth-pasted and gleaming, Gammy would sit in the middle of our bedroom and she’d read to us—which is precisely what Mama had done. Except that Mama never read us the Bible.
Gammy was good about it though—we’d get the Bible first, but she always made room for the stories my sister and I had picked out. Unless Gert fell asleep—cutting the readings short—our grandmother didn’t cheat us. I still easily recall those stories I loved most, the ones I’d beg—as soon as we’d reached the end—to have read aloud again: The Secret Garden, Nightbirds on Nantucket, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Five Children and It. But there are others almost equally adored, and I remember them too.
This part of my life I still loved, loved it despite Mama being gone. Maybe I came to love it more; I could disappear into the dark, I could close my own life behind me, letting images made from words fill up inside my head, pulling me forward into places where it didn’t matter what had happened in my real, broken into life. I felt safe in our room. Under the covers, and inside the beauty of words where nothing bad could happen to me.
Only two small bedside lamps gave any shape to the room, and our story-teller would sit in that pale light, an almost subterranean presence, dressed inevitably in one of her shifts—baggy, colorful dresses that were about the only thing she ever wore. And some nights she’d be wrapped in a blanket if the cold were at the windows, but always, always there were beaded slippers over her feet.
Though Gammy was by no means a frail woman, she had delicate, tiny feet, and she certainly was proud of them. Maybe a little too proud. She was always finding an excuse to ease off her slippers and lift her legs up in the air, just so she could look at them. Her closet, I would come to know, contained a dazzling array of footwear, each carefully tended with shoe horns, the leather ones gleaming with polish, the rows articulate, a Germanic order. One almost expected titles on little brass plates; she’d brought an actual gallery of shoes to our Massachusetts.
But I didn’t mind the Bible readings so much; I’d thought some parts were pretty interesting, though I can’t deny Gammy had a hand in this. Because we’d always get the stories twice. Gammy would translate, handing each of those stories over a second time in our modern-day English. But, oh, she loved to play up the drama—throw shadows, brighten particles of light—so that whatever she read couldn’t help becoming more than it was. For our Gammy, the facts had no business getting in the way of a good story, and the truth is, she made those readings come alive.
I remember when we’d come to the prophet Ezekiel and his vision of the wheel—that story was not only terrifying, it flat-out bewildered me. I couldn’t comprehend the fact—at the time I believed what my grandmother told me, that the Bible was history—of a giant, floating wheel looming out at Ezekiel from the sky. And it wasn’t just a wheel, but a wheel made out of four separate creatures, each with four distinct faces: a lion, and an ox, a man, and an eagle. Gammy had gone into wild descriptions, telling us that the lion was as big as a mountain, its teeth, each of them, wider than a house. And in its mouth, she said, there was a shining city carved from blocks of crystal—a whole and thriving city.
She told Gert and I how the wheel and the creatures burned with a fire that did not consume them, though this fire—it was so great that if you looked on it too long, your eyes would melt down inside their sockets. And above all of this, she’d said, there was a figure—God—as vast and terrible as any of it, sitting beyond all human mercy on a brilliant amber throne.
But, to me, the most terrifying part was the wind. All around, Gammy told us, there was the sound of great wings flapping, cutting through the air with the force of machine blades, yet with no agent visible. Only the rustling skywards of the tops of the trees, and the raising of Ezekeiel’s hair from its very roots, his sure balance undone as the air pushed at him, gave truth to the presence that was there.
Those stories made me wonder about the world, what strange things there might be in it. The way the Bible told it, there was more here than met the every day eye. And some of it was awful. But I already knew that. Because, here, your mother could disappear without saying good-bye, and sometimes there weren’t any words, and nothing you could do to get her to come back.
We weren’t shy about asking Gammy questions. We wanted to know whether there were snakes on the ark, or whether Jesus had kids, or did Adam and Eve live in a house or just sleep outside under the sky? And did they have stars in Eden? Gammy was pretty good at answers, she hardly ever didn’t know a thing, though we later found out she’d made some of it up. She told us Jesus couldn’t have kids—a scholar had unearthed a rare medical condition—and she’d also said that Adam and Eve had lived in the first teepee, just like the Indians did; and we, being kids, just believed it. I don’t think she made things up out of some perverse strain lodged somewhere low in her character; I think she believed it was better to have an answer we could understand than to have no answer, or one that was merely ambiguous. But my grandmother didn’t give away her motives. She was what she was, and because we lived with her, we adapted. We had to. She’s simply what we were up against.
Some nights Gertie’s sadness would show up, or what’s more true to say—on certain nights the sadness came out of her; but it was only when Gammy had gone, our room left in the dark, as if that was sunlight on my sister’s grief. Sometimes I’d hear Gert calling Mama’s name, but it didn’t come out as a wail, it was never that big; it was more she was asking for her, the way she’d always done—a habit not easily let go—like when she’d needed a glass of water, or wanted to climb into Mama’s lap, or just plain wanted to have her close by. There were many nights I’d end up in my sister’s bed, and then I’d slip an arm around her to make us both feel better. I’d say the only thing I knew to say: “It’s ok. It’s ok, Gertie.” Even when I knew it was a lie.
I almost never fell asleep before the readings were done. I was the one left back in waking; I was too alert to words, to the moving pictures they made all around me, to their air and light. And I loved them. Stories almost never made me tired, except maybe some of the listings in the Bible, all those begattings of people from people, though even then I liked some of the names, whose sounds were often so delicate they floated off Gammy’s tongue like words meant for flowers or jewels. Words like Azor, and Manasses, and Achim.
So I’d be alone. My sister out, Gammy downstairs in her room, and though our father was practically next door, he might jut as well have been a thousand miles away. He would abandon his presence in our house for weeks at times, entrusting us wholly to Gammy, a woman we hardly knew, but whose unreliable nature was already coming to bear. To me, his absences went on forever.
There were too many nights I’d lie awake, unable to be pulled by sleep. I’d stare up at the ceiling; letting it become real as my eyes adjusted to the dark. The windows on a clear night would bring in tiny spears of light, hundreds of stars washing across our sky. And sometimes what I’d do, a game I’d thought up, I’d try to think of nothing, which was not like having no thoughts; it was trying to picture actual nothingness. But every time I would imagine the whole universe shrinking down to just a tiny black speck, and then further again until it disappeared altogether, the white nothing that was left behind would still be something, even if it was only empty space; and I’d have to start over again, confused, but also grateful to have found this trick to distract me from what I didn’t want to see.
After a few times I’d get dizzy, my brain turning in on itself, and this would make sleep come closer, and closer again until its anesthesia finally got hold of me like a bird of prey, and I was really, completely gone. But some nights, if I wasn’t paying attention, I’d start thinking about Mama, and I’d feel a pressure against my chest, as if there were a shadow weight piling around my heart; and I’d turn over into my pillow, pushing into it as if that could make thought disappear, as if the pressure might come loose and rumble away, leaving a space, something free of gravity. But no matter what actually happened, even if I wandered far into the ministry of night, where even the animals in the woods went to sleep, eventually—I was taken by it, too.
(Early November 1968)
It was Saturday morning, very early, the light had just barely come on, but we could see a storm all around us. My sister and I were in the living room, towards the big bay window at the front of the house, playing. A spotted coat of snow was moving through the air, dense and searingly white, and the trees near the window would shake violently when the wind got matted in them. I didn’t like the sound of the glass. It cracked whips at us; it kept threatening to give.
I’d get Gertie to be very still with me, just listening, as if the wind was an unseen predator and we couldn’t afford to move with it being so close. Every now and then it brought itself to a stiff hum; coming at our ears like the lowest note on a guitar sent razoring through the air. There was a certain thrill in this, our protected life poised so close against the uncertain one outside. But we made sure not to flaunt it. We kept a respecting distance from that wind-wracked glass.
On early weekend mornings we were alone, and I was glad for it. Gammy’s occasional outbursts meant things were lighter without her. But this never lasted long. Eventually she’d join us, clattering the way from her bedroom off the first floor hall—she was not stealthy except with criticism; and that, I’d been quick to figure out, would come on like an arrow hissing through a secret window.
I didn’t expect to see our father—he left his room so very little that fall that I was always surprised when he did appear; and then it made me uneasy. To look at him was to see a man cornered by sadness: burnt-eyed unshaved, and through all those months, I never saw him out of his pajamas. I could tell he was getting thinner because the pajama legs had started dragging against the floor, and his cheeks had fallen in like the battered ghost of Jacob Marley. I was eight, but I understood this was bad.
Those rare times he did come down he never stayed long. He’d join us for a meal—though he wouldn’t eat much, he just moved food around, and I imagine he felt he was supposed to be with us, though what he deep down wanted, I think he’d rather have stayed upstairs until Mama came home, and unmade the danger cloud hovering above him.
But he’d ask the right questions, like what we’d been up to, and how we were getting along; and he’d mess up our hair the way too many adults do to kids, which, anyway, wasn’t something I remembered him doing before Mama left. But there wasn’t much vigor in these things, the meaning had been removed, the sentiment imitative. So remote had our father been over the last weeks, it was as if my sister and I had lost both parents, the one following after the other.
“My, my, my,” Gammy declared, staring through the Bay window into the storm. “You’d think the world was coming to an end out there. All worked up like this—it’s quite something, isn’t it?” The snow was backing up towards the sky, a plaything of the wind, though I knew it would find a place in the end, whether the hard ground, or the web of tree branches out there, or the steady, black-shingled roof above us.
I was trying to teach Gert how to do Cat’s Cradle—I’m not sure if it was a game exactly, but it was played with a long piece of string, its two ends knotted together. My friend Annie had showed it to me, and it had amazed me to find a puzzle that moved. It had been a high spot in days when each one was a measure, gathering miles, coldly increasing the distance to wherever our mother might be. Annie was my best childhood friend; I’d known her since I was five, and would know her in my life for a long time to come.
I was trying to remember what my friend had taught me; there was a lot of talking, and pointing at the string on my sister’s hands, but when I had to pinch the sides of the cradle together I’d get muddled, and we’d have to start over, and I don’t think Gert was learning much of anything.
“It’s too hard,” she said, her mouth a small, wobbly pout.
Gammy had turned away from the storm, and when I glanced up, the look on her face was so satisfied, it was as if the chaos swirling outside had been her idea all along. The storm had pushed all the light down; had slipped a sodium mask over the colors in our house, slowing them, like they’d been soaked in age. With her long white hair shawled about her shoulders, and the strange light that day, Gammy looked to me like she’d come to us out of an old photograph. Like a person given to traveling in time.
Now that she’d filled herself with the theatre outside, Gammy took notice of Gert and me playing behind her: “And what are you girls up to?” she said, bending over to take a closer look.
“Trying to do Cat’s Cradle,” I told her.
“But it won’t work.” Gertie was shaking the string off her fingers.
“I don’t know all the steps.” I purposely made my eyes blurry when I looked at her. “I can’t remember them.”
“Cat’s Cradle? Oh, well now that’s great fun!” So Gammy knew it. Her enthusiasm was high and it was quick—you could never accuse her of being dull. “You know girls, I used to be able to do this prit-ty well,” she said, easing herself onto the window seat. She turned on the standing light, and gave the cushion a little pat. “Gertie, come sit next to Gammy and I’ll show you girls how to do this right. Maggie, get closer—scoot in a little. And pass me that red string.” Gammy didn’t seem concerned about having her back to the window, the storm raging outside it. So if Gammy was fine with it, that was good enough for Gert; she scrambled over to sit beside her.
I shuffled forward, until I was close by my grandmother’s knees. “Here,” I said, grabbing the string. No matter how mean she could be, it felt good to help her. Because the truth is, more than anything, I wanted her to like me. I wanted her warmth. I knew she had it, I’d seen her give it to my sister; it was given willingly.
“Get your hands up, sweet pea,” instructed Gammy. My sister held her hands apart like she was trying to show Gammy the size of a kitten, but as our grandmother was setting the string around Gert’s fingers, she reconsidered. “No, let’s do it the other way. I’m going to make the cradle, and then, Gert, you’re going to take it from me.”
Gert nodded, looking very seriously up at Gammy. She was so still, so ready to do whatever our grandmother wanted.
“All right then,” said Gammy. “I’m going to go though all the steps with you one by one, girls, so pay attention.” In a thick, blue-knit sweater with crystal buttons done up over a dark blue shift that made her hair look even whiter, her greedy proportions leading to the surprising, almost musical curve of an ankle bone visible above each slipper, Gammy looked like an elder river sprite. A sort of rumpled member of that clan.
Our grey-haired sprite proceeded to guide Gert and I through the beginning of the game, and when she got to the hard part, she motioned with strung-up hands for me to get on my knees so I could see from eye level what was going on.
“This is definitely the tricky part,” she said. “But it’s not as hard as it looks. The thing is, right there—.” Gammy moved her shoulder around, the impulse to point. “I want you to take hold of those Xes the string is making, but take them from the sides.” Gammy raised the cradle towards her mouth, and gestured with her tongue. “Right there. See, right there.” I liked watching her tongue touch the string, I thought she might even lick it, but she only lowered her hands back down so my sister could get to work.
“Here?” asked Gert, slipping small fingers into the thread.
“Yes, that’s it. But you’ve got to really pull the strings taut. If you don’t do that, it won’t work.”
Gammy knew the way, I mean that was clear, and she knew how to explain the thing because after only a little confusion, the cradle wound up on Gert’s hands just like it was supposed to.
My sister just erupted: “She did it, she did it!” She leapt off the window seat and jumped around on the hard wood floor, pony legs landing all akimbo like some crazed ballerina, her striped shirt lifting a little more each time she raised her arms—the red cradle still intact—until eventually her belly was popping out, white and round and smooth.
“Oh, now look at you,” said Gammy, clapping her hands. “Just look at you.”
I held back, smiling with both of them, but not saying much. Gert was really happy, but I couldn’t help feeling left out; teaching her how to play Cat’s Cradle had been my idea. I didn’t say anything; it was still merriment, the kind we used to have in the before time. When Mama was here. And that day it stuck out its tongue at the yellow half-light; and the marauding wind and snow, its fever of cold just on the other side of us.
In the middle of Gert’s enthusiasm, the house groaned—an old, splintery sound—the storm at its joints. With Gert in such high spirits, and Gammy so charmed by them, I actually imagined our house was taking part; that it wasn’t just lodging a complaint against the weather. Eventually, though, my sister had exhausted herself. She dropped to the floor, panting and grinning, the red cradle still on her hands.
“I guess the show is over, is it Gert?” said Gammy, looking immensely pleased. Gert held up the cradle for her, and quickly tilted her pale head side to side, the six year old’s version of thank you.
Our grandmother nodded. But she had something to say. Crossing her ankles, and with the deliberate voice she could call on, the one that sometimes led to trouble, she laid it down: “If there’s one piece of advice I can give you girls, it’s don’t ever forget how to play.” Gammy grabbed the edge of the window seat with both hands. “And don’t let anyone ever tell you it’s childish. It’s child-like is what it is, and that’s a whole different thing. That’s two very different things.” She held her chin up, smoothing down the front of her sweater. “Play’s what’ll keep you full of young, girls, that’s a fact.” A broad grin swept over her face as she leant forward. “Just look at your Gammy.” Immediately, she gave in to a burst of laughter, but it would have been hard to argue with her; she had more life force than a backyard full of schnauzers.
“Gammy,” I cut in, an instinct to engage with her while she was still in this substantially good mood: “Where did you learn Cat’s Cradle?” I slipped my hands over my toes, heels pressed down into the floor. Ever so slightly, I rocked myself back and forth.
“Well, I suppose it was from one of my sisters, Maggie. It would have been at the end of the war—the Great War—but you girls wouldn’t know about that. That was nearly fifty years ago.” With a conspiratorial glance from side to side, she leant forward again. “But this is a very old game, girls. It’s been passed down for centuries. And nobody quite knows where it came from.” She lowered her voice. “Or what it means.” The way our Grandmother described it, you couldn’t help thinking the world was much more than it seemed. She knew how to make regular things move in a different orbit, brighter and stranger than the one they showed us. She had that gift. And it made it hard sometimes because it put a struggle in me—I wanted to be around her, and then again, I didn’t.
“Nobody quite knows, but I’ve a notion this game was invented by the Cathars. Do you girls know about them?” She must have known we didn’t. “Those Cathars were Christians, girls. Way back when. In a time called the Dark Ages. In the country of France. Only they didn’t go in for the same beliefs that most Christians do, and they were persecuted for it.”
So many words I didn’t know—my curiosity rushed at them like a pinball come off its ramp: Cathars, and Dark Ages, and persecuted. “What does that mean?” I asked, my voice higher and quick. It was the fever of new things; and I was just getting started.
“It means they were driven off, practically all killed. ‘Cause they were different.”
“How? They weren’t human beings?” I asked.
“No, no, Maggie. They were human. But they had a belief there were two Gods, not just one like most Christians think. The Cathars thought there was a real God, but they said there was also an impostor God. A fake God.”
“But how can you have a fake God?” I asked. “Then he wouldn’t be a God.”
“Why not, Maggie? There are many different ways for this world to be—as far as I know, nobody has a corner on the truth of things yet. Don’t you think you can imagine someone pretending to be a God? Maybe he’s a Devil, or just a spirit with a big head. Belief’s a belief. It doesn’t make it right or wrong. It just is what it is.”
“I guess so,” I said, wondering if I would know the difference between the real God and the fake one if I were given the chance.
“And what do you think, Gertie?” Gammy gave my sister a little nudge with her foot.
“I don’t like the Devil. He’s mean.”
“Well, he sure can be—he can wreak havoc if he wants to.” Gammy lowered her voice. “If he’s real.” She winked. “But he’s a complicated story—we’ll leave him for another time, girls.” Gertie and I kind of shifted around, uneasy with talk about something we knew meant trouble, though at the time any details of the Devil were pretty hazy. He was mostly an image of a talking snake from the story of Adam and Eve. Gammy had explained who that snake was. We didn’t like that snake, we didn’t like snakes at all; we knew we didn’t like the Devil.
“What about the Dark Ages?” I wasn’t forgetting them. “What are they?”
Gammy didn’t answer. “Gertie, are you ever gonna’ take that string off?” she asked. “Because you’re gonna’ have to eat, or go the bathroom, sooner or later.”
My sister was hunched over herself, balancing both forearms on crossed legs. “I know,” she said slowly. “But I want to keep it on. Is that ok?”
“You do what you like. I’m just pointing it out, is all.” And as she talked, Gammy began to raise one of her legs so that a thick white calf was sticking out like a thumb, its slipper intentionally falling to the floor. She craned her head forward to see, flexing that small bare foot in front of her. It was a gesture, easily indulged, maybe six, seven, eight times a month; and would eventually, just between my sister and I, come to be known as the royal admiration of the foot. Because that foot was queenly; because it demanded so much attention. Our grandmother: she was her own charming Prince, and she was belle of the ball, she was lucky Cinderella too.
Rather than bending forward to reclaim the slipper, Gammy simply pointed at it: “Maggie, get that back on for me.” It wasn’t a question, she didn’t need to ask permission. We both knew I would do it. I did all sorts of things for her. Not because I had to, but because I had to. I wanted to please her, wanted her to like me better, wanted something I had an idea of, something that would stay in place, even as I wished, on those days she had it in for me, that she would go away forever.
“Well now. I do have a habit of getting off topic, don’t I?” said Gammy, the admiration over. The storm was still flailing around, though the snow had thinned quite considerably; we could actually see what it had done, everything the same, everything outside lined in pure, aggressive white. I looked up towards my Grandmother, waiting to hear more about the Cathars, and the Dark Ages, and why they’d invented a string game, what it was for—when we heard footsteps moving down the stairs.
Gertie got up first, using her elbows as leverage. Our father was out of his bedroom. And though the appearance of a ghost most of all harvests fear, he was still our father; my sister wanted his attention, wanted to show him things.
“Look, Daddy,” she cried. “I made a Cat’s Cradle.” She scrabbled over to him at the bottom of the stairs, holding the treasure out in front. Being six, she only came up to the tops of his legs, but she was all sparkplug beside him, exaggerated now because his native vitality had been left in some bleak outpost, needing the bullish light of lesser latitudes to revive it.
“G’morning, Jack,” said Gammy, beginning to get up. “How’re we doing?” From where I sat this looked like a jumble of blue suddenly straightening itself out. “So, I imagine people are wanting something to eat,” she said, already heading towards the kitchen. She called back to us: “And when I holler for you, no slugabedding, you girls. I mean it.”
“What is it?” he asked gently, pausing to see what Gert was so excited about. And when our father came into the living room, murmuring hello to Gammy as she passed, I remember he let his fingertips brush against my shoulder. It was a small thing, but I don’t know, I remember it.
Gert followed him to one of the wingchairs, and as soon as he sat down, my sister got onto her skinny knees, leaning into the armrest, and set her string-cradled hands in his lap as if to say: This.
“Very pretty, sweetheart,” said our father, his hands quiet in his lap as Gertie wiggled around beside him. He was wearing a sweater over his pajamas, and he had a thick beard now—coarse, ashy looking—something abandoned.
“Gammy taught me,” she said.
“That’s nice.” His voice was threadbare. He adjusted his legs as Gert jumped down on the floor between his shins, while I moved over to sit across from them. My little legs must have looked something helpless, dangling over the seat there, not even reaching the ground.
“And how are you doing, honey?” he asked, turning his attention to me.
“Ok,” I said. Up-close he looked worse. His eyes were larval. The white part all grey and filmy.
“Daddy,” I asked. “Are you all right?”
“Sure, Maggie. Just tired.” One hand went to his chest, moving vaguely over it. “I’m sorry, girls. I guess I haven’t been around much.” And that was it. That’s all the explanation we got.
But he was a different man, a lesser version, as if from inside one of those nested dolls, each harder to make out than the one before. I knew he was lying. I wanted to tell him that I didn’t believe him, but I said nothing. If I’d been older, I could have picked up words and turned them at him, could have reached him with all sorts of claims and evidences and ultimatums. But I didn’t have that ability yet; I had no faith to pull it off. I could feel the impetus for words, though; a buzzing around inside me, an irritation I couldn’t get rid of. That’s when I decided I was going to do something—though I had nothing, no idea of what that might be. But if I didn’t figure something out, I was sure that our father was going to die. At eight, I had a pretty good idea of what that was. Our mother had explained it to Gertie and I the time a young robin had flown into one of our windows and broken its neck. Mama had told us not to be sad; she said that when you died it was the time you became invisible in the world. Not gone, she’d told us, but not seen anymore. But I didn’t want our father to be invisible, and he was already halfway there.
But as I watched Gert flickering and smiling at him, I wondered if maybe she wasn’t old enough to understand what she was seeing. I hadn’t said one thing about our father to my sister, and I wasn’t going to. Mama was missing, that was too much already; unless Gert came to me, I would hold this other bad thing all on my own.
And I was alone with it because Gammy didn’t seem concerned. I didn’t understand; how could she not realize there was something wrong? She’d ask how our father was doing, but that’s what people said to each other all the time. I couldn’t find the care over his appearance, the uneaten meals, his absences. Even though Gammy had lost her only child just as much our father had lost his wife, she was so solid in herself, so effortlessly set apart that I don’t think she could envision anybody falling in on themselves the way our father had. She must have assumed, impossibly blinkered as she must have been, that he would simply snap out of it.
It was at breakfast that it came to me. Little did I suspect how it would further disturb my already shaken world, that it would uncover more fragile bone behind the mirrors. But I didn’t feel like I’d thought it up: my plan was just there, all at once, almost inevitable, though when I think of it now, it was absurdly ill-conceived; there was no guarantee it would do anything but make me a contagion of very bad behavior. But it was all I had.
We were in the dining room, Gertie and I across from our father, Gammy at the head. Sprigs of holly, their berries like red pearls, were arranged in the middle of the table—Gammy’s doing. Everything about that room was pleasure, like one of those old Dutch interiors I’d come to know in Mama’s art books—the glossy moldings, the marble clock shaped like a Napoleon hat, the cornflower blue walls, and the stern portrait of our great Uncle Massey (on our mother’s side) in the hand-made frame carved into with tree branches, each of them balancing a different bird; in real life Uncle Massey had been an exceedingly devoted—Gammy called him a loop-dee-loo—American bird-watcher.
And in the pleasure of that room, I was stopped by a growing distress that put me at a loss.
Reluctantly, Gert had removed the string from her hands. It was collapsed in a red jumble to the side of her plate. Our father was drinking a tea, slowly, almost gingerly, and even though Gammy had gone ahead and made him a meal, he was barely touching it. And Gammy, well, she was story-telling. That was just Gammy, of course, but she did most of the talking back then anyway.
I missed a lot of what she said that morning; I couldn’t help it, half of me was elsewhere, thinking about my father, scrambling around the problem of what to do like I’d built my own maze and then, perversely, dropped myself in. I did catch some of what my grandmother said though—she had spoken of a tremendous old church in Spain that she and our grandfather had visited, a sanctuary she’d said; and there was something about the getting to it, some important thing that had happened on the road itself, I think, but that part—it’s simply not with me. I’ve no doubt the story was as good as any of them, embroidered, as they all were, with Gammy’s advantages; the sky bluer, the clouds wilder, the generous Gods more visible.
Our father had been unusually quiet that meal. I couldn’t tell if he was paying attention to Gammy or not; but when I would look over his gaze appeared fixed just in front of his mug of tea—a narrowing of him that only sharpened the distress in me, as if he couldn’t summon the energy to even pretend he was ok. Fortunately, Gert’s appreciation of our grandmother’s stories—my sister’s face a rosy moon—made up for my distraction; or maybe Gammy was too busy just listening to herself. Maybe the stories never stopped, compelled not by an audience at all, but by a need to fill the air with stronger, better words than the ones that made this family.
After breakfast, I imagined my father would be going back up to his room; that he’d lock the door to us, and that we might not see him for many days again, and that all of this was rather hopeless in light of plans or the ability to change anything. But those thoughts, together, they made images in my head: I could see my father’s empty room, and I could see all of us where we were sitting, right then, around the table, and I saw the awful flank of his shut door, and then me, even more pathetic, still down in the living room with Gammy and Gert. Those images circled around each other like half-lit faces flashing repeatedly on-screen in some psychological thriller, a frantic soundtrack propelling them. But I’m sure that’s how it came to me: what I was going to do—and the knowing that I had to do it quick.
There was a fire in me—I mean, it was always there, I’d been made that way—but it was turned up now, it was pushing me. This fire I had, hidden as it was by a small girl’s size, and an outward expression neither forceful, nor given to strain, was not often apparent to others. But I felt it keenly. It made me brave, plunking me down in situations I might not have the measure of. It made me go, I listened to it. It was myself.
I immediately put down my fork, and I guess it turned out lucky that I was anxious; I hadn’t eaten much—it would prop up my lie. And maybe I said it too abruptly, and maybe it didn’t sound believable when I announced that I wasn’t feeling well. But, in fact, I got away with it.
“What’s wrong?” asked Gammy, vaguely annoyed.
“My stomach hurts.” I laid a hand on my belly.
“Well, that explains why you’ve got so much food on your plate.” But she was not one to leave well enough alone. “Honestly, you were feeling fine not ten minutes ago. In all my life I don’t think I have ever seen such a hot house flower.” I felt my cheeks flush with hot shame, though it was not the shame she thought it was.
My father stepped in then, practically the only thing he’d said at table so far: “Do you want to be excused, Maggie?”
This is what I needed. “Maybe,” I replied, unfaithfully, not looking easily at anyone. But in less than a second I changed my answer, pinning his suggestion before it slipped away. “Yeah. I think I’d like to go to my room.”
“I can come too,” offered Gert. This was real generosity, but I had to dissuade her.
“You don’t have to,” I countered. “I’ll be ok.” I was so gracious. And a splendid little fake.
“You should have some ginger ale,” said Gammy matter-of-factly. “That’s the trick for a belly ache.”
I slid my chair away from the table. “No.” I said clearly. “I just want to lie down.” I turned and walked steadily away. I was already at the door when my father pushed his voice forward to reach me: “I’ll look in on you when I come up, Maggie, ok?”
As I headed up the stairs, my heart was pounding. Each step I took away from the dining room my legs moved faster. My father would be coming up soon; I knew I didn’t have much time.
In my room, the first thing I did was grab my sleeping bag from the closet. I quickly unrolled it, laying the red cotton rectangle flat atop my bed. Then I’d folded it up, close enough to my own size as I could guess; and with barely enough time to breathe, I’d pushed the sleeping bag under both the sheets and my thick comforter. I wanted to make it look like I was asleep in bed, and the only way to do this was to pull all my bedding over the sleeping bag right up to the headboard, like I’d cocooned myself completely. If I was going to fool anybody, not a bit of red sleeping bag could show. Annie and I had done this same things last winter when we’d snuck out in the middle of the night, inching carefully past her parent’s bedroom, to see the first snowfall. Her brother Brian—her older brother—he’s the one who’d showed her how.
I’d never done anything with such speed in my life, and there wasn’t much chance to stop and see whether it looked believable—I could only hope it would do. The last thing before I left the room, I made sure to pull the blinds and shut off the overhead light. Then I closed the door. I didn’t take a second look; I had to keep going.
On Indian feet I ran down the hall. Any sharper convergence of skin and exposed floor was dealt with by my unwitting grandmother, her voice still holding forth, rising vaguely, like the hum of water over stones, to the second floor. And as I’d suspected, yes! My father’s door was open. Not very wide, but wide enough that as I stood hesitating at its border, I could see a single panel of blue curtain hanging from one of my parent’s windows. I was remembering the room in my head now, and it was almost achingly plural; it was my mother and father’s bedroom. It was theirs.
I was taken aback to find hot tears blurring my eyes. I quickly wiped them away; I didn’t have time to feel sorry for myself. Carefully, my hand visibly shaking, I widened the door. I knew many things could go wrong, but the worst of it was if I got caught in the small hiding space where I was heading, the one I knew lay waiting inside my parent’s room. If that were to happen I wasn’t sure I could explain my way out of it; I might simply be giving Gammy an excuse to take me through her infamous ‘what-for treatment,’ my understanding of which meant a whooping and exile so miserable as to bring rue and consternation down on my head for a very long time. But I wasn’t going to let that stop me. I had an actual, a good plan, and I was going through with it.
But then I hesitated. With one hand gripping the edge of the door, I remained frozen, listening for sounds, unable to give myself to decision. I don’t know how long I stayed like that, though it couldn’t have been long because time was pushing at me, and maybe that’s what did it because almost without realizing, I found that I’d crossed the threshold.
It was the first time I’d been in that room since my mother left. Just inside the door, very still, my eyes moving over all of it. The bed was a cliff of sheets and pillows, and my father’s bedside cluttered with mugs and tissues, the framed family pictures there pushed hastily to the back. It was a different room from when Mama lived in it; even the smell had changed. Something moldy and disappointed, something I knew wasn’t right.
Our home was an old farmhouse, with a gabled roof, and small storage areas on either end—almost like crawl spaces—built into the low walls where they met the slanted edge of the ceiling. One of these spaces was in my parents’ room; I’d hidden there when Mama was still with us, when we’d played Hide and Seek, so I knew there were tiny knotholes in the door that a person could peer through.
That was it—the crux of my plan; I’d set the task to hide in my father’s room, to be there watching over him in case of some very bad thing happening, something I could feel around me but couldn’t actually name; though precisely what I hoped to accomplish was more like magic, because maybe if I was with him, I told myself, the very bad thing couldn’t happen. I would be the charm, the presence to ward off illness, and perhaps, I was convinced of it, even death.
I heard the sound of movement, the table being cleared, and if I’d known how to swear, those words would have been pouring out of me like smoke. With strides as long as I could get them, I moved delicately towards the storage. This time I didn’t hesitate; with a crisp click I opened the pine door. The hinges whined; they were a kick in my gut. I stopped in my tracks, turning to see if I was about to be caught. I suppose nobody had heard—I mean nobody came—but I’d been given a warning: this was perilous business, and I had better pay attention.
The door was almost my own height exactly, and as I stepped through, I felt the alertness peculiar to moving into the unknown, but that also belongs to fear. For I was as scared as any eight year old girl sneaking into her parent’s room, who in that moment believes she’s the first girl required to navigate the shifting ledgers of right and wrong.
I was lucky. There was enough room for me to get down crossed-legged by the door without being too hampered. And as I closed myself in, I prayed for this not to be the worst day of my life. I made a deal. I told God—it was a promise—that if I didn’t get caught, from then on I’d always be my best self. My Sunday self, I told him. I thought he’d like that—Sunday, Gammy had told us, was his Christian day. So that was my end of the bargain; I only hoped this God guy would go for it.
It was warm. A little light came through the knotholes, and when my eyes grew accustomed I could see all sorts of things in there: suitcases—the navy and green plaid ones my parents took on trips; stacks of boxes; our Christmas tree angel set down in an open bed of tissue on top of one of those stacks; and some longish metal rails, just to my left, sort of like poles—I had no idea what they were. But I got inside with hardly any time to spare because almost immediately I heard my father’s tread on the stairs, and there was no turning back. I held my breath, waiting for a hand on the door, but when it didn’t come, I realized he’d gone to check on me. I started counting to myself then, slow numbers passing as seconds, an attempt to keep myself calm.
And then my father’s steps were coming down the hall, growing louder. In my head I could hear his voice—confused, calling out my name—but it was a false echo it turned out because that’s not what happened. The sleeping bag had fooled him. A bit more luck then. Things were moving.
And then he was in the room. But when the lock turned on the bedroom door, I got very worried. Of course I knew he would lock the door, that’s what he always did, but now that it was happening I felt trapped, and there was this guilt: my father and I were both in the same room, but only one of us knew it. I hadn’t counted on that. Yet I had no choice; I had to sit with that guilt crawling on me.
I couldn’t see him yet; the scope of sight from inside my hiding space was too narrow. I had one good knothole, one circle of light—a side view framing roughly the bottom third of his bed and the space directly above it, by the door to his bathroom. I could see the doorjamb, some of the recessed panels. And I could see the small oil painting hanging beside it—dark colors, the canals of Venice. The edge around all of this was something vaporous, a fading out of the kind seen in Victorian photographs, those somber likenesses to make regular people look cast under a hard spell.
As my father came into view, I instinctively pulled back; it was too real. I felt exposed, convinced that he could see me too. But I looked again almost immediately; I couldn’t help it. He was walking beside the bed, the side furthest from me, but he was only partially visible, a headless chest inside a grey sweater. My God, I thought, I am doing this. And then he was out of sight.
There were sounds—the shifting of sheets and bedspreads. I could see the covers towards the end of the bed lifting: my father’s legs inside. It was not what I wanted to see, my father spending his hours in bed—but what did I imagine? That he came up here to read, or write letters. To work on his guitars? Anyway, the guitars were in the workshop behind our house; he hadn’t been there in months. Here is a word he’d taught me when I was very little: luthier. I used to like saying it out loud, letting it lisp its way between my teeth like it should have been lucier. My father was a luthier. But I liked joking around with it; I used to tell my father that he was more like Lucy. He got a kick out of that.
I sat in my cupboard, watching him carefully as he slept. Nothing moving except the wind outside. The light in my parent’s room was as flat as tin—there were no shadows to give anything clear form. And the longer I watched, the more what I could see—the bed, the door, the painting—all of it seemed to dissolve into an undifferentiated mass, my focus losing ground. I remember asking myself if what I was doing made sense. I was trying to do good, my intent indeed seraphic—but when looked at with a certain kind of clear and stable eye, the good here was difficult to fathom; in short minutes I had become a gritty little fly—stuck, and quite unasked for, hidden inside the bones of my parent’s wall. I considered pushing the door open and letting the repercussions come at me, even if that meant Gammy, whose mythic tongue could be used for as much damage as any pleasure. That impulse was quickly bottled though, self-preservation determining such a course to be the singularly worst thing I could do.
I saw it now; there was no way out of this unless I could sneak out without waking my father. I told myself, not yet. No. I wasn’t ready to admit my plan was a failure. For the while, I would remain careful, almost theatrically still. How long I would stay in my hiding place, I didn’t know, there was no way to see the time. I was angry at myself for not thinking to grab my watch—practically brand new, a birthday present—I could picture it sitting on my bedside.
Then it came. A horrible, sinking feeling. For all of a sudden it was very clear: at some point my sleeping bag would be discovered. And behind that would come disruption—even if it was only a minute of shock and confusion, the others would believe we had been cursed as a family of disappearing members. I imagined arms flailing, voices crying. A jumble of horses and riders. That I had not thought things through was far too real.
I had to resign myself to moments, letting them accumulate on the other side of not being caught. In the almost dark, one eye monocled by incoming light, I watched and waited, and though I was not at ease in my self-created cell, I had one thing: I’d found a spot by the door frame that was very smooth, perhaps too much varnish there, or maybe glue; my finger in the dark kept returning to it, quietly rubbing up and down on it. A comfort.
But as I held my promise to be with my father that morning, I experienced something I didn’t understand. Something like a giving way. I wouldn’t have been able to explain it then, but to watch a person sleeping, even a stranger dozing awkwardly across from you on a train, is to raise a peculiar kind of intimacy. The other can’t help being vulnerable, and not just to you, but—perhaps the more because sleep is always a kind of preparation for death: it’s almost disturbing how easy it is to picture milky petals scattered delicately around a person lying in their bed, or a single carnation placed evenly down the center of their chest.
Of course, I didn’t think about any of these things that morning, but I had an overwhelming urge to be beside my father, to put my arms around him, to be a kind of shield. But even out of hiding, I probably wouldn’t have done it; it’s not how we were, he and I. This is a thing I understood from him—the stiffness when he did hug me, or the way he’d pat me on the back, his movements the opposite of water. My father wasn’t a cold man, that wasn’t it at all, but his nature was self-conscious. He told us that when he was a kid he’d been very shy; that he always sat in the back of the class with the hooligans and the slack-offs. Not because he was one of them, but because he’d been afraid the teacher would call on him, afraid his words would come out wrong; and that the other kids would laugh.
But Mama, she was different from our father. She couldn’t help herself—she’d sneak up behind us, throw her arms around our shoulders, scoop us up like saucy pigs. I remember her lifting Daddy’s fingertips—I watched her kiss each one of them, very slowly, looking up at him after each kiss. And my father, so still, as straight and rooted as a tree, smiling at her. When we made cookies, she wanted us to get our hands in the dough, really dig into it, take it on. She’d dance with Gertie and I in the living room, she’d spin us round and round, or hold her hands out for us to clap as we monkeyed about, giggles chiming almost hysterically out of our mouths. These things, the way she was, they are memory as luxury, and though they happened so very long ago now, I can call them up almost as if I were there.
From the way our father told it, he and Mama had been good for each other. They balanced one and other; they allowed themselves a kind of certainty in the other’s presence. They were as much midnight and steady candle, as spanning arch and blue sky, because together they made a completion. Then I’d wonder again why my mother had left.
And Gammy—well, she played words like a fiddle, but she was more held back without them. She had it in her to be warm though; I’d seen it. The way she was with Gert sometimes, standing close behind her, arms crossed over my sister’s chest, holding her in tight like a fence; and there were plenty of photos of Gammy with Grampa, gathering each other around the waist, or holding hands—some of these pictures taken long past younger days. Often they’d be standing in front of some wonder of the world: the longest covered bridge, the highest waterfall, that crazy Winchester mansion in California—a dazzling folly, one of whose oddities was a room with trick stairs stacking up to a ceiling.
It was easy to see how quite many of my grandparents’ travels were activated by the spirit of that rainy afternoon stalwart, the Guinness Book of Records, and I have little doubt that this was my grandmother’s influence, for she had a real attraction to the marvelous. But I’d wager it was being next to my grandfather that was her real pleasure. The way she looked in those pictures—that was the way she shone.
By the time I came to know her, the sweeter instincts had been dulled in my gammy. But isn’t it mostly the same thing? Time continuing with its game, steadily, even blithely, removing what had mattered most. And those still on the vine left black.
There was no way to tell how long I’d been in my hiding space. It might have been twenty minutes, it might have been an hour; or maybe it was even a few. I was a child; my sense of time wasn’t fully formed—it was an image in a funhouse mirror, all proportion wavering and stumbling—though I suppose one measure was that I hadn’t been caught. A still better gauge might have been how at some point I got the honest to god fidgets. It was awful; too much nervous fizz, and I unable to let go any of it. I couldn’t flutter my knees, or shake out my wrists; one wrong move and I’d be giving myself away.
It got bad in that crawl space. I think my nerves must have backed up in me, jamming themselves into tension—for my head had started to pound; and from there, my legs cramped up from sitting too long in the same cross-legged position. These were limitations I hadn’t considered.
I grew increasingly more uncomfortable—one side of my leg went so numb it was like a broken light, it was just gone; and with all this, a fly had appeared from out of nowhere, buzzing wildly on and off in my ear like a taunt. I realized then—with no shortage of dread, but far more disappointment—it was time to get out of there.
I leant back from the door, my upper body finally letting go as I allowed it to slump into itself. Tiny filaments of light poked at me through the cupboard. There I was then, sunk down in my hollows, knowing I hadn’t accomplished anything. But there was no time to be sorry for myself because if I was going, I needed to be ready. I would at least work out the steps before I took them.
Getting the door open, that was the first thing, doing it in small quarters to prevent anything mean and squawky. Then I’d have to get really low, under the radar of my fathers’ bed, crawling along the floor to his door. I was trying to picture everything in my head—a talisman to make me more sure of myself. But I couldn’t tell whether I’d be able to unlock the door without standing—and this was important. I pressed my eye hard against each knothole, willing my eye to see around the corner to the bedroom door, but there was nothing doing.
I knew the only thing was memory. I’d seen that door so many times from the other side; if I couldn’t picture it, I warned myself, I deserved to get caught. Tough talk, I know it, but I had to make myself see—I’d been almost sure—how my hand would reach the lock even if all of me were pressed against the floor.
But what if I was wrong? If I needed to stand—what if my father opened his eyes? What then? I’d seen those games at amusement parks where the revolving tin duck flips up, and is all of a sudden caught in the crosshairs: that would be me. I felt a surge of panic. What would I do? Fall to the ground, run out of the room, say something; what would I say? I had to think.
As it turned out, I was too late for any of it because my father stirred. I heard the distinct rustle of sheets, and when I looked again, the bedclothes were dropped back down flat against the bed. I couldn’t see my father at all. The further panic of his coming awake had made my heart swing at such a rate it filled my ears with its blood; I was convinced my father could hear it. I got very still, waiting.
It wasn’t long before my father appeared again, though I still couldn’t see his face. His back was there by the entrance to the bathroom, but only briefly. Whiteness swung across my field of vision as he closed the door, and I remember the thought had startled me—what would I do when I had to use it? Ugh. It was an awful wormy thought; I didn’t want it. If I had to figure it out, I would.
There was no reason to keep lookout for the moment. I scratched my knees, my face. I rubbed the stare from my eyes. I heard the murmur of running water. I heard the toilet flush. Briefly, my discomfort let go. In a short minute, though, my father returned, carrying what I was pretty sure was a bowl. Something dark dangled in the other hand.
I suppose, in the end—the way it happened—you might say it had been handed to me. Because, the thing is, when my father sat down on the bed I could see the back of him almost perfectly—only a fraction of his right arm stayed outside my small frame. His pale hair hung to the top of his sweatshirt. It hadn’t been cut in months.
Before the bad happened—I mean, just before it happened—there was a thicker fear came over me. It was visible, really, it was small particles in the air going off in front of me, signaling the enormity at hand. Or perhaps it had been simply this: there was something wrong with the picture, my father sitting there almost too quietly with—yes, it was a metal bowl set down on the bed beside him.
Oh, how my father sat there that day. Sat there as if he had mastered sitting, as if it were Botany, or French cooking, like he was doing something vital in that stillness. But the darker strain of expectation, its held current in me, kept me glued, made me forget the numbness in my leg, the headache, and all the other things that might have distracted. A correspondence streamed directly between my father and I, my stillness a mirror of his.
Eventually, and yet without urgency or speed, my father put his hand inside the bowl. I heard a small tide rise against the metal. Water. At least I imagined that’s what it was. After some seconds, my father removed his hand, and set it where it wasn’t visible to me, in front of him. I supposed he might be washing; and the dark object he’d brought from the bathroom, it couldn’t be seen, but perhaps, I’d thought—trying to make sense of things, trying to make things normal—it was merely a towel. But why, I wondered, would he do this on the bed? Or maybe, I leapt on it, in a manner much like grasping after straws, my father was working—something out of studio, something for the guitars: he could be oiling fret bars, preparing them before he attached them to the neck. Working.
My father’s hand went to the bowl, the water stirred, and he took it away. How many times he did this, I don’t know, I wasn’t counting, but it was several more at least, a quite distinct pause between each of them. But save for this curious gesture, it seemed my father moved hardly at all. He kept his head high, made no effort to look at anything—not the bowl, or his hand, not himself. What held his attention appeared to be empty space on the wall ahead.
I was bewildered, though not in truth really worried now; I felt ridiculous to have gotten so worked up. I still didn’t know what was going on, but it was nothing eventful, that much was clear. Nonetheless, I kept watching him; my attention didn’t waver.
So it was almost exciting when I realized there was more to it than at first I understood: my father was holding some thing, some object, in his hand. I figured it by the shape, the way his thumb and forefingers were pushed together. But whatever the something was, I still couldn’t recognize it with any clarity, and I had fretted that the moment would end without my understanding.
I couldn’t grasp what it meant. A member of some remote tribe who—knowing nothing of modern invention—shown a photo of their own child, will not recognize a face there, merely different shapes of color or shades of gray. Because for them, an image—any image—might just as well be a gorse bush, or a cloud, or a small painted chair. So with I, having no experience to make sense of things, I was at a loss, blindly watching my father repeat one small action like a mantra.
When all of it, the whole scene before me, on the brink of moving from the ambiguous benign into the terrible fact, did finally turn—like a body rolled over to announce stick eyes and an unmoving chest—it all happened without any change, without a sign, just the day continuing on. Except that my father shifted.
My father shifted—he turned, it was just enough—turned towards the back wall, towards the garden, towards where the access road lay out behind our house, buried there under inches of snow. It meant his left leg coming onto the bed; it meant one knee flat against the covers, a shin parallel to the headboard.
At first I supposed that his pajama bottoms had ridden up because he’d shifted—I could see one bare knee, a thigh. But, also, almost the whole of his profile—the sharpening bones, the beggar’s beard: my mother’s absence visibly stranded on him.
The bowl was set a few inches ahead of his knee now, and it was only after some seconds that I noticed the ink. I could just make out so many uneven lines of it marking up the skin on his leg, all of it gravitating towards the bedclothes. It looked vegetal. And messy. I didn’t get it.
But very quickly the word in my head was iodine. Mama, she used to put it on our cuts and scrapes, poured it out from a small tincture bottle to make us better. My father, I realized, was hurt. Yet as if he didn’t notice, or didn’t care, his face—he looked, I think, almost peaceful. I felt wicked sitting in my secret observatory, watching him this way; I was no better to him than a stone angel.
Again, his hand went to the bowl. This time, though, when he took it away I saw what he was doing. I saw how he passed his hand, whatever was held in it—carefully across his thigh, as if he was drawing on his skin.
I watched a trickle of iodine move tentatively down his leg. But the light reflecting off
its presence gave form; and even from the confines of my crawl space, I knew. I knew it wasn’t iodine; it was blood. Instinct brought my hand over my mouth, though to this day I am surprised that I did not cry out. My father’s leg was surely bleeding, but he sat calmly as if he couldn’t feel a thing.
Everything in me pushed to waking. All feeling, all sap and nerve moving outwards at a great speed, getting larger, larger than the boundary of what I was. I must not have realized what I was doing, I must have pushed against it, pushed too hard, because the door opened, all bets cancelled then, and as I tumbled forward into the room, an involuntary groan pulled from me. I hit the floor.
“Maggie!” My father had turned around.
There was a moment, wholly stopped, like a photograph, where neither of us moved, and I couldn’t be sure of what was happening for the door had betrayed me. But it was only a second before what broke through my ribs and face was lightning. With a wildness that was the opposite of thinking, it broke into this room where my father sat, the both of us a little unholy there, found out. I was sprawled out on the floor, sobbing, my breath catching in my throat. I shut my eyes. I didn’t want to see my father, the room, the bed—none of it; I didn’t want anything to be real. This was not the simplicity of some childhood game—I was too old for that. This was hope up against what already is.
I don’t recall my father walking across the room, though he must have because his arms were under me; I was being picked up, and after that we were sitting on the bed. What I wanted was not to have come in here, but there was nothing to be done for it.
I was curled across my father’s lap. That’s what I remember. I had only one defense, and this was to coil in on myself and deny my surroundings: a grub, with no more understanding of events than I had before. What I’d seen, I couldn’t name. I wouldn’t have been able to tell you what my father was doing, but there was blood, and I knew something was much more wrong than it already was.
There was rocking. I don’t remember whether it was he or I that did it, but it was to the good, I know that; and I couldn’t stop the words, between hard breaths the same ones kept coming—I’m sorry—falling from my mouth like rain; saying it not just to my father, but to myself, to my invisible mother, and the world I was in, as it was.
Confusion, I was learning, is pain. It was accumulating like floodwater rising toward the edge of a riverbank: Mama’s desertion, my grandmother—the corners in her, the meanness there—and now my father, his leg bleeding in his locked room. But it’s some kind of sorcerer confusion is, for it’s not darkness it makes, but a tense, desert light that sticks to everything, and makes you blind. And this bewilderment was made worse because of mirrors I knew only a little. The mirror, the one we’ve all got—it shows on the outside what goes on inside—it almost always gives a person away. A lot of sickness had gotten hold of my father; I couldn’t understand how much.
He and I stayed on the bed for some strange while, stayed there until the winds in that room died down. The others, they didn’t show up at all: Gammy, Gertie—how they hadn’t heard us, I never figured it, but it meant something, because from then on my father and I had a secret. It was a thing to be held carefully, precious and terrible like the head of a Saint. I understood that right from the start.
Over the weeks and years to come, between us, we didn’t speak about what had happened, or not directly; but it could not be unremembered. Being in an avalanche, a person doesn’t forget that. And though some will say our silence wasn’t natural, I’m not sure; if the hook’s been in your throat once, even a word can set it there again. All too easily the past is summoned, and that’s as good a reason as any to watch yourself, to be careful how you make your way along your road. Was it better like this? I don’t know. But we would make some kind of lockbox, my father and I; we’d seal the words not said inside.
When I did, in time, turn round and open my eyes, I kept them slit back in their shells; it was safer to keep the world at bay. My father’s head was still high, but the wet on his face was the truth of it, and my own shirt soaked through full of snot and cry.
“Maggie—,” he said, looking down at me now. He took his forearm and drew the sleeve of his sweatshirt across his eyes. And then, I could barely hear him: “I’m a very sad man.”
This was crossing a sea.
Then quiet. The world inside my father’s bedroom was oddly muffled, as if the day’s snow had also fallen inside, laying its insulating mind throughout. I let my eyes be fully open now. The winter light through the windows had brightened. It slid over the floor and walls, over the high ceiling; it supported us in that room in stark radiance.
My father looked towards the window. Outside, flakes of snow were being batted about, unmoored to anything but the wind. He said it more to himself, I suppose, though I heard it anyway; he said he was ashamed. My understanding of that word was not enough, but the way he spoke it, I understood the shape of it, and it came back to me, then, my father’s leg. And though he’d pushed his pajama pant down, I realized I’d been lying on his wound. I slid from his lap onto the floor.
I looked up at him. “Daddy—.” My voice was strapped. “Your leg.”
He followed me right down to sit in front of me. There was no light in his face, but I could tell he wasn’t angry; he seemed to have forgotten I should never have been in his room, that I had no right to be there. But even if by nature he was not easily angered, I had pushed past the boundaries not just of reason, but the assumption of what was good. My father, though, was already beyond these things. “I know why you came in here, Maggie—.” He trailed off.
There was a shiny ache alive in me. It was my spur. The whole reason for being here was in front of me now; I looked directly at him, and like a lizard’s tongue it spit out of me before I had a chance to reconsider: “Go to the doctor!” I wasn’t thinking about his leg, I was thinking about how thin he was, and the caves pushing everywhere around his eyes. There was so much active lessening, though all I knew at the time was that I didn’t want him to look the way he did. What I couldn’t see was how hard it must have been for the father to be shouldered by the child.
My father did not respond to my outburst, though I’m sure it stunned him. It was not in my nature to shout; I was a self-contained child. If I caused trouble it was by being persistent—Gammy liked to say I was stubborn—but not by being wild.
But it’s not every man whose frailty is revealed without allowing that to make him mean, without punishing the seer for seeing. My father was different. His great strength, I’d come to know, was a generous sympathy for what’s most simply spoken of as ‘being human.’ There was very little he wouldn’t forgive in others. Human weakness he accepted as much as the lover doesn’t dwell on the black wires that grow from the beloved’s head.
I stood up fast. Some instinct of sharper purpose made me get it. The bowl. It was too late before he realized what I was doing: “Maggie, don’t.”
I looked quickly. There was water in it. And what I didn’t want to see: blood. Not much, just a few trails suspended in the water. If I hadn’t known, I would have told you it looked pretty. But at the bottom of the bowl, what should not have been there. What I’d seen was a razor blade.
He stood, and as he came over to where I was, I held the bowl out in front of me. Not an accusation, just the thing itself, as a question. This was staring without blinking. This was dependence on some rougher cost for any answer. Maybe I was connecting the dots; and maybe I didn’t want to. But no matter how much I might have resisted, there was only one way.
He didn’t say anything. Very calmly he took the bowl from my hands and set it down on the bureau beside my hiding place. What could he say to an eight year-old? How could he explain what he’d done?
He crouched down so we were almost eye-to-eye. I was too young to have any kind of stance, a way of positioning myself in the world; I just stood, arms loose at my sides, there at the edge of the road, my small animal self, and dazed. Watching the rush of headlights spill by.
“Maggie,” he said. “You’re a good girl.” He didn’t move. He didn’t try to match the sentiment to any gesture. But he was looking clear at me, looking like someone with noise in his head. And then, I saw it, he just sort of crumpled, one hand coming up over his eyes. He was visibly shaking. “I don’t know how to make it right. I don’t know.” He was sobbing; something deep down, almost silent.
My legs were ash. I was not in my own world of Massachusetts anymore and I was scared. If I had looked out the window, it would not have shocked me to find a landscape I didn’t recognize: a range of wide, treacherous gorges—carved wastelands of sooty rock—nothing living, only endless repetitions of geography. But having no sense of what to do, and like some well-intentioned fool, I did nothing. I stood there in a state of paralysis, watching my father fall apart. It was nothing I was equipped for; my small chest felt unable to contain the heart rocking inside it. When my father did look up, his eyes were wide, almost like a child’s. He said he needed my help.
“What kind of help?” I asked quietly, but I was nodding yes before he replied: I would do whatever he needed me to do. I wasn’t considering the kind of weight he might be laying on an eight year old. I was just thinking I must have done good. Not by design, but by a strange convergence that could not have been foreseen.
Mostly, I think my gaze must have overtaken his that day, and in the witness my father saw what he could not see on his own. Through no choice of my own, I had become some stubborn mirror. But more than that, if he locked himself in his room again, I would know. And he would know. How could he keep on doing this thing when it was no longer a secret? Me and Gertie on the other side of his door, listening for him—no, it would be so much worse now, it would be some kind of cruelty, he must have seen that.
What we run up against is rarely so black or so white, though, and for a long time there would be doubt clinging to me like kudzu, wherever I was, even when my father appeared to be getting better.
He didn’t move, but he reached out and took hold of my arm. “I need to be reminded that you and your sister—.” He wouldn’t finish. Only after a wide amount of silence, did he seem to gather a conviction. “I’m your father.” He set both hands right up against his face, almost as if he meant to pray: “You don’t have to do anything, Maggie.”
He looked down at the floor, and under his breath, just barely audible, he said something, but it was not for me, and I could not make out the words. When my father looked up though, he made a promise that I’d heard: he was going to do what I’d asked.
This was the victory. And though it was only the possibility of change, I could feel my courage, and right away came after it with something else I’d been carrying through most of these weeks that Mama had been gone: “I don’t like it when you lock your door all the time.” It sounded more artful than I knew: a light not so direct as to make unpleasant things glare back—but that’s just how the words came out of me.
“Ok, Maggie.” He said it simply, like it was already done, but that door—I would check it in the coming months like an obsessive returning again to a gas-lit range.
My father stood then, his lean frame sliding in his clothes like they were costuming from some down-on-its-luck theatre. He held out a hand, which I immediately reached for, and at the same time he brought me in close. He wrapped his arms around me so tight that my own were pinned awkwardly against my sides; he’d never done anything like it. I wasn’t being hugged, I was being held onto for dear life. Almost at once I was aware of his breath, I could feel it move uneasily through the hull of his ribs—they were pressing into me—and I admit, I wanted to step back from him.
But he had to let go of me sometime, and I stood there, self-conscious—it might have been the first time I was aware of it—a little apart from him; stood with my arms wrapped over my chest. And the too much still that wasn’t said. Not ghosts yet, but memory, which is always living.
Finally, my father managed something to resuscitate what was familiar, though in one sense that was stranger than anything; the familiar could lay no claim here. “You should go downstairs, Maggie—see what your sister and Gammy are up to. They’re probably wondering how you’re doing.” He looked at me like he was considering a thing, and maybe what he said after that made him look easier for a second, at least I thought so. “You’re a brave girl, Maggie.” I wanted to feel good when he said that, only I didn’t.
My father moved me towards the door, put his hand on the knob. He unlocked it, and just before I stepped through, distinct, stony secrets pocketed in the unseen part that is the history of living—iron wrapped in silk—I looked up at him, the visible parts the same, his expression strangely even in that moment. He told me he wanted to clean up a bit, but he promised he would be coming down soon. I wanted that to be true. The thing is, I didn’t know if I believed him.
“I know why your mother left you.” It was Jimmy Ide. He was the school bully, and he was standing right in front of me, outside the girl’s bathroom, his face like cooled wax—all surface smooth, and impossible to read. “It’s because you’re such a shrimp.”
I didn’t move.
Nobody liked Jimmy, but he was bigger than any of us, and he appeared to have been born mad. This gave him a degree of privilege he didn’t deserve; another inkling of the unfairness that streams through life like a poison, the kind that makes you think nobody worthwhile is paying attention. Jimmy was a year older, and he wasn’t in my class, but I had heard he threw tantrums, that he’d once smashed a school chair into dangerous bits, and that there was no obvious reason to account for it. Usually he left me alone, but he’d got wind of my family’s situation, and it had drawn him like a predator smelling blood.
“My father told me that your mother’s a witch. A bad witch.”
I was regretting going inside to use the bathroom. “That’s not true.” I spoke evenly. I wasn’t going to let him upset me. Or at the very least, I wasn’t going to let him see it.
“Maybe your mother turned herself into a toad. That’s why you can’t find her.” Jimmy thought this was hilarious. He started laughing so hard his face went bright red, even his ears. Bits of snot flew out of his nostrils. I wanted to hit him.
“What would you choose?” I said it quickly. “I mean, if you could turn yourself into an animal?” I had to stop his obscene crack-up.
He wiped his sleeve across his face and shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“How about a hyena?”
I resisted the urge to smile. “It’s like a lion. Only bigger.” My grandmother, she didn’t know it, but she’d been teaching me.
“Yeah, ok. A hyena. And you can be a shrimp.” He smirked.
“I’d be a crow.” So I could fly away from you, I was thinking.
Luckily, recess was ending; I could hear the first throng of voices moving down the hall, and in a minute they would engulf us. It was natural the way I did it. I turned away from him and slid into the crowd, skittering towards class with the other kids, and when I looked back from my homeroom door I saw Jimmy already bearing down on someone else.
Maybe I had avoided some more unpleasant outcome. But as I sat at my desk in math class that afternoon, not paying enough attention, I felt a heat pricking at my chest. I wasn’t done being angry; it was still percolating inside me. Anger that I couldn’t tell Jimmy Ide to his face what an ugly person he was, anger that he could say those things to me about my mother; and, especially, anger at knowing that if I had the ill-fortune to run into him again, the encounter would be more or less the same.
It must have shown. My face must have given me away. Because when I saw Gammy in the kitchen, the first thing she said to me was, “Well, now, what is storming on you, Margaret Gilley? You’re not sick are you?”
My grandmother sounded less dismissive than usual; my illnesses were often an occasion to remind me that I must take after our father’s side of the family. But even now when I told her I wasn’t sick, she didn’t miss an opportunity: “The Ellises—we never get sick. I don’t remember a single day I missed school. None of this wilting at the bone just because the sun went behind a cloud for a minute. Oh, no, none of that.” Everything was hard and clear with Gammy; there was no space for nuance, it would not be navigated.
“I’m not sick,” I told her again. I said nothing about what had happened at school. I didn’t plan on telling anyone, least of all my grandmother. I didn’t want any trouble from her; and she could find it in the most unlikely of places.
“Well, that’s a relief then. I won’t have you underfoot,” she said, wiping her hands over the sink. But before I had a chance to slip away, she asked me to give her a hand in the kitchen, and I was obliged to stay.
Who knows why people do things, sometimes. There is mystery in it, like a school of whales beaching themselves at high tide, and maybe it’s only because the day’s events had not left me, because of a sudden as I was reaching to put a dish in one of the cupboards, I heard myself: “A boy at school said something mean about Mama.” Even I was surprised.
“What did this boy say?” There was metal in her voice, the sound of train wheels skidding forward.
I turned to face her, but she was not one of the Gammys I had come to know. This would not be the generous story-teller who so easily moved from one lit-up place to another that you might think she inhabited the air; nor this Gammy the knitter of our days, who gave their shape, and kept them coming. This was not even the grandmother who put the fear into me, whom I knew to be mean, even heartless, and who lived alongside those others in an uneasy alignment, where she could leap ahead of them on a whim, and without warning. This was someone new.
Gammy had a look on her face to make the devil ashamed. Her eyes were wide on me, their green lit low and strange like the sea when its grit and tart salts and its small, abundant treasures—the ones we faithfully bring home in our pockets—have all been roiled up after a storm. It wasn’t so much anger on her face as a deep disappointment.
“He said Mama was a witch. A wicked witch.”
“Well I hope you set him right,” she said, each word uttered as if it were cut from a machine. It was righteous indignation is what was on her. A storm of grace.
“I told him it wasn’t true.”
She nodded. “That’s right. Good girl.” She was nodding vigorously now. “How old is this boy?”
“A year older than me.”
“Old enough to know better. Speaking badly of those of us not here gets swift punishment where I come from. This boy needs a good whooping.” Gammy cracked her two hands together, making the air around her panic.
“Nobody ever whoops him. He’s a bully.”
“Shame on this boy’s parents. Children don’t grow out of the air.”
This was a distinct turn—Gammy and I on the same side. It was Mama. For both of us—because we’d loved her so greedily, and loved her still—Mama was our household saint. Her memory was held as if in a reliquary, and with that accomplished, it was a thing inviolable. Jimmy didn’t know it, but he’d committed a sin.
“Who is this boy? What’s his name?
“Jimmy Ide.” I admit it felt good that I could finger him this way.
I could see Gammy’s expression move around. The Holy Roller eye came down. “That must be Nick’s son.” My grandmother indicated at me the dishes still waiting to be shelved. She herself didn’t budge. She was leaning against the sink, her arms crossed over her chest. “I can’t say I’m surprised.” She pursed her lips. “ I might even feel a bit sorry for this Jimmy. Might even.”
“You know his father?” I said, my back to her as I pulled open a cupboard.
“I do. I play cards with him.”
These past few weeks, Gammy had taken to going out in the evenings for a weekly poker game over at the Town Hall. And from what I could tell, she was pretty good at it. She had a glass winnings jar—she’d brought it from her room one day to show us—with a lot of change and a few five-dollar bills stuffed inside. Apparently she was saving up for something special, though I believe she enjoyed my sister and I guessing at it more than she did telling us what it was. My grandmother had been playing poker since she was a teenager; her own father had taught her, he’d been on a poker circuit back in the nineteen twenties, though allegedly this had brought considerable shame by Gammy’s mama’s way of thinking, along with some occasional good fortune—so I was told—as well.
That Gammy could go these nights, leaving my sister and I without her, was a straight line to my father’s improvement. It had been gradual, this strengthening, though I—more than anyone—understood where it started. I had watched my father carefully—like a shepherd tracking the scrawny wildflowers that push bravely through the sides of hills when the weather softens—initially with dread, and my own invisible fear, but then with a kind of sly pleasure, and a larger conviction that he was leaving his nightmare woods, that he was making his way back.
Over the last few months, our family’s small orbit had changed. Now, when Gertie and I were at home, our father would sometimes join us—he’d play Snakes and Ladders with us, or build Lego towers to keep the bad wizards at bay; at bedtime he took Gammy’s place on occasion, he’d be our reader. Sometimes he’d sit in the kitchen with her and have grown-up conversations that sounded like distant countries, like they were using some other language with words more complicated, but also more fragile than the ones Gertie and I used. And though our father would sometimes tire—he would fall asleep in his chair, or just be remote, as if he’d wandered off somewhere else, but left his body behind—I’d begun to see the person I recognized in the before days. His cheeks were no longer sunk, his shoulders not so hidden in his clothes anymore. But even so, I could never be sure if the bad was at him again, no matter how vigilant my eyes.
For a long while, I had a routine I carried out daily: I’d come up softly, just to the top of the stairs where I could look down the hall to his room. If I saw the door open—and it would be near to halfway wide on most occasions now—this was a tip-off to the state of my world; it was a white flag, it was good weather that way. But that didn’t always happen. Just enough times to keep me coming back, I’d find his door closed, tight-lipped, almost smug about what lay behind. That didn't stop me, of course; I had a way around it.
I had to be prepared. I had to come with some question at hand—an alibi for my appearance at my father’s door if I found he was behind it, in his bedroom, alone. I don’t think anyone was fooled. But I’d knock as if it were simply a thing that was happening: “I was just wondering if you knew why we have two lungs, but not two hearts? Was it supposed to be like that? What does the word pernicious mean? Gammy told me I was pernicious.” I never found him again at the terrible thing, though; and that was some kind of grace. But I knew that didn’t tell the whole story. There were long stretches my watching eye wasn’t with him—and there was doubt. Doubt circling over me, doubt that could eat me, doubt heaped on more doubt—there since the day our Mama had disappeared, piled up like hills of garbage over at the Ashfield dump.
But it was February now, five months after her leaving us; and our father had started going back to his studio again.
I wheeled around to face my grandmother. I let my shoulder blades push into the edge of the counter, feeling the metal there lift them outwards, my wing nubs.
“I like my poker, but I could do without that Nicky.” Gammy threw me a look, as if to indicate a bad taste in her mouth. “He’s the most pig-headed son of a—.” She caught herself. “And mean. You don’t want to know what he does, Maggie.” She sucked a pocket of air in sharply between her teeth. “And practically brags about it, mind you.”
I’d picked up a handful of small plates, the last that needed putting away. I was right next to Gammy as she spoke; I caught the tone in her voice up close. I could tell, whatever it was, I did not want to know.
“Jimmy’s mean to everyone.” I shrugged my shoulders, and that seemed about right; there was nothing I could do about it. I moved to set the dishes on their shelf, aware in some indistinct way that I was feeling better.
“He gives you a hard time too, then? Is that right?” My grandmother’s voice was as warm as I can remember.
I wasn’t sure what to do with her concern. So different was it from the sharp tongue I’d come to know that I almost wanted to make something up, a story to ornament my woe. But the truth won out.
“Nah. Mostly, he just leaves me alone.” I decided to cut myself some slack. “Except today.”
“What he said about Mama?”
“Yeah.” I turned the bottom of my shirt in my fingers, hesitating only a little to mention the rest. “He also said that Mama went away on account of me.” I said the words plain, my voice lower, instinctively—not wanting to get caught on the meaning. But my eyes held steady on my grandmother, as steady as a pair of cat’s eyes.
“Is that so?” Gammy’s eyebrows—it seemed her entire forehead, actually—raised themselves like window blinds. She’d pulled her lips flat against her teeth, one finger rubbing the bottom lip like she was trying to erase a bit of smudge. “You know, Maggie, you ought to talk to your Daddy about this.” She pulled herself straighter. “That’s what you ought to do.” She looked at me like she was soliciting my agreement, cocking her head and nodding. And then she turned to the sink, opening the taps there; running her hands through the water.
It was a clear signal. I understood that there would be no more discussion.
“Ok,” I said, with little enthusiasm. Not because she was instructing me, but because I so distinctly felt the removal of my grandmother’s attention, our confederacy of two abandoned by her in that moment, that I wanted to tell her to stop. I wanted to shout it at her. More than anything, I wanted to make her go back with me to the way it was only a minute ago.
I waited too long, standing there unnecessarily like something about to be swept into a pan, standing there in my small striped shirt and jeans, still hoping for more as my Grandmother made a point of washing her hands beyond what was reasonable.
Eventually, I wised up. I was about to walk away then, the air inside me pushed flat—confused about what had just gone down—when my grandmother decided to say one more thing. “I’ll mention it to your daddy, Maggie. I’ll let him know you’ve got something on your mind. How about that?” This was Gammy, this was business as usual, her manner steady now, crisp. I couldn’t fault her for anything, yet a shift had taken place, and I knew that whatever opening I’d been handed, it had been taken back, just like that.
I shrugged my shoulders “No. You don’t have to.” I walked away, flashing past my grandmother towards the living room, and it was over.
I was intending to get my coat and gloves. I was going to head outside, take a walk in the woods, check on the access road, or maybe just find a log to sit on, it didn’t matter to me; I only wanted to be in the cold air, have it on my face—at my ears, and up against my eyes. It would make me feel clean. It would lend me a different skin for a while.
But when I rounded into the living room, I heard the back door being opened, its panes of glass rattling in their sockets. My father was coming in from his studio.
“Hey there, Maggie,” he said, smiling at me as I met him in the breezeway. He was stomping snow from his boots, thin white scraps of it already melting on the rubber mat beneath his feet.
I was happy to see my father—in good spirit, the frame of him grown back I think, though by nature that frame was lean—but even so, I didn’t want to talk anymore, least of all about Jimmy. I could do it: I could put the whole day down inside me without so much as another word; I already knew how some things are best to keep still. So there was a place for secrets. And for the ways of this world too tangled; things I couldn’t make sense of. And I put all of that there. These were my things, mine. Nobody could see them unless I allowed it.
It was on my tongue to tell my father I was going outside. But Gammy had come up behind me, and I swear, as if she’d read my mind just to bedevil me, she got in front of my words and brought up what I’d told her in the kitchen, and my heart just about sank.
“Maggie’s been having some trouble at school. And I think, Jack, she might like to tell you about it.” Gammy looked down at me for a second, and I made sure to scowl back at her, but her expression didn’t move; I’m not even sure she’d noticed. She might have thought she was doing the right and good thing, and I can give her that. But it didn’t change the fact I wanted to be out of the house then, in the hush of snow.
“What’s this, Maggie? What kind of trouble?”
Gammy had turned on her heel and left us, which was just as well: I’m sure she’d have made the situation worse, breaking into my story with her thunder and trembling light, and what my father heard would be different from what was true.
I had to tell him something, only I didn’t know the way in. I’d never intended to speak a word to my father about Jimmy, but in the space between Gammy’s announcement and my beginning to explain, I decided to be careful. This much I knew: I wasn’t going to tell the whole story if I could help it. I don’t know. In those days life was growing in our house again, a little anyway. My father—there were new shoots; tentative, sunward gestures—he was in some better spirit, and I hoped it would stay that way. Maybe it would have been fine, but what was the point of playing with that kind of uncertainty?
“Gammy doesn’t understand,” I said. “I’m really not in trouble.”
“Ok, Maggie,” he said. “That’s good.” My father gave me a reassuring look—a bedtime look—and gestured towards the living room. He was out of his winter coverings now, pared down to a bulky sweater and faded jeans. I followed behind as he padded his way there, his thick socks making his feet dull on the wood floor. On the couch at the back of the room, we sat side by side under Mama’s watercolors. There was a large grey blanket that lived on that couch; I pulled it onto my lap, burying my hands beneath it. That wasn’t enough. I pulled the blanket up to my chin, securing it snugly under there with both hands so that my head popped out from the grey like that was the only part of me was real.
There wasn’t a lot of light in the room; it was the end of the day, only a thin newsprint of sun was slanting through the front windows on the opposite side. And because my father did not turn on the standing lamp, we were left in a rather pleasant, cottony atmosphere that was at odds with the discomfort I felt.
“Do you want to tell me what happened?” When my father was worried, it was almost impossible for him to hide that fact. He had one of his thumbs pressed into his forehead, the rest of his fingers rubbing back and forth on it like he was marking grooves in beach sand.
He made it sound like I had a choice, but I was a child; I knew there wasn’t one. I mean, I couldn’t very well have said, No, I don’t actually feel like telling you. I’m going out to sit in the snow. It’s the reason kids too often think childhood is unfair business—you’re never the owner of yourself. If you’re lucky, there is care, and there are birthdays and pets, and warm meals, but if you want to drive around the country looking for your vanished mother, there’s nothing you can do if the grown-ups in the world won’t let you. You learn to wish for childhood to end. And you wait.
“It’s a boy at school,” I said.
“A boy. Is he giving you a hard time?” My father had somehow guessed it right off.
“Only today,” I replied, trying not to sound in any way bothered, even as I went on to explain how this boy was the school bully.
“What did he do Maggie?”
“He just said some things. It’s no big deal.” I saw my dodge clearly. It wouldn’t be so difficult: “He said I was a shrimp.”
My father held up a hand. “That’s not a good way to say that a person is small.”
“I know.” And I didn’t care. It’s what Jimmy said about Mama, and about Mama’s leaving that had got under my skin.
There was a widening in my father’s face, and I knew that this was for me. “Very pretty and small.”
I grinned back at him. “I told Jimmy he was a hyena.”
“Maggie—.” My father was shaking his head, but I could tell I’d amused him; there was some bit of filament spreading the corners of his mouth. “Be careful. You don’t know with a bully. What he might do.”
“Ok,” I said. “But I don’t think he’s going to bother me anymore.” I had no reason to say that; there was no way of knowing this was true.
My father hung his head down, his wire glasses falling slightly over his nose. He remained some seconds like this, each hand rounded over a knee; and then very quickly he’d sat up, turning to look at me. There was a papal seriousness on his face; the amusement all but hidden: “Stay clear of this boy, ok, Maggie?”
“I will,” I said, with all the intention I could muster. I pushed the blanket down into my lap. “I promise.” I was about to go then, I thought we were done, but my father reached a hand out to stop me before I was off the couch.
“If it happens again, you come to me, ok?” He looked over his glasses, and then he smiled. Not a half-smile, but readily, and then quite entirely.
I’m not sure if it was guilt that made me mean what I said—guilt because I had, perhaps, underestimated my father—but I meant it when I agreed to it; I would speak to him straight off if Jimmy ever bothered me again.
This time I was on my feet before my father had a chance to wave me back. “Hold on. There’s something else I want to say. Sit back down there, Miss.”
I fell back on the couch, vaguely aware that my discomfort had lessened; my father was being my father. Floating at the base of my back there was a bloom—something I recognized was pleasure.
“Maggie—.” He paused, making sure to look straight at me. Making sure I was listening, I guess. “When I was in grade school, me and my younger brother—your Uncle Bernard—.” He held the thought a moment. I watched him draw one hand slowly over his mouth and chin, his face tipping a little towards the ceiling.
I wasn’t sure what was coming. I knew very little about my Uncle Bernard, though I did know he’d died when he was only a teenager, though any details about this had been gleaned through Gammy. There had been a terrible car accident; Uncle Bernard had been killed almost instantly. My father didn’t talk about him much, but every May eleventh, on Uncle Bernard’s birthday, my father made a point of slipping out of the house to visit his brother’s grave. It was, however, a solitary occasion; Gertie and I did not get taken along. We’d asked him once if we could come with him, but he’d politely refused us without a lot in the way of excuse. I don’t think we cared too badly; we didn’t have much interest in poking around cemeteries. It was only when I was sufficiently older that I recognized the romantic possibilities in the way stations of the deceased.
“Your Uncle Bernard—he was small for his age. Like you Maggie, I guess. Only he was a boy, and that can be hard. But I’m going to tell you something.”
A shock of cold air burst into the room, waking up my skin, the back door being pushed opened. It was my sister, home from an after-school play-date; dropped off at the bottom of the driveway by a friend’s parent. She did not yet have the privilege I had to walk home on her own.
“Gertie,” my father called out, waving my sister in. “You’re in time. I’m telling Maggie a story about your Uncle Bernard.” It was odd. He sounded so eager, and yet my father seldom spoke of his brother.
Greetings went back and forth as my sister took off her winter coat and boots, tearing open their buttons and clasps to more quickly be a part of the indoor world. She had the look of winter on her, her cheeks flamed red, flakes of snow clinging to her wool hat and her mittens as if she might have been rolling around in it not so very long ago. The red coat was hung, and the red boots set down on the mat, though they’d fallen over on each other as soon as she’d left them.
Gertie sped into the room, dropping herself down between my father and I, and for my own benefit she screwed her face into what looked like a goofy, Fu-manchu imitation. I rolled my eyes, grinning. My little sister could most always be counted on for her brightness, even after our mother had disappeared. She took original delight in simple, ordinary days: “I’m going to marry the water,” she had gaily announced in our bath one evening as she let the warm liquid sheet over her hair and face out of a sunny, plastic bucket.
She was less suspicious, less inclined—as I was—to imagine darker meanings and theater in the so-called regular world beyond our bedroom door; though, in my defense, I was not always mistaken in these perceptions.
Our small, everyday life had changed since our mother left, and it would have been difficult not to say that we had lost our way; yet this was not entirely true. For between Gertie and I there had been—I suppose it was necessity—a banding together, a startling, almost whole rejection of our petty grievances: the kicked shins, and punched arms, the minor jealousies over who got what first or who got to sit where and next to whom. If only my mother had been there to see it—‘a gift from the gods,’ she would have said—instead of being the one who had set it in motion.
My father leant forward so we could both see him clearly: “Gert—I was just about to tell Maggie—.” My sister grabbed his hand, and brought it to her face. My father immediately pulled his hand back, laughing. “Honey, your cheeks are frozen!”
Gertie nodded, and then tried to do the same thing to me. But I held my arm fast, and wouldn’t let her.
“Ok, girls. Girls—.” My father waved his hands around, trying to collect us. “Gert, I was just telling Maggie—telling her about your uncle, something that happened with him a long time ago—a bad time. Though it was all right in the end. But it’s good that you know—.”
I broke in then—a bad habit I had of leaping ahead. “Wait. Is this about the car accident?” I was incredulous. And I confess, also, to a certain morbid curiosity about this part of my family history, even as I felt bad for my father losing his only brother that way.
“No, Maggie, not that. Something else.”
“Is it a scary story?” asked Gert, suspiciously.
“At first. But—it has a happy outcome, Gert.” My father spread his arms wide in front of him; then abruptly moved them somewhat further apart—a gesture, I imagine, of frustration. “Do you girls want to hear this?”
“I do,” replied Gert, slouching down cross-legged into the couch, while I nodded vigorously on the other side of her.
And so he began. The story is about how my Uncle Bernard, when he was thirteen, attracted the attention of a boy of the same age named Mortimer Chambers. A boy, our father said, who though entertaining, could not be trusted as far as you could throw him. Apparently, Mortimer liked to swindle kids out of the best part of their school lunches using a deck of marked cards. Nobody knew the cards were marked, of course; they were Mortimer’s cards. They’d play Gin at recess—it was a fad in those days, the years of the second world war—betting ham and cheese sandwiches and slices of apple pie and the occasional high stakes chocolate bar, in place of real money. And Mortimer, well, he just seemed to have a knack. It wasn’t until some sharp-eyed soul spotted the different, yet subtle, configurations of angel wings on the back of Mortimer’s cards that the jig was finally up.
Mortimer wasn’t known as a bully though—merely a cheat—but something about Uncle Bernard rubbed him the wrong way, and when the two were anywhere near each other it was understood that Mortimer was going to pick on Bernard. It had been almost a case of Tourrettes, with Mortimer seemingly incapable of restraining himself, following Bernard around like a dog from hell, frothing at the mouth; making my uncle, on a regular basis, very unhappy.
And while it’s true that until he shot up Bernard had been unusually small for his age—my father’s photos show him, at thirteen, almost the same size as their younger sister, giving she and Bernard the appearance of twins; my father, towering over them almost comically as if he had come from a separate tribe altogether—what’s most noticeable is not my uncle’s size, but the quality of his appearance; for he was beautiful.
His limbs are long and they are pale, sharing the same leanness my father’s have, but without the line of visible muscle yet running beneath them. And my uncle’s features are even and finely turned; a classical modeling to them that makes him appear strangely familiar. But because Uncle Bernard is young, there is a softness in those features, so that what he suggests with his heavy, blond hair and his delicacy is not a young Apollo, but Apollo’s lovely sister, Diana.
And that just bugged Mortimer.
‘Pansy, pretty boy, princess.’ Mortimer words. Ugly ones. But he could make them even uglier. Bernard didn’t tell anyone; he endured these taunts with a stoicism that bordered on the religious. Fortunately, my uncle had figured out ways of avoiding Mortimer, and because they were not in the same class at school, this worked out fairly well. But when by fate’s sometimes twisted logic Mortimer’s family had moved close to the Gilleys, the situation got worse. Bernard had no choice now but to walk past Mortimer’s house on his way to school.
Most mornings, the tormentor would wait at the end of his driveway, lounging casually against his father’s car—a louche, hustler pose. The bad angel. It didn’t matter how early my uncle woke; Mortimer would be there even earlier the next day. My uncle Bernard didn’t speak to Mortimer, nor would he run away—he’d simply keep walking, knowing that no matter what he did, Mortimer would fall in line at his side, and that the stream of weird questions, and the names, would begin again.
It might have carried on like this, except that one day my father had stayed home from school—not from the one Bernard went to; my father was already at the collegiate, quite a bit further away, which meant that they didn’t leave the house together, nor did they even head in the same direction. My father would be gone long before Bernard had come downstairs; most days they wouldn’t see each other until dinnertime.
But on this particular day, my father needed to see a dentist, or a doctor, or someone like that, and he’d figured he might as well skip classes altogether since his appointment was at noon; there’d be no point traveling the hour to school only to have to turn around almost immediately and come back.
Now in those years their mother worked out of the house—she had a job on the milling machine at the armory over in Springfield, part of the war effort—and this had her running out the front door even earlier than her kids; while Mr. Gilley, he was enlisted overseas with a division stationed in Ireland. The only other family member, their sister—my aunt Donna—had been house-bound for the last three months with tetanus—and strict doctor’s orders to rest with as little stimulation as possible. All of this simply to say that my uncle had been sending himself off to Mortimer on his own.
But not so this day.
The way my father told it, he’d off-handedly asked his brother—they were in the kitchen finishing breakfast—if he wanted company on his walk to school. My father had time to kill, so that was it, more or less. He was being a decent brother. But Bernard had gone white. And emphatically told him, ‘No,’ shooting my father a look to shut down any further discussion. Bernard had started putting away his breakfast things too quickly, and begged himself out of the room so he could fetch his school bag. Then he’d slipped out the front door with barely a goodbye.
Anyone would know that something was off; why had Bernard been so adamant? My father was suspicious, but suspicious in a wholly benign way. He was imagining his brother calling on one of his schoolmates—a pretty girl he wanted to walk to school, maybe, a first crush. It tickled him to think of Bernard as a lover; and on the spur of the moment, my father made a decision to follow him: he wanted to see if his hunch was right. It was harmless curiosity; whatever my father saw, he’d keep it to himself. He had no inkling that he was about to come up against the likes of Mortimer.
I suppose the expectation here is of a certain kind of scene—that my father would confront Mortimer, perhaps scaring him into leaving Bernard alone, threatening to get him in trouble with his parents or his teachers, or maybe—though it would have been unlikely with my father—punching Mortimer’s lights out. And yet none of those things happened.
It’s true there’d been an initial rushing forward from behind a row of trees when my father realized that what he was witnessing was not in the least bit sweet: there was Bernard with Mortimer scissor-stepping along beside him. My father couldn’t hear what this boy was saying, but he could see the antagonism in his body, the way he’d suddenly lurch forward towards Bernard—his hands creeping close at my uncle’s face like spiders—and then pull away. Bernard barely looked at Mortimer, though he’d apparently swatted at him a couple of times without seeming to achieve any contact.
When my father made his sudden appearance, he didn’t say much, except to ask Mortimer what the hell he thought he was doing. His main goal was to get Bernard away from there. Which he did, taking his brother around the shoulders, and walking him the rest of the way to school; leaving Mortimer, who had been too shocked to react just then, stewing on the sidewalk behind them, though he’d eventually shouted something unintelligible at the brothers as they were walking out of earshot.
Bernard had been mortified, but also, upon closer inspection, relieved by his brother’s presence. Before my father dropped him at the front door of Hartwell Elementary that morning, Bernard had told him the whole story, and made him swear on his life that he wouldn’t tell their mother, or anyone else, about what Mortimer was doing. It was pretty much a given that my father would help, but the dilemma remained how.
When my father and my uncle had met behind their house that night—a furtive pow-wow beneath a pale moon that kept slipping in and out of clouds—Bernard was unable to hold back tears when my father suggested, despite his oath, that it really might be best to rat; my father had offered to do it, even. My uncle’s protest—fitful on account of distress—was that it would make Mortimer worse, maybe violent; and no matter what, he did not want to become known as a snitch.
The way my father remembers it, after he’d reassured his brother several more times that it was ok, that there’d be no telling on Mortimer, they’d bandied about the idea of giving that boy a taste of his own medicine; of doing some name-calling right back at him, right there in the open, on the street. But they’d decided that was too bitter; Mortimer would be getting them both down to his worm-eye spirit. And that would be a bad sign.
Without any more specific plan, though, the brothers agreed how the only solution was the obvious one: the next day, my father would walk Bernard the whole way to school. And if it came to this, he’d walk his brother to school the day after that one, and the one after, and however many more days it might take until Mortimer flat gave up. They would go very early in the morning—they had to; my father had school, he would need to get there before nine to avoid any repercussions.
Mortimer was waiting for them; apparently recovered from his previous day’s shock. ‘So I guess Miss Pretty has a big brother.’ ‘What are you scared of flower face? Can’t you walk to school by yourself?’ He’d started in on his mocking just the same, delicately adjusting it to fit the situation. The only allowance Mortimer made for my father’s presence was to hang back some; he didn’t loom unpredictably over my uncle now.
When they were about halfway through the real good mile they had to walk to reach Uncle Bernard’s school, part of that time spent with hands over their ears, my father just stopped cold. He’d had enough of trying to ignore the boy trailing his mockery behind them, a deranged version of a Roman triumph where a certain slave would whisper at Caesar’s ear, reminding him that he was still only mortal.
My father had turned to Mortimer and said the things that anyone would say: ‘What’s your damn problem?’ ‘Don’t you have anything better to do?’ ‘Do you have any idea how stupid this is?’ The questions didn’t appear to bother Mortimer, who stood almost infuriatingly blank-faced, with hands behind his back, and said nothing. When my father was finished, Mortimer just went on with his bad project all the same.
The truth of it is that my father didn’t have the right skills to run any kind of circles around this boy; he’d exhausted his line of attack pretty quickly—unlike Mortimer, who was seemingly possessed of an infinite capacity to keep his jaundice flowing. My father recalled for us how frustration nearly got the better of him; he could feel it boiling up inside, as if egging him to go on and get very angry. But some order of right action saved him that day; my father’s frustration didn’t depart, but ran headlong into a peculiar bounty of fate.
It was pure disgust, the desire to drown Mortimer out, that made my father go for Bernard’s school bag. He’d unfastened the leather satchel, and grabbing whichever book he could get his hands on first, had turned back its cover, and started to read. He didn’t care about the particular book; he only wanted a stream of words to fill up the air between Mortimer and his brother. A seamless wall of sentences.
“ ‘I remember him as if it were yesterday, as he came plodding to the inn door, his sea-chest following behind him in a handbarrow—a tall, strong, heavy, nut-brown man, his tarry pigtail falling over the shoulder of his soiled blue coat, his hands ragged and scarred, with black, broken nails, and the sabre cut across one cheek, a dirty, livid white.’ ”
Treasure Island. Bernard was reading it—not for school, you understand, but on his own, whenever he could find the chance. And as my father continued to read, not caring about telling a story, or setting his voice into the words to lift them off the page more than they already did—and they did—a marvelous thing was happening. For Mortimer had gone silent.
When my father realized it, he began to read slower, speaking the words with animating spirit, and with attention, his voice made powerful through the mind of Robert Louis Stevenson. He glanced back at Bernard who was hovering some feet behind; he wanted to see the look on his brother’s face, but as he did, he found himself handing the book over. My uncle took it without a word, pausing only briefly to find his place, and carried on, reading in a perhaps higher, but no less convincing, voice. Mortimer didn’t budge, he didn’t say anything—how could he?—he went on listening, his ears filling with that pleasure some say is a stepping out of your own skin for a while.
The three of them had come together, standing, all of them, under the same wide light. That light, traveled down from antiquity—before that even—the same light that made a heaven, and our many shades of hell; that light, which lets dead ones walk, which asks the future to reach back to us from the farthest shores: imagination speaking brightness on to unlit caves.
That day it shone down on a rough sailor man, a captain who sang wicked sea-shanties, and got drunk on tankards of rum. This same captain paid silver coin to a boy not much older than Mortimer or Bernard, so long as he’d keep a faithful eye open for a certain one-legged man. This cripple, the boy was sure of it, was after the treasure locked up in the captain’s sea chest.
To Mortimer, who as it turned out, was an awkward reader—though not lacking for smarts, perverted as they were onto schoolyard grifts—and who’d never come across the likes of Treasure Island; the pictures that started moving in his head that day were dizzyingly real. Mortimer had been taken by the book’s dream light, an adventure that walked men along the plank in the Dry Tortugas; and drove fierce, masted ships to battle one another on the dark, high curl of the sea.
I was not surprised. At eight I already understood words—what they were capable of. Each time a story allowed its phosphorescence to travel along my spine, or made the black disks in my eyes fall in love, I understood that words were alive. And so, it must be said, did Mortimer, making use of something else, their hard muscle, the feeling that they could actually kill.
There would be other books after Treasure Island, but on account of that one, a truce was begun. A truce that would come to see Bernard and Mortimer making their way to school together, if not as friends exactly, as a symbiotic creature, my uncle moving carefully, reading aloud, and Mortimer walking alongside, listening to him with something you might call respect. I imagine my uncle was wary, though, wondering if the pilot fish by his side would turn back into a barracuda. I’m not sure if Mortimer got more human, or if he simply came to recognize that fact in my uncle. But Bernard as a target for God knows what sort of rage, that was turned over—that’s what I know—and gradually a new idea of him was taken up: my uncle the ringmaster. Not the entertainment itself, you understand, but its well-regarded keeper.
I almost couldn’t imagine a more satisfying story. I took the whole of it inside me. I made it my own; I would retell it to myself, in my head, and to my sister, too—out loud—if she would listen. It was a beacon, I suppose, a reminder how when things looked blackest there might yet be a way out—something unusual, something it would be hard to figure in the regular way; an out of the blue happening that I couldn’t help considering beside my mother, wondering if somehow, rising like a magic stalk in the middle of the night, I might find my way back to her.