Editor’s content warning: sexual abuse
Before, when we were mother and daughter in blood and fact, we spread a blanket out behind our old home in Virginia like my mother and I had done years before. Crickets and fireflies. And always the murky heat closing around us between the storms. Air heavy as molasses. We spread a blanket and we would catch the fireflies and watch the sky for comets. Before. When we were mother and daughter in blood and fact.
The house is still here, of course, and I sit deep in its confines now. I rarely go into the yard. Walls thick with elaborate wallpaper, intricate coffered ceiling, snowdrop chandelier, baby grand piano, old writing desk, antique blue sofas. I grew up in this luxury.
When Melody was small, she hid behind the old stiff curtains—blue and grey like the sea. I would see her little foot beneath. But I’d pretend I couldn’t find her. By the time she was seven, she wouldn’t show her feet. She had real reasons to hide, then, or so she believed.
For a very long time, I kept her hiding place a secret. (I kept it a secret until the day I didn’t. Until the day I couldn’t. Until the day after )
Sometimes, I think I see her little foot peak out from under the curtains. Delicate. Small. Fragile. And I rush to the curtains and pull them apart. She is never there. Just dust and sneezing. I doubt a little foot will ever touch those curtains again. Mine did once. My foot and Melody’s touching the same space. At different times.
I wonder if she will return to this house when I die. The walls are steeped in the history of her grandmother’s grandmother. Mold undoubtedly grows under the wallpaper. If future inhabitants ever pulled the wallpaper off, they would know. They would see the mold rotting wood. Black, damp, deadly. Eating the walls. Mold from the summers between the storms and the secrets breathed by women across the generations. The hidden breaths of wealth. The hidden breaths of slaves. The hidden breaths of servants. Mistresses. Masters. And their collected breaths beneath the wallpaper all feed the mold just the same.
Sometimes, at night, I think I hear screams from the walls. Behind the wallpaper their breaths are released. I sink deeper into my bed and reach across for a man long gone. In the dark my hand looks smooth and without wrinkles. In the dark I can pretend he has gone to the toilet. But the screams do not stop.
I wonder who else hid beneath the curtain, hid in the sea of grey and blue. I tried once to do it, but I am too large. I make a dent. Now I take up too much space to disappear.
I cannot disappear. Instead, I sit on my chintz armchair gazing at little glass figurines of dancers glittering in soft lamplight. I sit and ignore the peeling wallpaper and the layer of dust over the cherry tables. My hands play with a pearl necklace, diamond earrings, my wedding ring soft with gold.
My will leaves everything to Melody. She will have to come back to this house. Or send someone to sell it, I suppose. She’s married now. Her husband perhaps will come. I have seen pictures of him. I see pictures of her children too on the computer. Her youngest daughter looks like me. Her eldest daughter looks like my husband. I write to the children, Mary and Andrea. Sometimes I wonder if they ever see my letters. At least Melody has never sent them back.
At night the house frightens me. Darkness wraps around all of my treasures and suffocates them, swallows them whole. The air grows thicker with the perfume of decay. It is home, and I will not leave. (I want to leave.) Melody will never add her breath to the house’s moist exhalations. (She was stronger than me; she escaped.)
My mistake was love. I cannot stop reaching across the bed at night for the man who isn’t there. Can anyone understand? And Melody, she knows. If I could stop reaching for him, I think maybe she would reach for me. I thought, after he died, that she would come home. They didn’t come to the funeral. She didn’t come home.
We were married forty-three years. I loved him every one of those years. (Even after. He didn’t mean for it to happen. It wasn’t even…it never went that far. It just )
Melody loved the stars. She traced them with chubby fingers on the hot summer nights. Her hand in mine. On the blanket. She was never afraid of the dark when I was with her. The dark never swallowed us when we were together.
Why doesn’t she come back? Now, when it is over. I never did anything but love her. I loved them both. (And, to love them both I had to )
I didn’t see anything. It was cloudy the night it started. There were no stars or moon. And the lights were off. His voice soft and tender. Hers not yet frightened. Not at first. It’s not as if he actually ever went too far. He just loved. And needed. He never went too far. I left the room without turning on a light. Because I knew him. He wouldn’t ever hurt her.
The next morning she hid behind the sea curtains and no foot showed. I made her a porridge breakfast, but she wouldn’t come out. He came looking for her but didn’t ask me where she was, so I didn’t say anything. I finally went and grabbed her, pulling that little seven-year-old child from behind the curtains. I told her to stop crying. I persuaded her gently. (I smacked her across the face.) I didn’t lose my temper. She stopped crying.
Months later, Melody called for me with muffled screaming. But he was with her, so I stayed in bed and reached for a man who wasn’t there. He didn’t come back for a very long time. Because he was comforting her. From whatever monsters there were in our ancient home. When he returned, I curled into him and he sighed into my hair. And I loved him. Always.
The next day, when he asked where she was, I told him behind the curtain, because she was silly to hide from him.
Years later, I realized that I never saw her cry again, not after she stopped hiding behind the curtain. She never sat outside with me on the blanket to watch the stars again. We are still mother and daughter. By blood.
(Nothing ever went too far, I know, but I keep her room shut because sometimes I know that maybe )
I keep her room shut. There is a draft that comes from that place in the house. I don’t want to catch my death from cold.