Elizabeth A. Finegan
The mother’s eyes were a smoldering black and fierce like a leopard’s or a tiger’s—and the child darted only the briefest glance at her before quickly lowering her own eyes while she stood clutching her doll, Priscilla, so hard that flakes of cotton stuffing drifted down like snow.
“How could you? How could you do such a thing?” the mother cried out in anguish. “And after all the times you’ve been warned never to enter that house?”
And the child didn’t know why it was she had done it—could offer no satisfactory reason for doing such a disgraceful thing. She tried to remember just what she’d been thinking about that morning, when, all of a sudden, without quite knowing how or why, she’d found herself on the path to the DuVay house—the big old house that was always dark and faintly sinister—so surrounded by great thick pines that daylight never came. And she didn’t know why it was that in spite of being afraid she’d still gone over there nor what it was about the sultry DuVays that attracted her so. She almost shivered as she thought of the family—the hulking girls with their swarthy ma and old reprobate uncle—and all the rest of the queer bunch that invariably hung around—eating and drinking and playing their interminable cards. And if she merely closed her eyes and thought about it long enough, she could almost see them all right now—sixteen-year-old Marvella with eyes as hard and smoky yellow as topaz and lips so full and deeply red they looked like a gaping wound. And Francine that everyone at home called Toots—Francine with the coarse black hair on arms and legs and the sickening garlic breath blowing right in your face the minute she got close enough to whisper her stories of Marvella and boys and what it was they did in the woods at night. And ma—fat gluttonous old ma—with the ruby rings and hair like a fresh-lit torch—wheezing and straining in her corsets if she so much as moved a muscle. And Uncle Fred with his black cigar and enormous paunch—and his hairy hand darting out to pinch any girl that got near. And the others—the nameless others that sat and stood around the table—all dark and brooding with greasy lips and cheap cloying perfume.
She remembered how surprised and flattered she’d been when Francine had chosen her, youngest in fifth grade by reason of having skipped, to be her friend and confidant at school—though there was hardly a one of her endless stories she truly believed. But she always listened to them each day regardless—consumed by a strange sort of excitement and curiosity as to what it was Marvella actually did with boys that so many of them wanted to take her off to the woods. And she’d kept right on hoping that Francine would get to the point and explain it all to her, but so far she hadn’t—just passed off her questions by calling her a baby and saying, “Jeez, you’re stupid! Didn’ yer ma never tell yer nothin?” besides braying out so with laughter and gibbering such a bunch of crazy stuff in her ear that finally she’d quit asking her—deciding she’d ask grandfather about it sometime instead. But, someway she never had. And now it was probably too late—unless maybe on Sunday if she ever got any chance—.
“Pay attention! I’m talking to you!” the mother said impatiently—interrupting the child’s thoughts. “I hope you realize you’ll be punished—because I’ve told you and told you—!” And in her agitation the mother jerked her head about so violently that clumps of hair at her crown sprang up like devil’s horns.
Alarmed at the mother’s anger, the child grew increasingly troubled—wishing she could drop dead or something. While she knew she’d done plenty of things she shouldn’t have that day, she was pretty sure her mother didn’t know about a lot of them. But then, there was always the off-chance she’d found out the worst in some unlikely fashion. And as this idea occurred to her and she considered her mother’s words on punishment, she shivered with anticipation—remembering the moldy old books at her grandfather’s with their pictures of medieval torture chambers where cadaverous men and gross hairy women were hacked into bits or else roasted alive in enormous ovens—the books her parents had positively forbidden in the belief they caused her nightmares—though she knew very well this wasn’t so. For it was rarely of torture chambers she ever dreamt—but rather of unfortunate princes haunting the pages of fairy tale books by her bed—young and handsome princes that were always getting lost in a forest—or kidnapped by the wicked witch and trapped into doing hard labor ‘til their rescue at the end of the story. And the more she thought about it, the more struck she was by the similarity between the princes’ predicament and her own—so she couldn’t resist grinning impishly as she screwed up her face and cried out, “Don’t torture me! Don’t torture me!”
“How absurd you are—talking like some trashy book. Smart enough to be skipped a grade all right, but too big a baby to keep up with the class,” the mother deplored. “Oh—I was warned—warned if you didn’t start maturing soon, you’d have to be put back. And there’s nothing more disgraceful! And we do all we can, but we can’t do it for you. And you promised you’d try. And now just look at you—taking up with those horrible DuVays—. And I swear if they don’t move that moronic girl to another room, I’m going to the principal about it. The idea—keeping a monster like that in with the fifth grade.” And the mother broke off and stood there fuming—regarding the child with scornful eyes.
“But—but—,” the child began—wanting to protest in some fashion but not certain how to go about it.
“Be quiet! I’ve had enough of you,” the mother snapped—her lips tight with disapproval as she propelled the child on upstairs.
“No fairy tales and no Priscilla,” she said coldly as they entered the child’s small sunlit room. And her voice was stern as she ordered the child to undress and spend the remainder of the day in bed.
While she made no protest, the child’s face grew increasingly sullen as she dragged off her clothes, and yanking the flowered nightie over her head, climbed reluctantly into the mahogany bed with the hard-carved posts. And she lay there silent and motionless—though darting occasional furtive glances at her mother through the tangle of her silky lashes.
“Now remember, I said no fairy stories and no doll,” the mother repeated so vehemently the child began to cry—sobbing out, “I want them—I want them. They’re mine! Grandfather gave them to me!”
“Ridiculous! Practically ten and crying over some silly books and a battered old doll. You’re too old to be carrying on like that.” And the mother stood swinging the doll about so savagely its faded blue eye appeared to click open and shut in a flurry of protest. “Why do you want this dirty one-eyed old thing from grandfather’s attic when you’ve all those really lovely ones we bought. And you never so much as a second look.” And whirling about, she gestured indignantly toward the far wall where shelf after shelf held dolls of every description—babies and mamas and girls and boys—all immaculate and untouched—with their china-blue eyes staring myopically ahead.
“Simply too much. Not a child in town has more—. But you’ve never appreciated—and almost ten—and you should start growing up. But, oh no—not you. Just revert back to infancy and start dragging a thing like this around—.” And she jerked the old doll back and forth ‘til its missing eye rattled around sounding like gravel inside its head. “I swear I simply don’t understand you. Why, when I was your age what I wouldn’t have given for just one nice doll—and here you have dozens. And believe me—my parents expected me to work and help them—while you never so much as lift a finger—and everything showered on you—.” The mother’s words trailed off as she stood there flushed with anger—staring irately across the room.
“No—no—,” the child cried—wiping the tears from her cheeks with the back of a pudgy hand. “You can’t take my things. I want them! They’re mine!” and flinging herself back, she lay there kicking and screaming so wildly her face grew an ugly dark red.
“Stop that! Stop it at once! I swear I don’t know what’s gotten into you—. Almost ten and carrying on like a baby,” the mother cried—furiously as she hurled the doll to the foot of the bed.
Immediately the child leaned forward—grabbing up the doll and cradling it in her arms, she lay back saying, “Thank you,” in such a small voice it seemed all she could do to get the words out.
“I’m sure you know why you’re being punished,” the mother said, ignoring the child’s words as she stood nervously running her fingers over a bedpost.
And at this, the child’s expression grew sullen again though she refrained from answering as she covertly watched the mother.
“Not one ounce of respect—just go sulking around all the time,” the mother said sharply as she hovered over the bed, brushing imaginary lint from its cover. “I asked you a question and I expect a civil answer,” she repeated. “I asked if you understood why you’re being punished.”
“Mm-mm,” the child mumbled by way of reply, scarcely knowing what it was she should say.
“Answer me! Speak up!” the mother lashed out so furiously that the child started and would have cried out, but her attention was immediately diverted by the sparkle of the mother’s ring as she stood savagely twisting it about on her finger.
“Blue fire and ice like the one the bad witch stole,” she murmured dreamily, drifting back to her own thoughts.
“Will you stop that!” the mother cried irately. “Head so full of that fairy tale trash you never pay attention to a thing I say. I knew it was a mistake letting grandfather bring you those books,” and she turned indignantly to the bookcase beside the bed where dozens of rainbow-colored books of all sizes and shapes were jumbled together.
At her movement, the child sat up, watching anxiously as the mother approached the shelves.
“You’re simply too big for these things—these juvenile books and mama dolls and all the rest,” the mother declared. “Why, when I was a girl, what I wouldn’t have given for just one of those Encyclopedia sets that we’ve given you—. And I’d have lain awake nights ‘til I’d read every word—besides memorizing most everything in it too—while you—never so much as turn a page—just right on filling up on that trash.” And abruptly breaking off, she whirled about, glaring down at the child as she went on in a stern disapproving voice. “I swear if you don’t start developing some sense and a little judgment pretty soon—for the life of me I actually don’t know what’s going to become of you. Just go prancing right over there with those vulgar people—when I’ve told you and told you—. Right over there with those horrid DuVay girls that always smell so bad and do such nasty things with boys—and that fat old mother that’s practically illiterate and a regular shrew besides—and that degenerate wretch they call “uncle”—and probably not even related—and looks like a gorilla and talks like a race-track tout—. And you waltzing right in with them as big as life. And keep on like that and you’ll end up a regular tramp that nobody decent’ll speak to. Well—is that the kind of girl you want to be—letting dirty boys paw you all over besides doing perfectly hideous things, besides—. Well, is it?” the mother demanded so fiercely the child began to cry.
“Yes—no—,” she whimpered, confused and alarmed by the mother’s words.
“Wha—at? What did you say?” the mother cried in outrage.
But the child didn’t answer her question—merely sobbed out, “I hate you—I hate you!”
“It makes not the slightest difference to me whether you like me or not,” the mother snapped. “But, some day—if you ever grow up right, that is, you’ll apologize for those words as well as thank me for punishing you today. And let me tell you right now, Miss Know-it-all, you go over there one more time and it won’t be me that deals with you next, it’ll be your father that punishes you then!”
“But daddy goes over there all the time—I know he does. I even saw his car there one day,” the child protested.
“You know as well as I do that doctors go where they’re called. And where you go and where daddy goes are two different things, so just remember that,” the mother said shortly as she lowered the blinds before going on out and slamming the door behind her.
At the mother’s departure, the child breathed a sigh of relief and she lay listening to her footsteps on the stairs for a moment before springing up and running to the bookcase where she grabbed “Fairy Tales for Boys and Girls” from the shelf.
“Who does she think she is—talking to me like that?” she muttered—furiously turning the pages ‘til she found the picture of the wicked witch’s house—dark and vaguely sinister—and strangely like the DuVay house. And inserting a finger to hold the place she climbed back into bed and lay staring at the picture so long she became almost mesmerized—almost able to see herself there on the gravel path that wound insidiously through the trees—the brooding path she’d travelled that very morning while all the while she’d felt the trees were growing taller and taller and herself smaller and smaller with every step she took. And she thought of Francine suddenly poking her head out the door—screaming for her to get a move on—and how all the time she was going forward she’d been afraid and really wanted to go back. And telling Francine she couldn’t go in—that her mother wouldn’t allow it—but going right on ahead anyway. And the door swinging wide like a giant mouth opening to swallow her. And then the steps—the dozens of steps—so big and steep she could hardly even climb them. And always thinking any minute now she’d really leave, but all the time knowing deep inside she never would—that it was already too late. And Francine slumped against the door-jamb—her lips curled in contempt as she stood there waiting—looking strangely tall and adult in her sister’s shoes and purple nylons—yelling out to her every other minute to “get the lead out of her pants and hurry up!” And startled by Francine’s words that sounded so strange and not at all the way she talked at school—so startled she lost her grip on Priscilla and had to stand by helplessly watching her tumble clear down to the bottom step. And wanting to go after her, but stopping with Francine hooting and calling her a great big baby for toting that crazy old doll along. Finally reaching the stair-top and standing there breathless and trembling—wanting only to get away—when all of a sudden there was Francine latching onto her—dragging her on inside. Almost blind in the murky light with all of them crowding close—chomping and belching and blowing their garlic breath right in her face—besides rubbing their greasy hands on her newest dress ‘til she thought she’d almost die. And going on miles a minute about her father, Doc Bob—and his terrible prices—and how he was little better’n a horse doctor at that—and on about Mrs. Doc—and her stuck-up airs—and her brand-new fur coat that was ugly as sin and made her look big’s a moose besides—and claiming she, herself, was so puny she’d never grow up and that Doc Bob better tend to some doctorin’ at home and leave off kicking up his heels all over the place. And on and on like that ‘til her cheeks were afire and her heart pounding so she could hardly breathe. And not knowing where to look with all of them staring and baring their teeth and licking their chops like the wolf that ate grandmother—and laughing—laughing their crazy laugh—all of them but Marvella, that is, who came storming by like a thunder-cloud on her three-inch heels—stopping only to run her fuchsia-tipped fingers down Uncle Fred’s spine as he sat there sorting his cards. And desperately wanting to run—to get out and away from them all—but Francine grabbing her arm again and forcing her over to the second-floor stairs—then clear on up to the top—step by frightening step. And peeking down through the railing when she heard Marvella’s giggle—and seeing her wind her long arms around Uncle Fred’s neck while he pawed at her leg. And Francine impatiently nudging her—muttering to get a move on—that she’d a bunch of stuff to tell her before old Marvella came tailing them up. And pressing so close she could even smell her sweaty underwear—her face getting that sly knowing look as she began dragging her into Marvella’s room—then shoving the door shut and threatening to cut her tongue out if she ever blabbed a word. And herself crossing her heart and hope to die if she told a thing. And watching Francine at Marvella’s dresser—dragging out beads and rings and gobs of filmy black she claimed was fancy underwear same’s swells always wore. And flashing a five-dollar bill she’s hauled out from someplace—saying it was all hers—her money from Uncle Fred for never telling on him and Marvella taking off to the woods every night. And finally getting up the nerve to ask Francine why they went to the woods and what they did there—. And Francine’s mouth twisted in that ugly grin as she pressed up close and whispered it all—about girls and boys—and Marvella and Uncle Fred—and how she’d even watched grown-ups a lot of times too. And herself almost believing but never quite—and filled with a terrible excitement and kind of wonder—and wanting Francine to go on—when all of a sudden there was Marvella bursting through the door—eyes enormous and wild as she went for Francine! And Francine hollering out to keep her dirty paws off her and let her alone. And Marvella yelling back to get the hell outta’ her stuff or she’d kill her. And Francine screeching if she dared touch her again, she’d blab it all over town about her and Uncle Fred.
And her own legs turning to water and feeling so weak and breathless she could hardly move when Marvella headed for her—her eyes blazing with fury as she shouted out about her being a nosy brat that had better get lost or she’d sure as hell cut her heart out—besides broadcasting all the dirt she knew on Doc Bob—claiming everyone knew he never went round fer doctorin’ at all but only to go off with the girls. And about all the money and beads and rings he give them every time. And about Mrs. Doc thinking she was so swell—when all the time the whole town sneered and laughed behind her back for acting so stuck-up when everyone hated her guts. And on and on like that—with words reverberating through the room and echoing in her ears ‘til she thought her skull would burst. And too mad to be scared and slapping Marvella’s face—and screaming out what a liar she was and how much she hated her. And seeing Marvella’s eyes go big and round with surprise as she went tearing right past her and on down the stairs—and someway past them—all of them sitting there—still stuffing themselves and squabbling over their cards. And grabbing up Priscilla and bawling all the way home. And climbing the steps on her own front porch—and being yelled at and yanked into the house. And screaming out, “I’ll be good—I’ll be good,” but being sent to bed anyway.
And it wasn’t fair—it wasn’t fair at all, she thought now—as she lay there staring at the picture and mulling over what Francine said about Marvella and Uncle Fred and the things that boys and girls did and even grown-ups like daddy too. And the more she thought about it, the more confused and unhappy she became—more torn between hoping and believing it was all true and hoping it wasn’t—’till finally she grew so thoroughly frustrated and let out such an outraged yell that the parents heard and came running—hoping to quiet her. But, when the child savagely hurled the doll to the floor—screaming out that she hated them and never wanted to see them again or ever grow up in her whole life either, they were so altogether dumbfounded, they could only conclude it was the books that had done it—the trashy books and the doll—that once rid of them, it would be quite different. She’d be happier—and they’d be happier. So tomorrow—yes, right away tomorrow—. And after that, of course, she’d quickly shed her baby ways and commence to mature—catching up with her class so rapidly she’d never have to be put back.
And they stood whispering long over the matter—agreeing again and again that this was how it would be. Satisfied at last it was settled, they hugged each other in overwhelming relief—and would have hugged the child too—but she refused to allow it—shoved them wildly away—screaming out she was fed-up with their eternal yakking—that it was her room and her things they were pushing around and to keep their filthy paws off. They’d no business being there in the first place. And to get the hell out and stay out and leave her alone. And totally aghast, the parents did.
Elizabeth A. Finegan’s work has appeared in Fiction and The Hiram Poetry Review. This story was her first appearance in phoebe.