Authors: Isla Morley
Cicely tells me they are staying at “a darling little inn” just around the corner, which makes Rhiaan clear his throat. “The Biltmore,” he corrects. They will be here to visit every day, she says, but Rhiaan has promised her a couple of excursions.
“There are the papers to sign—maybe that can be one of your outings,” I suggest.
Rhiaan shakes his head. “You and I will do that when you get out of here.”
“I went to see the old house, maybe you can put that on your list.”
“How was it?” Rhiaan asks.
“Small,” I tell him. “I didn’t remember it being so small.”
“What about the farm?”
I shake my head. “I didn’t go there.” When Rhiaan raises his eyebrows, I say, “The truth is, I have been avoiding it.”
“Why is that?”
“I don’t know. Maybe I just didn’t want to face what happened all those years ago. Maybe I didn’t want to be reminded of Mom leaving me there.”
Rhiaan is thoughtful for a while. “I think we should go—you and I,” he says.
Rhiaan leaves the room to answer his cell phone. “When he’s not in New York, he’s on the phone to New York,” explains Cicely.
“But that’s good, right?”
She shrugs. “Don’t tell him this, but I can’t see what all the fuss is about with the new poems. Not that they are bad; they are just such a departure from his other work.”
“Maybe he needed a departure.”
“Maybe.” She smiles.
“Things seem better.”
, is what I have not said, but she gets my drift.
THE NURSE COMES IN to take my blood pressure and temperature, and announces that the doctor will be in soon to take off my face bandage. “How many fingers do you see?” she asks, and I roll my eyes. “Okay, bad joke!” she says. “What are you going to do without someone asking you what day of the week it is and how many fingers you see?”
“Right. How am I going to know who I am if I don’t have someone asking me my name every five minutes?”
“You will just have to look at that fancy plaque of yours, won’t you?” she replies, glancing at the little frame with the mayor’s seal propped up against a vase of wilting flowers.
“You’re going home today,” the doctor announces, scurrying into the room with his clippity-clop shoes.
“Technically, I only go home on Tuesday, but yes, I am leaving here today.”
He peers over my chart. “Right,” he says, snapping back the cover. “I expect you will want to leave your bandages behind, then.”
“The moment of truth,” he says, speaking as though in capital letters. “You ready?”
The nurse hands me the mirror. Steadying it in front of my head with both hands, I wait while the bandage is peeled away.
CLEO’S FIRST GAME, her favorite game, from the time she was an infant till the day she died, was peek-a-boo. Hands down. It beat ring-around-the-rosy, hide-’n’-seek, follow-the-leader. She would even drop the cat for a game. And every time I closeted my face behind my
palms, peeking through the cracks, her face would turn from glee to concentrated expectation. Pursed mouth, saucepan eyes, breathing barely at all, Cleo waited for however long it took. And when the moment did come, her face registered as much surprise as the very first time we played. “Peek-a-BOO!” I would shout, and she would answer with a grin that would split her face in two. “Aden!” she would insist. Each time my face retreated behind its doors, it was as if she feared it had gone for good. Added to that was the possibility that if it were to reappear, it could just as easily be a monster as her mommy. Which made the delight even more acute when it turned out to be the latter.
The day before the roof leaked, the day she caught me in the laundry room sealing Hershey’s kisses into plastic Easter eggs for Sunday’s hunt, we played peek-a-boo for what turned out to be the last time.
“What are you doing?” she demanded, tiptoeing to see the contents on top of the washing machine.
“I’m getting ready for Easter, now go and play.”
“Can I have one?” she asked, puppy eyes on her prize.
“No, they’re for Easter. Now please: go and play; I’ll be done in a minute.”
“Mommy, what’s Easter?” Stall tactics. I was about to say, Go ask your father, because if, in fact, it was an explanation she wanted, I could not think of any easy answer that wouldn’t make the Lord sound like a lemming.
But instead, I put the eggs down and sat on my haunches so that we were eye-to-eye. “Easter is the day Jesus came back to life,” I said. And then I told her how Jesus had died, how his friends wrapped him up in blankets and put him in a cave and rolled a big stone in front of it. I told her they were sad because they were never going to see him again. But then one morning, his best friend Mary went to the cave and she saw the stone had been rolled away, and instead of Jesus, there were only those dusty old blankets on the ground, and an angel. The angel told her that Jesus wasn’t dead anymore. And then Mary saw Jesus, hiding behind the bushes.
I could tell I was losing her attention with too much explanation.
“It’s like this . . . Watch.” I covered my face with my hands. “See, the stone is rolled in front of Jesus. Jesus is gone.” Her face dropped into low gear. “ ‘Where’s Jesus?’ says Mary. ‘Where’s Jesus?’ ” And then I opened my hands. “ ‘Here I am!’ says Jesus. ‘Here I am!’ ” Cleo clapped in delight. “See? Easter is like playing peek-a-boo with Jesus.”
“Aden!” she said. And we played three or four more times till I gave her a Hershey’s kiss and told her to run along.
“EASY DOES IT,” the doctor mutters to himself. And suddenly there is a chin and a cheekbone peeking between the peels. “Easy does it.” The soft cotton pads are coaxed from their obstinate surfaces. And all at once, there I am: peek-a-BOO! Not Mommy, but not a monster, either.
“The scar will fade after a few weeks,” he says, “but the wound has healed beautifully, even if I do say so myself.” He admires my face as though he were preening in front of his own reflection. There are other pronouncements, and when they have all been made and acknowledged with my nods, he and the nurse leave me, my mirror and my face with its perfect
Across my brow, originating where a left eyebrow once demanded plucking into a neat bow and escalating into my hairline, is the visible reminder of that night. The point of impact etched across my forehead; the intent and the result written in the same decisive stroke. Crosshairs. As if I would ever forget who and what had been set in them that night. Or what, in a shattering moment, I had become. And what I had un-become.
I stare at my purple scar. It is the taking of someone’s life, plucked as easily as low-hanging fruit, that dials you into the life coursing through your own veins, animating your own heart. I scarcely can admit it to myself, but there it is, staring at me in the mirror: only in those brief moments, hell-bent on sending two men to their graves, did I feel as though I were resurrected from one myself. A more truly alive instant I cannot recall. Nor one for which I am more sorry.
It is not just my face peering back at me from the mirror, but that of my mother, the warrior.
There is a voice outside my door, and I tilt my head to listen carefully. It belongs to Cicely. I look at the mirror one last time. This time, with my head still cocked at an angle, the purple scar is a cross.
RHIAAN HAS MY BELONGINGS slung over his shoulder in the hospital-issue drawstring bag. Cicely wants to take the flowers, but I tell her to leave them. Only one apricot is left in the bowl on my bedside table. I pick it up and follow my family out the door. The nurse is writing the name of a new patient on the board, no doubt in the vacant space where my own has been erased.
“Well, would you look at you,” she says, turning to me.
It is a spectacular performance, me shuffling along in house slippers, and I bow graciously.
“For you,” I say, handing her Mrs. du Toit’s last apricot.
. For everything.”
We head for the door marked EXIT just as she says, “Goodbye, Elizabeth Spenser; don’t forget who you are.”
The oak trees lining the gravel driveway look as though they have been torched by the fire of Pentecost, a startling contrast against the green and yellow patches of field on each side. Before Rhiaan’s rental car reaches the end of the driveway, the white farmhouse with its green corrugated roof is visible, and a century slips in between. Half expecting my grandmother to walk out onto her red
to see who has come to visit, toweling her hands on her apron, I hold my breath in anticipation.
Rhiaan pulls up in front of the steps and turns off the ignition. We are both quiet. The place is more beautiful than I remembered. Blistering along its torso, the house has covered its face with ivy and the
behind it is closer, as though it girded its loins and crossed the valley to come and console it. When Rhiaan and I get out of the car, the faces of African children compete for space at the bay window where my grandmother’s parlor used to be, where my own face used to look out for my mother’s car. The sign above the front door, the one that used to hang at the entrance to the driveway, says SUNUP. Someone has written beneath it in a black marker, SKOOL. For a while all I can do is stand and smell the dust and the fields, and stare at my past miraging beneath that sign.
To my left is Beauty’s
, also in need of paint and a new roof. Unlike my grandmother’s house, which is garnished with loops of
flower beds, the
is unadorned, Leah rather than Rachel. Beside it is the now-vacant chicken coop, poles with swaths of fence missing. It is impossible to look in this direction without thinking that the
, if anything once an excerpt, is now the chief volume of my story, and contained within its bare walls are all the secrets and sacrifices. It keeps its silence, though, even when all has been told.
I don’t know in what direction Rhiaan is looking when he says, “Some things never change.”
changed,” I counter. This is a different place, not just because it is inhabited by schoolchildren rather than relatives, but because what I know now does not line up with my memories of it. The girl I left behind has a different mother from the one she imagined deserted her. In fact, each of the women who once sat on the
years ago are not the ones I know today. And that cannot do anything but alter it all.
Still reluctant to step up to the front door, I scan the property rolling out to the west where I can be reminded how treacherous a place the past can be.
“I don’t believe it!” I exclaim, wondering if it is possible that I have remembered wrong. Or could the orchard have switched sides?
“What?” Rhiaan asks, following the spoor of my astonishment.
I point to the orchard. “Those are the apricot trees, aren’t they?”
The fruit trees, so long glabrous, rustle their boughs in the morning breeze like ladies sashaying from a hair salon. I hurry out to the field, crunching underfoot a mat of spent leaves, and watch the trees as they shake their heads and shed their curse.