It’s a grim house, ours. Hates to be bothered. The foundations creak under the lightest tread and the screen door squeals, bounces on its hinges when closed. I was dreaming about a twin sister, a girl in mirror image of myself, when the floorboards yelped like a cat in heat.
“Grandmother!” Her name came out tangled in strands of the dream. Even asleep, even then before I had any proof, I knew, you see? I followed her.
Night gusted through the empty hallways and blew through the banister gaps. Unlatched, the door banged and banged, scolding, furious at being drawn from rest. As I stepped out onto the patio, I was careful to pull it flush to the frame, raining grey paint flakes around my feet. The house lifted up on its beams and then shuddered back to its center, quiet again.
Enclosure is important. The division between in and out, clean and dirty, uncertainty and shelter. Division, provenance of houses, the daytime world obeys: town streets cut along a grid and lead to highways. These, in turn, are partitioned by signs, keeping the exurb from bleeding into the suburb, the suburb from becoming yet another neighborhood of the city.
A mother understands division instinctively: a child, being yet unformed can be polluted, can let in what should stay out. Thus, a mother is the house of her infant, queen of daytime, watchtower of night.
This is why a mother wakens when her child stirs. Why a child should not be allowed to remain, as I was, alone after nightfall.
I had been out by myself at dusk, of course. During the long evenings of summer, I filled jars with fireflies, then watched them flicker on and off while circling inside the glass. When the air began to thicken and the stars to grow pointed and harsh, Mama would call from the doorway, “It’s getting late. Come in now.” The fireflies, dizzy from their roundabout journey, would stumble to the lip of the jar, leap upward, then bob back out on course. Up and down, up and down they went, not for a beat losing the light’s rhythm.
But Mama was asleep and besides being late, it was March. Dead or hibernating, the fireflies were gone. The only glow, a shivery aura cast by the moon.
The cold of standing in wet socks had reached me by then and I shook hard, expelling puffs of steam which took on the moon’s weird glow. Part of night and not of me any longer.
Night did that, it seemed. Claimed the shards and refuse of day, but also the yet-unnamed bits and treasures and questions carried around on a person’s clothing, in her memories and in her thoughts. Anything held loosely, anything feckless night wanted for no reason other than that it could take.
Night, the giant. Under its blasted eye, our postage stamp yard undulated and spread, a field of blue-black grass billowing out toward the wood. The cold was bigger than in daylight, the damp more exact, the wind when it blew, screamed and knocked the tree branches together hard enough to rain dry leaves and bark.
I should have shrunk on a stage such as this, but on the contrary, I grew. My limbs lengthened, my vision sharpened, a wiry strength traveled through me as if I were electrified. Even my lungs broadened, opening to engulf giant waves on which the ship of my giant self sped.
I was scared, but also had a loosescrewed urge to start laughing, to burst my seams, to come loose, yield every last-grasped fleck and shard to nighttime.
“Where is Grandmother?” I whispered to the glassy beetles, who gaped back. I imagined her looming, that any second she would bump into sight and we would grin our enormous glee together, wakening the household with our mirth.
“Come out, come out, wherever you are,” I called softly.
Wind jangled the chainlink gate which stood partway open, banked against a ridge of mud.
That very morning Mama had fastened the gate with a heavy Masterlock, new from the store. ‘Unbreakable–Guaranteed,’ the label read. Even the plastic was difficult to open, requiring a sharp paring knife and two separate attempts.
“Keep those deer from eating our tulips,” Mama had said, like it was deer that had been sneaking in and out every night, leaving the gate ajar.
Tulips? I wanted to ask, but held my tongue.
In spite of all evidence, Mama says the wood is safe. She says there are no wolves or bobcats or cobras ready to strike. But even now, though I am far too old, I fear the wood behind our house. A person feels certain things when she stands at its edge. Certain heavy things, like a great emptiness inside the belly, or like overhearing an adult telling secrets. Knowledge you must bear alone, no matter its resistence to intelligibility.
Try to tell Mama and she will not listen. On a better day, she will scowl and roll her eyes.
“Where does a young girl get such ideas?” she cries, rhetorical, to the rain-speckled clapboards. The clapboards which, as usual, offer nothing in way of defense.
If Mama had stood at the wood’s edge beside me that night, however, she might have changed her opinion. As for me, I was shorn of night-drunk laughter the moment I saw the broken padlock pieces lying in the mud.
I can’t help but think it. What would have gone different if. If I’d listened to my fear and gone back inside at that moment, turned deaf to all creaks and squeaks of the old house, learned to sleep. But I guess people always think they could change things with a proper time machine, wised up the second go round, planning do-overs. When the point is, the absolute point, that you can’t ever repeat; you’re a compilation of accidental results. Everybody, a body falling.
Grandmother and her hidden life coiled to me on tendrils of nausea. She had compelled me here with her sneaking past my door. Why?
I did not turn back.
To run in the night wood is to be animal.
Kick up mud, wrestle with branches that would embrace. Sweat putrefies in armpits. Sweat spreads down the back like a spine of ice.
Choke back the taste of metal.
Why run towards? Run a like a deer, but a deer does not track death.
I was a deer. I was a deer. I was a deer in the darkness. (But a deer does not run to.)
Dark. dark. The moon-clawed sky.
In the clearing, the deer halted. She sniffed, her ears widening to catch the sound of another animal too close.
Dark gave birth to a shape, hunched and yellow-toothed as an old woman transformed. Thick-furred, its black nose twitched. A pair of eyes lanced the shadows where the deer stood. Lips peeled back. Huge paws pawed the ground and the beast threw its head up as if to sing.
The howl was like the cry of ghosts. Like an infinite sadness unleashed. Like an evil, un-meetable hunger. The little deer slammed to the ground, buried its face in its arms and screamed.
“Mama!” it screamed. “Mama, Mama, Mama.” One syllable ringing which was the only syllable, the only sound a mouth could make.
Somewhere, far beyond the dense, wet air of the wood, mothers stiffened in their beds like does on the edge of a field, each one overcome by her own fawn’s terror. The mothers knew the perilous wood; they sped down creaking hallways and flung open nursery doors. In the quiet rooms, they ran their fingers across the faces of sleeping children. Cool relief spread through their veins; it was not theirs. Theirs were safe.
I don’t remember what happened.
I suppose I did not die, because after a while I stopped screaming and opened my eyes. It had been grandmother, I knew. Erased now but for a cluster of prints already softening under a light rain.
The sky filled with mist, the kind that rises from the sea, and around me trees, relieved or disappointed, sighed loudly as I stumbled away.
The house rose and fell gently on its foundations, rocked by a human freight of deep, slow breathing, gentle dreaming. All the windows, including my parents,’ were curtained. Nothing had changed. Mama had not awoken.
Mama, my watchtower. If I hollered her name now, howled it like a wolf from beneath her window, would she hear and rush to me, cradle my head against her heart? A mother safeguards what she cares for. A mother is the house of all that is hers.
That night, before the wood, before going out into the night, I had been dreaming a strange dream. There was a girl, a second girl, a twin who shared my bed, my face and my name. In the dream, my mother had two daughters, one good, one bad. Because we had the same name, I did not know if the bad daughter was me or her. Since we slept in the same bed, since we had the same face, it did not seem to matter.
I crept inside on tiptoes, eased into bed without washing. The sheets were slightly warm, as if another body had inhabited them in my absence. In the pause before exhaustion overtook me, I felt her there, the other girl, a body barely out of sight.
The next morning, I sat at the breakfast table next to my grandmother. Mama was in the kitchen, Daddy out. Grandmother hunched behind her empty bowl, spoon in hand, ignoring the gallon of milk that dripped condensation onto a bag of cereal. Blobs of puffed rice cereal pressed against the plastic, pleading in their formless way, for a fate other than my grandmother’s fake molars, the sizzle away of her bilious gut.
Grandmother stared into her bowl. The spoon trembled in her hand and her skin too shook slightly. Her eyes closed and opened, and closed again. When she licked her lips, she stuck her tongue way out and I could see coursing of veins along its underside.
“I’m not hungry,” I called to Mama, who stuck her head from the kitchen and shrugged.
“Finish two slices of toast with jelly or stay at the table all day. Your choice.”
“Ok,” I said too late since it wasn’t really a choice, toaster and fridge sounds already coming from the kitchen. I looked at Grandmother for corroboration, but she only gaped and let loose a thunderous fart.
I hadn’t expected to even see Grandmother again—much less like this, placid and clumsy as a big, retarded baby. When Mama brought out my plate, she barely seemed to notice I was there. Sitting in front of Grandmother, she prepared the cereal and, bite by bite, spoonfed the old woman. Every so often, a rice puff dribbled down Grandmother’s chin and Mama dabbed it away with her shirtcuff.
Grandmother herself did not eat so much as let eating happen. Between bites, she rubbed one lip against the other, thoughtful and drooled. Mama didn’t fight or rush her. She held the spoon aloft and waited, gazing intently at the orange-on-orange framed poster behind Grandmother’s head. There and not.
It was only a dream, I thought, shredding jammy bread with my incisors.
“I knew you were hungry,” said Mama.
It was a dream. I made it up. Crumbs stuck and slowly dissolved against the roof of my mouth. I gulped milk.
“May I be excused?”
“Did you finish?” For the first time that morning it seemed, Mama looked up.
“Jesus, Sarah! You’re covered in scratches.” She was on me in a flash. “How did this happen? Did you do this in your sleep?”
My skin stretched under her fingers, burned. I pulled away, heat rushing to the wounds.
I was interrupted by a clamor of dishes falling. Cereal exploded in the air, droplets of milk spraying on the chair legs, the wall, the kitchen tile. The bowl and spoon clattered to the linoleum.
“Mom! Be careful!” Mama yelled, startled. “Please be careful, Mom,” she repeated, this time quietly, as if to calm the old woman. As far as I could tell, though, Grandmother had noticed neither the yelling nor the overturning of her breakfast dish. Nor did she react as Mama patted milk from her lap with paper napkins. In fact, I was certain my grandmother had not moved a muscle to cause the spill in the first place.
“May I be excused?” I said again.
Mama sighed, but did not turn. “Fine. Run and get dressed. And wash those cuts, please. There’s Neosporin in the bathroom.”
I went fast out, to the upstairs bathroom where I stood in lukewarm bath water to scrub away the dirt Mama had not yet noticed.
“It wasn’t a dream, then,” I murmured and thought of the other girl.
I couldn’t make out words, but from the pitch of her voice I knew that downstairs Mama was still chastising Grandmother as if she were a child. Grandmother, who could fling her bowl to the floor without lifting a finger. Grandmother, my grandmother, the terrible beast, who howled beneath the moon and meant to devour me.
All of this occurred some years in the past. I was too young then to understand the nature of nightmares. That that which haunts you must be stifled by lack of attention, driven beyond the moors of consciousness, out to the borderlands of the self.
Before the night in the woods, I used to catch fireflies in a mason jar at dusk. They circuited like stars within the universe of my hands, pulling me into their infinite choreography of expansion and collapse. When it came time to let them go, I felt like the angel who’s given souls in a burlap sack; shakes them down over the landscape; populates the world.
One evening, however, an evening late in the summer or in early autumn, I must have forgotten or been distracted, or for some reason, decided to keep them for myself. In any case, it was spring, a few weeks after the night in the woods, when I uncovered the jar from a pile of wet leaves. At first glance, it looked empty. Then I saw the desiccated corpses. Five or six dry bodies, heaped up like any lint or dirt from the bottom of my pocket. I shook the lid open and they stuttered out, fast as dust under the grey sky. Quicksilver light run out of them, the infinite loop of universe was vanished, unthinkable. Neither at the edge of night nor day, it had fled from all quarters to safety.
These days, Mama often remarks what a little lady I’ve become, how I have responsibilities. I tried to tell her about the darkness once, about the Other, the wolf, that inhabited Grandmother.
“She is dangerous and has secrets,” I said.
“She feigns imbecility to keep us from knowing of what she is capable. In fact, she is a monster,” I said.
Mama went ice-cool, sheeny-skinned. She slapped me across the face.
Her calm voice pealed, “Ever the guilty what blame the weak.”
Shame mixed with the sensation of being struck, pinked me.
“I’m sorry, Mama.” If I had looked up, would I have seen sadness or disgust? But I kept my gaze fixed on the carpet until she had walked away, left me alone.
Sometimes, I imagine I can feel the other girl, my nighttime-twin, fluttering at the threshold, waiting for me to dream so she can emerge. If, one night, Mama—pulled from sleep by a quiet cry, far-off in the woods—opened the door to my room, what would she think, finding a different girl sitting quietly in my place? My twin, my other, the good daughter who combs her fine hair ’til it crackles, who rests as a gentle fawn, never stirring before morning.
I guess I’m lucky then that Mama sleeps so deep. Not even a thousand girls massacred by a thousand wolves could waken her.