Mother is brushing my limp hair. She piles it on top of my head, she braids it, she arranges sprigs of baby’s breath that only end up falling onto the floor. She throws her hands up, dropping the brush onto the dressing table.
My sister looks up and beams a gummy smile as she bangs two blocks together. Mother runs her fingers over my sister’s fuzzy head and says, You will have bouncy, glorious curls, yes, you will, but when my sister’s hair grows it is as listless as mine.
Papa swoops through the doorway on shore leave. Snow-covered and roaring with joy. We run to him and he lifts us into the air, one in each arm. We nuzzle his coat. We breathe in his wildness. We smell the sea that clings to him, reminding him to come back. He sits by the fire and asks for stories and we trade the thread of the tale of when he was gone back and forth, words riding the warm air until we have lulled Papa to sleep and we curl up with him. Three sleeping hounds by the fire. Breathing like one creature.
Every morning when Papa is at sea, the maid heats the tongs on the fire. She frames Mother’s cheekbones with playful curls and Mother leans in close to the mirror to blow herself a kiss. Her eyes are a sparkling, enchanted pool and she loses herself in them sometimes. Shaking herself awake when she feels our small hands on her arm, she swoops down the stairs and out the doorway. We watch the horses trot away, their heads high and haughty.
As we grow taller she buys me silken gowns, dresses my sister in lace so delicate it bruises. She gives us matching pearl necklaces. She coats our faces with white and our lips with vermilion. She says It takes attention from your nose and Can’t you ever walk with a semblance of grace and Only one meal today, you fat ugly things. Then smiles as if she is saying love words. Runs her hand over our too-plump cheeks.
When Mother tells us that Papa’s ship has sunk, we run upstairs to our room. I open the armoire and we pile in together, just two small shaking hounds now, sitting in the dark. My sister asks for a story. Once upon a time, I say, pretending the warmth of our breath is the fire, pretending the gowns hanging behind us are Papa’s arms. Once upon a time, the sea fell in love with a good man. The good man loved the sea too, but he kept going to shore and every time he did the sea’s heart cracked a little more. Until one day, the sea rocked the man to sleep. And pulled him down, and down, and promised to never let him go.
Mother sells the golden candlesticks. She sells the chaise longue. She sells the sable coat that turned us into bears and wolves on rainy days. She sells the chairs and the tables and the rugs. She sells the sapphire earrings Papa gave her when I was born. She sells my sister’s doll, the one in the green gown with her own purse and tiny golden coins inside. Mother sells her own green gown, she sells every gown but the one she’s wearing, she sells and sells until our whispers echo. She sells until all that’s left to sell are her sumptuous curls or herself. So she chooses herself.
In the new house Mother wears a diamond ring. Her new gowns are silkier, glossier. Her glittering reflection is everywhere. Mother’s new husband looks at our too-plump cheeks, our too-big noses, our too-sunken eyes. He says to call him Sir. His daughter does not say anything at all. She sits by the kitchen fire mourning her mother, her tears making tiny dark spots in the ashes. We are impatient with her silence. We are impatient with her grief. We are jealous that her mother loved her so much that her love still hovers in the air. In the ashes.
Often in the night I wake to Mother pacing our bedroom. Candlelight on her gleaming teeth as she hisses, Monstrous girls. Hideous, dreadful girls. My sister’s sweet sleeping breath behind me. I close my eyes and count to ten, willing Mother away before my sister wakes. Sometimes it works.
The new husband sits in the ashes with his daughter, trying and trying to get her to speak. When she won’t, he sits with his head in his hands for a long time before standing. He snaps his fingers and the scullery maid brushes the ashes from his long woollen coat. The next day he leaves for a long journey to make money to pay angry shopkeepers for the gilt-edged carriage and the mirrors and the diamonds on Mother’s long fingers. When he’s been gone two days Mother brings a moth-eaten blanket to the kitchen and sets it next to the girl. You like it so much in here? You don’t need your fancy bedroom, then.
She turns to me and claps her hands. Her exquisite smile is focused on me and despite everything my heart soars. There! she says. No more sharing a room with your little sister. You’ve got your own room now, won’t that be lovely? That night I lie in the girl’s curtained, canopied bed which smells like lilacs, the way the girl always smells even though she spends her days by the fire. I lie there and all I can think of is my sister alone and Mother’s seething words. The way the candlelight catches the spittle spilling from her mouth.
I stride back down the hall and under the covers I nestle my back against hers. I don’t sleep in the girl’s room again.
Mother smashes the peacock vase when she discovers her new husband is not wealthy enough to rate her daughters a place at the Palace Ball. My sister and I stand on the stairs, watching, and we squeeze each other’s hands, saying with our fingers It will be all right as our mother turns the peacock into powder with her boot. Then runs upstairs to smash us.
My sister’s eyes are closed. She’s running her finger over the spinning globe in the new husband’s library. Stop, she whispers, and I stop the globe. She opens her eyes and taps the globe, a place as far from Mother as it’s possible to go. We will sail there, she says, and she is so sure, so earnest, I turn my head so she can’t see my mouth twist. And we will live in a small cottage. And the smell of the sea will be everywhere.
Later I wait at the window until the cook has gone outside to fetch water then run to the kitchen. The girl doesn’t even look up when I scoop a handful of ashes into my hands. Upstairs I hide under the bed. I inhale the stale smokiness and wait, but all I can think of is my father, showing me how to add and subtract. Telling me I am so very, very smart.
I don’t feel a mother’s love. Not hers. Not my own.
The dark streets are damp with rain. It’s stopped now, though, and we know to be out of Mother’s sight tonight of all nights. We wander the town and hope Mother will have fallen into her wine glass by the time we return.
I stop, bow to a broom left outside a bakery, my nose almost touching the ground. Oh fair lady, I say in the Prince’s plummy drawl. Won’t you dance with me? The broom and I twirl and spin to the faint music that drifts from the Palace and when I grow tired of Miss Broom I throw her down on the ground. Your ugliness displeases me! I pronounce as my sister giggles. Bring me someone beautiful! No, better, bring me someone rich! And we wonder as we skip laughing past the dark shops — who would wish to be in that stuffy room, when they could be here in the wind? In the dark?
The scullery maid is dusting the kitchen and chatting with the cook — made of glass, they say. She dusts the counters and the mantelpiece and the stone-silent girl. Whoever fits it perfect, they gets swept away to the Palace!
The cook says, Oh yes? Well I gots a dainty foot, me, and pirouettes with surprising grace as the scullery maid goggles. I turn to leave and see Mother standing behind me. Her eyes bottomless.
Mother taps on our door and opens it. We bumble our way to awake, my sister sitting up faster, saying, Strawberry tarts! Oh! and Mother puts the plate between us on the bed. The tarts are glistening, the tops cut to look like flowers.
I made sweets for my sweet girls, she says, and we are helpless before her dazzling attention, her gentle kiss on our foreheads, and when the tarts are bitter we only say thank you Mother, thank you.
I am lying on the couch counting the squares on my gown when I hear my sister howling. I stumble down the hall, still counting the squares because I can’t stop, and I see my sister clutching her bloody foot. Mother pushes me down on the sofa and all that’s in my head are numbers and she wrenches off my boot minus one and opens her scissors and whispers, You won’t be ugly when you’re Queen. I draw breath to reply and the blade decapitates my foot, and on the floor my toes minus five mingle with my sister’s toes minus ten and our toes are so surprised to meet each other in this spreading ruby pool.
I hear a flurry of knocks at the front door, a shout of Open for the Crown Prince and Mother drops the dripping scissors. She runs down the hallway and I grab my sister’s hand. We stumble, two good feet between us, through the kitchen to the back door. The girl doesn’t look up. I fumble at the latch and then we’re in the fields behind the house, lurching through the tall grass, our ragged breath crowding our ears.
And perhaps we run all the way to the docks. Perhaps a kind sailor, on hearing our tale of woe, bandages our too-small feet. Perhaps the golden bracelet around my wrist is enough to pay our passage to the other side of the world. That is the story I will tell my sister, as we lie together in the forest. Our blood soaking the soil underneath us. We live in a cottage, I will whisper, stroking her limp hair, hoping to see her smile. And the smell of the sea is everywhere.
Sage Tyrtle’s work is available or upcoming in X-R-A-Y, The Offing, and Cheap Pop among others. She’s told stories on stages all over the world and her words have been featured on NPR, CBC, and PBS. She runs a free online writing group open to everyone. Twitter: @sagetyrtle