The house is crying.
You try to calm it down, but nothing seems to help. Not singing, not scrubbing, not even spreading out your houseplants so that one sits in each of its windows like a candle. At night, the wood gasps softly, incessantly, and the heaters crackle as though the flames inside them are fighting to burst free. In her bedroom, the window is stuck halfway open; no matter how hard you pull it will not close, and so a chill floats from room to room, touching everything. But the ground-floor bathroom, the ground-floor bathroom is worst of all. Don’t go in. Don’t even walk past for fear of seeing it all over, hearing it all over, a tap running, the damp of wet floorboards, the stillness of bathwater unbroken by bubbles. No. No, squat outside when the need comes (although be careful to stay to the side of the house, away from the backyard). Later, lie in bed and watch the slanted ceiling walls creep forward with each breath you take. If you fall asleep, they’ll come. Fat and writhing, they’ll force their way into your nose, mouth, ears, digest you from inside until your hands are their hands and your face is their face and your body is nothing more than a breeding ground. Do not fall asleep.
The house is crying, and you can’t fix it.
It takes fourty-eights hours to run out of Count Chocula, a week to finish off Mrs. Morrison’s ham-and-corn chowder, and fourteen days to empty the vegetable drawer of its last bell pepper, which you eat like an apple, even the core, until the tiny seeds wedged between your teeth are all the food left in the house. There’s still lunchtime at school—mostly-hollow microwave quesadillas, frozen peas—so at least you won’t starve too quickly. Try to go about your chores like usual. Laundry: the washer gurgles, then dies. Kick it a few times; nothing happens. Dishes: there haven’t been any since you burnt the last of the pasta three days ago. Houseplants: how much water is too much, again? Pour in a little extra, just in case. Then a little more… a little more… Eventually the soil turns a deep, dark brown and water begins to overflow the pot. Stop.
It’s day nineteen—a Sunday—when you finally admit the school’s plastic-cheese sandwiches and canned peaches can’t sustain you. Measures must be taken. Stand in front of the kitchen mirror at three a.m. and comb your long, black hair into two slick braids. Wednesday, the other kids used to call you, Wednesday Addams, with your sickly pale skin and eyes like eclipses. Your eyes are huge. Freakishly huge. It’s three a.m. and your breath fills the whole house, from the icy tile under your bare feet to the rafters far above. Measures must be taken. Rub your fingers into a palette of halloween facepaint, smear black across your lips, and smile wide at your reflection in the mirror. There’s a smudge of black on your front tooth; it tastes like chemicals.
Wednesday Wednesday, they used to chant, who you gonna kill today?
Outside, the streets feel noisy, despite the fact that there’s no one around, only the odd taxi-cab which speeds by too fast to see if anyone’s driving it. No, it’s not a human noise you hear. It’s the streetlamps. They’re humming to themselves, a high-pitched hum that raises hairs on your neck. The streetlamps, and the telephone wires, and the security alarms which blink like a row of little red eyes from above each and every doorstep—they’re all humming. Wander down the middle of the deserted road, canvas bag in one hand, black slippers in the other. You had thought it would be too cold out to go barefoot on the cement, but the ground is strangely warm as you wade through puddles of orangey light (that, or your feet are numb).
Maple Park Grocery is a ten-minute walk, the only convenience store in your crummy edge-of-town neighbourhood. Its neon-red closed sign hums, too. The shop has been gated for the night, tall black bars encasing the “fruit & flowers” display out front. Poor flowers. The shop’s weak fluorescent lights do nothing to help them grow, just like the last of the white bread did nothing to fill you up. Creep nearer. The bars aren’t very close together, not for you anyway—but then you’ve never had a hard time slipping through cracks. You were such an underweight baby you once slid out of your cradle.
Toss your slippers through the gate and then follow their lead. Your chin and bum graze the metal, but the rest of your body squeezes through easy. It’s a little claustrophobic, being on the other side, the world beyond now neatly sectioned off by the bars, but ignore your unease. Measures must be taken. Hum along with the neon closed sign as you pick through boxes of yesterday’s produce. In the morning—the later morning—Mr. Ling will have his staff do just this, toss withered cabbage and bruised tomatoes to make room for fresh produce. No, no, you must not let him be wasteful. Bag a handful of browning mandarin oranges like shrunken jack-o-lantern heads, three overripe pears, a bunch of spotted bananas, and as many dates as you can fit in the pockets of your dress, minus two or three for a quick snack.
You’re about to sneak back through the bars, the canvas bag now heavy against your waist, when you see it, tucked behind an obnoxious fuchsia bouquet. It’s a small plant, its pot no wider than the palm of your hand, with silver leaves that curve bashfully into themselves. There’s something almost elvish about it, something… what? Magical? No, not that. Something hidden, some secret tucked under those curling leaves, something which causes it to glow ever-so-slightly, even under dim fluorescents. Well, the house is down two plants from last week; for some reason, you can’t help but zone out while watering them, and by the time your brain starts to whirr again, it’s too late. But this one can be different. This one, you’ll care for perfectly. Scoop it under your free arm; its leaves dance.
On your walk home, the moon decides to reveal herself, huge and naked and scarred. Pause in the middle of the street and howl at her, a single, unbroken cry, tender and tremulous and desperate as the final chord in a nocturne, a cry you didn’t even know you’d been holding in. When you look to the sky next, she’s gone, and it’s started to rain.
It’s four a.m. when you get home, bounty hugged under your arms. Of course, “bounty” makes it sound like you’re a thief, which you’re not. A thief? No. Can people even steal life? Because isn’t that what it is, this houseplant, with its little moth-shaped leaves? A life? (Well, actually, it’s a… a “silver maidenhair,” according to the label.)
Abandon your groceries in the kitchen and take the stairs to your bedroom two at a time, black skirt swishing at your ankles, plastic pot hugged to your chest. No, not stealing at all. Your bedroom door is open a crack; nudge it with a bare toe and squeeze inside. Thankfully, other than the door (excitable thing), your room is just as it should be—encyclopedias nestled on their shelves, sheets tucked into their pillows, plants prim on the long, thin ledge by the bed.
Tiptoe to this ledge and crouch on the balls of your feet. Outside, the weather has gone from a soft pitter-patter to steady rainfall. An in-between rain. Start to resettle the maidenhair, move it from this dinky plastic thing to a solid clay pot. It’s a young plant, all fresh and darkness free, and as you pat down the damp dirt of its new home, you are comforted by the—the—the what? The rightness of the act. Bury one thing, plant another.
It’s this thought—bury one thing, plant another—which births a question in you. Lean in closer to the maidenhair, close enough to see each teensy vein on its pinky-sized leaves. Could it be—? It’s timid like her, no doubt, not one leaf brushing against another, and modest too; you had hardly noticed it in the grocer’s display, all hidden as it was by the fuchsia bouquet. But is it resilient? Quietly stubborn? Is it beautiful enough?
Pluck the freshly potted maidenhair from its spot on your bedroom carpet and make room for it in the centre of the window ledge. The moon remains half-hidden behind a veil of clouds, save for a few weak streams of light which pool on your window ledge before spilling across the carpet. The maidenhair’s leaves glow silvery under the moon’s touch, but it does not flaunt its beauty (unlike the big fern on the back porch, who is always stretching and preening and stealing sunlight from the smaller plants on either side of it). The feeling in your chest grows.
Of course, the maidenhair can’t be wholly her. No reincarnated thing is every wholly the same. It cannot speak in a singsong voice, nor cup your face in slender, calloused hands. It does not know her stories of stalwart witches and lonely pixies, nor does it share her love for sugar cubes, nor the x-marks-the-spot scar on her chin. But none of that matters. Crawl towards the plant on all fours, then gently, ever so gently, like the old rocking horse from those half-forgotten memories full of rightness and warmth, sway forwards and press your lips against its cool skin—not cold, or chilled, but cool. Close your eyes. Do you feel it?
Three thoughts come to you, three wonderful thoughts packaged tightly together, as though sent by the three moirai. One: this is what you have been waiting for, what she was preparing you for, all these years of tending her (now your) plants have been in anticipation of this moment. Two: the wrongness is gone—there is no rot in her leaves, no parasites chewing at her roots; she is happy. Three: you are no longer alone.
Overjoyed, you laugh and twirl about your bedroom, long black skirt swelling around you like an umbrella caught in the wind, twirl and twirl and twirl. You feel endless as a shooting star, endless and pretty and full of luck. But not luck, no—indeed, this is the unluckiest of occasions, unlucky in the proper sense of the word: this is fate, a gift from atropos. Come to a dizzying halt and collapse, laughter still bubbling in your chest.
The next morning, you stand in front of the kitchen mirror, wiping your glasses with a hand towel until you’ve eliminated every last eyelash, dust particle and dried tear from the lenses. She watches patiently from the sink, next to a bar of lemon soap. It isn’t until you’ve braided your hair and brushed your teeth (twice) that you catch on to how thirsty she is. Her leaves have such a slight droop to them that her need is barely noticeable, but you’ve learned to watch for signs like these—she was never any good at asking for help. Cup your hands under the sink’s running water and pour a few palm-fulls into her pot. She perks up instantly.
On the bus ride to school, a girl with yellow pigtails and pumped-up pink sneakers tries to sit next to you and almost crushes her. Stupid, stupid girl! Doesn’t she see this seat is occupied? Tilt your head downwards and glare at the girl past the arch of your forehead. Wednesday, Wednesday, who you gonna kill today? The girl calls you a word that doesn’t matter in the slightest and spends the rest of the bus ride standing. Giggle when the bus comes to an abrupt halt and she flies forward, the rubber of her sneakers squeaking. Next to you, she sits dainty as a dove, leaves flinching only when the bus goes over a speedbump. How nice, to have someone to share the long ride with! Swing your legs and hum along with the bus for the rest of the ride, dum dee da.
In A block—math with Mrs. Dalhousie—sit in the back corner of the classroom running dirt through your fingers, as though it were still her russet hair. A fat pink robin perches on a branch outside the classroom window, stares in at you with little stone eyes. In its beak wriggles a half-eaten worm, wriggles even though its face, or rear, you can’t tell, even though one of its ends is nothing more than a bloodied hole and its life is worthless anyway, wriggles and wriggles until finally the robin opens its beak and—
“Aislinn,” Mrs. Dalhousie snaps, “are you practicing your long division?”
“Yes, Mrs. Dalhousie.”
“No, you’re not. I have eyes, you know. Now put that plant away and get to it. This is math, for goodness sake, not recess…”
Curl the long, dark rope of your hair into a noose, curl it over and over. Mrs. Dalhousie used to be nice. She used to cook creamy pasta with a side of fresh-baked garlic bread whenever you had play-dates with her daughter. Used to top it off with a big bowl of lime green sorbet. But people can’t be trusted, oh no. Nobody can ever be trusted to stay the same.
On your desk, she basks in a pool of sunlight, oblivious to Mrs. Dalhousie’s rudeness. Her leaves coil upwards, smiling, comforting, as if to say, I’m here, aren’t I? She looks so healthy, so full of life, it makes you smile, too. Of course. Nobody can ever be trusted to stay the same, but sometimes, that’s for the better.
On your way out of class—you’re always the last one to leave, taking special care to fold each textbook and binder into their proper place in your bag—Mrs. Dalhousie blocks the doorway.
“Aislinn, wait. Could we speak for a moment, please?”
She’s clutching her Math 8 textbook to her chest and peering at you down her long, straight nose. But there’s genuine worry in her grey eyes, the crease between her brows, so you shrug.
“Sure. For a moment.”
She loosens her grip on the textbook. Her fingernails are painted bright pomegranate red, yet clipped tight to the nail-plate. Watch the way she shuffles across the classroom in her pointed brown loafers, then shuffles back, dragging a chair with her. It screeches against the hardwood—a bad noise, a painful noise, not just for you but for the poor chair, the poor floor, being ground together like two pieces of chalk. Mrs. Dalhousie steers the chair across from her desk, beckons for you to sit.
“Aislinn, I…” She drums her pomegranate nails against the textbook’s cover. “I want to say I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have snapped at you like that, earlier.”
She blinks at you. Once. Twice. Then three, four, five times. People blink more the more uncomfortable they get. Hold her gaze.
“Aislinn? Do you accept my apology?”
“If you’d like me to.” Make the mean woman squirm. Make her squirm like the half-eaten worm in the robin’s beak. It doesn’t work; instead, she sighs, rests her elbows against the desk.
“I don’t know how else to bring this up. You’ve been… absent, lately? Not physically, that is, but… you’ve been elsewhere. During class. Not paying attention.” Mrs. Dalhousie cocks her head at you, as if to ask if you’re even paying attention now. “Aislinn, your grades are suffering. For goodness’ sake, the past few days you’ve come to school dressed in Halloween costumes. Do you need to talk to someone? Maybe Ms. Melbourne?”
“I do not wear Halloween costumes,” you say, indignant. “These are my clothes.”
“Sweetie, you’re wearing a witch’s hat.”
“Other kids wear hats to school. You don’t say anything about them.”
“Other kids wear toques, and beanies, and, and, and gangster caps. Although between you and me, I wouldn’t mind if those were banned.” Mrs. Dalhousie pauses, licks her pursed lips. “Aislinn, I hate to ask this, but… how is your mother doing? Is she back at the hospital yet?”
“Really?” Mrs. Dalhousie sits up straighter in her seat. “Well, has she… I mean… how are you two…”
“She’s moved on.”
“Well. That’s… well. I hope that she’s happier at her new job?”
Mrs. Dalhousie’s shoulders and forehead relax. “Then she’ll be coming to parent-teacher interviews next week? I called your home, but the phone just rang and rang… Well, who can blame her? Sometimes all I want is to rip the damn thing off the wall, too.”
Parent-teacher interviews? Hmmm. You weren’t expecting that. Peer down at your lap, where she sits, her small wing-like leaves perky, attentive. She’s almost shivering with excitement. Well, why not, then? It’s not like parents are expected to say anything during these interviews. Just sit and absorb. And she’s only gotten better at those two things lately.
“She’ll be there,” you say.
“Wonderful. Wonderful!” Mrs. Dalhousie is so excited she actually claps her hands together, although not with enough force to make any noise. “I have an open slot at 3:45. Will you ask her if that works?”
“Burying another cat, dear?”
Jump at the sound of Mrs. Morrison’s croaky, old-person voice. She’s peering over the fence that divides your properties, though she’s so peculiarly short that only the upper-half of her face is visible: a cloud of translucent white hair, an untamed unibrow, and two watery, bloodshot eyes. Mrs. Morrison is your sole neighbour, at least so long as the property at the end of the street remains abandoned, so perhaps she feels some kind of responsibility for you—that, or she’s lonely. As far as you know, she’s childless and husbandless, which would explain why nobody’s come to collect her yet. A wild tomato plant has taken control of her back porch, its vines strangling the old house’s already-shaky wooden beams, and in the summertime the whole yard smells of rotting fruit.
“Chestnut died two years ago,” you say, “we haven’t had another cat since.”
“Ooooh. Right. Right.” When Mrs. Morrison bobs her head, even the upper half of her face disappears beyond the fence. “What are you doing, then? Shouldn’t you be in school?”
Drop the spade you’ve been working with and slap dry earth from your hands. You stole another plant last night, who knows why, a pot of star-shaped blue hydrangea. You tried arranging the hydrangea around the house, but it simply wasn’t happy. It wanted to be outside, where it could see all its sister and brother stars high above, dangling around their elusive mother. Read the care instructions on the hydrangea’s label as you answer Mrs Morrison. When you plant your hydrangea, take care to give it lots of water, so it can establish its root networks.
“Saturday,” Mrs. Morrison echoes you.
Make sure your hydrangea is planted in rich, moist soil, with plenty of nutrients for it to draw from.
“Say Aislinn, I haven’t seen your mother lately. Is she still working at that hostel over there?”
Water deeply once a week. Do not be afraid of overwatering. Hydrangeas must be drowned in order to thrive.
“What?” you snap.
“Is your mother still working at that hostel over there?”
“Hospital. Hospital, Mrs. Morrison, not hostel.”
“Well, either way, I haven’t seen her. Is she well?”
Snap your neck around to look at her. Her gross, vein-infested eyes are practically bulging out of her equally vein-infested head. Pick up the spade.
“I wouldn’t mind having a cup of tea with her one of these days,” Mrs. Morrison says, tone abject; you can practically see the quiver in her lip. “Did she like the ham and corn chowder?”
Creep towards the fence. The wet grass squelches between your toes.
“If you don’t leave, I’ll kill you.”
“What was that, dear?”
Grit your teeth and shift restlessly from foot to foot, spade clutched to your chest. “Leave. Or. Die.”
Mrs. Morrison blinks. Once. Twice. Then three, four, five times.
“My, aren’t you a little drama queen. Well, tell your mother I’m expecting her call.”
Wait till Mrs. Morrison has inched her way across her lawn, up the back porch, and into the house before you look back at the instructions now crumpled in your fist.
Keep in mind, however, that your hydrangea will not last forever. If cared for and happy, however, it will bloom for a full season; so enjoy its beauty while it lasts!
“No, it’s not a joke.”
Mrs. Dalhousie’s eyes are so wide you begin to imagine them outside of her body, two floating balls of goo staring at you. Why must she stare?
“Aislinn.” Her voice is strained, and now you imagine the muscles of her throat on their own, too, thin strips of red stretched taught in the air beside her. She stands, paces in front of the chalkboard. “Where is your mother?”
“Right there.” Fight to keep the irritation from your voice. She sits prim on the desk between you. In a week, she’s grown to twice her original size. The brown stuff must taste good, despite its smell. She eats it up so quick, you considered having some yourself.
“Did you forget to tell her about the interviews? That’s fine, Aislinn. Not a problem. But please, just… stop. Stop this prank.”
“I told you, it’s not a prank.”
“I thought it was for some kind of science fair,” Mrs. Dalhousie mutters, “always carrying it around…”
“If you don’t want to talk to her, can we leave?”
Mrs. Dalhousie stops pacing, but her pale brown dress continues to swish around her ankles.
“Don’t leave. Stay. I’ll be right back. You understand? Stay.” With that, she hurries out the door, slamming it behind her. There are muffled voices outside; the next set of parents here for interviews, probably. And Mrs. Dalhousie hasn’t even said one thing about you yet. Hop backwards onto the desk. Overhead, the ceiling fan whirs and whirs.
“I’ve been doing fine. You’ve seen. I passed that test and everything.”
Her leaves nod.
“She better not put me in detention. If she puts me in detention, I’ll… I’ll… well, no. You’re right. I shouldn’t overreact. You always know best.”
The voices outside the door grow louder. Count the ceiling fan’s rotations: one, one hundred, two-hundred and one, three hundred…
Finally, Mrs. Dalhousie re-enters, followed by the school principal, Ms. Reinhard. Ms. Reinhard is a cow. She’s tall and wide with dyed-red hair cropped short at the sides. Her jacket has shoulder pads.
“Aislinn,” Ms. Reinhard says. “I hear there’s been some confusion about your mother’s interview.”
Do a quick scan of the classroom. You could shimmy down the drain pipe outside the window, but the soles of your converse are peeling, which probably messes with their grip. Ms. Reinhard blocks the only doorway. Air vents? No, too narrow.
“I want to go home.”
Cradle her in your free arm, her pot somehow heavier than you expected, and swing on your backpack.
“That’s just fine,” Ms. Reinhart says, but her voice is flat, dead, her voice says, that’s not fine. “How about I give you a ride? It’s a long walk out of town.”
“I can walk.”
“Please, Aislinn,” Mrs. Dalhousie chimes in. Her arms are criss-crossed over her waist, hugging herself. “It’s raining.”
Look out the window. The sky is suffocated with clouds, an army of them, grey clouds marching on and on into the distance. The rainfall is almost too soft to see.
“Just an in-between rain.”
Mrs. Dalhousie and Ms. Reinhart exchange a look.
“Aislinn, we called your neighbour, Mrs. Morrison. She said she hasn’t seen your mother in a few weeks. Where is she?”
“Mrs. Morrison is a dumb old hag,” you say.
“Aislinn, that is unacceptable language. I’m taking you home.” Ms. Reinhard storms forwards, arm extended, shoulder pads forming a rigid wall between you and the door. You try and duck around her, but the clay pot in your arm weighs you down, and soon her meaty fingers grip your elbow.
“Let me go! Let me go! I’ll kill you! Did you hear me? I’ll kill you!”
Howl so loud that you somehow don’t notice when Mrs. Dalhousie rushes to her desk and dials 9-1-1. Howl until the police come, and while they try and speak to you in hard, collected voices, these trained killers telling you not to worry, calm down, don’t worry, howl until they give up all pretences and cuff your hands behind your back, but howl loudest, howl loudest when an officer with a nautical star tattooed on his neck picks up mother and carries her out of the room, just like that, she’s gone, and it’s over, and finally, finally, even though you don’t want to, even though you’re still writhing and hissing as the police escort you to their car, you begin to cry.
They make you leave everything behind except a handful of clean undies and your favorite black dress. We can buy you a new toothbrush, they say. We can buy you a new houseplant.
But I need her.
The officer with the nautical star tattoo shakes his head, places her on your window ledge. Undies. Maybe a stuffed animal, if you’ve got one. But no plant.
Howl and bite and kick and kick and kick and kick and kick.
Try to make them understand that the person they find in the backyard under the hydrangea isn’t her, not anymore. Can’t they see she has moved on? Can’t they see she’s gotten a second chance? Why would they take that away? Why are you taking her away from me?
You’re grieving, they say.
Press your face against the rear windshield of their blue-and-white car as it bumps out the driveway. Mother sits on the ledge in your bedroom, alone. Already, her leaves sag. Already, she’s thirsty. It won’t be long now until they come, fat and writing, their tapered bodies forcing their way into her mouth, nose, ears, little red eyes aglow like fiery comets; no, it won’t be long, and once they’re done with her, once her hands are their hands and her face is their face and her body is their body, once there’s nothing left for anyone to remember her by, then, in the night, in a stranger’s bed in a stranger’s house, then they’ll come for you.