by Cheri Brackett
Sometimes a window opened and a magical wind blew through, clearing the particles and dust and clouds that circled around my mother and kept her turning and spiraling in her own world. We had no warning. She just showed up. And when she reappeared, so did my father. He’d cancel his day, whatever plans he had, even his work, and he’d approach her altar for the tenth, twentieth, one hundredth time and surrender his soul to her smile, her laughter, her eyes taking him in with delight. He became a believer that she could once again complete the circle of our family and redeem us all.
By the time I was twelve, my father and I had relegated our breakfasts to cereal and the occasional toaster waffle, so when the smell of bacon greeted me as I tentatively peeked around the swinging kitchen door, I both cherished and resented the winds that had blown through some time during the night. My father sat at the table sipping coffee, already under her spell and the fresh nectar of her affections.
Mother wore her favorite yellow dress, cinched tightly at the waist and spilling in folds to her knees. He’d bought it for her years ago on their last trip together, the one she had to have because it reminded her of buttercups dancing.
“There you are, sweetness! Come sit down, Sylvie,” she said to me. “There’re plenty of pancakes left, although it’s a miracle—your father’s lumberjack appetite would have devoured all of them if I hadn’t rescued them for you.” She winked at my father.
He melted like the butter she slathered over the stack on my plate. I melted, too. We knew better. We both did. But we gave in to the irresistible bliss of having her as she once was, knowing without a doubt that she would once again leave us—more fragments, more sorrow, more grief. Neither of us exchanged words, not even a glance for fear of breaking the spell and forcing ourselves to face the inevitable.
“We’ve decided to go on a picnic today.” Her voice held the excitement of a child. “The sun is shining, and it’s warm enough out there today. Your father’s going to stay home from work, and you can stay home from school. It’ll be an adventure. Our most delicious adventure.”
She’d already begun to bread and fry the chicken—her energy so engaging, like she’d just been released from solitary confinement and desperately reclaimed the time that had been stolen from her. That confinement offered no entry point for my father and me. As much as I wanted to know, I dared not ask her how or why she came and went, for fear that the mention of it would take her back. Take her away from me. From us.
I looked at my father. His eyes never left her. Like a young man again, his voice and movements giddy, he reached over and took her hand. We sat at the table for what seemed like hours, watching my mother as she moved around the kitchen preparing way too many dishes for one picnic.
Relishing all of us together again, so lovely, so perfect. “I’ll be right back.” I ran out the side door into the back yard and stood underneath the arms of the tall maple a few steps from the kitchen bay window. My own private theater, I watched the two of them, like movie stars, laughing, holding hands in that new-love kind of way. I needed to see them like that. To witness the beauty of them, the strength of them, the rightness of our life in this moment, and sear it in my memory, branding the image and feeling the warmth and safety.
Over my head, golden leaves whispered softly to each other, then dove to the ground without care or worry of where their journey would take them. They floated freely, trusting the fall wind, still tender with summer’s warmth, to cradle them softly to the ground.
There I stood, leaves falling all around me, in much the same way she stood on that day four years earlier, when in the middle of my third grade year, she left us for the first time.
The wind blew particularly cold on that afternoon, the kind of cold that comes too early—damp, bone-chilling cold that on the backdrop of the previous day’s propitious warmth was too jolting. There wasn’t enough time or warning to acclimate. The change came too quickly, too unexpectedly, and I still half-believe that if that day hadn’t turned in that way, my mother also wouldn’t have turned.
When I walked out of the school’s double glass doors, she stood under the colorful maple canopy in her bright yellow raincoat, her matching rubber boots strapped loosely around her ankles. Gold and red leaves fell all about her. “It’s raining,” she spread her arms to the sky, smiling, then wrapped a plastic poncho around my shoulders. “It’s good for us. Our hair and skin.” My mother always tilted her face toward the rain, relishing the moisture like it was an emulsion from the heavens.
“Come on!” She grabbed my hand and pulled me toward the sidewalk that led the several blocks to our home. “You know what day it is! And I’ve prepared some especially juicy surprises.”
We hurried home. Every Wednesday afternoon she’d spin her stories of fairies and magic and evil-doers. All of my friends and I, at least those close enough to walk or ride their bikes, would sit circling my mother, ready to be mesmerized. She had the best imagination. The kind that was quick and understood what made good drama; the kind that understood the minds of little girls who drifted in between the worlds of reality and fantasy.
Holding hands as we walked, she, as usual, wanted to know all about my adventures that day. She listened and asked questions that let me know she really heard me. Just before we crossed the street, she tucked my blond wisps behind my ear with her fingers and told me how beautiful I was. I always felt beautiful when I was with her.
When we got home, we peeled off our wet clothes in the foyer and laid them across the bench to dry. Draped over the back of the bench was a long silky dress made of strips of incandescent fabric. The bodice was quilted velvet, purple, deep like wild violets, with brown leather strips laced behind for the perfect fit. She must have made it that morning after she’d scooted me and my father out the door, flitting her fingers, moving us across the floor.
“Off, off you go now. You’ll both be late.” She handed us our lunches and disappeared into the laundry room, where her sewing machine and boxes and boxes of fabrics waited to come alive in her creations.
I often envisioned her in there wielding her wand in earnest like The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
I stood completely still, captured by what I saw.
“Do you like it?” she asked.
“I love it! Mom! I absolutely love it! How can I not?” I held the dress to my body, felt the soft plushness of the fabric and quickly pulled it over my head.
She drew the strings tightly around my chest and waist then twirled me around, the tapered edges of the skirt fluttering like a maple seed falling to the ground.
“There’s one more thing.” Her eyes smiled as she reached behind the bench. “Close your eyes.”
I quickly squeezed them tight, and when I opened them, she held a headpiece in her hands. It was a pillbox made from the same velvet and out of the top billowed long delicate waves of fabric, the same as in the skirt—the headdress of a genie.
She turned my face toward her and placed the velvet cap on my head like a crown. “Stunning!” Her face beamed with satisfaction as she held her large hand mirror for me to see. I beamed as well.
“Now you have your own magic powers,” she whispered dramatically, already wooing me toward the edges of my own secret fantasy.
I twirled again and, seeing my reflection in the mirror, felt my own powers rising.
The doorbell rang. It was Lacey, my closest friend. It rang again and again. Despite the cold, despite the rain, my friends came. Every one of them. They—we—all wanted to be ushered across the threshold into worlds where the impossible became possible.
“You girls go into the living room. I’ve laid out more fabrics on the table in there. Choose what you want and wrap yourselves up into something you can’t wait to pretend to be.”
We knew what to do, although we usually saved this ritual for the end. She’d have laid a spread of cakes and cookies which we’d devour after she released us from her spell. Beside them would be several layers of bright silky fabrics strewn across the table, and we’d wrap our heads and bodies, without having to identify who or what we were.
“Just be whatever you imagine,” she’d say, as she cut the cake and licked the chocolate from her fingertips. Then there’d be music, and we’d dance and sway, our bellies filled with sugar, our minds still floating in the images of her stories.
Her voice called from a back room. “And get warm by the fire. I’ll be there in just a minute. Sylvie, serve your guests some hot cider. It’s there on the hearth.”
We all sat warming our hands and feet in front of the fireplace. Each girl had chosen several pieces of colorful fabric and had created images of their own fantasies. Lacey chose several of the incandescent pieces that matched mine. We sat close together in front of the fire, both sifting our fingers through the soft, glistening folds.
Inseparable since kindergarten, Lacey and I shared everything with each other—our lunches, our secret crushes on boys, the hidden fort we built in the pecan tree that grew on the border of our backyards. I never worried about Lacey, the kind of friend that you could tell anything to, laughing at me or sharing my secrets with anyone else. Neither of us had sisters, so we made a pact we sealed by scraping the very white thin layer of skin on the inside of our wrists and joining them together, swearing to a blood bond even greater than that between sisters.
“You are so lucky, Sylvie,” she whispered leaning over toward me. “Your mother is so…so exotic. My mother wouldn’t know what to do with a sewing machine, and if she did, she’d make something utterly boring, like a plain skirt.”
My chest swelled a bit. Lacey was right. Her mother was ordinary. When Lacey ate dinner at our house, we had tea candles and cloth napkins, and a camellia or a gardenia floated in a water bowl in front of each of us. Every condiment had a special dish and serving spoon. Even the ketchup. My mother couldn’t stand placing what she called “garishly ugly plastic bottles” in the middle of the table. And she made sure her guests felt they were the only thing she had thought about that day.
When I ate at Lacey’s, foods that came mostly from a box in the freezer sat on paper plates, her mother made the quickest accommodations for a most inconvenient distraction—me, barely an afterthought.
Six of us sat in my living room that afternoon. When my mother came in, we looked up, our mouths and eyes widened. Our breath stopped involuntarily. In front of us stood a Queen of Gold. Not only had she created my favorite fantasy, but she’d fashioned her own masterpiece of luminous splendor—golden layers that sparkled and spun tightly around her chest, waist and hips, then splayed out at the bottom like a trumpet flower. Around her head she wove threads of gold ribbon, and in her hand she held a wand with a burst of gold beads that rattled on the end. Every part of her exposed skin glistened with gold dust that echoed the flames in the fireplace.
“Are we ready?” Already in character, her voice was soft, yet commanding. Each of us spun around to face the golden story weaver, ready to be placed under her spell.
“Today we’re going to do things a little differently,” she said. “I want each of you to close your eyes.” In the quiet of the room, our eyes closed, we could hear the crackling of the fire and the swish of her gown as she moved in and around us. Then she stopped and continued her weavings.
“Be still,” she whispered. “Completely still.”
Our silence was thick with anticipation. I could only hear my heartbeat.
“Now listen to my words…we’re going to create a world, a different world—all of us together, this time. Each of you will be chosen to play a part, to complete the story and make it become real.” She emphasized real with a rush of breath, and her wand rattled like charms.
This was new. She’d never invited us to participate in the story like this before. We remained still, all of us hoping that we might be chosen as the heroine, the beautiful princess or brave peasant-girl who was smart and cunning and could lead her people to safety.
“Now breathe deeply,” she whispered, “and wait for me to come to you. I will touch you with my golden wand, and you shall become what I name you.”
She again circled the room. She passed me and stopped.
“You will be the warrior princess,” she said to Amanda, who sat to my left. Amanda had buttery skin and hair, and her eyes were soft and sweet. “You will be attacked for your place in the kingdom, but you will prevail.”
Mother then moved quickly to me and rested her beaded wand on my head. “You are her wise magician. You will guide and protect her as the great angel instructs.”
I secretly smiled, thinking how my new outfit perfectly fit the part.
Then she turned again, quickly—so quickly she caught my knee with her foot and almost lost her balance. She moved with an urgency across the room. “You will be the archangel.”
I peeked through squinted eyes to see who was chosen. Margaret, tall, long red hair with poise like a dancer. The perfect archangel.
“You know all, see all, can do all, but you limit your own powers. You can only use them through the wise magician.” Her voice became more of a demand, a little shrill, and while it wasn’t what we were used to, the newness of it all was exciting.
She moved through the rest of the girls, touching them with her wand and setting their imaginations in motion. Jocilyn became the handsome field hand with unsurpassed devotion to the princess. Kristen, the sick child that the princess would take mercy on and vow to free from poverty. Only Lacey remained unnamed. A weighted stillness filled the room. Everyone leaned to hear what character Lacey would be, and then we’d all play our parts in the story.
Mother turned again and paused.
I knew that she was weaving the story in her own mind, and soon she’d deliver it to us. Then the beads in her wand began to rattle, quietly at first then loudly, wildly, and I heard her chant a kind of incantation in a language I didn’t understand. I opened my eyes.
My mother was spinning her wand high above her head, whipping it in circles toward the ceiling. Her eyes were wide and stern. Her face flushed. Her jaw tensed. She willed whatever she saw to come down into the room.
I sensed it then. Something that wasn’t right. The same hint of something I’d felt in much smaller measures before—sometimes in the grocery store, and the gas station and once in the library, standing in line where she was more than impatient by the wait and the crowds. She said she felt hemmed in—against her will. Those were her words. Against her will. Nothing ever really came of it. Sometimes she’d admonish the checkout person or snap at the person in front or behind us. I’d feel a little embarrassed, and sometimes the people around her looked at her oddly, but her mood would quickly pass once we got outside again. And I just thought she was tired or had a hard day. Everyone has hard days.
“Now…” She drew out the word and created a pause of suspense. Then her voice turned stern, crisp, “Who will be the devil?”
I felt a chill, like ice against my chest.
She continued, slowly enunciating her words, “Who is the demon, Satan, who will try to destroy our souls?” She had never spoken of devils or Satan.
My stomach twisted. I opened my eyes and looked directly into hers.
She looked back into mine, and for a fraction of a moment, she paused again, like she teetered on an edge from which she could fall in either direction.
“Stay,” I whispered under my breath. “Stay.”
But she didn’t or couldn’t, and she fell completely under her own spell.
She looked at Lacey and pointed her wand directly at her face, holding her like a prisoner in her gaze.
“You, Lacey. You…are…Satan! Yes! You are the tormentor!” my mother hissed, the edges of her mouth twisting with disdain.
“I…Mrs. Holland…I…don’t want to be…Satan,” Lacey’s voice trembled when she spoke.
“But you already are, my dear,” my mother smiled then snickered. “You already embody the coal black embers of his wickedness. Can’t you feel it, you filthy slime?”
Lacey covered her face and burst into tears. Shock sucked the air from the room. Only Lacey’s sobs remained.
“Oh, pull yourself together, you pitiful deceiver.” My mother unrelenting, her voice bitter, her eyes squinted and harsh. “You think you can make us all feel sorry for you, when you are the very one who wants to crush our lives, smash us into little pieces?”
Lacey jumped up from her seat and tore the silky strips of fabric from around her head and body and threw them aside as she ran from the room. The corner of one piece landed on the edge of the fireplace and caught fire. I quickly pulled it out and threw my cup of apple cider on it. The front door slammed.
The smoke. The smell of the melted fabric. The waxing fear from the other girls filled the air like noxious vapors. I was dizzy and numb, and I felt my body float way into a far corner of the room.
My mother screamed, “Stay where you are! Do…not…move!”
She turned and pointed her wand at each of them. “Don’t be tempted by that heinous demon. He wants you to follow him. It’s a trick! Look, he leaves flames and smoke in his trail.” Her nostrils flared frantically. “Can’t you smell his stench?”
Each of us sat completely still, paralyzed, looking up at my mother.
“What are you looking at?” She stumbled a small step back.
I could see her slipping, sliding down between two worlds, and she couldn’t find her footing to stand solidly in either. This time, when she caught my eye, I saw a look of panic, almost asking me to rescue her.
Margaret moved first. She stood and started to pull the fabric off her head.
“Where are you going?” My mother’s voice was strident and fierce.
“I…I need to go home.” Margaret’s eyes looked directly into my mother’s, then into mine. Amanda and the others quickly followed, leaving piles of their unwrappings on the floor in trails behind them. The room was empty. Just my mother and me.
Loud, angry voices downstairs kept me awake as I lay in bed that evening. Lacey’s mother shouted words like dangerous… damage…lunatic. And then again, the front door slammed, and my mother and father’s continued argument filled the living room.
“It wasn’t that bad. The little brat got her feelings hurt because she couldn’t be the princess.”
“It was more than that, Angie…”
“It was nothing!” she screamed.
Her heels clicked on the wood floor. She paced and turned then turned again. “It was fun! I was bringing them into character. I was inspiring them. Daring them to step outside their silly little girl dreams and face the real world.”
“But…it’s not the real world, Angie.”
I felt my father shrinking.
“The world is what we make it, Henry!” Her voice grew demeaning and dismissive. “And I was giving them the chance to make it something big, something spectacular! Frail little privileged brat and her arrogant two-faced mother! Spoiled it for everyone.”
She was right. Not about Lacey or her mother, but about everything being spoiled.
Lacey ignored me at school the next day. She sat with Margaret during lunch and kept her distance from me during recess.
I tried to catch Lacey’s eye; I wanted to tell her how sorry I was. That I never intended for her to be scared or hurt like that. That I still wanted to meet her up in our secret fort and forget that all this ever happened. That I still wanted to be her blood sister.
She never gave me the chance. A few weeks later, my father found a new house for us to live in across town. I would go to a different school.
“It’s a fresh start for everyone,” he said to me late one evening when he came in to say goodnight.
I lay under the covers and couldn’t find the words to tell him that I didn’t want a fresh start. That I wanted to go back to the time before we needed one. That I wanted my same life, not a new one.
After he closed my door, he went back downstairs and began taking things out of the cupboards in the kitchen. My mother had already been asleep for several hours. The doctor prescribed a medicine that made her drunk and drowsy, made her slur her words. She no longer spun stories of adventure and fantasy; no longer spent hours in her sewing room, conjuring and creating like a sorcerer. Rarely did she make it to the kitchen in time to see me off to school, and never again did I find her waiting for me outside under the maple tree.
* * *
And here I stood in our back yard under the tall shelter of golden leaves, looking through the window panes, watching just a small clip of a rerun, a splice in the film of our lives, a disruption to the motion picture that I’d gotten used to, day after day, as though my mother were now an inanimate prop on the screen rather than the star she used to be. What I watched wouldn’t last. Certainly my father knew that as well. I have to think that somewhere inside, even my mother knew. But I couldn’t keep myself from watching.
My father came out the side door, laden with blankets and a picnic basket filled with enough food for three meals. The three of us piled into the car like we’d done so many times before. Each of us leaving that knowing behind and risking finding each other again.
We sat by the stream, both my father and I receiving her offerings like a sacred feast. We talked of traveling to Spain. My mother, leaning into my father’s chest, recounted her summers as a child in Barcelona. The topics changed like popcorn, each of us recklessly redeeming the time.
“We really should have a Christmas party this year,” she said. “We’ll get the tallest tree in town and invite all of our friends. Wouldn’t that be lovely, Sylvie?”
“Yes!” I said with as much enthusiasm I could conjure, still not wanting to break the spell. “That would be lovely.” But our friends had long since faded. It’d become too awkward to keep what few relationships we had going. Isolation became the best and easiest road to take. We were less vulnerable, less “inconvenient,” although the loneliness became a shallow numbness, like living in a round room with no windows or furniture, completely monochrome in color, leaving no dimension to locate yourself. Just a blank hollowness, where everything, every day, every task was the same. But we were safe. Safe from scrutiny, safe from having to explain, safe from having to face the deep, unpredictable holes of our own grief and sadness.
“And I’ll make my famous Bolognese, and we’ll open the best presents on Christmas Eve!” Her eyes swelled with pools of tears as she looked at each of us as if for the first, and last, time.
This moment was Christmas. She was the gift, gentle and sweet, looking into my eyes, tenderly sweeping my bangs from my forehead.
“We need to get these trimmed, sweetheart. They’re covering your very best feature—those baby blues.” She looked into me with her own piercing jewel eyes and teased, “You can thank me for that lovely touch. I’ll never forget how enchanting you were as a child, those beautiful peepers looking right through me.”
Delirious with happiness, we ate everything in the basket, including the entire chocolate cream pie, and lay in different positions on the blanket, our feet and hands intersecting in various ways. When the air turned cooler, the daylight fading, we gathered up the remnants of our reverie.
By the time we got home, the sun had already begun to take her with it. Her eyes became dark and distant, and her words cold and removed. She stared straight ahead. She peeled my father’s fingers from hers, and his shoulders curved into the posture of a man twenty years his senior. His heart sank, cursing with bitterness the salvation he’d bent his knee to earlier that morning.
We pulled into the driveway and quickly ushered her into the house, back into the safety of her solitary confinement. She once again began her ritual of reciting numbers, saying they were hidden in the calendar and had an especially strong influence over all of us this time of the year. She looked at me, but I could tell she didn’t see me—not like she had earlier when she’d wrapped her arms around me and kissed my cheek so tenderly.
“We need to take care. We need to take special care. Because the numbers will show us. They can save us, but they can also destroy us.”
I took her upstairs to the bathroom to help her undress. I looked back over my shoulder and the darkness of the black sky seeped into my father’s pores and put out the light in his eyes.
“Don’t you see? They’ll be coming for us soon. As soon as the numbers reach the highest derivative and the lowest common denominator. We have to keep watch now. It’s close. The time is so very close.”
Her voice chattered on. That was all that was left of her— just her voice. She’d already forgotten the picnic, her dreams of Spain, the Christmas party, and the friends she didn’t have. She’d forgotten her husband of fifteen years and the way his eyes danced as they adored her every word and move. And she’d forgotten me, the blue-eyed beauty, who desperately needed her to remember. All lost and replaced with a world that kept us peering through the gate.
He left her to me without saying a word.
The car engine roared, and he pulled away. I desperately wished he would stay. But he never did. We never even talked about it.
I picked up her pieces that night and put her back together the best I could, into some shape, never whole, never the shape I wanted—the shape of my mother, the shape of his wife—but an odd shape that was at least, and at best, safe.
I helped her take off her yellow dress and gently set it aside, preserving it like a museum piece. She sat blankly in a steamy bath as I poured warm water over her body, then gave her an extra dose of sedative, like the doctor had said, to gag the voices for the night and lull her into a deep sleep.
When all was quiet in the house and my mother lay still under her now thickened mind, I filled the tub again. This time with the hottest water I could stand. I floated on the surface and watched my fair skin turn pink, then red with warning. Exhaling one final breath, I sank to the bottom. The hot sting in my ears and eyes brought a welcome pairing of pain and relief at the same time.
My lungs swelled like balloons under the scorching blanket of water, and hidden beneath the surface, I screamed for my mother. I screamed for my father. I screamed for the family we once were and could never again be. And finally, I screamed for myself.
I stayed beneath the water as long as I could, feeling the bitter-sweetness of the pain pulse through my whole body. I came up for air, and went under again and again, until the dull numbness returned to my limbs. Until my emotions were cauterized from bleeding sadness and grief. I crawled out of the tub, steam rising from my throbbing blistered body, gently wrapped myself in a towel and fell into bed.
* * *
I have no doubt she was a good mother. Even to this day, even when she bled her veins full of her own grief and confusion, bringing herself to a long-awaited relief, I have no doubt she loved me. And even the act of her final departure was an act of mercy. Mercy for herself, who could no longer endure not being able to be who she once was nor who, through the haze of her medications, she was forced to be. Mercy for my father, who could no longer be sustained by the tiny, stale crumbs offered from her hands. And mercy for me, the one who loved her more than I knew how to.
That mercy freed her from her suffering, and I have a spark of hope that perhaps before her final breath she remembered who she had been, who she still was, without the voices, without the torment of living in a world where no one else could live.
She threw herself from her life, completely trusting that the wind would take her, cradle her gently to where she needed to be. Sometimes I can see her, floating so gracefully among the falling leaves. Spinning, turning, reaching, stretching like she used to in her sewing room, the Sorcerer’s room, no longer the apprentice, but now her own magical sparks of gold.
Cheri Brackett is a writer, painter and psychotherapist in private practice in Asheville, NC. She’s spent over twenty years listening to stories—the banal, cruel, and exotic. She writes and paints about the frayed threads of vulnerability, connectedness and reconciliation.
She ghostwrote a memoir, My All Sufficient One, and several pieces of her non-fiction have appeared in a wide variety of publications, including the anthology, Gravity Pulls You In, which was a Finalist in the Anthologies/Non-Fiction category of the 2010 International Book Awards. Cheri is currently writing her first novel about the many faces of spirituality. This story is excerpted from that novel.