The women arrive with the thaw at the beginning of April, right when the
mountain in our backyard starts to drool old snow at us in brown streams
lumpy with ice chunks. Puddles that are almost ponds slurp up the yard as
far as the back steps to our house. Mud stains the first riser but leaves
the others clean. Without the snow, the mountain looks naked until the
first spring flowers push themselves through the sog. Their petals are the
color lips turn in cold.
I’ll never be as pretty as my sister Grace or smart like my sister
Ruth, but I think I could probably be as nice as Joan if I try a little
harder. Being nice isn’t something people are born with. It’s
something they do, and when the women get here today, I’m going to do
it too. Haworth House is a hotel where rich women come to try and do art in
the spring and summer. They set up their easels on the front porch or open
their laptops in the backyard. When the sun comes out and dries up all the
mud left by the snowmelt, the women stretch out on linen sheets to take
naps, like cats. Their screens and canvases mostly stay white, and when
they are done napping, my mom, Dr. Applegate, teaches them to climb a
mountain. She used to be a professor at the college, but she married one of
her students, so she’s not anymore. He was supposed to have been an
important writer, but I can’t even remember his name since no one
ever says it out loud.
There’s a light spot in the yard behind Haworth House where a little
bit of green shows between the shadows its gingerbread spires throw up and
the shadow the mountain throws down. Things don’t like to grow in
shadows. Our backyard stays squishy right up to the tree line, then
ponderosa pines and tangled snowberries trace the rise until they’re
replaced by that carpet of purple flowers. But a white cap swallows those
near the top, and the mountain finishes in a blank, jagged peak. I’m
wearing a new pair of Cushes and pushing them up to the laces in our spring
puddle ponds just to hear the way mud gasps when I pull away.
Grace comes as far as the sunnier side yard between the house and the barn
and yells, “Bette, if you’re not up here to help with bags, you
know she’s gonna beat your ass.” I pull my boot up with one
last sucking gasp and run to her. When I smile, Grace smiles, and her teeth
are the color of the snow at the top of the mountain that’s only met
sky and never dirt. She puts a hand in my black hair. It gets stuck in the
tangles when she tries to pull away. “You look like a little
ragamuffin,” she says.
I remember my kindness. “Thank you,” I say.
“Get fucked.” Those teeth again. I show mine too.
Ondine, my mother’s assistant who lives with us and almost never
smiles, crunches the year’s first vanful of women up the driveway to
Haworth House, and I watch Grace’s face because of all my
sisters’, it is my favorite. Her white hair falls down her back in a
pretty way that’s not straight or curly. It looks like she spent
either hours on it or no time at all. Her cheekbones are so high and sharp
they make shadows beneath, like the shadow the mountain makes in the
backyard. She graduated college last year and came home to us. I was
worried she wouldn’t because she’s so beautiful I
wouldn’t be surprised if the world wanted to keep her like a trophy.
But she came home, and since then, I try to stand close to her whenever I
can. Her hair is brighter than the snow on the mountain, brighter than the
sun. When she’s happy and not yelling at me, it’s like
there’s a bird in my stomach. Something feels ready to take flight.
The flapping joybird makes the same rush as panic. Without looking at me,
Grace asks, “You ready?”
The women stream from the white van’s dark insides. They wear tight
black leggings and vests all puffed full of silky feathers from birds that
must be dead by now. Black sunglasses take up most of their faces. One
woman with a small nose and big glossy lips uses a middle finger to push
her heavy-looking glasses up the bridge of her nose, and I see round purple
bruises splattering the insides of her wrists like those flowers popping
through the snow. But their handbags are all buttery soft, made of leather
that’s so good it doesn’t feel like skin, only money. It costs
a lot for Dr. Applegate to take on the women, but these women have plenty
of money and nowhere better to go.
My sisters know what to do. Ruth holds a cardboard box full of the glossy
books they will pass around while our mother gives the opening day speech.
I was a little girl last season, but this year, everything has changed. I
am nearly as tall as Dr. Applegate, and since January, I’ve gotten my
period twice. It’s time for everyone to love me like they do my
sisters. On one side, Grace’s body feels long and sleek. I lean into
her even though the bones and knotted muscles aren’t soft or warm. On
the other, Joan is all melty energy, arms loose and ready to hug. Ruth
stands at the end of the line, last after my mother, and though she is pale
and tall while Dr. Applegate is short and dark, their expressions are the
same, tight like predators scanning the still woods for something small,
slow, and edible. No one has told me what to do, so I step out of line and
reach into Ruth’s box, fingering the spine of a book, ready to
deliver it to a woman, but Ruth slaps my hand away. So I trace fingernails
across my mother’s knotted shoulder.
“Doctor?” I say. She shrugs my hand away.
“Ladies. Welcome,” Dr. Applegate says to the sunglasses, which
snap away from the mountain and train on her. My mom has a way of getting
attention. She’s small, and not very loud, but her voice has the
force of a slap to the face. Every word sounds like a complete sentence.
“My daughters will show you to your rooms. After you’ve
freshened up, we’ll have some lunch, break into our workshop groups
to set goals, and then,” she says, pausing to take in all those round
black lenses pointing at her chest like targets, “we’ll do what
we came to do. Prepare to fight this mountain. And win.”
Before I was born, her husband called her Dr. Applegate as a joke, and when
my sisters were babies, they thought that was her name. Now it is.
She’s only a doctor of old books, but she stands straight and
doesn’t talk very much, so it’s easy to imagine her as a
brilliant surgeon, or at least the kind that makes a monster out of
corpses. My finger wants to drag itself along the shoulder seam of her
chambray shirt, but I force it back into a fist and hit my thigh a couple
of times, just hard enough to remind myself to calm down.
“My daughters will hand each of you a book containing your reading
assignments for this week. It is yours to keep so don’t worry about
making notes in the margins.” My sisters pass them around, and I hang
behind my mother, wishing I didn’t look so much like a child. The
women scratch pages with long, glossy thumbnails without pausing to see the
“You’ll read the first story before dinner. After, we will have
our first salon,” Dr. Applegate doesn’t make the
“n” sound, but if the women are impressed, their sunglasses
don’t show it.
None of the women thinks to get her own bags, so my sisters run forward,
helping Ondine pull the same brown leather bags marked LV out of the back
of the van six times. One for each woman. My mother leaves them to us,
disappearing up steps the color of cotton candy and through the open
Our house was built to look like gingerbread with pointy gables and
latticework dripping from the porch roof like icing melting off a hot cake.
Anywhere else, it might look like a mansion, but out here, with a mountain
crowding the backyard, it looks kind of stupid. There’s a historic
sign out front because it was built by a man who got famous and rich from
owning a mine full of silver. He must have thought he was showing off his
money, torturing trees’ dead bodies into a candy house that looks
like something a happy family would slap together with cookies and gloopy
frosting at Christmastime. I read in a book at the library that he lost all
his money when another mine he bought turned out to be full of nothing, and
he had the to sell the house two years after it was done. The mountain is
always better than anything we do in its shadow.
Joan is almost as pretty as Grace, with hair just a little bit darker and
wide cheeks that dimple when she smiles. “We’re so glad
you’re here,” she says to the women, who hide their hands in
the sleeves of their sweaters like little girls. Ruth doesn’t talk to
the women but can carry the most bags. Grace only carries one small LV, but
she’s telling jokes and talking fast to women who are trying not to
smile. Soon we are a circle around my sisters. They’re like a
“I’m glad you’re here,” I say to the nearest pair
of sunglasses, so big and round and black that I can’t see any
eyeballs behind them. The mouth below the glasses doesn’t smile. Some
of the women peck at their phones, but they won’t work, not out here.
We have a landline in the kitchen. When the women call home, they creep
into Ondine’s pantry for privacy, cord snaking from the crack under
the door. Sometimes we hear them crying. It’s kind of sad they only
have flour for sympathy. The library in the village is the closest place to
tap screens and read what’s happening in places that aren’t
“Sorry ladies,” Joan says as we lead the women up the candy
steps like a row of ducks. “It won’t work up here.”
“You might even have to read,” Ruth says in the flat, bored way
she has. Besides me, Ruth is the least pretty because she’s always
scowling from concentrating so hard on everything.
The duck whose bag I’m holding follows me through a front parlor
packed with velvety furniture the color of fake jewels in antique-store
cases. A narrow hall leads to an even littler staircase with gleaming
banisters capped by wooden finials carved to look like doves in flight.
She’ll sleep on the third floor, I decide, but I fake left, like
I’m going to the second floor, just to feel her follow me.
“Oops, wait, no,” I say, and lead her to the third landing.
The second and third floor are just bedrooms. A long time ago, the rooms
were big enough to have beds and dressing tables and writing desks, but
now, they’ve been hacked in half and then hacked in half of that so
everyone can have their own room even if it’s just a bed and tiny
cheap dresser. Closets have become bathrooms, and the sound of the pipes
working splashes through the walls. Sometimes they leak water that turns
the white lilies on the wallpaper brown for a little while. When the water
dries, wallpaper curls at the edges, and I want to pull it just to see our
house’s naked skeleton underneath, but I wouldn’t dare.
You’re here,” I turn on my stair to face her. We’re close
together, with me just a little bit taller. Her breath smells hot, like
cinnamon. “I sleep in the attic. One floor up. I’m
Bette.” And because I can’t wait to show her my kindness, I
turn and run onto the narrow landing, staining the hallway runner with my
muddy new boots. Her LV slaps my thigh. “Look,” I tell her. The
bathroom has its own tub, checkerboard tiles, pedestal sink, and best of
all, a doorway that leads to my woman’s room. “It’s all
yours. I gave you the best one.”
Grace told me she once saw her father, the writer who didn’t get
famous, slam our mother’s head into that pedestal sink. She remembers
red sprayed across the white basin and Dr. Applegate spitting a molar into
the bloody puddle. It wasn’t until she spit the tooth that she
noticed Grace watching from the doorway and told the man,
“You’ll have to leave now.” None of my sisters ever saw
him again, and sometimes, I imagine a blonde giant walking into the
treeline just outside the clearing and turning into a mist rising over the
mountain to make a cloud that bursts and snows him back down over Haworth
House, filling the sludge lakes in the back yard until he evaporates and
rains down again, over and over. Vapor. Solid. Water. Vapor. Solid. Water.
“Thank you,” the woman tells me, and I realize I’ve been
an idiot again, quiet too long. “I’m really tired. Could
we?” She tips her head back toward the little bedroom that used to be
a lady’s giant closet.
My father was a land developer. I never met him either, but he sends a
check on the fifteenth of every month. Ruth told me he lives in Europe with
his real family. It’s probably true.
My woman has taken off her sunglasses, and her eyes are very blue, so blue
they look full of water. The right one is purple underneath, fading to gold
like a sunset. In her room, the LV takes up most of her twin bed, and she
seems sad about it. If she spread her arms on either side, she could almost
touch the walls. For space, she looks up. The ceilings are twelve foot and
cupped by curled white molding that a lot of the guests seem to love.
“I can help you.” She looks from the molding to me. Her watery
eyes are runny with surprise. “Unpack, I mean,” I tell her,
nodding to the dresser, squat and made of raw pine. Joan has sanded and
painted it soft blue, the color of the woman’s eyes, sort of like the
sky outside, but sadder because it’s fake.
“I don’t need any help.”
After Ondine makes sure everyone has at least taken a sandwich, we hike the
easy trail. It laps the base of the mountain through mossy forest, and the
rise isn’t too steep. A half-mile up, the trail opens to rocky ledges
that give a nice view of the stubby range west of Haworth House. The late
afternoon makes the rocks look red and turns sunlight pink. Looking at the
world in miniature from high up is supposed to be inspiring, but on the
trail, the women’s new boots are already stained. They make disgusted
faces, which Dr. Applegate ignores.
“First order of business,” she tells them, “is to
shout.” She lets off a hoot that echos off the rocks above us. The
women pick at their sweater sleeves. “Bears are not a joke,
ladies,” she tells them, putting a small hand on each of her wide
hips and screaming up the sides of the rock again. “They’re
awake and they’re hungry. It’s our job to sound too big to fuck
On either side, my sisters seem big like giants. We yell too, and because
we have, the other women do. Our screams rise and rebound, haunting us with
the noise we’ve just made.
Alders have sprouted baby leaves so green they look like cartoons. The path
is crisscrossed with branches that didn’t survive winter and spray
painted markers that used to dot grey bark have been erased by the kind of
cold that digs in and rubs things away. The mountain is so quiet our bodies
seem huge and loud. Chipmunks skitter from the crash we make. I am not very
good at hiking. My sisters seem like they’ve been able to climb this
mountain since they took their first steps. Even when the trail gets a
little steep and the women bend in half to massage their thighs, my sisters
and Dr. Applegate march at a pace I know they think is slow but leaves the
rest of us nearly running, not really hoping we’ll keep up, but just
trying to stay in sight.
Four years ago, when I was nine, I slipped on a loose rock and fell into a
ravine. My foot ended up trapped between two rocks with a gap just big
enough to swallow me to the ankle, and Dr. Applegate used her body to push
one away with her shoulder while working my foot free with her hands. She
carried me nearly a mile to camp and set off a flare for help. While we
waited for the rescue team, she braided my hair, pulling it so tight as she
twisted it neat that the pain in my head was almost as bad as the pain in
my broken ankle. Now, I watch my feet for rocks that might trick them bad
enough to set my ankles rolling and end up hiking so slowly even the guests
move ahead of me.
Behind me, a crack makes my heart jump and panic pain stabs my chest,
melting to a throb I can feel in my fingers and tips of my toes. I turn
around without really wanting to see what’s been creeping up on me
and am relieved to find it’s just the blue-eyed woman from Haworth
House, sprawled over a fallen branch with her boot caught in the hole her
weight must have made.
“Oh no,” I say because the fear lingers, and I can’t
think what to do.
The front of her down vest is in the mud. Her arms are in push up position.
Joan or my mother would help, which sends me to kneel beside the woman
“My foot,” she says.
“Could you get it out of the branches?” she asks. Her eyes
aren’t just watery; they’re running over. The tears and the mud
stink and the soft flailing body are nauseating, but that’s probably
because her helplessness makes me remember that I might not be able to help
“Yes. I can do that,” I say, and work her foot out of its trap
much nicer than when Dr. Applegate braided my hair. The woman rolls her
foot in a circle, testing, before pushing herself off the ground.
She’s okay, but one muddy palm is bleeding. She licks it.
“Thank you,” she says.
I can still hear everyone up ahead of us, though I can’t see them
through the trees. Footsteps and voices carry out here. Sometimes things
that are far away seem right at your heels, but sometimes things sound way
up the mountain when they’re just ahead of you. Voices float like
ghosts, and you never find out who made what sound.
Marie doesn’t seem like someone who just fell in the mud. If it was
me rubbing muck off my front with the sleeve of a flannel shirt, I’d
probably slouch and try to hide, but Marie doesn’t seem to care how
stupid she just looked. I wonder what might be a nice thing to say.
“You don’t seem hurt,” I tell her.
Marie’s face snaps to look at me, and I see her eye again, the color
of a ripe plum out here in the sun.
“Your ankle, I mean.” Marie’s blue eyes stand out against
thick, dark eyebrows. Her cheeks are pink from the hike, and even with the
dark smudge on an otherwise clear face, she looks expensive. Fancier than
scrubby trees and squishy mud. When she laughs, it’s so loud I jump
back as if she’d screamed. I wonder if the sound reaches the rest of
Haworth House. Maybe a bear has heard it.
“You must see all kinds of sad women in the place,” she says,
and I think of those sobs we hear through the crack in the pantry door
while we eat eggs or drink soda and pretend not to. Sometimes I wonder what
they must have left behind and what they came to our mountain to find. But
I’ve never asked, and they don’t say. I must look guilty
because Marie says, “It’s okay. I know what I look like.”
“The kind of thing that gets you sent here.” She unzips the
pocket of her vest and pulls out a shiny silver stick that lights blue as
she takes a deep drag off it. She exhales a cloud of smoke that smells like
“Fuck hiking,” she tells me as she takes another drag.
“Fuck hiking,” I tell her, and she laughs again. It
doesn’t scare me this time because I was expecting it. She turns and
leaves the trail, wadding her flannel shirt on a damp rock and lying on her
side. I could take her home, but I might get into trouble. I could leave
her here while I run ahead to tattle to Dr. Applegate, but I don’t
like being alone on the mountain. There’s another rock near enough to
see her in case she tries to wander away on her own, so I crisscross my
legs on it and watch the trail, impatient for the other women.
By the time their voices and footsteps get close again, the light has
changed from white to yellow. The cold rock has made my thighs numb.
“Bette.” Dr. Applegate calls to me as soon as she sees me
through the trees. I jump off my rock and run to meet her. “Why are
you malingering back here?”
“Marie fell,” I say, gesturing to the woman still laying on the
rock with her eyes closed, though I don’t believe she’s
“And she requires medical attention?”
“No. She’s resting.” Dr. Applegate looks from me to
Marie, who has opened her eyes but has not sat up. I am sure she is about
to let us have it in her quiet way. My stomach twists.
“Well, if everyone feels adequately rested.” She marches on,
trailing women behind her. Marie joins the middle of the line, and I fall
in near her.
On the first night, the women don’t know what they’re supposed
to do. In the sitting room, there are bottles of whiskey and red wine. They
go back and forth between the two, collapsing into their fake-jewel chairs
every time they get up like it’s exhausting to fill a glass.
“Her name was Connie.” My mother stands on the hearth, reading
from the open book in her palm. “What does the past tense
signify?” Ruth knows the answer; it’s in the hard set of her
eyes, the determination of her jaw, but the question isn’t for her.
For a long time, the only sound is knots popping as fire eats pine logs.
“She was Connie, but not anymore,” Marie says, half disappeared
in the saggy cushion of a wingback chair.
“What is she now?”
Marie flutters a hand through empty air.
At Haworth House, there is no bedtime, not even for me. The women put
themselves to bed when they’re ready, some of them yawning fake
sleepiness as the book talk wears on. Others finish off their glasses in
long gulps, and their voices get loud and screechy. Dr. Applegate stays
standing at the hearth, leading the conversation like a conductor, but
keeping one eye on the women who’ve escaped to the porch to smoke.
She disappears at ten. Sometimes my sisters stay up giggling, and the other
women hang at the edges of the living room smiling a little bit. Those are
the nights I like most. The sound of them sets the joybird flapping and I
feel as happy as I do scared. But tonight, they follow each other up the
stairs to the only uncut room at Haworth House, where Ruth and Joan sleep
on a bunk bed and Grace sleeps on a queen. Women’s eyes follow them.
Soon all the glasses are stacked on the sideboard, and I am alone.
My room is in the attic. It’s just a feather mattress in the bench
seat of a window that swells out of the house’s spire like something
that just got punched. No one told me I had to sleep up here. My
sisters’ room was too crowded even before I was born, but I could
have had a guest room except, five years ago, I said I wanted this because
it freed up more space for the women. That made Dr. Applegate so happy I
couldn’t tell her how much I hate the shadows that push through the
three-paned window or how I can see my breath in ghosty swirls before I go
to sleep and when I wake up in the morning.
“For Christ’s sake, why don’t you take a heater up
there?” she asked once when she came to drag me to the kitchen for
school and found me still curled in the blanket Grace gave me before she
left for college.
It’s not that simple. If the room is warm, then there’s no way
to appreciate the heat from my blanket. Warm on warm on warm makes me feel
more alone than cold then warm. I steal things from my sisters when
they’re downstairs in the kitchen or out on a hike. A bottle of
Joan’s perfume that I sprayed on my pillow. The collected poems of an
old man named Yeats from the floor beside Ruth’s bed. My pillow
smells like the new flowers blooming on the side of the mountain. The book
is open to a poem where a swan beats its great wings above a staggering
girl. Grace gave me the blanket. I didn’t have to steal it. Sleeping
is the loneliest part of the day.
The yard beneath the window is black when two headlights cut it open, and
it’s the light that wakes me, though it shuts off pretty quick.
Before the lights go out, I can see a bear-like shape in the front seat of
an SUV, and then I can hear something moving out there in the dark. I
should do something but I can’t. My ears ring with trying to hear
footsteps or shouts. It’s all silence.
“Doctor,” I whisper into my perfume-smelling pillow. What would
Grace do? Something brave. Silence gives over to stomps, still distant
though. I hear a door slam and a woman’s voice screams “Get
out.” But like a bird trapped indoors, the panicked crashing of
whatever’s gotten into our house moves upstairs, further in, instead
of going out. I hear it move to the third floor; heavy steps against a
shower of screams below me, and then on my stairs, each step like thunder
from a storm getting closer, making the air so thick you can feel the water
before the first drops fall. When my door bashes open, I know from the big
shape and the dark, fermented smell that it’s a man because
I’ve never smelled anything like it. I curl under my blanket, and the
movement seems to provoke him because he’s on top of me pushing at my
spine with a blunt metal edge.
“Marie, you fucking whore. I’ll fucking kill you.” His
whisper smells like the inside of one of the glasses on the sideboard, and
the vomit sweet stink of him mixed with the perfume on my pillow makes my
head fuzzy. Am I Marie? I might be. Without meaning to, I make a noise that
sounds like a chirp.
“You’ll want to get away from my daughter,” Dr. Applegate
says from the doorway. She has switched on the light, and in the sudden
brightness, I’m blind. The gun barrel moves away from my spine.
“Who the fuck are you?” the man shouts. When my eyes adjust, I
can see that his gun is pointed at my mother, but hers is still by her
“This is my house,” she tells him, “And that, is a little
girl.” The man blinks down at me. His eyes are red like he’s
been crying, and his face is round like a baby’s, stained with a
little bit of ginger beard.
“Oh Christ. Christ, I’m sorry.” He cries now, and the gun
clatters to the floor as he rubs his red eyes with both fists. Dr.
Applegate picks up his weapon, and holding a pistol in each hand, she looks
like a cowboy from an old movie.
“Follow me downstairs,” she says. “Please.” The
word sounds more like a bullet than manners.
Below me, doors open, and I hear footsteps, voices. My mother leads the man
away, careful not to point either gun at him. He keeps saying he’s
sorry until it becomes one long word “Sorrysorrysorrysorry.”
Suddenly, I am alone again. I feel hollow. My spine throbs where the gun
touched it, and inside, it’s like something is ricocheting around my
empty body, bouncing off bones that ring an echoing, tinny sound.
It’s so cold I gasp when I pull myself out of bed and run to the
door, down the stairs to the guest rooms. My sisters are in their pajamas:
short shorts and sweatshirts that hang from bone spur shoulders. They are
huddled with the women on the floor. Some are crying, and Joan is hugging
two at once.
“What did you see?” Joan asks.
“Why didn’t you scream?” Ruth asks.
“Did you fight?” Grace asks.
I can’t look at them because my answers are not good.
Marie is sitting on her bed, looking down at the yard with a piece of
ruffly yellow curtain in her hand. I sit beside her and look too. Dr.
Applegate is putting the man back into his SUV. The man is turning on the
lights and backing an unsteady circle in our yard then making a wobbly line
up the driveway for the main road. Dr. Applegate watches him, barefoot,
from the grass.
“He’s wasted, and he’s going to hurt himself.”
“He was going to hurt me,” I say. Marie seems to realize
she’s not talking to herself. “He’s the one who hurt
“Get out,” she tells me.
The halls are filled with women, but I don’t feel nice enough right
now to hug and pet them like my sisters can. No one notices me tiptoeing
downstairs to the first floor, where the living room is dark and quiet.
Beside the fireplace, there’s an iron statue of a doe elk. Most
people think of bucks with big antlers when they think of elk, but this one
is a girl. You can tell because there’s no antlers but also because
of all the soft edges. The weak spine. The little snout. Out on the
mountain, it would probably look ready to run away if I caught it eating
snowberries off a scraggly limb, but our doe has a hard look in her metal
eye. More like a bear than a deer. I sit the rest of the night on the floor
with my arms around the doe, listening to the sounds of women putting
themselves back to sleep.
A long time ago, we had a big yellow dog, but a bear came down the mountain
and ate it. My mother didn’t miss him until Joan came crying into the
kitchen clutching a fistful of bloody fur. Grace told me that. It’s
I lean forward and lick the doe’s metal spine. It tastes like cold
and minerals, same as the water from a clear mountain spring. A dog would
lick my face, even if it was just for the salt from tears, but instead,
they fall on the doe, puddling in its hollows. I drink them. Dr. Applegate
is down the stairs as the first muddy light finds its way through cracks in
the drapes. She comes to stack wood for a new fire and doesn’t start
when she sees me with my chin snuggled into the doe’s neck.
“Stop creeping behind there,” she tells me. “You look
like a little ghost.”
I can’t go back up to the attic, not yet. Outside the grey-yellow
murk of dawn has found the yard. There are deep ruts where the man turned
his car around, and I toe them with one bare foot. It’s hard to tell
if I’m cold on the inside or the outside, so I pull my arms in my tee
shirt and hug my own naked chest. This early, the sun isn’t strong
enough to blind yet, so I stare it down until my eyeballs get hot, then let
my head collapse back to feel the weight of my hair over my shoulder
blades. Her name was Connie. Her name was Marie. My name is Marie. I lie on
the ground with my arms and feet out like a five-point star. It’s wet
and cold but there’s grass here too, tickling my bare ankles and the
hollow of my neck like a promise of summer. The sun is warmer with my eyes
A sudden blow above the staggering girl. But it’s not that.
It’s fingertips brushing my hairline so lightly that at first, I
think it’s the wind. The touch feels so good I fake sleeping just to
make it last. I hope it’s Grace or my mother. Joan would be okay.
Grace, Mom, Joan, Ruth. That’s who I want in that order.
It’s Marie. Her dark hair pools in the cup of my collarbone. Her eyes
are like the sky in May, clear and warm, but the bruise is nearly swamp
green in places. Green like puke. Green like fear.
“Hey,” she says, still rubbing my temple. “I’m
sorry. It’s not your fault.”
The rubbing is making me all sleepy and confused. “What’s
“That you live in a house where rich people hide their fucked up
daughters.” I slap her hand away and sit up, aware now that I am wet
and dirty and probably look like an idiot. “You know that,
don’t you? What your house is?”
“We’re not hiding. I’m not hiding,” I tell her,
imagining myself as Grace, taller than the trees with hair and teeth as
white as the peak of the mountain. Just because that man hit my mom and ran
away and then the other man left and went to Europe doesn’t mean we
are hidden here in a candy house behind a mountain. It’s those men
who are hiding from us. We are too big to fuck with.
Marie is looking at me all weird with a squinty face and soft, hunching
shoulders. Her fingers drop from my temple, along my cheekbone. She traces
my top lip so lightly I could be imagining it except for the fact that her
skin smells heavily sweet, like roses when their petals get nearly heavy
enough to fall. I don’t want her to touch me, and I don’t want
her to stop, so I freeze. My whole body hardens.
“Do you tell yourself that at night in the attic?”
“I wish your husband had killed you.”
There’s an old barn in the side yard, slapped together with nails
half jutting from smelly old boards and horse stalls full of things the
House doesn’t want anymore. Toolboxes full of clinky stuff I
don’t know how to use, hatchets eating into the walls. The chainsaw
Dr. Applegate uses for firewoord, a shotgun she fires at coyotes, and the
.22 me and my sisters use for shooting cans off logs. It’s easy to
imagine big horses with eyes all cloudy from being kept in the dark bolting
from these open pens. A herd of horses kicking down the creaky doors and
running for freedom.
I take the opposite direction of my fake horses and go into one of the
rotted, hay-smelling stalls. A feed bucket with a rusted hole through one
side hangs against the wall. A water trough is still half-attached to a
rotted board. Mixed with the old horse supplies, there’s stacked crap
from Haworth House. Three wooden pallets looped and tangled with Christmas
lights. A wrench thrown out of its toolbox to the center of the stall. I
pick it up and toss it at the wall like a throwing star. The wrench thuds
away to find a new hiding spot where it might live for ten years beside
once-a-year lights and the ghosts of dead horses
On a horse, I’d be taller than my sisters and Dr. Applegate.
I’d be taller than that man in my room. I’d tell him my name is
But I’d be nice about it. Each of my sisters would get her own horse.
A golden one for Joan, grey and white speckled for Ruth, and for Grace,
black so shiny it turns silver in the sun. Hoofs hit in unison as we ride
fast and hard in a flat, dry place that isn’t Montana. Due south and
cactuses with arms up, saluting the sun. I ride in front, bolting top speed
from wet and snow and men with guns in bedrooms. The joybird jumps and
flaps its wings, but I shake my head against it. Back in the dark old barn
again, I grab the thing that’s closest, the cold woodgrain of the
Back outside, Marie is gone, and even though I was only in the barn a
minute, the sun blinds me. The gun barrel thumps my hip as I shield my eyes
against it. The thought of shooting myself scares me so much I swing the
barrel to the sky, doing a stupid thing to fix a stupid thing. My head
feels swimmy and the edges of things are blurred. The gingerbread roof of
Haworth House looks like a picture against a backdrop, fake at the edges. I
hide myself in the band of firs behind the House because I’d rather
be in the shadow of the trees than the shadow of Haworth. A little path
winds through tree roots still choking on brown snow. The gun feels heavier
than I remember from the last time I shot cans. If it wasn’t so
heavy, maybe I could fly up to the tops of the trees and rest there for a
little while. Instead, the path ends in a real pond, big enough to swim in.
By summer, it’ll be a stinking mud pit full of frogspawn and mosquito
clouds, but right now, it’s still pure. Above me, a tundra swan
cracks needles as it dives for a drink. I raise the gun and shoot it before
I can think of a reason not to.
The swan hits the ground a few feet from where I stand with the rifle still
pointed at the spot in the sky where the bird used to be. For a few
seconds, I can’t look. The bird gives off a few gasping chirps. It
sounds more tired than hurt. Sad, maybe. I drop the gun and kneel. Blackish
blood oozes from under its wing; the black beak is parted and wheezes come
from the two slitty nostrils in the yellow rectangle at the top of its
Its feathers feel oily, and the swan is in too much pain to flinch from my
touch. It breathes hard against me, as if panting could shake off the
pressure of my pushing finger. Above me, there’s no flock, which is
weird, since they usually fly together in a tight-ranked white cloud
pointing its way to someplace better. But this bird is alone. Maybe it got
lost or maybe the others didn’t want it. Maybe this bird broke ranks
for a drink and the rest of its friends flew on, sure it would be back and
then too far away to turn around. Blood mixes with snow to form another
puddle on ground filthy with them. Pink this time and not brown. I stop
petting the bird to dip the tip of my ring finger into the pool. The blood
is much brighter than where it leaks from beneath the bird’s wing.
The color of an apple skin or Christmas paper. The swan’s whines get
faster; the shock must be wearing off. I pick up the rifle and point it at
the little white chest, stained on the left side from where I missed my
mark the first time. I pet the trigger. But the fear of another shot just
spraying pellets that still don’t kill the gasping bird makes me drop
the gun again.
In the trees, I find a heavy rock. Beside the pond, my knee on the
bird’s long neck is heavy enough to shut up its crying, but that
doesn’t stop the black beak with its bright spot of yellow from
opening and closing. One shiny eye spins. Webbed feet circle like it
actually made the pond and is just paddling for a second before one last
drink and a lift off and finding family to fly home.
The rock lifts and crashes until the swan’s skull breaks and spills
pink blobs. The bones feel so little beneath the ruffle of feathers as I
toss the body into the pond and curl myself tight. I cry into my crossed
arms, never minding the blood and the mud and ooze as I squelch in the mess
and the sun gives over to flurries of powdery new snow.