They woke me at dawn and bathed me, the women of the house. We called them women, but they were only girls. Sturdy, broad-shouldered girls with long, muscular arms that hung almost to their knees. The women were short, barely my height, though I was then in green skirts. They carried me naked out of bed, and in their arms brought me down the stairs to the washroom. There, I was dropped into a tub of warm water and made to sit up, hold still. One woman fetched water from the well, another brought it boiling hot from the kitchen, while a third mixed the two buckets, hissing, into a large pan and poured it over my head. By then, I was fully awake and making demands. The water too cold. The water too hot. Don’t scrub so hard. You missed a spot. Remember the figs for lunch, I’d say. Don’t overboil the eggs again. I’ll tell mother.
So the mornings went. After the bath, I was dried, powdered, dressed in a white cotton blouse and a starched green pinafore, fed half-boiled eggs with a spoon, and taken by the hand to the school gate. The woman who walked me was the youngest among them, just come up from her village. She had a wide gap in her front teeth that made for a sweet smile. She called me “little sister” and told me stories of the mountains. I called her by her name.
One day, she didn’t pick me up from school, my mother. I waited an hour by the gate. The rain clouds gathered. I aimed pebbles into the gutter, counted to a hundred, back to one, and to a hundred again. I imagined the terrible things that might have happened to my mother. The stone well. My attic window. An automobile accident and her body, raw and bloody, hewn down on the paved streets. Finally, I walked home. It began to rain lightly. I knew the way, and made it within a quarter-hour.
The wrought-iron fence was locked when I arrived. I rang the bell, shouted for the women. When no one answered I went around the back and climbed the fruit trees that grew over the fence, tore my silk stockings. Mother would be angry, I thought. The guard dogs galloped out to greet me, and I hushed them by name. Again I called for the women, but only silence. The kitchen empty and the embers wan in the fireplace.
She has killed them, too, I thought, my mother. I saw their bodies stuffed into the well, white limbs bent like elephant tusks. I saw them hanging from the rafters in the attic, wrapped up in my mosquito net like flies. I saw my mother, straight-backed on the balcony with a cup of poisoned tea, the women retching out their innards in the garden below. That is what poison does to a person. A girl from school told me. She heard what my mother had tried to do.
She went mad in the cold season, my mother. It happened after father took my brother to the hospital and killed him. My brother was a pervert. That is what father said. He had to be cured. At the hospital, my father, they called him Doctor, and he told them, the men in white jackets, to cut into my brother’s head. This was done, and it verified the perversity of brother’s brain. My father was a good doctor; his diagnoses were correct. Thereafter, my brother was sent to another ward of the hospital. In this ward, the walls were thicker and painted an immaculate white, to purify my brother’s mind. Not long there, my brother died.
Mother went mad and called my father many names. Among them: murderer of children, tyrant, demon, suckler of wolf’s milk, knife in her eye. My mother, educated on the family estate, a collector of musical boxes, a poet. She stopped sleeping, ate little, burst a blood vessel in her eye. It left a mark, like a crescent moon bleeding into a white sky.
She abused the women of the house. Slapped and clawed when they tended to her, when they tried to feed her the medicine father had prescribed.
Then, all at once, my mother, she announced a dinner party. To celebrate her recovery, she said. Her voice as thin as the gauze my father used at the hospital to wrap dead bodies in. My mother, face radiant with a pale, cerulean light, her hair spread out like a dark halo on the pillow. Out of bed, she drew up long shopping lists for the market, rearranged the furniture, tended once more to the garden. Boughs of jasmine appeared on the window sills, in clear glass vases throughout the house, or pinned in my mother’s hair.
The night of the dinner party, members of the cabinet and township authorities assembled in the drawing room. Among them moved doctors, professors, retired gentlefolk from the country. My father was in the study with some fat, important men. My mother stood by the door, petting my hair, smiling at the guests. I could not breathe in my yellow dress, ruffled and tiered, the eyelet hem tickling my knees. My mother pulled hard on the bow in my hair. I nearly cried out.
Darling, she said, run upstairs and get your things. We are going away.
I looked up at her, but could not move. The red moon in her eye had faded to a grimy pink, the color of raw meat.
Go, my mother said, and pushed me out the room. I stood in the hallway a long while, uncertain of what I had heard. The night traffic passed by the open window and pulled oblong shapes over the carpet. I watched the light stretch, thin out to a pinnacle, and bend up the walls.
Outside, dogs barked, food carts rang their clear, sweet bells, and the late buses, trucks, and automobiles sputtered, humming through the night. The polite, low voices of our guests in the drawing room fell flat in the street and slipped down the sewer.
I ran up the stairs as my mother had told me, and in my yellow, eyelet-bordered dress, I went to bed.
Mother left without me. She was already packed, the tickets already bought, the well already poisoned. She had meant to kill father, rescue brother from the hospital, and flee the city by train. She had forgotten that my brother had already died, that we had taken his body from the hospital and buried it in the ground. This is what madness does to the brain, my father later explained to me, it makes people forget what they have seen.
That night of the dinner party the hospital called, and father sent a driver to bring my mother home. The guests did not even notice she had left. After dinner, mother excused herself, and father sent the women of the house to follow. She walked swiftly into the woods behind the house, and when the women called to her, she ran. They ran faster, caught her leaning over the small well, the ropes tangled and the pulley creaking. I want a drink, she said. One woman sat her down, another mopped her brow, while the third fetched a bucket from the well. The water smelled foul. One of the women had brought a lantern with her, and holding it over the bucket, she saw it teeming with all manner of dead things: bees, crickets, spiders, their little black bodies wilting on the surface.
I learned this story from the women of the house. I heard them speak of it in the kitchen, squatting in the garden, or scrubbing the floors of the washroom. Hearing the women tell the story, I felt as if I were the one holding the lantern that night, as if I saw the dead insects in the water, their translucent wings, their furry bodies, their bug eyes red like my mother’s.
Mother is not feeling well, my father said to me the morning after the party. I sat in the big chair of his study, my feet swinging though I tried to hold them still.
From now on, father said, when you walk home from school, you must hold her hand tightly and walk straight home.
Will she be sent to the hospital? I asked.
No, father said. She can rest here.
Please don’t send her to the hospital, I said.
You can go now, father said.
When my brother and I played doctor and nurse, he would wrap a white sheet like a cape around his shoulders, and I would tie a red apron over my skirt. We would wander through the garden or the woods behind the house and hunt for animals to heal. Once we found baby mice scurrying into a bush and we cut off their feet. We made bandages with gauze stolen from father’s study, but they bled to death anyway. We stoned birds with catapults and tended to the ones that fell. Once, there was a sparrow with a broken wing, and we built a nest for it in the trees. We didn’t build it high enough, though, and the next day there were only feathers left, our patient devoured by foxes.
In the woods one day with my brother, I fell from a tree, scraping raw the insides of my thighs. The blood ran down my legs, my stockings blooming a vibrant red. I cried out for my brother. He came running through the trees, white sheet flapping against his bare back.
I’m here, he said, the doctor is here. Let me look at you.
My brother removed the red apron, lifted up my green, school skirt. He parted my legs and turned up the thighs, blowing gently to remove the dirt. We have to clean the wound, he said, spitting into some gauze. It stung and tears filled my eyes. He peeled off my damp, bloody stockings, and used them to wipe my legs clean. Then I felt something soft and wet on the inside of my knee. My brother’s mouth. He moved higher, saliva mixing with my blood, and I winced when he touched the raw skin, stinging.
The third time, the woman found us, the youngest one with the gap teeth. She let out a scream. The guard dogs answered, their barks echoing through the trees. My brother scrambled to his feet, wiping his red mouth. I covered myself. She dragged us to the house, the woman, and my father was called home from the hospital. I would not speak, was sent to bed without supper. My brother was beaten. I heard him scream as I lay hungry in bed.
At dawn, the women unlocked the attic. I was already awake and dressed, the bed made.
It is time for your bath, they said, undress.
No, I said, I want to see brother.
He is gone, they said, taken to the hospital.
Father beat him hard, I said.
No, the women said, for a medical exam.
When will he be back? I said.
Soon, the women said, soon, little sister.
The day my mother forgot to pick me up from school, I hid myself in the drawing room, behind a fort of cushions. I wanted my mother to think I was dead. I wanted her to imagine me run over by an automobile, my body thrown several feet from the impact, bursting as I fell, like an overripe fruit. I wanted her to imagine my brains and guts splattered on the asphalt, the blood pooling in the gutter. I wanted her to be sorry.
At dusk, my mother returned from the market with the women. I heard the dogs running through the garden when they entered the gate. I heard the low voices of the women and my mother’s sharper one wafting through the house. I lay very still and pretended to be dead. The women of the house found me in the cushions. My mother wept. Her arms closed around me tightly, and I felt her face, wet on my face and neck.
My baby, she said over and over. My poor baby.
She kissed my wrist, hands, knees, any part she could touch. My tears ran, too, from shame. We sat rocking on the carpet until night came, my mother cross-legged, her fine skirt pulled nearly up to the knees. I sat in her lap. Hungry, and sick from crying, I fell asleep.
In the mountains where the woman was born, the children ran naked like pigs. There was no school, no hospital, no paved streets with the rain water flowing swiftly through the gutter, no paper boats to race, no bicycles to chase, no ice cream man with his musical cart, no electric lights after dark, no fizzy drinks or cream wafers in a tin box, no mother or father or women of the house.
The children grew strong in the mountains, their bodies brown and lean. They rode tigers and tusked boars, travelled great distances in the mouths of crocodiles. Their stomachs as black and tough as the soles of their feet, the children ate whatever hands and sharp teeth could dissever: wild mushrooms, bitter root, tree bark, vermin, slugs, snails in their hard shells. They slept in caves, eagle’s nests, the hollow trunks of trees split by lightning.
The children were unafraid. They danced and howled through the darkest, coldest nights, and their voices were swept by the wind into town so that guard dogs barked at no one, electric lights flickered, and window panes rattled in the attic where I awoke in bed, listening.