SIXTEEN GOLDEN STAIRCASES
Sixteen golden staircases, sixteen golden staircases she chants, a breathy croon, the soft sibilances snagging on her gappy mix of big-girl and little-girl teeth and escaping like tumbly snarls of spider silk.
Sixteen golden staircases, sixteen golden staircases, as the temperature outside drops by twenty degrees, as rain spatters the panes and the overhead light surrenders to a neurasthenic quiver. If you didn’t know, you’d think it was a coincidence. An accident of the weather, of faulty wiring in this big old house. If you didn’t know.
She scrabbles to snatch all the yellow Legos from her brother’s sticky paws and builds. She pops the plastic blocks together with an animal concentration, an instinct to artless devotion. Her brother whimpers, but doesn’t grab back.
And where does that come from? I dare to ask, taking a sip of my milky tea, casually. Casually. I know not to press, not too hard. I know not to show fear. She can smell it. She can taste it. I’ve watched her lick her lips and smile. My eyes are averted to the pencil scrawls on the wall, on the closet door, the ones that tend to look like sleepy horses. The tea whispers of cinnamon. Thunder, and outside the elm tree reels, its roots clenching in the mud to hold fast. Leafy shadows swim on the carpet.
I remember the last time, my voice unhinged by panic. I remember the blood of the baby who wasn’t yet a baby striping my thighs. The kneeling in the garden to bury its remnants, the mud soaking through the knees of my pants. Her face in the upstairs window, looking like my own. Like the photograph my mother took of me in that same window, the day before she fell down.
Oh, from a faerie book, I think. I must have read it.
And I wonder when her eyes will turn from blue to green. Any day now, could be. I was six when it happened to me.
FEAST YOUR EYES
Feast your eyes Uncle said. He pushed open the front door and I wobbled out sleep-drunk onto the wooden slats, the porch ringed with rose bushes. He’d woken me out of bed, he’d tied my shoes as my head bobbed, my chin sinking to my chest then jerking back up, again, again. The sky was full of sparkling boats, more than I could have imagined, boats exactly like the ones he’d drawn for me on sheets of graph paper in his little room as I sat on his big knees. Our secret, the tall masts with scarlet sails, curling bows with the heads of wolves. This is why you have black hair, black eyes, like me. This is why you don’t look like your parents he’d said. His boats, silvery-bottomed, in clusters, strewn across the wide night sky. They’ve come back for us.
I know Husband sees me slide the steak knife off the counter, hold it behind my back like a bouquet of tiny sharp teeth, as I breathe C’mon and kiss me. He laughs, thudding his book shut, words like dust billowing from the edges, escaping in a quick puff from under the heavy covers, lost letters glimmering into nothing in the light of the lamp that hangs above the kitchen table. No, I will not let you stab me. He laughs. We make it a joke. We both play along. His eyes are so blue, he can’t understand. He strokes his beard thoughtfully, approaches with soft steps, I believe that you believe what you saw. I do, I believe that you saw it, but Laura, please, let’s let it rest. It was so long ago.
Uncle vanished that night. They found me in the woods, my hands caked with mud. Mother crying, her nightgown a white smear in the dark. Father with the big square flashlight in his hands, beams of light sweeping the underbrush deliriously as he ran to me, scooped me into his arms. It smelled like cinnamon, and the boats were gone. My shoes were gone, too, but I remember Uncle putting them on my feet, tying the laces as I sat on the edge of my bed. I see glimpses of his eyes gleaming giddy, as I fought my way out of sleep, fell back into the murk, surfaced again. Little red shoes that never turned up. I looked among the trees, I looked, digging into the forest floor, thinking maybe I’d buried them.
Because I dreamed of digging, after. I dream of digging, still. And I wait until Husband’s gone to bed, I wait until our children are snoring the mild moans of little woodland creatures, their elf-locked hair black against their pillows, their erubescent cheeks glowing sweet in the moony night. I steal into the garden, I cradle fistfuls of earth, and I look up at the sky. I wait for the boats to blot out the stars, again. I wait to feast my eyes. I keep their little shoes by their beds, and I practice tying them very quickly, very tightly.