The day of my stepfather’s funeral was the same day I fell in love with words. Up until that time they’d seemed the province of dull textbooks and the even duller novels we were forced to read in English. But as we angled our old Ford through the heavy iron cemetery gates I saw the sign, a great scrolled iron thing stuck on the front. Cemetery of the Holy Rood. Rood, I thought. Rhymes with rude. And death, no matter how you sliced it, was rude, plain and simple. Whether you dropped dead of a heart attack at the dinner table like my uncle Parker, or crashed your car through a railing so that it plunged down a cliff and burst into flames like my cousin Mike, or ended up in a woodchipper with your ass sticking out and your head shoved halfway into the machine, death was plain obnoxious. A belch during church, a fart at a memorial. Rude and rood. After it was over and they’d covered his grave with dirt (no open casket) I told my mother my theory. She was absently picking some lint off her skirt, her head bowed and eyes pinched so they looked like small reddish sacks. “What?” “Rude. Death is rude. Isn’t it cool that that’s what they named the cemetery?” “It’s spelled differently. And it means something else.” “I know that. I just like the word.” Abattoir was another one I fell in love with that day. When the cops gave my mother the news, I’d overheard one of them on his way back to the patrol car. “Like an abattoir,” he’d said, voice thick like he’d just stopped crying or finished throwing up. “That’s what it looked like.” I didn’t tell my mother about abattoir. It had been a hard enough day already. As it was she looked at me and shook her head as we pulled out of the gate. # # # My hair had turned into fat chocolate sprongs, thanks to the wind and rain at the cemetery. I shoved the mass back impatiently as we walked up the driveway. A few people had already gathered, most of them carrying food. Sam, my best friend from school, waved a bottle in my direction. It was our signal to go out back. “Mom? Will you be okay?” She shot me a look. One I was used to—it basically told me that the answer was obvious. I patted her back anyway and watched as she squared her shoulders and walked up to Cress Walker, our nearest neighbor. A casserole dish exchanged hands, along with some air kisses, and then they were walking into the house, the little square of light from our front hallway cutting briefly through the gloom before she shut the door. # # # In the yard behind the house I sat with my back pressed against the wall, watching as Sam undid the strip of cellophane holding the bottle top in place. He unscrewed the cap and offered me the bottle; I took one sniff and wrinkled my nose. “Manischewitz?” “It’s all my mother has. You should see her cabinet.” I already had, on the one afternoon I’d gone exploring when Sam had been laid up with the flu. His mother worked full time, which gave me the opportunity, if not the excuse. No, the excuse was what I saw in my room every night before I went to bed. Or what I’d seen in my stepfather’s eyes in the last few weeks before he’d gone up Dunsany Hill for the last time. The thought made my grip on the bottle tighten. I took a swallow, the syrupy sweetness more comforting than I wanted to admit. “How you doing?” I shrugged and passed the bottle back. “How do you think?” He sat down beside me and propped the bottle between his knees. “Shitty. I’d guess.” I laughed, even though it wasn’t funny. “That covers it pretty well.” He looked at me. “Your mom still serious about sending you away this summer?” “We haven’t talked about it. Not since…” “She might want you to stay around. Especially now.” I thought of the window. My stepfather’s eyes. The way my mother had begged him at the end not to go up Dunsany, saying that there was something strange up there, that the woods were strange, that they weren’t normal. We’d heard it from her all her life, my stepfather laughingly passing it off as her being the ultimate city girl, my mother laughing right along with him until earlier this year. “She won’t,” I said flatly. # # # When Sam left I went into the house. Cress Walker was still there, sitting across from my mother at the oilcloth-covered table that my mother had purchased last year at Costco. It was an ugly thing, big and metallic and topped with fake tile, but she’d gotten to a point where she refused to let anything made of wood into the house. Except for the things she couldn’t replace, like our floors. The wall-to-wall carpeting that muffled everyone’s footsteps so that you couldn’t hear anyone coming was her one attempt to combat those. Cress got up from her chair and reached for me, pulling me into a hug before pushing me away and looking into my eyes. I’ve always hated when people do that; it’s like they’re trying for a connection that, no matter what, seems false. “How you doing, honey?” “Okay.” She stared into my eyes a few moments longer, just enough to make me think that she was trying to read me. I could only hope that she saw what she obviously expected—pain, sadness, anger. Not happiness. Not relief. “You and your mom can come to me anytime. You hear?” Considering that her house was five miles from ours, it wasn’t the kind of invitation I was likely to accept. There were other reasons I wouldn’t bother, but I didn’t want her figuring those out. “Okay. Thanks.” She let me go and turned back to my mother. “Sara. I need you to think about what I said.” My mother looked at her, her eyes still sunk in pockets of pink-rimmed flesh. “I’m sending her away.” “For good?” Was she kidding? I stared at my mother, who was shaking her head. “I can’t do that.” “It’d be best.” “Maybe.” My mother’s eyes flicked towards me, then down at the oilcloth. For the first time I noticed the rings left on the surface, the round imprints of a couple of glasses. I felt a sudden thrill of something like anger—there were other people in the house, sitting uneasily on sofa and chairs, eating macaroni and poundcake and other funeral food, while my mother locked herself into the kitchen with this busybody whackjob. There had never been any discussion of sending me away for good—it had always been for summer, a few weeks away to ride horses and make potholders and keep the little kids from drowning or falling into campfires. Whatever things a counselor in training did. I stepped towards her, ignoring Cress. “Don’t you think it’s time you talked to someone else?” “Don’t be rude.” Rude. Rood. I closed my eyes and opened them abruptly when I felt Cress’s hand on my shoulder. Angrily I twitched her away and stalked into the living room, where I avoided everyone’s eyes. I piled a paper plate with some potato salad, a couple of pieces of rye bread, a brownie that looked like it had been run over by a truck—it actually had skid marks—and a piece of ham. I found an empty place near the piano and pretended that all the incongruous stuff I’d put on my plate actually formed a meal. # # # My stepfather used to tell me that the wood up on Dunsany Hill was different—it gave up its soul in way that other wood didn’t. In the beginning I’d liked the idea of wood giving up its soul, even though it added a layer of weirdness to his work that might not have been there otherwise. But when you saw his carvings—the dolls with their delicate lips and gazing eyes, the animals that seemed to move if you looked at them too long, even the dull things, the buckets and broom handles and floorboards, all seemed to glow with something that, while it wasn’t life, was close enough. Not that I had a chance to look at it often. Thanks to my mother. But that didn’t stop me from taking the little things he’d give me over the years and hoarding them. And when it looked like she’d do whatever it took to get rid of them—even raiding my closets and dresser—I took more extreme measures. Like bringing them everywhere I went. Including now. I sat in the clearing, the trees around me rustling gently in the wind. In front of me were the carvings—the tiny dragon he’d given me one year for my birthday, all coiled green and gold scales and brilliant ruby eyes, the box covered with hand-carved wooden shells, the doll that was supposed to be me as a toddler. Its eyes were green, its arms forever extended. I couldn’t believe I’d ever extended my arms like that to my stepfather, although I guessed when I was about three it might have made sense. In later years my arms had been used to form other positions, other postures. Ariel. The voice was a sigh, carried through rustling leaves. I closed my eyes to hear it better. Ariel… Followed by another voice, this one loud and insistent. “Ariel! Where are you?” Damn. I stood up, shoved the carvings into a pocket—they poked me uncomfortably, which was good—and walked slowly down the path that would lead me home. # # # My mother stood in the hallway, hands at her sides. Before her were two suitcases—the tiny one I used to bring to camp, a larger one she used for longer trips. She’d tossed the clothing inside, not bothering to fold it—jeans and sweaters and tank tops, a few tightly coiled pairs of socks, a wrinkled dress I had worn to Sam’s Bar Mitzvah. “What are you doing?” “Packing for you.” She turned away so I couldn’t read her expression. “You wouldn’t do it yourself, so…” “I’m not going anywhere.” She still didn’t turn. “You have to. After what…” She took a breath, tried again. “After what happened…you can’t want to stay.” Meaning she didn’t want me to stay. I looked at a point over her head, at the strongbox where she’d kept important documents—birth certificates, Social Security cards, tax returns, lawsuit stuff. It was weird how when you were a little kid you were told that people could protect you—police, judges, lawyers, your mother. It was only when you got older that you realized that no one would help you, that people really didn’t have the time, that they had lives that were somehow more important than whatever was happening to you. Maybe that was okay—you had to grow up sometime, learn how to deal with stuff on your own. You could either hold it inside—I’d known a few girls who’d done just that, holding pain tight in a closed fist, maybe drowning it with booze or clouding it with pot smoke. Or you could throw it outside of you, make marks on your arms and legs with the most delicate blades you could find, the ones that would leave a thin burning sting and a line of brilliant red for the hurt to leak from. But I didn’t know anyone who’d done what I had. “They’re coming for you, you know.” I looked at my mother. Her pink-rimmed eyes reminded me suddenly of a rabbit’s. “Who?” “The police.” I pushed my hair off my forehead. “Why would they?” “Because of what you did.” I took a step towards her. She didn’t flinch. “I didn’t do anything. You know that.” She looked down at her feet. “Your stepfather was a careful man. He knew how to work around machines.” I shrugged. “Anyone can make a mistake.” “Ariel…” She paused, then said, “I don’t think you should be here…when they come.” “Did you call them?” She didn’t answer. I took another step towards her, hating the muffling carpet. “Did you?” She shook her head. “Cress Walker did.” I should have known. “Why?” “Because she thinks you did something.” I took another muffled step. “Did you tell her I was at home? In bed when it happened?” She didn’t answer. Instead she gestured weakly towards the suitcases. “You might want to check to see if I left anything out.” I felt my pocket for the hard edges of the carvings. “Where is it?” “What?” “Where you want me to go.” She finally met my eyes. “The city.” I nodded. I guessed that from her point of view it made sense. Concrete, brick, glass, instead of wood. No trees, unless you counted the prim little saplings placed at equal intervals along the barren stretches in front of the buildings. I couldn’t imagine anything living in those anorexic trunks, and I knew she couldn’t either. # # # “So are you going?” I shrugged. Sam passed me the bottle—Manischewitz again. I took a few swallows and wiped my mouth with the back of my hand. “Not if I have anything to do with it.” He was quiet for a minute. “Cress Walker should have kept her mouth shut.” “She can’t. Not her style.” He nodded. Then, “So what will you do?” I half closed my eyes. The leaves overhead blurred and ran together, forming a Monet landscape against the pale blue sky. And I thought of another word, one as raw as abattoir. Violation. # # # When my stepfather had begun cutting down the trees on Dunsany, things had started to happen. A cloud of sawdust coming together to form an almost human shape. A faint silvery mist smelling of sap rising near the trunk of a downed birch. Live things violated by an axe, a saw, a chipper. What he’d done to me was nothing in comparison—at least I hadn’t lost my life. But we had one thing in common—we’d had to look into his eyes as he’d borne down on us. Eyes the color of sand on a beach, a murky yellowish brown that somehow mimicked the grain of the wood he contorted into shapes of his own choosing. And when I’d sat in the clearing that night hearing the whisper of the leaves, the sound of my name, I’d felt the rage of all those violations rising up inside me. Like sap in a tree. The way it was now. In my mind’s eye I saw Cress Walker walking down her driveway, presumably to collect her mail from the tin box at the end. I saw the oak shading the mailbox, a massive thing with a knotted trunk. I saw the girl inside it—slender, dark haired, eyes the color of fresh spring leaves. She stretched, her arms reaching far, far into the top limbs. One cracked clean through the middle and fell. I saw Cress Walker looking at it openmouthed before it landed on her, silencing her great yapping mouth forever. I opened my eyes. And smiled.
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