One of the few things I anticipated, really reveled in, as an expectant mother, was the books I imagined my children choosing. I did not look forward to first steps, had low expectations in the “first words” department, and absolutely dreaded the thought of birthdays.
Two times, Scott read Winnie The Pooh to my swollen belly. We presented The Sneetches, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, and Henry and Mudge to our newborns, and we gloried in the first titles the children read independently.
We’ve been planning our kids’ libraries for years, pre-stocking our shelves with our own true loves. I’ve dreamed a steady diet of Tamora Pierce, Diana Wynne Jones, J.K. Rowling, and Judy Blume. Scott has had his eye on The Hardy Boys and Horatio Hornblower.
I made the mistake of starting Diana Wynne Jones too soon, and now we’re stalled in Howl’s Moving Castle,because Sophie has bumped into the Witch of the Waste one time too many for my timid daughter. I’ve held a few things in reserve. Garth Nix, Neil Gaiman, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Lois Lowry. I’ve been waiting until she could handle even Scooby Doo to present these favorite writers.
Mother’s Day weekend, we went to the beach.
I had set aside The Ocean at the End of the Lane for myself. It was almost the only Gaiman title I hadn’t read, and it was short. I wanted to absorb it when I could spend the day digesting. I’ve lied to several people, claiming to have already finished it so they wouldn’t hassle me, or worse, avoid talking about it in my presence.
I downloaded it for the beach trip, plunked the kids in back under headphones, and settled in for the drive south, which doubled in length thanks to a slow start followed by heavy rain. Early in the book, when the eleven year old Lettie Hempstock and the seven year old Neil Gaiman faced the flea who would become Ursula Monkton, a sound alerted me that I wasn’t the only audience. A glance in my rearview mirror showed that both children were listening intently.
I nearly turned it off.
But damn it, I’d been waiting nearly a full year to read this thing and I didn’t see another chance before July at the soonest. And too, the kids’ earphones, both ten year old Caroline’s and six year old Sam’s, dangled around their necks. Their Kindle and Leap Pad sat forgotten.
So I let it play.
“Mom! Mom! Mom!”
“What, Caroline? You’re interrupting the story.” I hit pause expecting to have to return to music, after all.
“Mom, it’s the Witch of the Waste! How did she get in THIS book?”
How does she know? We haven’t even gotten to the part …
“She’s … it’s … I …” Words globbed together, and I didn’t get it right. I don’t think she understood that Neil Gaiman adores Diana Wynne Jones’ writing the way that I adore Gaiman’s. I don’t think she fully grasped that The Witch of the Waste was facing those children because Gaiman harvested her, carefully pruned her twiggy edges, then planted her gently in his own forest in homage to one of his mentors. (Then shredded her to fuckall, because that’s what one does to evil witches.)
After that, there was no question of hitting stop. At the end, we remained fixed in the car at the beach, none of us ready to get out, absorbed instead in those last words. And when it was done and I finally tapped “exit”, Caroline asked, “Didn’t he write Coraline? Can we read that on the way home?”
I jammed my seatbelt in my rush to launch Audible again, babbling “Yes, yes, and after Coraline there’s Neverwhere, and then Stardust, and … and…things by other people, and….”
“Yeah,” she said. “All those other books you’ve got scattered around the house.”
Yes, Caroline. All those other books. Every single one.
“Sam’s nothing like you, really,” I told Amye.
She shrugged. She stared over my head, out the window behind the sink.
“For instance, he gives a shit about other people.”
Again the shrug.
“I used to only perceive you. When he kicked in the door, I saw your feet coming through the hole. When he blew the power and destroyed the ceiling fan, I smelled you in the burned out wires. When he screamed endlessly, I heard your voice louder than my own.”
Still she wouldn’t speak to me. Silence was always one of her favorite pissy tricks. I looked over my shoulder out the window, searching for the house next door. But, like the new appliances, it not transferred into the world of the dead. The light in the room was cast by a full moon hanging huge and low. Except for that moon, the world did not extend past my grandparents’ driveway.
I averted my gaze. “What happens when you go outside?”
She had come from somewhere, after all. I had arrived in a dream, but I didn’t know from which direction. I had walked in and seated myself at the incongruous picnic table that hulked in the middle of the room, making passage on either side impossible (Except other people, strangers, kept walking past anyway, brushing through me in cold bursts that blurred my vision.) . Amye had come not long after, easing in languidly from the back porch like she had always been there, though I knew she had not.
“Not much. You go somewhere else. We provide our own space here. Keeps things from getting crowded.”
Poppa glowered at the fridge and drummed his fingers. “I’m going to have to go out to the garage,” he grumbled. “I’ll come in again when I find the beer.” He stumped off and vanished behind a slamming door. The back porch went with him, replaced a moment later by my mother’s living room, as it had looked before she redid the floors. Like the shiny new things in the kitchen, the new wood had failed to convey.
I went to the doorway. The green chairs we had given away when I was twelve sat at their stations on either side of the buck stove. “Can I go in there?”
I started forward but then looked back. Amye was watching me avidly. She wanted me to cross that threshold. “I’d better not.”
If she was dismayed, she didn’t show it.
Dad wandered in, transitioning from one dream to the next. “Did you know,” he asked us, “that in Maine, there used to be a competition for builders? They’d hold a wooden nail between the fingers of one hand and drive it into a board with the opposite fist. You ought to see them some time.”
He climbed up over the table on his way to the living room but shook his head at the boundary. “Nope, better use the other door,” he advised himself. When he returned, he passed straight through the table as the others had done.
“I guess he comes here a lot? He seems to know where to find things.”
Amy rolled her eyes and sneered. “He sleeps deeper. He didn’t even see you. He was talking to me.”
“Whatever.” I felt I ought to be telling her something about Kaylee or Caroline, offering up some grain of friendship, but I had no words.
“Anyway, I have to go.” She brushed past me and into the living room.
“Wait! I miss you sometimes. I wonder who you’d have been. But all I see is imaginary. Every future you I create you is false.”
She shook her head, either because I’d said the wrong thing or because I’d stated the obvious. She walked around the corner and opened another door, one that ought to have led upstairs, but instead showed my grandparents’ furnace room, dingy with fifty year old coal soot, crowded with broken toys and yard sale junk.
“What are you doing? Why are you going in there?”
As she pulled the door shut behind her, she said, “I miss you, too.” But I knew it was a lie, a tease meant to make me come back again. She needn’t have bothered. I’ll be back.
We carry our own ghosts with us. It saves on the travel. But it means they’re always hovering, waiting to ease in past an unguarded periphery, one that was supposed to be an invitation to someone else.
Our house has several circles of hell Dante never thought of. Today, I’m thinking in particular of Sock Hell. This is the underworld of mismatched socks, where no two look quiiite close enough to each other to be worn together in public.
But it’s worse than that. Sock Hell is a crowded place. In fact, because there are so very many socks in it, redemption is nearly impossible. The socks are damned as much because mates can languish nearly side by side, unmatched when one, perhaps is faded more than the other, or one (but not the other) acquires a fine glaze of pink paint when I tromp through something fresh I am coating. But here’s the worst part of all, the reason Sock Hell is so particularly fiendish.
I am in charge of folding the socks.
Our division of household labor is more than somewhat inequitable. Scott picks up most of the day to day shit that drives me to distraction (laundry, dishes, etc.), and that I would only cope with once a week, given my druthers.
I do deep cleaning on grime he doesn’t ever see. (Guess which one needs to happen less frequently. Hint: it’s the one I do.) But I do try to pitch in on the regular household chores. When I remember.
I pick shit up. I put away dishes. Working as a team, we fold the clothes. And when we’re dead out of socks, even the ones we steal from the “out of season” bin, I delve into Sock Hell for some matches. The pile shrinks. But only a little. Mostly, I’m left with a collection of sad foot coverings screaming out for a salvation I can’t offer.
A friend has a policy of tossing any sock she’s seen for more than three washings. I’d like to do that. Only I’m so ADHD that I can’t remember which socks I’ve been looking at for three washings. I’m not talking about the ones that are almost identical anyway, or the ones that, if only they had necks of similar lengths, could be paired off and called good enough. No, I mean the adorable patterned ones, the pinks, the purples, the puppies and kitties. They all run together and look alike, so that I cannot possibly recall which have been in my basket for three consecutive wash cycles.
I tried a rubber band system. After all, we have a fuck-ton of the things sitting around thanks to the non-weaving-loom people. A clump banded in green had been around for one washing. Then, yellow was two, and red was three. But what counted as a washing? We do laundry daily! Do I seriously trash a sock after three days? Or by wash cycle, do I mean “wash week”, in which case, I’m back to square screwed, because I cannot remember when a “wash week” starts or ends, and my calendar-keeping skills are untrustworthy in this area.
Also, I share socks with both kids. I have to factor in the reality that we only scour their rooms about once a month. So am I planning to sit on those socks for three months? Hardly an improvement over the original system of hoping for the best and watching the fucking mountain grow.
When I die, I expect to be buried in socks. They will line my casket with those unmatched remains to travel with me to the underworld. And we’ll search there, forever spiraling outward, rowing round in the patchwork remains of a cotton tide.
When Emma was a poet, she wrote books even the least well-read listener enjoyed. She remains popular now only in academic circles and lives off her investments. She stays indoors, cloistered by agoraphobia, though she hungers for companionship. I hold the Huddleston chair at our University because I am her translator, the one person who can still walk inside and carry her words out again.
She’s moving from her house to an apartment across town, and we’ve been packing for weeks. Her psychiatrist thinks this means she’s finally coming out of isolation. But she and I know it’s merely a new phase of her particular funk. “I won’t be so alone,” she tells me one moment, and “Oh, God, they’ll be all around me,” the next. “New York was like that.”
And then she’s incanting, and I drop the boxes, the dusty tomes in need of stacking, and scramble for my recorder. She tells me, “Being lonely in New York was like falling slipstream, borne along by currents I could not fathom or reach, a passenger in humanity’s wake.”
I’ll take that to my graduate classes, let my students chew the words, grind them through twenty page essays. Only Emma and I will ever know she is speaking of now, not New York, of living pressed into her own books, crowded against the glass of a window she dares not break.
“She fell and chipped her tooth.”
The kids were at Starbucks, not two hundred feet from where I was answering phones at the ballet. I send them on a regular basis, confident Caroline knows when to come get me if Sam breaks down and Sam knows I’ll throttle him if he does anything too outré. It gives them an outlet when my volunteerism has left them stuck waiting around after both their classes have ended.
I knew I’d get a call eventually. Something was bound to go wrong. But I expected it to be Sam. Nobody calls about Caroline.
The woman was still talking when I hung up on her.
“Gotta go, Caroline’s busted her face in.” I knew it was worse than “chipped her tooth”. Even with Asperger’s and sensory issues, Caroline would have sent her brother for me before she would have had a Starbucks employee call. I left someone else to collect my scattered belongings as I raced down the stairs and across the courtyard.
I didn’t see Caroline when I got to the store, as she was surrounded by concerned parents and staff. But I heard her. “It hurts! I want my mom! I want my dad! I wish I’d lost a limb instead!”
“Caroline, honey, I’m here.” The sea of worried people parted to let me through.
She has a nosebleed, and she’s shattered a front tooth.
“Who’s your dentist?”
A woman holding a phone materialized beside me as I reeled Caroline in and started to rock.
“Her tooth is broken. Who’s your dentist?”
“Doctor Hudson over on Bell Road.”
“Great. Doctor Rob is still in his office.”
“But I said…”
She was dialing before I could complete my protest, and I doubt she heard me over Caroline anyway. I pulled away from my daughter long enough to get a good look at her injury, then went back to rocking. “We need to go to the emergency room.” That’s not a nose bleed. Holy God she skinned her face.
“No! I want to go home!”
The woman with the phone was back. “Look up,” she commanded Caroline. “And open your mouth.” When Caroline complied, still howling, the woman said, “No root showing,” then, “Is it loose in the socket? Can you wiggle it, honey?” Caroline shook her head. “Not loose. Great. Any pain here?” She brushed the bridge of Caroline’s nose with her index finger.
“No! It’s all here!” Caroline indicated the hamburger that had formerly been her upper lip and nostril.
“Fantastic.” The woman hung up and turned to me. “There’s not a thing the ER can do for the tooth, and they’ll only clean the abrasion. Take her home, alternate Tylenol with ibuprofen; and get her into her regular dentist first thing in the morning.” The woman vanished. I felt like I’d been visited by the Lone Ranger.
“Ow! I want to go home!”
“OK. Home.” I stroked Caroline’s head and led her towards the door. “We’ll get you home.”
The next day, the dentist repaired the tooth and confirmed that the palate wasn’t broken, while the pediatrician provided ointment for the skinned face and double-checked the nose. Caroline clung to us all day, especially Scott, but that was fine. It felt good to hold her and reassure her, to let her know that she is still young enough that we can ride to her rescue when those calls come in, to let her know we’ll always be her parents.
But seriously. If you want to be my friend, let’s don’t go see a film together. Because I’m that gal sitting dead center in the middle row who won’t shut up. If I like the story, I cackle at every punch line, shout encouragement to the main characters, and boo the bad guys. If I hate it, I deride the director, demand explanations from an invisible producer, and whine about product placements. I pipe down every time Scott whispers, “Let other people enjoy it.” But within minutes, I’m at it again, so engaged with the screen that I have no control over my mouth.
I’ve never met anybody as obnoxious as I am at the cinema.
Last week, Caroline did a 180 on her position that movies were sensory nightmares and announced a desire to see Frozen. So I took the kids when I knew the theater would be deserted. (Actually, for 9:55 on a Sunday in the South, it was surprisingly crowded. I think I just figured out what the rest of the agnostics and atheists in town do for entertainment while their Christian brethren commune with the Lord.)
Sam sat, as he always does, transfixed by the film, except that he has started melodramatically climbing in my lap and demanding that I cover his ears while he covers his eyes during the parts he deems too scary (i.e. any time the plot gets tense or the music becomes ominous. Snow monsters are fine; treachery and treason, not so much.) But Caroline, from the moment that Princess Ana demanded “Wanna build a snowman?” of her older sister Elsa, was chatting up the screen.
“No, no, NO! Don’t climb so HIGH!” she pleaded with the young Ana. “Oh God, they’re dead,” she sympathized with the mourning sisters.
And was I, as a proper parent should do, shushing her and reminding her that it was only a movie? No. No, I was not. Or not much, anyway. In real life, I tell her thirty times a day to stop talking to her video games, to turn down her personal volume, and to generally calm down and not amp up.
But at the movies, I morph into a cross between Siskel and Ebert and the guy on MST3K myself, so I was helpless to curb my daughter’s enthusiasms. To every exclamation of Caroline’s, I had a whispered remark of my own. (And I have trained myself to keep the chatter down to a whisper; Caroline still needs to work on this.) If it was funny, we both barked laughter. If touching, we “aww” ed in unison. While Sam was demanding that I cover his ears for the umpteenth time, Caroline was begging, “No, no, no, Hans DON’T,” while I beat on her arm and hissed, “Isn’t this the best plot twist EVER? I can’t believe it! They were all right!” (Never mind that it was a twist straight out of Shakespeare.)
It was a kid-flick, so the extra vocalizations went largely unnoticed. Still, when the lights came up, I saw the glances darted in our direction. Ah. So it was them. Caroline, who has only experienced three in-cinema movies ever, didn’t recognize these people for deriders. In fact, she beamed at every pair of eyes and greeted several complete strangers with chipper joy, much as if she was Olaf the Snowman looking merrily for warm hugs and summer, completely immune to the consequences of both.
And as for the film, we loved it. There were SO many places where the story could have devolved into typical princess shit that it instead mocked exactly the trope it had been setting up for forty five minutes. There were a number of unexpected twists, and it had enough humor to balance out the sorrow. Also, the cheesy lyrics were tolerable, sometimes even enjoyable, in the context of a movie that wasn’t afraid to laugh at itself.
I only had two real complaints. First, there’s a scene where big sister Elsa, in breaking out of her good-princess role, gets all vamped out. It seemed unnecessary. I mean, I’d love for Disney to write a heroine who NEEDED to be sexy-strong. But this character went all sultry in the stereotypical “if I am strong my sexuality MUST play into it, let’s make sexual frigidity metaphors shall we?” sort of way. Second, as with Brave (which I also loved), it was the all-white-people revue. So, fine, Disney is setting it in a fictional Scandanavian-ish area. Brave was in a fictional Ireland. So black characters would be anachronistic, right? Oh, wait, SO ARE BARBIE-WAISTED MAGIC-WIELDING PRINCESSES WITH ORDINARY SIBLINGS who have modern-sounding teen dialogue. These are imaginary places. So fucking make them inclusive.
But those are my only gripes with otherwise good tales, and I only felt obliged to mutter them at the screen. And in Caroline, I think I’ve finally found someone to see movies with me. As long as we both like the film. Because if we don’t? Heaven help the ushers trying to throw us both out.
Flori and the Snakes
Flori slithered behind the ivy and climbed the back of the trellis, pleased it was both wrought iron and well anchored to the wall. At the top, she flattened herself against the roof. Here, she was exposed to anyone looking down, but there weren’t any dragons in sight. She crept along on all fours, following the magical red line that connected her to her great-grandfather. Of necessity, she used no magic of her own. To do so this close to the heart of the Yilan compound would have been to advertise her presence.
When the line stopped pulling her forward and started, instead, to tug her gently down, she had reached the other side of the roof and the inner compound proper. She smiled and climbed back out behind the ivy. She had only descended a story before she found the right window.
“I wouldn’t.” A sibilant voice interrupted Flori’s attempt to slide in through the top. She froze. “Look around you,” the voice went on. “Do you really think I cover my buildings with ivy so intruders can attack me at will? No, no.” The plants around Flori began to sway and twist together, and she suddenly found herself looking at a large number of snakes.
None of the snakes were large, but all of them gave off the faintly noxious odor that Flori had learned to associate with venom and Lady Medusa, who led the Yilan, and some said the entire continent.
“Luster invited me,” Flori said through gritted teeth.
“He invited you to come in through the gate like everyone else.” The snakes shifted and wound themselves around Flori’s wrists and torso.
“So he I could meet with him and … you? No, thank you. I was hoping to speak with him alone.” Now, they bore her quite publicly inside the window she had planned to enter in secret. She squirmed, but her living bonds only tightened.
“Let her go.” As quickly as they had captured her, the snakes turned Flori free, depositing her in an ungainly heap at Lady Medusa’s feet. Where Flori was small in stature, Aurelia Medusa of the House of Yilan was large. The Lady towered over even grown men. Her white face and chalky hair stood out against golden clothing as she glowered down at her prisoner. The last time Flori had seen Aurelia, that hair had been bound up in a crown, and she knew better than to mistake it for human locks. Aurelia’s hair was made of as many snakes as the vines that had carried Flori into the chamber.
Flori dusted her pants as she rose, trying to rid herself of the snakes’ malodor. “I don’t appreciate being ordered to your court,” she snapped.
“The Lady did not ask for your opinion,” said a new voice. Flori darted a glance to the right and saw Luster Anguis, Lady Medusa’s First in Command, stretched along a canopied sofa, his copper brown hair coiled around his neck.
“And I did not ask to be dumped…”
“Be quiet,” Luster hissed. “The Lady and I have devoted a goodly portion of our morning to your one-person invasion. I will tell you that you have exploited our weaknesses and given us new areas to cover. We could not have followed someone who was not in my family. Nonetheless, we have wasted half a day on it when The Trade demands our attention.”
The lartë trade fueled the city of Hiria’s economy. The drug was an expensive way for wizards to transform into animals. Though Flori used it herself, she steered away from the snake lartë that Lady Medusa controlled and used instead the product as it was distilled from dragon’s blood. She needed to take far less of the dragon than the snake lartë to achieve the same goals.
“Then, please, waste no more of your time on me. I won’t hold you from the snakes.”
Luster chuckled. “Sit down, Flori,” he said.
“I prefer to stand.”
“I did not ask what you preferred.” Three chairs scooted out from a table in the center of the room, and Lady Medusa and Luster Anguis took two of them, leaving the third for their unwilling guest.
After a long silence, Flori joined them. “What do you want?”
“Your company, naturally.” There was a teapot in the middle of the table. Luster poured three cups.
Though he and Lady Medusa drank, Flori left hers alone. “You did not send me a formal invitation to have me over for tea.” She pushed the cup away.
“No,” he agreed. “I did not. I asked you here because I need your company on a rather long journey.”
“No. The last time I left Hiria…”
“He wasn’t asking you.” Lady Medusa’s hair sprang to life, and the angry snakes swiveled unblinking gazes towards Flori.
“Flori, look at her,” said Luster. Was Flori imagining it, or did his voice contain a note of appeal? “The Lady is greatly changed since you last saw her.”
“Yes?” She wasn’t imagining it. Luster was entreating her to study those snakes. The last time Flori had laid eyes on Lady Medusa, those white snakes had all been golden. “Is she unfit for travel?”
“She is dying.”
“She is not.” Flori couldn’t understand why Luster’s statement produced a lurch of dismay in her own chest.
“Look at her,” Luster commanded. Flori obeyed, forcing her eyes to meet those of the unblinking snakes. “You have seen her with golden hair. But her face used to be golden as well. When her first Sentient Snake died a quarter of a century ago, she entered a long dormancy. She lay with the rest of the snakes for nearly a year before she rose again, and her face never regained its color. She was more prepared for the second Sentient Snake to die last month. She had braced herself for its severance. She did not go dormant. But she has been losing her color bit by bit ever since.
“The Sentient Snakes are like the dragons, one of the old races, and there are few left. There is only one small colony remaining, and I must cross an ocean to reach it and appeal to at least one of them to come with us. The Lady cannot be spared from The Trade for so long, even to save her own life, but the Sentient Snakes will not tolerate many of the other races. So I need a companion who can finish the job if I am unable.
“Your mother is off with her gnomes, and frankly I doubt she would be anything but a hindrance. Your uncle cannot be spared from his own family. And your cousins are both too young. That leaves me with you. I need your company on a long trip to save The Lady’s life. Think of it as a lengthy family vacation.”
“Oh yes you did. Hard enough to bruise. His Mom told me.”
“Mom, I didn’t bite him.” Arms crossed, Sam stomps. “I pinched him.”
Holy moly, cats, it’s been three weeks. The Nutcracker cracked my figurative nuts this year. But it was good, and the kids had a great time, except for the moment mentioned above. I’m finally hooking up with Trifecta again, just in time for the editors to switch things up and put Trifecta and Trifextra in alternating weeks. This is good. It isn’t like I have time for many more than 33 words this week, even with the annual cracking of the nuts behind me.