My mother, Anne, died of thyroid cancer when I was fifteen. She who once was the serene center of the house became thin, then thinner, then was gone altogether. After she died, I made daily pilgrimage to her study to look at the avatars of her that still remained in her desk: red wax-pencils, correcting fluid, pink erasers, correspondence, sealing wax. I pressed my fingernails into anything that would take an impression, clawing at her fading memory, leaving ghostly crescents. I was disturbed at the way she continued to disappear from the house, and from my memory. I found her to be the most present in her study, among her books and the tools of her belles-lettres. There I could remember her, small and dark and neat as a bird, her ghost reaching for penknife or dictionary, brushing me like wings.
My father also remembered her best in the study. He left me alone in that room during daylight hours, but when I left it to go to bed, he hovered near the door, and then sidled inside. Often when I woke in the morning, her study lamp was still burning, and my father was still sitting at her desk, weeping, breathing the scent of her pencil-shavings.
There was a book she left on the table when she went to the hospital. She never finished it, and half its pages were still uncut, their secrets never now to be revealed. No one felt comfortable touching it, even to dust it. I pressed my fingernails secretly into its leather cover, and watched as even those half-moon impressions eventually faded. I sometimes saw my father touch the sharp silver paper knife my mother had left lying beside the book, but the volume remained undisturbed.
My father's melancholy darkened by degrees over the next six months. He seldom went out, except to work: so different from the handsome man in evening dress with my mother on his arm. His friends reasoned with him, telling him that he must be strong, for my sake. We barely spoke to each other. Our vigils in the study—mine in the day, his at night—seemed enough. I was satisfied, and so was the neat, dark ghost.
On my sixteenth birthday, there was a change. My father seemed nervous. He could not meet my eye. When I came down to dinner, there was a woman in the living room. He introduced her as Miss Magowan. She had a frizz of bright ginger hair, and eyes like blue marbles. She wore a skirt of a most shocking plaid, mismatched at the seams, and her white blouse was too tight over her full breasts. She smiled at me.
“I'm so pleased to meet you at last, Julia,” she said. “Your father has told me so much about you.”
“That must be the Magowan tartan,” I said. “How bright it is.”
She blushed. Ginger-haired women should avoid blushing if they possibly can. The color is dreadful.
“Happy birthday,” she said, trying another smile. “I remember when I turned sixteen. It's such a lovely age to be.”
“I'm told forty also has its joys,” I said. “Father, shall we go in to dinner?”
Miss Magowan utterly ignored me during dinner. She leaned on her elbow, laughing, pink from the wine, as jolly as a kilted elf, and made conversation enough for three. She laid her hand on my father's arm and looked into his eyes. With the arrival of each course, she exclaimed at the cooking and whispered jokes I could not hear. My father avoided my gaze.
Just before dessert, I spoke quietly to one of the servants. When my birthday cake arrived, dark plum cake rimed with white frosting, they set it before my father. He smiled with satisfaction and reached for the knife they had brought. When he saw what he had under his hand, he flinched and turned white. It was my mother's silver paper knife, the blade sharp and shining.
My father's eyes at last met mine.
“What is it, Henry?” asked Miss Magowan, but he answered not a word.
The rest of the evening was somewhat quiet. I brought up several topics of conversation, but they fell rather flat. When Miss Magowan had to leave, she stood by my father in the doorway, her face anxious above her squirrel-trimmed coat, trying to catch his attention. His eyes roamed the hall, flitting from cornice to crevice, and he smiled politely as he said goodbye. I shook Miss Magowan's coarsely-gloved hand.
“We do so look forward to your next visit,” I said. “How we have enjoyed your cheeriness.”
“You poisonous child,” she hissed. She sounded almost hysterical. “What are you doing to him?”
I smiled demurely. “Do take care in the rain,” I said. “Squirrel fur is so... fragrant when it gets wet.” And I shut the door gently behind her. I went to the study and found the lamp already burning there. My mother's dark presence seemed strong around me.
Late that night, I heard a noise from the study. I climbed from my bed, in my long white nightgown, and stole soundlessly to the door. Inside, by the light of the fire, I saw my father, alone. His trousers were open and he had his penis in his hand. He was weeping again. I watched in silent fascination. His penis was hard, jutting out thick and stiff from his trousers. I was aware of my nightgown, cool against my body.
“Oh Annie my darling,” he said in a strained voice, and then, suddenly, he climaxed. It was a thick white mess, everywhere, on the floor and his trousers. I even saw a pearly splash of it on my mother's book, lying dusty on the table.
When my father saw that, he was silent for a moment. Then he took the shining silver paper knife and reached for the soiled book. He slashed out the first page and threw it in the fire. The same for the second, and the third. I watched as the book became thin, then thinner, then was gone altogether.
When the last page had burned to cinders, I realized how cold I had become, and I stirred. My father raised his eyes and looked around, to see me standing by the door to the study. His face was white and horrified.
“Annie,” he whispered.
I should mention that I am very like my mother in appearance. I, too, am neat, and dark as a bird. When I moved toward my father, padding on soft bare feet, he sat transfixed. My hands when I laid them on his chest were cool, but not icy. I breathed into his ears the words I had been hearing in my own ever since the door closed behind Miss Magowan.
“You never should have brought her here,” I said. “You never should have brought her to our home.” I was fierce and sure, my mother's presence strongly with me.
“I'm so sorry,” he said. “It won't happen again, Annie.” I could hear his heart beating, hoarse as a clock in the back of his throat.
“You're so cold,” he said vaguely. He touched the cool fabric of my nightgown, stroked it a little. Then his hand moved up farther, hesitated, and cupped my breast. I flinched, but he didn't seem to notice.
“I've missed you so much,” he murmured, and I saw that his eyes were oddly unfocused. His thumb moved in circles on my nipple, and it hardened beneath his touch. My sureness faltered a moment, then steadied. My heart was racing, but my hands were still cool and steady on my father's chest. He put one hand on my cold ankle, and slid his hand up and up my calf and thigh, under my white nightgown, until he was lightly brushing the hair there. I felt a shiver run through me, of pleasure and terror and a sort of choked, excited revulsion. I have never quite been able to erase that shiver from my memory.
Later, he raised the gown to my collarbones and kissed my breasts. Later, he closed my hand around his penis and moaned my mother's name. Later, I pressed my fingernails into his arms, leaving ghostly red crescents that disappeared before breakfast. Later, I closed my eyes when he entered me, and imagined that I was as sharp and shining as a silver blade.
Later, I reached out for the comfort of that neat, dark ghost, and found only empty space.
Edited by Father Ignatius
This story is published here by kind permission of Ruthie's Club (http://www.ruthiesclub.com), where it appeared first, illustrated by n8.