Gillian’s letter came without warning, an electric blue envelope peacock-bright among the usual flock of wren-beige bills when I opened my mailbox that Saturday. There was no return address, but in the space for mine I recognized the back-slanted scrawl of ink a shade darker blue than the envelope, so nearly illegible that I was amazed the letter had found its way to me. In those few untidy lines of print I could see Gillian’s fingers clenched around the barrel of a cheap Schaeffer fountain pen, shaping the words of my name and address with the grim determination that went into everything she did, just as clearly as if it had not been ten years since we last met.
I opened the letter right there in the post office and sat down on the Rotary bench outside to read it. It was written on the back of a flyer for some Brecht company in Chicago, the last place I knew for sure Gillian had been living.
“Hey, girlfriend! I thought you might like to see what I’ve been up to.” I turned the flyer over. The play was one I’d never heard of before, which was not surprising. Theater was Gillian’s gig, not mine. “I got your address from your mother. It looks like I’ll be out your way in a couple of weeks, and I’d like to get together with you. Call me and we can set something up.” The letter ended with a string of digits: a phone number with a Chicago area code.
I folded the letter and stuffed it back into its peacock envelope. For a long time I just sat on that bench, soaking up the thin September sun, feeling my heart’s rapid rhythm in my chest like something trapped just beneath my breastbone, struggling to get out. The sensation was a little alarming, but I put it down to excitement. Once we had been closer than sisters, and to hear from her again after so long imbued the autumn afternoon with the hope and promise of spring, when things old and forgotten erupt from shallow graves to put on new life.
I like to remember, now, that I felt that way.
There were five of us: disregarded misfits in a private prep school populated by rich kids whose behavior towards each of us passed beyond the simply mean and into the virtually Satanic. That’s what brought us together initially, but we soon found we had much more in common. We were all casually brilliant, even in a population where proceeding to Ivy League schools upon graduation was the norm. We all disdained sports and shared a passion for the creative arts. Sadie was a painter, Becky a musician; Gillian acted and Thea wrote, while I dabbled in everything. And as we spent more and more time together, in and out of each other’s homes, very nearly in and out of each other’s heads, we found one more thing that we shared.
In those days, the late seventies, no one talked about dysfunctional families, or if they did it was as something that only occurred in the lowest rungs of society, among the poor and uneducated who, of course, couldn’t be expected to behave in an acceptably civilized fashion. In white, upper-middle-class families there was no alcoholism; there was only social drinking. There was no substance abuse when mother’s Valium was prescribed by the family doctor. “Mental Illness” was a term reserved for straightjacketed lunatics locked away in private sanitariums; for emotional illness there wasn’t even a word. There was no chronic depression, just people who hadn’t learned to cope. There was no child abuse, just kids who had to straighten up and fly right.
The five of us knew differently.
Thea’s mother died when Thea was thirteen, leaving her responsible for two younger brothers and a father who stared out the window of their downtown apartment, dreaming of the days when he captained Great Lakes freighters before a stupid mistake caused an injury that took his leg. Sadie’s father practiced law during the week; when he was home he sat in the living room in his underwear, arguing loudly with people no one else could see. Becky lived in a house encased in clear plastic, kept compulsively clean by a mother who couldn’t forget a son born without much of brain but who horribly lived on and on in some institution upstate. For the most part my parents ignored me, a late-life child they hadn’t really wanted. I considered myself fortunate, except when I broke some unspoken rule, an act that forced them to remember my existence. That was when I heard at length what a bad and troublesome child I was and how it was certain I would come to no good, like the sister who had disgraced them by getting pregnant and running away.
And Gillian? Gillian’s mother was a loud, abrasive woman who berated her youngest daughter incessantly, barging into her room at all hours of the day and night to ask her what was wrong with her: Why couldn’t she get along with the kids at school? Why did she spend her time in worthless hobbies? Why couldn’t she just be happy and normal? What would the neighbours think? Her father, a quiet man with a whiskey sour grafted to whichever hand didn’t hold the notes to his current book, was loving but ineffectual in the face of his wife’s overwhelming personality.
We never spoke of these things among ourselves. They were the landscape of our lives, like the sunrise over Lake St. Clair, like the Detroit skyline seen from the Windsor shore. We knew them—knew them intimately. But discussing them hardly seemed worthwhile. One could no more change them than one could change the colour of the sky. One could only keep breathing and wait for the chance to escape.
That such a chance would be a long time in coming was a given. We were children—wise children, perhaps, but children all the same, and we knew it. There were no sympathetic adults in our lives. School officials ignored us as long as our grades were up to standard, which they inevitably were; the repercussions at home were too dire to risk any slippage there. Even when Becky’s father caught her scratching her hand with a bent pin and sent her to a psychiatrist, that learned doctor just told her to stop playing around and wasting his time; people with real problems needed his services more than a self-absorbed teenager who didn’t know when she had it good. Though we sometimes discussed it, we understood that running away wasn’t an option. We had no money, no skills, nowhere to go, and we knew what happened to young girls on the streets. Our lives may have been nightmarish, but it was a familiar nightmare with rules we understood. We could survive it.
One breath, and then another. If we kept breathing long enough, our families would eventually release us of their own free will. They’d send us away to college, because that’s what upper-middle-class families did. Then we’d be free. All we had to do was keep breathing.
It was hard, sometimes agonizing. Sometimes we wondered if all that breath was really worth it. But eventually we made it to graduation, and through the last frantic summer afterward, and then we were off to various colleges across the country. And despite our promises to write and phone, to get together over the holidays, we lost track of one another. Letters went unanswered; phone calls never materialized. Holidays were often spent with new friends, part of our new lives: lives spent in re-imagining ourselves without the burden of our shared history.
Gillian was the only one who stayed in touch. At least, she stayed in touch with me. My parents knew hers socially, and she was quite willing to use that connection to locate me from time to time, something I never felt comfortable doing. I was always glad to hear from her. My new life hadn’t worked out at all as I had envisioned it would. I knew from the press clippings that my mother enclosed in her infrequent letters that Sadie’s paintings were showing in galleries in New York, that Becky had graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Wesleyan and that Thea had started a small press whose initial offerings had been well received in literary circles. I had dropped out of college after a year, held a series of low-paying, dead-end jobs and was constantly having to write home begging for the money to prevent me from being evicted from my latest roach-infested apartment. Hearing from Gillian made me remember a time when, if the present had been horrible, the future at least held unlimited possibility. I tried hard to keep up the contact. We’d write or phone regularly for a couple of months. Then I’d get swept up in the latest crisis of my current horrible present. My phone would be disconnected, or I’d be forced to move. And we’d drift apart until she tracked me down again, as she had last done five years ago.
At that time, I was finally beginning to get it together and I was glad to have something to share with her other than my usual litany of overwhelming sorrows. I had discovered a small, alternative college in Colorado that offered a degree in folklore and I was preparing to leave Southern California, a place I hated with a passion. I had recently come into a trust set up for me by my grandmother, who had died when I was five. The money would pay for my education and perhaps allow me to buy a small house in the country.
Gillian had big news as well. She was engaged to another graduate student at the big Midwestern university where she was working on her master’s degree in some obscure branch of theater; they were to be married in a year. She wanted me to come. She’d send me an invitation. Sooner than that, she’d send me pictures and a long letter. Now that we were both more settled, we wouldn’t lose touch again.
I hung up the phone feeling that, at long last, everything was going to go right for me. I waited for the promised letter. It never came. I called the last number I had for Gillian; it had been disconnected and she hadn’t given me a new one. Calling Information yielded nothing. When I moved to Colorado, I dutifully sent her a note with my new address. Still, I never heard from her. Suddenly, the only news I had of Gillian was through my mother’s clippings. Through them I learned, a year later, that the engagement had been broken off and that, two years after, Gillian’s mother had died. Both times I sent cards to her old house where, according to my mother, the rest of Gillian’s family was still living. But I didn’t get any response until that blue envelope found its way into my post office box.
When I called Gillian that night, it was as if the intervening five years of silence had never been. Before a minute had passed we were yakking away like the old friends we were, not so much having a conversation as reaffirming our relationship by exchanging bits and pieces of a code developed ten years before: in-jokes, meaningful noises and single words that conveyed whole days of shared experience. Somewhere in there, I managed to convey directions to my house in Gordarosa, the rural Colorado town to which I had relocated after finally finishing college. Somewhere Gillian managed to tell me that she was starting her road trip next week and I could look for her a week after that. None of it seemed to matter. In that code we told each other that we existed for each other, remembered each other: that we had not imagined anything that had gone before.
At least, I thought that’s what we were saying.
Sometime in the weeks before Gillian’s arrival, I had a dream.
I didn’t know it was a dream. As a matter of fact, I thought I couldn’t sleep. This was nothing new—not sleeping, that is. I hadn’t been in Gordarosa long and the house was still new enough to me to keep me awake with its midnight grumbling. Too, I missed my partner, who had stayed behind in Boulder to finish up some business and wouldn’t be joining me until Yule. So when I finally got tired of tossing and turning and went downstairs to make a cup of tea, I was merely reenacting a scene that I had played out several times a week all autumn long. I had no reason to think that, this time, the scene was playing on a screen behind my eyes.
It was chilly in the kitchen and I soon discovered why: the back door was standing open. I went to shut it, thinking only that I had forgotten to latch it before I went upstairs and that it had blown open as it sometimes did. I paused with my hand on the edge of the door, arrested by the beauty of the October night. The breeze wafting in from the overgrown garden patch behind the house was summer-warm and a huge full moon was caught in the branches of the willow tree at the bottom of the garden, much larger and closer than any moon should be in the mountains, where the horizon is interrupted by shadows of stone. I could hear the ditch burbling away beyond the straggling barbed wire that separated my five acres from the neighbour’s hayfields. Somewhere a horse whickered; farther off another snorted in reply.
The moon painted a silver path across the long grass, leading from the back door into the pregnant darkness. Since childhood, I had been fascinated by the moon road, thinking if only I could follow it, it would lead me to a land full of mystery and wonder. Then, I had never done so. Now, I found myself leaving the house and descending the back stair, the worm-eaten boards cool under my bare feet. The shining grass was wet with dew, and the hems of my flannel pajama pants were soon soaked and sticking to my ankles, but it didn’t seem to matter. A small voice in the back of my head snickered derisively that I was being foolish; what in the world was I doing wandering around my back yard in the middle of the night, looking for fairies in the shrubbery like a crazy person? That didn’t seem to matter, either.
I walked down the moon road for perhaps a quarter of an hour, expecting every minute to run into the fence that bounded my yard, to grin at the futile power of my imagination and turn around. When no fence appeared, my first thought was that a section of it had fallen and I had crossed onto the neighbour’s property without realizing it. Now I thought I really should head back; taking a nighttime stroll through my own yard was one thing, wandering around the Perkins’ back forty after midnight in my pajamas was quite another. That’s when I saw the wood where I knew no wood should be.
It was still some way off, but, even so, I could tell that it was made up of trees that just didn’t grow in this part of the country unless purposefully planted and carefully nursed along: oak and beech, mainly, with a scattering of ash. But this was no plantation. The growth was too irregular and there was too much underbrush for that. Even the underbrush was the wrong kind: ferns and ivy and bracken, plants that needed too much water to flourish on the edge of the Great Basin. It occurred to me to wonder how I could see all this so clearly from a distance, and I knew then that I must be dreaming.
The moon path led straight into the wood.
Okay, I thought, if I’m dreaming, there’s no harm in going on. I won’t be shot for trespassing, at any rate. So I did.
Now that I knew I was dreaming, things seemed to happen much quicker, as they do in dreams. No sooner had I decided to enter the wood than I was there, and no sooner there than deep inside. Not long after that I found myself at a clearing. In the clearing was a lake—not just a pond, but a real lake, much bigger than any lake in the middle of a wood had a right to be. At the edge of the lake there was something white.
It was a swan. I had never seen a swan in Colorado, and I missed them. I had spent a number of childhood summers on the shores of Lake Charlevoix in northern Michigan, where the swans came right up onto the dock outside my family’s cabin and took graham crackers from my hand. Some were as big as I was. I had learned to imitate their movements, on land at least: approaching cautiously with knees bent, body crouched, one arm snaked upward in imitation of a long, sinuous neck. I had learned to greet them as they greeted one another: stamp twice and hiss, then wait for a reply. It seemed the polite thing to do. I did it now.
The swan lifted its head and looked at me sideways from one beady eye. I took a slow step forward. All at once, the swan was on its feet, wings flapping wildly in warning. It was huge, bigger than any swan I had ever seen: nearly six feet with its neck extended, with a wingspan half that much again. I jumped backward and fell on my ass. From that position, I had a good view of the tangle of greenery where the swan was nesting, and I was suddenly dizzy with relief that I had taken only that one step. What I had taken for a patch of mint was nettles, stinging nettles. I imagined walking into them, barefoot and bare armed, and shivered.
I picked myself up and brushed myself off, then tried again. Stamp. Stamp. Hiss.
This time the swan returned my greeting. But instead of a hiss, a word slithered impossibly from its beak.
Then it settled down into the patch of nettles and tucked its head under its wing.
Okay, that was weird. But I was dreaming, after all. I backed away a few steps, then turned and made my way along the shore of the lake.
The air was thick with lake smell: scummy, algae-coated sand and wet grasses; fish, and dead things rotting under water. Moths whirred past my ears, and I heard the moist plopping sounds of frogs jumping off logs. I was thinking it was far too late in the season for frogs when I almost stepped on the biggest I had ever seen, crouching right in my path. The size of a soccer ball, it was brilliant green with a damp sheen to it, and on its flat head there was a tiny, gold crown. After the swan, I had thought nothing could surprise me, but I have to admit the sight of that crown gave me pause.
“Acceptance,” croaked the frog, and jumped into the lake with a splash.
I blinked and went on, and before long left the lakeshore. The moon path wound through the clearing, bordered here by wild roses, red and white. Up ahead was a big tangle of them growing all together, the white roses and the red making an arch over the path as if over a doorway. And standing in the doorway, directly in my path, was a huge shaggy black bear.
I knew what you were supposed to do when confronted by a bear in the woods, and none of those things included turning your back and running like hell, which was what I really, really wanted to do. Neither did they include freezing in your tracks, which was what I actually did, even when the bear fell onto all fours and lumbered towards me. I also knew that, once you understood you were dreaming, you were supposed to be able to control the course of your dream. I shut my eyes and chanted crazily, “It’s only a puppy, not a bear.” But when I opened my eyes again the bear was still a bear, and it was snuffling at my t-shirt in an interested way.
It opened its mouth, giving me a better view than I wanted of a row of immense sharp teeth. I tensed.
“Compassion,” said the bear, and it turned off the path to waddle away through the roses.
This, I thought, would be a really good time to wake up. But I didn’t. I kept on down the moon path, which was now leading out of the clearing and into the woods on the other side.
There was something in there, something big. I could hear it crashing around, and the smell of it reached me not long after: rank and dangerous. A boar? A lion?
What I found was a combination of the two, with some goat and dog thrown in for good measure—or so it seemed. It exuded darkness like a miasma, so it was hard to get a good look at it. I got an impression of bristles and teeth, of mane and fur, of razor claws and cloven hooves and hands all at once, but none of the impressions went together into any recognizable pattern. It was caught in a thorn bush, or several, and the whole reeking mess of bush and beast heaved with its struggles to be free.
After the bear, I was less afraid than I might have been. Truthfully, it was hard to be afraid when I could see how it was suffering. I knelt down beside the beast and stretched out a hand to where I thought its head should be in what I hoped was a comforting fashion.
“It’s all right,” I said in a low voice. “Be still. I’ll get you free.”
The head snapped up and I gasped. Where the eyes should have been were two empty sockets crusted with sticky matter, oozing pus and blood. In its struggles, the beast had run its eyes into the thorns, over and over again, leaving only those gruesome holes.
It was blind, but it was not cowed, and it was far from helpless when it perceived a threat. The beast gave a great lunge, ripping up the thorns by the roots, ripping its own flesh. Then it was on me, its teeth closing on my throat.
The dream just stopped there, without transition, without resolution. I didn’t wake up screaming. I didn’t wake up at all until morning, when I found myself in bed wearing only my t-shirt. My flannel pants were crumpled in a heap on the floor and when I picked them up, I noticed that the hems were wet.
Gillian arrived in an ancient Volvo station wagon the colour of a fresh turd, crammed so full of boxes that I wondered how she could see out the back window. Except that she was now wearing her light brown hair in a boyish wedge, she looked exactly the same, from her slightly battered oxfords to her pale amber eyes. Even her hug was the same, a brief pressure of her slender form against mine followed by an abrupt release, as if she were completing some ritual she knew was expected of her but didn’t really relish.
“My god, you haven’t changed a bit.”
I knew I had. I was twenty pounds heavier, and when I looked in the mirror I could see the marks of time on my face. Beside Gillian I felt awkward and old. But that was nothing new, so I simply smiled and took her into the house.
We ate chili and cornbread washed down with some Mexican beer that Gillian had picked up on her way through town. I don’t know what it was, except that it wasn’t Corona; I have never been much of a beer drinker and can nurse a single bottle all night without consuming half of it. Gillian seemed to like it, though. She was into her third when she began to talk.
“Nothing makes sense anymore. It’s like I woke up one day and didn’t know who I was or what I was doing.”
I knew what she meant, but it seemed pointless to say so. So I didn’t say anything.
“I thought breaking up with David would help. It did, for a while. Then my mom died….”
“I heard about that.”
“Yeah. I got your card. Sorry I didn’t write back but I…I didn’t know I’d be so broken up about it.”
“She was a big part of your life.”
Gillian’s fingers picked at the label of her beer bottle, unconsciously relentless, like picking off a scab. For the first time, I noticed that all those years that hadn’t seemed to touch her face were trapped in her hands. They were wrinkled and spotty, with raised veins like the blue lines of rivers on a road map. An old woman’s hands.
“She was…a difficult woman. But then, I was a difficult child.”
I thought of girls who got pregnant and ran away as my sister had done, of girls who picked fights, who talked back, who failed at school or were expelled. I thought of girls who hid drugs in their lockers, who hosted wild parties while their parents were out of town and trashed the house, who stole and drank and stayed out all night, and got into all the kinds of trouble that teenaged girls could get into. Then I thought of Gillian, sitting in her room alone with a book, her long hair a swatch of pale silk against the brown tweed of the old jacket she always wore. I thought of her silent endurance when her mother came in and started in with all those questions that couldn’t be answered: Why can’t you…? Why aren’t you…? All those questions that boil down to one thing: Why are you the way that you are?
I wanted to tell her that there was nothing wrong or difficult about her, not then, not now. I wanted to tell her that her mother had treated her like crap and that it wasn’t her fault. But one look at her face, shuttered like a window, told me I couldn’t say any of those things. She had achieved some kind of peace with her past and, as ill-founded as I thought it was, I had no right to disturb it unless she asked.
I hoped she would ask. But she only shrugged.
“So what’s with the boxes?” I took a sip of my beer and made a face. I really wasn’t fond of beer. “It seems like a little much for a road trip.”
“Well….” The label from the bottle came off in her hand and she stared at it blankly, wondering what it was doing there. “I was meaning to ask you. Do you like it here?”
“What?” The beer went down the wrong way and I choked. “Are you thinking of relocating?” I asked when I could speak again. “What about your degree?” Gillian had told me over dinner that she was only two courses and a thesis away from finishing it.
“Like I said, nothing makes sense anymore. All of a sudden, I just can’t see myself as a professor of theater history. I don’t even know if I like it. I don’t know what I like or what I want. I thought some time away, someplace quiet…I could find out.”
“Gordarosa’s certainly quiet.”
“So I was wondering…could I stay with you? Just for a little while, until I find my own place and get settled.”
What could I say? I wished she had told me what she wanted over the phone, but she hadn’t. She was my oldest friend and she was in a difficult place. I’d been in that place and I would have given anything to have someone be there for me, instead of having to climb out by myself.
“Of course you can stay,” I said.
For a couple of weeks, I showed Gillian around. There wasn’t much to show; what passes for downtown in Gordarosa is all of three blocks long. We spent the mornings hanging out at the Sunshine Bakery, the main haunt of others who, like us, had moved to Gordarosa in an attempt to claim a simpler life away from the distractions of bigger cities. I introduced Gillian to people I knew in the Art Center crowd, and she hit it off with them right away. Gillian had always been good at making new friends.
Evenings we ate in restaurants. Sometimes we went to a bar where a local band was playing, or to a dance. There were a lot more of these as winter approached, both in Gordarosa and in the next town down the road. Left to my own devices, I probably wouldn’t have gone out as much, but Gillian seemed to like it. I watched her chumming around with the Art Center people, or flirting with a cute guitar player and wondered when her desire for the quiet life would be more in evidence. I took her to the mountains, thinking to share with her the sense of peace and silence that I found so uplifting there. She clumped up and down the hiking trails as though on a mission, looking neither right nor left, never stopping to admire a late-blooming wildflower, or a patch of lichen, or the pattern of light through the falling leaves.
She seemed restless that night. I was curled up on the couch with my journal, writing about all the lost things our day in the woods had made me remember: times we had gone to Belle Isle in the middle of the Detroit River and told each other stories about how the pavilion was really a castle belonging to a sorcerer, whom we had to challenge and defeat in order to save the world from chaos. I saw Gillian’s hair tangled in the wind of a harsh Michigan spring and heard her excited laughter as we ran across the deserted picnic grounds. I sucked on my pen and wondered where that girl had gone, or if she had ever existed at all.
Gillian paced the living room, picking things up and putting them down.
“Let’s go out,” she said. “Right as Rain is playing at the Roadside Inn.”
I didn’t want to go out and I said so. “You go if you want.”
“I can’t believe you’re still keeping a journal. What do you write in there, anyway?”
“Why are you always writing in there?” Gillian’s mother said. “It’s not normal. You should get out more, do something!”
“Things I think it’s important to remember,” I said.
“I know we all did it when we were kids. But we’re grown up now. We have real lives. We don’t need to live in books.”
“You can’t live with your head in a book!” Gillian’s mother shrilled. “There’s a real world out there!”
“Not everything we did as kids has less value to an adult. Some things have more.”
“We didn’t understand anything. We didn’t understand the way the world is.”
“Someday you’ll understand the way the world is and thank me,” Gillian’s mother screamed. “Someday you’ll have to grow up.”
“Understanding things doesn’t mean you have to like them.”
“That’s a really immature attitude. I’m sorry if you don’t like to hear that, but it’s true. Sit here and sulk if you like, but I’m going.”
“Sulking won’t get you anywhere. You know I’m right. You’re just too immature to admit it,” her mother said.
After Gillian left, I sat on the couch for a long time. Not writing anything. Just breathing.
“It’s the mothers who curse us.” Becky pushes a tiny gold crown into place on top of her copper curls. “The Queen in the Tower, the Witch in the Wood. They’re there before us and they mean to be there when we’re gone.”
The five of us are drinking lattes at Sunshine Bakery, crowded around a little round table meant for two. The room seems oddly stretched, the counter a mile off or more although I know it’s only a few feet. At my elbow where the wall should be is a bank of roiling shadow.
Sadie toys with the nosegay of red and white roses that’s fixed to her lapel. “Not always mothers. Sometimes other things. Dwarves and ogres. Things like that.”
“But the mother’s curse is the most powerful. Their words define us. They set us impossible tasks, knowing we can’t deny them. They buy themselves time at the price of our lives. They sustain themselves with our silence.” Thea reaches for her glass, but her right arm is a swan’s wing and she nearly knocks it over. A wave of nutmeg-speckled foam sloshes over the side of the glass and onto the table. Before I can reach for a napkin to blot it up, it disappears. “Excuse me.”
“People always blame the mothers,” the shadows at my left growl in Gillian’s voice. “They think it’s okay because they’re women. Go ahead; make everything the women’s fault. You’re as bad as the rest of them.”
“The good mother dies and a stranger replaces her,” Becky goes on as if Gillian hasn’t spoken. “But the old Queen and the new are the same person. We’re the ones who have changed.”
“They change too!” I smooth my hands over my skirt, uncomfortable. There’s a sharp pain in my finger; I’ve caught it on a splinter. Until that moment I have not noticed that my skirt is made of wood, and I wonder why on earth I bought such a weird garment. I pop my finger in my mouth and suck on it to take the pain away.
“Maybe.” Sadie has removed the nosegay from her lapel and is twining it in her hands. It grows into a bouquet, and then into a wreath, which she places on her head. I can see that the wreath is full of thorns and I expect them to scratch her horribly. They don’t. “Or maybe they refuse to. They want what is no longer theirs. But the only way they can hang onto it is to make us incapable of claiming it.”
“We’re beasts in their eyes,” Thea says. “We see our reflections there and believe it. And without someone to show us otherwise, we’re trapped in these forms forever.”
The shadows at my left lurch and I hear the sound of a chair hitting the floor.
“I’m not listening to this garbage!” Gillian says, but the shadows only hang over the table, eerie and threatening. I feel sick to my stomach. I want to get up and run away, but my skirt is wooden and I can’t move at all. The shadows are getting bigger, denser. I can see briars in there, and a suggestion of teeth.
I look to my friends for help, and find I am sitting at the table with a swan, a bear and a frog.
“You’d better act soon,” the frog says. “Or it will swallow you as well.”
“I don’t know what to do.”
“Practice acceptance,” says the frog.
“Offer compassion,” says the bear.
“Make a sacrifice,” says the swan.
“Give kindness for cruelty, loyalty for betrayal, love for pain,” they all say together, as if reciting some kind of liturgical chant. “These are the gifts of a generous heart.”
I was afraid of facing Gillian the next morning, but I needn’t have worried. When I got up, she wasn’t even home. I sat at the kitchen table, brooding over my coffee, thinking about my dream. I didn’t have a degree in folklore for nothing; I knew what it meant. I couldn’t even count the stories where a curse was broken when someone took on an impossible task that looked to destroy her life, or showed kindness to some dreadful, ugly creature, or invited something foul and smelly into her home, giving it the best bed and a place by the fire. I didn’t expect to gain a great fortune or marry a prince at the end of this tale. If I could free Gillian from the curse of her past, it would be enough.
She came in sometime around noon, flushed and merry, babbling about her night out and about the guy she’d met who had offered her a place to crash since she was a little too loaded to drive. I guessed something more than mere crashing had taken place, but she didn’t offer details and she was an adult, so I let it be. She was so friendly and cheerful that I wondered if she even remembered we had argued, or if I was just blowing it all out of proportion and it didn’t mean as much to her as it did to me. Then I noticed that her eyes were wary and afraid and her smile sat on her face like a mask, and I knew she did and it had.
“Listen, about last night,” I began.
“I thought we could talk about it.”
“About what?” A fixed expression replaced the smile on her face and her eyes grew hard. “You know what your problem is? You’re always making a big deal over nothing. Stuff happens and then it’s over. We go on with our lives.”
Somehow, I didn’t think she was talking only about our argument.
She went upstairs to shower and change. I thought about acceptance, about how sometimes you have to meet people where they are, however unpleasant, instead of wishing them where you’d like them to be.
When Gillian came downstairs, it was as if that last conversation hadn’t happened, either.
I tried. I really did. But things just got worse. She spent the days hanging out at the bakery instead of looking for a job, perfectly willing to let me feed her and clean up after her and do her laundry. She went out almost every night, with or without me. If I went with her, she came home drunk. If I didn’t, she mostly didn’t come home at all. On the rare nights she stayed in, she made fun of the movies I rented, of the books I read, of the ways I spent my time. I smiled and nodded and held my peace, knowing she was trying to bait me, knowing that if I yelled or fought back it would only prove to her that she really was the difficult and worthless child her mother had always claimed. She needed love, and kindness, and understanding, and I did my best to give her all those things, telling myself that if I just held on long enough, if I just kept breathing, someday she would come to understand. Someday the curse would be broken. If she hurt me it was as a child hurts, who lashes out as a way of having some control over forces too big and too scary to face. If I cried at night, that was the sacrifice I had chosen, my tears offered up freely to buy Gillian some hope of redemption.
It wasn’t enough. I watched myself grow thin and gaunt, and counted the grey hairs that hadn’t been there at the beginning of the fall, and still it wasn’t enough.
“This can’t go on,” I said on the last night.
I’d waited up for her, not knowing if she’d come home or not. She had, though, stumbling in the back door an hour after the bars had closed. And now she stood staring at me with a bewildered expression on her face, looking like a puppy that’s been kicked. At one time I would have felt sympathy for her, but I had no sympathy left.
“You’re not looking for yourself. You’re hiding from yourself. But you can’t hide from what’s inside you, and ignoring it doesn’t make it go away.”
“I’m an adult. I can live my life however I want.”
“Maybe you can,” I said. “But you can’t do it in my house.”
I stood up and took my teacup to the sink. Behind me, Gillian let out a sound halfway between a growl and a whimper.
“I thought I could count on you. You were my best friend.”
I faced her, just for a minute. Then she flinched away and I knew she had seen what I never meant her to see: the reflection of the beast in my eyes.
“Then you should have treated me like one.”
Gillian moved to Seattle. When she left it broke my heart, not because we were still arguing, but, perversely, because we weren’t. She came downstairs and announced that though Gordarosa was nice it didn’t really suit her. She was really looking for someplace bigger, where she could explore her potential. In Seattle there was a college friend who would put her up.
Before noon, she was gone. As she backed down the drive she gave me a big smile and a wave. “I’ll keep in touch!” she yelled.
I knew she wouldn’t. I wondered how far she could run before the beast caught up with her. I wondered how long it would be before she felt the thorns that enclosed her and looked down, and saw that she was bleeding. Or maybe it was too late. Maybe, like the beast, she was already blind.
In my dream, I am walking down a path made of knives. I try hard to keep down the center of the path, but despite my efforts I keep slipping to one side or the other. The sharp edges cut my bare feet and I leave bloody footprints in my wake. My wooden skirt is heavy, and it clatters when I walk. I’m afraid the noise will attract monsters from the wood, but I am alone. The only monster here is me.
When I come to the clearing with the lake I look around for my friends. They’re not there; only an old woman is standing on the shore. She smiles as I approach. Her teeth are made of iron.
“I couldn’t do it,” I say. “I couldn’t break the curse.”
I know that something terrible will happen to me now. My enemies will burn me at the stake, and the swans will remain swans. I’ll remain in this shape forever and never reclaim my crown. My treasure will fall to the dwarves, and my kingdom will be a haunted place of sadness where ghosts haunt the ruins, all because of my failure.
“No curse can be broken when the one who suffers it denies it,” the old woman says. “All the gifts of a generous heart are useless to a soul numbed to its own pain.”
I look up and the old woman grows taller. There is a wreath of white flowers encircling her brow on thorny stems. A wind rises and the blossoms scatter like a fall of scented snow.
“We surround ourselves with brambles and say they are a palace. We take without knowing and say we’re served by invisible hands.”
The white blossoms touch my face and I feel a lightening in my chest and all through my body. There is a sharp crack somewhere around my waist, and I begin to breathe, not knowing until that minute that I forgot to before.
“All the curses we face are our own curses,” says the Queen. “All the curses we break are likewise our own.”
She waves her hand and we are no longer alone. The bear comes towards me and thrusts a nosegay into my hand.
“You have shown yourself compassion,” it says, then backs away and lies at the woman’s feet like a big hairy dog.
The frog takes the crown from its head and places it on mine. “You have given yourself acceptance.” It, too, crouches at the woman’s feet.
Last comes the swan. The shirt it throws over my head is light as thistledown, soft as silk. “You have made a sacrifice to yourself.”
The woman raises her hands in invocation. Her hands are my hands. She looks at me and her eyes are my eyes. “The curse is broken. Be free of it.”
The wooden skirt shatters and falls in splinters around my ankles. I lift one foot, and then the other, and then I am running, running across the clearing, into a forest of silver and gold where, if there are monsters, they are not mine.