The words of a story leap off the page.
I've read that sort of thing in book reviews before. Maybe they seem to. Mama's words are different. They do leap off the page.
I like to sit in the sun sometimes reading Mama's books. They speak to the heart of me, they burrow down into my soul and chase away the darkness.
The words are neatly typed on white paper –or at first glance they are. But when you look a bit closer, you can see that they're twitching and scratching at the ends – they want to be free; they want to shrug off the limits imposed by black ink and pre-set shapes. I watch them while they curl into vines and thorns, while they twist into spirals, begin glowing, their letters cheekily switching position, spelling out words that don't exist yet: avant garde; before their time. Like Mama.
The rest of it comes charging off the page. Our sun-soaked living room is filled with long grass; plains that run on in every direction, until they butt up against a violet sky. Clouds go racing over: grey dappled, face-filled; twinkling like there's diamonds hidden up there. Pearlescent unicorns gather in the centre, hoofs stamping the ground, stirring up dust filled with all the pigments of an imaginary clay-bound earth. Red, pink, rust, oak: smudged through the air, billowing into brief, puffy flowers.
Other creatures have come in their wake. Stubby-legged and bear-like, melting through the wallpaper, scratching the carpet as their paw-prints dent the soft ground. Snake-like creatures with long insectoid arms. Big-headed gnomes. A fey people whose skin is blue and shadowy – approximating bruises and a twilight sky – whose wings hang in folds behind their backs, only hinting at the well of colours within.
Grass flutters - golden and as if on fire. The wind ruffles manes amongst the herd, white-and quartz-pink, rosebud, silver – fluttering like an seascape in a storm, like wheatfields, like wildfire.
They're gathering for something important, that much I know, for something...
“Frankie, come and set the table please...!”
That's Papa, calling from the kitchen. I close the book, cutting the unicorns off in mid-run, and scurry off to help out as asked.
Mama herself: she's quiet these days, withdrawn. She most often sits in her preferred chair, in the safety of the sunroom. A straw hat covers her face in summer; a crochet blanket on her knees when the months get colder. Her fingers move, absently; her eyes don't at all.
I've heard what they say about her. Words like 'depression' and 'catatonic', I know that she's sick. But I know that the mother, the one who wrote books, who laughed freely, who picked me up and carried me when I was little – I know she's still in there. When I look at her stone eyes I'm sure there's a soul behind them, a vivid presence that doesn't – that won't or can't - break through her walls. I find her beautiful. Her still eyes look large in such a pale face; her lips – even unpainted – are a deep red, and her dark hair makes an ebony frame around her cheeks, highlighting her thinness; her ageless, carved-of-stone immobility. I think I'm supposed to be afraid of that face, or at least disturbed. Not subtly drawn to it; drawn to the resting hands; more than happy to fold my legs under me and sit down beside her, sharing that view out the window: a tree-lined street curving down into a swathe of green or autumn-gilded trees, a ragged tyre hanging from one of the branches - a swing; but from other angles: a noose.
Papa tells me that she's deeply unhappy, so much so that her mind can't work anymore. He tries to explain, but can't find the words for it – too young you see, too young to understand, should never have to. Something happened – someone hurt her, brutally – too young, Frankie love, too young to understand. Locked away behind her own eyes, from a world filled with thorns and sharpened spearheads. Shrinking away from it as if from fire.
“Don't be angry with her,” he tells me, “don't blame her for this, it isn't her fault.”
As if I would. I take her for who she is: like this just as like that – the way she was.
I hear in his voice that he sometimes struggles to keep himself for blaming her, struggles even more not to feel his own fault in things.
I understand more than he thinks I do, but I know not to say so.
My uncle tells things differently.
“My sister,” Uncle Matt explains, “she's always been the smart one. A genius really. Ever since we were kids. No, I wasn't jealous, it wasn't like that. We were proud of her, the lot of us – her good grades and quick wit and all that. You never got one past her.
“Then she started writing. That's when we knew she was destined for greatness. Seriously. We were just kids, me and Charlie, but we knew she had something. When she read these things out to us we were just entranced.
“And she only got better.
“But here's the thing about your mother: she put everything into her writing. She carved off parts of her soul, her memories, dreams, secrets, hopes; she infused her stories with them. That's the reason you can dive into her books as if you're living them for real.” He gives me a wink, he says: “I know you know what I mean. There's a reason she's become an unparalleled best-seller.
“But it takes it's toll, Frankie. There's only so much of your soul you can pour into something until there's not enough left. Do you understand? There's only so much of a person like that to go around.”
I say, “Papa blames the world. I mean, he says that something happened,” for his sake more than my ignorance: just 'something', “and that's why she's like this. That's why she hides herself.” Like a turtle in its shell, a caterpillar in its cocoon.
“That's true,” Uncle Matt agrees. “It's true enough. But her retreat was already begun. It was already underway, she didn't see it, neither did I. Not at the time.”
“It's forever isn't it?”
His brow creases, a spasm of pain in his eyes. “Yes, I think so.”
“What if I burned all her books?” Mama's beautiful words.
He considers. “No.” And “Could you?” His tone is simply curious, no malice, no reprimand.
If it would bring her back? “I don't think so.” Her legacy, the substance of her; no, I couldn't bear to see all that collapsing into embers, then ashes.
“Me neither,” he admits.
Anyway: number one bestsellers – there's millions of books that'd need to be burned, bonfires and bonfires of them. And she wouldn't want it, she'd never want them gone, the worlds and lives she's crafted, things she's given birth to as surely as she has to me. There'd be a flavour of murder about it.
He puts an arm around me. “You understand her don't you, love?”
I shrug. “Kinda.”
“Well, you're her daughter aren't you? A little bit of her soul went into you.”
“I could tell her stories. Give some of it back to her.”
“She'd be pleased if you did, I think.”
“You're a good girl, aren't you Frankie?”
“I try to be.”
Papa's less sure. Less sure than Matt that I'm a good girl. Well, he's got more at stake I guess, charged with the responsibility of raising me all on his own. Well, not completely alone: there's Uncle Matt, Uncle Charlie, Aunty Kay, Uncle Mars; but he's still the one everyone's eyes are on. Can he do it? Is he enough of a father to be mother as well? Everything about me, flaws and virtues, they all lead back to him.
I set the table like I'm asked to, and while I'm doing it he's quizzing me on my times tables. Always worried: am I keeping up at school? Am I reaching the milestones? Because he's not sure he can judge that very well, he keeps waiting for the mother who should be there at his side, who should be his guide about things like that, who should know more than he does.
“Any homework tonight, Frankie?”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I'm sure.”
Sitting opposite each other. Eyeing each other up. Mama used to come to the table with us. Or at least she used to be brought there, lead there, unresisting, unseeing. She'd sit, she'd eat – her stone eyes would gaze blankly ahead. The way a blind person might, or a statue, or a painting. But she's happier in her chair, in her corner where the sun lasts most of the day. And so we leave her there.
“What did you do today?” He keeps trying, he keeps hoping.
“Not much? Did you learn anything?”
“And some things about deserts and what makes them hot and dry.”
“Oh. Right. What does...?”
“Don't you know?”
“I know. I'm just...”
...trying to find ways to keep talking, to keep filling in the emptiness...
“Never mind. Did you join in? With the others, at school, like we talked about?”
“A bit. I got bored.”
“Give them a chance, Frankie. All I'm asking.”
I know. He doesn't want me being strange, being lonely, or isolated. Scared for me: the outsider, the one they might want to pick on, the one to exclude. I know all that. I don't care. I don't want to play skipping, or hopscotch, elastics, sticker books. I don't like all of that. I just don't.
“I'm going to read to Mama tonight,” I tell him.
“I'm not sure she'll hear you.”
“But I will.”
“We could watch a movie later, some TV shows.”
“If I'm done reading. If you want to.”
Unsaid words. His face is swarming with them. He tries to bridge the gap with them, like shadowy bees, buzzing around my head. Funny, that I should feel more attracted to Mama's stillness than to his always-moving, always-talking, always-trying.
Mama, in the old days, was the answer to every question. She was what everybody wanted her to be. She was busy and competent, pretty and happy. She was the perfect mother and the perfect wife. She was poised and quick-thinking, clever as well as wise. She was the hurricane that we – her family – were all of us caught up in.
I have memories of her, when we'd go out to a restaurant or a fair. I remember the big white coat she'd wear; how quickly and efficiently she would apply her make-up, barely looking as she did so, taking no time, and yet it was always perfect. She would be talking, making plans, checking everything was right and orderly, even as we walked the short path to the car. She had a pinch for my cheek, a barely-touching kiss for Papa's mouth. She knew where to go, where to park; and whatever she ordered would always turn out to be the best thing on the menu – she'd let me have pieces of her meal, a taste of some delectable pudding.
And then she started writing.
Well, no she'd been writing all along – since childhood. But one day she decided to take it seriously, to become a novelist. And her work was a hit. She was published straight away, and her books were wildfire sellers. It was this way she had about her, her way of describing things, that made them so real, that allowed them to escape the page and make a new home for themselves in the real world. The glitter of her words. The way they filled a room. The reason why her unicorns – and the plains they raced across – could rush in a torrent from an opened book into a simple living room like ours.
She created life. That's how it was.
She wrote often, in a state of frenzy. In a state of deep concentration.
When she did it, I could be sitting nearby, or draped against a doorframe, watching the action come to life. I would see it taking shape in and around her, see her study brimming with images and feelings, the scenes playing out there. No metaphor, not childish make-believe. What she wrote was really there. Uncle Matt knows: a part of her soul - what I'd always hold secretly against my heart: that special connection, shared in fullness only with me.
I was proud of her. Well, weren't we all?
She still writes at times. When she has the urge to. She stands up and walks into the study. Sits down at the desk, at the laptop that's always there for her. Her fingers go running across the keys, lightning charged. There's still magic in her words, even though they're no longer quite coherent, even if some of them are not really words. Too much of a jumble for her publisher: and anyway, Mama's not there is she? That's how they see it. How can they make a meaningful contract, book deals, book signings – too many legal snags, too much complication. So these words are for herself, her own pourings of her soul onto a blank screen.
But she's not really gone. Not to me. I know that at times she will sit and sing – in a low voice, in a voice full of bluebirds and spring rain, so quiet it's hard to hear. The words might or might not be familiar, might or might not be words. I'll recognise a song at times, and I'll sing with her, not much above a whisper. Her eyes lose their glassiness, her hands tremble.
On occasion she'll look at me. There's something bright there, there's recognition. She'll retreat as if burned, as if remembering what pain is, and how thick and close it is out here. It's a moment really; but when it comes I do feel as if she knows me, as if she sees me. Keeps watch on me from within her triple guarded walls.
He's on the phone now. Papa. I'm not sure who he's talking to. I hear my name come up sometimes. “Not adjusting....” “... not normal...” “...other little girls...” “...not right...” And he's asking what he should do. Grandpa, maybe? Uncle Mars?
It's nobody's fault. I think it's not. I cross my legs at Mama's side, book on my lap, flip it open to where the unicorns are gathered. They spring to life at once, heads tossed, manes flying like pennants. Sand-golden grass spills from the pages and into sunroom, into the living room, folding against the glass windows and seeking its way out. The unicorns take off running, and as they run, wings form on their backs: beautiful pegasus-wings, million-coloured like butterflies, their tails becoming streaks of light. The sky has darkened, reddened – and now it opens up, revealing a skyskape of star-studded pale blue, edges white-hot and blinding.
And the words describing it: they take flight off the page. They float up in the air, fire-cracker orange-and-gold: spelling out new words, imbuing them with new meanings. The language of unicorns. So what? I can read it.
There's a city there, in the depth of that portal – dark and gilded, covered in ivy and lichen, older than time, and bright beneath its layers of clothing. The walls are like wax that's been poured and folded around the heart of the city, left to set, but then, half-finished, a fork has been taken to them, teasing out jagged edges, fine points. Time has softened those edges, layered them grey-green and white, speckled them with greys and blacks, with textures and shadows.
There's movement in the depth of this place – a part that's still brighter than dark, still winking with riches that have not yet been hidden by time. It's a living place.
What do unicorns want with a city?
And still they leap: into the mouth of the portal, the mouth of a new world.
A blackish mob of small shapes – people? - is gathering out there to meet them.
I look up at Mama. I wonder if she can see the words, see the worlds they're creating. She- who gave birth to them. She - who could do such things once. Worlds like there's never been worlds. Because her words are unique. I cup them in my hand. I breathe them in. I swallow them. Hoard them. I keep them for the day when I learn how to reweave them, and I can scribble out a tapestry belonging to the both of us.
In the hallway, Papa thinks he speaks in a low voice: “I'm not sure I know what to do with her. I really think I need help.”