(written in third person, names have been changed)
The orange and red ruffles of the firecracker peony heads nodded over the cracked sidewalk that led to the crooked front porch of the small white house. Their beauty contrasted against the carelessness of the property's crumbling cement and peeling paint. The glowing peonies seemed unnaturally bright against the darkness of the greasy-eyed windowpanes. Whether the flowers opened their fluffy heads out of sorrow or in defiance over their often-trampled leaves, they bloomed more extravagantly than the people who lived behind the white walls.Behind the dusty brown door, curled across a tattered tweed couch, beneath a ragged blue blanket, a woman sucked her thumb. Her thumb fit precisely in the empty place where her gums had become hardened after the loss of her front teeth. Her dark, wavy hair was matted against the fabric of a torn blue couch pillow. The television's bleary eye cut a dim path through the darkened room. The ancient, pleated drapes that hid the smeared windows were always drawn.
The woman was still except for her eyes, which darted back and forth, following the soap opera characters' movements, and the rhythmic fondling of her tongue against her thumb. Her stillness held an intensity that begged to be set free. As morning moved into afternoon, one soap moved into the next, describing the lives of others whose circular days held more life than the woman's.A little before three, the woman shrugged off the tattered cover and reached for a glass of colored water from the stained wooden coffee table. Her saliva-wrinkled thumb left a whirligig pattern beside many others on the glass. She slid her thumb to the top of the glass and removed the watercolor brush from the cloudy water. She flicked excess water from her brush onto the magenta carpet.
With a careless, almost delicate grace, she swirled the brush across a bright blue tablet of watercolor.She swept the brush over a scrap of drawing paper, pressing hard then lessening the tension, forming the trumpet shape of a morning glory. Rinse, a swirl of yellow, a stripe of black, and a goldfinch hung from the flower. Bird and flower dangled in space. She didn't dip the brush into the brown color to provide a stem.The woman looked at the television again. Black paint snaked from the brush down her bare arm, landing on her blue and white flower patterned housedress as the television saga drew her in. A newlywed daughter was telling her mother that she had no right to live with she and her new husband."What an insignificant little brat!" the woman screamed. She flung the paintbrush at the television and kicked over the coffee table. When her daughter came home, the woman had returned to the sanctuary beneath her blanket. The television still droned; the subject changed to a game show where contestants guessed letters to figure out messages.
The question was tentative, the voice more scared than gentle, but the presence of the girl was clearly there.
"Clean up this mess!" the woman snapped.
Stacy knew better than to answer. She dabbed the paint from the rug with paper towels. Spots of blue and black paint stained the worn carpet. Stacy placed the coffee table over them.
"Put some chicken and potatoes in the oven," the woman mumbled.
"But, Mom, I have homework!"
The woman raised herself on one elbow so that her blue eyes blazed into her daughter's.
"Do I have to repeat myself?"
Stacy sighed and stomped into the kitchen. She slammed a cookie sheet onto the blue-topped aluminum kitchen table. A moment later a powerful force flung her against the kitchen sink.
She tried to pull away but the woman had her fingers tangled in Stacy's thick brown hair. Her resistance gave the woman's arm more momentum to bang Stacy's head against the kitchen sink.
"How dare you slam around in here! You know I have a headache!"
You always have a headache, Stacy mumbled under her breath.
The woman gave Stacy's head another shove. "Get that chicken in the oven and go to your room!"
In her room, Stacy rubbed her throbbing head and calculated the likeliness of being able to take a couple painkillers without her mother finding out. The last time her mother had had a headache, she'd slammed Stacy's fingers in the car door. Stacy had lain awake with throbbing fingers until her parents were asleep. She'd slipped down the hall, past her parents' bedroom to the bathroom swallowed two extra-strength aspirin.
In the morning, she'd been awakened by a harsh rattling sound. Her eyes focused on a bottle of painkillers held in the neatly manicured, paint-smeared fingers of her mother's hand.
You took some of my medicine!
Her mother's voice had been high-pitched and the vein in her forehead throbbed so wildly that Stacy wondered if she would have a stroke. Given that memory, Stacy massaged her throbbing head instead of taking the painkillers. But she couldn't stop wondering why her mother was so angry.
Maybe she was lonely, having a headache all by herself, Stacy mused.
She opened her sixth grade science book and removed a pastel drawing she used as a bookmark. The chalky colors were smeared but she thought that gave the work an Impressionistic look. She ran her fingers over the dancing colors of the firecracker peonies. In her drawing, the white house had bright eyes and the garden danced with many varieties of flowers. A dwarf pink cherry grew in the middle of the garden, and Japanese maple trees lined the neat picket fence. She traced a finger of her right hand over the bluebirds that flew above the flowers. With her left, she reached into her desk drawer and removed a piece of charcoal.
A tear splattered on one of the peonies, scattering its colors across the page. Gripping the charcoal tightly, she touched the black end to the picture and turned the cheerful spring day into night.
As she transformed her picture, Stacy became part of the darkness. She crawled inside the warm black color and breathed a sigh of relief. She felt still and quiet, all the way to the core of her being. She rubbed charcoal over her body; tasted its grit, swallowed the dust of the ruined pastels.
It's not real, it's not real, she mumbled, spreading her hands over the darkened picture and smearing the colors across her face.
The bite of fingernails in the flesh of her shoulder pulled her from the soft, smothering darkness of the ruined art into the dangerous, painful darkness of her mother's eyes.
The pain of her mother's eyes was so inescapable that she wanted to scream. She had tried so hard to blot out her feelings; to cover them with darkness. She tried to leave no sense that her view of the world was different from her mother's. But she was different. She couldn't help thinking. She couldn't help feeling. She couldn't help being.
She wasn't strong enough to hate the woman who lay helplessly in the throes of a migraine one moment and attacked so viciously the next. She knew her mother hated color, and light. She had watched in horror as her mother had stomped on the pretty faces of the pansies that grew beneath the peonies and trampled the sunny calendulas when they opened their sunny faces to the sky. The only flowers her mother tolerated were violets, because they hid in shade, and the one firecracker peony that wouldn't die no matter how many times she crushed its leaves.
Stacy didn't wasn't as strong as the peony. She could survive but she didn't know how to bloom. It was dangerous to show light or life in the sad white house behind the broken front walk. She tried to kill the light within herself, but it always sprung back, betraying her.
She tried to still the life that sang in her veins when she ran the track at school, but sometimes it sang so loud others heard it, too. It was dangerous when a classmate said,
You look happy today!
If others saw her life leaking out into the light, her mother was bound to see it. Like the joy she felt while running, the contrast between her true feelings for her mother and what her mother would accept felt sharp and dangerous. Especially when they became words that spilled from her mouth unbidden.
I love your paintings.
What did you say?
The painted nails dug deeper. Stacy wondered how her grip could be so strong when her legs trembled beneath her. Stacy shook her head, biting her lips into silence.
What did you say?
This time her mother's voice was near hysteria. Stacy's eyes darted around the room. She had to talk about something else, anything else. She focused on the clock. It was nearly time for her father to come home.
I said the chicken is probably burning.
The fingernails plunged through the thin material of her shirt and dug into her flesh. Stacy cringed, holding back a scream. Then the fingers relaxed and she slumped forward in a puddle of relief.
Get the chicken from the oven, her mother grumbled. And keep your smart mouth shut about things that are not your concern.
Stacy nodded, trying to hold back the tears and trembling that always came after one of these encounters.
Oh, stop it! Her mother chuckled, suddenly good-natured. You don't have to be so dramatic.
As she watched her mother walk to the bathroom to freshen up for dinner, Stacy wondered how her mother could be strong enough to bounce in and out of her fierce anger. No matter how cruel her mother was, she couldn't hate her. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn't be like her. But her mother had a grip on her emotions. She could turn them hard and cold or soft and beckoning in an instant. All Stacy could do was cry, or spout words that inevitably caused trouble.
An inspiration struck her. She ignored the smoky smell of burning chicken and scorched potatoes, and pushed from her mind the beating her father would give her when her mother reported that she'd ruined dinner. She took out a clean piece of paper and a fresh stick of charcoal, and conjured an image of her mother. She looked beneath the face her mother chose to show, focusing on her inward image until she saw her mother's essence.
She put her hope for who her mother could be into the drawing. When next the fingernails stabbed the skin of her shoulder, the image of a fairy queen gazed from the paper on her desk.
Her mother's voice shrieked, rising in pitch.
How dare you fiddle with your drawings when dinner
Her voice turned from accusing, gloating, to perplexion. She reached a pink-painted fingernail toward the image of the fairy queen.
What is that?
Betty! Her father's voice roared. What happened to dinner?
Stacy gasped. Her mother was vicious but her father's passions ran to violent beatings. Her uncontrollable feelings had trapped her again. She wanted to run, but her mother's hand pinned her in her desk chair. So she ran away, in her head. Like a scared rabbit, she flattened her ears, closed her eyes and ran to the darkest, quietest place she could find in her cramped mind.
Tears formed behind her closed lids. She never would be fierce and strong like her mother. She would always be weak, and sniveling, and
I said, what is this?
Her mother's fingernail scraped across the delicate charcoal lines that formed the queen's face. The fairy queen's visage resembled her mother's, but her eyes were kind and bright. The muscles beneath her skin were smooth and calm. Her dark hair floated softly, framing her head.
I thought it looked like you, Stacy said.
She fought back tears but her nose had already begun to run. Why did she have to be so weak?
Stacy tried not to hope, but she distinctly heard a breath of wonder in her mother's voice.
Her father thundered up the stairs, unlooping his belt.
Did Stacy ruin the dinner again?
No, her mother whispered. I did.
Her mother released her hold on Stacy's shoulder and brushed her fingertips across the face.
Is that really me? she whispered.
Stacy's breath caught in her throat.
If you want it to be.
Maybe, maybe, her mother muttered.
Betty! her father roared. What about dinner?
Her mother took a deep breath and turned to her father.
Joe, I think it's about time we realized there are more important things than a burnt dinner.
She gathered Stacy into a hug. Outside, the peonies ceased nodding and turned their faces to the sun.
Page Last Revised: December 27, 2006