It was as if someone had suddenly wrapped a thick layer of cotton around her. Things that had been ordinary and familiar became muted and removed.
If she hadn’t been so frightened, she might have even laughed at the feeling. Not that it was an entirely unpleasant sensation.
She could still hear the birds singing in the thick, autumn-bright canopy above her and identify each sweet trill and warble, caw, churr, chirp and whistle. She could smell the moss and moisture from the stream as it gurgled through the shallows not twenty feet behind her and she could feel the whispered urgency of the wind reminding her that she really should be heading home for supper. These things were familiar. These things had accompanied her for the last fifteen years as she walked the wooded path to and from her position as Bryner Elementary School’s Head Librarian.
These things she heard and smelled and felt.
But she saw only the tiny grave.
The imaginary feel of cotton tightened around her.
For fifteen years, she had walked that same path through the woods, had heard the same noises, felt the same seasonal changes, but until today she had never noticed it. Never saw it.
It was a child’s grave, she was sure of that, even though she had no reason to be. Alone and abandoned and forgotten, the grave was tucked back into the shadows at the far end of a narrow gully; the tiny dirt mound in front of the weathered pink headstone
pink is for girls
all but eroded by the countless seasons
of rain and snow and drought, while she, and who knows how many others, passed by.
What kind of mother would bury her child, alone, in the woods? What kind of mother would do such a thing?
A bad mother, Elizabeth Hesse thought as she looked down at the little grave, a very bad mother.
“I would never have done that,” she said out loud. “I would have been a good mother.”
But even as she said the words she knew it wasn’t true, because a good mother would have seen the grave before this.
And she hadn’t.
One of the things she was always telling the children who came into the library was, “Look. See the world. Don’t just wander blindly through it. Notice everything.”
Wonderful, hypocritical words. She had said them for fifteen years, every day for fifteen years . . . and still she hadn’t noticed anything. Hadn’t looked. Had wandered blindly back and forth in front of the grave for fifteen years of her own life and never seen it.
A small sound began to whisper from Elizabeth’s mouth, but she caught it with her fingers before it escaped. Her hand still smelled of the tuna sandwich she’d had for lunch; the fish oil stronger than the gardenia-scented liquid soap in the Teacher’s Lounge.
Her father’s company had sent a spray of gardenias to his funeral. Small and white, they had nevertheless filled the viewing room with their scent. Her mother had complained about that, saying it was overpowering.
There were no flowers on the small grave, just a thin blanket of autumn leaves.
It made Elizabeth shiver just looking at it. A good mother would have tried to keep her baby warm. She would have done that if it had been her child. She would have been a good mother. She wouldn’t have buried it in the woods.
Elizabeth closed her eyes and let her hand drop to the top button on her cardigan. It wasn’t a real grave. What she had seen, and would see again when she opened her eyes, would be a rock that only looked like a headstone. She hadn’t noticed it before because there was nothing to notice.
It’s not a grave. It’s not a grave. It’s not—
Elizabeth kept repeating the words until she opened her eyes. And then the words and hope went away.
It was a grave . . . but perhaps only the grave of an animal.
Yes. That fit. It was the grave of some beloved pet that had died of old age or accident and been buried. Or a favorite dolly.
Elizabeth sighed. Of course, it had to be a joke or animal’s grave. No mother in her right mind would bury a child so far away . . . from . . . everything. Alone. Abandoned.
Good mothers just didn’t do that sort of thing. Good mothers protected their children and made sure they were healthy and happy and . . .
But if the grave was only a childish fancy, then that meant some mother . . . some bad mother had let her child wander into the woods.
Elizabeth turned and glanced quickly up and down the path.
The children knew they weren’t supposed to play in the woods. It had been the subject of concern for years; probably even as far back as when she was a child. The woods were not safe, they never had been. Her own mother told her that repeatedly.
Only last November, the second day of the Thanksgiving holiday, Polly Winter, a fourth grader, had broken her ankle while playing a game of Hide-and-Seek with visiting cousins. Elizabeth had seen her just that morning from the library window and she was still limping, nearly a full year later, poor child. Poor, willful child.
Something rustled in the tall grass near the stand of red-leafed maple directly behind the
gully and Elizabeth bit her lip. The woods were not safe. The woods were secluded. The woods were lonely . . . so very lonely.
Whatever was in the grave—doll or dog (or child)—it was alone and lonely, too.
A shiver followed Elizabeth as she stepped from smooth path to rock-rutted gully. Although she moved carefully and cautiously, the way her mother had taught her, her foot almost twisted out from under her and she saw herself sprawled unladylike in the dirt, skirt thrown back, legs spread wide.
Elizabeth kept her footing, but stopped when another gust of wind rustled the maple leaves in front of her. That was the sound she’d heard. There was no one in the woods besides her. No children, no adults, no one to see her kneel in front of the tiny headstone.
It was pink granite flecked with black and silver; and it was cold against the palm of her hand, its edges smooth as butter, the chiseled inscription all but obliterated. With one finger, like a kindergartner connecting the dots with an oversized pencil, Elizabeth traced the letters carved into the stone one at a time.
This was no childish project or joke. No animal rested beneath the stone.
M. Y. P. R. E. C. I. O. U. S. O.
“My Precious One.”
Elizabeth dropped her hand and sat back on her calves, felt the left knee of her nylons pop and send runners halfway up her thigh.
The grave was real . . . but she’d never noticed it before. But more importantly, none of the generations of schoolchildren she told to “Hush” and “Be quiet” had noticed it either.
And Heaven knows they noticed everything else worth whispering about during Free Reading Time: the broken water main that flooded out the toy shop, the broken-down car, the funny-looking cloud that had been all purple and orange, the new traffic lights, the old park benches, the way the sky looked before it snowed. They noticed everything but the grave. And they should have.
Because a grave, a real grave, was something much too wonderful and much too terrible not to talk about.
Rustling again. And not the wind. This time directly behind her. Louder. Closer.Rustle. Rustle. Thump. Thump.
Elizabeth twisted toward the sound and leaned back against the small headstone. Protectively. The way a good mother . . . but not this child’s mother would.
“Who’s there?” she said in her Librarian’s voice. “Is someone there?”
Rustle, thump . . . and what was that? A giggle? Sitting straighter, Elizabeth took a deep breath and began mentally going down her list of school troublemakers.
“Kenny Wisman, is that you?”
A brilliant boy with more energy than control, he was always looking for better and bigger pranks to justify his existence. Creating the small grave would be a minor accomplishment for a boy who had not-so-secretly christened her Mz. Hesse-the-Pest.
“Kenneth? If that’s you, speak up now! I dislike being snuck up upon.” Without thinking, without caring that she might be laughed at, Elizabeth reached back and hugged the headstone. “Show yourself this instant, young man, or else I’ll be forced to call your mother and—”
A tufted blue jay screeched as it shot, arrow-like, from the underbrush in front of her and she screeched with it. When it called again, it was already a hundred yards away.
“Foolish,” she said as she turned back to the grave and smiled. “I scared myself, wasn’t that silly of me?”
Elizabeth brushed a fallen leaf off the stone. Perhaps no one, including herself, had noticed the grave until now because now was when she was supposed to find it. Perhaps it had been waiting all these years until she was ready to find it. To notice it. To care.
My Precious One.
Elizabeth carefully hung her shoulder bag on the coat rack and took a deep breath before answering.
“Yes, Mother. Sorry, Mother.”
She had said the same thing (yes Mother sorry Mother) for as long as she could remember, with no variations or modifications, but tonight she noticed that the words stuck a little in her throat.
The same way she noticed how old and used up her mother looked when she walked into the dining room.
“My God, what have you done now? Just look at your clothes!”
Despite every effort not to, Elizabeth looked down and felt the same kind of chill that she had at the grave . . . a cold numbing that seeped through the layers of flesh and bone until it reached her lungs and made her gasp for air. She really was a mess. The hem of her skirt was stained with mud and a dead leaf clung to the ruined stocking just below her left knee. Although she didn’t remember it happening, three buttons on her cardigan had torn away.
Elizabeth pulled the sweater closed to cover the mud-flecked blouse beneath. Funny, how she didn’t notice when it happened . . . but, then again, she hadn’t noticed so much before tonight . . .
“What have you done?” her mother asked again, accusing, all but dropping the covered casserole dish on the table when she mirrored Elizabeth’s action and reached up to clutch the front of her housedress.
“You’ve been raped, haven’t you?” The words were cold and sharp and stinging, and left bruises where they hit. “I warned you about walking through those woods, Elizabeth, and now look what’s happened. You’re ruined. No man will ever look at you again.”
Elizabeth fingered the broken thread from one of the missing buttons.
“No, Mother, I wasn’t raped. I—tripped, that’s all. That path was rather muddy.” The chill moved from her lungs, giving Elizabeth a chance to catch her breath, and made itself comfortable in her untouched womb. “I’m fine.”
“Oh.” With a sigh, her mother dropped her hand and busied herself with the casserole. “Well, dinner is probably ruined thanks to your tardiness. I try to make sure everything is timed perfectly and you think nothing of wandering in whenever it pleases you.”
“1 didn’t plan on being late, Mother.”
“That’s no excuse, Elizabeth. Now, go into the kitchen and wash your hands before the stew gets any colder than it already is.” Sitting herself at the head of the table, her mother began ladling out the steaming chunks of meat and vegetables. “I’ll not wait for you if you don’t mind.”
“No,” Elizabeth said, nodding as she walked to the kitchen. “Of course not, Mother. I wouldn’t expect you to.”
Her mother grunted something in reply, but Elizabeth decided to not notice.
The water, though only lukewarm, stung the abrasions on Elizabeth’s hands as she scrubbed them clean. For all of her life, her mother had taught her that pain was the only thing you could truly believe. If whatever it was you did didn’t hurt somehow, then it wasn’t worth the effort.
Her mother had not been a good mother.
The chill in her womb rolled over lazily, like a kitten stretching in the sun, when Elizabeth turned off the taps and dried her hands. Her mother didn’t know how to be a good mother.
Arms straight out in front, fingers pointing to the ceiling, Elizabeth turned her palms toward her and then back. And sighed.
Her poor hands were clean, but the flesh was red and swollen from the vigorous washing and two nails had snapped off at bizarre angles. She’d have to file and mend them before the Kindergarten’s Story Hour in the morning.
The older children wouldn’t notice, but the little ones . . . the babies, they saw everything. She had to be so careful around the babies.
My Precious One.
There was the clank and clatter of metal upon china from the dining room—her mother’s subtle way of telling Elizabeth she was taking much too long at the assigned task.
But the clinking and clatter didn’t stop when Elizabeth got back to the table.
“You didn’t bring the dinner rolls, Elizabeth.”
Elizabeth let her throbbing hands settle against the chill in her womb. Her mother was not a good mother . . . but she’d show her, she’d show her. “I didn’t know I was supposed to, Mother.”
Her mother’s fork hit the side of the dinner plate and made it sing. “Well, isn’t that just like you? I would have thought a grown woman, a supposedly mature woman would have taken it upon herself to notice if the dinner rolls were on the table or not and do something about it . . . without having her Mommy have to tell her. My God, Elizabeth, don’t you notice anything?”
Not until today, Mother.
Elizabeth couldn’t help but smile as she turned and walked back to the kitchen.
“And don’t forget the butter,” her mother whined. “You know I like butter on my rolls. And bring the jam. Strawberry. Not the marmalade like last night. Strawberry is for supper, marmalade is for breakfast. It’s not that difficult a thing to remember, so I don’t understand how you manage to forget so often.”
Elizabeth picked up the jar with the bright red, plumb strawberries—I forget because I don’t like strawberry jam—and dropped it into the sink.
“What was that?”
“I dropped the jam, Mother. I’m sorry.” The jar of marmalade felt cool against her palm as she carried it, the rolls and butter back to the table. “I’ll pick some more up tomorrow. And don’t worry about the kitchen, I’ll clean it up after dinner. Would you like me to butter you a roll, Mother?”
Her mother glared at her from across the table. “How could you be so clumsy?”
Elizabeth ignored the question and spooned a large dollop of the honey-gold marmalade onto a roll.
“Mother, have you ever heard of a grave out in the woods?”
“A grave . . . a child’s grave in the woods. Near the stream. Have you ever heard mention of it?”
“Of course not,” her mother said, ignoring the offered rolls and butter as she returned her attention to the stew. “There are no graves in the woods. Why would you ask such a thing, Elizabeth?”
“No reason,” Elizabeth answered as she brought the marmalade-laden roll toward her lips. “I heard a rumor.”
“Rumors are just that,” her mother growled. “I’m surprised you paid it any notice.”
The chill in Elizabeth’s womb reached up and touched her heart.
“I am, too, Mother.”
Her mother had stayed up past her usual ten o’clock bedtime just to be difficult—puttering around the house in her robe and slippers and refusing to go to bed when Elizabeth suggested it.
A good mother would have gone to bed when she was supposed to. A good mother would have known when to leave her child alone.
“I’ll know,” Elizabeth said as she carefully unfolded the mud-stained handkerchief that had been tucked away in the bottom of her purse. “I’ll be a good mother.”
“Isn’t that right? My Precious One.”
The tiny skull, with its brittle fringe of dark brown hair and patina of leathery flesh, fell onto its side when Elizabeth lifted it toward her face. Presenting a cheek to be kissed.
So Elizabeth did. The way a good mother would.
The grave in the woods had been old, very old; its tiny occupant all but gone to dust. Elizabeth had tried to be gentle, but the moment her trembling hands touched the stained baby blanket (pink, for girls)the body beneath crumbled.
She’d only managed to save the skull. Nothing else.
But that was enough.
“Poor little thing,” Elizabeth whispered, and watched the baby hair tremble under her breath like summer wheat. “You’ve been alone for so long.”
She kissed it again, to let it know it was loved. The feel of the dried skin against her lips wasn’t that unpleasant, no more so than any other kiss she’d ever had to give; and away from the confines of the grave and stench of decay, her Precious One only smelled a bit musty . . . like a well-loved book.
But still it wasn’t a baby smell. Babies weren’t supposed to smell like books, they were supposed to smell sweet like candy, like flowers, like . . .
Elizabeth smiled as she stood up and hurried them both to her dressing table. Cupping her Precious One gently in one palm, she began to dig through the mounds of white panties and bras for the tiny indulgence she’d treated herself to. And hidden. Years ago.
The bottle of perfume was still sealed, still perfect; the price sticker still attached. Untouched, until now. Unloved. Until now.
Her mother didn’t approve of perfume, but her mother wasn’t going to be the one wearing it.
The scent of gardenias filled the room the moment Elizabeth lifted off the white cap. Unlike the day of her father’s funeral, the fragrance made her happy. Humming softly, she held the bottle over her Precious One’s forehead and let a crystal drop fall. It clung like dew to the sparse hair, but then a second drop, larger than the first and not expected, missed its target and fell onto the linen dresser scarf.
Leaving a mark. Leaving a stain.
Elizabeth gasped as the perfume bottle slipped from her fingers. It bled its clear, fragrant blood across the top of her dressing table and died.
The stench of gardenias was overpowering. Her mother would smell it. Her mother would find out.
And it was all her Precious One’s fault.
“Bad baby!” Elizabeth hissed, and pinched the little chin between her thumb and forefinger; squeezed and saw the tiny right ear fall like a spent blossom.
How could she be a good mother to such a child?
“Now look what you’ve done. Can’t you behave for just one moment?”
Elizabeth brushed the mummified skin off onto the floor and quickly mopped up the spilled perfume with the already soiled scarf. The air was thick with the cloying scent and she almost gagged before she got the soaked linen into the laundry hamper.
It was only after she could catch her breath and breathe again that Elizabeth looked down at her baby. Another small flake of skin, perhaps the beginnings of an eyebrow, had fallen off.
“What am I going to do with you?”
Without waiting for an answer, Elizabeth took the tiny head in both hands and shook it. Something rattled inside the skull, but she knew she wasn’t hurting her Precious One. She was only teaching it right from wrong, the way a good mother was supposed to.
“What kind of mother would I be if I didn’t teach you?” she asked when she finally stopped, looking deep into the sunken, empty sockets. “Not a very good one, and I want to be a good mother. I have to be. Now, are you sorry you made such a mess? Yes, I’m sure you are.”
Elizabeth leaned down to kiss the wrinkled forehead.
“Yes. All is forgiven. All right, time for bed. And no back talk . . . young lady.”
Yes, she remembered. Pink was for girls. Her Precious One was a girl. How wonderful. She’d always wanted a daughter.
Her Precious One didn’t utter so much as a whimper when Elizabeth, good mother that she was, carried her to the antique toy cabinet at the far end of the room to pick out a body.
There was really only one choice among the china dolls Elizabeth had collected since her own childhood—the cupid-faced infant in the long, imported lace christening gown.
It was supposed to be very expensive and very old, her mother had told her . . . but her mother had never been a good mother, not like Elizabeth was going to be, so it didn’t matter what she’d said.
Elizabeth smashed the doll’s head against the side of the cabinet and smiled at the pattern the china pieces made on the rug.
“Look,” she said, holding her Precious One up to see, “like snow-flakes. All right, don’t move and it won’t hurt. Mother promises.”
Her Precious One’s withered neck slipped effortlessly onto the wooden dowel the doll’s head had been molded around.
“Oh, my,” Elizabeth said, tucking the lace collar in around the hardened flesh. Her Precious One’s head wobbled a bit, but not much. “Oh, don’t you look beautiful? Yes, you do . . . you look beautiful.”
Elizabeth tickled and kissed and cooed and waltzed them both around the room that had been hers since birth. That would now be both of theirs.
Her mother’s shout ended the dance. Like always.
“Elizabeth! It’s almost midnight! Go to bed this instant . . . you have work in the morning.”
Elizabeth stopped too quickly. Her Precious One’s head tipped forward, chin against the embroidered yoke of the gown.
“Yes, Mother. Sorry, Mother,” she shouted to her mother, then hissed to her child, “Sit up straight! A lady never slumps. I said sit up!”
Elizabeth shook her Precious One and watched the baby’s head loll backwards. She was being obstinate. She was being a bad baby.
Her Precious One wasn’t so precious after all. Maybe there had been a reason for the lonely grave in the woods. Maybe Elizabeth had been chosen to find it because she was the only one who could handle such a spoiled child.
Her Precious One had to be taught. A good mother had to teach her baby.
“I’m only doing this because I love you,” Elizabeth said as she lay her Precious One over one arm and lifted her free hand into position.
“I’m going to be a good mother to you, but that means you have to be a good baby to me. It’s only fair.”
Elizabeth smiled. Her Precious One knew. Her Precious One understood. She was a good mother.
“Be brave,” she whispered as she lifted her hand. “This will hurt me more than it will you.”
When it didn’t, Elizabeth consoled herself with the knowledge that there would be other occasions to prove she was a good mother.
Many occasions in the years to come.