For as long as Emmaline Kingsley could remember, her mother believed in the ability of objects to harbor evil spirits or bad omens. She never questioned this fact, nor wondered if there had been a time when her mother had believed in other things. Until one morning, that is, as she waited by the front door to leave for school and considered the clocks. At eight, the tiny gears of two Black Forest cookoo clocks cranked forward the time, the doors swung open and miniature fairy tales, rendered as German wood carved figures, marched out of their dark cave to perform their predictable dance to the familiar song.
“Ready to go, peanut?” Emmaline’s father asked as he picked up her backpack and met her at the door.
“How come Mommy lets you keep your clocks here?” Emmaline asked. In her world, her father’s collection of yard sale treasures and antique furniture were deposited straight into the garage where they belonged. Because objects could be dangerous elsewhere.
“Those aren’t my clocks. Those were your grandmother’s clocks,” he replied, then frowned. “They are the only thing from before….”
Before? Emmaline, like most children, could hardly imagine a time before in her parent’s lives. She studied the clocks and tried to discern the power they possessed, power enough to break her mother’s rule. She reached up and ran her hand along the side to see if she could feel any difference, but it felt entirely ordinary to her.
In the garage Emmaline’s father built row upon row of shelves made out of 2x4s where he placed the objects and possessions collected with a museum curator’s precision and labeling. Pottery: bowls, candlesticks, figurines, vases and ashtrays. He had first edition books, wrist and pocket watches, and framed movie posters. There were six antique boat compasses, fish hooks of various sizes stored in glass mason jars. In one of Emmaline’s favorite corners were the boxes full of slogan buttons, some political: “We like Ike” or protests: “Execute Justice, Not People” or commercial endorsements: “Thin Mints are the Best!” By sheer number, the largest group of items was the photographs – black and whites, sepia colored, Polaroids, out of focus and fuzzy prints, wedding and graduation portraits, track meets and football games, baptisms, family portraits and even a few of the recently departed lying in their caskets. The people were all strangers, a series of unknown faces Emmaline’s father had adopted as his own. Together, Emmaline and her father would examine the pictures and make up elaborate stories: This man was born in Kansas and sold every single thing he owned and bought a boat even though he had never seen the ocean. This girl dreams of running away and joining the circus. This woman came from the French Alps and that far away look in her eyes is the memory of the mountains that she can still see hovering in the distance. This boy grew up to be the most famous bank robber in the Mid-Atlantic.
Emmaline loved her father’s nest of things, the way he held each item so gingerly, as if he could erase the lack of care the object had endured from lying on a folding table, a makeshift display sheet in someone’s front yard, or molding away in a basement. Summer was her father’s hunting time and by the age of five she had become accustomed to driving with him on a Saturday afternoon to the store or the pool where she took swimming lessons and being inevitably diverted in their quest by the sight of light fixtures, bicycles, hampers overflowing with clothes and stuffed animals, or a collection of furniture dragged out on someone’s yard. Her father would hook a dangerous u-turn in order to peruse the offerings. It was easy to get caught up in his enthusiasm: “You never know what you might find!” he would remark, every time, and rub his hands together in anticipation of a new discovery.
Soon after Emmaline turned six in November, she deduced her mother’s pregnancy. Neither parent had told her about it directly, but her mother complained every morning of feeling sick and she’d overheard a hushed phone call proclaiming the good news to Aunt Helen. She surmised the change that would unfold, based on the snippets of things her mother replied. “I don’t know. We may have to get rid of some things. Make space.” It reminded Emmaline of the stories her father told describing her mother’s industry when she was pregnant with Emmaline. Back then, she’d labored for months preparing The O’Neill House: installing air conditioning in the 1860 colonial, steaming and scraping wallpaper from the powder room, stripping paint from the carved wood molding of the built in shelves in the dining room, scrubbing the yellowed grout with a toothbrush and solvent in the kitchen, and finally removing the potentially dangerous objects to the garage.
Over the next two months, the bulge of her mother’s stomach grew, and with it her desire for more room in their home. A clean slate. Her mother packed up boxes of items in the guest room. This industry was not limited simply to the spare room, no, Emmaline’s mother began packing boxes elsewhere. In Emmaline’s room, she inquired: “Do you really need all these stuffed animals?” Emmaline stared at the dozens of shiny eyes on the shelf in the closet, feeling attached to their unflinching gaze. Her mother wondered aloud if Emmaline needed so many necklaces that hung on the silver jewelry tree or if her vast assortment of sea shells were truly necessary. “But they are my collection,” Emmaline answered, running her finger along the smooth insides of a white shell, and invoking the word that had come to represent a reprieve from the trash, a way of communicating the deep, strong desires attached to certain objects.
Once the guest room had been emptied her mother painted the walls. Emmaline sat on the floor, on the tarps covering the refurbished hardwood floorboards. Her mother described how she had spent the last month of her pregnancy painting the walls in Emmaline’s room a robin’s egg blue and then created the mural in the corner near the window that looked over the yard. “How did you decide what to paint?” Emmaline inquired, thinking of the flowers that were so fanciful, a hybrid combination of a rose mixed with a tulip, a zinnia mixed with a sunflower, all in pretty shades of pink, orange and yellow. The butterflies were similarly imagined, unnatural swirls and whorls of colors no two the same. A giant, asymmetrical beanstalk with heart-shaped leaves snaked up the wall and disappeared into a bank of puffy clouds. Her mother paused, turned to her and said, “I don’t know, I started sketching one day and it took its own shape. I liked how everything was in bloom.” As Denise sketched the boat, water, and the lighthouse on the wall of the new baby’s room, she explained how Emmaline would help her paint the clouds. “It will be like how I did them in your room, I pressed a dimpled sponge full of white paint to the wall to create the effect.”
Emmaline walked to the Havre-de-Grace Elementary school everyday with one of her parents, but never both at the same time. Emmaline loved first grade, thrived within the construct of measured achievement and competition. School pulled out in her specific inclinations toward perfectionism. She sought to be the first one done with her work, 100% wasn’t good enough and she craved opportunities for extra credit questions to her boost her score higher. Every single month she claimed the title “Student of the Month” for which she received a laminated star with ribbon attached until February when Mrs. Pfister pulled her aside and explained that despite her star performance, she would be passed over. It was only fair to give other children a chance.
Emmaline watched Ava Hunter advance to the front of the room to claim the star, Emmaline’s rightful star. Everyone clapped and Ava even bowed. Fueled by the injustice of it all, Emmaline finished her subtraction quiz in record time. She flipped the paper over to the blank side to pronounce her victory. She looked around and spied Ava on the opposite side of the classroom not even working on her test, but admiring the laminated star, and running her fingers along the ribbon. Emmaline drew a row of stars on the backside of her paper, pressed down so hard the point broke off her pencil. She looked up and caught a new glimpse of Ava, leaned back in her plastic chair, balancing all of her weight onto the rear two metal legs. Emmaline frowned, unhappy to observe such disregard for rules by the star stealer. She wished for Ava to fall.
Ava lost her balance. The fall, the entire moment of tipping, caught Ava so off guard that her arms simply pinwheeled ineffectively and the first thing to strike the ground was the back of her head. Her foot kicked up the desk and knocked it over. Everyone turned as she rolled off her chair and quickly set about putting her chair and desk upright. Mrs. Pfister walked over to investigate, a stern look of disapproval on her face. Ava’s face glowed with shame and her eyes brimmed with tears. Mrs. Pfister asked if she was okay, and Ava nodded vigorously, wiping at her eyes.
“Everyone, return to work, please,” Mrs. Pfister called out, clapping her hands to quiet the children. Emmaline watched Ava settle down, her pencil scratching across the mimeographed paper. There at the back of Ava’s head a spot of red began to bloom in her blond hair. Soon, the spot the size of a quarter grew to the size of a clementine and then… Emmaline felt the world lose its shape, the edges grew too bright, like a midday sun reflecting off metal. Ava reached up to scratch the crown of her head, pulled away her hand dripping with her own blood and screamed. Emmaline felt herself start to fall, but then everything went black.
When Emmaline came to, Mrs. Pfister hovered over her body, too close, with her sour coffee breath clouding the space. Emmaline could hear the sirens outside. She turned her head and saw Ava on the ground, the nurse holding pressure. All that blood, seeping through the towel, on the floor, running down Ava’s arms. Everything went black again for Emmaline. She felt as though someone had closed a set of heavy red velvet stage curtains in her mind.
When Emmaline regained consciousness a paramedic hovered over her. The stretcher with Ava wheeled by them. A cold compress gave a tingle of pressure on Emmaline’s head. “Your mother is on the way,” the woman said and gave her a kind, face crinkling smile.
On the way home, her mother drove by the old Concord Point lighthouse, recently refurbished and repainted white. It stood at the inlet where the Susquehanna River met the Chesapeake Bay. There were 207 steps to the top, Emmaline knew, she had counted them all. Her great-great-grandfather had worked inside, as a keeper, lighting the whale oil lamps that illuminated the Fresnel lens, only giving it up when the entire process was automated in 1920.
“Are you okay?” her mother asked.
“Yes,” Emmaline replied, but it was a lie. Something had happened in her brain, and she kept seeing that spot of blood appear and then grow bigger. She saw it in her mother’s eye in the rear view mirror, a speck that spread all over her face. Emmaline closed her eyes, and the speck was there too, blooming bigger and brighter than the darkness inside. What if she had caused Ava to fall?
“My mother was like that too, about blood. I tripped on the front steps once and when she came outside to answer my calls for help, she fell off the porch.” The words themselves could have been arranged with some humor, a lightness that would have lifted the mood in the car, but the tone her mother used to tell the story was morose and sad. Maybe it was catching a glimpse of the river water, gray and unsettled with a coming storm.
Ava Hunter returned to school the next week with a line of stitches perched on the crown of her head like a giant, fuzzy caterpillar. She went up to the front of the classroom, held up the x-ray of her head, and talked about riding in an ambulance and going to the emergency room. She was a rule breaker turned super star.
On President’s Day, Emmaline went with her father to an estate sale north of town. This was the type of house sale, a clean-out, that marked a person’s demise. There were closets full of clothes, linens and towels, half-full bottles of alcohol, silverware and dishes, all the furnishings inside for sale. Cheap. Emmaline wandered through the rooms with her father, observing how so many people pressed inside to paw through the items. This group would clear out this old woman’s house in an afternoon. People carried things under their arms, piece by piece like a line of ants out the front door.
Emmaline found a prism hanging by the window in a bedroom, and admired the rainbow of light it cast around the room. She appreciated the way the tiny object could transform the light. She liked the weight of it in her hand, but worried that it had captured other things, bad things. Her father plucked it from her fingers and put it in his pile of other items he’d found and planned to buy: another antique boat compass, an old black and white etching of the Baltimore port, and a glass Santa Claus ornament he claimed was made in Germany. In the basement, her father found a child’s sized gorilla costume, the thick, black fur smelled musty, like a wet towel left on the floor. When Emmaline slid on the head it felt claustrophobic and hot, the sound of her voice inside became a muffle, but she liked it because she could be anybody in that suit, anybody at all. When they got home, it was explained away to her mother as “perfect for Halloween.” A flutter of fear passed over her mother’s face. Maybe it was how real it looked, how menacing, or perhaps it was how taken in her daughter was with her husband’s obsession. Emmaline stood in front of the full length mirror on the bathroom door and admired herself, how she couldn’t even tell if she was a girl inside that suit.
She took the prism and put it in her closet. When the new baby came, she would hang it up in the window of baby’s room to catch all the light.
In March, there was a trip to the doctor but her mother didn’t come home. The neighbor, a retired baker who always smelled sweetly like yeasty dough, watched Emmaline and stayed through the evening. Her father came home briefly and packed an overnight bag full of her mother’s clothes, toothbrush, a comb, and her face cream that smelled like cucumbers. “Everything is fine, your mother will be home tomorrow,” her father assured her, but Emmaline knew something was wrong. She could tell in the nervous way he spoke, the way his body pinched up, like a body bracing for a physical blow. She could tell it in the teary way that the neighbor wished her good-bye the next morning and told her to be a good girl.
Her mother came home and went straight to her room. She lay in bed for three days, the static hum of the radio her only real companion. Emmaline went in occasionally to check on her, to offer her a glass of water or cookies. These offerings were always accepted, but then left untouched on the night table. Emmaline held her mother’s hand which was bruised purple and green. She looked in her mother’s eyes, the familiar brown orbs that sometimes looked green when she wore the right colored shirt, but Emmaline felt unanchored in them as though a giant swell had consumed her mother.
Emmaline had blue eyes, a shade of blue that nearly matched the color her mother had painted her bedroom all those years before. Her father’s eyes were ordinary blue. Emmaline wondered, would the baby’s eyes have been been brown like her mother’s or blue like hers and her father’s? She’d read that all babies have blue eyes when they were born. She doubted this could be true. She wanted to ask her mother if she had seen the eyes. Were they able to observe the baby before it was sent to the place wherever dead babies go?
Her mother got out of bed on the fourth day, showered and washed her hair that had grown slick with oil and sweat. She pulled up the sheets on the bed, took the ball into the laundry room and set about soaking it in hot water. Her mother went into the spare room, the one she had been making ready for the baby. She opened the curtains, sunlight shone on the wall with the half completed mural of the Concord Point lighthouse with a sailboat in the distance riding on unfinished waves.
She announced to Emmaline that they were going to the park. They walked down Concord, under the naked sycamore and maple trees that lined the street. They sat on a bench near the pier and watched the gulls glide in and out of their sight line. Her mother watched the water as if waiting for something to surface. Emmaline felt so cold that her nose went numb.
In April, Emmaline was sent home from school with a fever. She had the swine flu, her father told her – it was springing up everywhere this year. Emmaline’s body felt heavy as if she wore the lead vest the dentist draped over her body during her tooth x-rays. Her fever climbed higher and higher. Her mother brought towels she had soaked in water and put in the freezer to lay on her skin. Emmaline stared at the flowers painted on the wall, their petals began to sway in the breeze. A green troll with a nose made entirely out of warts scurried down the bean stalk. His eyes were blue. A butterfly peeled itself from the wall and landed on her big toe sticking out from the sheets. Emmaline commented, offhandedly to her mother, “Look how the spots on the butterfly seem like eyes when it opens and closes its wings.”
A crow cawed at the window. Emmaline’s mother screamed. She remembered the sound of her mother’s frantic voice as she called the doctor. Then, like the time at school, the world lost its substance and it wavered around her until it felt like someone had blown out the flame of the only candle lighting her mind.
Emmaline spent three days in the hospital. Her teacher, Mrs. Pfister, sent her flowers. The class had used a piece of poster board to make a “Get Well” card. Someone had drawn a picture of a pig on it. Ava Hunter wrote with flourish, “See you soon, Emma!” Emmaline hated it when people abbreviated her name without permission. Her father brought her a watch he had found at Goodwill, it was purple, her favorite color.
When Emmaline got home, she climbed the stairs to her bedroom and lay on her clean bed inhaling the scent of laundry. It smelled like her mother. It felt so much better than all the white, stiff industrial sheets at the hospital. She woke that night as the half-full moon peered into her window. Emmaline’s body stiffened with fear. The troll’s eyes were there, glowing blue under the mural clouds where the wall met the ceiling. In the morning, she tried to work up the courage to tell her mother she wanted to repaint the room. But Emmaline couldn’t bring forth the words, her mind kept flashing to the penciled in sketches of the waves, of the unfinished space in the other room.
By the beginning of summer, the cookoo clocks were gone from the wall by the front door and her parents had stopped sleeping in the same bed. They thought she didn’t know, but the couch started to take on the impression of her father’s slumbering body. She witnessed him tucking the sheet and pillow into the closet one morning before he went to shower. At night, when they thought she was asleep, they would fight in angry whispers. Her mother blamed her father for the baby’s death, it was the evil lurking in the objects, this evil had been made manifest. Emmaline worried it had been the prism, she worried that she had made the baby die like she had made Ava Hunter fall off the chair. Watching her parents together was like watching that blood spot grow, bigger and bigger and yet unseen by them. Emmaline’s mother went into the spare room and took down the crib. She sat in the rocking chair and cried in choking sobs she thought Emmaline couldn’t hear.
On the fourth of July, Emmaline went with her parents first to the cemetery at church where her grandmother was buried. They laid roses on her grave. Later, they went to the park where it was oppressively hot and her clothes stuck to her body. They stayed until the sky went dark and the boom of firecrackers streaked across the sky. Emmaline watched the spray of colors, but only in the reflection on the surface of the Harbor water. When no one was looking, she tossed the prism into the black water.
In August, her Aunt and the twins came to visit for a week. They went to the zoo, to the beach, and took a trip to the museum in D.C. On the train ride home, as her cousins played video games, Emmaline overheard her mother confess – I don’t think I can do this anymore. In her mother’s voice was a tugging, like she had been transformed into a balloon that was about to float away.
Emmaline started second grade in September. By the beginning of October, her parents had been called into school for a special conference. When the teacher passed out the timed addition and subtraction quizzes, the spelling tests, Emmaline refused to do the work. She flipped the paper over and drew stars on the backside. Only stars. The school was worried. Emmaline wouldn’t read aloud in class, she did no homework, in art she refused to paint anything except picture after picture of a red flower. Her parents didn’t know what to do. They took her to the doctor. They took her to a therapist, where she sat quietly and never answered the question, “How are you feeling today?”
On Halloween, Emmaline donned the gorilla costume despite her mother’s entreaties to be a dancer, a princess, a tiger, anything else. At school, Ava Hunter quivered in fear as Emmaline went and stood too close to her. The head was hot and her vision obstructed, but she didn’t want to take it off. That night her father took her trick or treating. The wind blew cold, there was an unsettled feeling in the air that something prepared to bear down on them. People along Main Street a block from the water stacked sandbags in futile hills. The hurricane turned tropical storm swirling up the coast would bring a surge at high tide.
In the dark, the invisible water could be heard churning and crashing against the break wall. People who opened the door to toss candy into Emmaline’s fluorescent green pumpkin joked about battening down the hatches, about the ghost storm. They all appeared eager to usher the gorilla that looked a bit too real off their stoops and porches. When it started to rain and the wind picked up, leaves scuttled across the pavement like bugs, and Emmaline and her father headed home early.
Emmaline stopped in front of the house, removed her gorilla head, and stood looking at the way the front of the house appeared alive, the windows resembled eyes and the door yawned like a mouth. Her father grabbed her hand, but she pulled away.
“Do you think it was evil spirits or the prism?” she asked, in a whisper.
“What?” her father replied, his face scrunched in confusion before a flash of grim understanding passed over him. “Are you talking about the baby? No, Emmaline, it wasn’t the prism. These things just happen. Sometimes there is no reason.” He knelt down and lifted the brim of his worn baseball cap to meet her eyes. “Superstition is a way to explain the unexplainable, a way to believe in something. Do you understand? ”
Emmaline nodded. Like a troll in your painted clouds or a blood spot grown bigger. The unearned star. They went inside and watched the news report, the satellite image of the storm swirling up the east coast, with an all-knowing eye. The wind howled outside, grew in intensity, like a beast from the netherworld come alive. Emmaline imagined it with a body of rain, wind for hair, and a voice of waves. When the lights went out, her mother lit their hurricane lamp that made the air smell of kerosene. Her parents pulled the couch out into a bed. They would sleep there, huddled together, the three of them. Inside the house it was too quiet, the absence of noise from the refrigerator, the furnace, the hum of electricity that had become a comforting background sound to their lives. Outside, the wind grew stronger, sought every available crevice and moaned through the house.
Emmaline tried to sleep, but a part of her felt anchored and attuned to the storm, listening to what it would say. A thunderous crack sounded above them, everyone startled awake as the walls and floor shook. Her father went to the window. Maybe a tree, he said. He grabbed the flashlight and clicked it on, went up the stairs. Trolls aren’t real, Emmaline reminded herself. Emmaline and her mother listened for his footsteps that made the floorboards creak. When he returned he brought the news: the Elm in the backyard had fallen, and one of the branches had come through Emmaline’s window, the rest of the tree had fallen on the garage.
“Your things!” Emmaline’s mother cried.
Emmaline’s father sat down on the sofa bed and soothed his wife, rubbed her shoulders and assured her. “We are safe. The house is standing. Those are only things in the garage, nothing more. Don’t worry. Sometimes things just happen.”
Emmaline could feel the hole in the house, in the corner of her bedroom. She could feel the broken glass of the window and the rain leaking inside, running down the wall, taking the cloud and the troll with it. She could feel all of this as if the breach were a spot on her own skin, a bloom of blood growing bigger and brighter.
Jennifer Marie Donahue’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Catapult, Grist: A Journal of the Literary Arts, The Rumpus, JMWW, So to Speak!, Necessary Fiction, and other fine places. A native of Virginia, she currently resides in Massachusetts where she has received scholarship support from Grub Street and the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing.