The light filters through the window into the still, dark air. In the whirling dust, Mary can make out the fairies, winking, disappearing, toes pointed and wings tensed. She hears them whispering her name, tormenting her. “Mary, Mary,” they say, and then are gone. There is nothing left to break the silence but the sluggish tick from the thick hall clock, its pendulum swung in lethargy, like a fat man swinging his pocket watch: and both pass time. Mother has bricked all the windows over but this one and the house presents its sleeping face to the street, where heels click by and dogs raise their legs to the rusted wrought-iron fence. Women’s rustling skirts drag on the uneven paving stones and thieves, or so Mother says, stand in shadow stropping their knives, sucking on their yellow teeth, waiting and waiting for something worthwhile to come within arm’s reach.
When Mary was just a baby, she pitched into the river, her small body dragged to the bottom by her thick woolen clothes. She was not afraid.
She stared upward through the icy, sluicing water and could make out the sun—a chilled orb of splintering white—shining beyond the surface. She remembers lifting up her hand to better sense herself falling away. Then there was the dirty young man, fishing her out. Back on land, he gasped in the cold, and the nurse wailed and wailed while the small crowd of people endeavored to remind her that all was well now. Look. There’s the baby, wrapped in a coat. Take her home. Dry her off. Give the gasping, dirty young man (dirt like that takes more than a plunge in the river to rinse off) a coin.
“Mary,” Mother has said, “even a sharp little thing like you can’t remember so far back.” But she does.
Light gives Mother headaches, aggravates the neurasthenia, but even Mother acknowledges the need to see. In the hallway, the unbricked window spills the last of the afternoon sun into the gloom and Mary reaches to it. If she puts the backs of her hands together, knuckles pressing, and swims her arms around, she can pretend she is beneath the water. She strokes her way through the air in the vestibule. The fairies, nasty things, are laughing now. “Look at her,” she hears a sharp, little voice. “That’s not swimming. This is air. This is air, and for air you need wings.”
“Stupid fairy,” says Mary. “What do you know?” She swims up the first two steps and swims down. “Stupid fairies,” she says again. “I’m no little girl. I am a fish.”
“Mary,” comes her mother’s voice, like a ghost floating through the hallway, down the stairs. “Mary.”
Mother’s voice is always weak, weak and urgent. Mary’s heels clunk on the stairs, her vital footsteps sound on the bare boards as she walks quickly up the hall. She pauses at her mother’s door, pale eyes wide and curious.
“Mother, I’m here.”
“Why didn’t you say? Come sit on my bed.”
Mary sits at the foot of the bed, careful to avoid Mother’s feet, careful not to make the covers pull too hard on her legs since they are always in pain, a pain that courses over them, like heat. Remember when you have the flu and everything feels tender, as if every tiny pain feeler in your body is waiting, alert, awake, ready to stick you? Remember that? Mother feels that way always. She’s ill and hasn’t left the house in years. She’s ill and has bricked up the windows. She’s ill and Father doesn’t like to spend time in this house, with its sluggish ticking clocks and dust-filled air, with fairies sneering at you behind the moldering, threadbare curtains, and Mother all afire with her tiny pain-people who hide where no one can see them. Father has been gone for three years, since 1867, when Mary was five. He is traveling in the South Seas as the Earl of Pembroke’s personal physician.
“Mary,” says Mother, “fix the curtain. The light is coming in.”
In the South Seas, the women walk about naked, their shining black skins right there for all to see. Father writes that the South Sea women are beautiful with big, white teeth, that the sun loves their black skin. If Mary were to walk about in the sun like that, she would sizzle up. The clean, cold air outside the house lays one bare. How could she show her arms to the sun?
“Mary, the curtain,” says Mother. She groans softly as the pain-people do their work beneath her skin.
Mary fixes the curtain. She can hear Helen’s footsteps up the stairs. It must be time for Mother’s lunch. Hers will be waiting in the kitchen. Helen appears at the door with the tray, another weak broth that could not fortify anything. Mary can tell, just by smelling it, that this soup would not fill her up. Nothing will. She will not be satisfied today in this house where there is no noise unless she makes it, where there is no one to talk to, except for Helen, who has taken to enlisting her in the housework and is best avoided. Two of the fairies are sitting on the curtain rod, smirking at Mother and her soup.
“Ma’am,” says Helen, “I must make an order with the butcher. What do you think? A nice beef roast, or leg of lamb?”
At the thought of real food, Mother blanches. “You decide, Helen. You know what the master likes.” She struggles to sitting.
“So Father is coming home?” says Mary, her excitement carefully disguised. Mary arranges cushions at the small of her mother’s back, which is how she likes it when she eats.
“Yes,” says Mother, “and I suppose that means you will be spending all your time in the study, listening to his stories.”
The fairies listen, their pointed ears picking up all the things that aren’t quite said.
“And not here with you?” says Mary, her voice quavering slightly.
Helen fixes Mary with a frank, sympathetic look. “Cold ham for you, Miss, in the kitchen. And there’s bread. And some of that cheese you liked so much yesterday.”
“The same as yesterday,” whispers one of the fairies. “And it didn’t fill you up. You’re hungry, always hungry, even when you sleep.”
Father will be coming soon and Mary has volunteered to dust the banister. Poor Helen is doing her best with the potatoes and carrots, the mystifying asparagus, which she has chopped to the size of peas and means to stir about in eggs—a recipe given to her by Gladys-up-the-street, whose employers order such fancy fare. The leg of lamb is set on the counter—pink, vulnerable—not roasting yet because Father likes it rare and fresh from the oven. Mary knows Father would prefer rabbit, and that the asparagus were just boiled, but she doesn’t want to hurt Helen’s feelings. In the South Seas, sometimes he eats nothing but seeds and fruit. Sometimes he eats stringy mashed roots that taste like rubber, might even be rubber, he said once, and chicken and pork cooked with so much pepper that you have to eat it in your shirtsleeves, beads of sweat rolling past your ears.
“Mary,” comes her mother’s voice. “Mary.”
“Mary, Mary,” mimic the fairies, their voices tinny and malicious. “Mary.”
She flicks her cloth at a fairy sitting Indian style on the newel post, and the fairy sneezes.
Mary makes the journey to her mother’s room. “I’m here,” she says.
“Do you hear that noise?” Mother asks.
There is a rhythmic thunk and thunk, and then it stops. Mary smiles at her mother, her eyebrows raised cheerfully. Then the thunk and thunk starts again.
“What is that?” says Mother, squinting, shuddering, as the pain-people dance along the muscle, along the bone.
“It’s Charley. Helen sent him out because he was underfoot in the kitchen. I think he’s throwing his India rubber ball against the side of the house.”
Charley is home from school to see Father. Charley hates school. He finds it boring. Mary, of course, would love to go, but she is needed to take care of Mother, to walk up the stairs every half hour, to present her pale and cheerful face at the door.
“You must . . .” and Mother’s eyes shut and she inhales sharply, so clearly in agony that it makes Mary wince.
“I’ll make him stop,” she says.
Mary rushes down the stairs. She doesn’t want to hear the chorus of voices singing at her in evil glee, their flickering wings stirring the air. In the kitchen, Helen’s broad back is hunched over the stove. At the sound of Mary’s boots on the flagstones, she turns. Helen’s face is flushed, shiny with sweat and steam. She’s holding a spoon and her face is anguished.
“Oh, Mary,” says Helen. “Come taste this.”
It’s the asparagus with egg. Mary dutifully takes the spoon in her mouth.
“Is it right?” asks Helen.
“I’m not sure. What’s it supposed to taste like?”
Helen laughs. “Well, you didn’t spit it out!” she says.
Mary pats Helen’s arm. “I have to go and stop Charley. He’s bothering Mother.”
“Bothering Mother,” Helen says, now back at the pots and stove, and quietly—to herself—but Mary hears. She knows that Helen will go on to tell the boiling potatoes and thickening gravy that this is no way for children to grow up. All this tiptoeing about. And the dark! Not good, not good at all.
“In the South Seas?” says Father. “In the South Seas? There are birds as big as you, Mary, with jeweled feathers, et cetera, et cetera, and people with bones in their noses, people who stick needles in their skin because it’s how they pray, people tattooed from head to toe,” Father dodges to one side to let Helen serve the soup, “from head to toe, Helen. Aren’t you going to ask me how I know?”
“No, sir,” she says, but her eyes are twinkling, “and I’ll warn you that if you wish me to keep topping up your wineglass, you should say no more of it.”
“Why don’t the natives wear clothes?” asks Mary.
“Because it’s hot.”
“But you wear clothes.”
“But don’t you get hot?”
“Don’t be stupid, Mary,” says Charley. “Englishmen don’t get hot.”
“I should like to go see it myself.” Mary knows the fairies can hear her, although they’re quiet now, with Father sitting there and Charley stuffing his pointed face, but she doesn’t care.
“What would you like to see?” asks Father.
Charley smiles maliciously, although he’s not sure why. He can sense Mary’s need and knows it is the stuff of humor.
“I should like,” she says, straightening her shoulders, “I should very much like,” she says, “to travel to Samoa.”
“Oh, Mary,” says Father, “Samoa’s no place for a girl—”
“But you said, Father, that there are already girls—”
“Those aren’t girls,” says Charley, “they’re natives.” He sniggers. “They’re natives, and you’re an idiot.”
Mary sets down her fork. She takes her linen napkin and carefully touches the corner of her mouth. “If Samoa is no place for girls,” she says, “then I shall go to Africa.”
“Africa?” says Father.
“Yes,” she says, “like Burton.”
She’s past crying, never been one for tears, even though she can see pity in her father’s eyes, thinks of it—that pathetic sympathy—welling into the room and drowning her. Father knows that she’s lucky to make it out the front gate, and wonders—he’s told her as much—if all this time without the company of girls her age, of anyone but Mother and Mother’s pain, has made her eccentric. And dinner passes in this way, with the fairies beneath the table, tugging at her skirt and pinching her legs, but Mary does not let her discomfort show. She sits straight as ever, a pleasant smile (being pleasant is one form of defiance) on her narrow face.
“Is there any dessert?” says Charley.
“Helen’s made a pudding,” says Mary.
“Pudding? It’ll be tough as leather. I wanted cake . . .”
And then Charley’s mouth moving and moving, little beads of sweat appearing on his head, his middle part looking like a great tributary through the thin, brown, Kingsley curls, as if one could sail up it, past the crest of his head, or maybe paddle in a canoe. She would like to sail up rivers, back and back to the beginning of things.
“Mary,” says Charley. “Mary!”
And Mary comes back to the present.
“Can’t you hear Mother calling you?”
Helen, serving the pudding, jerks her chin up toward the ceiling. Directly above is Mother’s room. “I’ll go, Miss,” she says.
“No, no,” says Mary, “She’s asking for me.”
“Then I’ll bring up your pudding.”
Mother looks quite lovely sitting there, her skin pale as ivory, her hair spread out across the pillow. Her eyes are watery and icy blue.
“Here’s Mary,” Mother says.
Mary knows better than to ask her what she needs. Mother simply needs her. ‘shall I read to you?” she says.
“Oh, I don’t think so,” says Mother. “Unless you really want to. What’s on the shelf?”
Mary sees a few dusty books, two by Uncle Charles: Westward Ho! and The Water-Babies. “Let’s read this,” she says, holding up Water-Babies.
“Isn’t that a bit young for you?” asks Mother.
“Nonsense!” says Mary. She’s read it many times and each time finds something a little different: maybe it’s her that’s different, and the words on the page shift around, like leaves floating on the surface of water, to accommodate it. “It will be your bedtime story,” says Mary.
>Helen appears at the door with the pudding and some tea and sets the tray on the bedside table. “Anything for you, ma”am?” And Mother shakes her head.
“Sit here beside me,” says Mother.
“I’ll take off my boots,” says Mary. “I’ll get under the covers, and keep you warm.”
The pudding isn’t tough at all. It’s heavenly, buttery, and the sauce is so rich with rum that Mary can feel her bones warming up. She flips through the first couple of pages and, after a swallow of tea, starts to read: “Once upon a time there was a little chimney-sweep, and his name was Tom. That is a short name, and you have heard it before, so you will not have much trouble in remembering it.” Mary reads in a pleasant, animated way. Mother laughs here and there, even though the book is by Uncle Charles, who never approved of Mother, who married up and never visits. Mary reads past the bit about the mysterious Irishwoman, who turns out to be a fairy, and to the part where Tom gets lost in the interminable maze of flues and pops out of the fireplace to see the beautiful little girl asleep in her snowy sheets, her golden hair spread out on the pillow. “And looking round, he suddenly saw, standing close to him, a little, ugly, black, ragged figure, with bleared eyes and grinning white teeth. He turned on it angrily. What did such a little black ape want in that sweet young lady’s room? And behold, it was—”
“It’s him,” cuts in a fairy.
Mary looks to Mother, and sure enough, her eyes are shut, her breathing slow, although she never sleeps deeply: the fairies wouldn’t speak if she were awake. And there they all are, sitting in a neat little row on the brass bed rail, their wings twitching restlessly.
“He’s dirty,” the fairy continues, “and he’s never noticed it before, and he’s all ashamed and bursts into tears.” There’s some mean-hearted laughter.
Mary closes the book, although she keeps her place with her right index finger. “Keep reading,” says another fairy.
“You’ve heard it so many times. Surely you don’t need to hear more?”
“Spiteful Mary,” say the fairies, because they do want to hear more, especially about the water fairies, who live in the rivers and travel far and wide, who aren’t trapped like Mary in the dusty, somnolent house, where the only fresh air is blown in with Father on his rare visits. “Read more.”
“Say please,” says Mary.
The fairies shift on their little buttocks, point their toes. They hate saying “please,” especially to Mary, but there’s nothing else to be done, because fairies cannot read.
“Please Mary,” they say, in a screechy little chorus. “Please read more.”
Mary looks over to Mother, who shifts a little in her sleep, but seems peaceful.
“All right then,” she says, “but you mustn’t interrupt.”