Strange Ideas and the Ones who Believe them
She always wondered why stepmothers weren’t the same quality as the real thing. She supposed it was because, at least in her case, her father did not have enough time to pick one out. With her mother he had had years to choose the perfect wife, and years more to consider and then reconsider. With her stepmother, Esmae, he was in much more of a rush, there was more desperation and a matter of only a few weeks, fewer choices.
“Adria, what are you doing? You should not be cutting up the vegetables; you know I cut them a particular way. Your only job is to take care of Benton; he is our most important responsibility,” Esmae said.
Benton did not exist. Adria pretended to take his hand and lead him outside. But she was bored with her surroundings, the rolling hills with a stand of sparse pine trees leading into the forest, the profuse climbing trumpet flowers, their red petals soft and glowing. So she wandered back inside, remembering to pretend to hold Benton’s nonexistent hand.
Benton was eternally seven, though sometimes, on Esmae’s bad days, he was five. Sometimes he was even a girl. He first came into existence on Adria’s tenth birthday. Esmae stayed in her own room that day, refusing to come out, birthing him.
That disgusting thing always gets in my way. I pray to god that she is taking good care of Benton. He looks worn lately. Tired. Abused. Sometimes, after I wake up from a terrifying dream, I am convinced that she is doing things to him. Unconscionable things. My fingers itch for the glass. To have that sharp power in my hand, used cautiously, and only against evil. I am convinced she is evil. I have tried to be nice, tried to turn her away from the darker powers, but she is stubborn and righteous. Still, she seems almost a daughter to me.
“Esmae, why didn’t you stay outside, Benton needs the fresh air,” Esmae asked.
“My name is not Esmae. My name is Adria. You’re Esmae.”
“I’ll call you whatever I want!” Esmae declared, slamming her fist onto the wooden table so that it bled.
Adria winced. “Come my little moor dweller,” she said to an invisible Benton and held out her hand.
“Wait!” Esmae demanded. “What did you do to his hair? Why does it look like that? Did you brush it this morning?”
“I gave it a good brushing. What’s wrong with it?”
“It looks like it hasn’t been washed or brushed in days. Look at it.”
Adria looked at where Benton was supposed to be. “It seems fine to me. It’s so shiny it almost hurts to look at.”
Perhaps her stepmother heard the slightly sarcastic tone in Adria’s voice because she took one calm step towards her, and then hit her across the face.
“Is this a joke to you?” she cried. “My son is the most important thing in the world and you mock that! You should feel lucky that you get to care for him. Now go up to your room and prepare for the punishment.”
Adria just stood there, gazing at her stepmother and trying not to cry.
The Punishment. A statement which made Adria sweat from every pore. She would sit on the floor, trying not to scream, while her stepmother cut her with pieces of glass from an old broken mirror. Never the face though. That was part of the terror. Esmae knew the vanity that every girl had at that age, sixteen years, and used it to her advantage. Every time Adria suffered The Punishment the glass would hover closer to her face, her chin, the little piece of skin under her nose, her eyes.
I try to understand her, I do. I try to reach into her mind and figure out what goes on there. But I cannot comprehend her. She seems like a monster to me. The way she moves when she’s angry isn’t natural. Her body is stiff, rigid, her eyes hazy and unseeing. I thought I could forgive her treatment if she was mad, and she becomes madder every day, but I cannot forgive. She is all that hinders me from happiness. It is so beautiful here, my home; the trees, the lake, the infinite yard. Yet I long to leave.
“Why don’t you love me, why don’t you love me?” Esmae screamed, the glass in her hand poised over Adria’s eyebrow. Esmae asked this every time and every time Adria would scream, “I do, I do, I do. Why don’t you believe me? I do.”
But this time Adria remained silent, silent as the glass was drawn painfully down the right side of her face. “Why don’t you love me?” Esmae demanded.
Adria looked up at Esmae from where she was sitting on the floor, her fingers digging into the sleek wood. “Why don’t you love me?” she asked quietly.
Esmae removed her hand from near Adria’s face and looked at her stepdaughter, solemnly contemplating. “For the same reason people hate bugs. You’re disgusting.”
Adria let out a sob, but soon stood up. She walked slowly over to the window, silent and vengeful. She smiled sweetly and looked over her shoulder.
“Come over here Benton.” She opened the window as her stepmother gazed at her, unsuspecting and wide eyed.
“Benton, look out there.” Her voice was playful and happy. “Do you see the tree swallow on the branch of that pine tree? See the lovely blue of its head and white underbelly? You can’t see it? Why, you must stick your head farther out of the window. There you go.”
She looked back at her stepmother, her eyes burning, and slammed the window down. Esmae screamed. “You’ve killed him. Killed him.”
Esmae ran over to the window and bent over her nonexistent dead son. “I will never be happy again.”
Adria smiled, walked calmly out of the room into the kitchen, and began chopping vegetables.
When Esmae didn’t emerge from the room and remained bent over Benton, Adria began to worry. She went back upstairs and tentatively entered the room where Esmae lay sprawled on the gritty floor, her face pressed against the cool wood. She didn’t move as Adria came gently over. It was as if she were dead. Adria surprised herself by feeling a relief so great it could almost be called joy.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. Esmae still did not move, her expansive dress spread out around her frail body like a shroud.
“Perhaps he’s not really dead. Perhaps he’s just hurt and we could help him. Maybe if we tied his head back on with a string.. .”
Esmae remained still.
“Stepmother . . .”
“It’s all right, Esmae,” Esmae said, “Benton is dead, but we must continue.” Esmae rose from her prone position, brushed off her dress and drifted out of the room.
At first Adria was happy, peaceful. She no longer had to look after a boy made out of air and her stepmother had become oddly pleasant.
“I was thinking, stepmother, that perhaps I could have a garden. Just a little one. Not a vegetable garden, a flower garden. I would do it all myself.”
Esmae smiled, so wide it was almost a grimace, her face stretching until the small wrinkles around her mouth faded for an instant. Adria’s stomach clenched, but she smiled back.
“A flower garden would be nice. But I couldn’t possibly let you work on a garden by yourself. We must hire a gardener. He can do all the work and you can watch.” She reached over and gently touched Adria’s face. “How did you get such a horrible cut on your face? It absolutely ruins your beauty. You’ll have to find a special kind of man to appreciate you now. Perhaps if he were blind. . .”
So Esmae hired a gardener. A poor, gaunt man, who dressed in grey rags and wore a shapeless hat low over his forehead, obscuring most of his face. Adria supposed it might be a handsome face and immediately resented him, seeing as her own face was scarred. Though out of boredom, she would sit on the steps of the porch and talk to him as he worked on the garden.
She is so beautiful that I fumble meaninglessly in the dirt. The scar on her face only seems to emphasize her beauty, the largeness of her eyes, the finely chiseled lines of her face. It makes her interesting, so that I cannot look away. I want her to be able to see me too, but I only pull my hat down lower. I had thought of telling her who I really am, but I don’t think it would make a difference. Nor would she believe me. Disguise is part of my nature. Revealing myself would leave me vulnerable, at the mercy of a strange girl who knows nothing but pain. I have learned in my life that if one is in pain, any kind of pain, they try to give some of it away. Spread it to others, making life a little more equal.
“Why don’t you like your stepmother?” he asked her one day.
“She thought she had a son, which she has made me take care of since I was ten.”
“Did she? I suppose that is a bit odd. You still have to take care of him, this pretend son?” the gardener asked, pulling up a weed and studying it.
“No, I killed him. Decapitated him.” She drew one delicate finger across her throat and made a gagging sound. “Floop. Sent his nonexistent head rolling.”
He looked up at her from his bent position over the garden. “Wasn’t she upset? Didn’t you feel guilty for destroying the one thing that made her happy?”
“She destroyed my face.”
The gardener studied her for a while, squinting in the sun. “I don’t think she destroyed it. It still looks like a face to me. A face that has been through a lot. A face that has experienced life..” He stood up straight, came over to her and traced the scar with his finger. “How did it happen?”
“She cut me with a piece of glass.”
She sat there quietly, waiting, while the gardener paused, thinking.
“I consider myself a moral man,” he said slowly. “And I feel I must tell you something.”
Adria waited. “Your stepmother has instructed me to dig a large hole, large enough for a person to fall into. A deep hole. I do not know what this hole is for, but I have to say, I don’t have a great feeling about it. I advise you figure out the purpose of this hole.’
“Why don’t you just refuse to dig it?” Adria asked.
The gardener hesitated for a moment, pulled absentmindedly at his hat. “I would, but I had been offered rewards, that, as a man, I cannot refuse.”
Adria nodded, looked up at the sky and down at the ground. “What do you suppose the hole is for?”
“I don’t know, a burial perhaps. But I have been thinking. Considering. You are much younger than your stepmother and I could be convinced not to dig this hole if you were to reward me in the same way she was going to.”
Adria narrowed her eyes, “What exactly do you mean?”
“Do you know the story of the coyote?”
“There was once a coyote that made love to a tree. Perhaps I could be the coyote and you could be the tree.”
“I don’t know anything about that,” Adria replied, gazing out at the hills. “Dig your hole, since that is all that you seem to be good at.”
“There are other things I’m good at…” He paused, his mouth working. “I could take you away from this place.”
“The place doesn’t matter,” Adria said sadly, “It’s the people you are surrounded by. And I doubt you would be much better than my stepmother. People must learn I am not something to be controlled, or broken.”
“I would not break you.”
“Perhaps in ten years I will seek you out.”
The gardener smiled to himself and bent back over his work while Adria sat, in the breeze and the sun, thinking about the hole.
Later that week Adria was wandering near the forest, gazing into the mass of trees, wondering what lived in the wood, when she came across the gardener. He was walking back towards the house, a dirt coated shovel in his hand. She had been squatting behind a tree, picking flowers and wondering about her future.
He had not seen her. She wanted to follow him, curious about what he had been doing, but she knew it was wrong and deceitful. She looked up at the sky and down at the ground, thinking over her life. She then smiled, reveling in her animal nature, and ran after the gardener.
He stopped behind the back door of the cottage, leaned the shovel against a tree, and went inside. Adria peered into one of the dirty windows and saw her stepmother and the gardener doing things. To each other. She went and vomited behind one of the mulberry bushes and then she went into the house and pretended she had seen nothing.
The next day Esmae was in a very pleasant mood and hugged Adria the moment she awoke.
“Today is such a lovely day that I think we should go on a picnic,” Esmae said, her eyes darting around the room unnaturally.
“I’m a bit tired today and would really rather not.”
“Well I wouldn’t force you but I would like for you to see something. I was walking near the wood yesterday and the ghost of your dead brother appeared to me. He said that he forgives you for murdering him, but is sad that you haven’t come out to visit. I am not mad, Esmae,” Esmae said. “I am not. You must come see him and tell him you are sorry.”
Adria’s stepmother took her by the hand and led her out across the field towards the wood. There, on the wood’s edge, lay a table cloth only large enough for one person to sit on. It was laden with all types of desserts, Date Pudding,
Almond lemon tarts,
English berry pudding,
Adria stared at the desserts, her hands sweating with want. She took a step towards them. Then another. Needing them. Her foot touched the edge of the tablecloth and her stepmother smiled. All was silent, the trees had stopped moving in the breeze, the birds were hushed, the crickets crawled through the grass, but did not chirp.
She looked over at her stepmother for approval before she stepped all the way onto the cloth. Esmae smiled, her lips so unused to facial expression that they curled in on themselves, the muscles in her cheeks twitching slightly with the fatigue, her pupils so dilated that her eyes appeared black. Adria stopped, looked at her stepmother’s forced gaiety, and realized what was about to happen. She could no longer breathe and felt her knees begin to buckle, but soon got control of herself.
“I see him, Stepmother. I see Benton. Hello my little moor dweller.” She reached out with one hand, but did not move onto the cloth. “Stepmother wants me to apologize for chopping your head off with the window. But I can’t,” Adria said, beginning to cry, remembering her life. “It was you who took my childhood, you who I was punished for, you who were always more important. And you don’t even exist, you don’t exist, you stupid thing. You evil vision of a mad woman!”
“Don’t speak to him like that!” Esmae screamed, now crying also. “He is more real than any of us, more important than life!” At that Esmae, forgetting her own scheme, rushed onto the table cloth, her arms outstretched towards her nonexistent son, and promptly fell into the hole she had instructed the gardener to dig. She did not even scream as she fell to her death, cut and impaled by the glass shards she had filled the bottom of the pit with.
Before Adria could peer into the pit, the earth began to shake, uprooting the smaller trees and tossing Adria to the ground. She looked over her shoulder towards her house and saw that it too was crumbling, finally collapsing completely with a thunderous roar.
She saw the gardener running towards her in the distance, his arms waving wildly, his hat blown off in the wind. “Are you alright?” he asked, when he reached her. She noticed that without the hat covering his face he was very handsome, his eyes a startling blue.
“I have been worried about you, but I knew that you would be able to save yourself. I am wondering, now that your house has been destroyed, where will you go?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” Adria replied, running her hands through her sweaty hair, wishing she could just cut it all off. “Another town I suppose.”
“I have something that I must tell you, before you leave,” the gardener began. “I am not a gardener. I’m a prince who was exiled after my father was brutally murdered. I have wealth, but not love, and like you, must also seek a new place to live. I can give you everything.” The prince took Adria in his arms, the setting sun casting an orange glow on his face.
His breath smells of heat and rotting bread. His straining arms are locked around my waist, and I feel as if I am in a vise, never to get free. He is good looking, but the perfect shape of his nose and brow irritates me, reminding me of inbreeding and excessive wealth. I liked him better when he was an indistinguishable peasant, the hat covering any unique features. Does he think I didn’t see what he did with my stepmother? And now that she is dead, he acts as if it were a dog down there, something of no importance. Will he act like that when I die? Probably. I need to be somewhere else. A place where people are kinder and morals are less ambiguous. Away.
I can feel her soft body in my arms, and I wish I could take her right now, next to her stepmother’s grave. I have never felt this before, a caring that rises in my chest and threatens to explode from my mouth in a series of vague and heartfelt oaths of love. I know she loves me back. I can feel it radiating from her, the way she looks down whenever I try to gaze into her eyes. I am prepared to be with her for the rest of my life. I will no longer toil in the dirt, but with her support, challenge the man who has banished me.
Adria struggled to get free of the gardener’s arms, her features a crumpled mass of hatred and anger.
“In which direction are you headed?” she asked the gardener.
“I am headed north,” she replied.
“I will follow wherever you wish.”
“No. I am not ready to be owned or broken or loved.”
“But I love you,” the prince said with desperation.
“That’s nice,” Adria said and walked away from the setting sun, in the opposite direction from the prince.
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