The city’s name means sadness.
No, it sounds like a word that means sadness.
This and this and this, the driver points—my new boss, the father of my charge.
Stone wall slipping past, whole trees growing through chinks. Scrap of sea glistering like flayed skin on butcher’s block nodding into view. Climbing, tunnels—bam, light.
He drives into the hostile cliff where his housekeeper has prepared me a room.
Cave. Sinkhole. Spring.
Not sadness but marketplace, I remember—one letter setting them apart.
“Cliffs like these dissolve one of two ways: from the top or the inside. Figure out which happened to my family,” he smirks, “and I’ll pay you double.”
Headlights flick on.
My room in the basement gets sunlight wrung and dull. The armoire opens with a key, dank inside like the forest floor. I place my clothes in the smell, two neat piles.
I broach the bed sniffing when a child appears at the door frame. Little eyeglasses sit askew on the bridge of her nose. Her dress is pressed, knees knocked.
“Hi sweetie,” I say, smacking the pillow across my knees. “Pleased to meet you.”
In one grand exhalation she tells me that this is where her mother usually sleeps but because her mother is related to a princess she lives in a castle sometimes.
I smile, tossing the pillow back onto the bed, fluffed. “She sounds like a lucky lady.”
In the morning I set warm toast and cocoa on the table as the girl flounces into the kitchen.
“Hi, love.” I draw out her chair. “Sleep ok?”
She tells me about a dream involving her mother finding her in a cool, dry room and removing the sprouts from her face with a letter opener then sprinkling her with dust and roasting her.
“Gee…” I pluck a shriveled piece of elastic from her hair. “So.” Then, “How’s this for breakfast?”
“My mother doesn’t let me drink her cocoa.” She lifts the mug to her lips with both hands and stuffs bread thick with jam at her mouth, making visible wounds still red at the root where her front teeth are missing.
In jacket and mittens, her arms rock wooden at her sides on our walk to school. I grip her backpack by the handle.
“So,” I begin cautiously as we round a bend. To one side of us waits a great and sudden drop. “Do you miss your mother?”
The road opens onto a pale yellow building. A car horn sounds, voices squall, children file through a gate.
She stops: “This is it.” Holding out her hand expectant. I falter, then help the straps around her shoulders.
I re-enter the hollow house singing the song my mother sang when she washed dishes, passed a cloth under my armpits in the tub.
To-whit, to-whit, to-whee
To-whit, to-whit, to-whee
The housekeeper left the mother’s dry-cleaning on a rack outside my door. I finger through, reading care labels aloud—shahtoosh, guanaco, vicuña. Sounds soft to the touch.
I pry a cookbook from a kitchen cupboard. The rest of the day, copy recipes into my notebook.
I wait on the steps of the girl’s school, scarf wrapped three times.
“Hi, angel,” I say. “How was your day?”
We walk home. She tells me about an assignment involving a grasshopper that eats its young. My mother sings me her song: To-whit, to-whit, to-whee! The girl talks and talks and without warning crosses the road not looking both ways. A car swerves.
My mother wails. How could you!
The father takes dinner alone in his study.
I ask the girl: if she could eat anything she wanted tonight, what would it be? “Pizza!” she coos. “With macaroni on top and ham on top of that and a side of biscuits.”
“I can’t think of a more delicious meal myself.” I flick on the oven, fill a pot with water.
When I present the food an hour later, carefully plated, the girl takes two bites and asks to be excused.
“I don’t like it—” The fork clatters. “—It’s not how my mother makes it.”
My mother seethes.
To-whit! to-whit! to-whee!
Will you listen to me?
On Saturday we hum my mother’s song as we address miniature envelopes. We intend to deliver them by toy mail truck.
Father Mouse, 1 Garden Shed Rd, Bedroom 1S
Sister Mouse, 1 Garden Shed Rd, Bedroom 1N
Baby Mouse, 1 Garden Shed Rd, Nursery
2543 Hrastovec Castle, c/o Mother Mouse, Patient room 45
“Is your mother patient, too?” the girl asks me, the tip of her marker lining the stem of the P.
“Not really, no,” I say slowly, trying to catch her eye. “She’s irritable—she gets mad easy.”
The girl pauses to think. “Well princesses are patient. Poor people are always mad.”
My mother roils.
We dance in the foyer to my mother’s song. I fling the girl into the air and catch her, spin her round and round by her arms. “Again,” she commands, giggling. “Again!”
When we stop to catch our breath, her smile crumples. “Your sweater,” she points.
“Oh.” I look down. “I’m just borrowing it.”
She pinches a pill from my breast with her nails and rips it off—“Keep it.”
I tug the hem taut around my hips. She traipses off, humming my mother’s song.
Then she taunts in tune behind her back. “You picked her ugliest one!”
My mother scoffs.
On the heel of the estate near the cliff, a greenhouse. The girl and I step there hand in hand through sea-breeze to gather a bouquet. The air inside is thick, a hot foam absorbing my mother’s song.
“So,” I start, cheery. “Show me your favorite flower.”
The girl leads me through aisles to a purple one shaped like a mouth; she likes to make it speak. I clip it proudly at the throat, drop it in her basket.
“Do you garden,” she asks. “Like my mother?”
“I take care of children,” I reply. “That’s a kind of garden.”
We walk on. This and this and this, she points.
Clip. Clip. Clip.
I miss her basket and by accident crush a clipping with my shoe. She gapes: the flower bleeds blue on the paver.
“I bet you kill children, too,” she says. The greenhouse door opens, admits a staggering gust. “If they were all still alive, why would you be here.”
My mother blusters—How dare you!—pressing shears’ point to girl’s sternum.
She doesn’t flinch. The gardener yells, approaches from the entrance at a jog.
I drop the shears.
“You’re not my mother,” the girl glares. “You’re no one’s mother.”
The three of us trudge back to the house in silence. I jab the pocket hole of my mother’s old cardigan with my thumb.
Rose. Lily? Iris. I’ve long forgotten her name.
Mine? It means wanderer. It sounds like a word that means daughter.
Nat Holtzmann is a writer, educator, and book designer based in Chicago.