The rain sounded like horses
to me. Mother was driving almost eighty miles an hour on the remote highway headed back to Atlanta
and she seemed to pay little attention to the rain
surging down on our car, so when I closed my eyes I felt as though we were in the midst of a charge of horses. I could see plenty of them coming at us. Their nostrils flared and spouted smoke
, and each and every horse had eyes the color of topaz
— a glittering shiny blue
that was frightening, especially when they were moving so quickly towards us. Eighty miles an hour.
“I want you to clean your room when we get home, Pamela.” My mother’s voice destroyed my reverie and I opened my eyes to see her gaze in the rearview mirror. Her eyes were heavily made up with blue and green shadow, the rims outlined with thick black liner. Her voice sounded totally indifferent, probably just giving me the order out of a sense of motherly duty, or because the car held such a desperate silence. The sudden break in the hush of the air helped remind us we were still alive, I think. Not dead and packed solid in the ground like Aunt Grace. Not lying horizontally clutching six white lilies like Aunt Grace.
But the funeral service was quite beautiful.
While mother was driving her ridiculous speed, her sister, my Aunt Stacey, sat reserved in the passenger seat next to her. My ten-year-old sister, Layla, sat on the other end of the back seat, while my slumbering grandfather sat wedged between us, his pale wrinkled face leaning awkwardly to the left. Layla was squirming around in her seat the entire way back, occasionally bopping our poor grandfather in the head. But he never awoke.
It was a two hour drive back to Atlanta from Albany, and we had another hour left. All of us sat breathing the stuffy humid air in my mother’s blue Oldsmobile. We’d had the car for four years, since I was eleven, and the interior was a nauseating brown color that would ferment in my mind in the years to come. And I would remember the dull color as vividly in my mind as the drive we were taking that day.
Until my mother had spoken to me about my room, nothing had been said. No coughing, sneezing, sighing. Only the rain, absurdly torrential all over the car. To me the ambience was sickening- I didn’t want to clean my room once we got home, I wanted to throw up.
“I’ll clean it up,” I replied, my voice surprising my own ears. Mother gave a small nod and her gaze returned to the road. She was probably thinking about where we had just been. About the town of Albany and the rain that was pouring down there. About the white flowers and the white music and the white coffin. About her sister. I watched the corner of my mother’s face and saw that the ends of her mouth were pointed downward, and that although her cheeks were painted with bright rouge, the actual color underneath it was a pasty pale white. Clearly. To me, the grief glared through her makeup distinct and unrelenting. It only made me feel sicker. I turned and stared out the soaked window beside me.
I wasn’t feeling sick because of my Aunt Grace. That wasn’t it. I was feeling sick from everything else— the people around me, the emotional chaos that was being displayed all dismal and putrid in front of my eyes. And I was not feeling it. I was not understanding all the sadness around me— I had never seen it before in my mother or anyone else in the family. It certainly wasn’t as if terrible things had never happened before in our family, that was for sure. Mother always appeared to have this stoic, chilled attitude, enduring anything that happened with the sensibility of a rock. Why suddenly this outpour of emotion? Mother and Aunt Grace were never close. I could tell anyone that. Aunt Grace had been the youngest and the one of the family, and Mother and Aunt Stacie were the close sisters, while Aunt Grace was only in a couple of old photographs underneath my mother’s bed. And here they were crying over a sister they never cared about before. I had never known my Aunt Grace that well— my mother didn’t allow her to come and visit. There was this little problem a while back ago about Aunt Grace stealing Mother’s first husband. My father. He died eight years ago in a car wreck. I don’t think my mother ever felt remorseful about that—every year on the anniversary of his death, my mother takes me and my sister out for dinner. Aunt Stacey thinks it’s pretty sick of her to do that. As far as I can remember, I never actually met my father or my Aunt Grace.
“I thought the service was pretty beautiful,” spoke my aunt in the passenger seat. She was hunting for something to say, but Mother did not move or speak a word. Her eyes remained intent on the road in front of her as though she were trying to drive on a tightrope. She should have stuck her arms out at her sides for extra balance.
“They didn’t have any candy,” whined my sister. I guess she had assumed a funeral would be like a bank. I glanced over at the little blonde girl sitting next to grandfather, but she did not notice my stare. Instead she began to draw figures with her index finger in the fuzz on the back of the driver’s seat. She pursed her little lips in consternation, and I suddenly had the urge to reach over and slap her. Hard. But I didn’t. How wrong was that? I thought. And I didn’t know what was more evil— the thought of slapping my sister or the fact that I didn’t carry the thought out.
“Everything was so white,” I said to my aunt, the only one wishing to talk. “White everywhere. You’d think she was getting married.” I paused. No answer. “Why was everything so white?” I asked.
“Your aunt liked white,” muttered my mother. Her eyes still never turned from the road. Her hands gripped the wheel, tight, strangling like the talons of a falcon. Her nails were as sharp as a birds, and painted red, some violent blood red color as though she had just stripped the skin off of her prey.
“Your aunt really liked the color white,” she continued. “She had her whole life. She thought it was a pure color. She liked the idea that white had no mistakes in it, and so they honored her with that color.”
“Didn’t you think the coffin was pretty?” asked Aunt Stacie. The coffin, of course, was white. White with gold trimmings.
Mother’s lips curled up— she looked as though she were snarling at the road for that brief second— and then she spoke. “As pretty as a coffin can be, I suppose.”
“It would have been prettier if it hadn’t been a coffin, Aunt Stacie,” I said.
“I know that!” she snapped, twisting around in her seat and looking back towards me with squinting green eyes. “Don’t you think I know that? Damn girl.”
She flopped back into her seat with an exasperated sigh. I stared at the top of her head, the only visible part of her then. I stared at it until it melted into a hundred little maggots. All tiny, white and wiggling.
“Damn girl,” I heard her whisper again. “Think she’s so smart.”
I glanced over toward my sister, who was looking at me as fiercely as a child could with her pale blue eyes and mouthing the words, “ Damn girl.” I said nothing and she then began picking her nose. I looked back out the window.
There was nothing but horses for almost ten minutes.
“Mommy?” inquired my sister in the tepid vat of silence. Mommy said nothing. “Mommy?” Layla repeated. Nothing. “Mommy?...Mommy?”
“How did Aunt Grace die?”
“Her heart stopped beating.”
Layla rolled her eyes and slapped the back of her mother’s seat. “I know that. I know. But... how did her heart stop beating? What killed her?”
Up front, my mother and my aunt exchanged glances. They didn’t want to talk. And I realized then that I actually knew very little myself. I knew what happened, but I didn’t know much of the story.
“Aunt Grace killed herself, Layla,” Mother replied.
“Sherry!” exclaimed Aunt Stacie.
“Christ, what? She asked. She ought to know.”
Aunt Stacie was silent for a moment. “I suppose,” she eventually muttered. “It just makes me ill hearing you say it.”
The horses seemed to get louder. I kept my gaze out the window. Watched as the carcass of a snow-colored rabbit passed by. Soaking wet and crusted with pieces of its own guts. I continued searching the ground for any other dead creatures. My ears were at the front of the car.
“She was so damned messed up,” said mother. “All our lives. I’m not all that surprised. She tried it once before.”
“She did?” Aunt Stacie whispered, assuming that my sister and I couldn’t hear the hushed discussion even though we were hardly two feet away.
It was clear my mother did not want to talk, but that wasn’t so unusual. The unusual thing was that she was talking despite not wanting too.
“When we were kids. I caught her in the kitchen once with one of Dad’s butcher knives, when she was about fourteen. She made me swear I wouldn’t tell anyone. I didn’t.”
“Good God,” Aunt Stacie’s voice was hoarse. “I never saw any signs of that from her.”
“You never noticed the scars running up both her arms, I guess.”
This was my mother’s reply. I tightened my lips. The horses charged on. I heard their gruff breathing and smelled their fetid breath. My eyes were searching the road.
Aunt Stacie was quiet for a moment. “I saw them.”
“Looked like heroin tracks... or something. But she was doing it on purpose with a knife. Scratching up her arms. She was just...”
I did not, did not want to look over at my mother then. I could tell she was crying. I felt as though someone bashed a baseball bat into my stomach.
“Jeez, why...” breathed Aunt Stacie. “Good Lord, why. Life ain’t that bad. Just gotta roll with the punches. She didn’t have to kill herself, she could have just gotten some therapy. There are doctors who could have helped with that sort of thing. She could have just given us a call and come up here and get some help.”
“She couldn’t have called me,” replied my mother. Her voice was shaky. Never in my life had I heard in ripples in that voice.
I watched her talons grip the steering wheel fiercely, as though she were afraid the car would fly off on its own and lead us all into a terrible rain wreck. In a flash I saw the car spinning out of control, the horses driving us off the road and into the trees. The flames spouting into the watery sky and the smell of shock mingling in the air with the odor of repulsive exhaust fumes. I could see myself losing consciousness and sliding out of the car and floating into the rain as a milky see-through ghost, like in the movies. I would then go find Aunt Grace and ask her why she killed herself.
“Why would she want to kill herself, mommy?”
Layla’s voice made me cringe. I looked over and saw that she was staring at me. I could see her eyes, intense and accusatory, peering over our grandfather’s bent head. Her little brow was furrowed. Up in the front seat, not a word was uttered.
Layla stared at me hard. Her eyes were river stones, round and smooth and impossible to break. She looked down at my legs. I glanced at my grandfather, his wrinkled face a noiseless testimony of faith. I looked down at my legs, my little black skirt revealing their soapy whiteness in the seat. With one finger I traced the inch-long fat silky scar on the top of my left leg, where I was beginning a row, still listening to the hooves of the horses wild and raucous outside, the deafening animals circling all around us like a mad rainy carrousel, wrapping the car in one gigantic tourniquet.