I was dreaming. Something I couldn’t even remember at the
moment of awakening, and then I opened my eyes. For a minute, I
thought I would find myself out of bed again. I had awakened so many
times and found myself in the hall, or even downstairs, and if Lee
or Mother shook me, I would be all mixed up, unable to find any
explanation for being there.
For a long time, I lay still, waiting for the whirling confusion to
settle down. I could feel my heart beating a jungle rhythm with the
fear of something forgotten.
Pictures of what had happened to me during the day began to dance in
the darkness. The bright sun, the other university students ambling
along the streets, Selina and I going into the five-and-dime to
I had started to ask Selina if she had done her statistics homework
yet when I saw her looking across the aisle. She was watching four
girls near the back of the store.
Ellen Mackay and her crowd. The queen of the forest surrounded by her
toad, her cat, and her jackal. The toad, a fat, squat girl; the cat,
smug and pleased-looking; the jackal, fawning, and despite her money,
unsure. All three subjects homely, rich, from the “best” families,
and accepted wherever they went. They were different from their queen
only in looks. To all her other gifts, Ellen could bring a bonus of
an undernourished-looking model’s figure, long blonde hair, and a face
that always looked pleasantly surprised because of arched eyebrows and
short upper lip.
They had completed their purchases, and as I watched, Ellen glanced up.
Although she had known me since the first grade, she looked through me
as though I were made of glass. Then she and her menagerie left.
“You’d think they could get typhoid just staying in the same store with
me,” I said to Selina.
Selina handed the salesgirl her money and waited for change. She was
an out-of-town student and barely knew Ellen. “What have they got
against you?” she asked.
I didn’t know what they or the rest of the town had against me. All I
knew was that all the “nice” people had avoided me from as far back as
I could remember. It wasn’t until I had entered the university and met
people from other parts of the country that I had been able to make
Slowly I said, “Maybe it has something to do with my father.”
Selina took the change the salesgirl handed her and dropped it into a
pocket. “Why should it have anything to do with your father?”
I didn’t know why I had said that. Perhaps it was because my father had
done the only thing of any importance that had ever happened to me.
“Well, I mean, you see he deserted my mother.”
“That’s a funny reason to be mad at you. I think it’s more likely
because you’re so pretty. Ellen doesn’t seem to like having pretty
girls around her.”
I glanced up at the wall mirror to examine my black hair, my sunburned
face, and the old, cheap dress I wore, when I saw the woman. She was
passing the aisle at that moment. A thin white-haired woman whose
nervous face was outlined when she turned to speak to her companion.
And the minute I saw her I was frightened. What had there been about
her that had made my memory rustle like leaves again?
She must have reminded me of someone from the past. Aunt Celia. That
was it. Father’s sister Celia.
Because of the silver hair and the nervous face. But Aunt Celia had
died long ago, and besides, I had hardly known her. Why should someone
who reminded of her make me so afraid?
We had seen Aunt Celia right before she died. No one had even known she
was sick then. She had driven all the way up from Virginia because it
was spring, she said. She liked the open road in the spring. That
winter she had died. What was there about Aunt Celia?
I could almost see her. She had been sitting out on the sun porch
talking to Mother. “Do you remember –” she had been saying. Do you
remember what? She had been telling Mother about the visit before that
“Do you remember the last time I was here?” she had asked Mother. “I
brought her a ball –”
I felt cold, as though someone were pulling a wet glove over my head.
What else did she say? “She had to have three stitches in her lip.”
I had to have three stitches. When did I have those stitches? Let’s see,
Aunt Celia died nearly thirteen years ago, which means she visited us
when I was six. When had she visited us before that?
I opened my eyes in the dark and looked at the ceiling. Somewhere below,
water was slapping monotonously into the sink. Tapping. There had
been the sound of the ball tapping. The ball Aunt Celia had given me.
It had tapped lightly as it went down the cellar stairs.
“The way she ran after that ball and tumbled down the steps.” I had
chased the ball and had fallen, splitting my lip.
Then Mother was saying, “She wasn’t afraid of cellars then. But we
can’t get her to go down into one now.”
There it was. The cellar. That’s what the woman who looked like Aunt
Celia had reminded me of. That’s why I had been afraid...