the bone-frame was made for
no such shock knit within terror,
yet the skeleton stood up to it:the flesh?
it was melted away,
the heart burnt out, dead ember,
tendons, muscles shattered, outer husk dismembered,
yet the frame held:
we passed the flame: we wonder
what saved us? what for?
—H.D., “The Walls Do Not Fall,” in Trilogy
Chapter One: Hallie
Her mother’s bedroom seemed to float in light, so sunny that Hallie blinked as she entered. Her mother lay on top of the bed in a slip, her head on a mound of pillows, her eyes closed. On the bed table sat an alarm clock and books.
Hallie walked softly toward the bed, hesitating as she got closer.
Her mother opened her eyes.
“Hi, Mom.” Hallie looked around to see where to sit. The blue plush armchairs sat at the other side of the room. “How are you?”
“Dandy.” Her mother’s mouth bent into a kind of smile.
Hallie lowered herself gingerly to the end of the bed.
For a moment her mother looked like a girl, polite and full of compunction.
“It was sweet of you to come all this way.”
“I wanted to. I thought I could help.”
Her mother looked at her.
“Help? Why? Did your father tell you I needed help?”
“Well.” Hallie felt uncomfortable. “He said you’ve stayed in bed for almost a month.”
“What does he know? He isn’t even here half the time. I get out of bed. I got out this morning.”
Hallie could not think what to say. She looked at the white carpet, shining in the sun. Her mother had so much more space than she and Morey had in Brooklyn, although Hallie liked their new apartment. All down the block, young trees had been planted, and if you bent close to the front windows you could see the edges of a little park. Outside her mother’s windows, Hallie knew, lay the two lawn terraces and the pool, and a wash of green spilling down the hill. In winter, you could look through the trees to see the valley, tiny farmhouses like white punctuation marks on larger sheets of ash, sepia, gold, with the roads winding gray and sometimes silver across the landscape.
She gazed at her mother’s face, a map of tiny wrinkles, but with the same high cheekbones, the same broad forehead. Her hair looked thin now, with only touches of blonde in the gray. Her mother had closed her eyes again, and Hallie studied the faint blue color of her eyelids. It reminded her of the forget-me-nots in Rose’s garden. She and Rose used to pick them and put them in orange juice glasses on the counter for Rose’s mother.
Hallie thought about how shy her father had looked this morning at the airport, waving to Hallie over the crowd of people. Hal, he had said, bending to kiss her. Awkward, she had bent to smooth her skirt, but outside, walking to the car, her heart had thrilled at the familiar scent of oil and hay, the green flatness and the humid breeze.
In the car as it ambled past new developments and fields of corn and wheat, Hallie had remembered riding with her father on errands. His solidity had been quiet and contemplative, his foot on the pedal urging the car forward, to the airport sometimes to pick up Grandmother Holloway, or an aunt or uncle, who would step off the plane looking dressed up, odd, not like an Ohioan at all, and they would keep this formal shine, in the design of their clothes and the way they held themselves, until she and her father drove them back, and Hallie would sit proudly in the front, feeling at home.
How’s your painting? her father had asked in the car, glancing at Hallie, a look of uncertainty on his face. When she had told him about the oils she’d done last year, he had gazed at the sky for a moment, his hands clutching the wheel, and asked, Now, do you have people in them, or landscapes, or are you still making them kind of abstract?
Sitting on her mother’s bed in the early afternoon light, she thought of those canvases, with pencilled arrows and angles, compass points, sketched on top of delicately modelled white and gray, aerial views of a wilderness, filled with mountains that, from the air, looked small, barely perceptible. She had begun with earth tones, but gradually she’d turned to white and shades of gray, sometimes a speck of red, so surprising in the expanse that it had the impact of a sudden moment of violence, or passion. Each one had “Map” in the title, for they were maps, maybe of the heart, more than of any actual place, and of the body too. She’d been proud of those, and two had sold.
This spring, though, she’d come to an impasse. She’d attempted to move on to something new, but she hadn’t been happy with any of her sketches. She hadn’t even felt able to begin stretching a new canvas. She would stare out the window of her studio, studying the gray building opposite, and the cars below, the pigeons roosting on lintels and jutting sills, the changing sky. She’d look for any excuse to wrap things up and turn off the light, walking the five stories down to the street.
“How’s Morey?” Her mother’s blue eyes looked amused and bitter.
“He didn’t feel like coming to Ohio?” Her mother emphasized each syllable of “Ohio.”
“He’s really busy.” Hallie tried to look open, as if her mother’s questions were simple. She added, “His firm has a new commission, for a big project on Long Island.”
“Oh?” Her mother looked at Hallie as if she might say something about Morey or architects, or big projects on Long Island. Hallie stood up and looked out the window. A wheelbarrow, filled with weeds, sat by one of the beds, and a hand-rake lay on the walk.
“Who’s been gardening?”
Her mother used to hire a local college student to do the gardening, in the spring and fall. In the summer, the garden spilled over its bounds and straggled. Hallie had always been relieved to see a new student each September, kneeling on the stone walkway, pulling out armfuls of weeds, pinching off the heads of marigolds and cutting back the phlox, their leaves whitish from summer blight.
Her mother laughed a dry laugh. “Your father’s become a gardener. Although I doubt that he knows what he’s doing.”
Hallie looked at the flower bed. Someone had planted a cheerful bunch of lavender and white flowers along the border.
“It looks like he’s doing a good job,” she said, and her mother gave a soft snort.
As she looked at her father’s gardening gloves, abandoned by the side of the pool, Hallie thought about how puzzled and sad Morey had looked this morning at breakfast, sitting at the counter in his old t-shirt and jeans. She missed him now. As soon as she was away from him, she missed him. At home, though, things he did could touch off a fury inside her. She could be having a difficult time with him, arguing about something, and as soon as the phone rang, he’d be genial, laughing and making jokes. Often he’d miss dinner without warning, and come home from work around ten or eleven at night. He had become so busy that they hadn’t left the city once this summer.
In other summers, on good days, they had sometimes packed up the car to find a beach near a small town. Hallie would sketch or work in her notebook, and Morey would read the paper. Sometimes he would lie on his back with the newspaper over his head, like an old man, and fall asleep, while Hallie studied the horizon and wondered what it would be like to catch the breezes on a sailboat.
Hallie looked at her mother’s face on the white pillows. She found herself thinking about Morey, how she’d first loved him because he believed in painting as something important in the world. His father had been a painter, although he had never become well known, and Morey had told her how, growing up, he had watched the way a canvas takes on color and shape. Morey had admired her work, and at first she had wished him to see each new painting from conception on, yet somehow she had begun to keep her new work to herself. She had discovered that the smallest amount of criticism from him, even a pause, could send her into a period of terrible doubt, when she felt compelled to put turpentine on a rag and rub out all of her new strokes by the end of each day.
Her mother picked up the alarm clock and began to wind it.
“You know, Rose lives in town now. She moved here a few years ago, right back to the house on Broadway.”
“I know.” How can Rose live here, thought Hallie, so far from an ocean? An image came to her, of Rose opening and closing her mouth for breath in the moist Ohio air, but she rubbed it out, thinking, Rose is different from me. A place changes depending on who’s looking at it.
Coming into town this morning with her father, Hallie had thought with surprise, how thriving and substantial this is. In her memory, the houses had a somber cast, an untended look. This town looked polished, even wealthy. The large rectangles and squares of old houses looked imposing, a bright white, as on a New England green. Perhaps her memories had begun to resemble photographs from her childhood, black and white, with sharply cut figures squeezed between four lines. How funny to have to discover that a place had its own life, outside of photographs or memories: this boy here, skateboarding, or that plump tabby cat on the porch, asleep under baskets spilling flowers—oh! Hallie had thought, that’s Rose’s house, and as the car rolled on she had turned to look again at Rose’s wide, calm porch fronting Broadway. Quickly, she had looked to the other side of the street, to see the open space where her first house used to be. She could not remember when the house had been torn down. It must have been a long time after they moved, because she used to stand on Rose’s porch afterwards, looking across Broadway to see her old house’s humble shape. She had been seven when the walls had become suddenly bare, as chairs and beds made a parade outside to the moving van. Magnificent trees, thick and arching, still stood, shading the lawn, and for one moment Hallie thought she could see the house again in its natural space, with its white face to the street.
Hallie glanced at her mother. She looked as if she might be asleep. What had they been talking about? She gazed at the curtains and at the sky, now a pale blue, the sun whitened. Rose, she thought, Rose of the thick red hair, so different from her own thin brown hair cut in an airy bowl around her face. Rose’s hair had had a will of its own. Sometimes Rose’s mother had pulled it into a French braid or knot, but most of the time she had let Rose brush it back to be caught in a thick bee-swarm.
Broadway had been the river to be negotiated. You had to be careful, crossing, and wait on the island in the middle until all of the cars and trucks were out of sight, but even at five Hallie had crossed on her own. Rose had created a system of signals: a white washcloth waving from Rose’s porch meant come over, and a red cloth, waved up and down, meant come in ten minutes, or in circles over your head meant I can’t play now, and blue meant—what had blue meant? Hallie couldn’t remember.
“You know she’s pregnant again.”
Hallie hugged her elbows. She looked her mother full in the face, daring her to say more.
“I saw her downtown a month ago, as big as a church, with her daughters. The youngest one—what’s her name?”
“Sophie was throwing a tantrum on the sidewalk.”
Hallie shrugged, and saw again in her mind’s eye the streaks of brown blood heralding her fifth, and last, miscarriage. That evening, she had sat in the bathroom of the restaurant as the blood came in earnest, against all of her inner commands to her uterus to hold out and keep what could still, miraculously, become a baby. The thick clots of blood, dark red, had seemed to Hallie, against all knowledge, signs of her own insufficiency. She had only pretended to be an ordinary woman, with a whole and satisfactory body.
“I’ll just do a little unpacking.” Hallie carried her bag down the wide hall into her old room at the front of the house.
The bed was high but small. Hallie thought of her grandmother, Sarah Holloway, who had given her the white cover with tiny blue flowers embroidered along the edges. She had seen her grandmother as formidable, a quietly strong-willed woman, not particularly warm or easy to talk to. She had been born and raised in Virginia, and had lived all her married life in Philadelphia. For days before Grandmother Holloway’s annual visit, Hallie’s mother would clean the house as if she were another woman, dusting bookshelves and clearing off each surface until the house had a starched look Hallie loved. During Grandmother Holloway’s stay the family would eat together in the dining room, on her mother’s wedding china, instead of at the kitchen table with paper napkins and regular dishes. Grandmother Holloway asked for water with her lunch, an elegant austerity Hallie had held in awe.
Hallie missed the mother who could bring her small family together at the table. Sometimes, on a magical Sunday, even when Grandmother Holloway was not there, Hallie’s mother would rise out of bed and decide to make chicken fried the way her old cook had taught her. Hallie would help her flour the thighs and breasts and watch as her mother placed the pieces in the pan, sizzling in oil. Her mother seemed to her at such times a lovely woman, confident in her movements, and Hallie stood close to her, as if such beauty could shine on her and protect her always.
Most Sundays were different, but so habitual that Hallie thought nothing of them. One Sunday morning, in the old house, Rose had come over and Hallie had helped her make a sandwich. Where’s your mother? Rose had asked. Asleep, said Hallie. Is she sick? No, and suddenly Hallie had had a new thought. Other children’s mothers did not sleep all morning and deep into the afternoon. She remembered with amazement how Rose’s mother was always awake, and how she made sandwiches, cutting them into triangles on white plates and placing them on the table, and she felt ashamed.
“Charles!” Hallie could hear her mother calling. She got up and opened her door just enough to see her mother standing in her slip at the top of the stairs.
“Charles! Where is he?” and she looked lost, like a child who cannot find its mother in the middle of the night because the house’s darkness is too thick between them.
Hallie waited until she heard her mother move back to bed. Her father started up the mower outside, and she wondered if his feet were bare, as they always used to be. Wild cherries, rotting on the second lawn terrace, above the pool, would stain his toes and sometimes he would stub a toe on a stone and shout “Damn!” Once he stepped on a bee, and Hallie remembered how his foot had swollen like a water bottle and how he had had to go down to his office and ask his nurse, pretty Mary Helen Hennessey, who always gave her a lifesaver, to give him a shot.
She slipped into the hallway. The large mirror, with bevelled edges that made a rainbow, held the light. She went into the study, across from her room, and sat at the cherry writing desk with the cubbyholes and the slanting lid. The phone sat, stolidly, black with a circular dial, the same one that had always been here. Hallie put her finger into one of the circles and moved the dial, letting it go to hear the clickety whirr. Her father’s medical school books, fat textbooks with long Latinate names in gold letters, sat on the bottom shelves. As a child, she had tiptoed in here sometimes to open them, breathing in the smell of old paper and contemplating the tiny print and little diagrams with letters—”a,” “b,” “c,” “f,” “z”—pointing to organs or blood vessels, bones or layers of flesh.
Opening the phone book, she thought, Rose, Rose, and paused. Good heavens, what was her last name now? Banford, it had been, but William’s name was (Hallie tapped a pencil on the cherry desk and looked out the window, surprised to see a hummingbird at the edge of the front lawn) Haas. I haven’t seen Rose for years now, thought Hallie, remembering how Rose and William had come to New York for a couple of days one June. Rose had been pregnant with her first child then, her huge belly almost disturbing to Hallie. Hallie owned only a handful of photographs of Rose, two of them from that visit. In one, Rose was sitting at the kitchen counter in the old loft, her blue flowered dress sleeveless, her arms plump. She leaned toward William, laughing, her mouth stuffed with cake and her fingers covered with yellow frosting, like pollen. In another, Rose stood next to the big window, her arms folded over her belly. She looked straight at the camera with a wry, half-smiling, questioning gaze.
As a child, Hallie had admired Rose’s superior knowledge of the world. Rose had known all about babies, and about the astonishing ovaries curled inside Hallie’s and Rose’s slender bodies, and the regal Fallopian tubes holding open passageways for the eggs that would one day emerge, and the sturdy uteruses, strong as Rose’s fist when she shook it in anger. Rose would trace her finger along Hallie’s belly, showing the position of each tight organ, as if she had the power to see through Hallie’s skin, into the bowl of her future. Rose’s house had been filled with babies—two came after Rose—and with information too. You could ask Rose’s mother anything, Hallie thought, and she would not look shocked. Not that Hallie ventured such questions, but she saw how to make discoveries by just keeping her ears open when Rose or her older sister Catherine made inquiries.
For years, in fact, Hallie had believed that such information could only come in the form of an English accent, the Banfords having come to Ohio from England when Rose was four. Hallie had loved to hear Rose’s mother speak, her voice gentle and odd. She’s from Bath, Rose had told her, only she calls it Bahth. Bath? Hallie had asked doubtfully, amazed that a whole town could be named for something so small and ordinary. An improbable transplanting, Hallie mused now, as she looked up the H’s in the phone book and saw Haas, Rose and William, 200 Broadway. Rose’s father had been handsome, with hair over his forehead and a quick smile. He had been the editor of the newspaper in the bigger town nearby, a position that had seemed vaguely royal to Hallie. He wrote poetry, too, and two slender books of his poems sat right on the shelf of the Banfords’ living room. All this was unusual in Hallie’s world. Her mother and father read books, but she had never known someone who wrote them. She had tried to read his poems once, when she was about ten, and she remembered a lot of descriptions of trees, and one phrase: “you branch and flower.”
Have an egg? he had asked her once at breakfast at Rose’s house, his hair uncombed, his eyes bright, as if cut with light. Oh, yes, she had said, please, and she had blushed as he got her an egg cup and tapped the egg open for her, the insides yellow and smooth and wet, his fingers quick, scooping out the small bit of the egg’s hat and offering it to her in the spoon. He had married again after Mrs. Banford’s death, she had heard, a much younger woman, and Rose had written to her two years ago to say that he had died.
It was Mrs. Banford, Hallie thought, who had told her stories about fairies—not fairy tales, but stories about tiny creatures with wings, who might tip the spoon out of your cereal bowl or make your hair look as if you’d been rolling around in hay, or bring you good dreams on a moonlit night. And Rose had had a gift for knowing how fairies could be lured into little houses made of bricks and stones, filled with miniature chairs and tables and beds, with bits of dandelions and purple myrtle flowers left inside as offerings. Rose and Hallie would become absorbed for hours, on long summer days in the Banfords’ garden, creating houses for these small folk. Was it a propitiation, Hallie wondered now (she picked up the receiver and began to dial), and why did fairies need to be propitiated? What would a fairy do if you did not feed it raspberry jam on tiny crackers? Or was the idea to make the fairies comfortable, to give them a home and a place to rest, when so many people gave them no thought at all?
Hallie’s throat felt suddenly thick. “Rose?” she asked.
The mower droned to a halt, and as Hallie hesitated, she saw her father, in his sandals, walk across the front yard. He bent toward the mailbox, and, opening it, peered inside, pulling out a bundle of envelopes and catalogues.
Excerpted from Ohio Angels by Harriet Scott Chessman. Copyright © 2004 by Harriet Scott Chessman.
All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced without permission.