Hear Christina Rosso read with Warren Longmire and Steven Kleinman at the next E-Verse Equinox reading! More details here.
Please note this story contains references to suicide, hallucinations, and abuse.
Smoke rises from Father’s workshop through the worn floorboards, its stink cramming the air. I can hear his foot tapping as he sews, a delirious rabbit thumping. His top hat, marked by wear, holes, and sweat, is pushed back on his head, ready to topple with any sudden movement. His tongue stuck to his upper lip, his pipe lodged between his canines. I can picture it all. His fingers speckled in blood, some dry, some fresh. A thin gold needle between his thumb and pointer finger. I can even imagine the glue. The sourness stinging my nostrils.
If Father isn’t careful, that stuff will make him mad.
Madness runs in the family, not in a biological sense, but an environmental one. Sometimes I think it’s the house that does it. Hysteria lingers in the rotting walls, clinging to those who enter its bones.
My mother, Darling, lives at a sanatorium. She has something called dysmetropsia. Before she went away, she would leave scrolls around the house for me to find. Her shaky hand would pen things like Drink Me or Eat Me. If I didn’t do as I was told, her lower lip would begin to quiver. Then her face would crumble, folding in on itself, as though she were a witch splashed with water and was melting.
Sometimes I search the house for puddles, just in case she has indeed melted away.
One time I woke to find my entire bedroom full of scrolls. The floor, the carpet, even my bed were swallowed by parchment. It was as though I were walking through a hen house as I made my way to the hall, steps timid and soft, trying to avoid rustling any feathers. A trail of paper led me down the stairs to the parlor where Darling had set up a lavish tea party with cakes and biscuits of every color and size. She squealed when she saw me, her lips pulled back in delight. She wore one of Father’s hats crooked on her head. “Do you like it, Alice?” she asked me.
“I love it,” I told her. “I love it so much.”
She produced another hat, it seemed, out of thin air. “Something special I borrowed from your father’s workshop.” She failed to stifle a giggle.
I took it from her outstretched hand and placed it atop my head. Then we ate cakes and biscuits and giggled until our bellies extended and our lungs burned. Since Darling left, I wrap these memories around me like a cloak.
Father won’t tell me, but I know we’re close to losing the roof over our heads. Hat making isn’t what it used to be. Royalty and its riches have dried up, leaving our town, whose entire economy was based on serving the wealthy, as immaterial as brittle herbs.
The miller’s daughter no longer spins. Her father no longer works in the mill. The butcher only sells meat once a month. The baker uses dust instead of flour for her cakes. The schoolmarm left, as did the pastor.
We are a ghost town, wandering without purpose.
My father, however, spends all day and night in his workshop as though hats are in demand. When he goes to visit Darling, he fills his dinky carriage with hats of every color and shape. He says the villages by the sanatorium love his hats, yet he returns with no more than a few coins.
Everything in the house is Father’s canvas. He snips from the tablecloth on the dining room table, the bath towels, sofa, and carpets. Sometimes I wake to find him standing in my closet cutting pieces from my clothing. The only fabric safe is Darling’s. “She’ll need this when she comes home,” he says. “This is her favorite. And this one, too,” he chimes, caressing my mother’s dresses. His eyes bulge, nostrils flaring. I picture him pressing his nose to her garments, searching for a whiff of her scent. Lavender and tea leaves.
I do it too, when Father is busy in his workshop.
I won’t tell him, but I fear Darling’s never coming home.
In fact, I am quite certain she has become a ghost.
Not like the townspeople, but a real specter.
Notes have begun to appear, just like before. A tray of crumbly dust-cake, a chipped cup of lukewarm tea beside my bed. Eat Me to Grow Smaller and Drink Me to Grow Larger instructs ink-stained cardstock. The handwriting is familiar to hers with its curly g’s and e’s.
I listen for my father; he is whistling in his workshop, shaping tunes out of thin air. The glue escapes from the basement, pushing its way through the floorboards. It stings the back of my throat.
I eye the notes again, searching for their deception. “Mother?” I ask. “Darling, is that you?”
I wait for a chilling breeze to roll through the window or the music box to play its saccharine tune on its own. Any sign that Mother’s ghost is here.
The glue clouds my eyes for just a moment, and I see it. I swear to you, I see it, the letters writhing, slinking like snakes. I grab for the cake and shove it into my mouth. Then pour the tea down too. I want to grow both bigger and smaller. I want to be with Darling, wherever she is, whatever size or shape she may be.
Darling continues to leave offerings. A muffin with the note One Side Will Make You Sprout Spots, The Other, Stripes. I nibble both ends, imagining myself morphing into a creature that is half cheetah, half zebra. Broth that is supposed to make my hair grow two feet overnight. Biscuits that will make me hallucinate talking caterpillars and gardenias.
I inhale it all, craving any morsel of my mother.
After several weeks of this, the looking glass on Darling’s dresser reflects a distorted girl. Hair with knots like burrs to her waist, red spots mark her arms, clothing two sizes too small some days and two sizes too big others. I am no longer familiar to myself. My body sways back and forth, alternating which foot it places weight, unused to its fluctuating mass. My eyes swim in my skull, the room flexing from Darling’s to a peculiar place of talking animals and flowers and dangerous games of croquet.
The glue is the only constant. It clings to the hairs coating my limbs, slowly swallowing me whole.
Perhaps I am going mad.
I must talk to Father. He’ll know what to do. I drop to my knees with a crack and let my new bestial instincts take me forward, into the hall. My flesh bristles with the growth of new spots and stripes. I flick my tail, which I’m no longer sure is imaginary. I nod to the caterpillar sitting on a giant mushroom smoking hookah by the top of the staircase. You’ll be reunited with Darling, I reassure myself as I slide down the stairs, a heavy thud as I hit each step.
I land on the floor in a tangled mass of limbs and hair. Glue seeps from the floorboards into my nostrils. I choke. Father’s whistling rings in my ears. I ball my hands into fists and press them into the ground to scrape my body forward. Father will know what to do. He will take care of me, just like he did Darling.
“It was the hardest day of my life, my dear,” Father told me. “But your mother is in a better place.”
“Will she know us? When we visit,” I asked.
“The doctors can’t be certain. That’s why we agreed visits would be limited to just me.”
“And in time, when Darling’s doing better, I can see her?”
I watch two flowers have this conversation. One wears a shabby top hat, the other is zigzagged with spots and stripes. I drag myself past them.
Arriving at the top of the staircase to Father’s workshop, I pause. He is talking to someone. Words spew from his mouth with a hiss. I can picture his chapped lips peeled back in a snarl. Who would draw such anger from him?
I rest my head on the grainy wood and listen.
“What do you mean when you say there was an accident, Doctor Dodgson? Where is my wife?”
A higher-pitched voice says, “Your wife took her life last night. A nurse found her this morning.”
Father again: “That’s impossible.”
The other voice: “Your wife is dead, Mr. Liddell. I am very sorry for your loss.”
My cheeks are slick with tears. I try to move my head but am unable to. “Father,” I call. “Father, what is going on?”
Like a magic trick, Father appears at the bottom of the stairs. His face white and glistening with sweat. “Go back to bed,” he squeaks.
The voice is familiar. Too familiar. “Father, who are you talking to? Is Mother alright?” I grind my fists into the floor to push myself upright.
“Everything is fine.” His tongue flicks his lip. His eyes avoid mine.
Father is lying to me.
Gripping the banister, I stand. “I’m coming down,” I say.
He runs up the steps and grips my arms. His palms stick to me, his nails dig into my flesh.
“Father, you’re hurting me. I just want to know who you’re talking to down here.”
“Go back to bed, Darling, you’re not well. I’ll be up later with some broth and biscuits.”
I pull away, shaking my head.
My vision vanishes.
My feet slip.
My body drops.
Someone catches me.
I inhale lavender and tea leaves. I curl into my mother’s embrace. Ivory stars twinkle before me, the darkness receding.
For it isn’t Darling embracing me, but Father. I push him away and rush down the stairs to his workshop. No one is waiting for me. My head whips, searching the room.
My eyes burn from the glue. The workshop is lacquered in it. I cover my nose and mouth with my arm.
Please, let me be wrong.
A pile of hats crowds the far side of the dingy room. I walk to Father’s workstation, which is cluttered with quills and parchment. I lift the ink-stained rolls and read Drink Me For a Key to Lock Away All Your Secrets. Eat Me to Sleep For a Hundred Years. Eat This Side of the Mushroom to Grow Sea Legs. Eat This Side to Grow Wings.
I drop them, the paper making soft scrapes against the workstation. Darling’s perfume catches my eye. Underneath it sits a letter. I reach for it.
“Don’t,” Father says from behind me.
I ignore him.
Dear Mr. Liddell, It is under unfortunate circumstances that I write to you today. Last night there was an accident. Mrs. Liddell took her own life. It seems her disease was incurable. I am very sorry for your loss. If you and your daughter would like to visit with the body before burial, we would be happy to arrange that for you.
Again, our deepest apologies. Unfortunately, sometimes madness cannot be cured.
My pulse thumps in my elbow. I try to count its beats, but it’s too fast. The gears in my mind are heavy with sludge. Father hovers, his breath hot on my shoulder. Shrill cries escape his mouth.
“Darling is dead, isn’t she?”
I do not face him.
I cannot face him.
“Go back to bed, Darling. This is just a nightmare. You’ll feel better in the morning,” he says in that high-pitched voice.
The glue crawls along my lips, my nostrils, my eyelashes. I imagine its silver liquid enveloping me before devouring my father and the whole house. We have to get out of here.
“Father.” I squeeze my eyes shut in an attempt to focus. “Father, I think you’ve gone mad.”
I turn at the sound of a wheezing chuckle. My father laughs so hard he slaps his knees. “Mad as a Hatter? Oh, Darling, you say the silliest things.”
“I’m not Darling. I’m your daughter, Alice. We have to leave.”
He shoves me away when I reach for him. “Off with their heads,” he says and laughs and laughs. “If they don’t like my hats, off with their heads.” His whole body convulsing.
“Father, please. Come with me.”
He waves me away.
The glue is thick in my throat. It’s going to drown me.
I leave my father, heading for the stairs.
His howling follows me, softening to an echo as I reach the front door. I fall onto the walkway, the stone cool against my skin. I gulp in breaths of fresh air. I lie there waiting for someone from the village to find me and call the doctor.
I imagine Darling beside me, holding my hand. I inhale her scent of lavender and tea leaves. With my fingers I trace the soft lines on her hands. I pull the cloak of memories around me. My lips shape the words, I miss you. I miss you so much. My eyes fill with tears.
I can still hear her pen scraping against parchment, messages meant just for me. Open Your Eyes to See What’s Before You. Fill Your Lungs with Air to Keep Living. I stretch my eyes wide and cough as I inhale the burnt air. My mother, dearest Darling, is dead.
But I am still alive.
Original appearance in Corvid Queen.
Christina Rosso lives and writes in South Philadelphia with her rescue pup, Atticus Finch, and bearded husband, Alex, where they run an independent bookstore and event space called A Novel Idea on Passyunk. She received an MFA in Creative Writing and MA in English from Arcadia University in 2016. Her debut chapbook, She is a Beast (APEP Publications), was released in May 2020. Creole Conjure, her first full-length collection, is forthcoming from Maudlin House. Her fiction and nonfiction work centers around gender, sexuality, and fairy tales, and has been nominated for Best of the Net, Best Small Fictions, and the Pushcart Prize.