Denise Ruttan ~ The Innocence of Alders

In a moment of reckless fury, Amanda buried her face in her pillow and screamed, her breath coming out in wheezing sobs. Then, panic overtook her next, as she fought to silence herself. She pounded her fists on her bed, the sobs turning into weeps. What if her mother came in to check on her? She was making too much noise. Amanda could see it now — her mother, craning her neck in the door without knocking, approaching her bed, inspecting every line of her face as if she were a machine part off an assembly line. But the door remained closed. 

Amanda was in trouble this time. She had been allowed a rare moment of freedom and was permitted to take the bus home from soccer practice. But she missed the bus transfer and was an hour late and forgot to call. Her mother called the police, marched straight down to the bus station, found her buying potato chips from the vending machine, grabbed her by the wrist until it hurt, and wordlessly took her back to her 1994 Mercury station wagon. Grounded. For life. 

Amanda, who was not allowed phone privileges, looked at sad memes on Tumblr on her laptop, trying to stop crying. She thought about writing out her feelings, but when she had kept a diary in the past, her mother always found it and read it. Every year for her birthday, her mother bought her a diary with flowers on it and a thin plastic key to lock it shut, as if she were still four years old and not seventeen. But every year it sat untouched, unlocked, because of the one time when the lock had been found unsealed and her mother had confronted her about her secrets. “Why don’t you ever talk to me?” she’d lamented, then, and Amanda had simply stared at her with blank eyes. So the secrets stayed locked up inside her head, waiting to burst. 

She sniffled and blew her nose, which had turned red and ran hot with mucus. Soon, her tears dried into tracks of salt and her eyes swelled into puffs of soreness. Her mind stilled with a sudden sense of resolve and dead calm. She stared mindlessly at the laptop screen, her eyesight blurring. It was time for a shower. 

Amanda poked her head out the door, hoping her mother had gone to sleep. All was quiet in the house. In bare feet, her toes cold, she carefully tread to the bathroom. It was a small space, with a toilet tucked by the window and hardly any counter space by the sink, where her makeup, soap and hairbrush warred for space with her mother’s. It was infrequently tidy, though the task of cleaning the bathroom was one of her chores. 

The calm only lasted a moment and was replaced with stress pinching her shoulders. Amanda undressed and stepped in the shower, the water scalding hot. Steam billowed to the ceiling. She closed her eyes, lathering shampoo into her hair and letting the hot water prick her skin. She breathed in for a minute, then choked, her mouth full of bile and something — else. 

Amanda’s eyes snapped open and panic grabbed her throat. It was happening again. That wasn’t water coming from the shower. It wasn’t rusty-colored thin water. It was blood. 

Her face streamed with rivulets of it. She had no more tears left, so she screamed. 

Sure enough, Amanda’s mother came running. She was still in her pajamas. Worry creased her face. Her jet black hair specked with gray tumbled in chaotic waves down her shoulders. 

“Honey?” she called. “What’s wrong?” 

Amanda’s breathing came in quick, choppy waves. Once she was sure that her mother understood the level of her mortification, she stepped from the shower. She was literally covered in blood, like she had just committed murder. She glared at her mother. 

Her mother blanched, panic flooding her eyes. 

“We have to call the landlord,” Amanda said, as if talking to a child. “That thing with the pipes is happening again.” 

“No, it can’t be,” Amanda’s mother said. “Not again.” 

She seemed petrified into indecision. Amanda ran the water in the sink and it was just plain tap water. She was still naked, cold and shivering, the blood still on her skin. Her mother would never inspect the pipes. Amanda knew this. Amanda wet a washcloth and started cleaning the blood from her body. Her mother still stared at her, as if she were having an out-of-body experience and seeing Amanda for the first time. 

“Mom?” Amanda said, her mind carefully blank. She was not panicking. She was not scared. She was not calm. She didn’t know what she was. This new state of complete and utter indifference was even scarier than any of those things. 

“You need to pack your bags,” Amanda’s mother said. Her voice didn’t waver. It was cold and hard. 

“What?” Amanda said. “It’s just a plumbing malfunction. It’s not a big deal.” 

“It’s happening again,” Amanda’s mother said. Resolve hardened her voice now. “She’s coming for you.” 

“Not this again,” Amanda said. “I mean, come on, Mom. You went to Harvard. How can you think it’s true?” 

“Don’t speak to me like that,” Amanda’s mother said. “I trusted Esmeralda with my life. You’re only here because of her. I know what I’m talking about. She’s coming back for you.” 

Amanda turned several washcloths filthy red in sopping the blood from her body. They would have to be thrown away. They sat in a pile of blood on the floor and she was still naked, stunned into inaction. 

“Mom, please. I’m old enough to handle it. My dad was an asshole who abandoned you after a one-night stand. It’s some sad, lame story like that. I don’t even buy the thing about the gypsies. I’m old enough to not believe in Santa Claus any more.” 

“You weren’t there,” Amanda’s mother said. “You wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Esmeralda. You’re my magic child. That’s the only reason I’m so protective of you. I have lived in fear of this day for 17 years.” 

Amanda’s mother cupped Amanda’s chin with her hands, and put her forehead next to hers. She breathed in controlled sobs. Then she released her. Amanda finally put a towel around herself. Goosebumps pricked her skin. 

Wordlessly, Amanda’s mother left the room, still talking to herself about gypsy curses. Amanda shook her head and dried herself off. She’d tried to be generous to her mother and patient with her issues but this was too much. 

Amanda dried off and returned to her room and climbed into her pajamas. She was about to tuck herself into her blankets when a knock came at the door. Startled, she shot to an upright position. Her mother never knocked. This was new. 

“Mom?” Amanda said. She ran a hand through her wet, tangled hair. It still had blood in it. That would take more than washcloths and towels to get out. Exasperation entered her voice. “You can come in.” 

The knocking continued. 

Amanda groaned, rose from the bed and padded to the door. She opened the door a crack. Her mother stood there, her hair in an even wilder mass of curls. Her eyes had a strange lack of clarity to them. Amanda jumped, her heart plummeting as if from a tall building. So it was this again. Her shoulders sank. 

“Pack your bags,” Amanda’s mother said. Her voice carried a knife’s edge in it. She didn’t sound like herself. 

“Mom?” Amanda was quiet and still now. Her previous cockiness faded and tightness corroded her voice. “It’s midnight. I have school tomorrow.” 

“Amanda Jean Robertson,” Amanda’s mother said. She remained at the door, in her nightgown, the white fabric billowing around her ankles. Her eyes looked hollowed out. Her voice sent chills down Amanda’s spine. 

Finally, she said, in a whisper, “Where should I go?” 

“I’ll take you to the bus station,” Amanda’s mother said. “Pack your bags.” 

Amanda couldn’t cry any more. She had no more tears left to give. Everything moved as if in a slow motion tableau. She found her suitcase under her bed. Her mother still stood in her doorway, staring at her, hands in fists at her sides. Amanda stuffed some clothes in the suitcase, a blanket, a pillow, the book she was reading, toothpaste, for a couple of nights away. Great. Another night in the bus station, sleeping on those cold plastic worn-out chairs, with the homeless guys who smelled like rotting fish. She would never get anything done at school tomorrow. She had really done it this time. She fought a battle inside her head with indifference and anger. Anger crept into first place. 

Finally, the old olive-green suitcase without wheels was packed and zipped. She grabbed her backpack with the homework she still hadn’t done. She’d leave her laptop here; it would just be a temptation for the homeless guys to steal. 

Anger lost the fight – it didn’t take long in her exhaustion – and a sense of hopelessness rose in her chest to replace it. A different feeling than crushing neutrality, at least. It was a sort of resignation, an acquiescence to the way things were. Amanda’s mother grabbed a long coat but did not change out of her nightgown. She slipped on some shoes. Amanda, though, changed  from her pajamas jeans and a baggy black T-shirt with the logo of her favorite rock band printed it. She threw on a leather jacket and a knit beanie. It was cold out there. She could feel it in her bones. 

They climbed in her mother’s 1990s Subaru station wagon in the garage. It wouldn’t start the first couple times, like usual. But this time, they weren’t just going to the store to pick up some milk. Amanda hugged her suitcase and her backpack to her chest. She wondered if her mother would feed her goldfish while she was away. 

Then the engine rumbled and Amanda’s mother stomped on the gas with furious energy.  She didn’t look like she had anything close to fury left in her, so the sudden screech startled Amanda. 

Amanda fingered the tag on her suitcase. It was a Goodwill find. But she never used it for anything but her nights at the bus station. One day, she hoped to travel. To get away from here. To see the world that was not this place with her mother and her fears that were too tangled up with myth and magic and the demons from her past. 

At first she’d tried reasoning with her mother. Then she’d tried begging. Then she’d tried panic mode. Tears, entreaties to her empathy. That was the times before. None of those worked. Amanda saw her mother’s stony expression out of the corner of her eye and knew nothing would work this time, either. Maybe Amanda’s trick with the pipes was going too far. But she didn’t know what else to do. 

With a whine of tires leaving the pavement, Amanda was left outside the bus station, unceremoniously dumped. She watched the station wagon squeak away, and still hugged her suitcase. It was cold, colder than she had ever imagined it would be. Fog enveloped the sky, clinging to the air like the haze of gloom in her soul. A single street light pooled fluorescence into the dark tapestry of the lonely night. 

Amanda stared at the bus station entrance. She didn’t have the money for a ticket. She had spent that on comic books this month. Another stupid move. She approached the small building, resigned to her fate for the night. She didn’t even have a phone. But who would she call? 

She tried the doors, and apparently there weren’t any late buses tonight for they were locked. Or maybe the company was cleaning up the homeless presence that always clamored for any public spaces in this town. She sighed and sat on the dirty pavement, her back to the brick wall, tucking her legs into her chest. She rummaged through her suitcase and took out her blanket. She wrapped it tightly around her shoulders, shivering in the chilly air. 

Amanda thought of school tomorrow, and her math test first period. She dug out her alarm clock and set it. She doubted she would sleep much. This time, she didn’t even have a plastic bucket chair in which to rest her back. She closed her eyes, trying to snooze anyway. The homeless guys, strangely, were not around tonight. She wondered what had chased them off. The locked doors, perhaps? 

An unexpectedly warm breeze ruffled her hair and her attempt at dozing was rudely interrupted. Her racing thoughts didn’t help, either, or a headache that throbbed at her temples. She still had blood in her hair, besides. 

In the distance, through the fog, a figure emerged. It was hunched over and wearing thick layers of clothing, maybe a blanket over its broad shoulders. It ambled slowly, unsteadily. Amanda’s breath hitched. She’d also packed a knife, but it was buried in the bottom of her suitcase. Her grip tightened on the handle of her suitcase. 

It was an old woman, maybe in her 70s. Her skin was cracked with wrinkles, in a shade of light brown. Her raven black hair was specked with gray. Her clothing was tattered rags. She smelled of rancid oil and onions. Amanda assumed the homeless folks had returned, only this time it wasn’t the usual men. But this woman was staring at her, and kept walking toward her. Amanda grabbed her stuff close to her, readying for a quick escape. 

“Child,” the woman said. Her voice was raspy and thick. Amanda barely heard it at first.

Amanda didn’t speak. She had learned it is best not to engage. Not to make eye contact. She quietly studied her hands, not realizing she was holding her breath. 

“You’re Amanda, aren’t you?” the woman said. Her accent was hard to place and congealed her words. 

Amanda still refused to speak, but she looked up, and met the woman’s gaze with the same blank, hardened stare that her mother achieved in her less lucid moments. 

“The alder tree in spring,” the woman said. Amanda stared. All emotion vanished into the mist. “The alder tree in spring. The alder tree in spring. The alder tree in spring.” 

It became a choppy sing-song melody. The woman stood inches from Amanda, but she was not afraid, unreasonably so. 

Finally, Amanda spoke. “The alder tree?” 

“That which created you,” the woman said. “The spirit of the tree is angry, child. Angry. The fairies are angry. The alder tree in spring. The alder tree in spring.” 

“Esmeralda?” Amanda said.  

It couldn’t be. It was Amanda’s fault the pipes ran with blood. She just wanted to push her mother over the edge for being overprotective. It wasn’t magic. There was no such thing as magic, or fairies, or the gypsy that Amanda’s mother claimed had came to her when she was 39 years old and gave her the child she always wanted but never could have. 

“The alder tree in spring,” the woman said, unblinking. The smell of onions overpowered Amanda and she nearly choked. “The alder tree in spring.” 

“What tree?” Amanda said. “What are you saying?”

Amanda, then, stood up, her knees stiff. The blanket fell in a clump on the ground. In her backpack, her alarm clock made a rather loud sound to count off the time, like the ticking of a heartbeat. It was two in the morning. Thoughts of her algebra test vanished. The fear returned and tasted like metal in her mouth. 

The woman pointed a finger at her. “The fairies,” she said. “The fairies are angry with you. Alder tree. Alder tree in spring.” 

The woman kept repeating the line, over and over, her voice hoarse, as if someone was screaming into her ear, making her do it. Amanda, suddenly, saw the voices in her head, the way they clamored for attention. 

Then the old woman shuffled away, her smell dissipating into the fog, as she soon disappeared into the mist herself. 

“Wait!” Amanda called. “Is it real?” 

But there was no answer. Only the beat of her heart hollowing out her chest, with the words, “The alder tree in spring,” making a steady rhythm to match the beating of the clock. 

Amanda ran into the fog, leaving her suitcase in a pile against the wall. She looked for the woman, panic constricting her throat. But the woman had vanished into the white cloud of the night. Amanda swallowed blood. 

###

The next morning, when the bus station clerk unlocked the doors, he tipped his hat and shuffled his weary bones. It was a foggy, cold morning and he hand’t had his first cup of coffee. He wondered what type of ruckus with the local homeless population would give him to deal with today. His brow furrowed as his foot caught on something. 

A blanket, stained with blood spatters. A suitcase, olive green and worn, a thrift store find. A backpack, containing an algebra textbook and spiral notebooks. The clerk sighed. Yet another vagabond, a kid this time. When would the city start enforcing the laws? 

He kicked the blanket to the side. “Hello?” he shouted into the fog. “You left your stuff here!” 

The sun wouldn’t rise for another hour or so. 

But there was no one there. 

 

Denise Ruttan is an unpublished writer with dreams of finally using her creative writing degree by publishing fiction after seven years of bylines in small town newspapers as a reporter. She is also a photographer and by day works as a legal assistant. Find her on Instagram at http://www.instagram.com/shadowsinframe, her review blog at   http://alltheeclecticthings.wordpress.com and her website at http://deniseruttan.squarespace.com. 

Bienvenue au Danse, Noel – unpublished no longer!

 

 

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