Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
Leonard changed lanes without using his blinker, as was his habit. Still, when he slipped into the exit lane of the freeway as suddenly as a fish leaping out of water Niamh tensed her shoulders and glanced back reflexively at Helena, sleeping in the back seat with her neck at an angle that made it look broken. Niamh saw Leonard looking at her from the corner of his eye, but she didn’t say anything. It was Leonard’s belief that one ought to surprise the other cars on the road, because if you let people know what you’re doing before you’ve done it, they’re sure to try and stop you. Niamh had heard him explain this theory many times, and she could tell that he was watching her now in the hope that she would betray some reaction, so that he could have the pleasure of telling her, in his deep, soothing voice, that the problem, Niamh, is that if you’re constantly waiting for others’ permission, you’ll never get what you want. You can’t wait for the world to scoot over and make room for you. You have to force your way in.
Niamh ignored the way that Leonard, smiling his private smile, kept glancing at her sideways, and looked instead at Helena in the back seat. Her daughter’s sleek brown hair was mussed by sleep, and she had tucked the seat belt under one arm in order to keep it from cutting into the skin of her neck while she slept. Leonard had taken an exit onto a wooded stretch of road, and the sunlight through the summer leaves left changing, lace-like patterns on Helena’s face and hair.
Helena looked like Leonard, not like Niamh. Both were dark, dark-haired and tanned, with the long, sleek limbs and intelligent dark eyes of hunting dogs. Looking at Helena, now five years old, Niamh could already tell how beautiful she would be as a teenager, and she sometimes found herself looking at her daughter almost with jealousy. Now she looked in the side-view mirror and then back at her daughter, trying to find the lines of her own pale, pointed face in Helena’s.
As Niamh was watching, Helena stirred and pursed her lips as if she tasted something sour in her dream. When she opened her eyes it was only reluctantly.
“Did you sleep well, sweetie? We’ll be there in half an hour.”
“Mama, I need to go to the bathroom.”
Leonard looked over his shoulder and shook his head.
“There’s nowhere to stop on this road for at least another ten miles.”
“Can you hold it for a little while, Helena?”
“No.” Helena’s voice rose half an octave with the force of her reply. “I have to go now.”
Niamh saw Leonard shaking his head again over the steering wheel.
“Leonard, pull over. She can go in the woods.”
“Are you sure you can’t make it to a gas station, Hel?” asked Leonard, ignoring Niamh.
“Leonard, will you just pull over? She already said she can’t.”
“Alright. Wait until we’ve passed this ditch.”
Niamh opened the door and unbuckled Helena.
“I don’t want to go here.”
“Well,” said Niamh, “there isn’t a bathroom nearby, sweetheart.”
“But people can see me from the road, and I don’t want to.”
“Alright, we’ll just walk a little farther into the woods, and then no one will see.”
“If you take her into the woods here, Niamh,” said Leonard, “she’s going to come out covered in ticks.”
“It’ll be alright,” said Niamh, and began pulling up Helena’s white socks, so any ticks would be clearly visible against the fabric.
Helena whined and looked over her shoulder nervously as they walked into the forest. Although there had been no traffic on the forest road, Niamh couldn’t satisfy her that she wouldn’t be watched as she peed. When they were truly out of sight of the road, Helena insisted on a toilet, and toilet paper. Niamh could see her hovering on the brink of a tantrum, and so she unbuttoned Helena’s shorts herself, and pulled them and her underwear down around her ankles. She held Helena under her shoulders as she squatted to make sure that she didn’t lose her balance and pee on her clothes.
Afterwards, she helped Helena shake herself off and re-buttoned her shorts. She checked Helena’s white socks and found no ticks. Helena’s face relaxed and lost the crumpled look that preceded an outbreak of tears or screaming, and as the they walked back to the car together, she ran ahead to look at scaly lichen growing on a fallen log, and mushrooms climbing ladder-like up the trunk of an oak tree. Leonard would have been able to identify the mushrooms and the variety of trees that they passed, but Niamh could not. Helena veered away from the road, and Niamh called her back.
“Helena, remember Daddy’s waiting.”
“I heard something, though. Like an animal.”
Niamh sighed. Helena was examining the ground some twenty yards away, her sleek brown head swinging back and forth as if looking for something that she’d dropped. Suddenly she shrieked; Niamh felt her own body freeze with shock.
Helena kneeling at the base of a tree trunk with her hands wrapped around something. Niamh stumbled towards her almost blindly, still hearing her shout, feeling her heart beating wildly in her fingertips and toes. She had thought that Helena was screaming from pain, or fear. Now Helena turned around and held up the thing that she’d found.
It was about the size of a rabbit, and as Helena held it in her outstretched arms its ill-formed legs kicked in protest. It was making a terrible noise, a kind of wheezing, sobbing sound as its nose probed the empty air before it. What seemed to be its nose, at any rate, what seemed to be its face. It was eyeless. Its skin hung in loose folds across the unmarked expanse of its blunt skull, translucent, white, stippled with the purple of veins. It was an eyeless, earless, furless, unformed creature; its stubby legs seemed to be melting back into its viscous, hanging skin. And it whimpered, pathetically. Niamh was horrified.
“Helena, put it down.”
“Mama, look. It was all alone.”
“Put it down. We’re going.” Niamh crossed the stretch of dry leaves between her and Helena and grabbed her daughter’s wrist, trying to unhook her fingers from the thing’s flesh, but Helena squirmed and clutched it to her chest.
“We can’t leave it! It’ll die!”
“Helena,” said Niamh, still holding her by the wrist, reaching for her other arm so that she could loosen her hold on the eyeless creature, “Helena, it’s a wild animal. It can survive on its own, and, anyway, it’s not safe. It might bite, or it might have a disease.”
“It can’t survive, it was just lying there, and it was crying, listen. You aren’t even listening!” She sat down on the ground, hunching her shoulders and bringing her knees to her chest to protect the thing from Niamh’s searching hands. Niamh tried to grip her by the shoulders to pull her back to her feet. Helena screamed.
The scream went on for a long time. When Helena drew breath, she was red in the face. She screamed again, rocking back and forth in the mulch and dead leaves in her fury. The third scream was half a sob, and she kept rocking with tears streaming from her eyes. The touch of Niamh’s hand on her shoulder, stroking her hair, running her fingers down her spine to calm her, only made her put her face between her knees and scream harder. Niamh was familiar with these tantrums. She could not penetrate the taut membrane of Helena’s sobs; it was as if Helena had pulled her rage over herself like a blanket or a raincoat, and under Niamh’s fingers where Helena’s silky hair should have been was the slick electric surface of her crying.
“Alright, Helena, we’ll take it to Grandma’s. Is that alright?”
Helena quieted slowly, with her face still buried in her knees, gulping for air. When she finally looked up there was still an air of reproach in her eyes. Her fingers were buried tightly in the creature’s pliant skin, and though her grip looked painful, it had stopped whimpering.
“Come here.” Niamh held out her hand. “We’re going back to the car. Daddy’s waiting.”
Helena walked back to the car without a word, ignoring Niamh’s outstretched hand, but unresisting when her mother put her palm on the back of her neck to guide her. Niamh was afraid of what Leonard would say when he saw the creature, but she felt powerless to separate Helena from it. When they were near the road again she made Helena stop so that she could check her white socks and her legs for ticks. She wanted to check the creature as well, but Helena was still holding it tightly, and Niamh was loathe to touch it.
She found Leonard waiting by the car with his arms crossed.
“You took your time.”
“She wanted to look around the woods.”
She saw Leonard’s eyes move from her to Helena’s downcast, reddened face, but he said nothing. Niamh realized that Helena had scooped the creature under her t-shirt while her mother was checking her shoelaces, and she had to suppress a shudder when she saw the slight lump under Helena’s crossed arms, but she knew that Leonard hadn’t noticed. She was grateful.
She could feel it stirring feebly under the fabric when she buckled Helena into her seat.
As they finished the drive to the farm, Niamh found herself glancing at Helena in the rearview mirror every few minutes. Unaware of her mother’s eyes on her, Helena was murmuring to herself inaudibly, tugging at the collar of her t-shirt to catch glimpses of the creature inside. Her face was rapt.
Susan’s dogs began barking as they pulled up the driveway to the low-slung white farmhouse. There were two of them, small, long-haired sheep dogs, and Susan appeared soon after them, with her grey hair falling down across her face.
“Shut the gate, Leonard!” she shouted. “You’ll let the dogs out!”
“Hello, Mother,” said Leonard, and held out his arms to her. Susan crossed hers over her chest.
“The gate, please.”
“How are you feeling, Susan?” said Niamh. Leonard’s mother glared at her. Helena had slipped out of the back seat of the car but was now pinned against its side with her arms clasped over her chest, trying to avoid the dogs, which were sniffing curiously at her chest and hands, tails wagging. The black dog jumped and tried to put its paws on her shoulders, but Helena sidled away along the edge of the car.
Niamh went over to her and pulled the black dog away by its collar. The brindled dog followed her curiously. She could hear Susan’s shoes crunching in the gravel behind her.
“Goodness, child, the dog isn’t going to bite you.”
Helena was silent. Susan stepped a little closer to her. She was wearing a long navy skirt, from under the hem of which protruded a frayed bandage wrapped around her ankle.
“Aren’t you going to say hello to your grandmother, Helena?” Niamh asked. Helena looked at the ground. After a while, Susan turned to speak to Leonard as he returned up the driveway. They walked up to the house, Susan walking in front with Leonard, explaining to him the work that needed to be done in the kitchen garden, Niamh trailing behind with Helena, her hand on her shoulder.
* * *
That night while Helena was in her bath Leonard and Susan quarreled. Earlier in the day, Helena had tucked the larval creature into the twin bed in Leonard’s childhood room, under the patchwork quilt with its pattern of red and yellow sunbursts, and pushed a chair in front of the door so that the dogs wouldn’t sniff the creature out in its hiding place. Leonard had passed the chair in the hallway soon after and moved it back into its proper place, muttering. Susan did not want Leonard or Niamh to cook and did not want the house vacuumed and did not want to rest while Leonard took the dogs for a run and did not want Leonard to drive her to her chemotherapy appointment the next day and did not see why Helena couldn’t simply eat the food that was put in front of her instead of moving it around on her plate, or why she wanted to sit up in Leonard’s old room all during the heat of the afternoon, instead of playing in the shallow end of the swimming pool or with the dogs in the field or the barn. Surely, she told Niamh, it wasn’t normal for a child her age to spend so much time alone. After dinner, Leonard had walked into her room to discuss her doctor’s visits, and had found her changing the bandage on the cut on her shin where she had stumbled on her front steps, gashed her leg on a brick, and required an unspecified number of stitches. She was furious at his suggestion that she might need someone to come and look in on her every once in a while, and perhaps to cook and clean. Leonard was furious to have left the city in order to help his mother through the summer, only to discover that she did not, in her own estimation, require any help. While they were shouting, Niamh guided Helena down the hallway into Leonard’s old room and helped her undress for her bath.
She wanted to take the creature into the bathtub with her, but Niamh wouldn’t let her. When she pulled the coverlet back from the creature, it thrashed and turned its blunt snout towards her. When it opened its mouth and mewled, Niamh saw a row of white, human-looking teeth and a pink tongue. She threw the cover back over it and hurried Helena to the bathroom.
Down the hallway, in her bedroom, Susan was telling Leonard that he was a busybody whose greatest pleasure was interfering in others’ lives, and that he could indulge his ghoulish fantasies when she was in her grave. Leonard, Niamh knew from her own arguments with him, would be responding in kind, but in an insidiously calm, quiet voice which would not carry from the bedroom. Susan’s trouble was that she had never learned to keep her voice down when she lost her temper, and in fact took relish in yelling and waving her arms and sometimes throwing small hard objects. In her better moods, she claimed that fighting was her greatest pleasure and a delightful form of exercise, and that she liked nothing as well as yelling down the telephone line and then hanging up on whoever was on the other end. Niamh suspected that this simply meant that Susan was lonely. But, if so, she remained immoveable.
“Mama,” said Helena, splashing her heels in the faintly sulfurous bathwater, “are there ever things that can come up from the drain? Snakes and things?”
“Snakes?” Niamh asked. She was still attending with one ear to the sounds of the argument coming from Susan’s bedroom. She found Helena’s question jarring. It was the sort of question Helena frequently produced. Was there something under the bed, by any chance, or perhaps standing pressed against the door of the closet, which was slightly ajar? Or else she thought she saw things peering through the windows, waiting for all the adults to leave the room. She was afraid of dogs, of snakes, spiders and ticks, and also of close spaces and dark spaces and being lost, which Leonard maintained was quite normal for a girl who was coddled as much as Helena was coddled. But Niamh suspected that Helena was fragile in some way that Leonard would never see, her constant, dogged fears a challenge to her parents’ claims to protect her, a kind of defiance. And am I safe from this? she’d ask. And this?
“Snakes?” she asked. “Have you been worried about that for a long time?”
“No.” Helena slouched back into the bathtub so that only her eyes were visible above the soapy water, and began to blow bubbles, rudely, in the water.
“Don’t do that, Helena, please. You know, there can’t ever be snakes in your bathwater. How would they get into the plumbing?”
“I don’t know,” said Helena, and went back to blowing bubbles.
“Lean forward now so that I can wash your hair.”
While Helena put on her pajamas Niamh searched through the closets until she found a cardboard shoe box with a lid. She folded up a dish towel to line it. It was very important that she get the creature out of Helena’s bed. She imagined driving into town now, in the night, and buying a terrarium, sealing the creature up in a safe bubble of nonporous glass, where it would become like any other exotic pet.
Tomorrow she would find out where the nearest pet store was. Now, holding the shoebox under her arm, she scanned the titles on Susan’s bookshelf for a guide to local wildlife. The creature seemed too large to be a baby rabbit, what other animals were born hairless? A muskrat? A badger? Its wide blunt skull perhaps resembled a badger’s, slightly, if Niamh imagined unopened eyes in the expanse of wrinkled skin in which she had plainly seen that there were no eyes at all. If she imagined that badgers had human teeth.
Tomorrow she would buy a terrarium.
“What are you looking for?”
Niamh jumped. It was Susan.
“I—do you have a book on local wildlife? I thought Helena might like to look at it.”
“I have one on birds, and several on flowers and mushrooms. I think I also used to have a book on different kinds of tracks. Leonard liked that when he was young. It may have fallen apart by now. I’ll see if I can find it.”
“Thank you,” said Niamh, as Susan bent forward to scan the shelves. She could see her hands shaking slightly, and she wanted to steady her.
“Here’s the book on birds. I’ll try to find her the book on tracks tomorrow morning, and if she wants, we’ll go up into the woods together and I’ll show her the names of the trees and see if we can’t find any other interesting creatures.”
“That’s very kind of you,” said Niamh, “but of course, you shouldn’t let her bother you if you’re not feeling up to it…”
Susan straightened up and looked at Niamh for an uncomfortable stretch of time.
“Thank you,” she said finally. “I feel perfectly well.”
“I think it would also help her get over being afraid of the dogs,” Susan continued. “It’s a very silly phobia, they’re not large enough to hurt anything larger than a squirrel. We’re lucky I don’t keep mastiffs.”
“Yes, we are.”
“What are you doing with that shoe box, by the way?”
“I was going to use it to keep some toys of Helena’s in. So she doesn’t strew them about.”
“I see. Well, good night. Enjoy your book. I like to sit in the living room and read until quite late, so you needn’t mind if the light’s on.”
Niamh tiptoed back up the stairs and past the door of the guest bedroom, willing Leonard not to hear the steps creaking under her weight, willing him not to desire to talk or to complain about Susan. She eased open the door to Helena’s room and found her sitting with her back to the door, her sleek head bending on her neck like the unopened bud of a bluebell as she murmured to something on the floor which might have been a doll but was not.
“Here,” said Niamh. “Put it in this box.” Helena was startled, moving to conceal the creature with her body. She relaxed when she saw it was Niamh at the door, but only slightly.
“She’s hungry,” she whispered to Niamh.
“Hungry?” said Niamh, but what she thought was, She?
“Yes.” Helena’s eyes were wide and her hands were gripping something invisible in between her knees.
“Put her in the box. I’ll get some milk.” Downstairs, Susan raised her eyebrows at Niamh as she crossed the living room with a mug of milk and a saucer. Niamh had stood in front of the refrigerator and wondered about the lettuce or the dog kibble, but she couldn’t think of a way to explain why she wanted either, and couldn’t bear to sneak back upstairs with her pockets full of salad.
She poured some milk from the cup into the saucer and put it down gently in the shoe box. Helena was on the bed, in her pajamas, holding the creature wrapped in a pillowcase.
“Put it down now, Helena. It’s time for bed.”
Helena did as she was asked, but slowly. Niamh slid the shoebox under the bed, not looking at the way the pillowcase moved as the creature struggled free. Tonight Helena did not protest when Niamh turned the lights off and left her, and Niamh found herself standing outside in the hallway, waiting for the sound of Helena’s voice calling, Mama, Mama, I’m scared. Instead, after a while, the mattress creaked, and there was the sound of a cardboard box sliding across the floor.
* * *
The saucer of milk was untouched and rancid-smelling when Niamh checked under the bed the next morning while Helena was brushing her teeth in the bathroom. The creature was missing as well. Niamh pulled the quilt off the bed and shook out the pillows, then got down on her knees and began to look under the dresser and the night stand. She jumped when the door creaked open. It was Helena, still in her pajamas, clutching the hem of her shirt in frustration.
“Mama, stop looking through my things!”
She hurried over to the closet and cracked the door open. From inside, something began to make a series of modulated squeaks or yips, to which Helena nodded. Then she closed the door and stood with her back pressed against it, as if she were going to defend the creature from Niamh.
“Helena,” said Niamh, “let me see it.” Helena shook her head.
“I’m going to go into town today and buy a terrarium,” Niamh said. “That way it will be safe from the dogs. But I have to have a look at it first, alright?”
“She doesn’t need a terrarium.”
“What’s going on now?” Leonard was standing at the open door. He had a razor in hand, and half his face was still white with shaving foam. “You two are making a racket, you know. Susan’s still asleep.”
Helena crossed her arms and screwed up her face, about to scream.
“Helena, just put your clothes on, please,” Niamh said.
“I don’t want you to look through my things!”
“Helena, stop yelling,” said Leonard. “Your grandmother’s sleeping.”
“Will you let me handle it, Leonard?” said Niamh. “She doesn’t need you scolding her!”
Helena took a deep breath, balling her hands into fists. Niamh waited for the tantrum to begin, but instead Helena’s shoulders slumped and her face relaxed, although she didn’t unstick her back from the door of the closet.
“I’m going to get dressed now, okay? I don’t want anyone to help me.”
Niamh didn’t see the creature again that day. At breakfast, she had tried to encourage Helena to go with Leonard when he drove Susan to her chemotherapy appointment, to the bewilderment of both Susan and Leonard, who couldn’t understand why Helena would want to come to the hospital, where she would only be bored and sulky. Helena, meanwhile, glared at Niamh over her plate of sausage and grapefruit, kicking her heels against the legs of her chair. When one of the dogs got too close to her as she was taking her plate to the sink, she bared her teeth in a mock growl and then raced back up the stairs to her bedroom. When Niamh suggested that the two of them go into town and buy a terrarium after Leonard and Susan had left, Helena lay down on the floor and whined like a dog, flopping about bonelessly when Niamh tried to prop her up and put shoes on her, until Niamh finally gave up.
After that Helena ran and hid in her room. When Susan and Leonard returned, she appeared in her bathing suit with her pink backpack with the stars on it strapped to her back, and made Leonard take her down to the pool and sit with her while she swung her feet in the water. Susan and Niamh followed the two of them down, Susan limping slightly, and sat in the bathing chairs.
“You should teach her how to dog paddle, Leonard,” said Susan.
“That’s a lovely idea,” said Niamh. “Helena, why don’t you take off your backpack and go swimming with your father?”
Helena shook her head. The black dog came and sniffed at her backpack, and Helena pushed its nose away, then held out her hand to scratch it under the chin.
“See?” said Susan. “It’s good for her to be outside.”
Niamh said nothing.
The next morning, she woke up before dawn and crept down the hallway to Helena’s room. She cracked the door open, treading carefully to prevent the floorboards from creaking. Helena had always been a light sleeper, startled by the sounds of dogs barking or a car in the street below or Leonard and Niamh having sex. Tonight she had kicked the covers off of her bed in the heat, and she lay curled up on her side with one foot dangling off the twin bed—dangling, that is, because on the other side of the bed was a creature, the creature, although it no longer resembled the small blind rodent-like thing that Helena had rescued from the side of the road. This creature was large, as large as Susan’s dogs, much too big to fit into a terrarium, and its limbs were covered in a downy light brown hair that ran down its spine and thickened on top of its head. It slept curled up, and its face was hidden under its paws, but as Niamh stepped back, the floorboards under her creaked, and the creature, prescient, raised its head. Its eyes were dark like the eyes of hunting dogs in its broad, flat face, the whites visible around them like the eyes of no animal, and its limbs were too thin, too mobile. As it raised itself up on its front paws Niamh thought that a creature meant to go on four feet does not have limbs that bend that way. It was repulsive and impossible. It had eaten nothing, but even so it was three times the size it had been.
It looked at her, the creature, as if it were studying her, swaying on its ungainly limbs, kneading the mattress like a cat. Its paws ended in a set of stubby knuckles, like half-formed fingers. Helena stirred, and Niamh fled back down the hallway, waiting for Helena to cry out, to call for her, to ask her to chase the thing away, but Helena said nothing.
When Niamh came back to Helena’s room, it was seven thirty. She had lain down on the couch in the living room for nearly two hours, looking up at the ceiling, imagining Helena and the creature in the room above. She felt powerless to separate them. Now there was no sign of the creature, and Helena was sitting on the floor with a Barbie doll in hand. Niamh crossed the floor and threw open the closet doors. There was nothing inside, only Helena’s new clothes and Leonard’s old ones, saved from his college years. Niamh pulled the hangers aside, searching.
“Where is it, Helena?”
Helena crossed her arms and stared at the floor. Her sleek brown hair fell over her face. Niamh wanted to cup her face in her hands and shake her, and shake her.
“Where is it? It has to go. It’s not safe.”
Helena stayed silent, but her eyes drifted over to the open window, where the screen had been pushed up but not replaced. Niamh looked out the window. The lawn was empty. She replaced the screen.
“Good. It’s gone. You know, it was a wild animal to begin with. You couldn’t have kept it.”
Helena said nothing, neither nodding nor protesting. She seemed resigned, as if Niamh were the child, and Helena was listening to her at bedtime, soothing her fears.
“Are you listening, Helena? It could have been dangerous.”
In the afternoon Niamh drove into town to buy groceries. Leonard was napping, and Susan had said that she would take Helena into the woods to look for birds and mushrooms. Niamh worried about this, and suggested that they wait until Leonard could go with them, but Susan simply ignored her. When she returned with her groceries, the yard was empty. Niamh left the groceries in the car and walked back down the driveway to close the gate that kept the dogs in. There were a number of odd prints in the soft earth on either side of the driveway, paw prints with strange, stubby appendages like amputated fingers. Niamh turned around in a wide circle. Nothing moved on the lawn or in the bushes, except a cardinal at the birdfeeder. She collected her groceries from the car and walked into the house. Leonard was standing at the kitchen table, drinking his second or third cup of coffee.
Leonard shrugged. “She went with my mother to look at birds.”
“Where did they go?”
“Up the hill.”
Niamh left the kitchen and walked down past the pool and through the latched gate and past the decrepit barn where Susan had stabled her horses, in the days when she kept horses, and came to the foot of the hill. Far above her, near the tree line, she could see two figures moving through the unmown grass, the smaller running ahead like a hunting dog, turning back and pointing at things occasionally, the taller picking its way gingerly behind. Something barked in the tall grass. Niamh jumped, but it was only one of Susan’s dogs, running back down the hill to lick her ankles. It turned, and Niamh followed it back up the hill.
“Hello,” she called when she was closer to Helena and Susan.
“Look what I found.” Helena held out a hand full of red feathers.
“From a cardinal,” said Susan.
“Don’t touch your face, Helena,” said Niamh. “We’ll have to wash those.”
Helena looked down and stroked the black and white dog, who was nosing at the feathers in her hand.
“I saw a deer.”
“Do you want to come down and swim in the pool? Your grandmother’s probably tired.”
“I’m just fine,” said Susan, although Niamh could see that she was limping, just slightly, on the leg with the stitches. “She does run ahead, though. I had to call for her, once or twice, when she got out of my sight.”
“We went into the barn and I climbed up to the hay loft, too.”
Susan smiled. “I’m afraid the stairs are a bit too steep for me.”
At the gate into the pasture, Niamh stopped Helena and knelt down to check her legs and her clothes for ticks. Helena whined.
“I put on bug spray already.”
“I just want to be sure, okay? If a tick bites you, it can make you very sick.” That afternoon, Leonard put floating wings on Helena and helped her dog paddle in the pool. Helena kept her neck rigidly above water and kicked frantically, as if there were something in the pool she was trying to get away from. Susan watched for a while and went upstairs to take a nap. Leonard climbed out of the pool and went to sit by Niamh.
“I think maybe your mother shouldn’t take Helena up into the woods alone. What if she falls again? It could be dangerous.”
“Helena would come down to the house and find us. It’s safer than if she went alone.”
Niamh was silent. Something rustled in the bushes at the edge of the yard. She watched, but it didn’t move again. Leonard leaned over and brushed his fingers against her neck.
“What is it?”
“Nothing.” He stood up. “Just a tick. Don’t worry, it hadn’t bitten you. I’ll take it away.”
He kissed the top of her head. He was still pinching the body of the tick between his fingers. Niamh could see its legs squirming. He walked across the yard and tossed it over the fence. Niamh shuddered.
“I’m going to wash my hands,” Leonard called as he walked back to the farmhouse.
* * *
That night Niamh woke up while it was still dark. Leonard was sleeping with one arm tossed over her shoulders, and she was sweating under his weight. She was thirsty. She got up and walked down the hall to the bathroom, peeking into Helena’s room, watching for a moment as her breath rose and fell under the quilt. In the bathroom, she splashed her face with water and drank out of her hands. She looked in the mirror, and her face looked haggard, her pale hair tangled from sleep and damp with sweat. She walked her fingers down either side of her neck, then down her shoulders, waiting for the shock of feeling a creature attached to her skin, sucking her blood. There was nothing. Her shoulders were freckled, and that was all. She walked to the bathroom window and looked out into the night, cupping her hands to the glass so that she would be able to see into the darkness.
Something moved by the fence. Niamh tensed, waiting for the appearance of the creature, enormous, white, naked, with its dark, staring eyes. It would be a giant by now, it must have grown beyond all comprehension. She could imagine, in great detail, the blue veins in its forehead, the claws grown from its stubby fingers.
Nothing moved for a long moment. And then, by the gate. A creature, child-sized. Walking on two legs, in that sleek, clumsy way, shoulders stubbornly set. Helena. She would know the way that Helena moved anywhere.
Niamh ran down the hallway and threw open the door to Helena’s room. Helena was sleeping with her hair tangled on the white pillow, her mouth slack. The quilt rose and fell with her breath. Her arm lay outstretched across the pillow as if she was reaching out for something. Niamh put a hand on her shoulder, careful not to wake her. She was solid and warm. Niamh backed away into the hallway, leaving the door ajar.
When she looked out the window towards the gate, the yard was empty.
A dream, she told herself. It was only a waking dream.
* * *
She woke up late the next morning. Leonard and Susan were both downstairs, drinking coffee, while the sun streamed in through the living room windows. Niamh walked to the kitchen.
“Have you two already cleaned up breakfast?” she called.
“We haven’t made anything yet,” said Leonard. “Except the coffee. Since you and Helena weren’t up.”
“Oh,” said Niamh. “I’ll see if she’s still sleeping. Then we can eat.”
Upstairs, the door to Helena’s room was stuck in the frame, swollen with humidity. When Niamh forced it open, it made a popping sound, and Niamh was afraid she had woken Helena up.
But Helena was not there. The covers on her bed were thrown back, and her closet door was open, her pink backpack gone from it, along with her sandals and the cardinal feathers that she’d insisted on keeping on her bedside table. Niamh ran downstairs.
“Isn’t she in her room?” asked Susan.
“No.” Niamh felt herself near tears, her heart beating frantically. She pushed past Leonard as he stood up, trying to catch her arm, asking, was Helena in the bathroom, was she in the attic, had she simply gotten up a moment before Niamh came in? Niamh shoved him and ran from the room and out the back door. The gate to the pasture was still unlatched. She had seen Helena open it last night.
She watched the hill for any sign of movement, but there was none. The barn loomed in the corner of her vision. She turned towards it. There were patches of mud in the pasture. She could see the imprint of Helena’s sandals.
The door of the barn creaked when she opened it.
Something rustled above her, in the hay loft. Then there was a thump.
She found the door and climbed the stairs to the hay loft. They creaked. They were cracked, and in places nails stood up from the boards. Niamh reached the top of the staircase almost on her hands and knees.
She was there, standing in the middle of the floor, amidst the bales of musty hay, wearing her green sun dress, wearing a look of contrition. Niamh ran to pull her into her arms, to tell her about the dangers of the stairs, to tell her never to disappear again. How frightened she’d been. And then she looked beyond her, and her terror returned.
Helena’s backpack lay opened on the floor. Clothes spilled out of it, and the cardinal feathers. And beside it, kneeling, Helena, or a girl who looked just like her, the double of the girl who Niamh was holding by her shoulders. One wore the green sundress that was Helena’s favorite, and the other wore the purple shorts that she also loved, and the T-shirt with a sunflower on it. Their sleek brown hair was tangled, and they both looked at her with identical expressions, surprise and a little guilt, as if they knew that they should not have been playing in this place.
“Helena. Which one of you? Which one of you is it?”
She imagined the blind, naked, faceless creature in the woods, over which her daughter’s face had grown like a sheet of lichen. Those stubby, amputated fingers stretched to look like Helena’s. That transparent skin darkened to a sleek brown. Her daughter’s eyes opening in that terrible face. She grasped the girl in the sundress by her shoulders and shook her so that her teeth chattered.
“Which of you is the real one? Tell me!”
The girl in the sundress began to cry, but Niamh couldn’t stop. She shook her and shook her. The other one stayed frozen by the open backpack, her eyes wide in fear.
“Which one?” Niamh cried. “Which one?”
She shoved the girl in the dress, the imposter, her daughter, away from her, and looked between the two of them, looking for some sign as to which was the true girl. They stood side by side, both silent, both terrified.
Celia Dovell Bell is an author living in New York City. Her work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine and Five Points.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.