Thursday, April 26, 2007

Chapter Sixteen: Little Boxes, Little Boxes

Thanks to for the picture.

After returning Seattle-side on the ferry, Compass and Mark made a quick side trip to Home Depot for a hammer. They spent a good part of the afternoon cautiously chipping away at the dragonflies as Compass couldn’t bring herself to destroy the bugs. To her combined relief and disappointment, none of her bugs was a carrier.

“You make it sound like they have the Plague,” said Mark, smiling and wiping Plexiglass dust from his hands. “You don’t want to be rich?”

“This way? No thanks.”

“It bothers you that the jewels were stolen?”

Compass mused on that for a bit, then decided, “No . . . I mean, it’s the history of precious stones to be stolen, isn’t it? By thieves, by victors in war stealing from the conquered, by invaders stealing from the natives, masters stealing from the newly enslaved, museums plundering the graves of emporers and dead civilizations, Nazis looting the homes of the Jews. Every jewel my father took had probably been stolen a dozen times already.”

“So what’s the issue, then?”

“Trust. Immediate, irrevocable erosion of trust. It’s already started. My grandparents tell me to beware of my dad. You tell me to beware of my grandparents. I trust you, but I’m sure someone will pop up soon to tell me not to. And now I don’t trust myself.”

“What does that mean?”

“Mark, I was ready to go home with those people today. I was ready for them to take me in and feed me cookies and show me old pictures and probably wall me up in the cellar to die alone and rat-nibbled amongst the canned tomatoes and strawberry preserves.”

“Or not. Look, Compass, I didn’t mean to snatch your brand-new grandparents away from you. Chances are they’re the real thing, right down to the DNA, and I just deprived you of an afternoon of OD’ing on chocolate chip cookies.”

“Maybe. But maybe not. And the possibility of not makes me feel naive and stupid and vulnerable because it didn’t even occur to me to ask for ID or whatever. I guess I was just so desperate to have what everyone else has.”

“A normal family.”

“A normal family.” Compass smiled, a little. “I should know better. Any family with Mina in the mix is by definition warped.”

“But she puts the ‘fun’ in dysfunctional, doesn’t she? Remember the time we tried to take her out for Mother’s Day and she got drunk and kept calling you ‘mom’?”

“She made the chef put the roses I bought her in the blender and bet the busboy $20 that he couldn’t drink them. I never saw that busboy again.”

“He just kept grinning at her, bits of rose petals stuck in his teeth, and he wouldn't take the money.”

“He probably got a perforated intestine from all the thorns.”

“Your mom can be a lot of fun, Compass. She’s different, at least.”

“Her idea of entertainment is to unclip a seeing-eye dog from its leash.”

“Yeah, well, who hasn’t fantasized about doing that?”

Compass fixed Mark with a glare.

“OK, I haven’t either, but come on, Compass. She’s given you this adventure, this once-in-a-lifetime chance at mystery and intrigue.”

“This isn’t Murder, She Wrote, Mark, this is real. What if Oliver comes after me? What then? Angela Lansbury is looking a bit frail these days, so no help there.”

“I’ll be your Angela Lansbury. Or your Watson, that might be better. Wait, was Watson gay?”

“Go home, Mark. Find your pipe and your deerstalker, and we’ll talk tomorrow, OK?”

“Yes. Call me if you need me. Are you sure you’re OK to be on your own?”

“I’ll keep the hammer close by. Go.”

After Mark left, Compass spent the rest of that day and much of the night tearing Mina’s house apart. Except for the attic, where she never ventured while in the house alone, Compass searched everywhere for anything at all that Oliver might want. There was nothing.

In fact, there really wasn’t much in the house at all. There were clothes and some books and a surprising number of kitchen towels, but there wasn’t much in the house to suggest a life fully lived. There were no knick knacks from foreign countries, no pictures with actual people in them, no cute little stuffed toy kept for its sentimental value, no dried flowers preserved in a vase, no memorabilia at all, really. There was nothing left from Compass’ childhood – even the hotpads and throw rugs and bathroom towels were all new-ish and matched; not a single thread-bare leftover to show that Mina had a past, a daughter, had once had a family.

Mina owned some beautiful things: she had a fountain pen collection that Compass coveted immediately and a bunch of jewelry she didn’t, she had some nice paintings of places Mina’d likely never been but which matched her decor, she had some glass bowls and empty boxes made of marble and a bunch of decorative eggs, all carved from different polished stones, but everything here was hard and cold to the touch. For the first time ever, Compass felt a twinge of sympathy for her mother.

There was nothing to find. Not in the lower reaches of the house, anyway. But if Mina wanted to hide something from her daughter, the best place to hide it would be the attic. Mina knew the story of the ghosts both fascinated and frightened her daughter, and she took full advantage, periodically embellishing the legend with details of her own. She would tell Compass of nights when she woke up just inside the attic, having been lured by siren singing in her sleep. She talked about walking through cold spots, places in the house where the temperature might be 40 or 50 degrees colder; cold enough, she claimed, to see her breath in summertime. Things flickered just at the edge of sight, she said; and often there were quiet footsteps from above or the almost-inaudible scratching of pencil on paper. And of course there was always the music: sometimes opera, often jazz, always the piano, unaccompanied except by a thin, haunting voice that Mina found herself straining to hear. And, for her coup de grĂ¢ce, she claimed that once the voice had lured her to the attic and shut the door behind her. What happened then, she would not say, only covering her mouth with one masterfully quivering hand before bravely changing the subject.

Compass knew her mother was full of bullshit, but the attic terrified her anyway. It was stupid. She’d felt such peace there that first time, then let her mother scare her off with her ludicrous stories. If anything, Henry and Sophie were benevolent, even welcoming, and Compass refused to be afraid of them any longer. But she took her cellphone with her, just in case.

The door to the attic creaked so theatrically, Compass wondered if Mina had had sound effects installed. The dust was pretty thick up there, and a lack of recent footprints meant that if there was something to see, Mina hadn’t taken it with her when she fled.

Henry’s desk took up the length of the attic on one side. His children had left his chair, which surprised Compass, but the chair looked so natural there that it would leave a gap like a missing tooth if taken away. It took a minute or two of loin-girding, but she was finally able to come all the way into the attic, first checking that the light bulb still worked. She mumbled an apology as she stuck a heavy book in front of the door.

It only took another minute or so before Compass felt the peace and calm she’d felt before. If Henry and Sophie were here, they were smiling; that much was certain. Compass took a deep breath and allowed herself to look around. The attic was mostly empty, apart from the desk and the chairs. Rows upon rows of empty bookshelves lined the walls of the attic, and Compass could imagine them crammed full of books and papers and all the flotsam and jetsam of a real writer’s life. But under the far corner of Henry’s desk, as discreet as Mina wasn’t, was a small pile of boxes. Recent boxes.

Compass approached them as gingerly as she might a pile of sleeping grizzlies. The spectres of previous homeowners were tame compared to the horrors that might be contained in those boxes. She pulled them out carefully, in a manner to make a bomb squad proud.

She considered carrying the boxes down to the living room where the light was better, but decided to stay here where she could have the comfort of Henry and Sophie if she needed it.

The boxes were organized by dates written on top in Mina’s carelessly elegant handwriting. The most recent box was dated from a few months before Compass’ birth up to less than a year ago. Forty years crammed into one box just big enough for a toaster oven. Compass pulled at the yards of packing tape until it finally let go.

On top was a photo from Compass’ graduation from grad school. She was linked, arms over shoulders, with a group of equally joyful-looking friends, all of them glowing in their robes and their triumph. Compass had no idea who had taken the photo or how it came to be here. Her mother hadn’t attended the ceremony, saying the smell of smug made her nauseated. The box was full of Compass: drawings from school, horrible craft projects her mother had derided, saying the only way her daughter would hang in the Tate was by her neck. But there it all was – preserved, or at least kept. Every school photo was there, in order, and Compass flipped through them, the gaps in her smile filling in, the wonder in her eyes fading out. Here were the ballet slippers from when her mother insisted that Compass take a class to learn more grace, and Compass had quit after she got her foot caught in the bar and twisted her ankle. There were reports from camp lauding Compass’ victory in having achieved “guppy” status in swim class (she would remain a guppy for six consecutive summers) and grade cards from school and even all the letters Compass had written from school or her years abroad. Mina had kept it all.

At the bottom of the box were birth announcements and congratulatory cards that had the gifts given scribbled on them in unfamiliar handwriting. There had been a shower, then, even though Mina claimed a horror of baby showers, claiming she simply could not coo on command. There were also sympathy cards, lots of them. There was one photo of a man, handsome and young, a cigarette poking from one side of his mouth, a fish dangling from a line. On the back, that same unknown woman had written “Jeremy, July 4, 1966, Myers Lake.” Her not-quite father, less than two years of life left in him, though he looked strong enough for a hundred. Besides the few photos of her, this was the only other picture in the box. No pictures of pregnant Mina, no photos of Arthur and Ginny, no houses just bought, no gardens or Christmases, or barbeques. Mina’s past was filling up, but it was still far from full.

Tucked under one flap at the bottom of the box, Compass found a folded piece of paper. It was old, yellowed, the blue lines nearly washed out. It was a letter. With trembling hands, she carefully unfolded it. It was too dark in the corner to read the faded writing, so she took the letter over to the desk where a small lamp gave her a comforting pool of light. Without really noticing she was doing it, she sat down in Henry’s chair. The letter was dated December 21, 1967. Less than two weeks before Compass’ birth.

Dear Willem, (the letter began) It’s now nearly eight months since I last heard from you, and I’m wondering how my little seed-pod is faring. You must be fit to burst by now, but perhaps that’s not the most sensitive language to use for a woman in your situation. I hope you are able to sleep at night, even with the apnoic buffoon you married snorting away next to you. I’m sending you xxxxxx’s mixed with zzzzzz’s – these are hugs wrapped in sleep, you wrapped in my arms.

I know you think it’s only your pregnancy, plus your buffoon, that keeps you safe from me, but I promise you again that you are in no danger, provided you do as you’re told. I only want what’s rightfully mine. Well, rightfully the Museum’s, I suppose, but still more mine than yours in the great scheme of things. Return the hinds emerald and you can keep all the rest – there are plenty more still secreted in the collection, and now that you’ve so kindly returned my list, my future is no longer in doubt. Yours, however, is.


At the bottom of the letter, Mina had scribbled the word “twat.”

Compass sat in Henry’s chair, the letter in her hand, for a long, silent time. The three people who knew Mina best – her lover, her parents (assuming they were) and her daughter – each had a different name for the same woman. Which seemed to indicate that none of them knew her at all. She was so wrapped in her thoughts that she completely failed to notice the slight tremble of the hardwood floor beneath her feet.


NuclearToast said...

Once again, a winning chapter. The last line gave me a chill!

Ash said...

Fav parts:
(Lots of them in this chapter!)

Wall up in the cellar!
Mother’s Day stuff = LOL!!!!
Seeing eye dog = LOL!!!
OMG – I was having a Murder She Wrote marathon that day you stopped by!
Sound effects on the attic door!
Hang in the Tate by her neck!

OMG – Cliffhanger! I hope you post the next chapter soon! I can’t wait!

Ash said...

Oh damn! I was hoping that when I checked today I would find a brand-spankin' new chapter! You are going to force me to go home and read a book made of paper!