The Secret Eater

At first the blue girl was nothing but a rumor, a whisper. We spoke of her while we waited in minivans for our teenage girls to come out of school with their teeth shining and their whole lives ahead of them. Out by the lake, we said, that’s where they say she is. They say her breath sounds like a whistle. They say she sounds like someone fighting to live. My friend Magda and I told each other the things we’d overheard the girls whispering on cell phones. There was a girl who coughed long into the night. A girl whose breath sounded like so much slush.

They say she swallowed Drano, we’d say. They say she has no mother, and then, My God, we’d say, they say she’s blue.

We didn’t believe them at first. How could a girl be blue? We didn’t believe everything we’d heard. We had sense enough to turn our backs to the pieces of muffled conversations we’d eavesdropped on. They’re young, they’re imaginative, we said. They need something to believe. In a town as dull as this one, it was what we needed, too, and surely we could understand the boredom, the stifling we already sensed in our girls, only fifteen. We didn’t want this for them, but what could we do? We had already long been broken.

I believe, looking back, that they had already seen her, both my Audrey and Magda’s frightened Carolyn. I believe they’d gone out to the lake, a group of them, and waited for the blue girl to move out from behind the trees on the far end of the lake. I cannot prove this, but it was something I sensed, some secret knowledge they all shared that summer, long before that day at the lake when everything changed.

And then she appeared. There we were, the four of us, Magda and I with our girls. It was one of the few times we’d been out to the lake together, when the sun was just beginning to go down earlier and school was days away. We’d asked the girls to go with us many times, but always they begged off. Too busy with summer reading, they said, and how could we argue? At the time Magda said they were embarrassed by us, that embarrassment happened at that age between girls and their mothers, and didn’t I remember how that felt. I had denied it. I’d sworn that I’d never felt that way about my own mother. But I had. I remember I kept looking at Audrey that day and at the same time trying not to look because if she caught me looking, she’d turn away. I remember thinking that I had been that way with my own mother once, so distant, trying to disappear, to dismiss her, she who had held me inside her and squeezed me out, and that I thought of how ungrateful we all became. I remember that I thought of my mother so often that day, that I wished I could tell her how sorry I was.

For a moment, when we saw the blue girl float out from the other side of the woods, I thought it actually was my mother. “Is that a girl?” Magda said, and we sat up straight on the blanket. With the sun behind her, she glowed, iridescent, and someone said, “Is that girl blue?”

Before anyone could answer, the thrashing began, the water coming up white and foamy and the choking sounds echoing through the trees. None of us moved at first, not Magda or I, and certainly not poor Carolyn. The only one who moved was my Audrey, my pale dismissive beautiful Audrey who raced into the water and pulled the girl out, who puffed air into the girl’s lungs and brought the blue girl back to life.

This is the story I’ve told. It’s the story I tell over and over to myself to try to forgive myself for doing the unforgivable. I let my daughter save a dead girl, and I did nothing to help her.

That is my secret. That secret is mine, along with so many others. The secret is terrible. I know this now, the destructive power of secrets, and no matter how many times I tell them, there is still no relief.

We don’t remember who first thought of going to the blue girl’s house. When I was a girl, my mother used to say that magnolia trees sang operettas if you listened closely, and I would crane my neck toward the enormous pink blossoms and dream of glissandoes and voices that ached, though I heard nothing. When I told my mother I couldn’t hear the trees, she said, Keep trying, Irene, listen hard, listen deep, but I thought the magnolias would never sing to me because they lost their blossoms on the lawn and only to be sucked away in a mass of pollen. They made my eyes water and my throat ache, and I could never be sure of this, but I always thought my mother hated me for sneezing and drowning out their glorious voices.

Summer was coming to an end that first day we visited the blue girl. The summer people in their cottages with their reliable husbands and sunburned children were beginning to pack up their sagging lounge chairs and seal their bathing suits into Ziploc bags, as if they could seal up their lives by sealing out the air. I think of how tentative we were, slipping through the trees and into the nook at the end of the road where the house sat, so alone, the wood knotted at the seams, one bare window open. Magda and I held hands, and I remember thinking, Try, Irene, try to hear the trees singing, try for your mother, you owe her that much.

For a minute I thought I heard them, the trills of their voices, slow air blowing from a rounded mouth, just the way a tree ought to sound. I squeezed Magda’s hand and said, “I hear it,” and she said, “I hear it, too.”

But it was not the trees singing. It was the blue girl’s breath.

The old woman peered at us from behind the parted door and shook her head, back and forth, back and forth, the way a child would, the way my son Buck does sometimes when he doesn’t want to go to bed, when he sticks in his fingers in his ears as if to tell me he will never hear me, that he has blocked out my voice with the tips of his fingers forever.

“You come at night,” the old woman said. She hacked into a handkerchief, her shoulders shaking as she coughed. “Only at night.”

She coughed again, and then looked directly at me.   She hid her hands in her pockets as if she knew I was trying to see them.

“Bring her something to eat,” the old woman said. “Something that you must give away.”

Magda rocked forward and said, “Like leftovers?” and the old woman laughed, her head back as the coughing racked her shoulders.

“Something only she can have,” she said, and then closed the door and disappeared into the house.

We laughed, huddling together and covering our mouths like school girls, the way that Audrey and Carolyn laughed when they were twelve, like whispering colts leaning together, their knees twitching as if their legs might suddenly fly off without them.

On the way home, I drove with the windows open and listened to the whistle of the trees. I stopped the car at the end of the road and got out, looked back at the woods and at the moon hanging in the air, big as a dream.

And the only other thing I remember, besides Audrey whispering to Buck in her bedroom, is that I had a sudden and unmistakable craving for moon pies. I’d not had that craving since I was pregnant, and just the thought of being pregnant– the way Audrey would turn inside me at night, the way Buck kicked so hard my bladder leaked.  When Magda called me late that night and whispered, “We need to make her moon pies,” I was already stirring the chocolate and marshmallows and trying to sing. Just the idea of being pregnant made me think, as I have so many times since that day, I will never be the kind of woman who can hear the singing of the trees.

Moon Pie Recipe

Two small chocolate cakes. (graham crackers dipped in chocolate optional)

One bag of marshmallow. (User discretion on number of marshmallows actually used)

Stir marshmallow in pot until each marshmallow is adequately melted. Marshmallows should bubble up, almost to the point of spilling over the pot. Cakes should be baked in tins no bigger than 5” round. When marshmallow is still warm and cakes have been cooled, think deeply about secrets you wish to dispense with, and mouth the secrets silently. Any secrets spoken above a whisper will not be absorbed. Spoon marshmallow onto top of one cake. Place second cake on top, pressing firmly, but not too firmly, or secrets will spill out.

Richard does not ask where I am going on the nights that we go to her. He does not ask about the smell of chocolate and marshmallow or why the dishes remain in the sink after midnight, or why I slip onto the sofa bed and smoke cigarettes after ten years of quitting. I imagine his asking in the quiet way he might have in the early years of our marriage, and my turning to him with the smoke in my mouth and saying, “I need to feel it, Richard, I need the smoke to fill me. Just the air is not enough.”

But he does not ask. The time for asking is long past.

Last year in the early days of fall, Richard sat for three weeks in front of the television and waited for it to explode. He sat in crash position, arms locked over the top of his head, his body curling into itself the way they taught schoolchildren to shield themselves if a bomb were ever to fall. For three weeks he would not leave the television unguarded. When I got down on the floor beside him and asked what he was doing, why he was crouched on the floor, he kept saying, Something is going to happen, something terrible, and I asked him if he meant to the television or to us, but he wouldn’t answer. He sat there with his arms folded over his head until the ambulance arrived. Afterward he came home in a haze of medication and the half-dreams of men who feel things too deeply, only to end up not feeling at all.

I used to imagine myself moving across the living room to him and taking his hand, the two of us walking out the back door and out to the edge of the lawn where the lake shimmers in the distance at night. I used to imagine sitting on the lawn with ice clinking in our glasses of the Scotch and soda I’d made us as we re-traced our steps, slowly and methodically, without hurt or recriminations to find out how we got here. I’d tell him about that day in the lake, about the light on the water and the drowning, about how I’ve felt since that day. I’d tell him that the blue girl is here, and so are we.

But now, standing at the sink and stirring the marshmallow cream of the moon pies, I know it is not how we got here that matters. It is that we are here now.

 

*                              *                              *

 

Audrey no longer sleeps. I know this because she keeps her television on after midnight, and on the nights that Magda and I take the moon pies to the blue girl, I come home to the muffled sounds of Audrey’s television set behind the door. I knock softly and wait for her answer, but all that comes is the laugh track from a favorite old sitcom. When I open the door, I find her lying on her back with Buck beside her, his head curved into the crook of her underarm. His pajamas are covered with sailboats.

Except for the pale yellow blanket, the room is covered in blue light. My children look blue, and not a pretty blue, either, an unnatural blue. Like her.

I rush to the bed and shake the children. I have brought this into my house, I think, lifting Buck’s head from Audrey’s arm. I have infected them. In feeding her the secrets, I have allowed her blueness inside.

“Wake up, Bucky, wake up,” I say, and Buck rolls over into my arms. I scoop him from the bed and nudge Audrey’s arm. I say her name low. Audrey opens her eyes and stares.

“I’m up,” she says. “I’m always up.”

I nod and move toward the door.

She rolls away from me. Buck sighs as I carry him into bed. The sailboats on his pajamas are rumpled, the sleeves much too short.

In the morning I’m making sandwiches for school while Audrey and Buck whisper in the dining room. I make them every Wednesday for Buck’s lunch. Audrey will not bring lunch anymore; she is long past the days of letting me feed her. From the counter I watch as Buck approaches Audrey with a bag of my marshmallows in his hands.

“I dreamed about her,” he whispers, holding the five-pound bag of sugar in front of him. “I dreamed about you-know-who.”

We do not say the word “blue” in this house, not since that day in the lake. I have only begun to notice this. If I asked Audrey what color her eyes are, she would refuse to answer me, I think, looking down at my son as I slather the slices of white bread with jelly. I imagine her glaring at me and saying, “If you don’t know what color my eyes are, Mom, then what does that say about us?”

Buck leans forward and holds the sugar above his head.

“Hurry up,” she says, “and show me before Mom comes.”

He balances the marshmallows on the top of his head and moves side to side, back and forth, side, back, side again. There in the dining room, my eight-year-old son hold his arms out in front of him as if holding the body of a woman.

“She came to me and told me to dance, just like this, with sugar on my head,” he says, and then moves his right foot forward, left for together, right side, left together, and back again.

I drop the knife in the sink.

“Who the hell taught you how to waltz?” Audrey asks.

Buck smiles.

“You’ll make me lose count,” he says, and then he waltzes around the room, the sugar wobbling on top of his head.

I wrap the sandwiches in cellophane and stuff them into a paper bag.

“Time to go,” I call.

I take the bag of marshmallows and hide it in the back of the pantry where Buck can no longer reach.

Buck straps himself into the back seat, and Audrey sits beside me in front. I remember how thrilled she was when I first told her she could sit up front with me. She would smile and snap the seat harness, which was sometimes hard to stretch for her and those little hands. Now she does it effortlessly, of course, but gone are the smiles, gone are the days when she would turn to me for approval.

The skin under her eyes looks bruised. I want to ask her if she is afraid to sleep because of what she might dream, but I know better.

“Didn’t you sleep well?” I ask.

She turns to look out the window. I feel Buck kicking the back of my seat.

“I didn’t sleep,” she says.

We stop at the traffic light in front of the grammar school. Boys with heavy backpacks rush across the street as the crossing guard holds up her white gloved hand. She smiles at me and waves as we pull forward and into the school driveway.

“I’ll see you at three o’clock,” I say, as Buck is halfway out the door. I roll down the window when I see the paper bag on the front seat.

“Buck!” I call, “Buck!” and as I call his name I feel knots in my throat, a tightness so deep I think I might lose my breath. He looks so small against the brick building and the open sky above it. I want to ask for a kiss, I want to pull him back into the car and drive us all away. I dangle the bag and say, “Don’t forget your sandwiches, honey,” and he says, “Thanks, Mom,” in a voice so sweet that my ribs ache.

“Don’t do any waltzing, you little nut,” Audrey says, and he holds his sandwich bag on top of his head and twirls around.

I say nothing. I let them have their secret.

We drive past the road to the woods where the girl lives. Audrey never looks at me, not once, though I watch her as we wind our way through town, past the lake, past the place where the girl drowned. The only thing Audrey ever told me about that day, the one thing she allowed herself to say when it was over, when we were safe and home again, when it was late and we sat together on the sofa drinking tea, was that the girl’s lips had been warm.

“Who would ever think,” she’d said, “that lips that blue would not be cold?”

I think of the feel of the girl’s lips when I first fed her, when she first licked marshmallow from my hand. The lips were warm–-Audrey was right–but the tongue had been ice cold.

Audrey, my beautiful Audrey who is getting so thin, who saved a girl from drowning when everyone was too frightened to move. A girl who eats what we cannot share. A girl whose breath my daughter gave to her like a blessing.

“Are you staying after school today?” I ask as I pull in front of the high school and wait for her to gather up her notebooks and pens, the items that stall her from going to a school she has come to dread. Everyone asks her, Magda tells me, Everyone wants to know. So many questions, but she won’t tell.

“Are you making your pies again?” she asks.

The question startles me. I adjust the rearview mirror and press my lips together to blot my lipstick.

“For the bake sale,” I lie, “to help raise money for scholarships so that all the summer kids don’t end up running our town.”

In all the years I have lived in this town, there has never been a bake sale, not once, not for the summer people, certainly, who flee as soon as the days grow shorter and leave us with husbands who no longer look at us in bathing suits or pour us cocktails at the end of summer nights.

Audrey does not believe me, though I wish she would. I wish she’d allow me the tiniest of lies. I wish she would not try to know more than I tell her. But Audrey is wise. She is the one wise enough to jump into the water and pump water out of a blue girl’s lungs. She is wise enough to smile at her father as he sits in his chair and stares at the blankness. She is wise enough to hold her brother when she cannot sleep and I am too distracted to help her. If any of our children are wise enough to find a way out of this town, it is Audrey.

“Okay, Mom,” she says. “For the bake sale. Okay.”

 

She opens the door to the van and slides one leg out, letting the toe of her shoe touch the ground. She swings her foot back and forth against the pavement, making a soft scraping sound that makes me think of my mother and all her hopes of singing. The branch of a tree casts a shadow over us. I hear my mother urging me to listen, but it’s as if my ears have been stopped up. Audrey’s eyes shine as she looks out past me, past the parking lot and the school and all of the things that make up this town.

“She was dead that day, you know,” she says without looking at me. “And she could die again.”

I want to lay my hands on hers and squeeze the fingers that are ringed with the same freckles my mother once had. I want to close the doors and hold her hands and lift them against my heart so she can feel it beating. I want to tell her about the nights we drive out to the lake, about the blue girl’s lips warmer than I’d ever have imagined, about the smell of marshmallows and the ways we feed her. I want to squeeze her hands and lead us into song, for my mother, for Richard, a song for Buck to dance to. I want to sing with the windows open, a song that will slide up into the trees, past the lake, down the long road and all the way up to that hanging moon.

But I cannot sing. Audrey gets out of the car. Before she turns away, she looks back at me, her eyes clouded by lack of sleep. I open my mouth to say her name as I watch her move away from me, but as I do, I feel my throat turn thick. I sit in the driver’s seat and watch her walking, farther and farther away from me until the doors of the school open and close, and she is gone inside. I sit with my hands on the steering wheel and feel myself breathe and know that I will go home again to bake the moon pies, that I will do what I  can to save her.

 

 

2 Responses to “The Secret Eater”

  1. gdub

    Well, haven’t read it all, coming back for the rest of it, but all I can say at this point is Very VERY cool, very nice. Yep. Errands to run, and this to look forward to.

  2. Mark Saha

    This story is so strikingly original that I’ve returned to it several times now to make sure it is actually there. Thank you.

Join the discussion

  • (will not be published)