By Hina Rani
The day Archie met her husband, she knew it would be true love because the spirits went quiet for the first time in years. First, it was excited chatter, then hushing, like an audience before a show. Then, a sustained silence. The autumn trees parted like curtains, setting the stage for our two lovers to begin their story. Within a year they would be engaged to be married. On blueberry pancake-scented mornings Archie’s husband would prop himself up on one elbow, his gaze resting on his barely-awake wife, and ask about that day. “And the voices haven’t bothered you since we met?” She would bristle inwardly at his irreverence, but she couldn’t ignore that voice, eager and admiring. He was an ordinary man who had stumbled into princehood. For this honour, he was willing to suspend all disbelief about whatever may have haunted his wife before they met. He was a hero who hadn’t had to do any of the work. Loving her, he fancied, was his superpower. She was more than happy to grant him this. On mornings like this she’d throw her head back into the white down pillow, angling her face towards him to feel the warmth of his adoration. She was sure to keep her eyes shut. She knew better than to look a miracle in the eye.
As soon as her husband left for work, Archie would begin her tasks for the day. She tended to planters of rosemary and thyme and basil and mint, which overflowed from their place on her windowsill and littered the space on either side of the kitchen window, steeping her fingertips with the scent of soil. Thenshe would take to the field, and return later in the afternoon with a wagon clinking with glass bottles of milk, which would populate her kitchen counters until the next time she went down to the market. On the front porch lay yards of cotton cloth on which red chillies and sliced tomatoes dried in the sun. Over the railing, she draped cheesecloths that waited dutifully for when they became dry enough to use again. On the stove, orange marmalade bubbled happily over the flame. When she finished these chores, she collapsed onto the overstuffed squash-coloured couch with a book from the equally stuffed shelf. Sometimes, when she removed a volume, she thought she heard voices—whispers of her old companions escaping from their hiding places from which they watched her life without them. But that could very well be the protestations of the old wood as it was forced to surrender another one of its many spines.
Whenever her husband came home to the smell of caramelized onions, the pleasant crackling of the radio, and the sight of his wife dancing, wooden spoon in hand, he was reminded of how much life Archie brought to their home. She was a substantial woman with bangles on her thick forearms, calluses on her heavy hands, and a low, soothing voice more suited to humming than singing. Even on her own, she filled the home. On this particular day, her husband decided he wanted to fill the home just a little more. As he swept her into a bridal carry, she yelped with delight and dropped her spoon. Tomato sauce splattered on the linoleum.
Their daughter was born on the day of a total solar eclipse. Perhaps Archie’s water broke as a shadow fell over the sun and darkness overcame the midday sky. Maybe the child began to crown as the two celestial bodies collided, and the surface of the moon was littered with diamonds of light. These are things neither Archie nor her husband would know because that afternoon the windows of their living room were shrouded with heavy black cloth. That woman with the swollen belly balanced on swollen feet lovingly protected her home from tainted sunlight until her body would no longer allow it. When her husband tried to take her to the hospital, the very-soon-to-be mother began to shriek uncontrollably. With his wife bound to their home by some unshakeable suspicion, unheard of before this day, Archie’s husband dialed for a midwife. Archie squeezed her eyes shut as if in fear of the small sliver of light that followed the nurse into their home. They remained closed for the duration of the birth, opening only when it was time to look into the black-rimmed irises of her newborn. Archie’s husband should have asked right then what his wife had seen that had shaken her so. How was he to know that Archie would never again speak of this day?
The baby did not respond to routine. She burped and she vomited and she tethered Archie into orbit around her wicker cradle in the living room. She was an irritable child. She wailed when the radio played, and when she heard milk bottles clink in the kitchen. She fussed when her mother’s scent was masked by the outdoors. Archie had to shower away the scent of soil and garlic and rosemary every time she took her daughter to her breast. Only then would the child drink greedily, her demands fulfilled. When her husband returned from work, Archie pulled him towards her by the tie, as if that Windsor knot were the only remaining thing in their home keeping her afloat. What she didn’t realize was that her husband himself was reeling from the episode that was the birth of their child; he was nowhere near solid enough to ground them both. As the child began to coo, it earned the attention of her father, who swept her into his arms and showered her with kisses, not noticing his tie slinking between the fingers of his wife. Archie stepped away, then towards them, swaying uncertainly like milkweed. She encircled the two of them in her arms. The happiest family alive.
One night Archie’s husband was late from work, and she began to fold in on herself. The child demanded her doting, but Archie was slowly slipping from that centre of gravity sitting in the wicker cradle. She would leave the baby’s sleeping body, only to return seconds later with food, toys, napkins. She swung loosely in orbit, crashing more and more violently every time she came around. Finally, the force of her own weight propelled her away from that tiny, wrinkled, gravitational field. She came crashing down on her knees in front of the bookshelf. Sensing her mother’s distress or perhaps with some sick-self satisfaction, the child went silent to observe what happened next.
Archie gingerly removed a single novel from her shelf: a breaking of borders. She listened very hard, willing her past back into existence. She retreated inwards, reaching for the walls of her own consciousness. When she grazed them with her fingers, she felt them turn to dust, only to re-form again, far from her reach. She grasped at one wall, and it evaded her once again. She chased these limits until they were out of her sight, and she heard the first voice. Archie greeted it like a long lost friend. What returned was a symphony of voices swelling with excitement. She told them her secrets; they responded with greater secrets. She told them her story; they returned with disparate pieces of knowledge snatched mid-float from the universe. She apologized for leaving them behind for so many years; they forgave. Later that night, Archie’s husband returned to see his wife on the floor, surrounded by books, murmuring into an empty bookshelf. The cradle was turned the other way.
During the day, the baby’s house is filled with the sound of her mother murmuring to herself; at night, with the sounds of her parents’ arguing. This timetable shifts as her father returns home later and later. Regardless, the home feels full. A deep, vibrating energy permeates every corner of the house. As if she were a gust of wind, Archie flings all the doors open, letting spirits enter and leave as they please. She rides their tempest, drifting from task to task, buoyed by their presence and occupied by their stories. She begins to peel away from reality.
On this particular night, Archie sits by the kitchen table in a whitewashed wooden chair, rolling the past around in her mind like a coin over her knuckles. The spirits are more than happy to indulge her in this activity. How beautiful your life was before all of this, they say to her. Don’t you know how special you are? How happy you could have been right now? They rouse her. We knew it would be this way. Didn’t you hear us? They beseech her. The day she was born, we were standing at your windows, and we were pounding on your door. You knew we were there, Archie. Why didn’t you let us in? With every one of her actions they had seen the planets change their course, mapping out her new fate. They saw the pins tumble into place when she met her husband, and with the birth of her daughter, Archie had turned the key, not knowing the new life to which she was subjecting herself. You thought you could live without us. Now look what you’ve done. She doesn’t want us here. This statement is punctuated by the piercing cries of her almost-year-old child in the next room. In response, the chatter of the spirits becomes even more heated. Archie feels as though the very fibers of her chair are about to splinter and give way beneath her.
A moment later, she enters into view of her daughter’s cradle, orange couch cushion in hand. The baby is wailing louder than ever. The cushion is muffling those cries. The baby is no longer crying. No one in the room is breathing. A single moment passes, and with a sharp inhale, Archie drops the pillow. Now she is the one wailing. The spirits are silent in the indignant suggestion that none of this was their idea. The baby watches her mother sobbing on the floor. This image will be her earliest memory, although she’ll never remember the events leading up to that moment. She will, however, know better than to ask what happened that night.
The spirits begrudgingly take on a stance of indifference to Archie’s daughter, who becomes a graceless child with a bump on the bridge of her nose and a penchant for trouble. Archie is less a mother and more a shepherd, returning the wandering child home at the end of the day after finding it in barn rafters, chasing dragonflies, and hugging the highest tree branches. This is a fruitless task for them both, as the girl spends her entire childhood repelled from the home by some invisible force of magnetism, and the mother knows that she gave up her right over the child a long time ago.
As she tumbles into adolescence, Archie’s daughter will develop a temper unmatched by either of her parents. She will often initiate arguments that are met with the glazed stare of a woman too busy seeing other worlds. This will inevitably infuriate her even further. She will run into the fields, and her mother will watch that little atomic bomb explode amongst the tall grasses. Occasionally, Archie might make an effort to placate her teenager, but returning to reality will eventually become too dizzying an ordeal for that disappearing woman. Her husband, too, is fading away. One day, he will stop coming home entirely, but neither Archie nor her daughter will be able to tell you exactly when this happens. Maybe he became fed up with his bucolic existence, his romance with Archie falling into retrograde, and was seduced away by galaxies of city lights. Or perhaps he was pushed out of his own home, running from threats by voices he could not even hear.
As she becomes a woman, Archie’s daughter will eventually stop resenting her, understanding that she lives her life in the same way: untethered. In this way, she grows up and Archie grows old. Archie’s daughter will travel the world. On some level of consciousness, she will always be looking for something greater: an urge that no whirlwind romance or adventure at sea could ever satisfy. She will never find it, and her journey will inevitably bring her back to the home where it began, where only the scent of the soil in the kitchen planters can soothe her restlessness. The violent winds that once expelled her from her home now rock her to sleep at night. But they never bring Archie any closer to her. On the rare occasion they are both home, the mother and daughter will cross paths in parallel. In the same room, but in different worlds. Like a total solar eclipse.
Inevitably, Archie will die. With a hiccup, her soul will leave her body. The bottle of milk she is holding will fall from her frail grip, and not a single human being will be around to hear it shatter. The spirits will be annoyed at this rude exit made mid-conversation, but then they will realize they have no one to talk to but each other, and this will make them profoundly sad. On the other side of the world, Archie’s daughter will hear a whisper from no one in particular saying that she must return home immediately. Experiencing such clarity for the first time in her life, she will drop everything to see her mother for the very last time. When she returns to the house, it will feel as if a second, invisible door has been opened: for the first time, she is inside the same house where her mother lived. And when she finds the body on the living room floor in a pool of broken glass and spoiled milk, Archie’s daughter will swear she hears weeping in the otherwise empty room.
Hina Rani is a Canadian student who writes things that are short. Find more of her nonsense on Twitter @snooperisms.