After the memorial service, Phoebe Morris returned to the beachfront townhouse where her mother had lived for the last twenty years, and prepared to cope. There was nothing of Mother’s that she particularly wanted, but there were papers to sort and clothing to donate, and it was her responsibility. She was an only child, an orphan now, with just an aging aunt in assisted living. Rose had sent flowers and a nice note, apologizing for her absence and invoking her hip.
Phoebe stood by the door. The living room seemed sterile: pale carpet, beige furniture, sliding glass doors leading to a patio and the beach beyond. The only color came from a single shelf of dust-jacketed books, best-sellers all, and a few displays of fragile knick-knacks on the mantel and polished side tables.
Drawing her arms in close to her body was instinctive. She might accidentally knock one of the little figurines over, as if her very proximity was enough to shatter them into bits. A bull in a china shop, Mother had called her. She’d hold the dustpan and glare accusingly at her curious, clumsy daughter. “This is why I can’t have nice things.”
Phoebe took off her good jacket and draped it over the back of the couch. Now that all of Mother’s precious things were hers, she didn’t know where to start. Part of her wanted to lay claim to her inheritance by sweeping them all off onto the floor, being that bull, smashing each and every one of them. Experimentally, she picked up a little Dresden shepherdess with a skirt of frilly, prickly ceramic lace. She raised it, arm cocked and—
It was as if any minute her mother would come through the doorway and catch her in the act of—of what? Of touching Mother’s things. But they weren’t hers anymore. Still, permission had not been granted by the one person whose approval had always been required. The back of Phoebe’s neck tingled: watched, judged, and found guilty.
That old familiar feeling.
The little Dresden doll went back in its place and the bottle of Pinot Grigio from the supermarket down the street went into the fridge. Upstairs, she changed into jeans and a sweater, and dug a pen and her notebook out of her carry-on bag. What she needed was a to-do list.
The sensible thing was to appraise first, smash later. Most of the little figures were porcelain, and some of them might be valuable. People collected that sort of thing, didn’t they? Phoebe didn’t know; she’d shared little of her mother’s taste. She’d been told that was a flaw. She wrote APPRAISER—ESTATE SALE? at the top of the page, and that made her feel a bit more settled, in control.
Her day job was creating order out of chaos. A senior copy editor for the university press, she went through academic verbiage and noted what needed further research, queried questionable statements, and ensured that every fact was accurate. She was thorough and efficient, a professional nitpicker. A skill learned at her mother’s knee.
For an hour she walked idly from room to room, opening drawers and cabinets and looking through the contents as if she were at an estate sale herself, browsing, not searching. Getting the lay of the land, like an archaeologist going through the remains of her own culture.
Her childhood had been privileged and uncomfortable, full of small, continual battles. “Do you have to slouch?” “Can’t you find something better to read?” “Phoebe! Don’t bite your nails.” Rarely constructive, the comments became an accretion of minutiae that eventually grew around Phoebe like a coral reef, encasing her small soft self, bit by chalky bit, yet barely blunting their sting.
She felt guilty for feeling more relief than grief. She’d shed a few tears when the inevitable phone call had finally come, but knew she would not miss her mother. No more awkward visits, no more read-between-the-lines letters expressing disappointment, but signed “Love,” and then, formally, “Your Mother.” She had brought a few of those with her from home, hoping they would provide an emotional nudge, but they remained in her suitcase.
On a shelf in a hall cupboard, she found a brown cardboard box marked FAMILY. Maybe that would help. A way to reclaim her own history, try and make sense of it, knit some frayed ends together. Dangerous territory, though. Best to tackle it before her energies were exhausted by dozens of mundane tasks. She carried the box to the glass-topped table between the kitchen and the living room; she planned to sell that as soon as possible. It was too big for her bookshelf-lined Ann Arbor dining room, and was steeped in the remains of lessons in how young ladies should behave themselves, intertwined with the invariable battles over food.
A wooden Lazy Susan held salt and pepper shakers, paper napkins, and a ceramic dish of Sweet’N Low packets. She moved it to the counter, next to the blender and the three nearly identical gold-tone canisters: FLOUR. SUGAR. MOTHER.
None of them were actually labeled. They all looked like coffee cans, complete with airtight plastic lids. The contents of two were smooth and white, the third gray, with a few unpalatable lumps of bone.
The funeral home had tried to sell her a fancy eight-hundred-dollar urn to put on her mantel. Decorating with a dead relative’s ashes? No, thank you. For the time being, this cut-rate funereal object held what was left of Mother. Phoebe wasn’t sure if she’d have approved of not wasting money, or been annoyed at the lack of pomp.
Mother had left no instructions about what to do with her—after. She’d had an appointment with her lawyer, but the disease had spread too quickly. For months, Mother had dismissed Death as if it were an inconvenient sales call: “I’m sorry, but this isn’t a good time for me. I’m really not interested. Please take me off your list.” She had slipped into that final coma with the conviction that this could not be happening to her. No time left to make plans or make peace.
Phoebe opened the bottle of wine.
Loose photographs in a variety of sizes filled the top six inches of the box, in no particular order: Daddy as a soldier, photos of Cleveland in the 1950s, Phoebe’s first grade class picture. She leafed through deckled edges and pink-tinted Kodachromes, throwing away unidentified relatives, skimming off photos of her mother as a girl, arm in arm with the now-aged aunt. Vivian and Rose, in ruffled dresses and pin-curls. Children Phoebe had never known. She would put those in a manila envelope and mail them off with a thank-you note for the flowers.
She lifted off a heavy, framed photo of her parents as newlyweds, then stared in disbelief at the red folder it had uncovered. She flinched, pale gold droplets of wine scattering across the glass. Suddenly she was nine years old again, her eyes prickling with tears, her hands clenched in long-buried outrage.
Mrs. D’Amico had assigned the project the first week in March. A report on an animal of their choice, ten pages, with pictures. They would have a whole month, because they were not little children anymore, they were fifth graders, and this was preparation for junior high and high school, which would not be easy, no-siree.
Phoebe chose dinosaurs, and spent her afternoons at the library, taking pages and pages of notes. The centerpiece of her report was a sheet of heavy art paper, folded and three-hole-punched to fit the folder. She’d made a tab from a white index card, “PULL TO OPEN,” in her neatest printing. That revealed a colored pencil drawing, two notebook pages wide: a brontosaurus surrounded by spiky prehistoric foliage.
Art was not her best subject. She’d spent a whole weekend hunched over her little desk, fingers cramping with the effort. The dinosaur’s legs were longer and skinnier than the picture in the encyclopedia, but it was still the best drawing she had ever done. The night before the report was due, she’d gotten out of bed three times to make sure it was still there, to admire what she had made.
The report came back a week later with a red-inked A and a “Very Good!” in Mrs. D’Amico’s perfect penmanship. Phoebe hurried home though a soft drizzle, the folder under her slicker, and nearly skipped through the kitchen door.
Her mother sat smoking at the glass-topped table, an ashtray and a coffee cup at her right elbow, her silver Zippo lighter and a green pack of Salems stacked neatly beside them. A crescent of red lipstick smeared the edge of the cup. She shuffled a deck of cards and laid out a complex game of solitaire, finishing the array before she looked up.
Phoebe held out the red folder. “It’s my dinosaur report,” she said. “I got an A.”
“Let me see.” Mother put the cards down and took the report. She opened the cover, nodded, and leafed through in silence. Phoebe stood on tiptoe, her slicker hanging open. She leaned forward when her mother got to the centerfold, watched in anticipation as her drawing was unfurled, then rocked back when it was folded up again and the page was turned without comment.
Her mother closed the folder. “We should save this one. I’ll put it in the cupboard by my desk with the rest of my papers.” She smiled as if Phoebe should be pleased.
She wasn’t. Her stomach did flip-flops. “It’s mine,” she said, almost a whisper “I want to keep it in my room.”
“Your room?” Mother shook her head and crushed her cigarette into the ashtray. “But it’s so messy, dear. What if this gets lost? Or ruined? Better to put it someplace safe. Then we’ll always know where it is.” She stood, the report in one hand, and patted Phoebe on the shoulder. Then she left the kitchen and locked away the brontosaurus.
Phoebe stared at the doorway for a minute before slowly taking off her slicker, hanging it on its hook. She knew where her brontosaurus was, but she would not be allowed to visit. Rummaging in her mother’s cupboard was forbidden.
And somehow her brontosaurus had just become one of Mother’s things.
Decades later, Phoebe Morris downed her wine in one long swallow, then wiped her damp cheek with the back of her hand and cradled the red folder to her chest. It was as if she had found her Grail, a relic from her childhood so unattainable that it had become legendary in her personal mythology. A long-missing piece of her true self.
She opened the folder, turning pages of her neatest childhood cursive, blue Bic pen on wide-lined notebook paper, pulling out the center, folding it back again with a sigh. It really wasn’t a very good drawing, the proportions all wrong, not the masterpiece she’d enshrined in her memory palace.
Her longing for this particular bit of treasure had been huge and fierce, but now what? Take it home and put it in a box of her own? Buy a scrapbook? Unearthed, the legend had become another ordinary object.
She laid the folder on the tabletop, next to a small, worn brass rabbit that had anchored a stack of monogrammed notecards and envelopes on her mother’s desk. Phoebe’s secret pet. She’d always had to be careful to put it back exactly as she found it, so Mother wouldn’t demand an explanation of why she’d picked it up in the first place and deliver another lecture.
For a moment, Phoebe held it in her hand, reveling in the cool contours of the cast metal, the surprising heft of it, and even more in the radical idea that she could now put it anywhere she chose and there would be no consequences.
She got up, stretched, and returned to browsing. After an hour, the rabbit was joined by a handful of similarly forbidden objects that had nostalgic resonance: her mother’s ornate desk scissors; an angular art deco perfume bottle, a few gelid amber drops at its bottom; and a small leather-bound album with black-and-white photos detailing the first six months of Phoebe’s life.
At dusk she ordered Chinese delivery from the menu next to the wall phone. Dumplings and shrimp toast and sizzling rice soup. She was always surprised how expensive Chinese food was for one person—thirty dollars for a few appetizers—when it was so cheap for a group. She shook her head and reminded herself that she no longer needed to pinch pennies, at least not on the level of dumplings. Once she sold Mother’s townhouse, she could pay off the mortgage on her cozy little bungalow at the edge of campus and have enough left over for a nice nest egg.
She felt a new wave of guilt as she realized that, if they had been prizes in a game show, she’d have chosen the money over Mother without a second thought. Mother had never brought much comfort at all.
The dumplings did, along with a second glass of Pinot Grigio.
Phoebe finished the soup, put the other leftovers in the fridge, and scribbled more items on her to-do list. She’d tackle the clothes in the morning, bagging the bulk for Goodwill. She was pretty sure Mother had purged any vintage things when she downsized after the divorce and moved to Sarasota.
The rest of the evening she spent inventorying the kitchen drawers and cupboards. No emotional landmines. Nothing of any importance either, but why toss perfectly good cans of tomato soup or a box of Minute Rice? She checked her email, wrote back to the friend who was housesitting for her, and RSVP’d to her book club. Then she went to bed.
It was full light, after 8:00, when she woke. She showered and went downstairs. The sound of the surf was rhythmic and soothing. She stood by the patio door, watching the waves roll in along the white sand beach, then returned to the kitchen and put the kettle on for tea. Electric stove. It would take forever. She opened the refrigerator and took out the carton of dumplings. Two left. She speared one of them on a fork and held it upright like a popsicle, biting into one crimped edge. It was cold but delicious, the dark sauce a tangy sheen. She wolfed it down, put a teabag into a flowered mug, and started on the second.
Leaning against the faux-marble counter, waiting for the kettle to boil, she looked down at the array of objects. The brass rabbit sat on a stack of photos. The scissors lay across the leather album.
She paused in mid-nibble.
Where was the red folder?
She looked under the table, on the seats of the chairs, and finally opened the flaps of the cardboard box. There it was. But she hadn’t moved— She shrugged. She must have. Just didn’t remember. As she lifted the folder, a single piece of paper slid out and fluttered to the floor. Not a blue-lined notebook sheet, its three-punched holes coming loose from the binding after all these years. It was heavy, cream-colored stationery, the monogram VRM embossed in slate blue capitals across the top: Vibby Reynolds Morris. In the center, in Mother’s distinctive script, was a single word:
Phoebe gasped and dropped the fork, dumpling and all, noting with dismay the brown stain it left on the white carpet. The kettle whistled insistently.
After a long moment, she turned it off, laid the note on the counter and retrieved the dumpling. She sat, finishing it slowly, savoring each flavorful morsel until she felt more like a competent, practical woman than a scared child.
There had to be a reasonable explanation.
“Look,” she said to herself. “Mother was a real piece of work. But she’s gone. She must have written that years ago. Sorting through pictures herself. Some to keep, some to give to cousin whats-her-name. I just didn’t see it yesterday.”
There. Nice and logical.
So why was her hand shaking?
Phoebe ripped the note in half, again and again until it was confetti, tipped it into the trash, and made a cup of tea. She sipped, grimaced. No milk. She added MILK to her list, then stood up. Time to get out of here, get busy. Start doing the things on her list, not just making it longer. It was a beautiful fall morning, and she really needed a change of scenery. She put on her shoes, grabbed the keys to the rental car, and left the townhouse.
Three hours later, after a hearty, grounding IHOP breakfast, she returned with milk and packing supplies. Garbage bags and manila envelopes and a five-pack of shipping boxes. Bubble wrap, two rolls of tape. Phoebe was armed and ready to pillage and purge.
The downstairs bedroom first. Musty, sickroom smell. She opened the French doors for a gulf breeze, and turned to the closet that took up most of one wall, sliding apart the mirrored doors. My god, there was a lot of stuff. No wonder Mother had always looked like Jackie Kennedy on casual Friday—perfectly coifed dark hair, pearls, in trim slacks or a Lily Pulitzer skirt. One side had built-in shelves and drawers. The other was hung with pastel dresses, skirts, and blouses, arranged by color. Mother was a Spring.
Phoebe didn’t have a season. Hibernation? Her own wardrobe ran to blacks, grays, and dark blues. Early on she had drabbed herself out of harm’s way; safer not to call Mother’s attention. A lifetime of protective coloration.
Mother’s repeated attempts to dress Phoebe in her own image had ultimately failed. She owned no pastels. Or lipstick or three-inch heels. Very little jewelry. Clearing the closet would be swift and ruthless.
She pulled out two of the Hefty bags, shaking the black plastic free with a little more force than necessary. One for trash, one for Goodwill. She slid open a drawer and tossed out nylon panties, slips, and bras. Another drawer held a tangle of scarves, still scented with Chanel. Phoebe threw those on the bed for a more careful inspection later. Cashmere, silk—maybe Hermes? Those she would set aside for the estate sale people.
The bottom drawer surprised her: a stack of neatly folded plaid wool shirts in various shades of greens and rusts and yellows. All in beautiful condition, all vintage 1960s. When Phoebe was little, her parents had season tickets to the Browns, which involved tailgate parties and other “sporty” weekend events. Pendleton and pearls.
She smiled, picturing her mother in one of these shirts, remembering one afternoon with a warm nostalgia rare for her childhood. She must have been about five. Her parents had taken her along to an afternoon party. Someone’s huge backyard, views of Lake Erie, bright autumn leaves, a real popcorn machine. Phoebe had a hot dog and a Hires root beer. Mother and Daddy sat on the stone patio together, laughing. Phoebe got to run around. When it got dark, Daddy carried her piggyback to the car.
What beautiful soft wool. She stroked the top shirt, tempted to try it on, then looked at the label. Size six. She wouldn’t even get an arm in. Mother had weighed 108 pounds the morning Phoebe was born, full-term. She had taken after her father’s side of the family: sturdy and solid. Another memory surfaced, not warm and fuzzy, a trip to the department store downtown, sixth grade, Mother frowning at the size 12 tag on a dress as if Phoebe were the Incredible Hulk.
With a sigh, Phoebe lifted the stack of shirts and set them on a chintz-covered chair. They looked distinctly out of place. Did Sarasota have a vintage clothing store? Someone would drool over these. She turned back to close the bottom drawer, and saw a small bag tucked into a corner. Fist-sized, blood-red velvet. She’d never seen it before.
As a child, Phoebe had occasionally, secretly, looked in her mother’s dresser when she knew she was alone in the house, curious about what went under grown-up women’s clothes. Mysterious garments that her Barbie hadn’t come with, full of hooks and clasps and odd bits of rubber, scary and fascinating.
She picked up the sack. It was full of—what? Spare pearls? No, not round. Loose diamonds? Yes, please. She loosened the satin drawstring, opened the sack wide, and tipped its contents into her palm. She stared down at a dozen blunt whitish objects. “Jesus,” she said aloud. They were teeth.
Well, of course Mother had kept her baby teeth long enough to do the pillow thing, but saving them? Phoebe shuddered and tipped her hand over the trash bag. The teeth rattled like tiny hailstones against the black plastic, followed by the velvet bag.
Body parts. Remains. She thought about the canister in the kitchen. What was she going to do with Mother? Maybe a road trip, scattering her along the way? She’d always wanted to travel. Perhaps a spoonful in each of those logo-stamped ashtrays they had at fancy hotels, next to the elevators? A smidgen in the planters of the smoking lounge of the golf club? Vibby and “the girls” had played bridge in that room every Wednesday for the last twenty years. She ought to feel right at home there.
On second thought, the ashtray thing was probably a little too irreverent. Phoebe didn’t want to be any more haunted than she already was. What about their old house, back in Shaker Heights? No. Mother hadn’t been happy there. Had she been happy here? Phoebe wasn’t sure.
She threw a tangled nest of pantyhose into the trash and began dragging pairs of dainty shoes out of the closet, putting them into the second bag. Size six here as well. Black heels, low; black heels, high; white heels, satin; pink and white running shoes; a pair of buff-colored bowling shoes. Bowling shoes? When had Mother ever bowled?
When the bag was full, she tied its handles shut and put it by the hall door. Getting rid of shoes was satisfying and easy. Figuring out the appropriate way to dispose of Mother’s ashes, not so much. She needed to say goodbye. Forgive her? Tell her off? The memorial service had been lovely, but formal. Very high Episcopal, which had suited the white-haired mourners much more than Phoebe.
Her therapist had encouraged her to spend as much time as she needed, to find closure and a way to move on. Phoebe wanted to call her, get some sensible advice, except Patricia was at a conference all week. Another woman was covering the practice, but it wasn’t like she’d lost a filling and any old dentist would do. Patricia had been seeing her for years, knew all her pillow-thumping, Kleenex-soddening stories and secrets.
Phoebe took a break mid-afternoon and dropped off three bags of clothes at the Goodwill store she’d passed on her errands that morning. To reward herself, she went into the bakery next door. Glass cases held cupcakes, pumpkin cookies, and elegant fruit tarts. She bought one of those, and a muffin for tomorrow morning. On her way back to the car, she glanced down at the box of pastries and the grinning black jack-o’-lantern rubber-stamped on the pink cardboard.
The last two weeks had been so busy, full of phone calls and flight arrangements, insurance forms, funeral homes, and selecting hymns. She’d completely forgotten about Halloween. She pulled out of the parking space.
Maybe that was the answer.
One of the academic books she’d recently copyedited was a treatise on Celtic rituals and modern society, and there’d been a long section about Samhain and All Soul’s Day and Halloween. A liminal time, when the boundaries between this world and the next were more—permeable. In the north of England, around the ninth century, as she recalled, people in mourning had baked “soul cakes” for the occasion. Children went begging from door to door, promising to say a prayer for every cake they received.
“Trick or treat,” she said aloud.
Not that she was going to hand out anything homemade at the townhouse door. The neighborhood watch would be on her in a flash. But baking sounded both soothing and appropriately domestic. Tomorrow she would make a soul cake and have a ritual feast, then scatter the ashes into the eternity of the sea.
Yes. She smiled as she pulled into the townhouse carport. It was just the sort of custom Mother would have liked. A dyed-in-the wool Anglophile, she doted on Lord Peter Wimsey and Twining’s Tea, Tiptree marmalade with her breakfast toast.
As for the cake itself, Phoebe imagined it should be like the ones that travelers carried with them in fairy tales, wrapped in a bindle with a bit of cheese, sent off with the prodigal in search of fortune. When she had first encountered those tales in kindergarten, she had imagined a sort of medicinal Hostess cupcake—without the white squiggles. Brown and dry and herbal-tasting. Indestructible, but nourishing.
Inside, she ate half the fruit tart and opened her laptop, searching for a soul cake recipe. There were dozens. Irish, gluten-free, even one from the Hallmark Channel. Some were gingerbready, others more like scones or biscuits. They all seemed to call for nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger. Autumnal flavors, the cakes traditionally set out with a glass of wine. That appealed, too.
Mother didn’t have a printer, so Phoebe got her notebook and copied out the recipe that seemed the simplest. She finished the fruit tart and nodded to herself. Things were coming together, and it was a real tradition, not one she was making up on the fly. When dealing with the dead, a do-it-yourself ritual seemed a bit risky.
Energized by the clarity of a decision, she got back in the car and drove to the Publix, so she’d have everything on hand in the morning. Butter and vanilla. Eggs and spices. Plus another bottle of wine and a small frozen pizza for dinner tonight.
Now that she had a plan, she felt more relaxed. She opened the wine—a red blend this time—and sat and watched the sunset on the patio while the pizza heated in the oven. After dinner, she put the plate in the sink, topped off her glass, and settled into the beige recliner in the living room. She’d brought a collection of Angela Carter stories to read on the plane and it had been a week since she’d had time to get back to them. After about twenty pages, she was yawning, the effort of all the completed tasks catching up with her, and she gave in about 9:30. Retrieving the red folder, she tucked it under one arm and headed upstairs to bed, turning off the light only after she’d zipped the brontosaurus into a compartment of her suitcase.
Phoebe woke in the middle of the night. It took her a minute to orient herself to the unfamiliar pattern of light and shadow. She turned over, kneaded the pillow, and was almost asleep again when she thought she heard the soft metallic snick of a Zippo lighter opening, somewhere downstairs. A minute later she smelled cigarette smoke.
She sat bolt upright, her heart pounding in her ears with sudden adrenaline, eyes wide open, staring at nothing. Those same acrid menthol fumes had wafted up to her childhood bedroom so many nights when Mother couldn’t sleep.
No. Mother’s dead, she thought. She almost said that out loud but knew that the word “dead” in the silent darkness would terrify her. She bit a knuckle to stop herself.
Then came a sound that raised every hair on her body.
Whirrr…, snap. Whirrr…, snap. Whirrr…, snap.
A deck of cards being shuffled, and then the unmistakable slap, slap, slap of a game of solitaire being laid out on a glass-topped table.
That was impossible.
Yet the sound continued, soft and regular.
Phoebe pulled her knees to her chest, curling up around herself, and tried to slow her breathing. It was only her imagination. She was alone in a strange house after a long, emotional day. Of course she was thinking about Mother. All she needed to do to reassure herself was get up, go downstairs, and turn on the kitchen light.
She couldn’t move.
A minute went by. Two. She started to relax, and then:
Whirrr…, snap. Whirrr…, snap. Whirrr…, snap.
A bead of sweat trickled down between her breasts.
Slap, slap, slap.
Phoebe lay motionless, every muscle tensed, willing the sound to stop and trying to hold off the panic that if it did, the next sound she’d hear would be slippered footsteps coming to reclaim her.
Eventually, sheer exhaustion pulled her into a restless sleep. When she finally got out of bed, every muscle aching from being clamped in fight-or-flight tension, morning light streamed through the window. She dressed and padded silently down the thick carpeted stairs, clutching the only weapon at hand, a slender pale-blue Lladro figurine. That was ridiculous, but she felt less vulnerable than if she’d been unarmed.
The kitchen was spotless and empty. Nothing on the table but the FAMILY box and the small pile of objects. No ashtray. No lighter. No cards. A tomato-smeared plate in the sink, the trash empty except for the food cartons.
Phoebe put down the figurine and felt a wave of self-conscious embarrassment. She’d had a whopper of a nightmare. Not surprising, under the circumstances. With the combination of wine, greasy food, and a lifetime of, well—issues—of course she hadn’t slept well. Made perfect sense, now that it was daytime.
Cards had been one of their few shared customs, a bloodsport that Phoebe had been taught as soon as her hands were big enough to hold a deck. How wonderful it had once felt to get Mother’s undivided attention—until their games had evolved into an arena for inquisition. She’d learned to dread the moment that Mother would stop dealing and say, as if it were a casual thought, “Can’t you do something with your hair?” “Have you decided on a major?” “What are you planning to do with your life, Phoebe?”
She boiled water, made a rich, milky tea, and wrapped her hands around the steaming mug. The patio door slid quietly on its track. Phoebe walked out to the end of the narrow dock and stood for several minutes, the air cool on her skin, watching the waves break, over and over. Constant and ever-changing.
Sipping her tea, Phoebe planned her day. She’d finish the bedroom, take herself out to lunch and another run to Goodwill, then come back here and bake. Everything would be ready by sunset, and she’d go down to the water and do what she could to banish her ghosts.
Phoebe had never been big on rituals. She had gone to Sunday School by command, and when she was old enough to choose for herself, chose to worship the heretical god of sleeping in. So there was no religion to fall back on, no Episcopal exorcism. The soul cake was a start, though, a focus. She needed some structure, couldn’t just walk to the end of the dock and fling Mother out willy-nilly, watching the seagulls dive down to nibble at the larger bits before they sank below the surface.
The sun rose fully above the line of palm trees, their fronds rustling in a gentle breeze, and the air began to warm. Phoebe put the mug down and walked along the sand, her hands in her pockets, inviting grief and finding it elusive.
When Mother first got sick, Phoebe had supposed that grief, when it finally came, would be a huge hole ripped out of her life. Instead it was as if some delicate, many-tentacled creature had been attached to a fine mesh, then flown away, leaving a thousand tiny holes. Particles of memory drifted in with no pattern or predictability.
Emotions swirled, chaotic and contradictory. She felt sympathy for the hollow-eyed invalid, felt relief that Vibby Morris’s suffering had ended, but did not miss the cool and critical woman who had raised her. And part of her would always long for a loving mother who might have come to her in the dark when she was small and scared and alone. Who might have rocked her, sung her lullabies, and now never would.
It was almost noon when she finally returned to the townhouse. Instead of going out again, she ate the bakery muffin and heated a can of tomato soup, drinking a mug of it standing up. She spent the afternoon browsing again, gathering her offerings from each room in the house: a little figurine; a deck of cards; a selection of photographs.
One in the nursery, baby Phoebe in her mother’s arms, swaddled and bottle-fed. One from high school, Phoebe wooden, Mother with a little half-smile, her arm around her daughter, her eyes on someone off camera. And one of Mother after the first operation, flanked by Phoebe and two of the “girls” from her bridge group. She had lost most of her hair, so her head was done up in a turban, but she had put on lipstick, and her pearls, of course. Those eyes looked frightened, wary, like an animal caught in an unexpected trap.
Phoebe went up to the guest room and retrieved the bundle of letters from her suitcase. Missives written when she was at summer camp, at college, in Chicago for her first job. All on that same cream-and-blue stationery, the handwriting so familiar, so distinctively her.
Returning to the table, she added them to the photos and put everything into a wicker basket. She tore the recipe out of her notebook and read it through once, then turned the page over and did the math to cut it down from a batch to one single, slightly oversized soul cake. She scribbled numbers, crossed them out, recalculating and fudging a bit to eliminate inconvenient measures like 3/32nds of a tablespoon.
Then she laid out each of the ingredients she’d purchased: vanilla, eggs, milk. Cinnamon, ginger, butter. Baking soda. The recipe called for currants, but the Publix had only stocked raisins. Those seemed too frivolous, so she didn’t buy any. A soul cake ought to be a pastry without indulgence. A final course, but not a dessert.
She opened the first canister, scooped out a cup and replaced the plastic lid, sifting the flour and baking soda into the mixing bowl. She looked down at her altered recipe. One third cup of sugar. She rummaged in a drawer for a smaller measuring cup, and found a yellow plastic one behind a package of cupcake liners and some corn skewers, one of which jabbed her in the hand as she pulled the cup out.
Ow. Shit. A thin line of blood smeared her thumb. She put it in her mouth, then stopped in mid-suck at a sound from the downstairs bedroom.
Whirrr…, snap. Whirrr…, snap.
Phoebe dropped the measuring cup as if she’d been stung. She picked up the Lladro, holding it like a club, and walked into the hall. Three steps from the kitchen she heard the soft slap, slap, slap of a hand of cards being dealt behind the closed bedroom door.
“No!” she shouted in a burst of bravado. She hurled the figurine as hard as she could. It smashed into the wall beside the door with a crack and shattered, pale blue shards littering the carpet.
The sound stopped.
Phoebe waited, her breath ragged in her chest. Silence. After five minutes, she returned to the kitchen, her thumb throbbing, her attention still on the empty hallway, listening, dreading. Picking up the yellow measuring cup, she glanced distractedly at the recipe—right, a third of a cup of sugar—and opened the nearest canister. She filled the little cup, dumped its contents into the flour mixture, then tossed it back inside and closed the lid, pushing the gold-tone can back against the backsplash with the others.
She added the spices—a teaspoon of this, half a tablespoon of that—and began to stir. The smooth white flour became darker and rougher, and when it was all a homogenous pale brown, she cut in the butter and an egg, added the vanilla, and used a fork for a vigorous final mixing.
Sprinkling a little flour on the cutting board, she settled the beige lump and rolled it out until it looked like biscuit dough. The biscuits of the dead.
The hallway remained silent.
She turned the oven to 350° and cut out an irregular circle about four inches across. Noting the time on the wall clock, she slid the greased cookie sheet into the oven.
When she checked ten minutes later, the cake was still pale and felt pliant under the pressure of her finger. Ten minutes more and its edges were beginning to tan, and after another ten it was an even, golden brown. She thumped it with a knuckle, feeling a bit like a contestant in the Great British Bake Off, then grabbed a potholder and pulled the soul cake out of the oven. It smelled delicious. She was tempted to taste it, just a crumb or two. No. No such thing as a ritual nibble. She left it on the counter to cool.
As the light outside began to fade, Phoebe dressed in her favorite black sweater and jeans. She put the soul cake in the center of one of Mother’s scarves, tying the corners together at the top. She added that to the basket, along with the funereal gold can, four votive candles, and a box of kitchen matches. She poured red wine into a glass, filling it nearly to the brim, then clicked off the kitchen light. She slid the patio door open with her foot, stepping out into the crisp, salt-scented air of twilight.
The sun was a Fiesta-red ball just above the horizon, flattening slightly as it descended, its surface veiled by a few wispy clouds. Phoebe watched it sink into the pewter sea, then took a deep breath, shifted her basket, and headed toward the dock.
She sat, six feet above the water. Small waves broke in front of her, scattering the surface with undulating lines of orange from the neon-sunset clouds. The basket beside her, she watched the surrounding colors fade. Water lapped softly at the pilings and she heard steady creakings from a few boats moored farther down the shore. Lights came on in houses on either side, reflecting like tiny amoebas in the dark water.
Phoebe set the scarf down on the white-washed planks and untied it, laying it flat. Votives anchored each corner. The night was still and when she lit the squat round candles, the wicks barely flickered. The light illuminated the rich colors of the scarf—butter yellow with emerald piping. The glass of wine cast rich ruby shadows.
She encircled the cake with Mother’s pearls.
Around the periphery she set the icons of her mother’s life: an unopened pack of Salems; a silver dollar from 1943, Mother’s birth year; the porcelain shepherdess; a deck of bridge cards with the queen of clubs face up; the small stack of photos. Above the scarf, the bundle of letters. Below it, the glass of wine.
She had just finished arranging everything when the full moon rose above the row of palm trees behind her, a line of white light dancing along the dark water like a path leading to the now-invisible horizon. Phoebe Morris dangled her legs over the gulf and tried to say goodbye.
Taking a drink of wine, she picked up the silver dollar and turned it over and over in her hand. What should she say? “Safe travels, Mother.” She threw it far out into the gulf. It sank soundlessly and felt like an empty gesture.
Emptiness. She was at a loss for words. She touched a finger to the soul cake. Prayers. That was the tradition. Beggars said prayers for the souls represented by each cake. She hadn’t prayed in years, wasn’t sure who or what she was praying to, but—She picked up the cake and took a bite. Bitter. Not sweet at all. Well, that was fitting. The spiced cake dissolved in her mouth, crumbly and a little gritty. She washed it down with a sip of wine.
“Our Father—” she began. No, wrong prayer. This was for Mother. Phoebe sighed and started again. “The lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” It was a psalm, not a prayer, but she knew it by heart. She closed her eyes and recited it slowly.
Pulling another piece off the cake, she ate it and, after a moment of hesitation, picked up the letters. She read few lines from each of them and thought of all the replies she’d wanted to send back, but had never written. A lifetime of unspoken bravery. “Mother, you never—” she started to say. “Mother, I want—” Her words trickled away into the night air. Even now, the idea of talking back made her stomach tighten. After last night, she half expected Mother to appear, glaring, walking on water.
Another bite of cake, a sip of wine. Then, hands unsteady, Phoebe struck a red-tipped match against the wood of the dock, smelling a wisp of sulphur, and burned the first letter, holding the monogrammed page by its corner until the flames neared her fingers. The ember-rimmed fragments drifted over the side, hissing when they hit the water. They floated for a few minutes, pale against the darkness, then grew soggy and sank below the surface. She burned the others, one by one.
She slid the queen of clubs under the edge of the pearls and picked up the deck of cards. It had taken her a while to decide which queen was most evocative. Spades seemed overly wicked, diamonds too Gabor, and hearts just inappropriate. But clubs? Mother was the queen of clubs. Golf club, bridge club, luncheon club, Wellesley Club. A member instead of a mother.
It was unthinkable to think of her spending eternity without a deck of cards. Like warriors taking their shields to Valhalla. She took another bite of cake, half gone now, and held the deck in both hands.
Muscle memory kicked in. Without thinking, she divided the cards and began to shuffle. Whirr…, snap. Whirr…, snap. Her hands jerked at the sound, scattering the cards across the dock. They fluttered and sailed off into the water. Phoebe watched them disappear and picked up the queen of clubs, still lying on the silk scarf. “The queen is dead,” she whispered. She ate a bit of cake and tore the card in half, sweeping the pieces into the sea.
“I loved you once,” she said. “It hurt. I wanted to be just like you, but I wasn’t good enough.” A long silence until she spoke again.
“Then, you know what—I left.” Her voice grew stronger. “I survived. I made friends. And somewhere along the way, I realized that being like you was the last thing on earth I wanted.” She drained the wineglass, washing down the final morsel of cake.
A ragged sob surprised her, doubling her over. For several minutes after, she sat with her arms wrapped around herself, tears running down her cheeks, the wind now cold on her face. Time to go in. She felt a bone-deep weariness and a need for this to be over.
Without further ceremony, she pried off the plastic lid and tilted the gold canister toward the water. “Goodbye, Vibby,” she said. A small vortex of gray dust swirled away. Phoebe angled the can down and poured out the rest of the ashes, watching in stunned surprise as the small yellow measuring cup tumbled out and bobbed on the waves.
“Oh, no.” A gingery bile rose in her throat. “No, no, no.”
The cup disappeared from view. She looked down at the canister in her hands as the significance of what she’d done began to sink in.
“I’ve eaten Mother,” she said.
Not even in a metaphysical way, like the body of Christ that was actually a cracker. She had actually consumed bits of her mother.
Phoebe didn’t scream. She sat for a very long time, oddly calm. Shouldn’t she be horrified, disgusted? She tried to summon those feelings and found them missing. Maybe she was in shock? Likely. Shock was rather pleasant. She finally felt the kind of tranquil acceptance she’d hoped this ritual would bring her. Closing her eyes, she lay on her side, her cheek against the rough wood of the dock, her mind drifting farther and farther with each rhythmic swell of the waves.
When she woke again, the full moon was high in the starlit sky and the candles had all gone out. Phoebe sat up slowly, light-headed, her body leaden. She tried to stand, legs all pins and needles. Minutes passed. Soon she would gather up the objects that remained, damp from the sea and the night air, and return them to the basket. She smoothed a hand over the silky scarf and picked up her pearls.
With a little half-smile, she reached behind her neck and fastened the clasp with a practiced click.
“Mine,” she said.
(Editors’ Note: “Nice Things” is read by Erika Ensign and Ellen Klages is interviewed by Lynne M. Thomas on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast Episode 28A.)
© 2019 Ellen Klages