Violet was nearly thirteen when her mother committed suicide. They found her dead in the bedroom of the old, empty house, gone before the paramedics even arrived. Her mother had never liked that house, the way it ached and whined under her feet, as if her weight was one step from breaking it. She hated the way cold wind whistled through its bones when the windows weren’t shut tight enough, how the white paint of the brick was cracked and crumbling, something her father had sworn he’d fix, but never did. He bought the thing right after they got married, a wedding gift her mother had tried her best not to hate.
“It’s a nice neighborhood, Kathrine,” she imagines her father saying, slamming the door of the car just a little too hard behind him. “And you like old houses, don’t you?”
“Yeah, but it’s falling to pieces,” her mother might have responded as she twisted the diamond on her finger, and tried not to sound like an ungrateful child. Her father might remark that it was his money that they were spending, and his job that they were moving for, keeping her silent. She might have touched her belly then, almost absentmindedly, feeling the child stirring inside, and reminding her why she married him.
The funeral was louder than Violet expected. Relatives whom she had never met flocked around her, chirping how much she had grown, and how old she had become. Aunts buried her in their perfume soaked shoulders and pinched baby fat, grasping their cold, claw like hands in hers. Their sympathy seemed to suffocate Violet, crushing her with pity, their heads shaking in disapproving sadness: poor thing, they said, to grow up with a mother who killed herself. Their small, beady eyes bored though her like awls. By the time they had finally buried her, Violet almost felt like she was choking under the weight of the people around her: all crying, all looking at her with insuperable pity. Her father’s face was set and solid. His hands firmly gripped Violet at her shoulders as they lowered her mother into the ground. It was a closed casket, cold and white, adorned with artificially pale lilies. Violet felt out of her own body, like it was someone else’s mother being buried, and someone else’s father grappling them so tight they couldn’t breathe. Like it was someone else being pinned down by grief and whispers.
Her mother always wanted a garden. Her father would never let her, claiming that she knew nothing about plants, and that it was too expensive anyway. She settled for windowsill pots instead, filling ceramic planters with forget-me-nots and sprigs of basil. She doted on them constantly, carefully watering the soil and pruning tender foliage until the flora flourished delicate and green. Soon, more plants followed, filling the house and porch with enough vegetation to meet her mother’s ambitions.
Violet remembers the sticky summer days she spent with her, standing over the sink, transplanting supermarket seedlings into brightly painted terra cotta pots. Her mother would press Violet’s hands into the wet soil, teaching her how to handle the mass of dirt and roots, her voice gentle and patient with Violet’s untrained fingers.
“See, when you pull it out of there, you have to be careful not too lose too much dirt,” she said, pulling a shrub of mint from its soggy carton.
“Okay, so how to I hold it?” Violet asked, taking a heavy plant from the countertop.
“Here, don’t grab it by the stem, or you’ll tear the leaves,” her mother said, placing her gloved palms at the base of the container. “Now get it from the edges.” Violet eased the mint from its casing, stringy white roots holding the heap of black soil in place. She pushed it into a planter, awkwardly compressing the soil.
“That looks great, sweetheart,” her mother said, peeling off her gardening gloves. “Soon enough, I bet you’ll be doing this all on your own.”
“Thanks, mom,” Violet said, warming under the praise. Her mother smiled and squeezed her shoulder.
“Alright, help me clean this up. You know how your father feels about all this dirt getting everywhere.”
Violet sat on the porch when the relatives had finally gone, the soft whine of the too-old swing groaning in her ears. She was sore from crying: her chest tight, her eyes red, her lips cracked and nearly bleeding. Inside, her father did the dishes from the casserole the neighbors brought, the yellow light from the kitchen painting warm shadows onto her thighs. She looked out at the street, mostly deserted at night except for the drone of an occasional car. The streetlamps did not work, and Violet thought they looked like skeletons, tall and sinewy against the empty road, casting black and blue shadows like bruises.
The air was heavy with leftover heat from the day, and Violet wished she had changed. She was stuck in tight pantyhose and a ladylike dress, too-small Mary Janes crushing her feet. Without thinking, she kicked off the pinched black shoes and watched as they clattered to the splintered floor. She sighed, a great weight shifting and releasing from her chest. She hadn’t been able to breathe in days, not with the constant motion of mourning and the tightness of loss. Her father had barely spoken to her since her mother’s death, keeping himself locked away at work, coming home only to retreat back to his bedroom and lock the door tightly behind him. He was a bowed man, hunched over from years of deskwork, and bent permanently from crunching numbers and looming deadlines.
Violet flicked a blade of grass from her knee and watched as it floated to the floorboards. The slice of lawn clipping too light for its own good, managing to transcend gravity for a few feeble seconds before trembling back to the ground. She couldn’t remember how her mother’s voice sounded anymore, what was once so constant, now gone with the slightest slip of memory. The realization hit Violet deep in her chest, and for a brief second, she was unable to think. The loss was so tangible, so real that it felt almost sacrilegious. All of the times her mother had sung to her after concrete-skinned knees, all of the stories told during the transplantation of a blossom, all of the promises whispered after childhood nightmares were now silent and empty. Her mother was fading even from memory and Violet was scared by how easily she was forgetting.
A breeze picked up, sending shivers down her bare arms. She stood up to go inside, but suddenly remembered the two terra cotta pots of mint her mother had planted on the wooden porch, somehow missed by her father’s raid, and tacitly hidden under the wicker coffee table to keep relatives from trampling. As she pulled them up, heavy and dense with dirt, she was surprised to find them still green and full, rather than shriveled after the days without water or sun. Violet pinched off a leaf, putting it in her mouth as her mother had taught her so many years before, the faint sting of mint settling on her tongue. She went back inside, rocking her bare heels on the threshold, the door closing like a whisper behind her.
She stepped into the yellow linoleum kitchen, the faucet still running from the dishes her father washed. Violet turned the cracked porcelain knob. The water trickled down to a quiet drip. Her father had started doing the dishes by himself, his big fingers working away at grime leftover from frozen dinners or scrubbing at the stained rings leftover in coffee cups, always up to his forearms in suds because he used too much dish soap. He was nowhere to be seen, now locked away in some corner of his office, not wanting to look at her.
Violet was always told that she looked like her mother. Aunts would cluck their tongues and pat her cheeks at family reunions, declaring that she had her mother’s eyes, her mother’s nose, her mother’s hands. They’d beam at the woman as she held Violet at her side as if she might fly away and told her how lucky she was to have a beautiful girl like her. Violet’s father would always interject at moments like this, putting a hand around his wife’s waist to remark how they were both lucky to have a beautiful girl like her. The women would chuckle and press dollar bills or hard candies into Violets’ palm, saying how they were sure he spoiled her rotten. Her father would laugh then, a forced smile awkwardly crossing his lips, and look to his wife, who said nothing.
The next morning, Violet began to notice the feathers. They were small and brown, cresting her forehead and stomach with down. She found them in an unexpected brush of her hair in the morning, in her finger’s grazing while she put on a shirt. They alarmed her, and in the hope that she could quietly rid herself of the plumage, she rummaged through a bathroom drawer to find a pair of tweezers. She took the little grey instrument between her inexperienced fingers, and plucked slowly in front of her bedroom mirror. The pinpoint feathers pulled without blood, instead leaving raw red bumps behind. She winced with each rip, but didn’t stop until there was a small pile of the quills in her lap. Violet let out a shuddering breath, touching her pinked skin lightly. She stood up, her shirt rippling back down her abdomen, the cotton brushing up against the stinging wound. She went downstairs to the kitchen, the white Sunday-morning light filtering through the windows. Her father was gone, leaving a hastily written note on the refrigerator:
Had to go into work this morning—I’ll be back around three or four. Scrambled eggs in the fridge if you want them. Make sure to clean your room. Call if you need anything.
Violet opened the trembling refrigerator, and stood in front of it for a long time, letting the wave of cold roll over her. She closed her eyes to the fluorescent glow, the near-constant hum of the electrical appliance droning in her ears. Eventually she found the plate of eggs, the sulfuric yellow knobs resting cold inside. She didn’t bother heating them up. She sat on the swollen living room couch and ate silently. From across the room, the door to her parents’ bedroom caught her eye. It was slightly ajar, unlocked for the first time in weeks. Violet thought of the unspoken rule that prevented her from entering, but her father was gone, and he would never know that she had invaded.
Violet opened the door softly. Inside, the room was dark, and from it wafted a deep, animalistic stench. She flicked on the lights and stepped inside. The carpet was thick with dust and dirt. Plastic bins of withered feathers lay on the floor, some were covered in rusty blood, others seeming to be ripped out in troves. The smell was overwhelming, something base and primal bringing tears to Violet’s eyes. Instruments ranging from nimble tweezers to clamp like pliers rested on the bedside table, a layer of grime covering them. She picked up the biggest pair of pliers, the thick, rubber-coated handle molding into her palm. Its jaw was coated in torn fragments of down, now old and paper-thin with age, layers of grime that once rested between the feathers caked onto the metal. Violet began to feel bile rise hot and raw in her throat, the acid burning in the back of her mouth. She dropped the pliers, the steel digging into the carpet with a sickening thud. Dazed, she stumbled out of the room, shocked and gasping for air. Her throat tightened, the skin on her stomach and forehead burned.
A few weeks before her death, Violet’s mother stopped tending to the plants. She began shutting herself in her bedroom and only emerging at night. Despite Violet’s best efforts to care for them, the plants eventually withered without her mother’s careful hands. One afternoon her father ran through the house with a heavy black trash bag, dumping the contents of the planters inside.
“Dad, what are you doing?” Violet asked, horrified as she walked in the kitchen to see him shaking out a vase containing a once-beautiful calla lily. “You can’t throw those away.”
“If she’s not going to take care of them, I don’t see why I should have to deal with all the mess they make,” he replied, slamming the empty vessel on the kitchen table.
“But those are Mom’s,” Violet said, her voice fading as her father grabbed yet another plant from the windowsill.
“Take it up with your mother, why don’t you,” her father said as he flung another blossom inside, the bag straining against the weight. “See what she’ll do about it.”
That night, her father heaved home later than expected, pressed down with an insurmountable weight. Violet had spent the day locked in the bathroom, spending hours examining her body for new growth, trying to predict when the feathers would come in next. She pinched skin and combed through limbs, trying to feel the spines on their ascent though the epidermis. The smell of her mother’s room would not leave her. It seemed sunken into her, tattooed onto her cells. When she heard the tremor of the garage and the whine of his car, Violet stopped, giving one last scour over her arms before going downstairs to meet him. He already had his laptop out, the dull, digital glow lighting his tired face.
“Hey Dad,” Violet said, walking into the kitchen. Her father looked up from his work,
“Hey. Sorry I got in so late. The meeting ran long,” he said, shuffling through a folder swollen with yellowed papers. “Did you eat dinner?” Violet watched as a wilted feather slipped out of the folder and sank to the floor.
“I haven’t eaten yet,” Violet said, quietly. Her stomach turned. “I was going to fix some of that leftover lasagna Mrs. Phelps brought over.”
“Good, good,” her father responded, distracted. “Hey, could you make me some of that too? Remind me to thank her for it. It was nice of her.”
Violet took one the ceramic dishes out of the refrigerator, stuffed with neighbor’s condolence dinners, all in various stages of being eaten. Her hands trembled as she forked squares of it onto plates and put them in the microwave.
“Hey, I know you’ve been through a lot lately,” her father said as she waited by the tremoring appliance. “I just want you to know that you can still tell me anything, okay? You can talk to me about anything you’re feeling right now.”
“Okay,” Violet said, shifting where she stood. “Thanks.”
Over days, more and more feathers began to appear, this time thicker on her arms and legs. Violet began to wrap them in elastic bandages, compressing the new plumage underneath. She took to spending more time alone, and being more active at night. Her father hardly noticed, too wrapped in the cadence of work and habit and grief, keeping himself hidden from his daughter out of instinct.
One morning, the sky just beginning to pink with sunlight, Violet sat on the front steps of the porch, the brick cold and damp on her bare feet. A blue plastic watering can sat next to her, bulbous with water and begging to be emptied. She meant to water the mint, as the black dirt had gone dry in the sun. Violet pushed herself up from the steps, taking the overfilled watering can in her hands, the unnatural bulk sinking knots into her knuckles. She poured into the pots, unable to control the liquid rushing out so fast. It overflowed, ribboning like silk down the side of the terra cotta, puddling at her downy feet. Violet watched the water run, setting the can down onto the floorboards, rubbing her spent fingers as it fell away, slipping through cracks and settling into the fissures in the brick.
Violet wasn’t sure how much longer she could hide before her father would begin to tear out the plumage that now coated her body. Violet looked out at the sky, and felt the quiet white breeze settling on her face. She pushed herself up from the brick and began to walk.
She found herself along the holiday streets of her lily- white neighborhood, blending in with the flock of middle school kids as they trudged towards street corner bus stops, awaiting a day of gym sweat and algebra. She passed houses so neat and clipped that they could be gingerbread, and walked her bare feet over slabs of sidewalk that dared not crack. Her feathers were uncontrollable now. Her wings would come in soon, pelage that could not be plucked without blood or bound without breaking. Violet ran a hand under her jacket sleeve, feeling quills as they pricked behind bandages. She came to a fork in the street, now narrowed and childless, where she could no longer see her impassive and miserable house looming behind her. Violet thought to turn back, she thought to recede to the place where her father would soon be waking, would soon find her gone. She shook away the doubt in her stomach and moved on, letting the roads become an unfamiliar blur around her; determined not to fade out but to fly away for a thousand years.
Emma Camp is a sophomore Shakespeare nerd in the Alabama School of Fine Arts Creative Writing department, whose work has been featured in Canvas, Cadence, and Girlspring as well as being the recipient of honorable mentions in the Nancy Thorp Poetry Contest and the Gannon University High School Poetry Contest. She is an avid intersectional feminist whose ultimate life goal is to direct a production of Romeo and Juliet performed entirely by cats.