Mrs. Mary Blakely is a small nervous woman with a sharp chin, beady brown eyes, and a finely trimmed crop of oily chocolate colored hair quickly turning grey. Her closet bears a dark value spectrum of royal blue, olive green, and burgundy. Mirroring this dreary palate are the wardrobes of her three sons, who usually don some variation of black jeans and shadowy sweaters. If you were to view the top shelf of her laundry cupboard, you would find it sparingly stocked with Arm and Hammer Baking Soda, and sour smelling bar soaps. A combination lock secures the doorknobs of this cabinet together, and Mrs. Blakely must turn the dial to 15-9-06 to remove her one bottle of bleach with two shaking hands stuffed in oversized yellow HAZMAT gloves. She will not stand for household brand detergents and stain removers, and therefore must douse the family’s undergarments and bedlinens with the safest substitute. The dreary dyes of her favored fabrics obstruct smears of ice cream or remnants of cranberry juice.
On the refrigerator door is a red skull and cross bones magnet securing a leaflet from the Poison Control Center, a phone number stamped bright and bold on the cardstock. Open this chilly chamber and you’ll find it barren of meats. Peer into her vegetable bin and everything down to the last little green bean has an organic sticker on it- nobody in this house runs the risk of ingesting pesticides. Canned goods are few and far between in the birch wood drawers of her pantry, the expiration dates flagged with post it-notes and brick red Crayola crayon. If you happen to stop by when Mary is hosting Christmas Eve there’ll be no shrimp hors d’oeuvres, though everything else is prepared with manic precaution.
Crack open the mirrored bathroom cabinet and note a distinct lack of womanly clutter. No frosted glass dishes of anti-aging cream line the clear racks; the marble counterspace bears no trace of spilled lotions. There is not a makeup bag to be seen, for this housewife goes without. You won’t find a can of shaving cream in there either– mighty strange for a house containing three growing boys and one cleanshaven real-estate agent. A variety of soaps, two nail clippers, a tweezer and an eyelash curler reside on the bottom most shelves, accompanied by four fine toothed combs and a scratchy hairbrush on the levels above. The hairdryer resides in a bin perched atop the toilet’s water tank, its rubbery black cord coiled about the metallic purple handle. Mary keeps nary a vial of Advil or Motrin, there’s not a drop of modern medicine to be seen in this house. Stored in their stead are clear bottles of herbal remedies that emit drowsy perfumes, tucked away beneath the sink under literal lock and key. There are no numbers to spin here, but Mr. Morton Blakley fights a copper padlock to reach his shaving cream and razer in the morning. In the evenings he might battle the Missus, who urges him to switch to an electric clipper.
At night the boys find the most child friendly shampoo set out in paper cups on the tiled shelf of the shower stall for them; protection from excess. Their toothbrushes are carefully arranged on the lip of the sink with pea sized dollops of paste allotted to each brush. Each morning they awake to find their clothes laid out atop their dressers, folded into painstakingly laundered stacks. Outside the home they know to follow the rules- no hamburgers or candy, don’t stay for dinner at anyone’s house. On the rare occasions when the family goes out to eat, their meals must be cooked to match the coloration of a laminated paper depicting the specific pink of a harmless steak. She takes no chances with the public-school system and sends them off with matching pairs of piss colored rubber HAZMAT gloves and a signed notice; to be worn in the event of an experiment containing potentially poisonous chemicals.
Unlike some other mothers in the area, Mrs. Blakely never packs hand wipes with her children’s lunches, and won’t hear of clipping scented Purel to the straps of their book bags. She is known to loudly express her opposition upon the sight of such hygienic equipment. “God forbid they squirt that stuff into their eyes!” She rants, “What if a Wet One were to end up in his mouth?”
Mrs. Mary Blakely runs a tight ship, orchestrated around her one golden rule: Do not risk exposure to poisonous things. Not once have her babies suckled on the poisonous casing of a Tide pod, or accidently swallowed a rouge pill. Forever under strict supervision, they still aren’t allowed to use art supplies alone. When Halloween rolls around she scours their pillow case sacks for candy of dubious origin, and as they grow she orders their backpacks to be emptied on the kitchen table, her fingers feeling every zippered fold of canvas for that hidden parcel of drugs she fears to find. The boys roll their eyes with her every panicked practice, and stuff their hands in their pockets. They long for the day they’ll escape this house of fear and spray Febreze in their dorm rooms. Mr. Blakely rushes to work, where he can slide slick blue pens across page after page, without the ink setting of a tirade of nervousness.
Poisonous thoughts are difficult to protect against, but Mrs. Blakely’s faith takes care of things quite nicely. The Catholic Church is a coordinated effort to keep her sons pure, and if not for Mr. Blakely she would douse all their ailments with Holy Water. Her third son is Simon, after Heaven’s doorman. He and his brothers attend religious instruction dutifully, and without comment. For our misguided Mary there are no poisons in the chapel and church of St. Anne. She begs Him to grant her children defense against injected toxins when they must be given booster shots or seasonal inoculations. Anxiety pins her to her knees.
Mrs. Mary Blakely is lucky that Hideaway Drive is so small, that the rural town is not so large. She is under no scrutiny; no one mocks her openly when she prays aloud to ward off poisons. They pity her for sure, with her undyed hair turning frostier by the minute, her worried hands and pursed mouth setting a wedge between herself and her loved ones. They cannot fathom what has driven her to such extent. Indeed, the deep frigid tendrils of this fear are embedded in the very essence of her Catholic soul.
Every poisoned mind bears the tale of its baptism, and Mary’s happened long before she was a Blakley. The day was damp, the sky a swirling with soapy clouds. The air felt sweaty, but there wasn’t any heat. It was one of those autumn days in which the season is being decided. Through the kitchen window came the frenzied clacking of a blender’s chop cycle, the percussion of mid-day cooking. Young Mary was reclining on the patio, reading aloud from Richard Scarry’s What Do People Do All Day? Her little brother Matthew kicked a soccer ball back and forth across the soft-earthed yard, although she told him multiple times to sit still and listen.
“Come back here and follow the words, Matty!” She insisted, ever the encouraging sister.
“But it’s boring, an’ we’ve already read that one.” The five-year-old protested.
“Good readers reread.” She quipped, a quote from her much adored first grade teacher.
Matthew didn’t want to read and continued to muddy his sneakers by dribbling the grubby black and white ball, kicking with the fraying grey laces of his sneakers the way he was taught. Seeing he wasn’t in the mood Mary set the book down and leaned back on the pillows that smelled like wet grass clippings, squinting into the sky’s colorless dome.
“Mary!” Called the soccer player, “The ball got stuck in the bushes!”
“Again?!” She hollered back, hustling over to where Matthew was crouched near the foliage on the edge of the property.
“I kicked too hard. It’s all the way back there.” He extended a small dimpled index finger to indicate where his toy had landed.
Mary tiptoed around the thorny plants to the one that held his beloved ball hostage.
“Found it!” She exclaimed, and Matthew performed a dance of victory, stomping vigorously on the summer worn grass.
Mary grabbed the sphere with both hands only to find it was sopping wet. She shrieked in surprise and lobbed the ball back into play. Her hands were grimy with dirt, and she wiped the filth on her capris before maneuvering back into the yard.
Her brother didn’t remember to thank her; he was busy inspecting one of the prickly shrubs, fingering a sticky red-orange berry. It resembled the dewberries Mary had learned about at day camp that summer, a tiny wild fruit that was fun to mush between one’s fingers. A few adventurous campers had gone so far as to eat them, harmless as they were. The Bellham hedging had never been unsafe, so Mary plucked a berry off for herself and popped it in her mouth. It tasted like the sweet-sour candies their father brought home from the drugstore, with sharp little seeds in place of sugar granules. The substance went down easily, the aftertaste like a starburst of tart orange razzberry.
“Try one, Matty! These are the ones we had at camp.”
Her little brother dutifully chewed and swallowed his own berry, exclaiming at how good they were. It did not take long for them to consume a short handful, after which the initial effects wore off.
The pain began in Mary’s stomach, a slow churning of acid reacting to the foreign food. Just a few sharp firecracker spells, like breaking wind on the inside, nothing to complain about. Then the inferno ignited, and her whole midsection was ablaze, the thick sloppy taste of play dough in her mouth, forcing the floodgates open as the berries reunited with the soil. She smelled it coming up, like burned pomegranate, slicing a scorching path up her esophagus. This physical pain was nothing compared to Matthew’s tortured shrieks, sonar missiles shot from his tear streaked face. The sight of his hunched form and tortured expression was a blur.
The kitchen’s blender stopped, and a panicked chef let the screen door slam shut, dashing to the aide of her children, murmuring a symphony of concern.
“Jesus-God, what did you eat! Mary tell me, what is it? Where does it hurt?” Warm hands flanked her back, and here is where Mary’s memory stutters.
She felt her body burning and the bile rising up again. The ground moved beneath her, her senses like foggy spectacles. Matthew’s sobs slipped away, and he was laid on the couch with glazed eyes and red skin, a crust of vile green about his mouth, his dirty shoes marking the upholstery. The beeping of a landline phone, a tumble of words, her hands around a cold metal bowl, her insides convulsing and surging forward, spilling into the reflective depths, the clammy red splotches on her palms. This day became one of infamy, another story of what poison can do.
A little girl marked by a misidentified berry metamorphosized into this woman governed by fear and precision. Next to the crucifix on her bedroom wall is a framed Matthew, who is not dead, but suffered like Him; a victim of deceit and poisoned thorns. In their names she rises before the sun each day to micromanage four separate lives around the belief that harm will come to them.
Whatever will become of her? Will Mrs. Mary Blakely ever see the end of her poisonous panic? Or shall she be laid to rest a victim of childhood mistakes and unconquered dread, the woman who never waxed her floors or dyed her hair?
Lily Labella is a sophomore in high school, and hopes to one day pursue a career in either writing or teaching. She loves little dogs and floppy hats, and the authors that inspired her to write are Laura Ingalls Wilder and Jeanne Birdsall.