By Heart

  Now it’s winter, almost night, and the young girl is sitting at the kitchen table writing and rewriting her spelling list while her mother slams open and shut cabinet doors.

  Words can be so tricky: sometimes right is R-I-G-H-T and other times it’s not. It’s hard to keep them straight. She feels her mother’s irritation growing.  It’s taking too long for the girl to catch on. She should have these words memorized by now. And here’s new trouble: slight keeps turning into sight and she’s erased these words so many times that the paper has holes and small tight accordion creases. Soon her mother will look over the girl’s shoulder and see the damage done. Out of the corner of her eye, the girl tracks the small degrees of escalation- the anger tightening her mother’s back, twisting her mouth.

  Sometimes the rage can sit for days in the bristles of the hairbrush or the tines of a fork. Sometimes it pools on the bottom of the tub or is soaked into the sour smell of a washcloth. Mostly it resides in her mother’s forefinger: the point, the jab, the blood red polish, the way it drums on the Formica counter. You never know where it will turn up.

 But it is always somewhere and it is the girl’s job- her occupation -to pay close attention. Because if she doesn’t, she might get her hair pulled, or four long fingernail gashes down her arm that burn like they’re on fire. Bright with fire:  


Strange how years later, the smell of that past fury will float up from a chiffon nightgown in a thrift store or from an open jar of Vaseline: all the oily products meant to slick the girl down, keep her flat. Or how the stylish objects from the 60s- pointy fenders and pointy eyeglasses, pointy shoes and even pointy breasts- still look like weapons to the girl. She feels fear rise up from her stomach, move into her throat.


 Out the window, the streetlights come on, small haloes of warmth. Light with a silent gh. She doesn’t know that these evenings will stalk her throughout life. That her mother’s frustration will dig its fingernails into her arm and hiss at her through clenched teeth for years.      She looks down at the paper at the last word- the hardest word to spell: Height. An inside-out kind of word. The great distance from which she’ll always watch herself, hovering overhead while the young girl learns these lessons again and again by heart.

Published in: Dime Story Anthology 2014; The Best Small Fictions 2015

Photo by Hide Obara on Unsplash