This story is by Emily Coit and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
My father called me “Opal Eyes” but he never told me why. I barely remember him and I am sorry. He died on a Thursday. The early-morning light streaming through the living room window had the slicked, pink look of undercooked poultry. The way it bounced off the aluminum legs of his hospital bed nauseated me.
Mine had always been a happy life because I, by default, was a happy child. Darwin can keep his finches, I knew true survival lies in the adaptability of the mind, the romantic blitheness of the soul.
But in the weeks that followed my father’s death, as I collapsed into grief, as my reason abandoned me, I began to disappear. From the outside I looked the same, wirey and freckle-faced, too tall for my age. But inside, I felt my humanity slipping away. Suddenly, I was half baby bird — blind and pink and flightless with my mouth gaped open, completely dependent on another being’s loving regurgitation– and half bay leaf, doomed to a life spent riding a rolling boil, only to be cast aside once every last drop of earthy tang had been leeched from my skin.
My mother was a gardener with a broken voice. She spent her days in the rain, cultivating life from barren patches of dirt, beautifying other peoples’ worlds. We lived in an echo chamber –swaddled with familiarity and decorated in guilt. It was a place of too much time and not enough love, all gilded and striking, icy cold and vapid.
Ours was a singularly lonely home. Her parents had paid seventy-three dollars for the title in the woozy months after that Tuesday in October of 1929. I’d heard it was originally intended to stand at the center of a shiny new neighborhood which never came to be. Instead, our house sat at the end of a suffocated dirt road, neighbored by nothing but wild and tangled greenery, a single drop of mercury in an otherwise unsullied emerald ocean.
In the house where we lived, above the garage, there was a hidden room. It was accessible through a secret entrance behind a cupboard in the upstairs bathroom. In the wake of my father’s death, I began to visit it. I had to push hard to get those box shelves to slide away on their rolling tracks. They always stuck. I never knew why.
It seemed strange and telling and somehow oh-so fitting that a world of dark haunts and placid loneliness waited for me behind rolls of toilet paper bought at the Value Mart and stacks of amber-colored glycerin soap that made my skin itch, flake away, disappear.
At night, I slid the shelves away and climbed through the slip of blackness that appeared, as dark and seductive as silk negligee. Like Alice before me I tumbled down the rabbit hole into the world of the mad.
So it went for the foundation of my youth, days spent in the company of a parent I loved but did not understand. Nights spent in the unfinished blackness of a plywood room built into the hollow space below the eves of our 1928 Tudor home. There I sat, a prisoner in the flamingo garden of the Red Queen.
The room was a place of experimentation– eyeing myself in a cracked mirror while sucking down stale Pall Malls liberated from the glove box of my grandmother’s Chrysler. It was a place of vulnerability, a place I filled with racking, snot-nosed sobs that were every bit as real as they were self-righteous. The room was a place for my own dusty tea party, swathed in cobwebs and finely spun, pink cotton candy glass that poured from the ceiling like spring rain. It was a place without the nebulous ranting of a mad hatter or the doubled-edged guidance of a smiling cat. It was, for better or for worse a place to call my own.
As time passed and one musty, viridian winter turned into three and then four, my visits to the room became more frequent, more self-actualizing, more desperate until eventually I lost myself to the strange comforts of the dark. I was trapped. Trapped in the dust and the murk and the madness of that hidden plywood room. I was lost in my own indignation and paralyzed by my crushing self-doubt, like a jester with a painted smile dancing for a mad king.
Scraps of my old world floated around me like strings of spider’s silk caught in a breeze as I crouched in the susurrating blackness. I watched with detached interest as they swam past.
My mother was a redhead
Scrambled eggs were my favorite
The length of a person’s foot was the exact length of their forearm.
Occasionally, I would reach out to touch one, but the dark pulled me back like a rip tide and refused to let me go. It loved me so.
Like Alice before me, I eventually got out. This is how it happened. On the eastern wall of my hidden room there was a crawl space, two feet high by two feet wide. Once, in a twitchy, particle-filled gasp of morning light, I slipped my boney body into the tunnel and slithered, all snakelike in my sublimity, down, down, down. My lungs choked with ancient dust, my face marred by things so hidden and denied that their very names had lost meaning.
I kept going and at some forgotten point along the way, everything began to taste sweet to me — even the air, even my own sweat. It was dark, inky and black as I wriggled through the crawl space, but I felt a cocoon of warm sun gird my heart. I began to thaw.
When I reached the end of the crawl space, I found a trap door. I propelled myself though it and for a moment I was weightless. Then suddenly, I was falling.
I awoke slowly from that deep and lonely place and emerged scrape-kneed and rawboned. I spilled onto the verdant ground, a baby bird fallen from the nest, my raw eyes blinded by the bright sun. The metallic smell of tangled greenery filled me with grateful nostalgia and made me feel like crying.
I was back.
I was back in the wet, green world. I was back to a place made out of soft, slanted rays of afternoon sunshine and a saggy old house. I was back to a mother with a fractured voice and fiery red hair and in some roundabout, but predictable way, I was back to my own self.