This story is by M MacKinnon and was part of our 2018 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“There’s a wolf in the closet.”
My mother’s eyes glinted in the dim light of the upstairs hallway in our old house. She wanted me to react, but I wouldn’t. Mama was queen of the cruel joke, master of the sly dig. She gestured toward the closet door, the color high in her cheeks. She’d been drinking again.
“Do not—ever—open that door. The wolf is one hundred years old and it is always hungry.”
“How does it eat, if no one ever opens the door?” I asked. I was only six, and hadn’t yet learned the rules of this game. She slapped me, hard, across my face.
“You think this is funny?” she hissed. “I’m trying to help you! I don’t know why I bother, you’re such an ungrateful little shit!” She was winding up, enjoying her power, readying for battle. I hunched my shoulders, waiting.
She didn’t disappoint. Raining blows, screaming invective, she delivered her vile demonstration of love with unerring precision, not stopping until I was sobbing, huddled on the cold floor of the hallway. She crouched beside me, turning my battered face toward her, studying my red, swollen eyes and the swelling already making its way from under my skin. I could smell the liquor on her breath, the sickly scent gagging, choking me.
“Oh, darling, Mama is so sorry. I just worry about you, you know. Why do you make me hurt you like this?” She pulled me onto her lap and rocked me, crooning as I wept.
She left me to go downstairs, turning around at the last minute, and the glint was back. “Go to bed now. But be careful, dear. There’s a wolf in the closet.” I skirted the closet with the wolf and huddled under my bedcovers, wondering if, this time, it might be true.
For a few days we would be like normal people, or at least like the people in the books I read in the safety of the school library. Books about mothers who loved their children and kept them safe, and fathers who stayed. She made pancakes with chocolate chip faces. She read me stories, holding me close and laughing with me. I could almost imagine at those times that it would always be this way, that my mother loved me as a mother should.
I was ten. “Come here—your hair’s a mess again. Let Mama comb it for you.” The glint was back in the dark eyes. This, too, was part of the pattern. I sat in the kitchen chair while she yanked a comb through my tangled ringlets with ever increasing viciousness. Every so often she would check my face, to see if the tears of pain had started to gather, and she would laugh, a high, brittle sound like glass breaking or sticks being snapped in half. She wanted me to beg her to stop, but I never would. I don’t know why. If I had begged it would have been bad, but over quickly. When I refused to give in, she twisted my hair like the clothes in our old wringer washer, twisting, twisting until finally I could take it no longer and I screamed with the pain.
“Shut up, you big baby!” Her voice was high and shrill, but somehow triumphant. This was the part she liked best. She pulled the chair sharply out from under me, throwing me onto the floor, and then kicked me in the leg. “Why can’t you appreciate anything I do for you? You’re a miserable little bitch, and I wish you’d never been born!” I stayed huddled on the floor, trying to make myself small, waiting for it to stop.
Mama walked around the room in tightening circles, mumbling to herself, and then she stopped and watched me, a small secret smile tugging at her lips. She came over and helped me up, hugging me, apologising but never meaning any of it.
“Go up to bed, but be careful. There’s a wolf in the closet and he’s extra hungry tonight.” She turned and left me alone in the kitchen.
By the time I was fourteen I had grown too tall to be thrown to the floor, and my mother did not try to comb my hair. I had become numb to the venomous words that dripped from her twisted mouth. I no longer believed there was a wolf in the closet. Still, I never opened the door.
I spent the next years planning my escape from this life, from this monster who called herself Mama. I excelled in school and won a full scholarship to a college far away. I never called, never wrote. Somehow Mama found my address and sent letters that I refused to open. I felt guilty for that, but then I remembered the wolf in the closet, remembered how I wanted to hurt her as she had hurt me. I felt the blows, smelled the liquor wafting up from the envelopes with their scrabbled writing, and I added each letter to the stack of others in my bottom desk drawer.
In my junior year I met Darrin. He was handsome and sweet, and his tongue was golden. He said he loved me, that we should run away together, that he would take care of me. We quit school and were married in the office of the Justice of the Peace, and we set up housekeeping in a tiny apartment over the liquor store. I did not invite Mama.
I worked at the local supermarket. Darrin tried his hand at many jobs, but none were right for him. They didn’t appreciate him, he said. And he began to spend his days on a cracked stool in the local tavern. He seemed to love the bottle as he had once said he loved me. The day I found out I was pregnant was the day I left. I was not my mother—I would not allow her path to be mine. I enrolled in night school and began to work on finishing my degree in accounting. A year later I had a job as a secretary in an accounting firm. When I graduated they asked me to become a member of the team, and two years later I became a partner in that same firm. Mama’s letters came less and less often until finally they stopped altogether.
Bethie was six when I got the call. Mama was dead. She had fallen down the stairs and lain there for days before a neighbor found her. I must come, the lawyer said. Ding dong, I thought, the witch is dead. But I went.
The moment I entered the house I felt the memories surround me, swirling in the dusty hall, drifting up the stairs that had killed Mama. I felt unseen hands reaching from the darkness to slap my face and pull my hair, and I wanted to leave this place of such unhappiness, run far away and never think of it again. But there were papers to be gone through. I found the letter in her desk, in a large manilla envelope that also included every school picture of me, the announcements I had put in the newspaper of my scholarship, my marriage, Bethie’s birth. The news of my job and my promotion were on top.
My darling, the letter began, if you are reading this I will be gone…
I sat staring at the words she had written, and I no longer smelled the liquor in them, no longer felt the slaps stinging my face. I remembered the stories, the hugs, and I understood, now that it was far too late, that this had also been a part of my mother. She had meant the kind words. She had been weak, but she had somehow raised me to be strong. I found myself sobbing like the child I had once been, the words blurring on the pages before me, tears washing the darkness from my heart. She had not been a monster. She had been a broken human being but she had tried, and she had loved me. My mother had loved me.
I raised my head and looked out into the hall, misty now through my tears. “I forgive you, Mama.”
There was one more thing I had to do here, before Bethie and I could leave this sad place forever. I walked up the long staircase, my mind protesting every step. I took a long, measured look at the closet door, put my shaking hand on the knob, and turned it. The door creaked open. I was staring at shelves of linens—sheets, pillowcases, towels, all folded neatly, silent in their normalcy. A mirror hung incongruously on the back of the door and I gazed into it, wondering why anyone would put a mirror in a linen closet. My mother’s eyes looked back at me.
“It’s time to come out,” I said to the wolf in the closet. “You’re free.”