The Sad Princess of Highland Park
By Cara Diaconoff
In her bedroom in her father’s house, the wealthy daughter sat staring out the window. Six months she’d sat this way, since she’d graduated from college last winter, watching the workmen, who were renovating the fountain at the center of the circular driveway.
The fountain renovation was part of her father’s “statement piece,” a massive grounds project being built in memory of Francesca’s mother, dead now eighteen years. This was how her father was spending his earnings from the two celebrity criminal cases that had made him a household name. It would be the wonderland her mother had always dreamed about.
The grounds would be ready in time for what would have been their twenty-fifth anniversary. Francesca’s father had requested topiary in the shapes of dragons and mermaids and devils from the Polish tales of her mother’s childhood. And he had envisioned terraced hillocks of poppies and geraniums and mazes lined with evergreen hedges so intricate that a wanderer might really get lost. The fountain was the coup de grace. Its centerpiece was a rusalka, the water nymph of Slavic tales, sitting naked on a bank with head thrown back, throat gushing water.
The fountain was taking longer than projected. The pipes had needed to be rerouted, permits from the city secured. For weeks the fountain had been a pile of unattended rubble, baking sullenly in the Texas sun by day, and by night glinting in the moonlight like the ruins of a temple to some ancient, bored god.
But now the work crew had returned. The statue of the rusalka was raised, presiding over the piles of stones and tools.
One of the new crew members caught Francesca’s eye—although why, she couldn’t say. Was it just that he was tall and skinny? He wore a kerchief tied around his crown that made him look like a very tall woman, long hair gathered in a bun on top of his head. He was gentle in all his movements, in contrast to the irascible foreman, chronically red-faced.
The foreman called him Marco. She could understand most of what they said to each other. With her window open to the fresh air, in the morning before it got too hot, she would listen and watch as they carted blocks of cement around the grounds.
It was good to have a diversion. Usually, the most exciting thing that ever happened in this neighborhood would be a sighting of Miss Clara, the Argentinian widow, suffering from dementia, who lived next door and sometimes came out to wander the border between the two properties, dressed in a pea-green jumpsuit like a huntress or a wood-sprite.
Francesca was twenty-two now and hadn’t laughed since her twenty-first birthday. Every morning, she would wake up at nine to Carmelita, the housekeeper’s, rapping on the door.
“We are just making sure you’re alive!” Carmelita said this every morning, always in the same bravely joking tone.
“I’m alive, dear!” Francesca would call back, as merrily as she could muster. Carmelita had been with the family for years—for as long as Francesca could remember.
She could have stayed in her own condo, out in the high-rise by Turtle Creek. But most of the friends she’d had in town were elsewhere now, working or traveling. Without knocks on her door, she would have lain in bed till nightfall at least. She barely needed to eat. She didn’t know why she felt this way. It had only gotten worse since she’d finished college.
So it was good, she told herself, that she was forced to haul her body from the bed, push her feet into felt clogs, and shuffle downstairs to the east dining nook to pick at a toasted bagel. Yes, it was good, even if the effort would exhaust her so much that, again, it was only the need to avoid alarming the help that could motivate her to shuffle back upstairs.
Her father was working on a case, which meant that he left home at dawn and didn’t return till dinnertime or later. She found herself often alone in the house except for the help, who came and went, distantly heard. Times when she felt more wakeful, she would wander the halls, listless yet ready to be detained by anything sufficiently interesting—like scrapbook photos of her late mother, with the heart-shaped face and dark eyes.
Her mother had died, by her own hand, before Francesca had been able to form any memory of her more than a scent of Chanel and a pair of black sunglasses that covered half the face. Her mother, Julia, had met her father when he was visiting Warsaw on a Fulbright. Smitten, he had been, with this girl behind the law-school office counter who smiled so demurely yet also so slyly. And she, perhaps, had been entranced by the self-assured man with the piercing green eyes. When the school year ended, he had spirited her back with him to the United States, and in a picture in his scrapbook, taken after they first arrived, he is staring at the camera with a hint of jauntiness, and she, sitting by his side on a doily-covered couch in someone’s living room, is gazing away.
Francesca always wondered if really her mother had never wanted to expatriate.
From the outside, this house she had lived in her whole life was a massive hacienda with Moorish turrets, presiding impassively at the center of its two acres of land. Inside were enough twists and turns to supply a Tudor castle. On one of these languid afternoons, she entered a sub-wing and counted four doors. She could swear she had been in the same one the day before and counted only three.
Try the knob of the seemingly extra door. Ah yes, it gives—so obligingly, as they all do. She is grateful to her father for not ordering the unused rooms locked.
And it was in the drawers of an old cedar dresser in this room that, this afternoon in early July, she found mysterious treasure. A pile of empty jewelry boxes, encased in rococo gilt. Pencil drawings, on crumpled graph paper, of a rusalka seeming to transpire from a woodland creek, limbs and hair intertwined with the grasses of its banks. Other knick-knacks like the detritus of a toy garrison: tiny metal horses and swords and helmets. And, in the midst of it all, a wedding-cake topper that Francesca could not imagine had ever been used for a real cake. Could it be a joke? The groom was grim-faced, apparently bald under a top hat, while on his arm hung an emaciated bride wearing a crown of roses and a red-lipped mouth (the paint looked freshly applied) stretched in a ghastly grin.
The next day, she was afoot again, too restless to stay in her room after the crew had broken for lunch. Would she be able to find that drawer? Down the main second-floor hallway, through a door, up a small flight of stairs, and there was the choice of two wings. She chose one, and, yes—four doors again, and the fourth one led into the room with the stripped four-poster and the cedar dresser.
She took hold of both handles, and with a sound like a yawning cat, it creaked open. Everything in it looked the same as before. There was the wedding couple, poking from a mess of miniature rifles. She ran her fingers through them and touched the edge of a spiral notebook she hadn’t noticed the day before. Curious, she pushed aside the toy weapons.
The notebook had her mother’s name on the outside. Just her first name, Julia, felt-penned in careful cursive. Inside were a series of drawings, some in color. Even the black-and-white ones exuded lushness, lavish in their precision and level of detail. One of them showed a row of wombs, each encasing its own monstrosity. One fat fetus was covered with bloodshot eyes, another with scaly stumps. Francesca turned the page to find a sketch in color. Again it was set up in rows: four rows of four identical figures. On looking closer, she saw that the figure was a spreadeagled female body, the wrists tied to what looked like chain-fencing; this background covered the whole page. Between the spread legs of each figure poked a bloody flower. The pistil of each of these was a tiny head, madly laughing. None of the spreadeagled bodies had a face. They had just a neck and a chin that pointed to the heavens.
With shaking hands, Francesca snapped the notebook shut. A ribbon of graph paper fluttered to the floor. She picked it up and unfolded it, expecting to find another pencil drawing.
Instead, it was a note, written in her father’s spiky, preternaturally vertical hand. The paper looked new—white, uncreased. She had most definitely not seen it the day before.
It seems you must be feeling better? Scouting secrets? Better to ask me anything you want to know. Takes the guesswork out of it.
Think of the times when a wrong guess can be fatal.
Her knees went spongy. She backed up to sit on the bed. How could he know her movements? Her eyes scanned the walls; there was no sign of a camera, a blinking light. Would they be lining the corridor? In the years she had grown up with him in this house, she had never known him to do anything like this.
Once when she was about eight years old, she and her father had spent a long Saturday at the country home of one of his old friends, and by the time they were to leave, she had fallen into a groggy half-sleep in an easy chair. Her father hadn’t tried to rouse her; he had gathered her up without a word and carried her in his arms to the car.
That was her father—decisive, protective. She would never forget the feeling of being cradled, like a precious thing. She would reserve it to call to mind whenever needed: her arms around his neck, face crushed to his chest, the papery smell of his crisp linen shirt.
There were people in public life who called him a monster because of the evildoers he had defended: the wife-killer, the mad bomber, the abusers of the public’s trust. She knew that his thirst for fame and fortune had led him down paths most would eschew.
But most were not haunted the way he was by some mysterious anguish. She knew he was in pain by the way he’d pace his bedroom late at night and by the sharpness of his tone as he whispered to himself in the breakfast alcove in the morning.
Had someone hurt him? She didn’t know. He talked so little about the past. She’d never known her grandparents on either side. She only knew his family hadn’t been rich. They had been small-time ranchers, devout Christians. He had a younger brother and sister he rarely saw; they had stayed closer to the family ways. He had been the oldest—the odd one, a light-eyed changeling: too solitary, too brainy, standing always apart with a twitchy smile.
In college, he had chosen to study law over science. But he had never told her the rest: the reasons he came to specialize in defending the truly terrible. Now that she too was an adult, couldn’t she guess it? Couldn’t she guess that he was drawn to other changelings, others who loved mysteries, others who loved to try to reveal that which was kept hidden, by means of complex, long-running, live experiments, manipulating everyone around them?
Her mind racing, she made her way back to her room still clutching his note. At one point as she wound through the corridors, she thought she heard the creak of someone else’s pace several steps behind her, but she was too preoccupied to turn around. It was probably just a member of the help staff, and she didn’t know all of them well.
Through the window, the workmen caught her distracted eye. The windows were closed against the heat, but she could make out the dumbshow of Marco patiently showing the newest crew member, a boy who looked no more than fourteen, how to maneuver the wheelbarrow over bumpy terrain.
The stocky foreman was always impatient with such displays. She could see him striding and snapping.
She kept watching, today, as up the path came a lanky young man with a clipboard in hand: a canvasser, by the looks of him. Not a common sight in this neighborhood. He must be a brave one.
Marco held out a hand to the young man. The canvasser, startled, almost dropped his clipboard. Then he recovered his equilibrium and handed it over, and he and Marco conversed solemnly over it for several minutes, with Marco finally taking out a pen and writing on the page, as his crewmates stopped eating and stared. Eventually, with many nods and smiles on both sides, the canvasser retrieved the board and made his way up to the road.
Francesca could see the other men laughing, and Marco gamely joining in, and the foreman getting up in Marco’s face, doubtless yelling at him to stop getting distracted.
He’s beautiful, she surprised herself by thinking, as her eyes followed Marco’s tall figure, the womanly bun on his head in poetic contrast to his broad shoulders and flexing biceps.
She couldn’t remember the last time she had gotten pleasure—let alone lust—from looking at anything or anyone. She could recall a time when she had laughed at herself for ogling men. She didn’t do that now. No laughing. She observed the feeling—the throbbing, the happy yawn that engulfed her torso.
Somewhere, though, she heard someone else laughing—a cackle. She couldn’t tell where it came from. Miss Clara from next door? It didn’t quite sound like a noise she would make, and the windows were closed anyway. But it must be her.
When it was time for dinner with her father, she emerged obediently, having changed out of her sweatpants into a blouse and pencil skirt and the stiletto pumps she had always worn so gracefully. In the pocket of her skirt this evening, she carried his ribbon of graph-paper note.
At the dining table, she watched him—the peremptory flick of his wrist as he rapped a spoon against the side of his water glass to summon Carmelita to remove their plates.
There was a thread of iron in him. He was staring at her now—his big, imperious face—as if he knew what she was thinking. She lowered her eyes to her plate, feeling the heat of his gaze on her cheek. She had seen him smiling his intimate smile, the one that said he could wait until you figured it out, the secret you both were in on.
Monster, they called him. Was he her monster?
Carmelita came in, well-disciplined with her blank expression. It was a relief for Francesca to have her to look at. But she was gone again inside half a minute.
“You’re quiet tonight,” said her father.
She gave a small smile. “Am I usually so talkative?”
He flashed a grin in reply. It was so quick that perhaps she had imagined it.
“The fountain is coming along,” she observed.
Her father took a sip of his coffee, catching her gaze briefly above the rim.
“It makes me think of Mom,” she said. She felt the blood surge to her cheeks. But why shouldn’t she know more about her own mother? “What would she say about it if she were here right now, do you think?”
Her father’s mouth was spreading in another grin, unreadable. “I must say I have no idea. Your mother was always a quiet one. I’ve told you that.”
“I suppose,” she said. “Do you know—today I happened to find an old art notebook of hers.” She looked him square in the eyes. “The images are quite disturbing.”
He studied her, still grinning. “Perhaps another subject,” he finally said.
“You never told me she made art,” Francesca persisted. You never told me what made her so unhappy, she didn’t add.
“I don’t know that I would call it art,” observed her father.
“Would you call what I make, art?”
She knew she was skirting risky territory. Indeed, her own art—the painting and ceramics work she used to do, before she stopped feeling like doing anything—had already been a bone of contention between her and her father. During the initial planning phase for the statement piece, a year before, she and her father had discussed how she might contribute her own work to it. But after a while, his emails about this had stopped, and eventually she had grown tired of her father ducking her direct questions. She supposed he had thought better of involving her, had decided that the statement piece was worthy only of professional contributions.
She had been disappointed at first, frustrated. Now, she didn’t really care anymore.
Lord knew, it was hard to sustain any strong emotion in this exhausting room, its walls hung with gilt sunburst ornaments and lit by Tiffany lamps, centered on the heavy table with its sticky wood. The maroon silk drapes over the French windows were pulled back to let in the last sultry rays of sunlight. The reflections of the crape myrtle bushes just outside the window wavered prettily on the opposite wall.
The bushes would survive the grounds-renovation project, but beyond them the soil was dug up for the planned poppy terraces. The house was surrounded by rutted earth; to enter at the side doors, one had to walk across plank bridges the crew had set over the ravaged ground.
It was like she was cast on a desert island with him.
“I swear,” he said suddenly—it was the daughter’s turn to startle now, hearing his velvety drawl—“that if someone could get you to laugh, I’d give them your hand in marriage.”
She tried to arrange her face into an appropriately ironic smile.
“My hand, Daddy? You have my hand to give?”
His lips parted slightly. He could wait till she understood the joke they both were in on.
Then he said, “You never do see anyone. Would it be terribly old-fashioned of me to suggest that all this could be cured by some healthy romance?”
“What do you mean by all this?”
His smile turning sly. “What should I mean by it?”
Now was her cue. She drew the crumpled piece of paper out of her pocket and put it on the table between them.
He favored it with one raised eyebrow.
“I found this,” she said.
“Are you having me followed?”
“Am I—” he began, then stopped himself, and now she was a witness for the prosecution whom he was grilling, and humiliating, in court. He turned to throw a disbelieving smile in the direction of an invisible jury, then back to her. He furrowed his brow in a look of staged pity.
“I know that depression is a disease,” he said. “I understand that.”
“Daddy,” she said, “you wrote me a note. This is your note.”
“Daughter,” he replied, as if to match her syllable for syllable, “I did not write that. I never saw it before.”
“Oh please. I know your handwriting!”
He rocked his head back and settled upon her a long, expressionless gaze. He was beautiful and mean, a bald-headed snake with those emerald eyes. She would have said she was prey for him to mesmerize but for the surprisingly chilling thought that she was too far below him even to eat.
Still, she willed herself not to look away.
“It’s a shame,” he said at last, “how you’ve let yourself go. You had a sharp mind. Maybe not the most original. But you were sharp. It’s a shame.” He paused. Tapped the glass with his spoon. “Well,” he said. “Dessert?”
That night, she slept even more fitfully than usual. Through her unquiet brain flickered creek-side sprites with pointy breasts and a shack that stood on chicken legs next to a rushing river that she kept trying to swim across. At dawn she finally fell into a deeper doze. When her eyes next opened, she reached for her phone and saw to her surprise that it was noon. Had she slept through Carmelita’s knocking?
Groggily, she sat in the window, hugging her knees. Outside, the workers were back. The weather today was heavy, the sky a moody gray. The heat was a miasma. Reports on her phone said a storm would come tonight.
One could see that it was getting to the crew. The men kept peeling off their shirts and tying them around their waists and then stopping and retying them around their necks. Even the foreman seemed too sluggish to rage with his usual gusto.
Down the driveway, Francesca saw a familiar, gliding figure: Miss Clara, from the property next door.
Miss Clara looked the same as she always had: the girlishly thin, long-legged figure; the green jumpsuit, the wispy gray braid that hung over one shoulder. She had been a widow as long as Francesca had known her, living in the bungalow next door.
In this neighborhood’s terms, the family were the local charity case. The talk was that when Miss Clara died, the property would be sold and the modest three-bedroom house razed.
Now, Miss Clara wavered at the gate, and then, with a mild nod as if accepting an invitation to dance, began to pick her way up the drive.
The workers didn’t notice until she was almost abreast of the fountain. “Ay! Senora!” they cried. “No, Senora. You will hurt yourself.” A couple of them moved gingerly toward her; she, meanwhile, held out a hand to each one.
“No, no, Senora. Not forward. Back.” Politely, each of the men had taken one of her elbows and were trying to guide her back up toward the road.
The foreman stood in the drive and roared at the sight. “Will you let go of that crazy old bitch right now and get back to work! We are behind enough today as it is!”
“What was that? Say that again!” It was Marco, his meekness suddenly gone. He got around in front of the foreman. He said something else Francesca couldn’t hear, holding his arms tensely by his sides, his hands in fists.
The foreman gave a bark of a laugh. He said something that ended in, “your mother?”
“No, she is not my mother. But she is someone’s,” said Marco. Then he took a step backward—as if he were about to land a punch or maybe just to get out of the foreman’s path. His intentions would never be known for sure, because before he could do anything more, the foreman bellowed that he was fired.
“Get out! Don’t you stay behind to grab your things—they’re ours now—get out!”
And Marco did. He turned to walk down the drive and passed Miss Clara, who had suddenly grown more definite, standing in her flip-flops glaring at the foreman. “Son of a whore!” she said, in the high, distinct voice she might have used in happier times at tea parties.
“It’s all right, Senora,” said Marco. “Let’s go.”
Francesca closed the window, feeling troubled. Should she tell her father? Then she realized that she had no idea what connection he had, if any, with the hiring of the grounds crew.
But she felt too on edge to stay in her room. Through her head flashed images of Marco’s arms around her, punctuated with those bulbous fetuses she’d seen in her mother’s notebook. Her head, her body, felt full, the way she used to feel back in the days when she made art, when something needed to billow out of her, and she would go to the ceramics studio and work it through the wheel’s thrumming.
No studio here, but perhaps she could find a pad and charcoal pencil. She slipped into ballet flats and out her door and began to pad down the hallway, peering through the just-ajar doors into all the bedrooms: the long-unused ones with furniture covered in plastic, the ones that had been renovated last year and that were supposed to be open again when the landscape project was unveiled.
But her mother had died in one of these rooms. Had she not? Her father had never told her details. She wasn’t even sure of the manner: Hanging? Pills?
She opened a door at the end and walked up a short flight. A gloomy vista, this corridor. She headed for a room at the end, a smaller room that she vaguely remembered about fifteen years ago being something like a study for her father. It had been modest, dusty, with stray cardboard boxes in the corners. She hadn’t stepped foot in it since she was eight.
As she moved toward it, she heard a rumbling in the atmosphere. The storm was coming sooner than predicted.
She tried the doorknob. It didn’t budge. Tears sprang to her eyes. She felt bereft. She wiped her hand on her pants, like she did when she was working to open a tightly sealed lid, took a breath, and tried again, doing her best to be slow, patient. Could she jiggle it? Was it just stuck? The varnish so thick on every surface of this place, outside of her own room … and then it gave. She turned the knob and opened the door.
On the far wall inside, seeming perfectly natural, was an old woman standing over the desk at the window with a feather duster. She was tiny, her back bowed double, and dressed in an old-country style unusual for help in this neighborhood: gray shawl and brown corduroy skirt, checked kerchief over wisps of hair.
“Oh, hello, ma’am. I’m so sorry.” She was ready to give up, go back to her room.
“No, please, dear,” said the old woman in a strangely silken voice, youthful-sounding to be coming from this bent body. (What labor laws must her father be breaking to employ this sibyl-in-a-jar?) And Francesca felt herself drawn in, as if an unseen hand took hers and directed her to a seat on the molded wooden chair.
“Do you work here, ma’am? I don’t remember ever seeing you here before. My apologies—I’m the daughter of the house.”
“I know, dear,” said the crone. “I’ve practically watched you grow up.”
As she spoke, she moved away from the window and around the side of the desk. Francesca could see her more clearly now. The woman’s hair was tightly pulled back to reveal a face just like a beak: a forehead that proceeded into the nose in almost a straight line and small eyes on either side like fish-eyes; Francesca didn’t know which one of them to look at. The face was a checkerboard of wrinkles, so that one might expect a toothless mouth, but the mouth was in fact full of long, white, snaggle-teeth. Beneath a brown smock that covered her body, she tottered on a pair of stick-like legs.
“Oh my God!” murmured Francesca. “How is that possible? I never saw you before! Does my father know you—”
“Your father—oh, psh!” snorted the otherworldly-seeming creature. “Master Christopher is guaranteed to know nothing of me. I am not one, my dear, who has to do with fathers. I am all about the mother.”
Francesca could feel her breath coming rapidly. “Please don’t come any closer.” She was gripping both armrests of her chair. Somehow, she didn’t think to stand up.
“My dear, I don’t hurt anyone who doesn’t give me reason to,” said the crone, but, obligingly, she stopped where she stood.
“What do you mean that you’re all about the mother? What do you know about my mother?”
“I know much about your mother,” said the crone, almost singing, her voice so almost obscenely lovely, melodic, and Francesca wondered if she would have to resist being hypnotized. “Your mother brought me with her from Poland. She wanted to leave me behind, but I insisted.”
Of course, her father had never said anything about an old woman accompanying him and Julia on the journey from Warsaw. . . .
“I flew with her in a bottle in her suitcase,” said the crone as if she had heard Francesca’s thought. She spoke with a faint Slavic accent that sounded like a real babushka. “At first,” she went on, “she seemed not to need me, so I stayed back, and perhaps for a while she believed that I was gone. But then, when it became clear that her joining with Christopher had been a grave mistake . . . well.
“Your mother’s problem, my dear, was that she was too uncertain a soul. She was weak, timid—and even after she had you, that didn’t change. Oh, she tried to be kind. She tried to reform Christopher through kindness, but the effect was pathetic. Like giving a dictator a goldfish to try to soften his heart. Into a vacuum, stronger spirits will step, and I am sorry to say that at the end she made it a battle between me and Christopher, which she would never survive.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” whispered Francesca around the lump that had begun to rise in her throat. “I never knew anything about how my mother died.”
“I was with her when she died,” said the crone, and never would Francesca forget the smooth nursery lilt of that phrase as the crone spoke it, the uptick on with, the flat straightaway of when she died. “I was with her in the pool—when she drowned. Her dying was the most definite thing she ever did. You know that she did it on your parents’ wedding anniversary?”
“No—no! Of course I never knew that—”
“Well, it is so. I was with her then. I closed her pretty eyes, so they wouldn’t stare so wide and scared. Pretty eyes just like yours, dear, and you should not look so scared yourself. Please, my dear . . . .”
But Francesca had found her feet. The back of the chair clattered to the floor, and somehow she managed not to stumble as she backed away, into the hall, and then turned to run, crashing down the stairs, making for the kitchen, where Carmelita and her helpers would be. She would have called Carmelita’s name if she’d had a voice. But they would be there, the familiar faces, just past the swinging door to the kitchen.
She hadn’t noticed how dark and cool the house was. Now she saw the kitchen in shadow. She saw the cutting boards stacked, untouched, in the corner of the prep counter. She heard the cuckoo clock, sounding its warning rattle that brought all the blood to her head, and then its four clacking calls—with that vomit-rattle between each one.
Just then, the thunder rumbled again, shaking the windows, and immediately the rain began, in true Texas fashion, an instant, raging sheet.
But she could not stay in the house. In her panic, she at first couldn’t remember which exits were the ones with the makeshift bridges, but then the first one she thought of was all the way on the other side of the house, nearer the covered port where she and her father kept their cars parked. She spun in confusion. Another crack of thunder sounded, and then she heard another series of thuds, she didn’t know if it was just more thunder? or steps, from upstairs—world-shakingly heavy steps, and so now she just had to get out, it didn’t matter how, and the closest exit she knew was the front door, and she ran out down the center of the cavernous lobby and threw herself on it, and it actually gave from inside, it wasn’t bolted or barricaded, but as soon as she got it open, the world was rushing black water, and the next thing she knew, she was airborne and then submerged in it. She choked, inhaling mud. She flailed.
She had landed in a makeshift moat, and it was deeper than she’d ever have imagined, or maybe it wasn’t but it was only that she couldn’t stand up, and she couldn’t see. She whirled, in a prone position, from side to side, grabbing, and only felt more mud. Oh, it was all she had ever been able to do. She was a useless creature, dropped into a world in which there were none but useless parts to play.
The mud oozed and flowed through her fingers, but now something was grasping her ankles and pulling her from behind. Touching her. Outrageous. So, now she fought. She would not be a weak soul. But it tugged with a grip on each of her ankles now, and it had too much force and knew too much what it wanted, and without even the energy to give a cry of despair, she gave up, she let go of the fight.
And then she was curled in a ball—on solid ground, although still being pelted with rain. And she felt a light hand on her shoulder, and she screamed, by reflex, but then she heard a familiar voice, “Senorita, no, no, por favor,” and she opened her eyes enough to see Marco standing over her.
He was laughing as he helped her struggle to her feet, as he raised an umbrella over her head. “Come, come. Please, miss, come,” he was saying in English. “Come to be dry. I am sorry I laugh.”
“I know some Spanish,” she said, “un poco—it’s all right.”
They stood, sheltering, under Marco’s umbrella. “But, senorita,” said Marco, “what are you doing here? We thought no one was supposed to be in the house today. My aunt’s friend, Carmelita, she told my aunt the whole staff had been, just this morning, given a paid day off. She said that that had not happened in almost twenty years—a paid day off on a day that is not a holiday. She said that the last time it happened . . . but I am rambling on.”
“That is strange,” she said. “I know nothing of that. But I can’t go back in. It’s impossible. My father will be home soon—or maybe he won’t. I don’t know what to do.”
“It’s all right, senorita.” He squeezed her forearm.
“I’m called Francesca,” she said.
“Francesca,” he repeated. “And”—touching his chest—“I am Marco. I tell you, it’s not a problem. We can go next door. Miss Clara’s son and his wife are there with Miss Clara.”
“You know Miss Clara?”
“Of course,” he said, and he caught her eye and started to laugh again, his nose crinkled and eyeteeth bared. He put his arm around her shoulders and drew her into him, and she stood under the drenched umbrella, smelling mud and wet hair.
And it was like that, by the half-finished fountain, that the staring, recessed eyes of the Bentley’s headlights caught them as it pulled in through the gate and crept slowly up the drive.
She didn’t think to move. A scene with her father was necessary—inevitable.
With the same slow deliberation, her father lowered his window. He kept his head inside, safe from the rain.
“Well, well. And what have we here?” He wore his spreading grin. “Looks like the one about the daughter who ran off with the hired hand?”
“Oh, that’s funny, Daddy. Well, you did say I was unoriginal.”
He made a pouting face. “No matter, dear. It’s an overrated quality—in women in particular.”
She had no idea what that meant and wondered if he did either. It was like all his jibes: a line thrown out for effect. She thought of the looks he would cast toward the invisible jury when she was talking to him. His strutting, his mugging, his everlasting pacing and self-scolding: oh God! she suddenly thought—the poor man. He was never not on trial.
“I’m sorry, Daddy!” she cried. And for the first time in months, she made a move of her own volition in the presence of her father, pulling Marco away from the car, in the direction of the property-boundary fence and the house next door.
She was in Miss Clara’s house, working to get dry. Miss Clara’s daughter-in-law had ushered her into one of the bedrooms and brought her one of Miss Clara’s housedresses to change into out of her muddy shirt and sweatpants. Francesca had drawn the shades over the windows, which looked out onto a back garden.
So snug and bright was this little house. It was hard to believe that the castle-like home she’d forsaken was only a few yards away on the other side of a stone ledge.
Was forsaken too strong a word? She didn’t know yet.
“Don’t worry,” Marco had kept saying. “You’re safe.”
“I know! I really owe you,” she assured him.
Through the closed bedroom door, she could hear him, conferring in a low voice with Miss Clara’s son and daughter-in-law. He was like her father in that he seemed to be used to people listening to him.
She could smell cornmeal and beans, cooking in the kitchen. The house was adorable—so tiny, after the expanses she’d been used to. But what was she doing here, really? She’d loved his comforting arm around her shoulders, the way he’d taken charge. But Marco’s life had been something she had watched through a glass window.
(The way the crone had watched her—?)
And where was Miss Clara? This was, at least nominally, her house. Of course, she wasn’t capable any longer of taking care of it, so, in practice, it was her son’s. Her son and daughter-in-law had made the sacrifice of letting her live out the end of her days in her own house rather than relegating her to a memory-care ward.
As if on cue, she heard what sounded like a sigh. A sigh of female impatience, she would call it, although not bad-tempered. It seemed to come from outside. Miss Clara, flitting around the garden? The rain had stopped, but Francesca imagined that Miss Clara’s family would probably want her back inside.
She raised the blind, raised the sash above her head. “Miss Clara?”
Suddenly, the screen was filled by the face of the crone.
“Oh, God help us,” gasped Francesca, startled. She backed away from the screen. “How did you get inside the fence?”
“My dear,” said the crone, “if you haven’t yet grasped my nature, then I suppose I must put on a show-and-tell.” And then, a hiccup in the atmosphere, and the world went black for several seconds. The wings of some massive creature seemed to beat the window glass—perhaps even broke it, for Francesca felt battered, herself, by draughts of air.
And then her vision returned, and she was in a dark corridor lined, as in a gallery, by the spreadeagled bodies she’d seen in her late mother’s notebook. They seemed to be behind glass screens, yet these were close enough to touch. She saw the chained wrists, the bloody flowers sprouting from between their legs. Their chins were still pointed skyward; she still couldn’t see their faces. They were broken, headless rusalki.
But now, come to life, they were no longer silent. As she passed each one, she heard a screech like a barn-owl’s, trailing from a desperate peak to a hot and panting echo that seemed to pass up through her and braid itself with her own entrails.
The sound was horrifying. But if her first instinct, earlier, had been panic, her impulse now was anger. Why must the crone always be looking to trap her?
“Mother!” she cried, furious—and she didn’t know if she meant Julia or the crone.
“Motherrrr!” She felt her voice trailing off, the tears rising. She looked, in vain, for something she could lean on.
But just then she heard another noise: the busy, fussy trilling of that familiar Texas warbler, the mockingbird. The thing was hovering in front of her face, its tail feathers trembling. It looked toward the screens of rusalki and then back at her, urgently repeating the same phrase.
She couldn’t help herself. Her face cracked in a laugh. It was the sheer incongruity.
You laugh! said a trilling voice. The sad girl laughs.
“Yes—yes, I’m laughing,” said Francesca.
Then the spell is broken. Do you feel it?
“I don’t know.”
Obstinate girl. Now do you? Another blink, and the gallery was gone, and she was back in Miss Clara’s spare room, conversing with a mockingbird that hopped along the sill.
You’re a nervous little one, said the trilling, but you’re not your mother. Go now!
“You mean leave?”
Yes! This is just a waystation. You won’t find rescue here.
The little bird was singing, fit to burst. The noise itself drove her from the room.
She found herself weaving through the kitchen, speaking words of reassurance. She was just popping back to her own house, she told them, now that the rain had stopped—so that she could get dry clothes of her own. She reached up to give Marco a hug. They would keep in touch, she told him; she would make sure he got rehired or maybe even help him get set up in business. There would be time for all of it—for whatever he wanted, whatever she decided.
And she meant it. She could reason with her father, the sad monster. Her mother’s nightmares were not her own.
She let herself out the little house’s front door, still chuckling.
Cara Diaconoff is the author of Unmarriageable Daughters: Stories and a novel, I’ll Be a Stranger to You. She has taught writing and literature as a Peace Corps volunteer at Russian institutes, at Southern Methodist University and Whitman College, and currently at Bellevue College, near Seattle.