The distant rumble of thunder followed Tess as she made her way into the house, laundry basket balanced against one hip. She paid no attention to it; there had been thunder in the distance every afternoon for nearly three months, and still, there was no rain. Heat thunder, her grandmother called it, claiming that it was common during the Dust Bowl. The intermittent rumblings brought no sign of relief from a nearly year-long drought and summer of relentless, triple-digit heat. Looking at the brown grass, dead tree leaves, and withered backyard gardens, she had a hard time imagining the Dust Bowl looking much different.
She let the screen door slam shut behind her, leaving the door open. The air conditioner had given up the ghost back in June, when the heat had just begun to add its weight to the accelerating drought. There was no money for repairs, let alone to replace it. Instead, she kept all the windows open and the doors standing wide, night and day, hoping for the slightest breeze to make its way into the stifling rooms, where fans did little but push hot air around.
Setting the laundry basket down, she took an ice tray out of the freezer, dropped six precious cubes into a bowl of water, dipped a dish towel into it, then draped the towel across her neck, relishing the rivulets of ice water that ran down her collarbone and soaked into her t-shirt. She wiped her face with one end of the towel, pushed damp stray hairs back against her head, and tried to think.
The letter. That’s what she needed to be thinking about. The letter. It was still sitting, unopened, on the dining room table a few steps away from where she was standing. She could just make out her own name, written in her mother’s spindly handwriting, on the front. Abruptly, she crossed the short distance to the table and picked the letter up, holding it gingerly by the sides, as if it were a small, vicious animal that might bite without warning. Four years of silence, she thought. Four years without so much as a Christmas card, and now….this. She wondered briefly if something had happened to a family member — an illness or an injury — and dismissed the idea out of hand. Her mother wouldn’t write about that; she’d have someone, someone whose number Tess hadn’t blocked, call. No, there were only two reasons her mom would send a letter: to try to reopen the lines of communication Tess had shut down four years ago, or to attempt, after all this time, to get the proverbial last word in their relationship. Neither seemed any more or less likely than the other; neither made the decision about whether to open the letter any easier. She put it back onto the table and sat down.
The last time she’d spoken to her mother was Christmas Dayfour years earlier. She’d come to her house alone, ostensibly to help set up the annual family Christmas Party. In reality, she’d simply wanted — needed — to talk. Three years of therapy had finally made it possible for her to talk about her childhood, had helped her consider breaking the silence her entire family held by tacit agreement, had made her understand that being honest and being well were two sides of the very same coin. So she’d dusted furniture and swept floors while her mother talked, mostly about her childhood and about her own father (a real SOB if there ever was one), who’d died before Tess was born. She’d heard most of these stories many times; they formed the backbone of her mother’s perpetual victim worldview. But she tried to listen with as much empathy as she could muster anyway. She tried, really tried, to feel her mother’s pain. To have compassion, or to at least swallow her derisive laughter when her mother recounted her tortured life as a spoiled, first-born, postwar princess.
By the time the house was clean and the good China set out, Tess felt empty, hollowed out, numb from her mom’s constant litany of all the ways life had Done Her Wrong. It was always this way; no amount of empathy was enough, no level of sympathy satisfied the constant need for more. Her head ached. Even her bones felt fragile and dry; brittle, ready to snap with any added weight. Her throat ached with unspoken words. Her eyes burned with tears that had never been cried. She wanted, in that moment, nothing more than to be held while she told her own story through tears that healed instead of hurt. She hesitated, closing her eyes, afraid both of going forward and of staying still. In the darkness behind her eyes…
She sees his hands, strong, with long fingers and neatly-manicured nails, resting high on her 9-year-old leg. She sees her child’s body wiggle, unsure, uncomfortable with the touch, still innocent and trusting. 9-year-old Tess calls herself silly — her mother’s favorite taunt, silly — of course she’s being silly, he’s Daddy….and she stays still, saying nothing. The word in her throat — STOP — makes a perfect roadblock to catch all the words and cries and screams that will try, in the next six years, to crawl up her throat and out into existence, where they will make this thing, this shameful, unspoken thing, real. Her throat aches from the effort of holding them back, an ache that will become constant, will follow her into adulthood, and will come to be her default, as normal to her as breathing: never object, never talk back.
She sees her teenaged bedroom — blue shag rug, floral drapes that match the bedspread — and the door opening slowly, an inch at a time, in the gray hour before dawn. Sees 14 year old Tess pretend to be asleep, pretend to stay asleep, as he slides under the covers next to her, her eyes squinted, her face tensedwith the effort of pretending she is not here, she is not here, SHE IS NOT HERE…….until he finishes, and disappears into the hallway bathroom, leaving her door open a few inches, like a victory lap that no one can see but her.
She remembers feeling weightless, dried out, like the skin of a rabbit she’d seen in a gun shop once, all flattened skin and hair that bore almost no resemblance to an actual rabbit. She wonders, if she were still enough for long enough, if she’d dry out like that rabbit, until whatever is in her that drives her father to such behavior dried up or disappeared. She wonders if it is possible for a person to become dry enough to blow away in the wind.
She remembers how heavy his body was: heavy and demanding and somehow carnivorous. How she didn’t feel like his Special Girl anymore, but like his prey, his dinner, his bottomless supply of nourishment. How he made it seem he would starve without her sacrifice. She remembers how heavy the shame was, like a thick woolen blanket draped over the heat of July, holding her motionless, unable to breathe. She remembers him saying “If you tell, no one will believe you,” remembers seeing her mother’s face in her mind’s eye, knowing that he is right. She remembers thinking of all the ways out, only to realize that there is really only one way out, and she is too scared to take it.
When Tess opened her eyes, she found her mother staring curiously at her. She tried to smile; it felt foreign on her face, but her mother didn’t seem to notice. The topic of conversation had shifted to her dad and all the ways he had been deficient as a husband. She wondered briefly if the universe itself was somehow manifesting this moment for her. She thought once more of the child she had been, of the silence she’d kept and the price she’d paid for that silence, swallowed hard, and tried.
“Mom….” she began, “can we talk? About Dad. Can we talk about Dad?” Feeling tears already gathering behind her eyes.
There was a pause. Her mom knew about her dad, of course; had known for nearly 30 years. But they’d never spoken about it before.
“We can if you want to.” she said at last, her voice even and deliberately neutral. She stared at Tess without compassion, like she was an intruding insect or an ugly stain her mother was trying to decide how to remove. There was no warmth or understanding in that gaze.
Tess hesitated again, her father’s voice alive in her ears. “If you tell, no one will believe you.” Hopeless frustration rose in her chest. She looked at her mother and made a sudden, stark realization.
She believes it happened, she thought to herself, she just doesn’t believe it hurt me.
And she never would, no matter what Tess said, how much she cried, how many scars and open wounds she showed. It would never be enough; it would never move her mother one single inch closer to acceptance. There would never be a moment where she was seen — really seen.
“Never mind,” she said. “Just….never mind.”
Her mother snorted. “Okay. My turn, then. Your dad loved you. He took care of you, and he would have never — never — hurt you. I don’t know why you made this story up, or who you were trying to hurt….but enough is enough. We are not going to speak of this again. You are not going to speak of this again, not ever.” She waved a hand dismissively, “not if you want to be part of this family.”
And that was it: her entire childhood, negated with one sentence, one gesture. Toe the line, shape up….or ship out. She rose from her chair, with no clear idea about what she was going to say —
“Okay,” she heard her voice waver and commanded it to stop. “Okay. Then we’re done here.” She paused, “We’re done.” Her purse was resting on a dining room chair; she collected it, took out her car keys, and left without another word. As she sat in her car, trying to calm her breathing and shrug back the tears, she caught a final glimpse of her mother, setting serving dishes out on the kitchen counter, as if it were an ordinary day, as if her only daughter hadn’t just left in tears.
And that was it. Once she got back home, she’d blocked her family’s phone numbers from her phone. No one attempted to call, as far as she knew, but she took some comfort knowing they couldn’t contact her unless she allowed it. She stayed in therapy, she grieved the loss of her family, and slowly, slowly, she healed. The part of her that needed a mother dried up like a summer garden in the middle of a drought, slowly going dormant except for an occasional twinge at Christmas and on her birthday. Until today. Until that damn letter arrived.
More heat thunder, a bit closer this time, shook her out of her reverie. Read it, she thought to herself, Don’t read it. Yes or no? The lady or the tiger? Which Is it going to be? And will anything really change, no matter which one I pick? Will anything really change?
Moved by a sudden impulse, Tess grabbed the letter and headed back through the kitchen to the back door, stopping only to grab a box of matches. The county was in a burn ban from the drought; technically, they weren’t supposed to burn anything……but…
A beat-up grill stood next to the small patio, balanced uneasily on crumbling red bricks, dust-covered and unused. She opened it and unceremonious dropped the letter, still unopened, inside. She lit a match. A breath of wind, unexpectedly cool, blew it out. She lit another, watching closely as it sputtered, then caught. She held it over the letter, hesitating for only a moment, then touched the flame to its edge. It blazed immediately, and she watched it burn to ash. There was no way back. Nothing her mother could say or write would change their final encounter. Better no hope than false hope; these dry bones would only hold so much weight before they splintered into dust and blew away.
Thunder cracked again, nearly overhead, startling her. The breeze became a wild gust that scattered dry leaves from the edges of the patio, carrying with it the scent of rain and damp earth. A storm was finally coming, she thought, and she had never felt so in need of its cleansing power. The wind gusted again, hard and insistent. She tilted her head to the sky, closing her eyes as the rain, so long withheld, finally began to fall.