“Swaddle her gently.” She tutted, moving across the room in swift, intrepid movements, stilling for only seconds at a time to click her teeth, and then she’d move again. “Gently,” she said again, voice growing impatient with every word like a ticking clock or perhaps a bomb. “Gently, I said.”
“I’m not sure I’m doing it correctly, ma’am,” the girl sighed, frustrated. “Will you show me how?”
This erupted her very core, sending a bright sharp flame in her chest, sending the ticking faster and faster until the bomb, yes, it erupted her very core. “What do I pay you for, Namra,” she hissed, fingers hunching into claws, “what the hell do I pay you for, I said swaddle her gently, gently I said, now, swaddle her gently!” Oh how enormous she burst, splatters of her insides painting the walls, colouring it green and bright and scented with desperation.
The baby, in turn, could smell this like fear. She threw her head back and wailed, eyes scrunched, mouth open. Mother exploded again, but it was different this time, a kind of explosion only in her eyes, instead she gathered the fallen pieces of herself and willed them back inside. “Do make her stop.” She whispered, the kind of noise one makes when they cannot contain their anger and they cannot contain their fear.
Namra sighed, wrapping the baby once more, and bringing her up softly from the sheets. “There now,” she whispered, and the baby quieted, falling against the maid’s powdered shoulder. Mother gasped in relief, slumping into the rocking chair once the noise had fallen away. There were no pillows and no blankets on the chair.
Just the shell of a woman who sighed into her empty hands.
“This dress, Mother?” She asked, tilting her head. Mother whipped her head around.
Instead of meeting her daughter’s eyes, she fell on Namra’s instead. “No, not that one.” She whisked it away, moving through the room to find the perfect gown. “I had just found it for you, Namra, and you went and lost it again,” she huffed, brows scrunched in those angry lines, eyes narrowed and tilted and squeezed. “I just found it for you and you lost it again,” she groaned, “I just found it and you--” She paused, clicked her teeth, clicked her teeth again.
“Lost it,” Elisabeth murmured. “I know.” She chewed at the blanket in her fingers and almost gasped when Mother turned and saw her in such a state; she was only allowed one emotion and anxious was not one of them.
Mother eyed Namra with the venomous gaze of perhaps a scorpion, and quickly Namra yanked the comforting, warm cloth out of her mouth. “Do not munch on this, Elisabeth,” Mother said, “Firstly, you are not a cow, and secondly, this was your blanket as a newborn, we have to keep this safe, don’t you know? Namra hand-knitted this just for you, the perfect baby, the perfect girl.” She reached out, almost like she’d touch her, but froze. “Now,” she said, pulling the straightened dress from the closet. “This gown.” She said.
Elisabeth reached to it, but Mother handed it to Namra instead. “Come now, Elisabeth,” Namra said. “We’ll get you all dressed up for the dinner tonight with grandmother.”
“Mother,” Elisabeth said as Mother raced for the door. She clicked her teeth, turning. She tried her hardest, but fell like a pigeon away from her daughter’s eyes, landing on the ceiling instead.
“What is it, Namra?” She asked the maid rather than responding to Elisabeth, but the little girl knew now that this was just how they spoke.
“Will you stay and brush my hair?” Elisabeth asked.
Mother took a chesty sigh, left the room, and slammed the door. Namra turned to the little girl. “Doesn’t know how to do hair, that one.” She said with a warming smile, and pinched her cheek lightly. “Wouldn’t want to mess you up.”
She had fallen ill, or so she said, with a fever running high and sickly slender fingers stretching across the room to point at things. Namra followed the finger stubbornly, yanking at tissues and cleaners and medicine and tea. “It’s going to be alright,” She said to Mother. “You’re going to be alright, and so is Elisabeth.”
Mother shook her head, her neck craning and frail, oh the effort it took, to keep a head so high for so long. “She’s in love.” She said. “Good god, she’s in love. My perfect girl with that farmer’s boy. I didn’t even touch her. Didn’t even look at her, once in all her eighteen years, good god! Namra! What have I done wrong? What have I done to let my girl--” she froze, clicked her teeth, “My perfect girl fall in love with a farmer’s boy.” She groaned as she said it, tossing her head into the pillow.
Namra pulled the blankets to her and Mother shrieked and jerked away. There was a knock at the door. Mother sat up quickly, huddling in her blankets. Namra stepped away and pulled it open. Elisabeth entered the room and searched like a dog, beelining straight for her mother’s eyes.
Mother threw her eyes at the wall, then at the ceiling, “Yes,” she said. “Namra, what does she need?”
Elisabeth marched into the room and threw her coat at the far wall. “Talk to me, you bloody coward.” She hissed. Something painful shifted like a clock handle in Mother’s chest. “Look at me. God, why can’t you look at me? What have I done that’s made you so terrible? What have I done to you!”
Mother swallowed. A lump fell over her throat and the clock handle shifted in another violent, twitching, tick. “Namra, what does she need?” She said, voice harsh.
“Dear God, Mother,” Elisabeth groaned, collapsing onto the foot of the bed. “I cannot do this. I cannot live like this. I fall in love and you fall sick?”
“A farmer’s boy. He isn’t good enough for you, Elisabeth.” She stayed at the ceiling, she could not come down. Oh, the effort it took, to keep a head so high for so long.
“Mother, you don’t know love. You haven’t had it. You haven’t had it with anyone. You haven’t even had it with me.”
That clock, or that bomb, it was seconds away, it was loud and painful and perhaps this time, the explosion would take her with it. Her head, her heart, they were booming with pain. And both of them were empty. “Of course I love you. You’re my daughter.” She whispered, but it barely came out. Elisabeth suddenly grabbed her face. An explosion of something delightfully frightening and warm and electrocuting sparked at the touch.
“Then look at me.” She couldn’t. She couldn’t come down from the ceiling. But then her face was so warm and comfortable, and her eyes, oh she just fell.
She just fell.
“Look at me,” Elisabeth’s eyes were with tears. They were brown. How had Mother never noticed before, her perfect daughter’s perfect eyes? Elisabeth clicked her teeth, made a grating noise in her throat. “I’m getting married to the farmer’s boy.” She said. “And I don’t want you at the wedding.”
There, the explosion. Mother fell slumped against the bed. Her head fell back; it could not carry itself anymore. Elisabeth almost panicked, if not for the thudding heartbeat of her Mother’s against her palm. Behind her, Namra said, “You’re really not going to invite her?”
Elisabeth pulled away from her mother’s slumped frame. “No, Namra.” She whispered. “But you are invited.” There were tears falling over her face. She fell into Namra’s open arms. She sobbed, quietly, and then pulled away, sniffling, wiped at her blotched red face. She was not perfect after all.
“If you could cover her,” Elisabeth whispered. “Gently.” Namra moved to the sheets and tucked them close to Elisabeth’s mother. Elisabeth clicked her teeth. “Gently, I said.”