The women arrive with the thaw at the beginning of April, right when the mountain in our backyard starts to drool old snow at us in brown streams lumpy with ice chunks. Puddles that are almost ponds slurp up the yard as far as the back steps to our house. Mud stains the first riser but leaves the others clean. Without the snow, the mountain looks naked until the first spring flowers push themselves through the sog. Their petals are the color lips turn in cold.
I’ll never be as pretty as my sister Grace or smart like my sister Ruth, but I think I could probably be as nice as Joan if I try a little harder. Being nice isn’t something people are born with. It’s something they do, and when the women get here today, I’m going to do it too. Haworth House is a hotel where rich women come to try and do art in the spring and summer. They set up their easels on the front porch or open their laptops in the backyard. When the sun comes out and dries up all the mud left by the snowmelt, the women stretch out on linen sheets to take naps, like cats. Their screens and canvases mostly stay white, and when they are done napping, my mom, Dr. Applegate, teaches them to climb a mountain. She used to be a professor at the college, but she married one of her students, so she’s not anymore. He was supposed to have been an important writer, but I can’t even remember his name since no one ever says it out loud.
There’s a light spot in the yard behind Haworth House where a little bit of green shows between the shadows its gingerbread spires throw up and the shadow the mountain throws down. Things don’t like to grow in shadows. Our backyard stays squishy right up to the tree line, then ponderosa pines and tangled snowberries trace the rise until they’re replaced by that carpet of purple flowers. But a white cap swallows those near the top, and the mountain finishes in a blank, jagged peak. I’m wearing a new pair of Cushes and pushing them up to the laces in our spring puddle ponds just to hear the way mud gasps when I pull away.
Grace comes as far as the sunnier side yard between the house and the barn and yells, “Bette, if you’re not up here to help with bags, you know she’s gonna beat your ass.” I pull my boot up with one last sucking gasp and run to her. When I smile, Grace smiles, and her teeth are the color of the snow at the top of the mountain that’s only met sky and never dirt. She puts a hand in my black hair. It gets stuck in the tangles when she tries to pull away. “You look like a little ragamuffin,” she says.
I remember my kindness. “Thank you,” I say.
“Get fucked.” Those teeth again. I show mine too.
Ondine, my mother’s assistant who lives with us and almost never smiles, crunches the year’s first vanful of women up the driveway to Haworth House, and I watch Grace’s face because of all my sisters’, it is my favorite. Her white hair falls down her back in a pretty way that’s not straight or curly. It looks like she spent either hours on it or no time at all. Her cheekbones are so high and sharp they make shadows beneath, like the shadow the mountain makes in the backyard. She graduated college last year and came home to us. I was worried she wouldn’t because she’s so beautiful I wouldn’t be surprised if the world wanted to keep her like a trophy. But she came home, and since then, I try to stand close to her whenever I can. Her hair is brighter than the snow on the mountain, brighter than the sun. When she’s happy and not yelling at me, it’s like there’s a bird in my stomach. Something feels ready to take flight. The flapping joybird makes the same rush as panic. Without looking at me, Grace asks, “You ready?”
The women stream from the white van’s dark insides. They wear tight black leggings and vests all puffed full of silky feathers from birds that must be dead by now. Black sunglasses take up most of their faces. One woman with a small nose and big glossy lips uses a middle finger to push her heavy-looking glasses up the bridge of her nose, and I see round purple bruises splattering the insides of her wrists like those flowers popping through the snow. But their handbags are all buttery soft, made of leather that’s so good it doesn’t feel like skin, only money. It costs a lot for Dr. Applegate to take on the women, but these women have plenty of money and nowhere better to go.
My sisters know what to do. Ruth holds a cardboard box full of the glossy books they will pass around while our mother gives the opening day speech. I was a little girl last season, but this year, everything has changed. I am nearly as tall as Dr. Applegate, and since January, I’ve gotten my period twice. It’s time for everyone to love me like they do my sisters. On one side, Grace’s body feels long and sleek. I lean into her even though the bones and knotted muscles aren’t soft or warm. On the other, Joan is all melty energy, arms loose and ready to hug. Ruth stands at the end of the line, last after my mother, and though she is pale and tall while Dr. Applegate is short and dark, their expressions are the same, tight like predators scanning the still woods for something small, slow, and edible. No one has told me what to do, so I step out of line and reach into Ruth’s box, fingering the spine of a book, ready to deliver it to a woman, but Ruth slaps my hand away. So I trace fingernails across my mother’s knotted shoulder.
“Doctor?” I say. She shrugs my hand away.
“Ladies. Welcome,” Dr. Applegate says to the sunglasses, which snap away from the mountain and train on her. My mom has a way of getting attention. She’s small, and not very loud, but her voice has the force of a slap to the face. Every word sounds like a complete sentence.
“My daughters will show you to your rooms. After you’ve freshened up, we’ll have some lunch, break into our workshop groups to set goals, and then,” she says, pausing to take in all those round black lenses pointing at her chest like targets, “we’ll do what we came to do. Prepare to fight this mountain. And win.”
Before I was born, her husband called her Dr. Applegate as a joke, and when my sisters were babies, they thought that was her name. Now it is. She’s only a doctor of old books, but she stands straight and doesn’t talk very much, so it’s easy to imagine her as a brilliant surgeon, or at least the kind that makes a monster out of corpses. My finger wants to drag itself along the shoulder seam of her chambray shirt, but I force it back into a fist and hit my thigh a couple of times, just hard enough to remind myself to calm down.
“My daughters will hand each of you a book containing your reading assignments for this week. It is yours to keep so don’t worry about making notes in the margins.” My sisters pass them around, and I hang behind my mother, wishing I didn’t look so much like a child. The women scratch pages with long, glossy thumbnails without pausing to see the writing.
“You’ll read the first story before dinner. After, we will have our first salon,” Dr. Applegate doesn’t make the “n” sound, but if the women are impressed, their sunglasses don’t show it.
None of the women thinks to get her own bags, so my sisters run forward, helping Ondine pull the same brown leather bags marked LV out of the back of the van six times. One for each woman. My mother leaves them to us, disappearing up steps the color of cotton candy and through the open doorway.
Our house was built to look like gingerbread with pointy gables and latticework dripping from the porch roof like icing melting off a hot cake. Anywhere else, it might look like a mansion, but out here, with a mountain crowding the backyard, it looks kind of stupid. There’s a historic sign out front because it was built by a man who got famous and rich from owning a mine full of silver. He must have thought he was showing off his money, torturing trees’ dead bodies into a candy house that looks like something a happy family would slap together with cookies and gloopy frosting at Christmastime. I read in a book at the library that he lost all his money when another mine he bought turned out to be full of nothing, and he had the to sell the house two years after it was done. The mountain is always better than anything we do in its shadow.
Joan is almost as pretty as Grace, with hair just a little bit darker and wide cheeks that dimple when she smiles. “We’re so glad you’re here,” she says to the women, who hide their hands in the sleeves of their sweaters like little girls. Ruth doesn’t talk to the women but can carry the most bags. Grace only carries one small LV, but she’s telling jokes and talking fast to women who are trying not to smile. Soon we are a circle around my sisters. They’re like a campfire.
“I’m glad you’re here,” I say to the nearest pair of sunglasses, so big and round and black that I can’t see any eyeballs behind them. The mouth below the glasses doesn’t smile. Some of the women peck at their phones, but they won’t work, not out here. We have a landline in the kitchen. When the women call home, they creep into Ondine’s pantry for privacy, cord snaking from the crack under the door. Sometimes we hear them crying. It’s kind of sad they only have flour for sympathy. The library in the village is the closest place to tap screens and read what’s happening in places that aren’t Montana.
“Sorry ladies,” Joan says as we lead the women up the candy steps like a row of ducks. “It won’t work up here.”
“You might even have to read,” Ruth says in the flat, bored way she has. Besides me, Ruth is the least pretty because she’s always scowling from concentrating so hard on everything.
The duck whose bag I’m holding follows me through a front parlor packed with velvety furniture the color of fake jewels in antique-store cases. A narrow hall leads to an even littler staircase with gleaming banisters capped by wooden finials carved to look like doves in flight. She’ll sleep on the third floor, I decide, but I fake left, like I’m going to the second floor, just to feel her follow me.
“Oops, wait, no,” I say, and lead her to the third landing.
The second and third floor are just bedrooms. A long time ago, the rooms were big enough to have beds and dressing tables and writing desks, but now, they’ve been hacked in half and then hacked in half of that so everyone can have their own room even if it’s just a bed and tiny cheap dresser. Closets have become bathrooms, and the sound of the pipes working splashes through the walls. Sometimes they leak water that turns the white lilies on the wallpaper brown for a little while. When the water dries, wallpaper curls at the edges, and I want to pull it just to see our house’s naked skeleton underneath, but I wouldn’t dare.
You’re here,” I turn on my stair to face her. We’re close together, with me just a little bit taller. Her breath smells hot, like cinnamon. “I sleep in the attic. One floor up. I’m Bette.” And because I can’t wait to show her my kindness, I turn and run onto the narrow landing, staining the hallway runner with my muddy new boots. Her LV slaps my thigh. “Look,” I tell her. The bathroom has its own tub, checkerboard tiles, pedestal sink, and best of all, a doorway that leads to my woman’s room. “It’s all yours. I gave you the best one.”
Grace told me she once saw her father, the writer who didn’t get famous, slam our mother’s head into that pedestal sink. She remembers red sprayed across the white basin and Dr. Applegate spitting a molar into the bloody puddle. It wasn’t until she spit the tooth that she noticed Grace watching from the doorway and told the man, “You’ll have to leave now.” None of my sisters ever saw him again, and sometimes, I imagine a blonde giant walking into the treeline just outside the clearing and turning into a mist rising over the mountain to make a cloud that bursts and snows him back down over Haworth House, filling the sludge lakes in the back yard until he evaporates and rains down again, over and over. Vapor. Solid. Water. Vapor. Solid. Water.
“Thank you,” the woman tells me, and I realize I’ve been an idiot again, quiet too long. “I’m really tired. Could we?” She tips her head back toward the little bedroom that used to be a lady’s giant closet.
My father was a land developer. I never met him either, but he sends a check on the fifteenth of every month. Ruth told me he lives in Europe with his real family. It’s probably true.
My woman has taken off her sunglasses, and her eyes are very blue, so blue they look full of water. The right one is purple underneath, fading to gold like a sunset. In her room, the LV takes up most of her twin bed, and she seems sad about it. If she spread her arms on either side, she could almost touch the walls. For space, she looks up. The ceilings are twelve foot and cupped by curled white molding that a lot of the guests seem to love.
“I can help you.” She looks from the molding to me. Her watery eyes are runny with surprise. “Unpack, I mean,” I tell her, nodding to the dresser, squat and made of raw pine. Joan has sanded and painted it soft blue, the color of the woman’s eyes, sort of like the sky outside, but sadder because it’s fake.
“I don’t need any help.”
After Ondine makes sure everyone has at least taken a sandwich, we hike the easy trail. It laps the base of the mountain through mossy forest, and the rise isn’t too steep. A half-mile up, the trail opens to rocky ledges that give a nice view of the stubby range west of Haworth House. The late afternoon makes the rocks look red and turns sunlight pink. Looking at the world in miniature from high up is supposed to be inspiring, but on the trail, the women’s new boots are already stained. They make disgusted faces, which Dr. Applegate ignores.
“First order of business,” she tells them, “is to shout.” She lets off a hoot that echos off the rocks above us. The women pick at their sweater sleeves. “Bears are not a joke, ladies,” she tells them, putting a small hand on each of her wide hips and screaming up the sides of the rock again. “They’re awake and they’re hungry. It’s our job to sound too big to fuck with.”
On either side, my sisters seem big like giants. We yell too, and because we have, the other women do. Our screams rise and rebound, haunting us with the noise we’ve just made.
Alders have sprouted baby leaves so green they look like cartoons. The path is crisscrossed with branches that didn’t survive winter and spray painted markers that used to dot grey bark have been erased by the kind of cold that digs in and rubs things away. The mountain is so quiet our bodies seem huge and loud. Chipmunks skitter from the crash we make. I am not very good at hiking. My sisters seem like they’ve been able to climb this mountain since they took their first steps. Even when the trail gets a little steep and the women bend in half to massage their thighs, my sisters and Dr. Applegate march at a pace I know they think is slow but leaves the rest of us nearly running, not really hoping we’ll keep up, but just trying to stay in sight.
Four years ago, when I was nine, I slipped on a loose rock and fell into a ravine. My foot ended up trapped between two rocks with a gap just big enough to swallow me to the ankle, and Dr. Applegate used her body to push one away with her shoulder while working my foot free with her hands. She carried me nearly a mile to camp and set off a flare for help. While we waited for the rescue team, she braided my hair, pulling it so tight as she twisted it neat that the pain in my head was almost as bad as the pain in my broken ankle. Now, I watch my feet for rocks that might trick them bad enough to set my ankles rolling and end up hiking so slowly even the guests move ahead of me.
Behind me, a crack makes my heart jump and panic pain stabs my chest, melting to a throb I can feel in my fingers and tips of my toes. I turn around without really wanting to see what’s been creeping up on me and am relieved to find it’s just the blue-eyed woman from Haworth House, sprawled over a fallen branch with her boot caught in the hole her weight must have made.
“Oh no,” I say because the fear lingers, and I can’t think what to do.
The front of her down vest is in the mud. Her arms are in push up position. Joan or my mother would help, which sends me to kneel beside the woman
“My foot,” she says.
“Could you get it out of the branches?” she asks. Her eyes aren’t just watery; they’re running over. The tears and the mud stink and the soft flailing body are nauseating, but that’s probably because her helplessness makes me remember that I might not be able to help her.
“Yes. I can do that,” I say, and work her foot out of its trap much nicer than when Dr. Applegate braided my hair. The woman rolls her foot in a circle, testing, before pushing herself off the ground. She’s okay, but one muddy palm is bleeding. She licks it.
“Thank you,” she says.
I can still hear everyone up ahead of us, though I can’t see them through the trees. Footsteps and voices carry out here. Sometimes things that are far away seem right at your heels, but sometimes things sound way up the mountain when they’re just ahead of you. Voices float like ghosts, and you never find out who made what sound.
Marie doesn’t seem like someone who just fell in the mud. If it was me rubbing muck off my front with the sleeve of a flannel shirt, I’d probably slouch and try to hide, but Marie doesn’t seem to care how stupid she just looked. I wonder what might be a nice thing to say.
“You don’t seem hurt,” I tell her.
Marie’s face snaps to look at me, and I see her eye again, the color of a ripe plum out here in the sun.
“Your ankle, I mean.” Marie’s blue eyes stand out against thick, dark eyebrows. Her cheeks are pink from the hike, and even with the dark smudge on an otherwise clear face, she looks expensive. Fancier than scrubby trees and squishy mud. When she laughs, it’s so loud I jump back as if she’d screamed. I wonder if the sound reaches the rest of Haworth House. Maybe a bear has heard it.
“You must see all kinds of sad women in the place,” she says, and I think of those sobs we hear through the crack in the pantry door while we eat eggs or drink soda and pretend not to. Sometimes I wonder what they must have left behind and what they came to our mountain to find. But I’ve never asked, and they don’t say. I must look guilty because Marie says, “It’s okay. I know what I look like.”
“The kind of thing that gets you sent here.” She unzips the pocket of her vest and pulls out a shiny silver stick that lights blue as she takes a deep drag off it. She exhales a cloud of smoke that smells like burnt sugar.
“Fuck hiking,” she tells me as she takes another drag.
“Fuck hiking,” I tell her, and she laughs again. It doesn’t scare me this time because I was expecting it. She turns and leaves the trail, wadding her flannel shirt on a damp rock and lying on her side. I could take her home, but I might get into trouble. I could leave her here while I run ahead to tattle to Dr. Applegate, but I don’t like being alone on the mountain. There’s another rock near enough to see her in case she tries to wander away on her own, so I crisscross my legs on it and watch the trail, impatient for the other women.
By the time their voices and footsteps get close again, the light has changed from white to yellow. The cold rock has made my thighs numb.
“Bette.” Dr. Applegate calls to me as soon as she sees me through the trees. I jump off my rock and run to meet her. “Why are you malingering back here?”
“Marie fell,” I say, gesturing to the woman still laying on the rock with her eyes closed, though I don’t believe she’s sleeping.
“And she requires medical attention?”
“No. She’s resting.” Dr. Applegate looks from me to Marie, who has opened her eyes but has not sat up. I am sure she is about to let us have it in her quiet way. My stomach twists.
“Well, if everyone feels adequately rested.” She marches on, trailing women behind her. Marie joins the middle of the line, and I fall in near her.
On the first night, the women don’t know what they’re supposed to do. In the sitting room, there are bottles of whiskey and red wine. They go back and forth between the two, collapsing into their fake-jewel chairs every time they get up like it’s exhausting to fill a glass.
“Her name was Connie.” My mother stands on the hearth, reading from the open book in her palm. “What does the past tense signify?” Ruth knows the answer; it’s in the hard set of her eyes, the determination of her jaw, but the question isn’t for her. For a long time, the only sound is knots popping as fire eats pine logs.
“She was Connie, but not anymore,” Marie says, half disappeared in the saggy cushion of a wingback chair.
“What is she now?”
Marie flutters a hand through empty air.
At Haworth House, there is no bedtime, not even for me. The women put themselves to bed when they’re ready, some of them yawning fake sleepiness as the book talk wears on. Others finish off their glasses in long gulps, and their voices get loud and screechy. Dr. Applegate stays standing at the hearth, leading the conversation like a conductor, but keeping one eye on the women who’ve escaped to the porch to smoke.
She disappears at ten. Sometimes my sisters stay up giggling, and the other women hang at the edges of the living room smiling a little bit. Those are the nights I like most. The sound of them sets the joybird flapping and I feel as happy as I do scared. But tonight, they follow each other up the stairs to the only uncut room at Haworth House, where Ruth and Joan sleep on a bunk bed and Grace sleeps on a queen. Women’s eyes follow them. Soon all the glasses are stacked on the sideboard, and I am alone.
My room is in the attic. It’s just a feather mattress in the bench seat of a window that swells out of the house’s spire like something that just got punched. No one told me I had to sleep up here. My sisters’ room was too crowded even before I was born, but I could have had a guest room except, five years ago, I said I wanted this because it freed up more space for the women. That made Dr. Applegate so happy I couldn’t tell her how much I hate the shadows that push through the three-paned window or how I can see my breath in ghosty swirls before I go to sleep and when I wake up in the morning.
“For Christ’s sake, why don’t you take a heater up there?” she asked once when she came to drag me to the kitchen for school and found me still curled in the blanket Grace gave me before she left for college.
It’s not that simple. If the room is warm, then there’s no way to appreciate the heat from my blanket. Warm on warm on warm makes me feel more alone than cold then warm. I steal things from my sisters when they’re downstairs in the kitchen or out on a hike. A bottle of Joan’s perfume that I sprayed on my pillow. The collected poems of an old man named Yeats from the floor beside Ruth’s bed. My pillow smells like the new flowers blooming on the side of the mountain. The book is open to a poem where a swan beats its great wings above a staggering girl. Grace gave me the blanket. I didn’t have to steal it. Sleeping is the loneliest part of the day.
The yard beneath the window is black when two headlights cut it open, and it’s the light that wakes me, though it shuts off pretty quick. Before the lights go out, I can see a bear-like shape in the front seat of an SUV, and then I can hear something moving out there in the dark. I should do something but I can’t. My ears ring with trying to hear footsteps or shouts. It’s all silence.
“Doctor,” I whisper into my perfume-smelling pillow. What would Grace do? Something brave. Silence gives over to stomps, still distant though. I hear a door slam and a woman’s voice screams “Get out.” But like a bird trapped indoors, the panicked crashing of whatever’s gotten into our house moves upstairs, further in, instead of going out. I hear it move to the third floor; heavy steps against a shower of screams below me, and then on my stairs, each step like thunder from a storm getting closer, making the air so thick you can feel the water before the first drops fall. When my door bashes open, I know from the big shape and the dark, fermented smell that it’s a man because I’ve never smelled anything like it. I curl under my blanket, and the movement seems to provoke him because he’s on top of me pushing at my spine with a blunt metal edge.
“Marie, you fucking whore. I’ll fucking kill you.” His whisper smells like the inside of one of the glasses on the sideboard, and the vomit sweet stink of him mixed with the perfume on my pillow makes my head fuzzy. Am I Marie? I might be. Without meaning to, I make a noise that sounds like a chirp.
“You’ll want to get away from my daughter,” Dr. Applegate says from the doorway. She has switched on the light, and in the sudden brightness, I’m blind. The gun barrel moves away from my spine.
“Who the fuck are you?” the man shouts. When my eyes adjust, I can see that his gun is pointed at my mother, but hers is still by her side.
“This is my house,” she tells him, “And that, is a little girl.” The man blinks down at me. His eyes are red like he’s been crying, and his face is round like a baby’s, stained with a little bit of ginger beard.
“Oh Christ. Christ, I’m sorry.” He cries now, and the gun clatters to the floor as he rubs his red eyes with both fists. Dr. Applegate picks up his weapon, and holding a pistol in each hand, she looks like a cowboy from an old movie.
“Follow me downstairs,” she says. “Please.” The word sounds more like a bullet than manners.
Below me, doors open, and I hear footsteps, voices. My mother leads the man away, careful not to point either gun at him. He keeps saying he’s sorry until it becomes one long word “Sorrysorrysorrysorry.” Suddenly, I am alone again. I feel hollow. My spine throbs where the gun touched it, and inside, it’s like something is ricocheting around my empty body, bouncing off bones that ring an echoing, tinny sound.
It’s so cold I gasp when I pull myself out of bed and run to the door, down the stairs to the guest rooms. My sisters are in their pajamas: short shorts and sweatshirts that hang from bone spur shoulders. They are huddled with the women on the floor. Some are crying, and Joan is hugging two at once.
“What did you see?” Joan asks.
“Why didn’t you scream?” Ruth asks.
“Did you fight?” Grace asks.
I can’t look at them because my answers are not good.
Marie is sitting on her bed, looking down at the yard with a piece of ruffly yellow curtain in her hand. I sit beside her and look too. Dr. Applegate is putting the man back into his SUV. The man is turning on the lights and backing an unsteady circle in our yard then making a wobbly line up the driveway for the main road. Dr. Applegate watches him, barefoot, from the grass.
“He’s wasted, and he’s going to hurt himself.”
“He was going to hurt me,” I say. Marie seems to realize she’s not talking to herself. “He’s the one who hurt you.”
“Get out,” she tells me.
The halls are filled with women, but I don’t feel nice enough right now to hug and pet them like my sisters can. No one notices me tiptoeing downstairs to the first floor, where the living room is dark and quiet. Beside the fireplace, there’s an iron statue of a doe elk. Most people think of bucks with big antlers when they think of elk, but this one is a girl. You can tell because there’s no antlers but also because of all the soft edges. The weak spine. The little snout. Out on the mountain, it would probably look ready to run away if I caught it eating snowberries off a scraggly limb, but our doe has a hard look in her metal eye. More like a bear than a deer. I sit the rest of the night on the floor with my arms around the doe, listening to the sounds of women putting themselves back to sleep.
A long time ago, we had a big yellow dog, but a bear came down the mountain and ate it. My mother didn’t miss him until Joan came crying into the kitchen clutching a fistful of bloody fur. Grace told me that. It’s probably true.
I lean forward and lick the doe’s metal spine. It tastes like cold and minerals, same as the water from a clear mountain spring. A dog would lick my face, even if it was just for the salt from tears, but instead, they fall on the doe, puddling in its hollows. I drink them. Dr. Applegate is down the stairs as the first muddy light finds its way through cracks in the drapes. She comes to stack wood for a new fire and doesn’t start when she sees me with my chin snuggled into the doe’s neck.
“Stop creeping behind there,” she tells me. “You look like a little ghost.”
I can’t go back up to the attic, not yet. Outside the grey-yellow murk of dawn has found the yard. There are deep ruts where the man turned his car around, and I toe them with one bare foot. It’s hard to tell if I’m cold on the inside or the outside, so I pull my arms in my tee shirt and hug my own naked chest. This early, the sun isn’t strong enough to blind yet, so I stare it down until my eyeballs get hot, then let my head collapse back to feel the weight of my hair over my shoulder blades. Her name was Connie. Her name was Marie. My name is Marie. I lie on the ground with my arms and feet out like a five-point star. It’s wet and cold but there’s grass here too, tickling my bare ankles and the hollow of my neck like a promise of summer. The sun is warmer with my eyes closed.
A sudden blow above the staggering girl. But it’s not that. It’s fingertips brushing my hairline so lightly that at first, I think it’s the wind. The touch feels so good I fake sleeping just to make it last. I hope it’s Grace or my mother. Joan would be okay. Grace, Mom, Joan, Ruth. That’s who I want in that order.
It’s Marie. Her dark hair pools in the cup of my collarbone. Her eyes are like the sky in May, clear and warm, but the bruise is nearly swamp green in places. Green like puke. Green like fear.
“Hey,” she says, still rubbing my temple. “I’m sorry. It’s not your fault.”
The rubbing is making me all sleepy and confused. “What’s not?”
“That you live in a house where rich people hide their fucked up daughters.” I slap her hand away and sit up, aware now that I am wet and dirty and probably look like an idiot. “You know that, don’t you? What your house is?”
“We’re not hiding. I’m not hiding,” I tell her, imagining myself as Grace, taller than the trees with hair and teeth as white as the peak of the mountain. Just because that man hit my mom and ran away and then the other man left and went to Europe doesn’t mean we are hidden here in a candy house behind a mountain. It’s those men who are hiding from us. We are too big to fuck with.
Marie is looking at me all weird with a squinty face and soft, hunching shoulders. Her fingers drop from my temple, along my cheekbone. She traces my top lip so lightly I could be imagining it except for the fact that her skin smells heavily sweet, like roses when their petals get nearly heavy enough to fall. I don’t want her to touch me, and I don’t want her to stop, so I freeze. My whole body hardens.
“Do you tell yourself that at night in the attic?”
“I wish your husband had killed you.”
There’s an old barn in the side yard, slapped together with nails half jutting from smelly old boards and horse stalls full of things the House doesn’t want anymore. Toolboxes full of clinky stuff I don’t know how to use, hatchets eating into the walls. The chainsaw Dr. Applegate uses for firewoord, a shotgun she fires at coyotes, and the .22 me and my sisters use for shooting cans off logs. It’s easy to imagine big horses with eyes all cloudy from being kept in the dark bolting from these open pens. A herd of horses kicking down the creaky doors and running for freedom.
I take the opposite direction of my fake horses and go into one of the rotted, hay-smelling stalls. A feed bucket with a rusted hole through one side hangs against the wall. A water trough is still half-attached to a rotted board. Mixed with the old horse supplies, there’s stacked crap from Haworth House. Three wooden pallets looped and tangled with Christmas lights. A wrench thrown out of its toolbox to the center of the stall. I pick it up and toss it at the wall like a throwing star. The wrench thuds away to find a new hiding spot where it might live for ten years beside once-a-year lights and the ghosts of dead horses
On a horse, I’d be taller than my sisters and Dr. Applegate. I’d be taller than that man in my room. I’d tell him my name is Bette.
But I’d be nice about it. Each of my sisters would get her own horse. A golden one for Joan, grey and white speckled for Ruth, and for Grace, black so shiny it turns silver in the sun. Hoofs hit in unison as we ride fast and hard in a flat, dry place that isn’t Montana. Due south and cactuses with arms up, saluting the sun. I ride in front, bolting top speed from wet and snow and men with guns in bedrooms. The joybird jumps and flaps its wings, but I shake my head against it. Back in the dark old barn again, I grab the thing that’s closest, the cold woodgrain of the .22.
Back outside, Marie is gone, and even though I was only in the barn a minute, the sun blinds me. The gun barrel thumps my hip as I shield my eyes against it. The thought of shooting myself scares me so much I swing the barrel to the sky, doing a stupid thing to fix a stupid thing. My head feels swimmy and the edges of things are blurred. The gingerbread roof of Haworth House looks like a picture against a backdrop, fake at the edges. I hide myself in the band of firs behind the House because I’d rather be in the shadow of the trees than the shadow of Haworth. A little path winds through tree roots still choking on brown snow. The gun feels heavier than I remember from the last time I shot cans. If it wasn’t so heavy, maybe I could fly up to the tops of the trees and rest there for a little while. Instead, the path ends in a real pond, big enough to swim in. By summer, it’ll be a stinking mud pit full of frogspawn and mosquito clouds, but right now, it’s still pure. Above me, a tundra swan cracks needles as it dives for a drink. I raise the gun and shoot it before I can think of a reason not to.
The swan hits the ground a few feet from where I stand with the rifle still pointed at the spot in the sky where the bird used to be. For a few seconds, I can’t look. The bird gives off a few gasping chirps. It sounds more tired than hurt. Sad, maybe. I drop the gun and kneel. Blackish blood oozes from under its wing; the black beak is parted and wheezes come from the two slitty nostrils in the yellow rectangle at the top of its bill.
Its feathers feel oily, and the swan is in too much pain to flinch from my touch. It breathes hard against me, as if panting could shake off the pressure of my pushing finger. Above me, there’s no flock, which is weird, since they usually fly together in a tight-ranked white cloud pointing its way to someplace better. But this bird is alone. Maybe it got lost or maybe the others didn’t want it. Maybe this bird broke ranks for a drink and the rest of its friends flew on, sure it would be back and then too far away to turn around. Blood mixes with snow to form another puddle on ground filthy with them. Pink this time and not brown. I stop petting the bird to dip the tip of my ring finger into the pool. The blood is much brighter than where it leaks from beneath the bird’s wing. The color of an apple skin or Christmas paper. The swan’s whines get faster; the shock must be wearing off. I pick up the rifle and point it at the little white chest, stained on the left side from where I missed my mark the first time. I pet the trigger. But the fear of another shot just spraying pellets that still don’t kill the gasping bird makes me drop the gun again.
In the trees, I find a heavy rock. Beside the pond, my knee on the bird’s long neck is heavy enough to shut up its crying, but that doesn’t stop the black beak with its bright spot of yellow from opening and closing. One shiny eye spins. Webbed feet circle like it actually made the pond and is just paddling for a second before one last drink and a lift off and finding family to fly home.
The rock lifts and crashes until the swan’s skull breaks and spills pink blobs. The bones feel so little beneath the ruffle of feathers as I toss the body into the pond and curl myself tight. I cry into my crossed arms, never minding the blood and the mud and ooze as I squelch in the mess and the sun gives over to flurries of powdery new snow.