I think, at first, I was ashamed of it. That tiny seedling of an idea. Seems silly now, I know, but when it first formed in my brain, latching on so tight and so quick, it scared me to the soft marrow of my bones. It went against everything I knew of the world. Before it could take root, take control, take over, I extracted the soft, newborn tendrils and placed it in my jewellery box.
The jewellery box had been my mother’s, and my great-aunt’s before that. The top was carved in patterned swirls, and a brass clasp kept it shut. Dust from decades upon decades of sitting atop bureaus and hiding in closets had collected in the crannies of the carved bits, leaving the swirls dark and blurred against the cherry wood.
I locked the idea inside and strung the key on a chain to keep around my neck. Though my mother had drawers spilling over with things that dangled and sparkled, my jewellery box was sparse and I would not miss the use of it.
At dinner that night, I hovered and twitched at the edge of my seat, absolute in my belief that my parents would notice something amiss.
‘And your day?’ my father asked, prodding my arm lightly with the butt of his steak knife.
My mother had just finished telling him the story of her day, a story of neighbourly gossip and laundry mix-ups.
‘Nothing unusual.’ I squeaked this out between mouthfuls of mashed potato.
‘Going through puberty, are we?’ He chuckled to himself while my mother gave him a halfhearted glare.
‘Don’t encourage it. She should stay young indefinitely.’ She smiled at me, wrinkling the corners of her eyes.
‘You can’t stop her from growing, sweetheart.’
My mother sighed, her drawn-out breath sweeping over the dinner table.
I sat on my bed, staring at the jewellery box. I had first put it in my desk drawer, out of sight, but I pulled it out after dinner. The key sat in the palm of my hand as I ran the fine chain between the pads of my fingers, silver and soft. I couldn’t possibly open the box.
I wagged my finger at it, just to make sure.
‘I can’t open you.’
The box sat there, just as it should.
I once asked my mother when I would get to work like Daddy. I was five or six, I think. And I remember she laughed. Not the tinkling, polite laugh that she used in front of company. Not the unladylike snorts that blurted from her nose when my father tickled her foot while they sat on the couch. Not the giggles that spilled out at bath time when I made the rubber duck squawk the alphabet.
The laugh was hard. My ears hurt to hear it. But when she spoke, her voice held warmth, like the arms that wrapped around me.
‘Only daddies work. You’ll never have to work a day in your life. Work is dangerous, and the world is full of demons. Put that thought out of your mind. You’ll stay inside with me, darling girl, and don’t you dare grow up.’
It wasn’t an answer. I should have asked for more. But I had only been five, after all.
The day after I locked the idea in the jewellery box, my father knocked on my door.
The whirring fan above did nothing against the summer heat, and I peeled my thighs from my desk chair as I stood. I let him in, and retreated to my bed.
He was coated nearly head to foot with ash. Only the figure eight around his eyes, normally sheltered by his work goggles, remained unblemished.
‘Hey, kiddo. How was your day?’
‘Nothing unusual.’ The lie came easier today. The box sat on my desk, innocuous and blood red.
‘A few of the men are headed to the city tomorrow. Anything you need?’
I shook my head. My glance flickered over to the box. In its little patch of sunlight, the wood seemed to burn with life.
My father turned to go, and I cleared my throat.
‘Could I, maybe, come along?’ I asked, not quite meeting his eyes as my fingers played with the hem of my shirt.
His soot-coated lips smiled a bit as I glanced up, hopeful. But the smile was nothing more than a tweak of his lips. His eyes remained dark and steadfast.
‘You know that’s not proper. Not until you’re married.’
‘I know. I’m sorry.’ The words tumbled out, a rote reply.
‘Dinner’s in ten,’ he said before he closed the door behind him.
I wanted to throw the box out the window. Stupid thing! Why would it make me ask such a stupid question?
I picked up the box to do just that. But at the touch of it, the anger slunk away and I left it to its perch to follow the scent of spiced meat instead.
When I was twelve, two years ago now, my father took me around town to meet the prospectives. That morning had been beautiful; I remember the air being cleaner than it had ever been before. I sucked in big breaths with no feathery fingers of ash tickling my lungs.
At the first house, we sat on the couch for a time, until a boy with unruly hair was dragged downstairs by the ear, his mother apologising over and over. I tried to catch the boy’s eye.
‘Keep your gaze down,’ my father whispered at me.
The two adults talked for a time. I fiddled with my fingers. I made a game of counting every irregular stitch in the seat cushion. I followed the cracks in the floor tiles with my eyes, darkened with years of ash no cleaner could remove. I tilted to the left when my father stood, his absence leaving a groove in the couch. I readjusted myself, staring at the scuffs on my shoes.
When the boy finally sat next to me, I tried not to look at him. I looked at his kneecaps instead. They were cushioned in baby fat still, twice as wide as mine.
I could feel his sticky breath on my arm, smelling like overripe peaches. I couldn’t help but glance up just as he put a hand on my thigh. He grinned at me, and I tried to look away but I couldn’t. There was another hand on my chin, locking me in place.
I wanted to open my mouth, to cry out to my father with his oblivious back to me. Maybe the boy sensed that, or saw it in my eyes. But when he did let go, what I saw in his made me want to shave off the skin where he’d touched me.
I did not look at any of the rest.
My mother slips into my room, before the sun is even out. I’m awake, though. The box sits at the foot of my bed. The key is in my fingers. I woke up with it there.
‘You’ve grown up too fast. I told you not to,’ she says, staring out the window.
I shrug. ‘Growing up isn’t so bad.’
She sits next to me and pets my hair. ‘You’ll be married soon.’
The key is cold, the warmth of my fingers doing little to the silver.
‘But Father hasn’t made me a match yet.’ The delicate chain snags on the blanket, and I extract it with careful fingers.
She pulls me closer. ‘Yesterday, my darling. He wanted to wait, but I thought you should know.’
‘It doesn’t matter.’ She kisses my brow, holding my face in her worn hands. I see the hard lines around her eyes. Some unseen force tugs the sides of her mouth perpetually downwards.
‘I don’t … I—’
‘Sh, I know, child. But it is as it always is and always will be.’
My hand is resting on the lid of the box. It shudders beneath my palm.
She kisses me one more time.
‘When your father gets home, he will explain how things will be.’
We wait like this all day, her shuffling around the house and me on my bed, staring at the jewellery box. Sometimes, I imagine it moves. Sometimes, I imagine it hums.
I hear the door open. My father steps through, alone. He faces me, and where I once saw support now I see a wall.
‘I don’t want to,’ I say first, doing my best not to wince at the same time.
His expression tells me it doesn’t matter. A thousand years of tradition and who am I to alter it?
The key slides in with no resistance. Then the satisfying click of the lock.
I don’t open the lid yet.
‘There is no other way. This is how it should be.’ My father softens his expression. ‘Everything will be okay.’
I hear the words as I see the lid open just a crack.
‘I want more. I want more than okay.’
The lid flies open and the inhabitant of the box races up my arm to cling at the back of my neck. It is feeble, barely bigger than when I shut it away. It has just enough strength to cling on and when I stroke it, soft as butter, it holds fast. Its skin is the faint green of a new leaf, and it settles into the waves of my hair like it has always belonged there.
My father grits his teeth just to look at me, at the thing clinging to my neck. Eyes wider than I’ve ever seen them. I stand and he takes a step back. How odd, this feeling.
‘Get rid of it! Burn it, daughter!’
I shake my head, feeling the slight weight of it float back and forth behind me.
‘That is a demon. You must listen to me, not that. You are my daughter!’ My father rises up before me, a dark shadow of himself.
‘But I am not yours.’
The creature wafts a tentacle towards him, and he recoils.
I sprint towards the door and leave before I can frighten him further.
Mother is sitting in the living room, hands still in her lap. A tentative tentacle reaches out for my mother, too, but she is far away. She looks up at me with empty eyes, and I must keep running.
Beyond the rows of identical houses, beyond the neatly kept fields, I come to the edge. A few stragglers are returning from work, head-to-toe black. They stare at me. I recognise one, from a somewhere and a sometime that no longer seem to matter. He starts to walk towards me. I can see before he realises it himself that he is going to take me back.
Cradling my idea, I step farther than I ever have before, and all at once the fire burns everything away.
The world is fire and starlight. The world is demons and oceans. The idea pulses against my scalp, cascading down my shoulders instead of hair, revealing the world to me. I walk through flames but the heat doesn’t bother me. I seek out the others that I know are out here. The fire burns everywhere.
Read the rest of ‘The idea of women’ fiction issue:
‘If someone told me I was dying I would drink myself to death’, by Judyth Emanuel
‘Make my back burn’, by Fikret Pajalic
‘Raining price’, by Sally Breen
‘The crucible’, by Vivienne Cutbush