By C.G. Fewston
Darwin Mother had a peculiar taste for silver and dandelions. And in a yellow house down the street, she lived all alone.
At precisely ten each morning Darwin Mother sat on her front porch to read a romance novel, just the way she had done with her late husband Andrew while he smoked a cigar and read The Brownwood Bulletin. One day near the end of May I came to the steps of her porch, a trembling in my knees.
Despite my fear, Brownwood, Texas had still been a safe enough place, and the front doors remained open and welcoming. Back then neighbors were friendly and smiled and waved you in to have some hot pecan pie topped with vanilla ice-cream.
On that particular day she was not on her front porch but her book lay open on a stand beside a rocking chair. I hesitated, not wanting to interrupt Darwin Mother from whatever it was she was doing inside. Then I wrangled what courage I had (more so from fear of my father’s retribution if I did not do as told), knocked and hoped she would let me cut her yard for ten dollars or a little more. She came to the screen door, looked over me as if I had burned a batch of her apricot muffins and asked,
‘Can I help you, young man?’
I stumbled through my thoughts for a few seconds and found myself unable to explain why I was there. Standing in front of her it struck me that this was the first time in all my fifteen years that I was speaking to a woman alone. No parents were there to make me seem childish. No siblings to interfere.
‘Your name?’ she said.
She had one hand on her hip as the other hand pushed open the screen door between us. I looked into the shadows and dust rays that filled her front hallway. A grandfather clock stood alone and frozen at the time of two-forty and I found out some time later from Darwin Mother that this was the exact hour her husband had died from heart failure in the laboratory across town.
‘Are you listening to me?’ she said. She rapped me playfully on the crown of my baseball cap. ‘If you’re going to greet a lady then you begin with an introduction, and your name is the likeliest of places to start.’
I drew a blank. I did not know what to say. Her white dress had a slit in the front and her cleavage showed drops of sweat rolling down the center.
‘Perhaps you’re deaf?’
If I had not spoken when I did, Darwin Mother would have assumed me as a mute as well, and I would never have heard the end of it from my father.
The sun from the late afternoon was on the back of my neck and sweat beads trickled down my back and into my jeans. The way she looked at me distrustfully, I half suspected Darwin Mother thought I was the same boy that had cut her yard the month before (though I clearly was not).
‘All right, Charles,’ she said, much to my excitement. ‘Be here this Saturday and I’ll show you around and tell you what needs to be done. There’s the backyard and hedges along the fence up there in the front. I’m assuming you have your own equipment?’
‘Yes. Seven in the morning,’ then she added, which I thought was rather too snobbish at the time, ‘on Saturday.’
‘Do you have your own mower?’
‘I can use my father’s.’
‘Be sure to get permission before you do.’
‘See you then, Charles.’
‘Yes, see you…’ and I was uncertain as what to call her because most of the boys in the neighborhood had given her the nickname Darwin Mother since her late husband used to be a scientist and no one knew her name. The name, however, stuck and even mothers and fathers called her Darwin Mother. Not to her face, I don’t think.
‘Call me Evelyn,’ she said. I never liked that name and have never called her by it.
‘Thanks again, mam,’ I said.
With the banging of the screen door I had my first paying job, and I also knew I had just made my father proud.
Later that night, seated across from my father at the dining room table, an heirloom from the time of my grandfather’s family that had once seated fourteen men, women and children, I recognized a look of anxiety in my father’s nervous twitch found in his left eye, and the unusual mood he was in when he passed me the buttermilk biscuits.
When my mother told me to eat the boiled carrots on my plate, I balked her for doing so because I believed I was no longer a child to be ordered what to do. Instead of eating rabbit food, I had a better thing to say. My father didn’t want to hear it, but there was no authority in his voice when he said,
‘Don’t talk back to your mother.’
My mother turned to the empty space between us where an extra plate should have been.
Granted, at the time I felt an approximation of something being wrong. I squirmed in my chair while a cooing thought inside was telling me to stay quiet. The inner voice was so soft that I chose to ignore it.
‘Where’s Dawn?’ I said. ‘I haven’t seen her all week.’
‘Don’t talk with your mouth full,’ my mother chided me.
‘You know better than that,’ my father, shoulders slumped, added.
I attempted to imagine what force had been strong enough to make my father’s ego crumble, but I failed in my endeavour to do so.
‘She’s going to be away for a while,’ my mother said. She used her fork to scrape some snow peas alongside the mashed potatoes on her plate. ‘We’ll just have to get along without her.’ She sipped iced-tea from a small mason jar.
‘What are you talking about?’ A sister doesn’t vanish overnight, I thought. ‘What have you done?’
Even though she was only two years older than I was and had run away twice before, I thought anything was possible for Dawn. Somehow I believed my sister was invincible and despite all the fights she had had with mother and father, I hoped she could rise above it and make something of herself, such as a lawyer or a judge and even end up in the Supreme Court one day.
‘She needed a vacation,’ my mother said. She touched my father’s hand, a strong mechanic’s hand. He did not budge. ‘Isn’t that right, Ray?’
‘That’s about the sound of it, Ginny.’ My mother’s name was Virginia, and all the years I had known my father he had called her by that pet name. But that evening over supper there was not a trace of joy to be found in that sobriquet, nor did his voice pretend otherwise.
‘Now eat your carrots or you’ll go blind,’ my mother said. ‘They’re getting cold, and I won’t see them wasted.’
I bit my tongue, did as I was told, and said nothing of Darwin Mother’s lawn. Something had happened to Dawn and I was afraid it would happen to me too.
The next day when I awoke I imagined I saw Dawn’s long, dark hair by the window. Sometimes, when she came into my room to stand by the window, I watched her without her knowing it. She would look out over the neighborhood, one hand on the windowsill, like a queen exiled and imprisoned in this far away land and house surrounded by ordinary folk like myself.
The wind blew the curtains, breaking the daydream’s spell, and I saw that she was not in my room that morning. She was not by the window as I had hoped when I fell asleep the night before.
The bed was warm and I did not want to get up because it was still too cold, and I was still not ready to face Darwin Mother’s disappointment.
I arrived at Darwin Mother’s on that Saturday without my father’s mower. Father had been too preoccupied with Dawn, and I was too afraid to ask for permission to take tools from his garage.
When I rang her doorbell, I had no idea what I was going to say but I figured it had to involve some snippet of the truth. I had my honor to consider and that was all there was to it.
Darwin Mother came to the front door in a white dress, and the sun caught her in such a way that she looked like a young woman in her thirties. Even the gray in her long, dark hair had vanished for the moment and it made me think of Dawn and what she’d look like in ten or twenty years.
Darwin Mother frowned and nodded when I explained I had no mower.
‘Go around to the side of the house,’ she told me. ‘Where the path forks, take the left-hand path and that’s going to lead you to my vegetable garden. Inside the main yard you can find a shed and the mower that belonged to Andrew.’
I found Andrew’s mower and a gas tank that was half-full. I dragged them out of the shed and into the yard. The dipstick showed there was enough oil but I wiped it clean on the back of my pants, and checked the level again to be sure.
It could not have been past seven-thirty when she kneeled down in the middle of the backyard and placed the copper pot on the ground before her. I removed my cap and scratched my head, thinking how in the hell was I going to mow the yard with her in it. Some of the boys had told me she had some screws loose. I figured I could start on the outside by the picket fence and work my way in.
But she did the strangest thing then. Darwin Mother looked up and found me watching her and, I swear it, the look in her eyes was as though she had no recollection of what I was doing there in her backyard. Then she waved me over as if she had known all along.
I brushed my hands clean on the front of my shirt and tossed my cap to the ground next to the mower. I didn’t mind a delay in getting to work. Not one bit.
Darwin Mother motioned me to kneel down beside her. I did as she wanted.
‘I forgot something inside,’ she said. ‘Yell if you see anything.’
Before I had a chance to answer, she was hopping up to her feet and racing across the backyard, up the steps, and into her house.
I looked around the yard at the cracked picket fence and empty bird bath and a rusted toy wagon turned on its side, wheel missing and all, and I wondered what it was I was supposed to see.
That was when a flash caught my eye. I looked up expecting to see some sort of thunderhead but the morning sky was cloudless. Another flash came and went.
Then two more quick sharp bursts came from below me. Down inside the copper pot a black liquid could be seen spinning gradually, as if it were descending into the earth through a hole at the bottom. The black liquid remained and did not drain.
I parked my hands on the ground on either side of the pot and stared into a liquid mass that resembled the universe of stars at night. Several flashes, as though suns were exploding and imploding, brought strange and wonderful designs in a variety of colors. Rainbows melted into oily pools. One miniature star exploded and became a gaseous mix of purples and greens. The longer I watched these transformations shape and reshape the dark textures of the liquid in the copper pot I half believed I was witnessing a birth of another universe.
The screen door banged shut and I looked up to see Darwin Mother coming toward me in a rush with a vile of blue liquid in her hand. The movements of her dress, the way the edges lifted and fell as her bare feet touched and glided over the grass, reminded me of a lark or wren or some other bird.
‘Am I too late?’ she asked, and the question sounded as if it were meant for someone other than me.
‘I’ve no idea.’
We both leaned over and looked into the copper pot. The liquid was not black but resembled motionless pond water. Darwin Mother poured in the blue liquid but nothing happened other than creating a thin residue on the surface. We waited for at least five minutes on our knees.
‘I don’t understand,’ she said. ‘I did everything right. I just don’t understand.’ Her questioning eyes turned to me as if I were the one to relieve her of her troubled doubts.
‘I don’t know,’ I told Darwin Mother. ‘Can I get to work now?’
‘Did you see anything?’ There were those questioning eyes again. ‘It’s perfectly all right,’ she pleaded, ‘you can tell me.’
I stood and wiped my knees free of grass. There was a thrill rushing through me from seeing the wizard’s potion unfurl a universe inside the copper pot. Darwin Mother remained on her knees beside the pot. I shook my head no, and returned to the back of the shed to start the mower. I did not turn back when the screen door slapped shut.
After several short breaks and a bottle of lemon-lime Gatorade, I figured it had to have been at least noon when I knocked on Darwin Mother’s backdoor.
I wiped the sweat from my face with my shirt and decided to go in and make sure the woman was not trapped under the fridge like what happened to old Mrs. Beaman some two years before that time.
Darwin Mother’s kitchen was like most other kitchens. Except for a bowl of lemons on the counter and a fresh pitcher of lemonade, the kitchen was quite bare, overly inert but clean.
I poured myself a glass of lemonade Darwin Mother must have forgotten to bring me, and stepped into the den as if it were my own. I had done my job of mowing and trimming the yard and I felt I had some right to the house to cool down and relax a bit before getting paid.
At the back of the den on a wall positioned between two heavily curtained windows was where I first discovered Thalia’s portrait, about four feet high and two wide. Thalia, I had guessed she was at least the age of seven, was pictured in a white gown where she was backdropped by a garden in full bloom and a pond where three swans sat idle on the surface of the water. Her brown hair was in curls and ribbons, and her eyes followed me as I moved from one side of the room to the other. I watched for some time the shadows drift over that smiling child locked in her portrait.
Of all the boys in the neighborhood I had never heard one of them say anything about a daughter, and I personally had never seen a girl playing at Darwin Mother’s.
One might have mistaken Thalia for Darwin Mother as a young child if one were not familiar enough with the older woman’s smile. Thalia had dimples and Darwin Mother did not.
A woman’s sadness is unlike anything that I, as a man, can know. I saw my mother cry many times. I even saw my sister cry once. And so very like my mother and sister, Darwin Mother lay on her bed. Her pillow absorbed the tears and failed to drown the sounds coming from the anguish, even as a teenager, I was alien to.
Through the folds in Darwin Mother’s dress the shape of her buttocks and panties were visible and allured me out of my momentary shock and closer to her. I dropped to my knees beside the bed and kept my hand over her back, considering whether or not I should break the spell and touch her.
When I did touch her, she did not jerk or scream as I had thought she might. Instead she turned her tearful face toward me on the pillow and we stayed like that for several minutes, just looking at one another without speaking.
When I left Darwin Mother’s that afternoon, she waved me away with laughter and joy in her eyes, and promised that she’d have no other boy but me to cut her lawn. With such gratitude at having a full-time job for the summer, I suggested she pay me the next time I saw her.
I walked the two blocks home believing that I had finally been accepted into the adult world that is so often hidden and out of reach of the children and their curious ears.
My mother was waiting for me as I entered the backdoor to the kitchen. She was sitting at the table and she told me to go shower. We were going to go visit Dawn.
I had not seen my sister in almost a week and I dressed thinking I’d tell her about Darwin Mother, and how our neighbor was not crazy as a loon-bat as many had said, and how I had entered into my manhood and that I no longer needed to be treated like a sister’s plaything or pet.
My mother drove us north for seventy-five miles until we arrived at New Horizons Mental Health Center located on the outskirts of Abilene.
My mother stopped at the gate to speak with one of the security officers in order to be allowed entrance. Half of my trepidation came at suspecting I was next and my mother had conned me into walking in under my own authority just so I could be dragged to the back, injected with drugs, and locked away.
My mother signed us in at the front desk and we were each given visitor passes that we stuck to our clothes over our hearts. By the time a dull-eyed nurse came and escorted us outside to a patio, the heat had peaked and the afternoon sun was fading with a cool pre-dusk breeze. I walked away from my mother and sat on a bench facing the windows and doors all caged in by bars and wires, where countless boys and girls were guarded under strict lock and key.
I turned away from that horror, for that was exactly what it was to me. I waited for the doctor to come by staring away from the main compound and down the sloping yard, through the barbed wire fence, and into open pasture where remnants of dying bluebonnets could be seen stretching for miles.
I turned back to locate my mother and saw she was speaking with the doctor. My sister came out a few minutes later in a sad state of lethargy. I stayed sitting on the bench, my hands clasped together between my knees. My mother went to hug Dawn but the daughter flinched and drew back. Then they embraced and, as they did, Dawn looked at me with wild, animal eyes filled with the tears of sufferance and loss. Shame was upon me then because I knew whether I liked it or not I had somehow become an accomplice in that sordid affair, despite my ignorance of my parents’ sins against Dawn or my powerlessness to save her.
My sister left my mother and walked down the slope to be alone. My mother came to be with me, the doctor standing by her side. The doctor said something to her, or she said something to me, but I was lost to them, drowning in my own thoughts unable to reconcile the fantasy of the home I had believed and the naked truth of how my family really was.
‘Doctor,’ I said, ‘may I speak to my sister alone for a moment.’
The doctor said nothing but turned to my sister wandering near the electric fence curled over with barbed wire.
Ginny spoke instead, ‘I’m not sure that’s a good idea.’
I looked to the doctor and waited for a professional response.
‘I don’t see what harm it can do,’ he said. ‘Take your time. We’ll be here when you finish.’
I joined my sister at the bottom of the slope beneath an oak tree and she pounced on me, clinging to me as if we were floating at sea and she could no longer swim. I held her close and heard her cry into my shoulder. She had never done that before. My arms closed around her.
My darling sister told me of the other girls in her wing of the ward. One had slashed her wrists with broken glass from a flower vase. Another drooled and mumbled off in a corner and in her hands she fiddled with a dead mouse. One girl, a real whack-o, would take her stuffed monkey at night and stick its tail between its legs and have sex with the fabricated penis.
Of all the girls locked up, Dawn thought it damn funny to be there with them and that if she were not crazy when she had first entered the asylum she would be insane by the time she left.
Having listened to the sound of Dawn’s calm, sincere voice, I believed every word. I did not say much, but let her talk of her daily routines of pill-taking and counseling sessions. I kept my head down and listened to more about her lunatic roommates as we walked around the grounds. Just before we parted she slipped me a note and tucked it into my front pocket.
‘Read it when you get home,’ she said. ‘And I love you little brother.’
That was the first time she had told me that she loved me and I did not want to leave my only sister as we held each other for our final good-bye. She must’ve half-believed, as we held each other, that I could sneak her away with me. It would be months before I saw my sister again in the casket.
On the drive back home, Ginny made every effort to speak to me but I stayed silent, not wanting to share anything with anyone.
Dawn’s note was not a letter but a poem, one of many she mailed me throughout the remaining months before her suicide five months later. She drank her milk, five glasses full, with bleach.
Here’s what I can remember of the poem she gave me that day:
Far below the surface
I’m swimming in a sea.
Churning waves are tossed
By a mad storm. Invisible creatures
Surround me. In the dark
Void all around, one might be afraid,
Yet there is total peace I feel,
Blind to the bottom
And too far from the top.
In Darwin Mother’s backyard for the last Saturday of the summer, I asked her about love and trust and her Thalia hanging in the den.
‘What happened?’ I asked.
‘It’s not easy,’ Darwin Mother said, her eyes lifting her line of sight above the oaks shaded by dusk. ‘It’s not easy to give the best parts of your soul to the people of this world.’
And I still don’t know what happened to Thalia or Dawn or if I had meant what had happened to the one or both. Not really. It somehow all seemed to belong to the same sort of monster, and I wasn’t looking for any particular answer anyway.
C.G Fewston is an international writer/university professor who currently holds a post as Visiting Fellow in the English department at City University of Hong Kong. Fewston earned an M.A. in Literature with honors from Stony Brook University, and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing and Fictionfrom Southern New Hampshire University.