The day it happened to her sister, Em was inside. She sat neatly at the small table made of pinewood, the same pine from the trees surrounding the house. She was sketching a dried-up stalk of lavender that she held between her left thumb and index finger. Charcoal in the other hand. Father had built the table for Mother, who liked having all her things in one place while she worked. She didn’t have many things so the table was small. Thin sticks of graphite in a cup once used for drinking, loose sheets of paper scattered across the table’s surface. Occasionally some sheets would fall to the floor. Father would pick them up while Mother was in the kitchen or the garden and he’d put all the smooth leafs into their designated compartment.
Mother’s Infatuation began many days before that, in ways not many people would notice. First it was the soup. Mother forgot the salt. The whole thing was tragically under-seasoned, so much so that after the first bite everyone around the table collectively paused and looked at one another. She looked down apologetically.
“It was the salt. I’m sorry.”
“It is only soup,” they reassured her.
Then one morning Mother did not leave her bed. Em and Nina were downstairs in the center of the light-filled kitchen, waiting. They got tired of waiting and went upstairs, where they found Father just exiting the bedroom. He quietly shut the wooden door behind him.
“Your mother is ill,” he said.
“How ill?,” they wanted to know.
“Only a bit. She feels tired is all.”
Em and Nina nodded. There was nothing more to know.
The following day she was back in the garden tending to her vegetables, standing intermittently to stretch her cramping arms up, out, to the side. Later in the evening she sat at her small table drawing with her left hand instead of her right. Em noticed. She asked why.
“Hands get tired, Em,” is all Mother said.
Em nodded. It made sense that hands could get tired.
When the Infatuation eventually did take Mother, the girls didn’t notice until the sun set and she was still standing at the kitchen sink, looking out the window in the direction of the lavender field cast in the shadow of the pines. She had been peeling carrots. Nina, being older, gently pried a soil-coated carrot from her left hand and a knife from the other. Mother’s eyes had seemed untouched by the weight taking her body. She looked at her eldest daughter and tears came freely, but she could not say anything as she felt the carrot leave her clenched hand and wondered if it was the last feeling she would ever feel again.
Until it is awkward. Until it is disturbing. Until she cracks.
“We can keep her,” Father said.
He didn’t say for how long. Em and Nina wanted her to stay even if she could no longer speak or move or cook. She cracked when her daughters tried to move her closer to them. They bumped her into the staircase by mistake, just under the left knee. Em looked at Nina. She wanted to know that it was okay. But Nina did not look back. There was nothing they could do. The crack grew big: its thorny branches canopied her leg and then traveled up and up and everywhere until Mother was a porcelain doll loved dearly but roughly.
They saw him putting her pieces into an oblong pot the next morning while they ate breakfast, the clatter of all of her going into the clay sounding like glass, delicate yet sharp, a song with edges. They would have found the sound almost pretty if they had not known what it was. Who it was. Em and Nina watched him silently carry the pot out to the yard. He left the front door open and they saw him dig a small hole in the grass to bury Mother’s pieces. Em felt her insides coil and looked at Nina for confirmation that this feeling was the right one. A dense tear swelled, raced down Nina’s fair cheek. She smeared the trail away. Em did the same.
Silence sat heavy in the house like mud. It caked the doorframes, half-open cabinets, hallways. They did not know what to say to each other. Father thought it would never happen to them. Em knew this because she heard him whispering to himself one evening as he sat slumped in a rigid chair in the living room, eyes fixed on the towering bookshelf across from him. He was not really looking.
“We moved here to be safe,” he muttered. “We were safe.” Two fingers rubbed his temple in a lulling circle, diagonal head supported by propped elbow. Em watched from an arched doorway out of view. She understood then that folded bodies were grief.
Years ago Mother would visit a man in town. He worked in the corner shop where she bought her pencils. She went there often but Father knew she had enough pencils at home. The doctor had told him Mother was to cease her visits immediately. She was, according to the tests, prone to hazardous feelings. Difficult to trace. Possibly genetic. Despite the decades-long history of Infatuations, the events were nearly impossible to predict. Some women exhibited the signs—easily fixated, idealistic, verging on histrionic—at an early age, while others never did until the Infatuation struck. By then it was often too late to quarantine them. There were rare cases of the afflicted who managed to continue their lives with partial paralysis; surveys indicated general fulfillment. But most became porcelain, and most shattered.
Their house was swathed in vast green, far away from any town. Minimal distractions. Father found it before either of the girls were born and yet he found it for them. They would be safe here, he thought, should Mother’s feelings be of the genetic variety. It was crumbling, the roof gone and second floor barely teetering on the remaining walls. The central ivory pillar was the only part both intact and lovely. He rebuilt it all, Father did. He was still refurbishing the interior when Mother became pregnant. Nina was born in the living room on a daybed, flushed and tranquil amongst the scattered half-assembled furniture and unpainted walls and curtain-less windows. The house was, to the girl-child, a marvel.
In the weeks following Mother’s Infatuation Em wondered if it only happened to women. Those were the only stories the girls had heard: the statue-woman found on the forest floor, the fifteen-year-old found in bed, the shattered grandmother found under her armchair.
“Do you think that’s true?” Em whispered to her sister one night. Nina held her close.
“I don’t know,” Nina said, yet Em knew she must know because Em knew it herself. She had pushed her bed into Nina’s room the night after their mother was buried. Though they had their two beds, that night when Em whispered and her sister held her close they slept on the floor between the beds on a pile of soft things. Father came into the room to say goodnight when the whispers and nodding became silence and stillness. The girls’ shared silence was different from the kind in the rest of the house; that kind was hard to clean. He saw them curled up against one another like nesting bowls and thought, should he be so unfortunate to have another Infatuation visit his home, that it take the girls together just like they are now.
Ten years passed without Mother. They believed her Infatuation was an anomaly, though never said it out loud. Over the years they grew accustomed to their trimmed family, training themselves to forget why the house felt so large. But the girls grew large in time. They started to forget things about her, little things that were not important but used to be, like how early she would rise or whether she brushed her teeth before and after eating or if she liked parsley. When they caught themselves misremembering (which is what they called it, not forgetting) they felt an acute shame. Especially Father. He had known her longest.
During those ten years more houses sprouted up around theirs. And with more houses, people to watch from the window. People to think about at night.
Father said it would benefit them to breathe different air. Less stiff. Initially the three of them would go for walks together, but as the nearest home was still not so near he let the girls go alone. Em stopped going; she preferred to draw. Nina started taking longer to return from her walks.
“Where did you go?” Em would ask.
“Oh. Just outside,” Nina would reply, ironing the curling corners of her mouth into a straight line. Much later Em would ask herself why she didn’t ask with whom instead of where. She would ask herself why she didn’t ask what it felt like to feel wrongly. Father would ask himself why he didn’t ask at all.
It was evening and the girls lay on the sofa in the living room while Father prepared dinner. They sat on opposite ends facing each other, barefoot. Dim flames from candles on shelves worked hard to light the room as sun began to creep out across the floors. Em and Nina read their books, the only sound the faint hiss of sizzling something coming from the kitchen. Nina’s ankles were crossed and reached Em’s knees. As Nina uncrossed them and crossed them again, this time with the other foot on top, she caught her breath. Only for an instant. A shallow exhale as her feet sank back into the cushion. Em’s gaze moved to her side. She found a strand of hair, or maybe a thread, draped along Nina’s dainty ankle. Em tried to pick it off. It was stuck. She tried again to grasp it but the hair thread was embedded into Nina’s skin. Like a vein but different.
“What are you doing.”
Em was at the small table made of pinewood sketching a dried-up stalk of lavender. The sky was dark like stones thrown and trodden on. She thought Nina was taking a while on her walk and stepped outside into the windy gray. Em looked far out into the field but saw nothing. Just a sheet of clustered buds undulating nervously. The clouds were assembling above. Em got down and crawled through the lavender, feeling like a strange animal. Finally she found her sister: lying on her back, looking up, heavy. Her milky skin was glass. Em lay beside Nina and nested into her side. Perhaps by touching her, Em thought, she might also turn to glass. The fronds whipped against their bodies as the wind tried to peel the field from the earth.
Rumpus original art by Lisa Lee Herrick.