A glimpse into the human life Alice can not remember from the eyes of the one who could not forget.
1. Chapter 1
Rating 5/5 Word Count 3021 Review this Chapter
Biloxi Mississippi, March 16, 1982
I always come to Glenwood Cemetery on her birthday. I know it’s not much and it’s harder for me to get around these days without my walker, still it makes feel better to know I remember Mary Alice when no one else does.
It’s a peaceful day. The cemetery has several visitors. There’s a couple three rows to my left and farther over to the right there is a family. A fine day to pay ones respects to the dead.
I take in the three grave stones before me, visibly old and weatherworn. First my Father’s, then my mother’s and finally that of my sister.
Mary Alice Brandon
Beloved daughter and sister
March 16, 1901 – April 7, 1914
I glance at my daughter Virginia, my companion for today’s visit. There is something I need to confess before I meet my maker. Something I’ve never told another living soul. I should tell a priest but, well to a priest it would not matter. To my daughter it just might mean something.
“Ginny, honey, do you remember what I told you about my sister Mary Alice?” I ask.
The sunlight plays off the grey streaks in my daughter’s hair. She smiles, her laugh lines crinkling. “You’ve never told me very much Mom. Only that she died from illness when you were a child. That’s all I know.”
I nod, expecting as much. “Well there is a story I’m going to tell you. Something that happened a long time ago…”
Biloxi Mississippi, April 5, 1914
It is the screams that wake me from a sound sleep. The horrible sound echoes all around me, freezing the blood in my veins even as my hair stands on end. Instantly I recognize Mary’s voice.
I remain in my bed as my father’s thundering footsteps bypass my bedroom door. He’s angry. When Mary has a fit of horrors Papa always gets angry.
“Quiet Mary Alice!” Papa’s order is nearly drowned out by Mary’s hysterics. “I said be quiet damn you!”
The sound of Papa striking Mary makes me cringe. Her shrieking chokes off in a strangled cry. I hear him slap her once more before Mama intercedes.
“Joseph you’re hurting her.”
“Leave out of this Elizabeth. I’ll not have this hell spawn causing another ruckus tonight. I’ll not tolerate it! I’ll beat the devil out of her first!”
Once again Mary begins screaming, only this time she raving. “They’ll find her in the water. When the birds sing tomorrow she’ll die in the water. Black water. Black, black water!”
“Enough Mary Alice!”
But she’s not listening. The words are spilling out of her, frantic and desperate as she repeats them over and over. I cover my ears not wanting to comprehend the cryptic things my sister envisions, because when Mary foresees death someone always dies.
“Elizabeth, bring me the strap.” Papa’s command leaves no room disobedience. I hear my mother scurry to do his bidding while trying to smother a sob.
I burry my head beneath my pillow. I close my eyes tightly and try to think of pretty dresses or sweet cakes with honey… anything to block out the violent sounds coming from Mary’s bedroom.
This time when Mary starts screaming I begin to cry.
Papa’s getting the horse and buggy ready to take Mama and me to Sunday services. Mary doesn’t get to go, though sometimes she does ask nicely. She won’t ask today. Her back is still red and sore from last night.
Mama has kept to the kitchen to avoid Mary. I think she’s ashamed. Or maybe she’s afraid.
In my bedroom I brush Mary’s hair as she hums softly. I recognize the tune as one I play when I have my piano lessons. Maybe when we return from church I’ll play the piano for her. Music helps keep Mary calm and she enjoys it so much.
Between brush strokes I glance at Mary in the vanity table mirror. She’s staring off into nothing, her vacant expression quite familiar. Rarely is Mary aware of her surroundings. Most times she sits in a daze seeing things that aren’t there.
I pity my sister. I can not begin to imagine what tortured thoughts reside in her fragile mind. I wonder if she even knows I’m here.
Abruptly the humming stops and she smiles. The simple gesture transforms her face giving her dainty features a spark of life. Her smile is radiant. Truly beautiful.
The earliest memory I have of my sister is her angelic face. Mary was always the prettiest. Papa says that her beauty only hides a demon in a young woman’s body. I’ve never believed Mary to be a demon. Tormented, perhaps, but never evil.
Mary giggles, her unfocused gaze shifting to mine in the oval mirror. “The answer is yes. Ribbons and lace and so many flowers… they’ll laugh all day long. Laugh and sing, laugh and sing…”
She resumes humming with the brightest smile I’ve seen from her in months. The garish bruise on her pale cheek is a sharp contrast to her blissful expression. I’m just happy her vision is a good one for a change.
I didn’t want to go to school today. I knew the moment I entered the schoolhouse the cruel teasing would begin. I was not disappointed.
“Did you hear that Sarah Nichols drowned in the Blackwell’s pond yesterday?”
“My father said a fat child like her should never have been allowed near the water.”
“My Mama said Mrs. Nichols spoiled Sarah too much. If she’d been strict Sarah would have listened and stayed away from the water like we do.”
“I heard Mad Mary wished it on her. One of us could be next.”
“Cynthia? Did Mary Alice want Sarah to die?”
I ignore the question but it was already too late. Several classmates surround me with varying looks dislike on their faces.
“Maybe Mad Mary pushed her in.”
“Tell us Cynthia. Did Mary Alice curse Sarah? She cursed Simon Adams last winter and he died of the fever.”
“And she cursed Mr. McGregor. Poor man fell over dead in his barn.”
My vision blurs as hot tears well up in my eyes. “Stop it.”
“Mad Mary is wicked. That’s what my Mama says.”
“Are you wicked too Cynthia?”
I glare at the boys and girls around me, hating them. The Lord said hate was wrong and I’m sure that it did make me a bad person but I couldn’t help it. I was even mean enough to wish that Mary could curse all of them. It would serve them right.
I scrub at my eyes but my tears only fall faster. That’s when the taunting begins.
“Sin Cindy and Mad Mary, Sin Cindy and Mad Mary, Sin Cindy and Mad Mary…”
They are laughing and pointing, surrounding me in the center of the room. Our teacher Mrs. Hill simply remains off to the side flittering about but making no real effort to help me. Someone shoves me from behind, I don’t know who, but it is enough to unleash my building anger.
I take my lesson book at swing it at the nearest child I can reach, screaming. “You’ll burn in hell! All of you will burn in hell! You call us wicked but God will make you burn! I swear he will!”
And I keep swinging my book, and kicking when I can, until Mrs. Hill grasps my ear and gives it a good twist.
“Miss. Brandon! This is the last time you cause a disruption in my class.” She scolds sternly. “It seems I’ll have to pay another visit to your parents. Something must be done to control your violent outbursts. To the corner with you and do not move until I give you permission!”
“I didn’t start it.” I cry. “Someone pushed me.”
“I witnessed no such thing.” Snaps Mrs. Hill as she practically shoves me into the punishment corner. She points to the freshly scattered rice grains on the floor. “On your knees.”
“I will not. It wasn’t my fault.”
“Cynthia you will do as I say.” She gives my abused ear another hard twist.
It is not right that I am the one punished. None of this is fair.
Too angry too think through the consequences, I rake my nails down Mrs. Hill’s arm as hard as I can. She gasps in pain and releases my ear. Sobbing, I run from the schoolhouse.
I don’t dare stop till I’ve run the mile and a half to my home. There I find my mother pacing on the porch with Mary, still in her white nightdress, curled on the steps pulling at her long dark hair. Her blue eyes are wild and she’s crying my name over and over.
“Good heavens.” My mother gasps as I throw myself at her, crying pitifully.
“It was awful Mama. They said things about Mary and me, mean things that no one should say. I didn’t mean to do it Mama. I really didn’t.”
My mother ushers me inside the house, rubbing my back comfortingly. “Shhh…” she coos over my tearful ramblings, “Stop crying my sweetling. It will be all right. But you must tell me everything.”
Mama sits with me at the kitchen table and pours me a glass of milk. I force myself tell her everything. My mother, bless her, tries to defend my actions.
“Those horrid children are the spoilt ones.” She huffs indignantly. “Did they hurt you Cynthia?”
“And thank the Lord for that. When the horrors took Mary Alice and she began wailing your name I thought something horrible had happened. She wouldn’t settle down until I went out with her onto the porch. And then I find you all tearstained and heartbroken. What a morning.” Mama sighs tiredly.
Guilt assails me. I know it is hard enough for Mama to look after Mary. It is wrong of me to make her worry also.
I look down and notice for the first time the dried blood under my fingernails. A feeling of dread pools in my stomach. “I scratched at Mrs. Hill until she let me go. She’s going to be very angry.”
Mama pats my hand. “I’ve always thought that woman was an unfit teacher. Yet your Father insists that you’re to attend school with the other children…”
I know what my Mama doesn’t say. Father enjoys parading me about to prove to everyone that I am not like Mary. He behaves as though he only has one daughter and he demands that I’m a paradigm of propriety and religious breeding. He will be most unforgiving of my actions today.
“What will we tell Papa?” I ask softly.
“The truth, for I am certain your father will hear the story long before he returns home.”
Mama was right.
When Papa returns from the mill he storms into the house like a raging bull. I hear the front door slam from where Mary and I sit in the parlor and terror engulfs me. I tighten my grip on my bible and hold my breath. Mary huddles on the window seat and pulls her knees to her chest. A low keening moan rips from her throat.
“Where is she Elizabeth?” He bellows furiously.
“Cynthia!” His heavy footsteps start toward the parlor.
I hurry to my feet just as Papa enters the room with Mama a step behind. He’s a tall, foreboding man and his infuriated presence seems to fill the small space. Mary whimpers but his livid glare never shifts from me. He’s so angry his hands are shaking.
“How dare you behave so shamefully!” He snarls.
My head jerks to the side and the metallic taste of blood fills my mouth. For a moment I’m too stunned to realize that Papa struck me. This is the first time he’s ever raised a hand to me. I try not to cry as my cheek begins to throb.
“Do not say a word because there is no apology you can offer me that will suffice. What you have done is humiliated our family Cynthia. You’re behavior has our neighbors in an uproar. They believe you are turning demented. They fear for their children’s safety. There’s talk of not allowing you to return to school. If I’ve told you once I’ve told you a thousand times, they will judge you according to that thing.” He sneers contemptuously, pointing to Mary.
She cowers away with another keening cry.
“Look at the whelp!” Papa grasps my chin roughly and forces me to look at Mary. “She is set to ruin our good name with her insane episodes. I am mortified to claim that demon child as my flesh and blood. Do you want that Cynthia? Do you? Because that is to be your fate if you do not overcome the devil when he tries to take hold of you. Everyone will look at you and all they will see is her likeness.”
Papa’s hurting me but I stay as still as possible afraid to even breathe. He’s staring at Mary now, a cold gleam entering his eyes. “No Cynthia. You won’t emulate Mary Alice. I won’t let her corrupt your innocent soul and lead you astray into the darkness. I’ll fulfill my Christian duty first.”
He releases me and starts toward Mary just as she begins to screech and yowl, pulling at her hair and kicking her legs.
“Cynthia, go to your room. You are not to come out until you’ve read your bible front to back. Do you understand?” He demands impatiently. Under his breath I hear him mutter, “Our family’s tribulation ends tonight.”
A dawning look of pure awfulness crosses Mama’s face. “Jospeh what are you planning to do?”
“What I should have done ten years ago when the demon learned to speak curses of death.”
In my eleven years on this earth I’ve never heard my father’s voice so cold. Fear for Mary keeps me from fleeing to the comfort of my room.
“You’ll not lay your hands on Mary Alice! You hear me Joseph! I won’t stand for it.”
“A Christian woman obeys her husband Elizabeth. Go into the kitchen and leave us.” He says, not sparing Mama or myself another glance.
Mary’s screams turn heart breaking and nausea besets me as I finally make out what she’s saying.
“Sins of the father, suffer the child…”
Papa is filled with his own demons and he’s given them Mary’s face. That sick feeling inside me churns as he takes the poker from beside the fireplace. I can’t move to stop him. I can’t even speak a word of protest as he stands over Mary, arm raised and ready to strike.
She’s so small, I think wildly, and her back is still sore from the last beating he gave her…
“NO!” Mama cries, desperately rushing forward to throw herself between Papa and Mary. She takes Mary into her arms, holding her little body protectively. “Are you mad?”
“You would murder your own daughter? Then you will end us both Joseph!”
Papa flinches, his arm lowering slightly. “She’s not my daughter, how can she be? She’s barely human.’ He shakes his head. “She kills people with her thoughts.”
“That is ridiculous!”
Papa bristled. “Is it? She knows things no mortal should. And it has only gotten worse, year after year. It must stop now, thirteen years is long enough. How many more innocents have to die? She could damn Cynthia next. Have you thought of that?”
Frustrated tears spill from Mama’s pained eyes. “May God have mercy on you if you harm my child because I will not.”
Papa remains unyielding. “My word is law in this household and you will not defy me, wife. By one means or another, this ends tonight.”
I know as long as I live I will never forget the defeated, broken look on my mother’s face. I can only imagine how difficult it is for her to say, “Then we’ll send her to the asylum. I won’t object this time. I’ll even pack her things tonight… just please…” her voice hitches as she begs, “Please Joseph.”
For a long moment Papa says nothing. Then abruptly he throws down the poker and turns away. At the door he pauses, “Tomorrow morning we are taking Mary Alice to the sanitarium. Have her ready or else I will deal with her the way God intended.”
And as his heavy footsteps fade toward the kitchen I watch my mother fall to pieces.
I run the brush through Mary’s ebony hair and then tie it back with her favorite pink ribbon for the last time. “There. All done.” I say, managing a weak smile.
My sister looks sweet in her simple blue dress. I hope I can always remember her. I wonder if she realizes this is the last time we will ever see each other.
Papa said Mama is not allowed to visit Mary at the sanitarium. He said that Mary will be dead to her and, especially, to me. I’m never to mention her name again. He’s already spoken to Mr. Neely, the local physician, who has agreed to write a death certificate for Mary. Pastor Lowery will hold a service for Mary at the end of the week.
My sister will be dead to me in every possible sense. Already I feel so alone.
Mary continues to stare out of the window, far too quietly. I’m sure she knows something is not right. I’m sure she’s seen it. As I look closer I realize she’s watching Papa prepare the horse and buggy.
“I’m going now.” She whispers. “But I don’t like the dark.”
I look to the graying sky. “It’s not dark. The sun is coming up.”
Her gaze is once again focused inward. “It’s dark and cold. Always so cold.”
“You see your new home?” I ask.
“Nothing to see, just dark… all dark.” She wrings her fingers nervously. “It hurts.”
I’m afraid to hear more. I don’t want to know what I can’t change. Papa made his choice and Mama did to. Like Mama, I’d rather know she’s alive than see her harmed by Papa’s hand.
So I force a bright smile. “Don’t be silly. You’ll be happy there.” But the lie doesn’t come easy and I wonder what new torment she sees in her future.
Before Mary can say more Mama is there to lead her out. “Say goodbye to Cynthia.”
I hug my sister, my only true friend. “Goodbye Mary.”
I remain by the window as Mama and Mary follow Papa into the buggy. They set off at a steady pace and I don’t move away from the window until I can no longer see them. Only then do I start to cry.