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I never knew the truth until today.
I’m a skinny twelve year old swaying with shock. Pa in the ground after a fatal gunshot wound, inflicted by himself and the Depression. My mother and I are in the parlor. Stewart and Kenneth, my brothers, are out somewhere. I can see my father’s fresh grave in my mother’s eyes.
“You have to leave.”
The scene always comes back to me so vividly, not only the turmoil inside me, the feeling of falling down an endless tunnel, but also the furnishings. The mahogany table. The silver mirror, older than both of us by three centuries.
“You’re not our daughter. You’re Miss Farley’s child. We took you in.”
I remember the story, the only time I asked for it, and look at it now, so bare. Listening to it then, too stunned to pick it its bones, to lift the carcass and see its face.
Still falling, I followed my former mother’s mechanically voiced instructions and packed a suitcase. My brothers still weren’t home when I’d finished. To be unable to say goodbye to them, the thought that I’d never see them again, punctured the pillows of grief that had surrounded me, and made tears flow from my eyes.
I remember coming downstairs so clearly, the suitcase a lead weight at the end of my left arm. A neighbor was supposed to drive me to Miss Farley’s home. But I went to our back door and opened it and ran.
Panic made me a moth trapped in a jar. I flapped my wings desperately. I ran miles with that heavy suitcase at the end of my arm. I’d never believe it if anyone else told me, but I know I arrived at Miss Farley’s doorstep panting and hot, sweat- and tear- stained, and I took one long breath and knocked.
Miss Farley was a strange woman, strange enough for some people to call a witch. She stayed inside her home, mostly. When she did go out, she carried herself ramrod straight and never smiled. In our small town, no one knew anything about her, not even where she came from or when she’d arrived. This is what had always made me suspect she was some sort of supernatural being.
I took another breath and waited. Everyone else in the family I’d thought was mine had blue eyes, but mine were brown. I thought of how my hair was a few shades darker than my brothers’. I’d never been one of them.
The door opened slightly, then after a few seconds, wider. Miss Farley stood straight as always before me, her nose like a beak, her eyes brown like mine.
“What is it?” she asked.
I slid through that internal tunnel completely, and found the revelation tumbling from my mouth: “My mother says I’m yours. She says they took me in and now my Pa’s dead and…. You have to take me back.”
Miss Farley was silent after this. I remember her brown eyes darting over me like a clever, reasoning crow’s.
Finally: “That snake,” she said. Then she gestured me to come inside.
Miss Farley’s house was empty. For some reason, this frightened me, and I started to tremble.
But then I noticed the large wooden crates piled in the corners and corridors. It turned out that if I hadn’t come then, I would have missed my birth mother: unbeknownst to even the most skilled of our town gossips, she’d decided to move away.
“I’m going to open a boarding house in the city. Respectable, but with low rates and a free breakfast every morning. Do you know how to make a bed?”
“Good.” She nodded back.
We set off the next day before dawn. When everyone else awoke that morning, there was no trace of us left.
The boarding house was a good idea. Soon, all of our twelve rooms were occupied, mostly by hardworking men, or small, hungry-eyed families. I didn’t let myself think of my old life. It was something I left behind, something that had stuck in time and couldn’t go forward with me. My new life was spent keeping our boarding house clean and going to school.
My mother did her part in both things, and though she was never very affectionate, the brisk, satisfied nod she’d give when I’d done something well came to mean all the world to me.
James also came to mean the world to me.
He was my new brother. An unmarried woman with not one but two children is not something many people would have approved of, and I felt strange speaking about it with my mother. So I never asked about my father. Whatever the case, I couldn’t change what my mother had done, and I saw that she was a good person despite it all. She worked hard, and was clever at helping me with my schoolwork, and always ready to lend one of our lodgers a hand.
James had been away at boarding school for most of his life, but once we’d gotten settled, my mother called for him to come to us at the end of the semester.
He was, and is, tall and pale with loping limbs, and light brown hair tinged with gold, as if the sun had followed him into the room. When he laughs, he throws back his head and a sound so riotous comes out, you want to make him do it again. He shared many of my fascinations: chemistry, radio programmes, and inventing stories about the “real lives” of our lodgers.
But that isn’t enough. There was something in James that made me uncurl from the ball I’d curled myself into for all this time. There was a chord in him and a chord in me and when played together, they made the right harmony, a sound that vibrated through my bones, through my blood, to my center. But I couldn’t feel as my heart wanted me to; he was my brother, and that was the only way I could love him.
How lucky the girls were that he took to have a milkshake at the soda fountain after school. I had my fellows, too, but when they spoke or laughed I rarely felt more than a mild humming inside.
Still, I was happy despite what I couldn’t have. We were a family, and each night I would come home and take my turn at setting the table, and we’d three sit down to dinner. James and I would laugh and joke, and our mother rarely spoke, but I could always see happiness in her eyes.
Years passed. Lodgers came and went. The War came and didn’t leave for years. James left to fight. I felt myself curl up again, and hoped that would be enough to protect me from the blow that news of an injury or the unspeakable worse would be. My mother and I continued our routine. I finished school and decided to stay on at the boarding house; my life suited me. We’d listen to the radio every night, and on Sunday’s we’d see a matinee and forget our troubles for a little while.
James wrote long letters full of funny stories about his fellow soldiers and little mishaps. They had a dog who was their mascot, a bulldog he threatened to bring home and let wreak havoc in the boarding house when the War was over. He was often able to get past the censors and give us enough of a picture of the sights around him – and though they were often terrible, sometimes there were beautiful things, too. He saw churches that had been built before people knew about America. He once passed a distant castle, like something from a fairytale illustration. My world felt so small. I started going to museums more often. I let myself imagine that one distant day, the three of us could visit a peaceful Europe, a place that had become our land of stories.
The day the War was over, I learned another kind of chaos: mad joy. The lodgers poured out of their apartments, cheering and shouting, and we greeted them with embraces. Everyone piled into the dining room and brought out precious bottles of wine and carefully made family dishes, and we had a feast that lasted all night. I looked over at my mother. Her cheeks were unusually pink, her eyes didn’t sparkle with their usual controlled gleam: they shone out. I knew I looked the same.
Today, about half an hour ago, someone rang our bell. From our living room window, I saw two uniformed, blonde-haired boys. I went to the door and opened it.
Without a word, they rushed to me and held me between them, pressing me hard against their chests.
They must have felt me struggling, and they released me and backed away slightly.
“Katie!” one of them burst out.
Suddenly, I knew who they were. Stewart and Kenneth, once my brothers, were standing in front of me.
I realized I’d never pictured them as men. For me, they’d stayed the boys I’d never been able to say goodbye to. I wondered at how I’d never thought they could have grown up and gone to war. In a way, I was glad; I hadn’t had to worry for them.
I’d been silent for so long, I was afraid they might think they’d been mistaken. “How did you find me?!” I asked. Then I remembered myself, “Oh, but please come in first!”
The sight of them in our living room was a strange one. One world had invaded another.
Stewart answered my question: “You remember our friend Paul? He was up here in the city for a while and said he thought he’d seen you leaving this boarding house.”
“It was the first time we had any idea where you were,” Kenneth continued, “so we got up here as soon as we could.”
“We didn’t know what had happened to you.”
“We’d always wondered where you’d gone.”
It was then that the thought of the years we’d missed together slapped us like a dragon’s tail. We fell silent for a while.
“You weren’t there when I had to – go,” I finally managed to say.
“Why did you run away?” Kenneth’s voice was soft.
“But I didn’t run away! M-Your mother must have told you!”
“The day after you went missing, she went to town. When she came back, she went into her room and we heard her scream. And that was it.”
It suddenly occurred to me that maybe she’d been disappointed we’d moved. I wondered why. She’d made it clear I wasn’t welcome.
“She’s never been exactly the same.” Stewart went on. “Sort of sad, always.”
Kenneth tugged at his right ear, as he’d always done when he was nervous. “And now, she’s- well, she’s pretty sick. We thought you might like to know, if you want to go to her.”
The puzzlement must have been easy to read on my face. “That’s not why we came here!” Kenneth said quickly. “We’ve wanted to see you for so long! If only we’d known before!”
“No, I understand. But why should I go to your mother? I’m not her kin.” I found myself looking at them as though they were very far away.
I saw their faces crumple like paper bags. “Why would you say that?” Stewart’s voice was a deep wound. I opened my mouth to speak.
Suddenly, there was a loud creak from the floorboards behind me. My mother emerged from the dark corridor beyond. She must have been here when I’d brought my brothers in, and hadn’t wanted to disturb us.
“Miss Farley!” My brothers said, politely standing to greet her.
I noticed she was pale, paper-white, and she stood so straight. I hadn’t seen her stand like that in so long. I’d almost forgotten.
“She is kin,” she spoke without looking my brothers, only keeping her eyes on me. They were no longer clever, but dull and confused, like the eyes of a stunned animal. “When you came to my doorstep that day, I knew who you were. What you told me was untrue; I have no children besides James. But I understood what your mother had done. How could she support three children with nothing but debts to her name? Times were hard. The boys could be hired out for farm work, but what could you do?”
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Kenneth and Stewart exchange a surprised glance. I imagined them thinking, "How does she know all this?", and then, “Witch.”
“Your mother was grieving,” Miss Farley went on. “She surely realized that you wouldn’t leave home, and where could she send you anyway? So she told a lie, a well-planned yet thoughtless lie that brought you to me, a woman she knew had some money.”
She stopped. I could tell she knew I was thinking back to that day on her doorstep. Never once had she said she was my mother. Not then, not in the years that followed.
“Why didn’t you say anything?” I choked out.
“There was nothing I could do. Your mother brought you to me, and I helped.” It sounded so simple. Yet I knew there was so much beneath her words, enough to have drained all her color away. Miss Farley was not my mother, yet she’d mothered me all these years. I thought I’d been a lodger in my first home, when I was a daughter. Here, I’d thought I was a daughter, and I’d only been a lodger.
The enormity of it all, of what I’d lost: my father, my brothers, my home, my mother – the enormity of what I’d gained: love, a future, my mother, James – all, all, came rushing, filling me up like water. Tears ran from my eyes and fell to the floor.
I never knew the truth until today.