The God in the Window
by Steven R. Stewart
Poetry is an echo, asking a shadow to dance.
Those are Carl Sandburg's words, but it was Mallory I heard say them, a week after her
surgery, with blood on her lips. She lay backwards on her bed, skinny legs and calloused toes
toward the window, eyes scanning the branches that made shadow puppets against the ribbon of
the Milky Way. Her voice was clear when it should have been shredded, and I smiled hearing it.
Her voice had returned not long before. It was a real miracle, a perplexing gift from the
universe, and I didn't question it. Perhaps she would sing like the rest of us soon, when the shock
wore off, when she got her own words back and wasn't forced to borrow them. Maybe we would
be the Singing St. Claires after all. Mother, Dad, sixteen-year-old me, and now thirteen-year-old
Mallory. Skinny Mallory, my little sister, my Pixie Stick.
I got up, dabbed the blood off her lips with the corner of my pajama sleeve, and sat on the
bed next to her. I started to speak, but Mallory put a finger to her lips.
"I have known the silence of the stars and of the sea," she said.
Edgar Lee Masters.
"All right," I said. "We'll be quiet."
I sat staring into the deep shadows of the trees behind the house. I did not know what
waited in our future, or who--only that I would be with her through it all.
I'm her sister. It's something I'll never forget to be.
It began months before, in Mother's study.
The oak door at the end of the hall was the end of the world, beyond which did not belong
to humanity--and certainly not to Mallory and me. Mother almost never let us inside, so when
she turned the key, and the door glided soundlessly open, Mallory and I were hesitant to follow
her into the shadowy space. The walls were barely visible behind the meticulously displayed
awards and photographs Mother had hung to celebrate her accomplishments. There were no
Coming to stand in the center of the room, tall and beautiful with her arms outstretched,
Mother smiled down at us like a statue.
"Trinity College," she said, gesturing to walls. "Westminster Abbey. The Monteverdi
Choir. The Dunedin Consort. Les Arts Florissants. I have sung with them all. Soloed for most.
And one day, so will you."
This speech was intended for Mallory. I had already soloed for the Trinity College Choir
and had been touring with mother and father since long before I was Mallory's age. Mallory
knew better than to open her mouth, and so did I, not even to divert mother from another of her
grandstanding attempts to humiliate Mallory into greatness.
"You think I don't see your face, child, but I do," Mother said. "Speak."
Mallory cleared her throat. This was something she always did, but the self-conscious
gesture could never clear away the boyish, unmusical texture of her voice. "I stink," she said.
"I'll never sing with any of those choirs."
Mother bent down and smiled at Mallory. "I was not born as I am. I became it. As you
will become it."
Mother took a framed, monochrome photo from her desk. The photo showed two smiling
parents holding a pouty, fiery-eyed little girl between them. "Mia mama e mio papa. Your
grandparents. They gave everything to make me who I am today. Sacrificed more than you could
ever understand. And I will not dishonor their memory by doing less." Her black eyes lit up. "I
want to show you something else."
She strode out of the room, leaving Mallory and me alone. Mallory walked along the
shelves and stacks of books, running her hand over their covers and pages as if trying to draw
their secrets into her.
"You should just tell her you don't want to," I said. "One day, she'll have to accept that."
Mallory shot me a puzzled look. "Who said I don't want to?"
"I just meant--"
I had been about to sit on a wooden box when the lid gave way with a loud pop. Mallory
rushed over, and together, we stared down through a crack in the wood. An eye stared up at us
from the box.
Pulling aside the broken lid, we found another photograph of Mother and her parents.
This had been taken a bit later, and everyone bore hollow, haunted expressions. Underneath the
photo, we found stacks of my mother's childhood drawings. Most showed a girl on a tall stage,
the crowd reaching up, unable to touch even her feet. Some were drawings of windows. Some, of
As Mallory rifled through the drawings, I thought I glimpsed the leather corner of a book
deep in the recesses of the box.
"We're going to get in trouble," I said.
"Keep a lookout then."
When I turned toward the door, Mother was standing in its frame. "What are you doing?"
Mallory jumped and hugged her backpack to her chest. "Nothing."
"I sat on a box and broke the lid," I said.
Mother laughed. "Some of the things in this room are very old. Come here, look, both of
We gathered around, and she pulled us close in a hug that was cold and too tight. In her
hands was another drawing. Four singers on a stage. A mother, a father, and two daughters.
"This is my oldest dream," she said. "My only dream. And you, Mallory, are the final
Mallory sat against the car window in her leotard, starving because the hospital didn't
want her to eat, dehydrated because they didn't want her to drink. Dr. Bhandari was booked
months in advance, and today was the only day he could see her. Mother thought going to the
recital anyway was silly, but Mallory said she had worked too hard, that her troupe was counting
on her. I knew what she would tell no one else, that when she was dancing she didn't feel helpless
or inadequate; she felt like herself. She felt free.
"I thought the performance was fine," Mother said.
Mallory hadn't asked what Mother thought of it-she knew better-but Mother
volunteered her opinion anyway.
"You didn't look out of place," Mother went on.
Mallory smiled cautiously at this.
"But I still say dancing is fundamentally artless. One skilled dancer is the same as
another, a machine doing its mechanical duty."
Mallory's little smile went out. She absently tugged at the hem of her leotard, as if trying
to distance herself from it.
"Voice, on the other hand," Mother said, "is unique to the individual. Voice is the
signature of the soul."
So easy for you to say, Mother. Annabel Serafine St. Claire. Italian vocal prodigy.
Celebrated alto. Ambassador for the musical arts. Millionaire. So easy for you to say.
Father cleared his throat, fiddled with the BMW's GPS, said nothing in Mallory's defense.
Mallory took her phone from her bag and texted me, her pixie face smirking humorlessly
behind the glowing screen.
"Does this mean I'm getting a new soul?" the text said.
I texted back, "I like the one you have."
We drove on in silence. I glanced at Mallory occasionally, stared at her pale throat. I
thought of the artificial larynx Dr. Bhandari's technician had shown us on our last visit-a
grotesque, undulating, ghost-white thing glistening with synthetic saliva. When the tech pumped
air and electrical signals into the model, two ribbons of false flesh, like vertical eyelids, blinked
open and closed, blurring with speed. A soprano aria filled the room, rich and musical, but
formless without a mouth to shape it.
Mother's eyes had filled with tears.
"That's your voice, Mallory," she said. "You'll be like the rest of us. The fourth Singing
St. Claire at last."
Mallory's face brightened, then crumpled, and she cried in Mother's thin, white arms.
I hadn't cried. I had stared at Dad, shook my head slowly: This is wrong.
Dad only closed his eyes.
In the car, I looked from Mallory's throat to the back of Dad's graying head.
Coward. You could stop this, but you won't. You can sing in front of the President, but
you can't stand up to your own wife. Instead your little girl is going to have her throat slashed
open and her voice box torn out.
We pulled up to the hospital. Mother and Dad got out. A valet got in.
"You don't have to do this," I told Mallory.
Mother opened her door. Mallory took her hand.
"I do," she said. "I really do."
After the surgery, Mallory lay sleeping in her hospital bed, a skinny bundle of bandages
and tubes. Dr. Bhandari had ordered his anesthesiologist to keep her under for 48 hours. Mallory
had a full sixteen weeks of intensive therapy and training ahead of her. She would miss dance
classes, school, but Mother didn't care. Mother only cared about fixing the broken instrument in
her Singing St. Claires.
Sitting in the darkened hospital room, listening to the oxygen machine pump air into
Mallory's throat, I hated myself. I hated my talent. I hated that I had been exactly what Mother
Mallory shifted in her bed, and I looked up from my book. Her breathing wasn't supposed
to change the tiniest bit for two days. Outside, a cloud must have passed in front of the moon,
because the light from the window was abruptly shut out.
Mallory's head rolled slowly from one shoulder to the other.
"Stay asleep," I mouthed soundlessly to the room. "Don't wake up."
But she did.
At first, she only lifted her head, eyes open a crack, sleepily regarding the room. But
when her eyes fell upon the window, they grew wide with terror. She sat up, the IV line catching
on the bed railing, jerking the needle in the crook of her left arm. When her hands found the
intubation tube that ran in one corner of her mouth and down her throat, she screamed.
For weeks, I would hear that scream everywhere, in the sounds of can openers and radio
static and cars passing on the highway. I heard it in the rattle of the windows when the wind
struck them. Its strained undertone lurked in every song.
Mallory tore at the tubes and sheets entangling her, clawed at them, fought them. She
bayed like a dog with everything in her. Her voice was broken, a strangled croak-awful,
inhuman. Her wet, terrified eyes fell on mine, remained there as she grasped the intubation tube
and pulled it, hand over hand, up out of her throat. Blood and saliva fell in stringy glops to her
Unhindered by the tube, her voice opened up into a scream that was musical in its clarity.
Slowly, as blood blossomed on the bandage encircling Mallory's throat, the scream shook itself
apart, losing its tone, deteriorating into a wet rattle. She tried again and again, heaving as if trying
to vomit up the pain. Blood misted the sheets. When the heaves became sobs, my feet, which had
been cemented to the floor, came loose. I ran to her, held her, mashed the "Nurse" button on the
Blood ran down my arms, soaked into my shirt as Mallory rattled and rattled. I begged her
to stop. She didn't. She couldn't. Not for a long time. And not nearly soon enough.
It was a week later-a week of long, blank silences during which Mallory was practically
unresponsive; a week of Mother ranting about the hospital, their evil incompetence, the things
her lawyers were going to do to them, but never about herself, never her part in it; a week of Dad
retreating to his study with a bottle in his hand-when Mallory began to sleep backwards in her
I had taken to sleeping in the comfy rocking chair in the corner so I could be near her.
One night she came in, opened the curtains, moved her pillow to the foot of the bed and lay down
that way. When Mother came in to tell her goodnight-this was something she had almost never
done before the accident-she stood staring at Mallory for a strange, startled moment.
"Don't sleep that way," Mother said, closing the curtains again. "A shadow will take
I sat up in my chair.
Mother glanced my direction and smiled like it had been a joke. It hadn't sounded like
one. "They don't tell that story anymore?" she asked.
"No," I said. I had never heard it, anyway, not at school or any of my vocal camps.
"Have you noticed that everyone puts the head of their bed toward the window and their
feet toward the door? It's one of the first things people do when they move into a new house. No
one tells them to do it; they just do it. Somehow, everyone knows."
"Knows what?" I asked.
"That sleeping backwards is an invitation. The story we used to tell as girls was that a
shadow would take you."
Poetry is asking a shadow to dance.
"Some girls said it was a ghost or the wind itself. Sometimes it was just a voice."
"I don't think Mallory is in any condition for ghost stories," I said.
Mother regarded me for a long moment. There was frustration on her face, that I had
dared cross her, however slightly, but there was also guilt. So much guilt.
"It's just a story," she said.
She helped Mallory sit up, turned her around the proper way.
When Mother was gone, Mallory sat up, opened the curtains, and lay backwards on the
bed again. Her defiance made me smile. She was still in there. Mallory, my spunky little dancer,
my Pixie Stick. She was still in there.
Outside the window, the trees were frozen bolts of black lightning, reaching skyward
instead of falling from above. When I tried to sing Mallory to sleep, as I often did, she clasped
her hands over her ears and stared icily out into the dark. I fell asleep sad.
I dreamed of whispers, and of Mallory sitting up in the night to open the window. She
knelt on her bed, clutching something to her chest. It looked like a book.
In the morning, Mallory could speak.
Mallory padded into the kitchen in her pajamas and socks, touched her throat and said,
"Speech alone doth vanish like a flaring thing."
George Herbert. From a poem called "Windows."
We all rushed to her, embraced her, kissed her face as she stood statue-still on the cold
linoleum. The three thrushes Mother kept in the living room sang excitedly from their cage,
filling the room with music.
"It's all right," Mother cried. "Everything is all right now. The hospital tried to take my
little singer away from me, but they weren't able to, not with all the incompetence in the world.
Your voice is beautiful, my dear, and you've only just spoken! When you sing, you will be an
Then Mallory spoke again, and the atmosphere of the room grew cold. "She will live and
never sing or hear a deadly song."
Mother's face fell until it was stone-like and lineless. Unspent tears of joy hung in her
eyes as she stared hollowly at no one and nothing. She put a hand on Mallory's chest and slowly
pushed her away. I didn't understand her reaction then, but I understand it now all too well. This
was the moment Mother realized that her past was not past. This was the moment she realized,
that we all realized:
Mallory could only speak in lines from poems.
Poetry is an echo.
Days passed. Mallory never sang-never again, in fact-but her speaking voice was
beautiful, in a too-perfect, alien sort of way. I had to remind myself, over and over, that this was
my sister speaking, not an actress, not a poetess, not a god.
I doubted this fact later, but wrongly. It was Mallory all the time.
She knew hundreds, a poem for every situation, word-perfect and at a moment's notice. I
started writing them down, looking them up on my phone. Mallory didn't want to hear me sing
anymore, wouldn't dance for me, barely looked me in the eye. This was the only way I had left of
connecting with her.
Mother stopped talking to Mallory, wouldn't touch her, would walk out of rooms when
Mallory entered them. She began to drink and didn't carry it as well as Dad did. She stumbled
around, stared into space for hours sometimes, jumped at loud noises.
"Mallory just needs time," I told her at the dinner table one night. "Poetry is about
expressing emotions; I'm sure Mallory has a lot of her own to work through."
Mother raised her eyebrows mockingly, toyed with her risotto and mussels.
Mallory said, "Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion."
T. S. Elliot.
Mother got up, dropped her plate in the sink, and stomped down the hall toward her
"Don't be upset with your mother," Dad said. "She has been through a lot. She lost both
her parents when she was a child. She's afraid of losing Mallory too."
"She has a unique way of showing it," I said.
After dinner, I found Mallory reading in the parlor. She was always reading, always from
the same oversized poetry textbook with the glossy dust jacket. Dad said she must have gotten it
from his study.
"I'm sorry mom is being so awful," I said.
Mallory said nothing, only turned the page. The paper had a rough, heavy sound.
I sat down in the chair across from her. "Tell me how I can help you."
She didn't look up. "He does not hear, he will not look, nor yet be lured out of his book."
Robert Louis Stevenson.
"Let you read? Is that what you mean? All right, I'll let you read. But if you ever need to
talk, you know I'm here."
"Sound and fury," she said, "signifying nothing."
"It signifies I love you, Mal. Let me help you."
Mallory turned the page of her book. I waited until I was out of the room to cry.
We found things broken around the house. They were small things at first: a mirror, a
crystal swan, a wine glass. Once, the cage that housed Mother's thrushes was found on its side,
birdseed and paper packing littering the plush carpet. The songbirds fluttered agitatedly in their
cage, clinging to the sides, beady eyes darting around as they tried to process their new sideways
world. I could relate.
Dad tidied these messes up, hid them from Mother if he could, said nothing about them to
anyone. Later, bigger things began to break. One of the ceiling-fan blades in the parlor was bent
downward, like someone had hung from it. When Mother found the flatscreen in the bathroom
torn from its wall mount, she stood staring at it for a long time, drank deeply from her wine glass
and said nothing. The look of blank disregard on her face frightened me. It was the look of a
person who doesn't count the cost.
More days passed. Things broke. Mallory read her book like always, spoke in poems,
slept backwards with the curtains wide. She stopped bleeding when she spoke, stopped wearing
the bandage. The surgical scar was small but raised, a line of pink soapstone encircling her
She still wouldn't look me in the eye.
One morning when Mother and Dad were away at a performance-they still did these,
even though the reviews were suffering somewhat-I awoke at 5:01 to find Mallory's bed empty.
Outside the window, trees shed the last of their leaves in the misty stillness. I stood up, padded
out into the hallway, and peered into the kitchen.
Mallory stood on a chair in her pajamas, face hidden by the cupboard door she had
opened. In her hands was Mother's favorite tea cup, the one father had given her. It was a Marie
Daage commission with a stylized candle flame on one side and Mother's maiden
name-Serafine-on the other. Mallory turned the cup over in her hands for a long time, almost
lovingly, then held it by the handle over the stainless steel sink and dropped it.
I screamed, startled by the sudden explosion of porcelain shards peppering metal.
Mallory slammed the cupboard closed and stared at me. I imagined I saw a myriad of
emotions pass over her face in that moment. Fear that she had been caught. Regret for what she
had done. A deep, deep weariness. Anger. Then cold resolve. Then nothing.
Poetry is an escape from emotion.
Mallory calmly walked past me and out of the room, sliding her poetry book off the table
as she went. I let her go, following her with my eyes, anger at her making its first appearance in
I thought of what Mallory had texted in the car before the surgery. "Does this mean I'm
getting a new soul?" And I had texted back, "I like the one you have." I missed it now. I missed
I spent the rest of the morning trying to glue the cup back together. The cup was whole,
but mother would notice the hairline cracks, the almost imperceptible chips that had broken away
and gone who knew where.
It began to rain.
I found Mallory in her room, cross-legged on her bed, watching the rain out the window.
She didn't move as I entered.
"You've got to stop this, Mal."
"I understand you're upset," I said, "but it's time to start taking some responsibility. I
wanted to believe it wasn't you breaking those things."
"I believe in the sun even when it is not shining," Mallory said.
Unattributed. Found scrawled on the wall of a concentration camp-and now Mallory
was using it to mock me when I was trying to help.
I climbed onto the bed, knelt in front of her, took the collar of her pajamas in both hands
and forced her to look my direction. If I could have made her eyes focus on me, I would have, but
she stared blankly through me.
"Why are you doing this? I was the only one who was against the surgery, Mal. I was the
one who thought you were fine the way you were. If we'd been born into a family of dancers, I
would have been the odd one out, and you would be the prodigy, and I know that, and I'm sorry,
and I wish I could take it back somehow, switch things around, but I can't."
My grip on Mallory's collar shifted, poised to pull her into a hug.
"I'm your sister," I said. "Talk to me."
"All mimsy were the borogoves, and the mome raths outgrabe."
"Real words, Mal. Your words."
"Words are arrows that only fly afield," Mallory said, "miss the heart, circle back and
This single line of poetry was the hardest for me to locate, but it hinted at more than the
rest of them combined. Emily Dickinson had written the words in 1852 after the death of
Leonard Humphrey, and they had never been published-which meant Mallory couldn't possibly
have known them.
I felt tears coming into my eyes, spilling down my cheeks. "Please."
Silence. The same blank stare, but there might have been-maybe I only wanted there to
be-tears catching the light at the corners of her eyes.
"Come back," I said. "Come back to me, Pixie Stick."
Mallory tilted her head, looked past me, stared with empty eyes out the window and into
Suddenly, I was angry. I gripped her collar, shook her once, hard.
"What are you looking at?!" I shouted.
Her voice was beautiful when she spoke. "These are my two drops of rain, waiting on the
window pane. I am waiting here to see-" She turned and glared into my eyes with tearful hatred,
voice falling to a whisper on the last six words: "-which the winning one will be."
A. A. Milne.
She looked away, and the emotion drained from her face. I let go of her collar, walked
into the hall, and leaned dazedly against the wall.
All the time I had thought the surgery was the problem. I thought our overbearing Mother
was the problem, our cowardly father. But never me, not really, not like this. I felt bad that
Mallory hadn't been born with my gifts, that she had been left out of the very thing that defined
our family, but it had never occurred to me-not until those six words-that Mallory might be
competing with me, that in her way she might be trying to outdo and overcome me, that I might
be the biggest obstacle standing between her and the life she wanted.
I felt physically ill. My empty stomach threatened to siphon bile up into my mouth, and I
closed my eyes to fight against it.
Through the crack of the bedroom door, Mallory was speaking to the empty room.
"Let us throw off everything that hinders," she said. "Let us run with perseverance the
race marked out for us."
Hebrews. In her mouth, the encouraging words became a taciturn war cry, last rites, a
It was night. Mallory lay on her bed in a rectangle of moonlight that shifted as the trees
outside thrashed in the wind. Her eyes were open. Her lips moved.
There was someone at the window, a shadow against the glass. It looked human, but
irregular, like a child's play-doh sculpture. It raised a shadowy approximation of a hand-the
fingers were much too long-and lightly tapped the glass, first in one spot, then another, as if
testing its strength, probing its surface for a weakness.
Mallory whispered to the window, lips flying through syllables I could not quite hear, on
and on without stopping, almost without breathing.
The shadow pressed itself to the glass and watched her, tapping with its finger.
I woke in the dead of night and wandered into the hallway to use the bathroom. There was
a voice coming from the kitchen, a low whisper that lilted in the stillness of the sleeping house. I
walked slowly to the edge of the hall and peered into the kitchen. Mother was standing at the
window above the sink, holding the mug I had piece back together, touching it to her lips as she
stared out into the night. I imagined the feel of the cracks against my lips and shuddered.
"Not in this house," Mother whispered. "That I built. With my voice. And my soul. And
these bloody hands. I will not look upon your face a second time."
I took a step forward, opened my mouth to speak, then stopped. In her other hand, Mother
held a kitchen knife.
"I have paid for my dreams," she told the cup, the window, the darkness.
I stood in silence for what felt like hours, watching, uncertain of what to do. I watched
until the first sliver of light rose in the east and fell across Mother's face. I watched as tears
streaked her cheeks and lit her face like lines of brass.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I'm so sorry. Mama. Papà. Mi dispiace tanto."
With fumbling hands, she put the cup in the cupboard, the knife in the drawer, and dried
her eyes. In the living room, the thrushes trilled and tweeted sadly as she passed. Mother did not
even look at them. When she was gone, I refilled their water and food.
"It will be okay," I told the birds. "It will all be okay."
I went to bed feeling guilty. Even if the birds could not understand, a lie was a lie.
I spent the next few days online, in the library, emailing literature professors who might
remember my father from his university days or know him from his performances. One of them
forwarded my email to a professor in North Carolina. Dr. Dinnean was an expert in ancient
languages who also dabbled in obscure poetry and lit. He was the one who finally told me about
the Emily Dickinson poem, that it hadn't appeared in any collections, print or digital, and that it
was more or less impossible for a thirteen-year-old girl to have stumbled onto it. He asked me to
get a hold of Mallory's book, to look through it and get back to him. There was always the
chance, however unlikely, that the poem had been published somewhere he wasn't aware of.
I remembered the sound the paper in Mallory's book had made. Rough. Heavy. Not the
slipping sound of glossy textbook pages. Not the gentle swish of newsprint. Not the hush of the
standard white paper typically found in novels.
That night, I excused myself from supper, made like I was going to the bathroom, and
quietly backtracked the few steps to Mallory's bedroom. She never brought the book to the table
with her, always retreating to her room beforehand to put it somewhere out of sight. I would only
have a minute or two.
I tip-toed inside, slid to my knees beside Mallory's bed and pulled open one of the
drawers built into the bed frame. I had only planned to eliminate the obvious places first, but to
my surprise, there was the book, tucked neatly into the drawer under a folded blanket. I opened
I stared for almost a full minute, flipping through the pages in frustration. I had expected
to find exactly this, a glossy poetry textbook. So why this disappointment? Why this sense that I
was missing something?
I quickly scanned the index. There were several poems by Emily Dickinson, but not the
one Mallory had quoted. Some of the other poems she had quoted were here, but many more,
perhaps the majority, weren't. I had expected to understand, but now I only had more questions.
I was closing the book when a scream rose from the kitchen, a pealing howl that drove all
conscious thought from my mind. I threw the book on the bed, tore out of the room, down the
hall, and into the kitchen.
Mother's chair was on its side, red liquid spreading in a pool beneath it.
It's blood, my mind said. She's dead. Mallory killed her.
It was wine, not blood. But the truth was only slightly less horrible.
Mother had stumbled backwards, dropping her wine glass in the process. She leaned
against the counter, skin going gray, eyes bulging dark and sickly in their sockets. One finger
pointed back to the table, to her place mat, to her soup. Dad stood squatting over his chair, poised
to stand up, but he was frozen staring down into Mother's bowl. Mallory took a spoonful of her
own soup, put it in her mouth, slurped it, washed it down with some iced tea.
In a moment of surreal silence, my feet carried me to the table to look down into Mother's
soup. In that moment I realized, perhaps instinctively-more likely, this is hindsight
speaking-that the thrushes, Mother's beautiful spotted songbirds, weren't singing from their
Floating in the creamy broth of Mother's soup were the birds' heads, three of them, eyes
cooked white by the heat, beaks pried apart as if in perpetual song, held open by slender picture-hanging nails. The nails were too long, and the beaks had broken at the hinges, as if scooping for
a particularly low note.
I looked dazedly around the kitchen. My vision came to me in camera flashes. It was hard
to see anything in its entirety. My picture of the world had shattered.
Poetry is decapitated songbirds in your soup.
"Mallory," I groaned. She couldn't have done this. That girl sitting there, it's not her. That
can't be my Pixie Stick. She's someone else. She has a different soul.
As if I had awoken her by speaking, as if I had reminded her that her youngest daughter
existed, Mother slowly ratcheted her head to look at Mallory. A terrible lucidity came over her
face, a violent clarity, a self-preserving sense of purpose.
She stood, took Mallory by the arm, and pulled her to her feet.
"No," Mother said. "No, no. I will not allow this."
"Annabel," Dad said.
Mallory tried to pull her arm free from Mother's grasp, but Mother held on tight, jerked
hard to show Mallory that she wasn't pulling free. Mallory twisted her arm and grimaced as
Mother's nails cut into her skin.
Remember this, should it ever occur in your own life: Violence starts slowly. It's an
orchestra cueing up, and amid its discordant notes, it can be difficult to tell when the song itself
has started. I don't know when I understood that violence had come to our home, but I could feel
that the tempo had changed. I could feel the conductor calling for a crescendo.
Mallory's chair fell backward and struck the wall, carving two small lines into the white
paint. Mother and Mallory crashed to the floor, a tangle of arms and hair and white-knuckled
claws. Somewhere in the scuffle, Mallory pulled loose. Mother grabbed for her again, but skinny
Mallory was a dancer, full of grace and wiry strength. She slipped out from under Mother and
bolted down the hall at a sprint. Mother stood and followed, her head low, arms at her sides,
hands curled into talons.
"I should have done this the day you came home from the hospital," she said as she
pursued Mallory down the hall. "You're dead, little girl. Sei morta."
Mallory's door slammed, and Mother threw herself against it. Again. And again.
Punctuating each attempt with short, hateful shouts:
"Sleep backwards! Say your poems! But you will not bring him! Into my house! That I
built! With my hands! And my voice! And my soul! I WON'T LET YOU!"
I ran to Mother's side just as the door burst open, throwing Mallory against the bed frame
where she struck her head. Blood ran out of her hair and into her eyes.
Her terrified, tear-filled eyes.
Mallory? My god, it is you.
Sudden clarity washed over my mind like the beam of a lighthouse. My world came back
together. I'm her sister. It's something I'll never forget to be.
Mother grabbed Mallory by the neck, squeezing until the scar on her throat burned red.
"Recite me a poem, bambina poetica! Rhyming little dead girl! Il diavolo nella finestra can have
"Mother, no!" I screamed.
Mother whirled around, hitting me above the eye with her elbow. I fell to one knee. She
pulled her hand back and slapped Mallory across the face, knocking her head back against the
bedframe. I lunged for Mother's leg, wrapped my arms around it and bit down into her calf. The
skin gave way like the skin of a foam football, and salty blood bubbled up into my mouth.
Mother wailed, took a fistful of my hair, hauled me to my feet.
"You too, Olivetta?" she said.
My name is Olivetta. Formerly of the Singing St. Claires.
"I see," she said, almost wistfully. "I'm not a mother anymore. I am not a daughter. To be
great is to be alone."
Mallory tried to squirm away, but Mother pinned her against the bed with one rug-burned
knee. She fished around on the bed with her free hand while I fought to tear my hair out of the
other. Her hand returned holding a pair of scissors, blades streaked with blood, tiny feathers
clinging to the sticky wetness.
Scissors, I thought. Mallory had used scissors. They had been sitting right there on her
bed when I had come in to look for her book. How did I not feel them there? How could
something like that happen in the same house without me knowing it somehow?
Mother raised the scissors above cowering Mallory.
I screamed "No!" but Mother did not hear.
She would not look, nor yet be lured out of her book.
Mallory said, "To house and garden, field and lawn, the meadow gates we swang
"I tried to love you," Mother said.
"Mother, stop it!" I shrieked.
Mallory's tear-and-blood-streaked face emptied of emotion. "-to pump and stable, house
Poetry is an escape.
"Three lives for a dream," Mother said. "Four. Five. It doesn't matter."
Mallory said, "-goodbye, goodbye to everything."
Robert Louis Stevenson.
"I'm sorry, Mallory," Mother said. "Mama. Papà. I'm so sorry."
I saw the scissors falling so vividly, I was certain they had.
Strong arms wrapped around Mother's middle, and she was flung across the room. She hit
the sheet rock, making a bowl in it, and rolled to the floor, where she landed dazedly on her
hands and knees.
I looked up, expecting to see the shadow from my dream, irregular and black, tapping at
the air like a mime, but instead, there was Dad.
Dad with tears in his eyes, his jaw set.
Dad with the scissors in his hand, blade hidden in his fist, pointing away from his
family-as it should be, Mother; always away-as if to say, I will let these harm me before they
harm any of you.
He had never looked more like himself.
"Benet," Mother said, trembling.
Dad's name is Benet. Also formerly of the Singing St. Claires.
He didn't look at her. "Get out, Annabel. I'm calling the police."
"She cut their heads off," Mother said. "She took a life. It will be us next."
"Now," he said.
"You don't understand. The things he'll ask her to do."
"I understand you tried to harm our girls. And I understand that you've done so for the last
"I am not the monster," she said. "The monster is in her." She pointed to Mallory. "The
monster is outside." She pointed to the window.
"Get out," Dad repeated.
A strange sort of dignity invaded Mother's demeanor, a prissy, unassailable martyr's
posture. She stood up. She straightened her dress, fussed over her hair, pressed her lips.
But she went.
Mother got an apartment in the city. She and Dad never met for another performance.
There were court dates instead.
Mallory still spoke in poems, slept backwards, read from her book, but her eerie
emptiness was gone, replaced by a kind of weary dread. She spent almost all her time in her room
Not knowing who else to confide in, I emailed Dr. Dinnean, told him about the poetry
textbook, asked if I was missing something.
"How clever is your sister?" was his only reply.
I emailed back, said she was smart as hell, inventive-sometimes cruelly inventive,
though I didn't say this.
"The easiest way to hide something," the next email said, "is to make the person looking
think they've found it."
Something in my brain shifted, clicked into place.
I thought about the light swish of the textbook's pages, compared it to the heavy broosh
when Mallory turned them. So different. Like rain and the seashore, cars and trains. I thought of
Mallory, weeks before in Mother's study, digging in the box when my back was turned, hugging
her backpack to her chest when Mother appeared in the door.
There was another book.
I waited for Dad to take Mallory to her appointment. A little girl can't snip the heads off
her family's song birds without seeing a counselor, at least if her remaining parent is a good one.
Ours is, more and more every day.
I suggested to Dad that she leave the textbook behind, that she focus on getting well
instead of escaping. Dad thought this sounded reasonable and sent Mallory to her room to put it
away. She shut the door to her room before doing this, came out, watched me with probing
coldness as he led her out of the house.
"A secret kept can appall but one," she said.
Emily Dickinson, one of her published poems.
The door shut, and I went to work.
I found the second book nestled against the underside of the drawer where I had found the
first. It fit snugly upside down in a sleeve made of socks and tacks where it could be removed
quickly and wouldn't shift when the drawer was opened and closed.
Clever girl, Mallory. Dr. Dinnean would be impressed.
The cover was black leather, covered in library markings, and embossed with a picture of
the sun falling-not setting, but actually falling-into the sea. The title read, "PERFIDE DEOS."
Tucked into an envelope on the inside cover was a check-out card, one name repeated across its
surface at least a dozen times:
I imagined her as a child, all curly hair and black eyes, with sketches of her dream life
tucked under her arm, checking this book out from a library in Italy, reading it until she knew
each line by heart. Until it compelled her to steal it. To speak in words that weren't her own. To
destroy the things around her. To kill.
I sped through the rough, heavy pages of the book like a girl possessed, flying past
exquisitely-detailed wood-block prints accompanied by bold headlines and towers of text:
A mermaid luring armies into the sea where sharks and tentacled monsters devoured their
pieces. ARAIE, domina secretorum. Lady of Secrets.
Two men sharing messages across great distances, lines of text rising from their
foreheads, reflecting off the stars. MINDRAGUS, fratres unanimes. Brothers of One Mind.
A shadow. The shadow. A swirling play-doh approximation of a human being with huge,
shining, feminine lips. ICLAIN, deus in fenestra. The God in the Window.
I thought of my mother screaming at Mallory. Il diavolo nella finestra can have you. Was
"diavolo" Italian for "god?" I didn't think it was.
I read the entry, hands shaking as I studied the pages.
Turn from the door. Dispute your inevitable exit from this life. Reject human limitations.
Repudiate acceptance. Despise contentment. Face instead the window, all that lies beyond and
without. Invite the presence of Iclain.
Poetry is asking a shadow to dance.
Speak only in words from the mouths of masters, as Iclain enables you. This pleases him,
lover of words, tenebris poeta, vox in nocte, patron of the talentless and tormented.
Poetry is an echo.
Cast off the living and the light. Adhere to nothing. Become empty, a vessel for Iclain's
Poetry is an escape.
I read until my heart broke. I kept my back to the window.
All through supper, Mallory and I watched each other. Like the brothers in the Mindragus
print, we shared one mind. She knew I had read the book, and I knew she knew.
Dad asked us if we wanted to watch a movie before bed. I didn't. I wanted to talk to
Mallory about what I had read in that book.
"I'm tired," I said.
"Oh soothest sleep," Mallory said, "if so it please thee."
"All right," Dad said. "Go wash up."
Mallory and I stood side by side in the bathroom, brushing our teeth while Dad cleaned
up in the kitchen.
"You don't have to do this," I said. "You can just stop."
Mallory looked unspeakably tired. "I have promises to keep."
I remembered Mallory getting out of the car the day of the surgery.
"I do," she had said. "I really do."
Dad came in, kissed us both good night, tucked me into my chair in the corner, Mallory
backwards in her bed with the curtains open. The instant the door clicked shut, I said the things I
needed to say.
"It won't work, Mal," I said. "You can break every last teacup in this house, snip the
heads off all the birds in Manhattan, and it will never be enough for him. You'll have to kill
someone, Mallory. I think that's what Mother did. I think she killed her parents to get what she
wanted. Could you do that to Dad? To me?"
Mallory stared into space. Outside, crickets sang in the chill night. Mallory's face was
stony, but her eyes had grown restless, darting around the room from one dark corner to another,
always stopping on the window above her bed.
"You wanted to sing," I said.
Mallory whispered, "I have known the silence of the stars-"
"-and of the sea, I know. Not this time, Mal. You're hearing me out."
Mallory exhaled through her nose. Her brow furrowed. Her eyes became black slits in the
"You wanted Mother to love you," I said. "So you did what you thought you had to do."
"And the silence of the city when it pauses."
"But I don't think Mother loved anybody, Mal. Not ever."
Mallory sat up, clasped her hands over her ears. "And the silence of a man and a maid."
"But Mother's gone now."
"And the silence of the sick!" she growled through her teeth.
"She's gone, so none of this makes sense anymore."
Mal began to rock back and forth on her bed, whispering to herself, "There is the silence
of a great hatred, and the silence of a great love, and the silence of an embittered friendship."
I got up, sat on the bed, put my arms around her. "Mallory."
She rocked faster: "There is the silence of defeat. There is the silence of those unjustly
punished, and the silence of the dying whose hand suddenly grips yours."
"Let all this go," I said. "Mother is gone. I'm here. Dad is here."
Tears began to fall down Mallory's cheeks. "There is the silence of those who have f-failed."
"You're good enough, and we love you."
Mallory suddenly turned and wrapped her arms around me, pulling me close, holding on
as if the tide were trying to separate us.
"He'll take me!"
Mallory St. Claire.
Her first words in weeks.
The angelic perfection was gone from her voice, and the sound that came from her throat
was ruined and hoarse. But it was hers.
"You read the book," she croaked. Blood came to her lips, stained her teeth as she spoke.
"I want to back out, Oli, I have to, but you know what will happen. He'll-"
I pressed her head to my chest. "Never going to happen, Pixie Stick. Not while your sister
I didn't forget to be a sister to Mallory. It just turned out it wasn't enough, not that night.
When she stopped crying, I helped her shut the curtains and move her pillow to the head
of the bed. Then we lay down together, face to face, holding each other. I wiped the blood from
her lips. She asked me to sing.
I didn't hear the bed turning so much as I felt it, that odd weightless feeling that comes
when you move with your eyes closed. Like sleeping in a hammock. Or dozing on a boat.
I opened my eyes, saw the ceiling slowly rotating like a carousel. It wasn't until I heard
the window, the irregular creak of the latch-and the tapping at the glass-that I understood.
We were turning. The bed was turning to face the window.
The curtains began to part by themselves. The moonlight was blinding.
Mallory was awake beside me. Her eyes were wet circles in the dark. They wobbled in
their sockets with crazed panic. Her fingernails dug into my back.
"He's- Oli-he's-oh Oli no-he's-"
I put my arms around Mallory, locked my hands together, holding my own wrists.
"I'm here," I said, frightened at the way my own voice broke and trembled. "I'm not
letting you go."
Mallory began quoting a poem, but her eloquence was gone. Iclain had given up on her.
He knew she had broken the pact. He had come to collect.
"You have p-played and broke the toys you were f-f-f-f-f-"
These last two words of the E. E. Cummings poem she had been trying to quote-I never
got to hear her say them.
The window blew open, and I shut my eyes. The air from outside was cold and it whirled
around us, ripping away the blankets. Then there was stillness, and Mallory trembling in my
Then something blocked the faint glow of the moonlight through my eyelids. I opened my
And he was there.
Bending over us.
A shadow. A play-doh silhouette with huge, feminine lips that dripped red wetness.
White lines crisscrossed his lips like maggoty ropes, the soft flesh bulging between them.
They're sewn shut, I realized with dizzy clarity. His lips are sewn shut.
He hovered over us, hands reaching for Mallory, too-long fingers groping for her.
I shut my eyes, held tight.
Then Mallory was gone. Torn from my arms so fast my bones hurt.
The force of it made all my promises to Mallory, my attempts to hold onto her, seem
utterly meaningless. Like a car-crash victim willing himself to stay behind the wheel, stalwartly
deciding not to be ejected out his door before pinwheeling down the highway, pieces coming off
in meaty ribbons.
When all was still, I opened my eyes. In the darkness, I thought I saw a rip in the moonlit
sky. I saw darkness there and movement and stars that were not our stars.
Then the rip closed, and I was alone in the bed. Alone with the open window and the cold
and the moon.
I tell the therapists what they want to hear. I tell them she was kidnapped in front of me. I
tell them I'm making my peace with it.
I tell Dad it wasn't his fault. I tell myself this too. Sometimes I even believe it.
I tell Dr. Dinnean to send more books. Send them to the post office box where Dad won't
see them. When he asks me what I plan to do, I tell him as little as possible.
I tell Dad I'm going to bed, but I'm not. Not for hours yet. I'm reading, reading until all
hours, every last book I can find on abductions, spiritings away, night visitors. I'm scrutinizing
every gutter, every footnote, every last sentence.
On how to bait him.
On how to trap him.
On how to get my sister back.
Some of the books tell me a strong voice can be as good as a weapon. I tell them good.
Good. I have one of those. I say this right to the pages.
I tell Dad, no, don't cancel my voice lessons. I'm fine. I can keep practicing. It's what
Mallory would have wanted.
I read poetry. Every day. It helps me remember. And it helps me escape.
I tell Dad I like sleeping in Mallory's room, but I don't. I hate it. I only need to do it. I
need to be where that thing was, to wrap my head around it, to get okay with what I'm planning
I tell myself to be patient. That I'm not ready yet.
I tell myself to keep my back to the window until I've learned enough. Then I'll lay down
the wrong way, invite him in, and we'll sort this out.
I tell Mallory that I love her. I say it to the darkness of her room. I say it to the face in the
mirror I barely recognize.
I tell her I'm coming.
I tell her, Listen, Mal. Listen to this, Pixie Stick. I've learned a new poem. Alfred Noyes
this time. If you can hear it somehow, remember it. Remember it when you're scared or hurting,
when it gets bad for you, wherever you are. Remember it until I'm strong enough to come get
Then look for me by moonlight,
Watch for me by moonlight,
I'll come to thee by moonlight,
-though hell should bar the way.