By: Rob Cook
I move around quite well for an old person. And yes, that’s what I am: an old person. And an old woman at that. I feel no shame in this, for aging is not a shameful thing. As human beings, we age or we die. If you never become an old person, then congratulations: you’ve failed to survive. You are not better than anyone. You’re just dead.
Nicelle, my only daughter, has always been both young and old. She looks like me, though she’s not quite as short. Most of the noises she lives among are much taller than she is. Always it’s been this way. As a child, even the most moderate of sounds would knock her off her feet. It might have been a television or a radio turned too loud, or a driver leaning on his horn, even from many blocks away, or a dog whimpering if it happened to be nearby. And the neighbor opening and closing his front door was plenty to drive Nicelle into a catatonia that lasted hours, even those times she’d taken my advice and closed all the windows or gone to her room, which was located at the farthest end of the house, away from the neighbors. And she could not tolerate her brother’s throat-scratching voice at all. An avid reader, he often recited, in loud, rapid whispering, passages from whatever book he happened to be engaged in. Such acts made the entire house intolerable for poor Nicelle. She could have been a gifted musician with ears that keen. The noise from the instrument, however, might have maimed if not killed her.
Nicelle was always close to her collection of clouds, which stayed, at least for a time, in the vast space of almost any window frame, though she was too young to take into account the lower windows, those that did not point skyward, those interrupted with tree foliage or the view of a nearby house. In her mind, as long as it was a clear day, she could locate her collection outside any pane of glass, anywhere on the planet. It was the one thing that could never be taken away. “Clouds are not animals and therefore cannot go extinct,” she liked to deduce. “No man can shoot a cloud. No one eats clouds. They would only taste like air.” She was not a bashful or undesirable child. She played well with others. The kids in her class always liked her. They trusted her, and perhaps some of them blessed her with their trust a little too easily. Nicelle possesses what some might call a “poetic sensibility.” She learned to read at three years of age and started finding words, or bits of words, tucked inside a frog pond’s music or the silence of a sleeping pet or the slight tickle of approaching storms during the summer, or between icicles shattering and road plows groaning or snowflakes falling if it was winter. “Mother, the snowflakes talk to each other! They have so much to say!” Nicelle cried out one night. Some of the words Nicelle had never heard before. Nevertheless, they were real words, like “trouble” and “communism” and “German.”
She wept uncontrollably whenever anyone didn’t get along with each other the way the snowflakes did. Such idealism never quite carried over into her life. Though the other kids enjoyed her company, she was of more than one set of eyes and spirit. There were times I could hear her voice change into that of a girl who lived in a dungeon, banging at the walls of slime and crushed snails, desperate for escape. These tonal shifts lasted only a few seconds, but after a while they were undeniable. I became convinced that if Nicelle had to live in the same house with three other Nicelles, bloodshed would be inevitable. This became more than a mere suspicion after a sleepover at our house involving two of her classmates during the fourth grade. Maria had been born with a curved arm and was one of the quietest children in the class. “She sings like a snowflake!” Nicelle told me more than once. Her other guest, Paula, was one of the “new” kids, having moved to our borough only three months prior. She had the coldest red hair, and even though it was cut short, one could have covered her entire head with a towel and focused only on her smooth, bare ankles and still been able to see that freezing red hair.
I should have suspected the outcome in advance, given Nicelle’s preternatural sensitivity to noise and the propensity of young children to make lots of noise. It’s not a behavioral disorder, not something that needs disciplinary action; it is simply what children—healthy ones—do. Maria may have been the quietest girl in Nicelle’s class, but she enjoyed the world at a loud enough volume to drown out each and every choiring snowflake, which is not to say she was loud at all. I am trying to minimize Nicelle’s inability to endure noise. The truth is Maria barely registered above a radio left murmuring in a room by itself. Paula, a tall brunette with stormy eyes that looked like they might have been the eyes Nicelle was born with, except for their color, seemed leery of the one who couldn’t even straighten her arm. I did not know what might come of this gathering of three vastly different children.
Nicelle, Maria, and Paula did not play that night as girls normally play. I was perched on the couch reading a letter from Nicelle’s father, who had gone to watch a close friend die from some harsh memory that had lodged someplace in his body, and I couldn’t help noticing the tiniest, almost undetectable silence separating each girl, even during their chattering. It was as if they each sensed a different person laughing or crying or waiting for the fun to begin someplace far away. Maria repeatedly used her curved arm to pull her pink sweater sleeve down over the wrist of her other arm, her “good” arm, as if she were self-conscious about the wrong detail, or some temperature change in this properly maturing arm knowable only to Maria herself. Always distracted, she spoke in a very slow staccato. If her words had been the bones and innards of a turtle and that turtle had to cross a foot of exposed grass on a sun-heavy afternoon, even a single blade of grass could have revealed itself as a legitimate predator. Paula, who was wearing a deep blue sweater over an even deeper blue skirt, kept picking at imaginary pockets where the real pockets would have been, had she been wearing pants instead of a skirt, which seemed out of place on a little girl’s body during such a cold, hard-to-find night in the middle of always difficult-to-find February, which had been feeling even more than usual like a house that had walked to the middle of the forest and gotten stranded there.
The girls sat cross-legged and side by side on the carpet, facing the dark television. Each girl with her head bent slightly forward, as if waiting for the posture itself to reveal some essential information, a tangy morsel of gossip to animate them into the giddiness of a sugary conversation. Finally, Nicelle broke through one of the early evening’s awkward barriers and I felt the briefest, most fleeting sense of relief, and went back to my husband’s letter. The friend had been taking pills to get rid of the memories lodged in his liver, only to learn later that either he was taking the wrong pills or was ridding himself of the wrong memories—the days he spent with his family at the seaside, the day he was promoted to senior editor, the weeks and weeks at sea with Moby Dick. I looked out the window when one of the bare branches caused the moonlight to flinch, making the couch flicker, and then, this time for no reason, I glanced at the girls and noticed Nicelle talking to Maria’s curved arm. After about half a minute, it didn’t seem like she was speaking to Maria at all. Not even to her arm, though Nicelle’s eyes were glued there. No, she was speaking directly to the curve itself, or the thing that had deviated at the genetic level and caused the arm to wander away on its own, in some other direction.
And then she started speaking to Maria and not to some little version of Maria sitting on a strand of DNA waiting to be invited somewhere. She might have been talking to her all along. For some reason that night I lost my bearings regarding my own daughter.
“Can we go up to your room, Nicelle?” asked Paula. “Why are we just sitting here staring at a television that doesn’t work?”
“It works, Paula. It just isn’t on. Why can’t we just remain as we are, sitting here listening?”
“Because we aren’t listening to anything.”
Right then I saw some dark, unnamed emotion flash across Nicelle’s face, from one eye to the other and back again before her normal brightness returned. I wanted it to be another trick of the moon caught in the tree outside, but when I looked out the window to reassure myself, the moon had been overtaken by clouds. It was gone, just as the child I knew was gone. And then the clouds dispersed, the moon once again took its proper place, and Nicelle giggled when Paula started tickling her wrists and then burst into odd hysterics. A smile swept across Maria’s face. I felt relieved. The three girls would continue through the night as friends. I quickly forgot about the dark, passing mood that altered the symmetry of my daughter’s compassionate face. I had nothing to worry about.
We ate dinner. We talked. I tried to tell the girls a story or two about the war and how no one ever won a war. They calmed down, drank chocolate milk. The girls giggled, and my words got lost in those giggles. We washed and dried the dishes together. We watched the moon crawling through the branches like an animal. Though it had been night for an hour, night had now fallen all the way. The girls went upstairs. “To form our own government.” And because they were children, I did not stop to consider what happens in a government. I did not think once of what really happens on the moon at night.
It was still early for a Friday night, early enough that I wasn’t even tired yet, and Nicelle, Maria, and Paula had already fallen asleep. Standing outside Nicelle’s room, I heard nothing. Not a giggle, not a cough, not a kind or unkind word between them. They weren’t even whispering. Shouldn’t Nicelle still at least be singing to Maria’s arm? Shouldn’t Paula be singing along by now? Shouldn’t they be laughing themselves into greater and deeper labyrinths of joy and absurdity, the best part of being a child? They had gone upstairs soon after we finished drying the dishes and only an hour had passed.
I didn’t know enough yet to be worried. So I proceeded back down the hallway. I had a book waiting even if my husband was away for who knows how long. I opened the door to the closet to get a towel and washcloth and I saw what I did not want to see. Pile after pile of crumpled and cut-up and otherwise damaged paper snowflakes spilling from the first three shelves.
Nicelle might have cried had she seen so many snowflakes trapped indoors. I am not the one who possesses the poetic sensibility and cannot say for sure how Nicelle might react. The snowflakes might not be damaged. They might be just sleeping. I tried to think the way Nicelle might think. Perhaps the snowflakes get cold sometimes and sneak into houses to warm themselves. Listen to me! A grown woman, a mother, a wife, going on about crumpled paper as if it were snow, and with its own thoughts and feelings no less! Nicelle and the girls had gotten into my way of thinking and it had to stop! Just look at this mess, young lady. What do you have to say for yourself?
Enough! I opened the door to Nicelle’s room, turned on the overhead light, and saw only Nicelle, in bed, sound asleep. Everything else looked as it should. No evidence that any struggle had taken place—no windows left open, not even a crack, no errant gusts of wind. Of course nothing in the room seemed safe given the context. What had happened to Maria and Paula? How was it I had neither seen nor heard them leave the house? The stairs, which could have creaked under their own slight weight, should have betrayed the girls trying to leave. A blizzard of shivers attacked me. How had I managed to lose two children in my very own home? Had they climbed out the window? No. Not an option. Not with the limited motion of Maria’s arm. The house had no trellis, no balcony, no drain pipe on that side, no tree that was close enough to access, no rope in the house, all of Nicelle’s bed sheets still intact, nothing at all on which to scale safely to the moat of metal garbage cans waiting below.
Anyone else—anyone at all—who might have happened onto this tranquil scene would have seen nothing amiss, just a girl asleep in her bed at night, everything in the world at that particular moment exactly where it belonged. And yet it was a moment of pure terror. And what, this hypothetical witness might ask, could possibly be wrong with my daughter, who could not have looked more at peace? Nicelle was never an easy sleeper; if all were well she would be tossing and turning and trying to tame the snowflakes that had chased each other into her dreams.
I shook Nicelle out of her sleep harder than I ever have. She was still in her school clothes. Her mouth opened first, and her eyes followed, one at a time as if one eye had to ask permission of the other. She had been awake the whole time. It was obvious, every bit as clear as the two girls who were missing from the house, and possibly the world, all under my supervision.
“Where are your friends, Nicelle?” I tried not to scream or even raise my voice, but it was impossible. I was frantic.
“They followed the snowflakes. We argued and I made a bet with Paula that she didn’t have the talent to fall like a snowflake.”
“What about the other one? The girl with the troubled arm? Don’t tell me you got her mixed up in this.”
“Maria does whatever Paula does. She is a follower just like the snowflakes. I was telling them about the one big snowflake that was the king of all the other snowflakes and Paula laughed at me. And then Maria laughed at me.”
“So where are they now? Tell me, Nicelle, immediately. Where are those two girls, young lady?”
“They climbed out the window. Don’t worry. I went downstairs and got their coats and boots while you were dozing in your room. They’re warm, and they aren’t hurt.”
“How do you know, Nicelle? How could you be so irresponsible? I’m so upset right now. Those girls’ mothers are going to wonder what happened when their daughters don’t come home. We’re going outside to look for them. Put on your coat and follow me downstairs. You’re going to help me.”
She kicked off the last of the bed covers and I saw that she was already wearing her boots. They were even tied all the way to the top as if she were waiting there under the blanket for the right moment to go looking for her friends.
“How long ago did they go out the window, Nicelle?”
“I don’t know. We were making snowflakes, whole piles of them, and giving them faces and names and personalities. Maria said I should put them in the closet with the towels. She said it would give you a good scare.”
“Why would it give me a good scare? It didn’t scare me. Not the way you and your friends intended. It does make me wonder about you, Nicelle.”
Her eyes began welling up with tears. They were brown and small and I didn’t know how she navigated the world with eyes that small.
“What did you do with the snowflakes in the hall closet? You didn’t throw them away, did you?”
“No, of course I didn’t. Who has time with all the shenanigans going on in this house right under my nose? And they’re not snowflakes, Nicelle. Snap out of it! What you girls made is a big mess, not a family of these creatures you can’t stop talking about.”
She then pushed herself from the bed and darted past me and down the hallway to the closet, the scene of the massacre.
Just then the doorbell rang, and not just once. First it sounded merely impatient, but quickly escalated to the chiming of some endangered being that could not stop crying for help. It rang like the sound itself was desperate to get inside. Of course it was the girls. It had to be the girls. Who else would be wandering outside the house at this hour?
“Don’t answer the door, mom,” Nicelle said, starting to cry now for real.
“Why not?” I asked, almost at the top of my lungs.
Her small eyes got even smaller, so small that I should not have been able to see anything there and yet I saw everything. And then she stormed back up the stairs as the door bell got even more frantic, as if whatever hand was pressing it had died there, its full weight slumped against that tiny rectangular glow an explorer might have mistaken for a cozy room just as lost as he in the depths of the February night.
Rob Cook lives in New York City’s East Village. He is the author of six collections, including Asking my Liver for Forgiveness (Rain Mountain Press), Undermining of the Democratic Club (Spuyten Duyvil), Blueprints for a Genocide (Spuyten Duyvil) and Empire in the Shade of a Grass Blade (Bitter Oleander Press). His recently re-released Last Window in the Punk Hotel was a Julie Suk Award finalist. Work has appeared in Asheville Poetry Review, Caliban, Fence, A cappella Zoo, Zoland Poetry, Tampa Review, Minnesota Review, Aufgabe, Caketrain, Many Mountains Moving, Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review, Harvard Review, Colorado Review, and Bomb, among others.