Plain China

Foxglove

by Lindsey Owen · Brown University
"Captive", Cynthia Lee · New York University

            Esther watched as her mother poured gin into a martini glass. It was a morbid curiosity that fueled her, a morbid curiosity that pushed her gently on the back, urged her to examine this dark, mechanical dance. She focused hard on the glass bottle perched on the antique bar cart, thinking her mother must enjoy swallowing its secrets. Esther blinked and the liquor became a Tropicana juice carton, her mother’s glass now filled with pulpy orange. This was only a minor consolation to the girl. Mostly, she was concerned that she could no longer concentrate on her warped reflection in the glass. Besides, things seemed to change around her all the time. They came unglued from, or perhaps reaffixed to, reality, and flickered there for a while before returning to normal. And as far as Esther could tell, it didn’t bother anyone else, so she didn’t let it bother her.

            “Mommy?” she asked. Her mother was now sprawled languidly across the chaise, drink set on the side table. One hand flipped through Cosmo while the other held a long, Audrey Hepburn cigarette holder. Esther hated that thing. She thought it made her mom look like Cruella DeVille.

            “Mom?” she tried again. The woman continued to drag slowly on her cigarette. Esther watched as the smoke turned to soap bubbles in midair. “Mommy!”

            “What?!” her mother snapped, ripping her attention from the magazine.

            “If I turned into a bug, would you still love me?”

            Bubbles continued to float from the woman’s cigarette. She snorted. “A bug?”

            “Yes. A very small, black bug, and I couldn’t talk anymore, but I would try to spell something out in the dirt so you would believe it was me. Would you still love me then?”

            Her mother sighed. “Hon, that’s a stupid question. People can’t turn into bugs. It’s impossible.”

            Esther frowned and took a deep breath of bubble-soap air, shaking her head vigorously. “Nuh-uh, Mommy. No, that’s not the question. I mean if. I mean if it could happen. Would you believe it was really me? Would you still love me?”

            Her mother pondered this for a second, absent-mindedly stubbing out her cigarette in a dish of filmy bubble solution. She took a delicate sip of her orange juice and laughed once: a short, decisive sound. “Huh. You know how I hate bugs, Esther. So I’m sorry to say I’d probably step on you before you could spell out your little message.” She laughed once more, shaking her head at the thought. “Now go watch your fox movie in the family room. Mommy’s trying to relax.”

            Esther gasped and turned away. She wasn’t sure if what she felt was shame for herself, for allowing her fear to be articulated and therefore made real, or shame for her mother and her quick answer.

            In the family room, Esther pushed “play” on the VCR, always queued to the same movie, her favorite movie. She watched as Robin Hood fought valiantly for the love of Maid Marian. Her favorite part was when Prince John cried out, “Mommmmy!!” and sucked his thumb. This, reliably, would make her laugh. Would make her feel like the world was a place where the good guys always win, especially when the good guy was a fox.

            Esther loved foxes. She loved them for their cunning and their bravery and their ability to turn danger on its head. Many times, she would flip through her worn copy of Fantastic Mr. Fox, even though she was not yet old enough to read all the words. But the librarian at school had read it to her often enough that she could recite whole passages from memory.

            She flipped through the pages angrily now as Robin Hood played in the background. She traced the illustrations with her finger, wishing with all her heart that her parents could be Mr. and Mrs. Fox, or Robin and Marian. People who would craft her daring escapes and romantic adventures, and keep her from falling through the cracks. She picked up a crayon and clenched it in her fist, the way her teacher always said was the wrong way to hold a pencil, and with bold, black marks, drew herself into the book. “I love you, Esther,” she whispered to herself in the librarian’s Mr. Fox voice.

            Esther heard the rubber cushioned shut of a door and the sweep of feet on the mat that signified her father’s return from work.

            “I swear, Harry, she gets stranger by the minute. A bug, for Christ’s sakes!”

            “Look, she’s just got an active imagination. That’s normal kid stuff, right? Look it up in one of those baby books or something.”

            Esther overheard the tail end of this conversation as she walked down the hallway and enter the room with her parents. But the people, or rather, the things she saw there were not her parents.

            Resting on the chaise, Cruella DeVille cigarette holder in hand, was a woman-sized stuffed fox, with beaded glass eyes and tufts of crusted fur sticking out at odd angles. At each joint were rough yarn stitches and cotton stuffing poking out between the threads. Her mother absently picked at the cotton, pulling it from her body and tossing it on the floor as if it were a stray eyelash. Her father, his usual rumpled shirt and loosened tie, was a similar creature, his left glass eye drooping and cocked away from his face. One of his pointed orange ears suddenly fell to the ground, its last threads worn out. He stooped over casually, picked it up, and stuck the appendage in his pocket.

            “Esther, what on earth are you staring at?” Her mother’s exasperated voice rang in Esther’s ears as she clenched her eyes shut.

***

            “Esther, come on. Don’t fall behind.”

            It was Halloween, and Esther was dressed as Maid Marian. When she told her mother who she wanted to be, she threw her Steiff Bear arms up and said why couldn’t you just be a ghost or a witch. A ghost was easy, she said. A witch we could buy at the supermarket.

            Esther didn’t bring it up again after that. Instead, she looked in the back of her mother’s closet and found a pink bridesmaid’s dress. In the back of the linen closet, she found an old purple sheet set that was missing its pillowcase. She cut half of the flat sheet into Marian’s veil and the other half into a purple apron to go around the skirt of her dress. She made a necklace out of some ribbon and painted her face orange and white with old acrylic paints from her box of school supplies. Her nose she blacked out with her mother’s eyeliner.

            Marian had a beautiful glowing engagement ring made out of a tiny water lily. Esther didn’t know how to make this, so she went into her yard and looked around for any lone surviving dandelions. She found one: it was damp and starting to close up into an elderly silver wisp, but Esther picked it just in time. She tied it into a loop around her finger. The stem kinked and leaked sticky milk, and she sung to herself.

            “Life is brief, but when it’s gone, love goes onnnn and onnnn!” She tried to feel like a princess and kicked the wet fallen leaves under her feet.

            Now it was nighttime and they were trick-or-treating and her parents were walking too fast. The yarn holding their limbs to their torsos looked yellower and stiffer in the moonlight. A couple days ago she saw her dad by the bathroom sink in the morning, when he used to shave. Now he took a big thick darning needle and pulled the frayed yarn at his shoulders until the orange fur of his arm was flush with his body.

            None of the changes had ever lasted this long before. It was starting to scare her.

            Her parents kept skipping houses with long lines of kids. Esther watched as witches and ghosts and Batmans came away from these fun houses giggling, sometimes with full-sized candy bars to put in their pillowcases. “This was a goddamn ridiculous idea in the first place. Isn’t she too old for this Halloween nonsense? I can’t stand this weather, and I saw on the news that some psychos put razor blades in the candies…”

            Esther reached out to yank on her mother’s shirt, but thought better of it when she remembered that it wasn’t really her mother. “Razor blades?” she chirped from behind. She tried to run and catch up to them but kept almost tripping on her costume. The pink lace now had mud and sneaker prints around the edges.

            “Stop worrying, you’ll scare the girl! She doesn’t need your six-o’-clock news garbage floating around her head…”

            They kept arguing, and Esther was getting scared. They were heading towards a part of the neighborhood where none of the other kids were going, where there were no friendly jack-o’-lanterns and no warm porch lights on. It was one thing to be alone with these things in her house. Another completely to be alone with them outside in the dark.

            Esther turned around and started to head back where the nice houses were. The giggling children with cold, flushed cheeks and the nice old women handing out popcorn balls. Maybe she would get a full-sized Milky Way. Maybe she would make a friend.

            But the nice houses never seemed to get any closer, no matter how fast she walked. She felt stuck on the same strip of asphalt, under the same moonbeam, glued to a tiny loop of film.

            There was a man under a streetlight. A man about her parents’ age wearing a yellow barn coat and lighting a cigarette. He had a scraggly beard and dull, puffy eyes. He cupped the flame of the lighter in his hand, and when he exhaled on his first puff the smoke made a strange ghost form under the streetlight. Esther didn’t like him. She tried to walk past.

            But the friendly houses still didn’t get any closer and the man was walking towards her. He stopped and looked down at her, pretended to tip an invisible hat. “M’lady.”

            Esther frowned. “I’m not a lady. I’m Maid Marian.”

            The man nodded. “I see.” He looked over his shoulder. “Where are your parents?”

            Esther looked at her sneakers. “Um…gone. I don’t know.” She didn’t add that they had been gone a couple days.

            He raised an eyebrow at her. “You did it, didn’t you?”

            Her eyes widened. “What?”

            “You disappeared them.”

            “No, I…I didn’t mean to—”

            The man stopped listening and nodded to the left, where her mother and father were running through the lamplight, their bead-glass eyes illuminated with an un-human fury.

            “Esther, you cannot run off like that!” Her mother kneeled down, and for a second Esther thought she was going to slap her, but instead she gave her a stiff, obligatory hug and yanked Esther’s hand up with a crusted orange paw that felt like dry paint. Sharp grey claws bit into Esther’s wrist and she went rigid with disgust.

            “I’m so sorry, Mr. Harris, that you had to deal with this! She just gets into these moods sometimes…”

            Her parents kept yelling as they dragged her away, something about no candy and no movies, but Esther was still looking at the man behind her. He gave her a two-fingered salute and leaned up against the lamppost.

            Esther’s neck remained craned towards him. “Mommy, that man’s not Mr. Harris. Mr. Harris is old.” Mr. Harris was a man who lived next door and mowed his lawn very slowly and methodically every Tuesday at five. He had white hair and kind librarian glasses.

            “Wh—of course it was! Who else could it possibly be? Jesus…”

            Her parents exchanged irritated glances and Esther kept her mouth shut.

***

            There were many women in the kitchen and their too-loud laughs bounced off the linoleum floors and Formica counters. The air was green and hazy with gossip. Esther was playing under the end table in the family room, carefully watching her mother’s Bridge club from a safe distance. She spoke to her Barbies high and clear over the noise, secretly hoping the women might comment: how cute, how sweet.

            Her parents were getting worse. They walked like clumps of chicken wire and papier-mâché, almost no articulation in their rheumatic fur limbs. Her mother’s arm had fallen completely off in front of the Bridge ladies, and she had exclaimed, “Oh, my!,” embarrassed, and stood it up in the corner of the room like an umbrella. Now she was playing cards with cotton and Polyester filler beads protruding from an empty socket.

            Esther spoke to her Barbies a little louder. “‘Oh, Marian, you do look lovely this evening.’ ‘Why, thank you, Melissa!’” She glanced up at the kitchen table. Still no one noticed. They were too busy with their Bloody Marys and canapés. All of them laughed at nothing, at everything, forming one big cloud of voices that heard only themselves.

            Esther felt a very strange type of sadness, an internal one, special inside-tears trickling down her throat and into her stomach like the drip of a coffee filter. She got out from under the end table and bravely approached the women in the kitchen. One step. Two steps. “Mommy, I’m going to run away. You don’t love me anymore. Maybe a nice old lady will find me, and she’ll adopt me and love me and be my new mommy. Then you’ll be happy, and I’ll be happy.”

            This was her trump card, she was sure of it. This would melt the monster in front of her back into the pretty lady that used to be her mother. And her mom would cry, and fold Esther into her arms, and tell her she was sorry, so sorry, she loved her always and would never leave again.

            But her mother was in the middle of a story and didn’t hear her, the raw stitching of her mouth puckering around each syllable. One of the other women turned around and smiled a syrupy fake smile at Esther. “Oh, Sloane, dear, I think your little peanut is trying to tell you something.”

            Her mother’s sharp orange ears pricked up and her black marble eyes shot cauterized reflections that made Esther blink. She spoke with great tension and precision, the sort of someone speaking through gritted teeth. But of course, she had no teeth. Instead, Esther watched as the threads holding her jaw together began to snap. “Sweetheart. Why don’t you go play outside.”

            Esther’s eyes widened, her lip trembled, but she nodded. She went upstairs and pulled her pink plastic suitcase out of the closet and brought it down into the kitchen. She made a big show of packing it in front of all the women, tossing in her Barbies, a blanket, three packages of Twinkies. Finally, she delicately placed her copy of Fantastic Mr. Fox on top of the pile, and closed the latches with a soft click.

            She looked up through the green haze of the kitchen, at the backs of the women’s heads or at pairs of eyes cast anywhere but her direction. She put on her corduroy jacket and opened the garage door. “Bye,” she said softly.

            Once outside, Esther walked until the sidewalk in her neighborhood ended and met the main road. She decided to go left, into nowhere, into the woods between the road and someone’s house who she didn’t know. She kicked rocks and stomped on wet leaves and cried. She cried and sat down on a bed of dried pine needles, wrapping her blanket around her balled-up body and wiping snot on the sleeve of her corduroy jacket.

            Maybe, she thought, maybe the magic hadn’t kicked in yet. Maybe the magic wasn’t in the suggestion of running away, but in the performance of it. Her parents would be guilty and miserable when they realized she was gone, and they would cry and cry for hours, and when they found her, they would love her again.

            She found some pleasure in this thought, in the imagining of her parents’ guilt, when she heard a noise somewhere behind her. A step, the crunch and rustle of boots on dead fall leaves. She turned around to see the man in the yellow barn coat from Halloween night.

            But he was no longer a man. He was a nightmare fox, same as her parents, dead black eyes, threadbare fur on a grizzled snout. He was still smoking a cigarette, and its flame had lit half of his long, catlike whiskers on fire. They smoldered and fizzed in the slant afternoon sunlight.

            “Oh, look, it’s Maid Marian,” he said in a voice like burning newsprint. He exhaled up into the tops of the trees.

            “Stop,” said Esther. “I don’t like that.”

            “And why not? You said it yourself. That’s who you are, right?”

            “No, stop it!” She covered her ears and pressed hard into her temples. “I don’t want to be her anymore!”

            The man laughed a dry, hollow laugh. He pinched out the flame on one burning whisker between thumb and forefinger. “’Fraid you don’t have much of a choice, sweetheart. You did this to yourself. You made it this way.”

            The tears started up again, and they tracked raw, ruddy trails down Esther’s face. She glared at him, with all the venom she could muster. “You’re a bad man.”

            A grin began to spread across the man’s face, but not the frayed, fabric grin of her parents. No, this was something different, something animal and pink and rabid, madness bleeding out from a flesh inside. “Am I?”

            Esther was frightened, and for a second she had to close her eyes. But she found that this only half-obscured the monster in front of her, so she opened them once again and balled her fists, standing to face him. “Yes! You’re a bad man and I don’t like you anymore, so go away!”

            She turned away and let her body fold together, head in her knees and arms wrapped into each other. She didn’t care if the scary man heard her cry, so she let sobs run through her body in large, mechanical shudders.

            After a minute, she looked over her shoulder. The man was gone, and her parents weren’t coming to find her. 

About the Author

Lindsey Owen · Brown University

Lindsey Owen is a Literary Arts student at Brown University and a writer of short fiction and poetry. Her work has been published in journals such as Rainy Day and VIATOR. "Foxglove" first appeared in Rainy Day. 

About the Artist

Cynthia Lee · New York University

Cynthia Lee is from Taiwan, Taipei and currently resides in New York City, New York. She currently studies photography at New York University. "Captive" was previously seen in Blueshift Journal