Seasons of Frost
“Do you still believe in God?” I ask Ruby. She turns over and draws the napped, heather gray blanket over her head. Outside, frost comes like a thief in the night. A stealth robber, frost suspends summer breeze and puts all reassurances in limbo. Frost swallows the sky, flushed apricot for the last time. Swallows it whole and coughs up its bones. A gray cage now rattles over a wind torn horizon.
“I don’t know”, says Ruby. Now restless, she lays on her back. The moon is a silver grin mocking us from the endless tunnel of black, night sky. I know she is smiling at me in the dark. Ruby and I are fraternal twins. I love her. In our thirteenth year we look even less alike than sisters, let alone twins.
During the night, we hear the muffled yelling and the slapping. Ruby turns on the gooseneck lamp cocked at an odd angle to illuminate her chin and begins reading. She knows how to quell the storm in her chest during these hours. And there have been hundreds of them separated by spittle-thin strands of peace in the seven months since our mother re-married to Simon Tribe. You wouldn’t recognize Clancy. She was once an iron-plated druid.
“Do you need to take a bath?” Ruby asks gesturing to the red welts screaming across my thighs and navel. The dawn is already leaking gray tears.
Ruby leaves the book opened on her rumpled floral bedding, the soft cover flaps outstretched like the wings of a dead bird. Water gushes into the white-claw-footed tub and Ruby sprinkles in the oatmeal paste, turning the water milky white. This is to soothe my skin. I’ve seen my mother use it. It is the bath of beaten women. I undress first, then Ruby. Ruby’s rosy tendrils trail past her waist. I help her to pin the curls into a bun. My hair is sun-bleached white breath whispering down my back. Our father was Swedish, from Amsterdam. He committed suicide before we were born, living just three months in this country. A paranoid schizophrenic, he hung himself in a state mental institution of New York. I fan his pictures before us like playing cards. Sometimes we pretend if we choose the right one from the stack, he’ll come alive again.
“Are you scared, Suky?” Ruby asks me now. Her questions are more concrete, having little to do with God.
“This time I am”, I said. “It’s been going on for days. I really think he’s going to hurt her. Or us.”
“He already has.”
I open my window to feel the icy, unforgiving breath exhaled upon me. The blades of grass are dusted with glitter, turned to shards of glass. Before Simon had come into our lives, wooed us and then deceived us, it had been better. Not necessarily easier, just better. My mother’s face looms in the hallway, her glaze blank and waterlogged, eyes wearing the hesitant brown of smoky quartz. It is like staring down two vacant hallways. Her right eye is enrobed with the eggplant stain of his anger. Her hair is wilted and limp. There is a white rag in the sink, tinted pink from her blood. Flashes of silver taunt and startle me, alighting her temples and crowning her head like an elderly queen. Behind her stands Ruby and in rare motion, two pinpoints of time and existence have converged. My mother, one year earlier, a carefree whim pocketed in her heart. Here the difference between them is like water from the Red Sea and parched desert land. Her tired, burnt-ember bun plays off the brief fiery paint of sunrise and the silver aura halos her alabaster face. Her twilight eyes glow and are pitted by a lone flame trembling in the belly of the wood-burning stove. I can recite this difference in my fingertips and dance it in my dreams.
“I fell into that shelf in the storeroom.” She blotted at the scarab-like crust, puckered like a raisin over her lips.
“We’ve left places before.” I reached for her hand. “We could just fill three suitcases and disappear. Take all the money in the cash drawer. Start over again. The three of us.” I knew then that even the strongest women were fallible, were prey to men like Simon Tribe.
As I walk, silence is shattered. Frost is memory and conscience is opened, rising to the surface. Cracks will run like dry rivers in the gray cage and they will stay split until spring. Frost is like a serrated knife. Frost is a dragon with a silver aura. It knows to seek out the flesh of its prey.
This is hunting season.
I sit under the umbrella of a steel November morning. The air is raw, the drizzle like little commas of ice. They adhere to my cheeks and mouth, but when I try and lick them away, I know the salt I taste is coming from my own tears.
The rain taps at the future and the ocean cries as it plunges itself onto the shore, giving birth to itself and crying its relentless mantra.
Ruby can foretell the future. As the wind unfurls like dry parchment, she will read our fates on the trail of a whisper.
My mother clings to the present. It is an effort for her to claw and cling so desperately to daily life. And it is an effort to watch her.
And I, Suky Tribe, will forever dwell in the past. I am a paper origami bird with false flight.
My mother, Ruby, Suky. As a trinity, we were a timeline for the entire world. How well I had hidden under this protective canopy branded with her eyes, safe from the dark. If only I’d known it was just an illusion.
Frost came early this autumn.
On a sweltering day in April, my mother Clancy married Simon Tribe. Clancy was like a new butterfly, landing wherever or on whomever she pleased. It was her free-spirited nature that catapulted her from her family’s dairy farm dotting the country moss of Dublin to study art in Amsterdam. After three years of toiling as an apprentice for Marta Engels, Clancy finally conceded to marry Marta’s younger brother, Karl. His mental illness was locked in a box when they applied for student visas in the United States. Karl wanted to continue studying architecture. My mother was applying for an artist’s college. She spent the travel to New York nervous and ill, unaware of the two seedlings blooming within her. Her husband’s erratic fears and hyper extended voice strained to catch itself like a severed suspension bridge. My mother birthed us on the state’s benefits, all the while cursing Marta’s name, saddled with two infant daughters. Yet she continued to paint, an impoverished and spontaneous life, carrying her easels and some money. In twelve years we had seen the bone white beaches and azure Pacific, desert rock gleaming copper, pillows of white snow padding the barest Midwestern branches, skyscrapers stacked with steel and glass, hot asphalt roads, roads churning muted coral singed dust, and then the sad eye of the Atlantic again.
She then found a store for rent on Main Street in New Hope, an eclectic bouquet of artisans and eccentricities. The four-room outbuilding was the property of the largest and most successful gift store on Main Street: Peter and the Wolf. It shared five acres of emerald lawn on the Delaware Canal. Our mother named her new art and design gallery Sunsweet and began selling her paintings. Her success was an incentive to remain in New Hope’s wind-chafed evenings, beckoning winter. And there was Simon Tribe, Jacquelyn’s husband, owners and the proprietors of Peter and the Wolf. Jackie traveled to the shows and stocked the shelves while Simon worked in construction. I knew, on the cusp of my adulthood, that he hit her. It passed by Ruby’s eyes like a shooting star. I caught the signs in my net, laid them against each other with cement until I had a grotesque building contorted in pain. Jacquelyn Tribe toppled from their four-story turned staircase, an ornate wolf’s head with bared teeth carved into the banister. She slumbered four days flattened by God and the Devil, between Heaven and Earth in a coma. Eventually one tugged hard enough and she let go.
“Suky, are you ready?” my mother called. She was wearing white satin, piped in pink and a pink beret with trailing rivers of silk ribbon. I fingered a crocheted sweater. Her scent trailed my fingers like the rising mist of lovely memory — ivory soap, sweet, leafy tobacco, sea salt, and L’Air du Temps.
“I’m here.” I sounded out the words, stumbling over them like they were smooth stones blocking my throat.
“Come over to me”, my mother said. She tore a boar bristle brush through my heavy, silken hair.
“You should fix your hair. This is how you always wear it.” Her fingers traced the part down the middle of my scalp. A mother’s touch — a verse of poetry in the fingertips, the lullaby to every child.
“I can help her, mom”, Ruby said. I was clueless to the pangs of womanhood. There was the glimpse of Ruby’s bare, freckled arm gleaming beneath her linen shell. I had inherited my mother’s eye, her slant on the world dissected into prisms. My fingers followed the ideas dormant in my blood, guided by the spiraled cone of my DNA. Simon bought me a camera for my thirteenth birthday and one my photographs sold for one hundred dollars. Simon Tribe made us love him with potent words, seductive offerings, bashful missteps, and flirtatious advances. There were lessons for Ruby now in music theory apart from school, dance classes, voice, and scene study. Simon had stuttering hands when he spoke of us — Clancy’s talented twin daughters. Ruby had wound my hair until small curls were pressed to my forehead with fresh flowers. I would have been at ease with goggles and my school’s chemistry beaker. My linen vest was damp, the pleated skirt awkward. My mother lit a cigarette and smoke trailed her like an apparition. I crinkled my face. Ruby’s talent lay before her in pots and jars of cosmetics. I recognized the dull, beige smell of powdered ladies at church, in restaurants, at the theater,
“These are platinum lockets from Simon”, said mother. “They’re for you both to wear during the ceremony. So we can all be married together. Isn’t that lovely?”
“I’m so happy!” Ruby squealed and wove her arms around mother’s neck. Ruby had finally found herself potted, roots burrowing into the moist land by the canal. She was being watered and fed by this man and her face opened like a winter-starved lily, arching towards the sunlit face of Simon Tribe. A dark mood eclipsed my face and my mother sensed it.
“Suky? Are you feeling well?” I studied her in her glamorous sheath of satin draping every curve. Was I the only one who sensed an impending disaster?
“I’m just a little nervous.” She hugged me tightly, the embrace of a doomed dove. I smelled her L’Air du temps, the strawberry-colored henna rinse she used in her hair, peppermint on her breath. Outside, Simon strutted across the grounds in his charcoal gray suit, a white rose boutonniere strung over his heart. His curly hair sprung forward as he pranced, like coiled elastic. He held his arms out to Ruby and drew her in, his chafed and rugged palms resting in the small nook of her back. I felt like a statue. When I began to walk, I felt like I was cracking open an egg.
“Are you really sure you want to marry him?” I asked. My voice was tentative and languid, the words dripping from my tongue like honey off a spoon. My mother spun before the full-length mirror and I saw myself reflected behind her, as though I’d been painted there as an afterthought.
“Honey, I love Simon. And he loves you girls and me both.” I didn’t dare press the issue that it was too soon, that rumors flew at night like bats, dark and hungry and ready to bite.
After the exchange of vows, I heard the corks pop, the spray of champagne. Simon danced with Ruby like a real father and daughter, her bare toes pressing on his shiny leather shoes to Stardust. As day semi-circled into night, I felt the loss of our trinity, my belly threaded with nerves and sorrow.
Then whips of lightning tore great slash marks into the sky. These were the first stirrings of agony rumbling in the earth’s belly, coming to life like a fetal heart. Thunder shook the trees and they swayed like drunken, brittle women with their bare, thorny arms outstretched in grief.
All that summer, Ruby had been tapping earnestly on the small, railed porch in her spangled star shorts, red, white, and blue. I watched her feet pivot, with quick-change combinations, mesmerized by shoes dark as inky water and their sexy sheer bows. Outside, the turntable hummed and Ella Fitzgerald crooned, “ Tain’t what do it’s the way that cha do it!” The president of the Face-Off Players, a professional theater group in New Hope, heard Ruby sing at the wedding and offered her a lead in their summer musical, Carousel. The part itself was intricate and wove scales of notes that lingered in the clouds. Yet, Ruby found them on her palette. Simon watched her rehearse with me back and forth from her thickly bound manuscript, watched her dance. He moistened his lips with his tongue, branding her with his cornflower eyes. Her body convulsing as though struck by lightning.
Speech bloomed in my mouth like the desert flower.
“We’re busy, Simon. Ruby has to be off book for Act one tonight.”
“Well, that’s alright, girls. Actually, Suky, I would like to borrow your sister for a few minutes.” I glanced at Ruby in her white Capri pants and green stretchy tank top.
“Where’s my mother?” I asked. I pretended to be absorbed in the dialogue. Already, I had learned to be invisible and to avoid hot coals with my feet or a slap across the cheek with my mere breath.
“In the kitchen having crackers and tea. Marjorie is helping in the store. Your mom just needed a little break.” I glared at Simon, gray eyes turning to ice. “Do you want to help me rehearse?” she asked sweetly. He nodded — a serpent about to strike.
“Suky, why don’t you take a break for a while. Sound good? Marge brought over a carrot cake and there’s fresh milk in the fridge.” I quietly turned the latch and heard his hoarse breath. “I don’t want you to cry.”
The carrot cake was melting in the heat, suffocating in pink cellophane. My mother poured a small shot glass with golden liquid like fiery amber and wet her plum-stained lips. Fresh blood was congealing at the base of both nostrils. Her lower lip split into petals of blood. Through the door, I heard Marjorie discussing the price of a clay doll with a mohair wig. Marge opened the door tentatively and held up the impish face.
“How much for this, Clancy?”
“It’s negotiable”, my mother said thickly. Outside, the rain streamed down, wetting our cheeks with tears. Our reflections hovered in the glass windows, transparent like ghosts.
“There’s so much you don’t know!” I shouted. “He’s upstairs right now with Ruby!”
I touched her lip, the crease under her tiny nose. “What’s happened to you?” I asked quietly.
“I’ll still protect you. He’s a little closer to Ruby because you push him away. You’re strong-willed and hard-hearted and your opinions are cast in iron. You’ll be a strong woman. Ruby’s never had a father figure. She needs someone to fawn over her, to tell her that she’s pretty. I think you’re a little jealous of them both.”
“And you need to have your face bloodied to prove that you’re loved?” Silence clouded the room like fog. She rolled cocoa-butter lip balm over her bee-stung lips and smoothed her curls. “I’m going to stay with Marjorie. And I’ll take Ruby with me”, I threatened. She led me out to the store, her arm winding around my bony shoulders.
“Hang that light please, Suky.” I heard Simon’s heavy boots lumbering down the three flights of stairs and I adjusted the brass fixture until it was straight. The engine from his truck rattled the corner of the store.
The screen door was our only partition veiling us from the tea-stained dusk. Simon walked right in. It was the crackle of his foil wrapped bouquet that startled us. Noise in that silence like thunder. Peonies with their smirking faces, daises fresh as breath, and stalks of pussy willow branching out to claw us. Spilling over like a Horn of Plenty. We shouldn’t have waited — eating our luxury like breakfast. It was nearly five-thirty. Mother rose for a vase on cue and arranged the flowers with her chapped hands. Her fresh coral manicure was chipped.
“You enjoy it. You keep all the secrets and now I’m on my own to discover them. You were waiting for him, weren’t you? It’s why we haven’t left.”
“I’ll do anything to keep this life.” Ruby bracketed her, arms over her budding breasts. For as long as time, whenever an affair turned too complicated or I was just settling in, or even just trying to stay afloat, she made us leave. “And Ruby lives in your shadow.” It was Ruby’s own fault her skin was transparent as glass, that her figure was rimmed in charcoal, bobbing behind me. The strange boys who colored in that charcoal instead of studies and an alliance with her sister. I shattered the vase and petals fanned out like tears.
I found the door to our bedroom locked and twisted the faux crystal knob until Ruby answered. Her hair fell in flames around her puckered face.
“He left a few minutes ago.” Ruby was curled on the bed. “You make trouble.” She raised her chin on one elbow. “He didn’t hurt me. He never hurts me.” Ruby was like pink papier-m‰chŽ, crumpled up by an angry fist. Ruby was sniffing one of the intact peonies. Another was braided into her hair. “For all its bitter trappings, it’s a good thing. We’re supposed to submit to men anyway. They work and pay bills while we tend the family and keep then content so they won’t stray.”
“What about your dreams for the theater? And I wanted to be a lady-doctor!” My own voice was haggard, wrinkled like an old woman’s skin.
“It’s what happens when we grow up, Suky.” I thought of Ruby’s new ideals, her emerging womanhood, that secret parenthesis I’d seen in the dark. Her arched spine, the pleasure I did not see nor understand, but had read of in books. “Tally it up in that mathematical head of yours”, she continued in her woman’s stance. Her shoulders were thrust forward with hands nestled on her hips. She looked like our mother five years ago and it chilled me. “I get leading roles here in real companies. I have three separate coaches to feed my instrument. And when I tire of it all in a few years, I’ll take a respite and then marry.”
“You’ll end up just like our mother.”
“What good are you doing yourself, learning geometric planes and taking photographs all the time?” My face flushed with embarrassment. Later, I packed my school tote for escape and wore mother’s black crocheted sweater, the chewed sleeves hanging in triangular folds over my hands like bats’ wings — funereal, a dark spectral.
“Your house is marked by shadow”, Marjorie told me. I hated her when she was like this chirping like a captured bird, beating her wings against the cage. I wanted to tell her, embraced the fear, lolling it around in my mouth like a sour candy. The pit of my stomach was too low to the ground and my heart was a fluttering butterfly lodged in my throat, frenetically waving away the words. That shape. That secret shape. Had Simon taught her that? I pulled out a cigarette, found a lighter and flicked the wheel for fire. The flame leapt. I heard the clank of boots, heel against wood.
“This girl here is my girl now.” His breath was sour barley. He’d tugged me by the collar. Marjorie wiped her palms on her print dress. Mother stood behind him. “You’re exposing them to tobacco? Liquor? What else, Clancy?” “Running away in the middle of the night. I’ll report this, Clancy. I can make life more painful than a split lip. You’re an unfit mother. I’m the hero here. I did it legally, signed the adoption forms. Who do you want to get the girls, Clancy? Foster care?”
He was reaching her with a different tactic. She hung her head in recognition of her guilt, the planes of her face sagging in defeat. Clancy feared losing us. And it was entirely possible. Her record as a mother was weak. When we were eight, she abandoned us for a year on the porch of our teacher’s farmhouse in Kentucky. I sucked straw and tweaked udders, wore handed-down coveralls from the teacher’s son. She had been a saint to keep us. I waited every day until a midnight blue Volkswagon ambled onto the gravel drive, startling the sheep. Birmingham. We still hadn’t started first grade. The maid brought us chocolates when she tided the motel room. We learned to ride horses in Arizona and spent nights in the Montana Badlands, in flannel sleeping bags when the money ran out, under the dress of stars.
“You’re older now”, she said to me, always balancing her guilt on my shoulders. “We’ve made a home here now.” Her arm was extended, palm upturned. “It’s not the way it was. Nothing ever is.”
“Where’s Ruby?” I demanded. I found her seated at her vanity, ivory hairbrush in hand. I knew then that they sided together. Ruby didn’t want a bowl of clam chowder for dinner and not look for the next meal until the next night. She loathed finding thrift store clothes stained with sadness, that teacher, that porch, amongst manure and the ripe acrid mix of freshly mown grass. She didn’t want to slumber under the infinite canopy of stars amidst Montana tumbleweeds that would cartwheel across the arid earth. Their rustle was a shift in senses — the soft pelt of a sleeping bag, the tired slump of a child frayed at the edges.
In November when the winds would still, I walked to school without Ruby. My isolation was increasing. My mother’s sad, bloated face, her bruised hands, and the bloody rags in the wastebasket I’d found on several mornings. These are old and tired trees, very much like old and naked hungry women, bark like wrinkled skin, thin and fragile arms wide to embrace the sky. Their leaves exhale every breath, rising and falling with the pitch of wind, branches kissing the ground only to spitefully return to the air. Fingertips call out to me, luring me in, telling me to leave New Hope and never return.
The velvet veil of night embraces me. “Hush”, it whispers. Frost decorates the windows like lace tatting. The room twirls like I’m a girl on the merry-go-round with lights and screams pounding in my head. It’s a carousel of horror I cannot get off.
Heather’s first byline was at the tender age of twelve. She has lived in Bucks County for twenty-two years. She was part of the original group of Pennsylvania Homeschoolers and was selected as one of seven children to appear in Kathy Henderson’s Market Guide for Young Writers. She also starred in several plays including “Arsenic and Old Lace”, “Stages: A Musical”, and David Hare’s “Plenty”. She graduated Bucks County Community College in 1998 with a degree in human services and performance and studied at Holy Family University. She has also lectured at Arcadia. Seasons of Frost is her second novel.
Works by Heather Leabman
Novel Excerpt: Seasons of Frost