The day my mother let Ellen Swank into our home, we burned our lips on pain perdu. Or as Father liked to call it “poor knights of Windsor.” Alone in the guest room, too old for fantastical girls from my personal neck of the woods, I made finger-tracings of the contour of my breasts in the mirror. I measured the width with my breaths. In those days, growing up in finger waves, powdered sugar in the hand for good luck, I dreamed of leg-o-mutton sleeves and viscose linings. Or that old Empress Eugenie hat that Ellen Swank wore, tipped over one eye, and the other eye smiling at me. By Fall, something inside me was changing colors.
At night, by the fire, Ellen Swank told us adventures she had as a young girl wandering near the virgin bogs, how she never forgot the dwarf shrubs, the smell of heavy rain, running from men with coal seam fire in their eyes. She said it was possible to grow cloudberries in those harsh climates, that in muddy waters one could see shimmering faces. She must have been around thirty, homeless in her beauty, light on her feet.
At night, I crept into the guest room, and stood over Ellen Swank. Just to make sure she was alright. In my sleep, I always heard this sound, this muted cry of some far-off animal, perhaps from the arctic. Perhaps a slow painful struggle. Looking down at Ellen Swank, I sometimes fidgeted, fingering the buttons to my cotton robe. Sooner or later, at the quavering call of a screech owl, Ellen opened one eye. Her lips moved delicately, as if tasting the sweet strange air coming in through the tiniest crack in the window. Sing to me, she said, but quietly. I felt so foolish and out-of-place. But I did.
Sometimes the air raids would drown out my voice. I kept singing.
As the nights flipped, one after another, I counted the days towards Christmas. And each night, I drew closer to her bed, until there was no more Ellen Swank and there was no more me.
Kyle Hemmings lives and works in New Jersey. He is the author of the chapbooks: Avenue C (Scars Publications), Cat People (Scars Publications) and and an upcoming e-chapbook, Tokyo Girls in Science Fiction. He has been published in Nano Fiction, Wigleaf, Step Away, and elsewhere.
© 2011, Kyle Hemmings