Jessy Reine

from “Vignettes of California”

The mother sleeps alone. On a bed of crimson with many throw pillows that have to be stacked on the floor at night. The walls are red also. There is a sliding closet where hidden in a corner rests a doll as tall as her child, naked, with its hair plucked out.

“It’s so ugly, mom.”

Linny glances up from where she lays with her book, her bare, intensely boney feet
resting one on top of the other—“That used ta be mine. It’s ugly, yea! Well I pulled all ‘er hair out.”

Above the girl the fan spins, but more gently in this room, and the light glancing off the warm clay tiles of the roof draws in direct. There is carpet here, as in every room, and a vanity table with a mysteriously tarnished mirror. Sometimes, become cold in the airy hall at night, underneath her jerking fan, the girl wakes from a dream. Her mother was always fond of leaving little lights on, little fairy trails in the dark, which disrupted sleep, yet lit the way for an awake mind, for meanderings at night. So she follows the lights. She’s led to the dark of her mother’s room, who is roused by the slightest creak of the door. “What is it?” the mother whispers in the dark, and the little girl answers.

She is beckoned underneath sateen covers beside the furnace of her mother’s body. And in a few hours waking to a morning seeped in red as an open palm. Soon afterwards, the girl’s young arms fork herself through the dark water of the pool in a powerful sweep. If it were a weekend, in the morning, her grandfather would be at the kitchen table, drinking black coffee, the veins on his red hands standing out as he holds up the paper to the comic strips. His daughter steps outside past him in bare feet, holding her coffee possessively. California, as if always ill, has someone serve her coffee while she lies on the couch. Surrounding them the frequent small splashes, the playful sounds of Linny’s kids.

She always rose early, Linny. If she ever slept in late—there was only one time—something was seriously wrong. Back East, she’d linger over her coffee for many hours as she did here, but alone, drifting, her mind drifting through the window pane. Prey to fantasies that never touched earth, that never ignited any intent. There is no other word for them but morbid. Among her parents she rolls up her face like an expectant cat. Not a woman in her full power, she is delayed, and thus vulnerable to this sinking back into a girl, a petulant child when her father touches her shoulder. Perpetual disappointment, the secret eating of her fantasies, the dire ear-marks in a thousand romance paperbacks, yet she gets carried by these fantastic feet which should have walked off beyond the valley never to return. She always returned, meekly on those feet, still aroused to fear by her father’s voice, letting him express all the anger—while she swallowed hers. Drowned hers. Drowned her health, the fullness of her hair, drowned the light from her eyes—which were this living-color of acorns fired by the sun. That was their hue. The girl noticed the true color of her mother’s eyes when they widened to petrification one day when Sherry’s dog escaped and ran down the street. Grandpa wrangled it outside the house, grabbing its collar with his red hand, and with the other yanking out his long, hard belt. His booming voice petrified them all, as they stared in a line at the window, the mother and her three children.

But he didn’t strike the dog. The red hand sank down and rubbed the dog’s head.
Projecting suspicions that were never realized, Linny, an unfathomable look of being lost in her eyes. Yet eventually we all manifest something. Grandpa bent down to his knees on the soggy grass and rubbed the dog all over, talking softly to it. The children’s shoulders relaxed. Sherry even came running up, in happy hysterics; the neighbors were closing their curtains again.

When grandpa came inside, Linny leapt up like a scolded child, stiff and at attention. “Ay Lin, is all right. I was just kidding.” And the mature daughter smiled—her teeth very crooked, and in the center, smashed in.

They all die here. Grandpa, California, even Lin. They were all swept away by the time
the girl was thirty years old. Then she would be called back from a searching that bore no fruit in the East, to the red fallow fields of Bakersfield, melting away in smog. And see her mother curled fatally into herself, like an unfed child. And see the red earth well up from within her own body and burst through her surface, finally—all come to the surface—in the red shape of tumors, boils, blood that had cried out for movement and been left clogged for too, too long. If she created a life of betrayal or walked into a shape made for her beforehand, I cannot say, but the light was dead in her eyes ten years before she died. She had been hushed for so long that her death was like a passing thought. Her husband didn’t attend her funeral.

At night, in the red room, the lamp is lit amid the haunted old furniture, the smeared
mirror not reflecting what mirrors normally reflect, but strange phenomenon instead, dust twirling in a red light. Where her mother lies clotted, reading of some heroine besides herself in the Scottish highlands. Slowly sliding back the closet door, her heart pounding, the girl sees the slumped in the dark doll with all its hair yanked out, with its eyes still open in the dark. No one had ever thought to throw it away.

Jessy Reine‘s bio: I have published short stories with Wilderness House Literary Review, Blaze Vox, the Quiet American, and have a forthcoming excerpt from a novel in the Platform Review. In 2020 I published an erotic novella with Black Scat books called “The Secret of Geraniums,” and in 2019 was shortlisted for the Tartt First Fiction Award. In 2014 I received a grant from an NJ based non-profit, Arts by the People, to hand-bind and self-publish a first work, an autobiographical novella, “Diary of the Seduced.” I have a Masters in Painting from the NY Academy of Art and a BA in “Narrative Form” from Gallatin at NYU. I live in the Hudson Valley of New York in a yurt with my two children where I garden by the moon and make medicine from wild plants.