She died that night while I was sleeping on the couch. The cat was beside her, and when I heard Giselle mewling, I knew what had happened. My brother didn't come up to New Jersey until several days after our grandmother's passing; the funeral had to wait because it was exam week at Orlon University. Ned realized what was happening to me as soon as he walked in the house. I was like a bird that had been let out of its cage only to find it could go no farther than the windowsill. All those years of planning my escape from New Jersey, and now I couldn't even leave the living room. I'd pretty much stopped eating, aside from cornflakes and milk, which was the only thing I could keep down. I hadn't showered and I gave off a faint odor of mildew, the scent of the ruined and the lost. I had called in to the library to let them know I wouldn't be coming back. The reference desk was too much for me. Everything was. Jack sent me a sympathy note on police stationery; he wrote that he missed me, more than he'd ever expected to, and was hopeful I would soon return to my desk. But that wasn't about to happen. I could barely find a reason to get dressed, let alone field meaningless research questions or have sex with someone I didn't care about in the backseat of his car. Sometimes I simply stayed in my bathrobe. I had lost the will to wash my face, to look in the mirror, to step outside, to breathe the air.
My brother and I hadn't had a real conversation in years. Too busy, lives too far apart. But after the funeral he sat beside me on the couch. He was allergic to cats, just as I was, and his eyes had already begun to water because of Giselle.
"This is not going to do you any good," Ned told me. "You can't stay here."
Logical still, as if it mattered. Logical then, as well. I thought of the morning of my mother's death; before my grandmother had arrived, I'd wandered out in my pajamas and saw him in the kitchen. I think he might have been cleaning up. He was orderly even then. It's too early, Ned had told me. Go back to bed. I did exactly that. Two days later we'd sat together, side by side on folding chairs at my mother's funeral, held at the gravesite. A few of my mother's friends were there, all in black dresses. Ned wore a black suit, borrowed probably. I'd never seen it before. I had a navy blue dress with a lace collar that I'd snipped off with the same shears I'd used to cut my hair. There was a plain pine coffin, closed. Still, I'd read enough fairy tales to know the dead were not necessarily gone. Our mother might have been asleep, under a spell, ready to rap on the coffin from within and beg, Let me out!
It could happen at any time. The sky was gray; there was ice on the ground. And then I saw that Ned was crying. He was quiet about it. He didn't make a sound. I don't think I'd ever seen him do that before, so I quickly looked away. And then the coffin looked different. Shut tight. Over and done.
At my grandmother's service, Ned and I were the only mourners. Same kind of plain pine box, same graveyard. We had never gotten around to putting a marker on my mother's grave, and I was glad of this. I didn't want to know exactly where she'd been buried. Maybe she hadn't been buried at all. Maybe I'd been wrong and she had indeed flung open the wooden box to run through the dark and the cold the moment we'd left the gravesite. I looked for footprints, though it had been more than twenty years. Only the scratch scratch of birds. And something elsethe tracks of a fox.
From The Ice Queen, pages 3-31 of the hardcover edition. Copyright © 2005 by Alice Hoffman. Reproduced with the permission of Little, Brown & Co.
Blood at the Root
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