“Come here, my duck, you don't need to be afraid of me. I'm just old Mary. Nothing but old Mary, your new nurse."
The voice was too sweet. Clara did not approach, but still stood against the crimson drapery, her finger in her mouth. Dust from the hangings tickled her nose, while in front of her the stranger's bulk blocked out the window and the reddish light from the setting sun. The candles should be lit soon.
“Come to Mary, little bird. They tell me you're a big sister now. Isn't that nice? You know what, I was a sister too. I wasn't the big one, like you are, and I wasn't the little one, like your new baby brother. Me and my sister, we were just the same size and, would you believe it, we looked so much alike that nobody could tell us apart, not even our own mother. We always did everything at the same time; we spoke together with one voice, me and my sister Moll."
Listening, sucking on her finger, Clara could see them. Two girls that moved as one. One girl with two voices that spoke as one. A running girl and her image in a wonderful mirror with invisible edges, or in a magical vertical lake; graceful dancers, dipping swallows, gliding swans. Lulled by the sugary voice, Clara could see the little village, smell its scent of cows and roses. She saw how Mary's mother devised a method to distinguish her daughters: Mary should wear pink ribbons in her chestnut curls, Moll should wear blue. It was simple, pretty. The twins accepted the ribbons with a winsome double smile, and wore them. But they took the colors in turns: one day Mary would wear pink and the next day blue. In this way the ribbons, intended to clear up confusion, served to get things more muddled than ever. You could call either of them `Moll' or call her `Mary', and the answer was always a `yes' pronounced with a smile and lowered eyelashes. You were always right.
How did Mary know which one she was? And was she always the same one? Clara found no words for these questions, but she moved two steps closer and took her finger out of her mouth to ask, “Can I see her too? The other sister?"
“Not now, ducky. She stayed behind in our village, and I left."
The new nurse climbed the spiral staircase with her charge behind her. By the light of the guttering candle their shadows danced a twisted pavane along the yellow wall. Clara played at preventing the big troll shadow from engulfing the small elf shadow, and the game occupied her all the way up to the nursery at the top of the tower. There the windows, barred for safety, looked out upon the gardens and one end of the lily pond where willows gazed at their rippling reflections. They sat by the fire, Clara huddled on her little stool by the nurse's knee, while Mary stroked her hair and spun her more tales of a small village and a twofold childhood, so far away.
Gazing at the hearth, Clara saw them in blazing pictures there. A butterfly and its twin flitting together round and round. An Autumn leaf falling in a lingering spiral to meet its double in the pond. Her eyelids grew heavy and gradually dropped, and sleep floated her off to continue the stories in her dreams.
In her dreams she ran after two identical girls of her own age; their turquoise skirts were bright wings, their flight was a waltz. They grew and they grew, their dark skirts fluttered like bats; they turned and pursued her through tangled woods. Clara ran and ran, then tried to run and couldn't move. Exhausted, she dropped under a tree and couldn't breathe because her face was covered by Moll's moist wings. Clara awoke in terror to find her nose and mouth still blocked: somebody was pressing a pillow into her face. Moll's enormous bulk loomed black against the moonlit window, criss-crossed by the iron bars. The pillow lifted briefly and Clara screamed into the blackness. Then her nurse was there, clucking to soothe her, “Just a dream, my pet. Nothing but a bad dream."
Now Clara fought sleep like the last enemy, while Nurse Mary loomed and clucked over her. “Tell me a story, Nurse---not about Moll, please. Tell me Snow White."
Mary told her the old fairy tale and the words were the same as ever but the story itself was different. This night Clara felt choked by the weeds of envy and pride which grew in the queen's heart. “I will no longer have the child in my sight," the stepmother said, and tonight these words were no longer a meaningless lullaby, but the very essence of hopelessness. The step-mother queen was served a roast heart; Clara, nauseated, could see the Delft-blue plate, the heavy silver fork and knife, the heart steaming---or was it palpitating?---on a bed of lettuce. But it was too small to be the heart of a grown deer, or a grown girl. Clara could see it; it was small enough for the heart of a new-born fawn. The queen deserved to die---anybody who had such thoughts deserved death.
And then there was that mirror, mirror on the wall. It was not an object Clara wanted to carry with her into the world of dreams, for there it would surely show her Moll's mocking grin.
“No more story, thank you," Clara whispered, “I just go to sleep now." She lay silent in the dark, her eyes open so wide they felt cold with the night air. She waited for her nurse to leave her, then waited for what seemed another full night.
If only she could steal away to her mother, everything would be right again. Everything was always right when she could listen to her mother's heartbeat. And her father would demolish Moll with his strong hands. He used to toss Clara up into the air and then, hair and skirts flying, she'd felt winged, free from the pull of the Earth. At this her mother would remonstrate gently and Clara would pretend a fear she did not feel, so that she could put her ear against her mother's breast. They'd been so happy. It had all happened so long ago, she could no longer count the days. A week? Was that what a week meant? She used to see her parents every day, before. They'd been so happy.
Nurse Mary must certainly be asleep by now, Clara thought, as she put her bare feet on the cold floor and slipped out of bed and into the night. Silent as a spirit, she glided across the room. As she traversed the barred shaft of moonlight that entered through her window, a big hand caught her nightgown.
“Where do you think you're going, my duck?"
“I want Mamma!" Clara strained towards the door.
“Mamma has been ill, she needs a lot of rest now. And she's very busy, she has to take care of your new little brother. You must behave yourself and stay with me; I'm in charge of you."
“No longer in her sight?" Clara asked.
“No longer in her sight," confirmed Nurse Mary, “but in mine. You be a good girl now."
For once Clara was not good, but cried and struggled, while the nurse held on to a fold of her charge's nightgown between finger and thumb and wouldn't let her go. Clara fought frantically to get away, but that enormous finger and thumb held her with derisive ease. It was then that Nurse Mary filled the room with throaty laughter, the only time she ever laughed. The sound made Clara stop struggling and go to bury herself in her little white bed, her face deep in the pillow.
She did manage to see her parents once. It happened early the next morning, while the nurse had gone to fetch the breakfast porridge. Alone in the nursery for a moment, Clara heard a strange thin call from outside. Was there a kitten down there? She struggled with the night table, dragging it to the window; then she climbed up and saw them in the sunny garden below. They looked small enough to fit into her dollhouse. Her father swung his cane high at every step, the feather on her mother's hat bobbed. The mother was pushing a baby carriage which Clara could vaguely remember. Three steps behind them came Clara's former nanny, with something white draped over her arm. The group was about to turn, following the path that edged the lily pond; soon they'd all be hidden behind the weeping willows. Clara thrust her arms between the window bars and stretched her fingers towards her parents. The sunshine touched her fingertips and the bars bruised her face.
Later that day, Clara spoke to her nurse: “Mary, a peddler came to the door. Said he was your brother, Mary. Said you wouldn't see him."
“I never had a brother, my bird. Just my sister Moll."
“Said there were seven brothers, Mary. He one of them."
Suddenly the nurse's voice lost its syrupy tones: “And where is this peddler, Miss Clara? Can you tell me that?"
“He had no wings, then he opened them; big wings, black. Made a big noise and he flew away." Clara illustrated with flapping arms and a birdlike hop. “Seven brothers, he said, and only one sister. That was you, Mary."
“He was mistaken, my lamb." The sweetness was back in full force.
“I told him so," Clara replied, too emphatically.
She waited until the end of the afternoon to ask, “Mary, did Moll do bad things sometimes?"
“Well, yes my bird. When we were little she liked to steal jam from the cupboard, even when I told her not to."
“But things that were badder?"
“Well, my duck, she did like to wring the necks of baby chicks, just for the fun of it. I didn't like that, as you can well believe. I'd try to stop her, but I couldn't. Sometimes she was too strong for me."
“Did she ever hurt people?" asked Clara.
Mary was silent for so long that Clara thought she wasn't going to answer. Then the nurse said, “Well yes, my chicken, it was clever of you to guess. She did, she hurt small children, hurt them very badly. That's why I left the village, and that's why I can never return."
At these words Clara took one step back, then returned and hid her head in her nurse's skirts. Nurse Mary put a huge hand under Clara's chin to lift up her face. The nurse looked down into that face for a long time and at last said, “Time for my ducky to take a bath."
Mary scrubbed her charge thoroughly, thrusting thick fingers into her ears, rubbing her head with a shampoo that stung the eyes, scraping her dry with a rough towel, sprinkling talcum powder into every fold of her skin, kneading it in. For no reason at all, Clara remembered a leg of lamb in the hands of Cook.
Once the child was enveloped in a billowing white nightgown with her damp hair hanging over her shoulders, the nurse said, “You look like a little angel."
“I have no wings," Clara said, looking down at her rosy toes which stuck out so helplessly under the nightgown.
“Like the peddler," Nurse Mary retorted. Was the sharpness back, under the sticky surface of her voice? Clara scanned the large features in doubt, but Mary merely added, “Never mind, you can be my own little angel. Let's go for a walk."
Clara was surprised that a walk was offered when the sun was about to set. Reprieved from bedtime, she nodded, smiled, and obediently held out her feet while Mary got on her knees to pull on the child's slippers.
When they got to the lily pond, the frogs were croaking. “It's like a song," said Clara. “They answer each other, then they all go together, like people in church."
“It's called a dirge," the woman said, and Clara wanted to ask, `What's a durch?' But she couldn't ask anything; a sharp shove knocked the breath out of her. Suddenly a chill shock of water covered her mouth, her head; she sank into reflected willows and felt the pull of her long hair as it floated above her. The water tasted of lily pads and frogs. Clara wanted to call to her nurse; looking up she saw, above the black-green waters, the blood-red of the setting sun.
She was floating upwards again, her face came above the water. “Mary! Help me!" she spluttered.
“My name is Moll," said the figure on the shore.
Clara struggled towards the edge, her fingers grasped at slimy reeds which squirmed away like eels. The nurse took a long pole and pushed the child away from the shore, down into the cold.
Clara sank again, swallowed water, surfaced again. “Moll! Save me, Moll!" she cried once more into the air.
“My name is Mary," the woman said, and prodded her with the pole.
As she sank down into the darkness, Clara looked up at the looming woman against the bloodstained background. On the surface between air and water, Mary's image shivered and shattered. Clara saw two women there, quivering and wavering together, each with a raised pole in her hand. Their synchrony was perfect, their dance exquisite.
Enriqueta Carrington received her B.Sc. and M.A. degrees from the National University of Mexico and her Ph.D. from Rutgers University, where she is now an associate professor. She is the editor and translator of Treasury of Mexican Love Poems, Quotations &
Proverbs (Hippocrene Books, 2003). Her prose poem "To Those Who Have Disappeared" was recently included in Pedestal Magazine.