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Fiction
Sara Siegel


a light in the attic
Photo Credit: Kevin Torigoe

My hair stuck to the back of my neck in thick, dark curls. The dust from the attic, floating in the beams of light slanting in through the windows, attached itself to my damp skin. We had barely moved in and already the attic was cluttered with half-empty boxes, old suitcases, ratty dolls and hopelessly-out-of-date clothes. Stuff my parents didn’t use or even need anymore, but couldn’t bear to part with.

My mother begged me to play outside, to explore the new town and ride around on my bike, but I didn’t want to. Where would I go? The ice-cream shop? The town pool, crowded with kids half my age and their hyper-attentive mothers? I wondered about my friends, about Kate and Amy and Isabelle, what they were doing now. I wouldn’t mind going to the ice-cream shop or the pool if I were with them. But they were far away now. Too far to ride my bike. Thinking about starting ninth grade without them made my stomach hurt and, hot as it was, I preferred rummaging through the attic instead. Looking through artifacts from my parents’ pasts.

Most of the boxes in the attic had been kept in the basement of our last home, a thirty-minute car ride away from here. We were in Putnam County now, not even Westchester, “upstate” now with bigger houses that were fewer and far between and yards so big you could easily fit my old house on them. But not as showy as the houses back home. “Classic,” my mother would say. “Understated.”

I assumed when we moved to this new house my parents would finally get rid of these decrepit boxes. They didn’t, though, and now I was glad, both for the boxes and the free time the summer days afforded me. There was time to sort through it all.

I had hoped I would find old photographs or toys from my father’s family, something I could touch up and send to him, all the way in California with my grandmother who needed help doing the simplest chores since she had a stroke. Most of the interesting things I found were from my mother’s side, though, from when she had lived in the country as a child, in the South.

She didn’t usually tell me stories about growing up in the country, but when she did I could tell that she had loved her childhood, since her eyes sort of glazed over and her voice became almost dreamy. It felt as if in a way she stopped speaking to me, Sophie, and instead spoke to her younger self, so far away in those vast fields I had never been to or seen any pictures of.

My mother teased me for marveling at the two-and-a-half acres of backyard that came along with this new house. “This,” she would tell me, motioning to the land outside the playroom, “is nothing. Back home we had acres and acres of land, filled with wheat or corn. Flowers grew without our even planting gardens.”

Even the heat didn’t seem to bother her. While I went through two shirts a day, sweat seemed to evaporate off her, with her pale, freckled skin and straight wheat-colored hair. People constantly told us we looked alike and my mother would smile, but I didn’t see it at all. Everything about her was slight—her green eyes and small frame—while I was all dark and already almost-curvy.

The first time my mother had mentioned anything about the heat, infused with a sticky sweetness, or the big open sky from her home, I had been taken aback. I had assumed that she had come from here, from New York, like my father did. From the city, even, where my parents lived before I was born. But she explained to me that she had grown up in farm country, that she hadn’t moved to New York until she married my father, who she had met at the state university, after which she begged him to move to the suburbs, so she could feel a little more at home.

My father preferred the city, I knew, and seemed glad almost that he would have the entire summer away from us, so he could live among the crowded streets and tall buildings I imagined littered the city of San Francisco the way they did New York. While my mother and I labeled boxes for rooms in our new house and picked out carpeting and wallpaper without his input, he hummed to himself, packed a few small suitcases, and made his plans out west. I had asked what he would do about work, and he assured me it was just as easy to be a lawyer in San Francisco as it was in New York. The one time I had wondered aloud how he would have time to work on any cases in such a short period, my parents had shot each other a Look, then brushed past the question, and since then, I was too nervous to bring it up again.

Instead I spent my days in the attic. At the bottom of a particularly beaten up box, a bunch of yellowing papers caught my eye. They were held together loosely by a piece of string. Love letters, I hoped, from my father to my mother before they had gotten married. The handwriting didn’t look familiar, though. It definitely wasn’t my father’s or mother’s. The letters could have been from an aunt or an uncle, I supposed, maybe a friend from college.

I glanced over the words quickly, and I was about to toss the whole pack aside, when the word ‘turtles’ caught my eye. My mother had sort of a thing for turtles. Or at least, one turtle in particular. It was a tiny black obsidian piece, its shell and eyes etched in grayish lines. Whenever I picked it up it felt warm, as if my mother had just been cradling it between her hands. She kept it on her bedside table and had yelled at me when I was little and had taken it to place among my own animals.

The letter about turtles was very short. I couldn’t tell when it had been written, but the stiffness of the paper and the fading of the ink made me think it was very old. I knew it was a letter to my mother, as it was addressed to S, for Susannah. It could have just as easily been to me. It was signed with a B, and the writer had only said:

I feel very out of place here up North, in Illinois with family I don’t even know that well. But aside from you, home doesn’t feel right, either. When I came back for the funeral, Rosaline had packed all my things, and the farm was empty without my father. Nothing seems to fit. Before I left I meant to tell you about a turtle I read about after our trip to the beach. I don’t remember their breed now, but they lay their eggs on the beach, and after the eggs are hatched, the turtles have to get to the sea as quickly as possible. The book said that most of the turtles died before they turned twenty, but those that didn’t would do as their mothers had, and return to the beach to breed. It’s still a mystery, even to the people that wrote the book, how they manage to find their way through miles and miles of ocean. Those turtles make me sad, mostly because I envy them. I can’t help but wish for a place like that. A home so ingrained in me that I can find my way, no matter what.

I don’t know whether it was that long ago loneliness or the dust right now, but my throat started to close. I wondered who in her life my mother had known that wished so badly to fit in, to feel a part of something. I wanted to read on. I hoped that whoever had written the letters had found their happiness at some point.

I read a few more letters, and it became clear to me that whoever he was had been in love with my mother. It looked as if she had kept the letters in order, and that the string was wrapped around them as an afterthought, after many years with no word from him. The letters weren’t dated or signed, only meant for S and from B, but I could tell that for the later letters a bunch of time had passed between them, before they stopped coming altogether. I wondered just how much my father knew about this mysterious B whose letters my mother still held on to.

Stuck to the bottom of the box where I had found the letters was a curled black and white picture. I gently unstuck it and peered at it closely, scanning the faces for my mother. She looked to be about fifteen in the picture and surprisingly, except for her hair, looked more like me than herself. Her hair was lighter than it was now, and long, all the way down to her waist. The picture was taken in front of a building of some sort, I couldn’t tell what, with wide fields in the background. Oh. So that’s what a lot of land looked like. From the limited view the picture allowed me, I could tell she was right. This, I thought, glancing through the window, was nothing.

There were a bunch of boys and girls in the picture, and they didn’t seem like country bumpkin hicks like I would have thought. Some of them wore overalls and had that slightly stupid look, but for the most part they looked like normal kids, just completely out of fashion. They were all white, and looked somewhat similar. Like they were all-American, meat-and-potatoes, bred-of-the-earth type kids. I flipped the picture over and recognized my mother’s handwriting on the back. All of their names. MaryAnn Ford. Bobby Ford. Luanne Johnson. Michael Thompson. The list went on. One of the names stuck out. It just said Ben. Was he B from the letters? I flipped the picture back over. He and my mother were standing next to each other, looking slightly away from the camera, at something just outside the frame. Like they shared a secret that none of the others were in on. Fuzzy as the picture was, this Ben looked kind of cute. Safe. Like the kind of boy any parent would be happy their daughter was dating. His hair was dark and curly, like mine.

I brought the picture and the letters downstairs to the family room. My mother was sitting cross-legged on the floor with her old lady glasses on, surrounded by wires and stray pieces of paper. An unassembled computer sat in front of her. She heard me come down the stairs and into the room, but she didn’t turn around.

“Do you know what we had in my day? Before the internet? We had libraries. And do you know what we did instead of surf the internet? We went on walks. We looked at the stars,” she said. Then she added, “Fed the hens,” more to herself than me.

“Who’s Ben?” I asked, and immediately my heart started to pound. I didn’t know I was so nervous until the words were out of my mouth.

“Who?” she asked absently, still reading one of the pamphlets. “Can you help me find piece C, honey?”

“Ben,” I said again, shoving the picture in front of her face. She stopped what she was doing and looked up, taking the picture from my hands. I could feel her fall away from me now, back into herself. Like when she was back there, on the farm, without my father or me. But I was standing right in front of her. I grabbed the picture back from her hand.

“Who is he?” I almost didn’t want to know what she’d say, but my voice seemed to move faster than my brain.

“He’s a boy I used to know,” she answered, vaguely enough. She didn’t say anything more, but she didn’t meet my eyes.

“Was he your boyfriend?” I blurted out.

“I suppose so,” she mused. “We didn’t really use those terms, though.” She fidgeted with the wires in front of her, and I could tell she wasn’t here, now, but it was different from when she used to talk about her childhood with me.

“Did you love him?” my throat started to close again, making it hard for me to breathe. “He’s the reason you have that turtle? The one you yelled at me about?”

“When did I yell at you?” She finally looked at me, her eyes returning to now.

“When I was six. I took it to put with my other animals.”

“Oh,” she said. “Yes. He is.” She put the wires down, but stared at her hands. She looked back up at me and smiled, sort of sadly, it seemed, like she wanted me to understand something that I just couldn’t. Then she looked back at the wires.

“Am I his daughter?” I asked it before I even finished thinking it.

“Sophie!” Her head jerked up involuntarily. She seemed shocked by the question.

“What?”

“How could you say something like that!” She sounded more amused than offended.

“I’m fourteen,” I said. “I’m not a nun.”

“Of course you’re not his daughter!” she said. “You’re your father’s daughter.”

“Our hair looks the same,” I pointed out.

She pulled me down to sit next to her on the carpet and ran her hand along my hair.

“It looks the same as your father’s, too, you know,” she said. “My God, you see a picture of a boy with dark and curly hair and you think… I haven’t seen Ben in… over twenty years now.” She sighed.

“He gave you that turtle, though?” I asked.

“No, actually,” she said. She took off her glasses and rubbed her hand along her forehead, closing her eyes for a few seconds, like she had a headache.

This surprised me. If he didn’t give it to her, why didn’t she want me to have it?

“Where’d you get it, then?”

She shrugged. “Somewhere in Chinatown, I think. Ages ago.”

“Did you get it because of him?” I asked, meaning ‘Did you get it before or after you knew me?’

“Where are you coming up with all this stuff, anyway?” she asked, turning away from me. “From a lousy picture?”

I threw the bunch of letters on the floor.

“Are you mad I read them?” I asked her, even though I didn’t care if she was.

“No,” she said. She reached for them but then stopped. “I didn’t have them hidden away anywhere.”

“So what happened?” I asked. “Why did you break up?”

“We didn’t, really,” she said slowly. “Circumstances, I guess. His father died. Well,” she scrunched up her face, in memory. “His grandfather died, actually.”

“Which is it?” I asked. When I asked my mom about stories from the past, too often she told them disjointed, pieces here and there, so I had no idea of knowing what order anything had happened in, how it all went together. But now I needed to know. Now it was my life, too.

“Both,” she said. “His grandfather died and his father sent him up to Illinois to help out his grandmother. He was supposed to be gone for just the summer, but then the week before he was supposed to come home his father died. His family decided—”

“How did his father die?” I interrupted.

“He was killed by a drunk driver, actually,” she said.

“Oh.” I felt uncomfortable. Sorry I asked. I wanted her to finish, though. “So what happened?”

“Well, his father was pretty much the only family he had back home, and his family up North decided he would stay in Illinois, with his grandmother and some other family, so they sold his farm and saved the money for him for college.”

“So you never saw him again?” I asked.

“He came home for the funeral,” she said.

Right. He had mentioned that in the letter. He had said that except for my mother, home felt empty. I tried to imagine the boy and girl from the picture in all black, holding hands in front of his father’s coffin. I could only see my mother from now, though, not then, and the boy I saw was tall with dark and curly hair but a blurry face.

“And then?” I asked.

She shrugged. “Life went on. He went to school up there, I went to school back home. I met your father. I assume he met other people, too.”

This was supposed to be reassuring. If my mother hadn’t met my father, then I would never have been born. They wouldn’t have moved to the city, then from the city to the suburbs, and then had me. I wouldn’t be sitting in our new house right at this very minute, talking to my mother about her life before us.

It was sad, though. If his grandfather hadn’t died, I thought, if his father hadn’t died, maybe he and my mother would still have been together. Maybe they would have gotten married and had children, and maybe I would have been here, anyway, just in a different form.

“Do you still think about him?” I asked.

“Sometimes,” she said.

“And you never spoke to him again?”

“No.”

“Doesn’t that make you sad?”

“A little,” she said. For the first time since I had come downstairs she looked directly at me. “But if he hadn’t moved away then I wouldn’t have met your father and we wouldn’t have had you,” she said, poking me in the stomach. I pushed her hand away.

“So the turtle reminds you of your home?”

“Oh, Soph. Home is in your head, it’s not a real place. Listen, if we moved to… Alaska, let’s say, but Daddy and I were still there, and Kate and Amy, and all your other friends, you’d still be happy, wouldn’t you?” she asked.

I thought about it.

“I guess so.”

“Well, that’s what home is. It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, as long as you’re with the people you love. The ones that make you happy.”

She hugged me and I looked away, because I didn’t want her to see that I was crying a little. Didn’t Ben make her happy, though? Wasn’t he her home, in a way?

I looked at the picture and the letters, in a heap on the floor. And I thought about her turtle, how much it meant to her and how it always felt warm when I picked it up. Maybe it was always warm because she really had just been holding it and thinking about Ben. Not Ben now, I guess, because neither of us knew where he was or what he was doing. If he was married or had children, or what he even looked like anymore. But Ben from back then, from her childhood, when she was happy in the country.

So maybe home wasn’t a place. I thought about Kate and Amy and Isabelle, all my friends from my old town, and about Daddy, so far away in San Francisco with his own mother.

Then I thought about the turtles. Home wasn’t just people. Home was memory, too.

pencilSara Siegel is a writer currently based in Boston. She has had her work published in Vantage Point and Wild Violet, including the short story “Young”, a companion piece to “Home”. Her film work has been screened at the cell theatre company in NYC, and can be found at everythingaltersme.blogspot.com. Email: the.gull.22[at]gmail.com

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