An NPR Best Book of 2015 Love and sacrifice intertwine in this brilliant debut of rare beauty about a girl dealing with her mother’s schizophrenia and her own mental illness. Fig’s world lies somewhere between reality and fantasy. But as she watches Mama slowly come undone, it becomes hard to tell what is real and what is not, what is fun and what is frightening. To save Mama, Fig begins a fierce battle to bring her back. She knows that her daily sacrifices, like not touching metal one day or avoiding water the next, are the only way to cure Mama. The problem is that in the process of a daily sacrifice, Fig begins to lose herself as well, increasingly isolating herself from her classmates and engaging in self-destructive behavior that only further sets her apart. Spanning the course of Fig’s childhood from age six to nineteen, this deeply provocative novel is more than a portrait of a mother, a daughter, and the struggle that comes with all-consuming love. It is an acutely honest and often painful portrayal of life with mental illness and the lengths to which a young woman must go to handle the ordeals—real or imaginary—thrown her way.
Release date: March 29, 2016
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books
Print pages: 352
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Sarah Elizabeth Schantz
1. “Clock” is derived from the word “bell.” Wearing bells can protect a person from fairies—and from falling into a fairyland where time does not operate as it should.
June 11, 1982
Because I’m only six, I’m not allowed to go into the woods alone—nowhere near the farmer’s ditch, and most especially nowhere near the Silver River. Daddy worries I will drown, and Mama worries about everything.
I’m getting better at sneaking out. I crawl my way from the house to the orchard, and then I run from tree to tree, hiding behind each one until my arms become the branches. And I can be a rabbit too—I can be the runaway bunny. The Johnsongrass is tall in the space between the orchard and the ditch and hides me the rest of the way. Once I’m by the water, the tall cottonwoods and thick raspberry form walls to separate the worlds, and I can’t be seen from the house or the yard.
Mama is helping Daddy pack. I had tried to help but she got mad.
“Fig,” she said. “Leave us alone!”
Then Daddy smiled at me and ruffled my hair with his big fingers. He looked at me with eyes that said, Sorry.
“Go and play,” he said, and his voice was soft, and the soft melted Mama. The angry red drained from her face and she was almost normal again. Mama is always pretty, but without the red I could see the soft splatter of pale freckles around her nose. Daddy touched her arm and said her name in a quiet way. He said, “Annie,” like he was reminding her of something she’d forgotten, and then she turned and smiled at me too. And with her voice, she said, “Sorry.”
“I didn’t mean to snap,” she said. “I just need to talk to your father.”
“Alone,” she said.
Then she kissed me on my forehead—the special place between my eyes. The place Mama calls my third eye. “Everyone has them,” she always says, “but not everyone knows how to use them. The third eye is a magic eye because it can see all the other worlds.”
Mama is referring to fairyland.
She isn’t talking about the world outside Kansas or even just beyond Douglas County, where we live on a farm. The closest town is Eudora, and Eudora, Kansas, is what it says on all our mail, and Eudora is where I go to school and will continue to go until I graduate from high school.
Eudora has a feed and seed, a hardware store, a pharmacy, a post office, a newspaper, a diner, a one-room library, a morgue, and a handful of churches scattered here and there, including the Sacred Heart of Mary, where my grandmother goes even though she lives in Lawrence now. Sacred Heart is more than a church; it’s a private school as well. It covers all fourteen grades in one building, while the public school system has Douglas Elementary, Keller Junior, and Carter High. There is talk about closing down the high school and busing all the teenagers to another high school in another town in another county, but it hasn’t happened yet.
Mama doesn’t care for the Eudora Library. “All they stock is romance novels and car manuals,” she says, and takes me to the public library in Lawrence instead. And sometimes we go to Topeka, but mostly we don’t go anywhere. I stay within a triangle of highways and interstate. I stay inside the square acreage of the farm. I stay at home.
I visit the farmer’s ditch when Mama takes her bath or does her yoga. This is where I bring all the meat I won’t eat. This is my secret. I don’t like the idea of eating something dead.
Stepping onto the bridge, I become a tightrope walker.
The farmer’s ditch runs away from the Silver River, where my uncle likes to fish. And the Silver River marks the end of our land to the south. Everything on the other side of the river belongs to the McAlisters. While I dare the dangers of the ditch, I would never go to Silver by myself, and I am always careful about getting back to the house before the sun goes down—before anyone knows I am missing.
With arms outstretched like a tightrope walker, I walk across the board, but I only go far enough to toss the meat onto the other side before turning around. Returning to my side, I crouch behind the old log and wait for the dog to come and eat the scraps.
Mama hates dogs. “It’s a phobia,” she has said many times. Then she showed me the word in the dictionary, and I learned that ph makes the same sound as an f.
Mama was bit by her uncle’s dog when she was little. The dog was named Sticker, and he bit her on Easter. Everyone was sitting at the table getting ready to eat, but first they had to close their eyes and pray. “I never did like to pray,” Mama said, and this is when she slid out of her seat to sit under the table, where Sticker was curled into a ball of sleeping fur and hidden teeth.
My uncle Billy says, “Always let a sleeping dog lay.” But Mama did not let Sticker lie. She scratched behind his ears, and Sticker whirled around and bit her on the face. “When I opened my eyes,” she said, “I could see his throat.” She was taken to the emergency room and stitched back together. This scar hides behind her eyebrow and is nothing compared with her other scar—the one that came later.
When the dog comes, I think about petting her, but I don’t.
I stay behind the log, watching her watch me. We both practice being still. This makes her feel safe enough to come and sniff the pork chops or the drumsticks or whatever meat I’ve brought to her. Today, I brought a link of sausage. She never stops watching me, one eye dark and the other a cloudy blue. Because she watches me like this, I feel like I’m the one she’s actually eating. And this is not the first time I’ve ever felt like a piece of meat. She never barks or howls or growls. She sniffs the air, and sometimes the sniffing makes her lips curl back into a smile that isn’t really a smile. Her gums are a wet blue-black, and there are spots on her tongue.
I think she has a family, because she carries the bones away. At first, she is slow—she moves like she is only stretching—but then she runs. Once she is running, her feet don’t even touch the ground. During the day, I try to run like this. I try to run away, but my knees get in the way because they don’t bend right. And sometimes I catch Mama watching me. Her worry comes pouring out of her body like something spilling. It drips off her clothes, and her worry is the color of shadows, and it moves like water. From the porch, it seeps into the steps—pouring out into the grass where I am trying to run like a dog. Her worry comes for me.
* * * *
June 21, 1982
After a long day of working in the flower garden, Mama and I decide to have a picnic dinner instead of eating inside the house. The fireflies are coming out. Blinking yellow lights, on and off, here and there, they change everything about the orchard. And Mama and I go to another world—one like Wonderland, or Oz. We go to Never, Never Land.
When I asked if we could go to fairyland, Mama tried to scare me away. “Figaroo,” she said. “You don’t really want to go.”
And then she said, “It can be very hard to come back from fairyland,” and that was when she looked away and her face got all sad.
“Sometimes it’s even impossible,” she said.
Mama says if I do end up in fairyland, not to eat or drink anything while I’m there. “Those are the rules—otherwise, you can get stuck,” she says. “It’s like a spell.”
When Mama talks about fairyland, she uses the word “lure.”
Fairyland is a lure. I want to fly and make friends. Most of all, I want to be able to change the size of my body from big to small whenever I want.
I lie back on the picnic blanket, looking at the tangled branches above. In the changing light, I see the little green apples—still too hard and sour to eat. The black branches crisscross the sky. The sun is setting, and that side of the sky looks like melted orange and strawberry sorbet. On the other side, the moon is rising. And in the middle, the sky turns into violet—the color of my new favorite crayon. The darkness brings a chill, and the Kansas humidity turns into a cold damp. Mama wraps herself in a shawl to keep away the chill.
Mama packed a picnic dinner: cubes of cheese bought from the Fergesons’ dairy farm across the highway, and Stoned Wheat Thins, green grapes, new cherries, and little cucumber sandwiches cut into hearts using Gran’s old cookie cutters. My belly is full like a pregnant woman. We’re on an old quilt spread beneath the trees. Mama is wearing a white dress with crocheted edges—the one she calls a garden dress. “It’s vintage,” Mama says. “It is almost a hundred years old.”
Mama collects old clothes, and this is what she wears when she isn’t wearing paint-splattered blue jeans with peasant blouses or worn-out T-shirts.
She is beautiful in the delicate lacy gown, and I wish I was dressed up too, but Mama says, “You are already perfect, my dearest Fig.”
She helps arrange all my stuffed animals so we are sitting in a circle while she reads out loud. When she’s done with the Peter Rabbit books, we imagine the lives of all the rabbits on the farm—what their names are, who is related to who, what they do for a living, and where they live.
Daddy is away with Uncle Billy.
I think it’s an emergency, but no one wants to talk to me about it because I’m only six years old. It doesn’t matter that I was born from an emergency, or that I’ve been reading since I was four. It doesn’t matter that I can read better than my entire class, and it doesn’t matter that I know how to use a dictionary and an encyclopedia.
Looking things up is one of Mama’s favorite things to do, and it is one of my favorite things to do with her. Mama keeps the encyclopedia in the living room. It belonged to her father once upon a time, but he gave it to her when she went to college.
“Not only do I want you to have knowledge at your fingertips,” he said to her, “I want you to have a piece of home to forever keep.”
Mama says she’s lucky to have this encyclopedia. “Just like I’m lucky to have the few family photos I took with me to college,” she will say, “and some of my mother’s dresses, and the teddy bear that’s now yours.” But really she isn’t lucky at all. She’s only lucky to have these few things because everything else was lost in the fire that also took her parents away.
The encyclopedia has a black cloth cover with gold lettering. The cover looks dusty, but whenever I try to wipe it clean, I find there isn’t any dust. Mama says it looks this way because it faded from the sun, but it must have faded from another sun, in another living room, because our living room is always dark—even when all the lamps are turned on.
I used to use the encyclopedia as a booster seat, and before that I used the same wooden high chair that Daddy and Uncle Billy used before they grew into boys who grew into men.
The encyclopedia is always open now, trying to catch new information.
It sits on a wooden stand, which makes it easier for a person to use because the encyclopedia really is that gigantic. It has to be. Daddy says most encyclopedias come in sets—sometimes an entire book for just one letter of the alphabet—but this one holds everything from A to Z. And this reminds me of Sacred Heart and how it covers everything from preschool to high school.
The dictionary is not as big or fancy. Mama keeps it on a shelf in the cabinet with the glass door. It has a wonky brown cover that is starting to fall off, and Mama showed me how it has a spine. “Books are bodies too,” she said. “And the pages are the wings that make them fly.”
Mama has another dictionary—a little paperback she carries in her pocket. She checks off all the words she looks up. She uses a pencil. Check. This is the dictionary I use to look up “lure.”
lure: something that tempts or attracts with the promise of pleasure or reward.
The sky is now a darker violet, and the crickets are beginning to sing. Mama and I have been quiet for a long time. Once, I interrupted a quiet that was like this by saying, “It’s too quiet,” and Mama said there was no such thing. She said love is the ability to be comfortable with others in silence. She made it seem like I didn’t love her, and that made me want to cry.
“Did you hear that?” Mama says, and I’m glad she’s the one to interrupt the silence. She was sitting, but now she’s standing—and that makes me dizzy. She’s leaning toward the woods where the wild trees grow along the ditch. She cups her ear with her hand. I listen too, but I don’t hear anything. Mama stands there, her face twisted with worry, and I know she’s hearing something—something I can’t hear.
I listen hard.
I listen until I can’t help but hear all the rustlings in the parts of the world gone black. The deep whispers below the cricket song. And then I hear the sound of something coming. All the tiny apples in the trees above turn into human eyes. They look around. At the woods, and then they look at me. They look sideways and they keep blinking.
My stuffed animals huddle close together. They wrap their fuzzy arms around one another and don’t reach for me. I pull myself up and go to Mama, but she only puts one arm around me even though I need both arms to feel safe.
She’s using her other hand to listen, and her eyes dart back and forth like the eyes in the trees. I nose my way into Mama’s shawl, trying to hide inside her, but she is too thin and there is no room for me. She tightens her grip on my shoulder, and I try to hide from how much this hurts.
“Run!” Mama screams. “Now, Fig ! Run!”
And she takes my hand, and we are running. There is no time to grab my stuffed animals or even shout for them to run as well. Mama’s bigger, and she can go much faster.
I make us trip and fall.
Mama has to stop again and again to pull me up. And then we’re running again. And now we’re coming into the front yard—through the cottonwoods and the long shadows of the cottonwoods—into the yard, where the grass is short and less wild because it is cut grass, but Mama doesn’t stop. She lets go and I fall, and now she’s on the porch, still screaming for me to run.
“Now, Fig, now!”
I am crying. I cry the way I cry when I cannot stop.
Why won’t Mama come and get me? Where is Daddy? I want him to come home—to swoop down and pick me up with big strong arms and carry me inside, where the walls will make it safe again. But Daddy isn’t here and Mama won’t stop screaming. She keeps pointing at the shapes behind me where dark and light draw a line of safe and not safe. She screams and points at the world on the other side of the tall trees. At the shapes that stop moving whenever I turn to look.
* * * *
“Are you any warmer?” the policeman asks. The one who wrapped me in a blanket.
The policeman sits in Daddy’s armchair but doesn’t lean back the way Daddy does. And he doesn’t put his feet on the coffee table.
I’m sitting on the sofa, and Marmalade is next to me. She is next to me only because she was already there whenever it was that I sat down—I know this even if I don’t remember sitting, or how I got inside. The cat is curled into herself, and every once in a while she twitches her tail. This is how Marmalade reminds me not to touch her. The cat doesn’t like anyone but Mama.
The policeman sits on the edge of the chair like he’s ready to pull his gun at any sign of danger. I try not to stare at the gun. It scares me. The policeman is younger than Daddy. His uniform is brown, and he keeps his hat in his lap. It’s the same kind of hat worn by the bad man in Curious George, only brown instead of yellow. I hate the bad man with the yellow hat because he is always capturing George. Mama taught me how “capture” and “catch” have the same meaning. The bad man with the yellow hat captures George and takes him away from the jungle.
He takes George away from a world where he belongs.
I want to ask if the policeman saw my stuffed animals in the orchard, but I don’t. We both pretend we aren’t trying to listen to the conversation in the kitchen, where the other policeman is talking to Mama. They’ve been in there a long time. I can’t tell what they are saying. They talk in hushed grown-up voices—interrupted only by the ticking of the grandfather clock.
“Don’t be scared,” my policeman says. Then he tries asking again. “Exactly what did you see?” he says, but I shrug. I have no idea what I saw. I’m not good at talking, especially not to strangers. Strangers and talking make my throat feel weird. I sit very still, and I don’t say anything.
It sounds like Mama is crying, and this makes my policeman stand. He puts his hat on the coffee table before walking toward the kitchen without actually going in there. He checks on them from a distance, but he keeps looking back at me like he’s worried I’ll disappear if he doesn’t keep looking. He turns, about to head back to Daddy’s chair, when something in the dining room catches his eye. And now he’s poking around in there instead. He circles the table where Mama works on her art—the same table where Daddy ate all his childhood meals. Except for Thanksgiving or Christmas, we never eat in the dining room. We always eat in the kitchen, even when we have company, which we almost never do.
There is a pile of broken china dolls on the table and a large coil of rusted barbed wire. The power drill is charging. The tiny red light blinks on and off in the semidarkness. There’s a spool of copper wire and a wooden box full of pliers, wire cutters, hammers, and tin snips.
Mama has been making mobiles to hang around the farm, only she calls them dream catchers. She hangs them in the barn and from the trees—wherever she thinks they’ll look pretty. They remind me of cobwebs. Caught inside the webs of copper wire are quartz crystals. They dangle amid the arms, legs, and faces of the broken dolls.
My policeman looks at the encyclopedia. It is still open from me looking up Newfoundland dogs, which is the kind of dog the Darlings had in Peter Pan. The nanny dog. The policeman picks up the magnifying glass—the one I left out. I broke the rule, and rules are important. I forgot to put the magnifying glass away. It is always supposed to go back inside the special black velvet bag to keep it from breaking into a million pieces or starting fires. Mama’s parents died in a fire. This is just one reason my birth was bittersweet. Mama never got to show me off to her mother and father.
I want to take the magnifying glass away from him, but I don’t. That would be rude. Instead, I hold my breath and cross my fingers to keep the magnifying glass safe. He brings the glass to his eye and then pulls it away. He does this again—back and forth—and as he does he never stops looking through the glass. And I have to keep holding my breath and crossing my fingers because he won’t put it down. He brings the magnifying glass to his face and looks at me. The eye behind the glass is big and bulging and no longer matches his other eye.
I hold my breath in a way where he can’t know. And my fingers are crossed inside the cave of the blanket he wrapped around my body. He looks at me through the magnifying glass, and I know he is only trying to be funny. I should laugh. I think about what it would be like to laugh right now. To be the little girl little girls are supposed to be. But he gives up just as I’m about to try.
Holding my breath and crossing my fingers works: He puts the magnifying glass on the encyclopedia, walks into the living room, and sits back down in my father’s armchair. He doesn’t pick up his hat. He leaves it on the coffee table between the two piles of Mama’s art books. He leaves his hat on top of my three new library books.
His hat hides The Headless Cupid—the book Mama let me check out even though she said I was too young for it. “The book is supposed to be a little scary,” Mama warned, but I promised not to be afraid. Mama looked at me and bit her lip. Then she said, “Okay, Fig, but only if we read it together.” And this is what we were supposed to do tonight before I went to bed. We should be upstairs in my bedroom reading The Headless Cupid right now instead of talking to the police.
* * * *
I see the look Mama’s policeman gives my policeman when he walks into the living room. Mama follows him—wringing her hands and biting her lip. She walks slow and looks confused. My policeman gets up, but then he stands the way I do when I’m waiting for a grown-up to tell me what to do. He starts for the door only after the other policeman does.
Before they leave, Mama’s policeman stops and turns around. He pulls something from his shirt pocket and hands it to Mama. He calls her Mrs. Johnson, and I hold my breath and cross my fingers because Mama hates to be called Mrs. Anything. “My name is Annie” is what she usually says, but tonight she doesn’t say anything at all. She just takes the piece of paper and looks at it.
She doesn’t seem to understand.
“If anything else happens,” Mama’s policeman says, “call that number and they’ll dispatch us straightaway.”
My policeman puts his brown hat back on and winks at me, but he doesn’t wink as well as Uncle Billy. Then he starts to turn the doorknob but changes his mind. Letting go, he squeezes his hand into a fist, and then he stretches all his fingers out again. He is watching me. Mama’s policeman looks annoyed, like he just wants to go, but my policeman turns to Mama.
“Maybe there’s someone you could call?” he asks. “Someone you two could stay with until your husband gets back?”
Mama shakes her head. “We’ll be fine,” she says, but her voice doesn’t sound like Mama. It’s too high. She apologizes for making them come all the way out here, and I’m relieved because she isn’t going to call Gran, who is the only person we have to call. And I do not want to stay with her. I never have and I never will, but just in case, and because it’s already worked twice in one night, I hold my breath and cross my fingers.
The policemen close the door behind them, and Mama wanders back into the kitchen. Marmalade stands, stretching. Then she jumps off the sofa and follows Mama.
I start to follow Mama too, but then I remember the magnifying glass and the important rule about putting it away. I head toward the dining room, and that’s when I hear Mama’s policeman laughing. Through the window in the door, I can see them on the porch. They are wavy through the old glass. They’re getting ready to go down the steps, but Mama’s policeman laughs so hard, he has to stop and grab the railing. His laughter seems to make my policeman nervous; my policeman turns to check the house, then he looks through the same window I am looking through, but I am quick—I duck behind the wall, and he doesn’t see me.
Mama’s policeman stops laughing long enough to call Mama crazy. “She said there were goddamn dingoes out there.”
And I think of the program Mama watched last night. The one about the missing baby girl.
“On the eve of what would have been Azaria Chamberlain’s second birthday,” the newsman said, “we bring you the latest in the murder trial of the century.”
First they showed a picture of the tiny baby in her mother’s arms. Even though she was dressed in white, they made a big deal about a black and red baby dress.
“Not suitable,” they said. “Not for a child.” There was no baby in the dress they were discussing.
“The Chamberlains are Seventh-day Adventist,” the man went on, “And according to an anonymous tip, the name ‘Azaria’ means ‘sacrifice in the wilderness.’ ”
When they showed the baby’s mother, Mama sucked in her breath and bit her lip. The other mother had a funny accent. Again and again, they showed her saying, “A dingo took my baby.” But when I asked Mama what a dingo was, she looked at me like I had startled her, and then she said it was time for me to go to bed.
Their voices change, which means the police are walking away, so I unwrap myself from behind the wall and slide across the hardwood in my socks to crouch by the door. There is a slot in the door even though we have to get our mail from the box on the highway. I push the slot open to watch them walk toward their car, and now I can hear them better.
“Maybe it was coyotes,” my policeman says, but he doesn’t say “coyotes” the way Mama does. He makes the word rhyme with “boats” instead.
Mama’s policeman laughs again. “ ‘A dingo took my baby,’ ” he says, but then I can’t hear them anymore—just the sound of car doors slamming, the engine turning over, and a car driving away, tires crunching gravel. I listen until all I hear are crickets. I close my eyes and watch them rub their legs together until their black bodies turn into tiny violins.
I put the magnifying glass away, but before I go into the kitchen I flip back to d.
dingo: a free-roaming wild dog unique to the continent of Australia, mainly found in the outback.
There’s a picture of a mother dingo and her cubs. The mother’s eyes and mouth are closed, and there’s something about her face that makes her look like she is smiling. The same smile I’ve seen before; the one that is not a smile at all.
I think about the word “unique.” Both Daddy and Mama use this word a lot. They are forever telling tell me how important it is to be unique. Daddy said everyone in the world is unique, but Mama shook her head and told him she strongly disagreed. “Unique” means “one of a kind.” It means there are no dingoes in Kansas because there are no dingoes in America.
Mama sits in the kitchen at the table, and she still looks confused. The overhead light shines through her hair, turning the strawberry blond into white, and she’s taken off the robe. Now it’s draped over the back of the chair like a crumpled shadow. She’s looking at her hands, rubbing them together. She rubs them in a way where it looks like she’s trying to pull off her skin. It reminds me of when Uncle Billy skins a rabbit. After he makes all the different cuts, the way he pulls and pulls. And the fur slides off the body the way a sock comes off a foot.
I sit down at the table, across from my mother. I set The Headless Cupid on the table, hoping she’ll remember the promise she made to me. But Mama doesn’t look up. She doesn’t look at me and she doesn’t look at the book. She only looks at her hands, which she continues to rub away.
Marmalade brushes against Mama’s leg and meows the way she does when she wants to be fed. But it’s like Mama can’t hear or even feel the cat, so I go to the pantry and grab the bag of Meow Mix. I fill the cat’s bowl, spilling some, not that Mama notices. Marmalade makes awful noises like she is grinding bones with her sharp teeth. With my hands, I sweep up the spilled cat food, and then I make a point to change the old water out for fresh water, but Mama still doesn’t notice or say thank you like she normally would. She just sits there trying to rub herself away while the cat eats.
* * * *
I sit at the table with Mama for a long time. Marmalade finished eating forever ago and left the kitchen for her spot in the living room.
I pick the book up and pretend to read, but I can’t concentrate. I fl
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