BY KIM MANNIX
Copyright is held by the author.
IT WAS the kind of day that reminded Helen of being a kid. Right here, picking apples in the orchard her daddy had planted and nurtured for five decades. She felt safe on this ladder, under the October blue. It was so quiet, except for the occasional honk of geese overhead or the whinny of one her horses. Her daddy always said, “In the fall, orange surrounds you like a blanket.” It felt so true today. Helen wanted to wrap herself up in that cozy blanket of a day and go to sleep forever.
Knowing she should at least pretend to be watching Charity — that it was still her motherly duty — she leaned to the left and peered past a fruit-heavy branch to see the girl, busy with a box of sidewalk chalk. She had transformed half the driveway into her own colourful canvas. It seemed so normal from here. Charity seemed just like herself.
She only watched for a minute. Spied really, because she didn’t want Charity to take notice and come running over. She didn’t want to look into her once sweet daughter’s strangely expressionless eyes. Not while she was safe here now, lingering in orange and memory.
It wasn’t Jim leaving that had done it. Sure, when he started slamming things into his rusty red pick-up — his suitcase, his rifle, an old pillow and quilt from the basement — she figured he meant it. Helen knew he wasn’t coming back this time, and she didn’t really care.
She put on a show, of course. She remembered calling out, “Please Jim! Please don’t go!” But she’d been living without him for a few years, even when he was here. It was Charity she worried about. Even at his lowest, Jim was always able to be some kind of father to their girl. She’d miss him. She probably needed him, and Helen was too tired to play Mama and Daddy for the rest of her daughter’s life.
Charity coped better than she expected. She went to her piano lessons with little fuss, and was still doing her chores without much trouble. She crawled into bed with Helen every night since Jim left, and that was new, but nice too. More than once, in the quiet night, with her daughter’s long brown hair matted up against her breast, Helen thought, This is how we’ll take on the world, then. Together.
September came and Charity begged Helen to let her go to the fair in Hoover with some of her school friends. But she was only 11, and even in a sleepy little burg like Hoover, things could happen to a girl.
She offered to make a mother-daughter day of it instead, and promised she’d even let Charity go on the big rides this year. The girl was so excited, running up to the midway, a sleeve of yellow ride tickets clutched in her hand.
“Come on the Ferris wheel with me, Mama! I bet we can see home from here!”
Her smile was so wide and bright that Helen couldn’t resist. And they could see their place from the top. The black roof of the house and the red barn were just specks popping out in rows of multicoloured trees. It looked so fragile from up high. Helen looked at it and thought, if I were a giant I could just squash it all with my boot.
After the Ferris wheel and the bumper cars, Charity pulled Helen over to a small booth at the edge of the midway, set back almost to the far fence. There were burgundy drapes all around it, and a chain of crystal stones, probably made of plastic, though they glittered and danced in the sun. A golden sign, all in capital letters, beckoned EXPERIENCE THE WISDOM AND WONDER OF KING SOLOMON — MENTALIST.
“Cool! Mama can we go in? Kelly said he’s a hypnotist and he made her brother croak like a frog at his show!”
“Oh Charity, that’s silly stuff. You know that.”
“But it’s just for fun, Mama.”
Helen looked at her daughter’s red cheeks and bright eyes. Her whole world was right there in this growing girl. Maybe we both deserve some fun, she thought.
She pulled back the heavy curtains and Charity eagerly rushed through. Inside Helen saw a silver-haired man with a smooth tanned face. He wore a white shirt and black bow tie, and rested his left hand on a black bowler hat that was sitting on the table in front of him. They stood awkwardly for a moment in front of his table, without anyone speaking. Then he stood up with a flourish, stepped from behind the table and gave a deep bow, arms out to the side. When he stood up he said, “Welcome ladies! I am King Solomon and I am here to amaze and delight!”
Charity giggled and Helen smiled, even though she found the man more unsettling than amusing.
“Hello,” she said. “We, um, I guess we came for your show.”
“Ah madam, the show is later tonight, but I am happy to entertain you now.”
“OK, well what is it that you do Mr . . . ah, King Solomon, and how much does it cost?”
“You can call me Jedediah, madam.”
Charity giggled again and grabbed Helen’s hand, pulling her closer to the table.
“Little lady, you think this name of mine is funny? I agree. It is difficult to say and harder to spell, but our names are who we are and we learn to honour them.”
Jedediah offered his hand to Charity and she pulled away from Helen as he led her to a chair.
“You too, madam. Sit so we may begin.”
“Listen, I don’t want to be paying a whole bunch of money. We heard you do a funny hypnotist show for kids and that’s what we came for.”
“Indeed, I do many things. But don’t worry about that. Just rest now, madam. You’re very tired. Have been tired for so long. And there’s no charge to sit and talk with me this fine day.” He peered deep into Helen’s eyes, unblinking.
Helen was so tired then. It took great effort to carry her heavy legs over to the chair and ease down, and when she did, she felt instantly comfortable and relaxed. She noticed the many watches, crystals and pendants lying on the black table cloth.
“I was small like you when I discovered the power of words,” he said to Charity. “The power of voice. The way our true selves can be set free with the simplest phrase.”
Charity watched the man intently as he picked up the black bowler hat, spun it in his hands and quickly tossed it on to his head. He leaned in closer to the girl.
“You are 11 years old, yes?”
Charity nodded, still gazing intently at Jedediah.
“What a coincidence, 11 years and 11 wondrous things laid out before you. Which one do you like best, little lady?”
The girl looked over the table and rested her eyes on a round, green pendant. It was shiny, like the jade sculpture of an elephant Helen remembered her Grandma having in her curio case. Jedediah scooped it off the table and began swinging it back and forth by its small gold chain.
“Look at how beautifully it moves, little lady. Back and forth. Back and forth. Such little effort from my hand and off it goes. A smooth, beautiful dance. Just for you, Charity. Just for you. Watch it dance.”
Helen’s chin dropped, and she couldn’t stop her eyes from closing, even as some part of her brain yelled for her to wake up — wake up and ask this man how he knows your daughter’s name. But she couldn’t get her tongue to move or her lips to open and soon everything was dark.
A moment later she felt Charity tugging on the sleeve of her t-shirt. “Mama! Mama! You had a nap! King Solomon, um Jedediah, he said we should go out now and enjoy the sunshine. Mama let’s go!”
Helen blinked, and felt her eyes coming back into focus. Her limbs tingled and she wobbled a little as she stood. Then Charity grabbed her shirt again and pulled her through the curtains. She looked back before they fell and saw Jedediah sitting exactly as he was when they came in, stone still behind the table with his hand resting on his black bowler hat.
By the time they got to the car Helen felt normal again, and the memory of the man in the tent floated away to some dark closet in her brain.
The next morning, when Helen woke up as she usually did around seven, Charity wasn’t in bed with her. Instead, she was standing up against the wall, forehead pressed to the paint, muttering under her breath some phrase that Helen couldn’t fully hear or understand.
“Charity?” she called out. The girl snapped back suddenly, and turned her head to her mother.
“What are you doing? Did you have a nightmare?”
She twisted her lips into an unfamiliar smile. “No Mama. Everything’s great.” She turned and walked from the room.
That evening, when she arrived home from school, Helen noticed a cut on her daughter’s bottom lip.
“What happened to your mouth?” she asked.
“It was nothing, Mama. I just tried to give Kelly a secret I heard, but when I leaned in to whisper to her, she got scared and pushed me so hard I fell against the slide. It doesn’t hurt.”
“What do you mean ‘give her a secret’?’”
“You know, Mama. Share some wonderful words with her. Help her find her true self.” She smiled that odd smile again, but her eyes stayed blank, and then she skipped towards her bedroom.
A week later Helen got a phone call from the principal. “Hello, Ms. Meyer. I don’t really know how to explain this, but four of the girls in Charity’s class are being checked out at the hospital right now.”
“Oh no, what happened?” Helen asked, feeling her gut churn.
“In gym, they all ran up to the wall and started banging their heads against it. The teacher couldn’t get them to stop, and had to physically pull them away from the wall. I am only telling you this, because one of the girls was crying after and just kept saying that Charity made her do it. We don’t really understand how that could be, and Charity isn’t hurt herself or anything. But, given how serious the situation is, I thought perhaps you could talk to her?”
Helen’s hand began to shake. “Of course. Yes, I will talk to her. Are the girls OK?”
“They will be, I’m sure,” he said. “It was such a strange thing, though. Never quite seen anything like it.”
When Helen asked Charity about it that evening, the girl just watched her for a moment and then said, “I’m going to my room now, Mama. You’ll stay here and make supper and call me when it’s ready.”
And Helen did, her heart thumping the whole time.
She couldn’t sleep that night, or most nights after. She hated thinking what her daughter might get up to if she fell asleep. So she tossed in her bed, dozed for minutes at a time, and couldn’t stop wondering what exactly had happened in Jedediah’s tent.
Helen didn’t feel safe anymore. That was the simplest way to put it. She was scared of her own daughter, or whatever the thing was that looked like her daughter with those cold blue eyes. It seemed ridiculous, and even as she tried to convince herself that the new strangeness she witnessed in her daughter was probably just the girl acting out, she knew there was something more going on. She found herself doing anything Charity asked, and most of the time it wasn’t anything too unreasonable. But she knew, that she wasn’t in charge. She didn’t feel like a mother anymore, and Charity wasn’t acting like she needed one.
So she clung to the ladder, that gorgeous October day, seeking safety from her own daughter and wondering if she should track down King Solomon, or Jedediah or whatever his true name was, and confront him. But she didn’t do it. She wanted to, but something inside wouldn’t let it happen.
Instead, she picked apples. She made dinner. She took Charity shopping, and watched her whisper to walls, and mutter under her breath and she waited. Helen waited for the day she might find herself bashing her own forehead against a wall, or dunking her head in the horse trough, or something worse. She waited and wondered when her daughter would say the words that would help her find her true self.