The Hollow Eyes
Death continued to stare at the emperor with his cold, hollow eyes,
and the room was fearfully still.
—From “The Nightingale,” Hans Christian Andersen
When we were children, we lived in an estate filled with white porcelain stalks pocked with knotty holes of various sizes. We would peep through the holes and try to find ourselves in Mom, or stick her words to us like sticky souls.
“Pretty ankles.” Mom’s voice bounced from the porcelain, muffled inside. “Those are dancers’ ankles.”
Our ankles throbbed from standing. We stood on Persian rugs with frenzied curlicues.
“Point your toes near the bottom hole,” she said. “Good girls. The stalks very much make the room. Everyone wants them now.”
“Sure, they teach etiquette.” Robert’s black trouser legs fanned forward.
Black trousers comprised the most we ever saw of our stepdad, and stalks comprised Mom’s favorite art installation, which we had to stand within whenever adults were in the room.
“No, not for manners. For the looks! All of our works are in conversation with each other!” Mom’s wrists jangled.
We never understood Mom anymore.
“Of course. That’s what I meant. For the looks,” said Robert. His words were puzzles piece’s for Mom’s, just as lollipops have sticks.
Whenever Mom called a warning, Nanny Merla pushed us—one-two-three—inside the stalks, echo chambers of our shuffles and sniffles. Above the Faberge-egg centers of the rugs and mimicking their intricate patterns hung chandeliers, and sometimes we stared at them, especially during the day, when they reflected the sunlight into droplets of rainbow. In the library, rainbows played across the urns which were supposed to hold the ashes of ancestors from many centuries ago but only held our grandparents’ ashes from Kentucky and Florida, and Dad’s ashes from a cancer we had once been allowed to see but not touch on his neck. Our ancestors were death, staring at us, and we were death, sometimes peeking through the holes to stare at Mom and Robert.
“Look at the lovely wrist!” Mom said. “Puts me in mind of who? Now, this is legendary—who was in line at the bank when he saw a woman adjusting her glove over her wrist, and he said it was the most erotic thing he’d ever seen? Who was it he saw? Wasn’t it Hepburn?”
“Could be. With delicate wrists, she’d better not be a typist,” said Robert. “Little gal? Why don’t you speak?”
I want to speak. Which child?
“She will be a librarian, surely,” said Mom.
We grew hungry for sugar, for the girls we meant to be; we grew hungry minds. Old mind grown, our mom, late to childrearing, surprised at the fertility, terrified of the abundance, and set in her ways. Into her second wedding gown, piles of money had been stitched: something borrowed, something blue.
We stood behind the porcelain stalks at night while she spoke. We sat behind the porcelain stalks in the day while Ms. Merla, a retired badminton coach, gave us our lessons in axioms:
“Spare the rod, spoil the child. Three-times-three bad children is how many bad children? And how do those children multiply? We have created children simply by time-sing them. How is that? Because we say so? Are you creating something or making a formula? A formula cannot be created with nothing. Three minus three children is how many children? Where do the children go?”
As Ms. Merla gestured with chapped hands, we played silent clapping games, tapped intricate rhythms on our kneecaps with our fingers, braided and unbraided our hair. We stole toothpicks, and each day built parts of tiny villages behind the stalks—a cottage, a church, a wishing well—which we flattened and snatched before Ms. Merla finished lecturing and collected us again. From within the bright stalks, we stared at the cremation urns, tall and oriental with patterns of the universe, and sometimes wondered if we were looking out on death after all or if death were looking in on us.
“Worry is like a rocking chair,” said Ms. Merla. “It will give you something to do but won’t get you anywhere. Where is there to go? Rocking is soothing.”
Ms. Merla gave us the switch.
We slept in one king-sized bed, and there we looked at our parts. But who we meant to be changed the next night, and the next, and we couldn’t pick our favorites. Late at night, we gathered supplies, among them: a multi-purpose knife, sleeping bags, lanterns, browning apples and hardening peanut butter, a hatchet.
In the navy hour of morning, we crept out of the back entrance and into the garden. We snaked through the mist, and tugged at our itching-matching-scratching dresses. We pulled them off and chased each other with switches. Then we put on Dad’s old t-shirts, and walked very dignified for many miles across the fields, and then through the corn, until we came to a white forest, and we entered.
The trees were white, and the knotted holes in them were dark, and the pale skeletons littering the ground were white.
“Come into the trees,” two voices from the blackest knotholes called. “Come in and we will protect you.”
“No,” we said. We checked our parts.
The birds cawed with throats full of ice.
“Little girls, beware,” one tree whined. The tree’s white bark was the white of a dying planet, and deeply striated with grooves, maybe cuts. “Look at what will happen unless you come inside the trees.”
Some of the skeletons were not white. Some were mottled with sticky muscle. The ground was not visible.
“What do you see inside?” our youngest by two minutes asked.
“From in here, I can see only part of you,” growled the other tree. “Cover your face with a white cloth.”
We covered our faces with Dad’s shirts. They smelled like hospital lilac. Inside of Dad’s shirts, we did not peer through the armholes. We closed our eyes, and nestled, the way a lung is nestled whole.
“I see you much better now,” said the tree. “You could be dancers, perhaps. Can you dance?”
We didn’t reply.
The first tree said, “Maybe they will be librarians.”
A fellow traveler approached the trees from another part of the woods.
“Come into the trees,” the first tree told him, singing nasally. “We want to protect you.”
The boy looked around at the bones and didn’t even see us, but climbed right away into the largest knothole in the middle of the tree.
“Can you see us?” we shouted. “Hey, little guy! We’re out here! Are you okay?”
The boy didn’t answer first. Then he said, “What’s wrong with you? Why can’t I see anything? I’m stuck.”
We called to him, “Show us your arm!”
“Ow, gawd!” And his scrawny arm was thrust from the knothole covered in cuts and welts.
“What a strong arm!” we cried, panicked. “You will be good for cutting firewood! Show us your legs! You will run further than all of us!”
The two grumbling trees began to crumble in bits of bark, dusting the skeletons as they rumbled. “He can’t run. Stop that.”
The boy’s arm pulled back inside, and when it came out, it was skinned, bloody and vein-laced, intricately woven, and the boy’s cries were patterns of chaos.
“We will keep the best of him and send the rest of him out to you!” the gruffish tree bellowed.
“Shut up, dumbass!” we cried wildly, bumping into each other. “Show us the ax!” we screamed, and our eldest pulled the hatchet from her bag and threw it against the tree, where it bounced off but landed nearby. The boy’s scrawny arm emerged to find it, and with a crack, the knothole splintered and grew larger as the boy chopped against the hole, splitting it further down the trunk. The tree shook and moaned while the boy chopped, but went quiet when the boy split the trunk to the ground and, howling, stepped from the inside.
We hopped through the skeletons in their tapestry scattering. We cut down the two violent trees until they were quiet stumps before we pulled the boy’s skin free and stitched it back on.
He walked with us further into the forest, fingering his stitches, until we found good trees and we all climbed inside the knotholes in their trunks. The flowers outside, framed in our black peepholes from the black insides of the trees, became more vibrant, casting yellow into the air as petals detached and blew into the black edge of our vision within the hollow holes. A bird flying by became only a wing and faded into the black edge of the portal from which we looked on. Every passing creature went away into the black, as every passing person had gone into the white within our porcelain stalks, and we climbed out of the knotholes to see the birds as they flew, the pollen-flecked air blowing stray leaves and petals, branches against the sun—everywhere alive and whole surrounding us.
Lydia Ship’s stories and poems have appeared or are forthcoming in American Short Fiction, Barrow Street, Denver Quarterly, New Delta Review (2012 Matt Clark Prize in Fiction Winner), Pleiades, The Portland Review, Sonora Review, and others. I am the new managing editor of The Chattahoochee Review.