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vol vii, issue 5 < ToC
A Piece Missing
by
SJ Townend
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interview withSisters
Laurel Hightower
A Piece Missing
by
SJ Townend
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interview with
Laurel Hightower




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Sisters
A Piece Missing
by
SJ Townend
previous next

interview with Sisters
Laurel Hightower
previous

interview with
Laurel Hightower




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Sisters
A Piece Missing
 by SJ Townend
A Piece Missing
 by SJ Townend
All six screaming monitors gathered like nestling owlets in the pocket of her apron fall silent as soon as she crosses the threshold. The distress of the baby had been hideous to hear, but the silence that follows—as the monitors return to a lowly crackle of static interference—feels asphyxiating. Back inside, she can no longer hear the baby. Her baby. Had it been her baby she had heard?

Up the stairs her feet carry her, as they have a thousand times before, along the hallway towards the furthest room, which is also the smallest. The door, like her front door, like all doors in her home that has become her house, a house, is stoppered open, wedged fully ajar, and the wind pushing in through the agape window makes ghosts of baby’s breath from the delicate white net curtains.

She draws her arms tight around herself and rubs the sides of her bare arms with red-raw, muddy palms. The cot-bed—bar one of the paired baby monitors, which sits crackling gently with the static of lost promises on the centre of the small mattress—like the rest of the hollow room, lies empty. She does not notice how filthy her hands are, though, because her mind is on other things, in other places. She can’t see the dirt, or perhaps she chooses not to.

Despite her chill, she can’t pull down the window. What if what I have lost wants to return? she thinks.

Not here, she thinks. Whatever I am looking for is not here. Perhaps the next room?

She moves through all of the rooms, checks in all of the cupboards, searches and pries under stale bedding, under each dusty cushion. Nada. The breeze continues to move in and out of the building like air through lungs and gives a dusting of goosebumps to her skin. She finds nothing. Nothing. Zilch.

The staircase groans as she makes her way down it to search the rooms on the ground floor. It is as if the house feels her sadness, her despair. Why am I so sad, is this not what I wanted? she thinks as she continues on her search and makes her way through to the last room she has not yet checked: the kitchen. She sees within a moment what she’s searching for is not there. In her heart, she knows she will not find it there or maybe anywhere, especially not in the kitchen where cutlery and unsafe things are kept. What she does find there, though, is a mountain of dirty dishes. It appears all of her dishes have been used; they clutter the tabletop. The washing up seems endless in her home. Her house. A house.

She slides her finger over the smooth curve of a greasy plate and, on noticing the thick brown crescent of dirt under each of her fingernails, she lifts the plate up and decides now would be as good a time as any to wash it up. My hands, at least, will benefit from the chore, she thinks. On touching the plate, she forgets what she has been searching for, forgets why she is in the kitchen, has a feeling like the feeling one gets when one moves from one room to another in search of something, forgetting what it is they are searching for the moment they enter a different room.

She fills up the sink with warm, soapy suds. Dipping her sullied hands into it, pushing them deep below the surface until they can’t be seen anymore, will provide some release, she hopes, and the porcelain does need to be cleaned.

No time like the present, she sighs, although she is not sure what time it is because the wall-mounted clock has been stuck for a long time. Its second hand clicks on beat like a metronome but never advances past twelve. It has been five-to-three for many days now. Perhaps a month. A new battery, she thinks. Or maybe it is beyond repair. Sometimes, things do break beyond repair. She says this aloud and hears herself saying it, but it does not sound like her voice. Was it a recording of her voice? Was that a recording of my voice? she thinks, and says the words aloud again to be sure. But she can’t be sure of anything.

I might, she thinks, be stuck here at the sink forever if the clock cannot be fixed. The pile of plates to her side looms, seems to lengthen like shadows at dusk. She makes a start on it, and many ticks pass by as she soaks and scrubs and rinses the mound of dirty porcelain, but it never seems to deplete.

She rubs her tired eyes with a dry patch of a part of her arm just between the elbow and her wrist that she cannot for the life of her name, and on opening her eyes, she finds she is no longer at the helm of her own kitchen, taking pride in its appearance, its order, but is standing at a sink she does not recognise, washing dishes she has no memory of using.

The big hand is still stuck between two and three, the little hand on the eleven. The pattern on the splashback tiles seems familiar. This must be home, she thinks, the constants in the house giving her some reassurance.

In the translucent version of herself she catches in the sheen of the glass in the window above the kitchen sink, she thinks she sees a streak of bloodied dirt on her left cheek, or maybe on her right—she has never been very good at understanding reflections—so she soaks and wrings a clean cloth, which she lifts from a tub that she always keeps between the lines of the edge of the back of the sink and the glass window.

The windowsill, she thinks as she tries to recall how the mark may have been made, is made of the most beautiful tapestry of glazed tiles. She dabs at the mark on her cheek and dabs again and rubs until it fades and then returns her focus to the dishes.

The largest plate is precariously balanced on the side of the mound of washing up, so she carefully pulls it free and places it into the water and finds a rhythm with the tick-tick passing of stationary time. Despite her efforts—the clean pile to her left does seem to grow slightly—the dirty pile to her right amplifies in magnitude. At least, she notices, her hands are becoming cleaner, free of grime. But her baby monitors still just crackle quietly, yielding no clues.

She lifts an oval serving dish on which perhaps a roast turkey had been presented, carved up into smaller morsels on, dispatched as brown slices onto myriad of smaller dining plates from. All from a meal perhaps reminiscent of happier times, yet it is a meal she does not remember cooking, or eating. She submerges it into the sink. As she pushes off grease and miniscule fibres of meat and buffs the centre of the dish, she exclaims and drops the dish down into the water again.

Fuck! she says, and gingerly lifts the plate back out and brings it closer to her tired eyes for examination.

There, within the markings of the fat settled and stained from an old burnt bird’s carcass, she sees an imprint of a familiar face. She draws a deep breath and feels a rush of something not altogether awful nor altogether pleasant quicksilver through her veins. It’s him, she thinks. The husband. She traces over the sticky, brown, fatty lines that swerve and bend and twist and straighten and portray the face of her husband. But it is not any face of her husband. It is not his sleeping face, his face full of laughter or sadness, his cross face he makes when he reprimands her for leaving the front door wide open when neither of them are inside; it is a face only she, she hopes, might recognise: his face at orgasm.

She smiles slightly as she realises this is the last time she remembers seeing his face, this face, it is the last clear memory she has of her husband. They haven’t made love in over a year. She tries to remember if she has seen him since then, since he came last, inside of her; she squeezes the base of her palm against her forehead in thought. He is still living in the house; this she knows because she has seen large leather shoes by the front door. Also, she can see his shed door right now, opened out towards the raised beds of their large garden as she looks through her own faint reflection, out towards the acre of land on which their house sits. His shed, this is where he often is, she recalls, pottering, doing something with French beans. And if he is not here, living with her, then the shed door would not be open, she thinks. A keen gardener, she recalls. My husband is quite green-fingered. But when did I last study his face?

In the image of him on the cream plate in her hands, she sees his eyes are closed. His head is tipped back, yet his chin is dropped towards his chest and his mouth is wide open. Like the door to the house, door to the shed, windows in each and every room, always waiting for something to return.

She rubs her eyes and, in the pop of a bubble, the image is gone. She feels she must have imagined it; it was such a strange sight to behold, so she moves on to the next dirty plate. What a strange day, she thinks. What an odd vision.

She works her way through a few more plates, trance-like, finding the repetition of the chore meditative. She looks down at another plate and this time does not feel as surprised to see another image. This time, it is less clear, but it is there: coiled spine, disproportionately large eyes, small nubs. She sees it clearly and when she scrubs harder, the image appears stronger. It is an embryo; no it is more advanced—a foetus.

She places the plate down in the suds and pulls it up again. This time, the foetus is swollen. It appears larger, more refined, as if a trimester has passed: clear limbs, a defined nose, an umbilical cord, where before she had seen just smears of sauce and gravy. She dips and lifts the plate and moves her sponge over the image, each stroke in time with the click of the stuck clock. The image mutates. It twists and spins around, and there, on the foetus on the plate, is the face of a child. A baby. Her baby?

Its eyes too, like her husband’s had been, are screwed closed. Its cheeks are high apples. Its mouth is pranged wide open. People used to tell her they could see his face in it, the baby. Her baby. Strangers would say they saw her husband’s face, in the face of the baby. She has a clear memory—perhaps the only crisp memory she will have this day—of the baby: the shade of red its cheeks would turn, accompanied by the noise it would make when nothing she could do would settle it. Could it, could this, be her baby, this face on a foetus on a dirty dinner plate?

Her heart is confused. It is trying to beat in time with the stuck clock hand, but finds itself syncopated, faster, lost. Her own heart and the clock are the only sounds she can hear, because the baby monitors stashed tight in her apron pocket are screaming out with nothing but silence.

She dips the plate, fearful the baby’s face may vanish, yet she is also keen to end this delusion. As she pulls it up and out of the suds again, she finds the face is gone—but a new image appears. She turns the plate like the steering wheel of a car angling a sharp series of crooks in the road until she finds its position. Until she can see what this time the plate wants to show her.

It is a tree, this time. Not a face, a willow tree. Drooping branches hang heavily to the right where its trunk has bowed slightly to the left. I know this tree, she thinks. She recognises this tree because it is the tree at the far end of her garden.

She drops the plate into the sink. A foam spray bursts up, the edges of which tickle white the work counter. Clasping the monitors tightly down in the deep pocket of her apron so they do not escape or smash, she runs back out of the house, down her front path, and around the back. She keeps on running past the shed, its door still ajar.

“Love, what’s up?” she hears a tall, gaunt, shadow say as she hops and steps and bounds over tumps of grass and scattered terracotta pots and spades and bundles of bamboo cane and sacks of fertiliser. It is a shadow that has thrown itself into the garden. She looks up and she knows this shape, this shape that is speaking, asking her if she is okay, calling her love, but she cannot see who, precisely, it is.

“I can’t stop,” she replies. She thinks she replies. Where its face should be, she sees the face she saw on the plate. Not the sex face—but the face of a screaming child. A crying baby: balled cheeks, red cheeks, tonsils, with watering eyes that won’t stop watering.

She hears again: “Love, what’s up?” but she sees the baby with its open maw, its face of eternal scream, superimposed where the face of the gaunt shadow that has given itself to the garden should be.

She ignores the tall shape with the gardening fork in its hand and picks up pace. She must get to the tree. It is as if the plate had spoken to her, had offered guidance in all the ways the expensive baby monitors she’d ordered six-fold, one for each room, had failed.

The tree.

The willow tree that bows to one side. Maybe by the tree she will find what she thinks she has been searching for, been keeping the windows open for. What she has lost. She drops to her knees as she reaches the tree and places her hands on the mound of earth piled up high underneath it. Feels cold to the touch, she thinks. But there’s nothing here. Just dirt, a tree.

It is a tree that has been here for longer than she has, much longer—and she feels like she has been here already for an immeasurable length of time. A tear rolls down her cheek, weaves a wonky path. It meanders towards her chin, itself unsure if it is being shed in relief or in sadness. The tear rolls off and shoots like an arrow on target straight down, as if drawn towards the mound of soil. In this moment, she has the urge to draw her own face closer to the heap. It is as if it is calling to her, this pile of earth that is stacked up under the willow tree.

Her lips are now kiss-close to the tip of the heap. Should I? she thinks, but she is doing what she is thinking of doing before she has had a chance to reason. Her tongue is probing into the mound, pressing against and into the mud, and her hands are scooping up more, in preparation for her mouth.

The hunger overriding her is unquenchable. She tries to satiate it with what is in front of her by filling her mouth with several scoopfuls of mud. She chews on small clumps of soil and handfuls of grass-topped turf. She masticates until something hard hits her molars: something familiar. Something that is not food, not nutritious, not what she thinks she is looking for cracks hard against grinding teeth. She plays with it with her tongue, cleans it, and then with thumb and finger, pulls it out: a small, flat, piece of porcelain.

She admires the smooth, found treasure in her muddied palm. This is not like any of the porcelain she has ever served food on in her home, her house, a house; it is like no dish or plate she has ever washed or stacked. This piece is white with bold, blue, shining lines; navy, hatched pictures. On this small piece, which is no larger than a large coin, she sees the edge of a blue willow tree.

The embossed blue branches she strokes with her fingertip, she admires, are not unlike—in shape and angle—the ones sheltering her from the autumnal sun now. She sits on folded knees and continues to search for more broken pieces of chinoiserie-patterned pottery in the dirt. With her tongue, she cleans each new piece she retrieves from the pile, greets each like a long-lost friend with her lips, and then arranges them to her side, on a patch of flattened grass.

Without the constant tick of the kitchen clock, she loses all awareness of time. She loses herself almost but not quite completely in what she is doing, even though she isn’t entirely sure why she is doing what she is doing. Her hands dig and scoop further, and she pulls out piece after piece and cleans each free from organic matter and humus and grub larvae and other things that dwell in the dirt with the tip of her tongue and the wetness of her saliva.

To her side, the shape of an old plate forms, and on it, she sees the story appear. This time, it is not a mirage, not her imagination, not anything she is unsure of, because this time, she recognises more than viscerally the story that appears. And she knows this story to be real.

As a child, her own mother would spout the tale of the blue willow plate. Of this, she can be sure. Childhood memories alone are set in the stone of her mind. To be the child, she thinks, and not the mother makes for happier times.

In the collection of smashed and worn fragments she gathers and assembles from the pile of mud, she sees the two lovers. She recalls her mother telling her the story of the blue willow plate whilst serving her sliced apple on a version of this broken treasure she continues to dig to unearth. One of the pair on the plate, the woman, is promised to another, to a man whom she does not love, so the original lovers elope, but they are caught. Due to their forbidden love, they are banished to a faraway island. But the Gods take pity on them and transform the lovers into a pair of swallows who fly free.

A similar plate telling the same tale now lies in pieces on the flattened grass, and is nearly complete, all apart from one small chunk. One small piece that she knows is where the image of the two swallows who face each other in a permanent state of amorous conjunction should sit is absent. The sight of the incomplete plate with its piece missing deeply disturbs her, so she digs. She digs deeper and deeper, and searches for this last piece, but she knows, deep within herself, in a place within herself into which she can’t dig any deeper, she will never find it. The plate will remain fragmented, like her thoughts—if they are even her thoughts and not just the superimposed thoughts of the person writing this story as if it were about this woman when it may be about the author herself.

Her hands scoop down as she spits soil, small pebbles, and crushed snail shells from her mouth. She scoops until she strikes something hard and large with her fingertips. She clears the layers of sifted dirt as much as she can and pulls up not one but two items, each of a similar size, to the surface. Her tears are coming hard and fast now, and each time she wipes her cheeks, more mud and dirt and a little blood from a selection of small cuts and scrapes her hands now have is smeared onto her face. She lays the two objects, body-like objects, side-by-side, and stares neither at them nor at anything else. She knows she has seen this before, this pair, but not in a dirty plate, nor in the blue willow story, nor in a dream. Or perhaps in a dream, if this, this real-life experience, is not in fact a dream.

On the left lies a clumsily stuffed skin-suit, once a baby. She probes the human sack with muddied tips and feels both sharp and smooth edges inside of it. She remembers: yes, I emptied it of its pain, filled it with fragments of broken china. To the right, almost identical, the mirror image—although she has never been very good at understanding reflection—is an old, porcelain doll caked in the mud in which it was buried. She turns the doll over so it is lying on its face and traces with a finger over where it has been broken and taped back up. This one I filled with something crimson and wet, a material altogether softer. It holds the pain within it of the other, she remembers. And afterwards, they both slept so well.

It is then she becomes more disturbed. She jumps up suddenly because all six baby monitors start to scream at once. The burst of grating cries sharp enough to cut the soupy air shocks her backwards.

She steadies herself and grabs the two lifeless bodies and places them back, deep down in a hole, the hole, their hole. Mud and grit and blue-white china pieces rooster-tail through the air as she rushes to fill the void back in. The constant wailing scratches like a fork on a plate, and it is only growing louder. She kicks back the top layer and runs back up the garden. Her baby is back. She can hear it screaming through all six of the monitors. Somewhere, everywhere in the house, something is screaming. Her baby must have found its way back into the house with each of its open rooms. Somehow. She can hear her baby on the monitors that are nestled in her apron pocket. Her baby. A baby. Had she had a baby?

With each step forward, her hold on the truth slips. As she gains proximity to her home, the house, a house, she sees the tall shape leaning against the open-doored shed. It talks to her, susurrates something, but all she hears is the persistent, piercing scream of a child calling her.

She looks to the tall shape’s face. Perhaps I can try to read its lips, she thinks, perhaps it is speaking to me, trying to say something important, a clue. But where nose, eyes, lips, and adult skin should sit, she sees instead the face of a porcelain doll with willow buds bursting out through every one of its orifices. White-green, cotton-soft buds push through china nostrils, poke out like caged prisoners’ hands through ear holes and rose bud lips. It is not who she thought it would be, the tall shape stood by the shed. But who did she think it was? Her memory draws a blank. There are no hints or images or shadows in the space of her mind. She runs faster back towards the house and runs through the wide-open front door.

All six screaming monitors gathered like nestling owlets in the pocket of her apron fall silent as soon as she crosses the threshold. The distress of the baby had been hideous to hear, but the silence that follows—as the monitors return to a lowly crackle of static interference—feels asphyxiating. Back inside, she can no longer hear the baby. Her baby. Had it been her baby she had heard?

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Sisters