Whisper Me This
My parents’ bedroom has always been off-limits.
Not that anybody has ever said to me, “Do not enter this room without permission.” There’s no Keep Out sign on the door. The list of rules my mother wrote out and stuck on the refrigerator with a magnet does not say Stay out of my bedroom.
The bedroom rule is both unwritten and unspoken, but I know it as surely as I know the sky is blue and grass is green. It’s one of those things I shouldn’t need to be told.
Marley knows the rule as well as I do, but Marley doesn’t care about the rules. “It’s the Forbidden Kingdom,” she says, squeezing my hand. “We must be brave.”
Today we are playing explorers, willing to risk cannibals, lions, and even our mother in our quest for hidden treasure. Marley says we are fearless adventurers, but I’m scared. My knees feel funny, and I hear my heart beating in my ears. When I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror hung above the long, low dresser, I look like a little kid, not a bold warrior princess in disguise.
“Maybe we should conquer some other land,” I whisper, but Marley is braver.
“I wonder what’s in there?” She waves toward the two big white doors that take up nearly one whole wall of the room.
I gasp. “We can’t go in there.”
“Sure we can. We just need the right magic words to say to break the sealing spell. And don’t you even think about abracadabra or bibbidi-bobbidi-boo.”
“Not a good idea, Marley.”
I look over my shoulder. The bedroom door is firmly closed, but is not much of a barrier between us and parental wrath. I hold my breath. Listen for footsteps. I hear the hum of the electric heater out in the hall. Wind in the trees outside the window. The sound of the television, muted by distance.
Marley, unafraid, lays a hand on the closet door. Nothing happens. No electric zing. No lightning. No earthquakes.
“Behind these doors lies the Cavern of Secrets,” she intones. “Treasures await, stored long ago by dragons. All we must do is speak the word of opening and the treasure is ours.”
Curiosity builds in me. All my life I’ve caught only glimpses of this room, usually through the half-open door. It reminds me of the place in church where the minister stands, spotless and sacred and off-limits to kids.
The dark wooden furniture. The giant bed with its perfectly smooth bedspread. The curtains, always closed and blocking out the light. My own small self, reflected in the mirror, is the only thing out of place.
As for that closet, it could contain anything.
“Well, open it, then,” I say, all my caution evaporating in a rush of need. Whatever lies behind those doors is important and necessary to my survival. I’m sure of it.
“You have to do it,” Marley says, stepping back.
This is the annoying thing about Marley. She has all the best ideas, but once she’s talked me into trouble, she always makes me take the necessary action. That way, I’m the one who gets in trouble while she is—poof!—nowhere to be seen. Certainly nowhere to be punished.
“I don’t know the magic word.”
“Yes, you do,” Marley says.
And then, all at once, I do know. I leave my spot by the door, my feet sinking into the carpet with every step, little tufts of cream and gray fibers tickling the spaces between my toes. Raising both arms in the air, like the picture in my Bible storybook of Moses making a path in the Red Sea, I proclaim, “Adventure! Adventure’s the word.”
Again, it seems like nothing happens, but the incantation works. When I lay my hand against the closet door, it glides open with only the whisper of a sound, revealing a secret room that looks to my eyes more like a store than a mysterious kingdom full of treasure.
Rows of clothes hang neatly on hangers, all lined up by color. On one side, shirts and suit jackets. On the other, dresses and blouses. On the floor, shoes. Boxes, neatly stacked, all sealed shut with packing tape. More items are arranged on shelves above the clothes racks, too high for me to reach or even see clearly for the most part, but I recognize a badminton racket. And there’s a stack of gifts, brightly wrapped in Christmas paper.
A spicy fragrance tickles my nose.
Marley is on her knees in the back corner of the dress side of the closet, in front of a suitcase.
It’s just an old brown suitcase, but it makes my insides feel jiggly. All at once I don’t want to play anymore. I want to run back to the safety of my own room and crawl under the covers. But I’m a brave explorer, so I slide the door closed and tiptoe over to join her.
“Open it,” Marley says.
The jiggling in my middle spreads to my hands. I clasp them behind my back and shake my head. “It’s an evil suitcase. We should leave it alone.”
Marley gives me a withering glare. “Don’t be chicken.”
So I take a big breath and drop to my knees beside her. My hands are shaking, but I manage to press the buttons on both latches.
I lift the lid.
Nothing jumps out to bite me. On top is a layer of blue tissue paper that crinkles as I set it carefully aside.
Beneath it, neatly folded, is a white dress. It’s made of shiny, slippery fabric and is covered over with lace.
“Silk,” Marley says. She knows all the words, even though she’s only seven minutes older than me. “Or maybe satin.”
These are words we learned from reading time with Mom.
At school they are teaching us reading, but only easy words and boring stories about mice and cats. We already know all the letters and the way they fit together to make words. We don’t say this. If Mom finds out, maybe she’ll stop reading stories at bedtime and tell us to read our own.
Bedtime is my favorite Mom time. She’s not too busy to hug me then. She doesn’t have a list of chores for me to do, and she doesn’t quiz me about the names of countries I’m supposed to be memorizing or make me count to a hundred or recite Bible verses.
She snuggles up with me in my bed, both of us holding the book, and reads me stories by the light of my bedside lamp. She never reads to Marley, but it’s still Marley who remembers all the words, even the hardest ones.
Last night Mom read “Cinderella,” the one from a big, fat book with Grimm on the spine, not the one from the glossy picture book, where the stepsisters have pointy noses and Cinderella looks so light on her feet she might drift up into the sky.
I can only pick out some of the words in that book. Marley says grim means dark, and for sure, there are lots of dark words on those pages.
Silk and satin are there, but also hideous. And orphaned.
“What if we were orphaned?” she asked me, the night Mom read “Hansel and Gretel.”
“They weren’t orphaned,” I told her. “Their father was still alive.”
“Maybe they would have been better off orphaned,” she says, “since he wanted to kill them and all.”
Her words made me feel like I feel now, shivery and shaky. It’s not the witch in the gingerbread house that scares me; it’s the idea of my parents not wanting me anymore. When I wake screaming from nightmares and Mom comes to soothe me with hugs and soft words, it’s always from the same dream. Always she asks, “What were you dreaming, little one? Tell me.”
And always I tell her, “I don’t remember.”
And always it’s a lie.
But I’m not dreaming now. I’m with Marley and we are safely hidden in the forbidden closet. The dress doesn’t look anything like the pictures in the “Cinderella” book, but I do think the word silk suits it just fine.
“Put it on,” Marley says. “You can be Cinderella.”
“I don’t want to be Cinderella.”
“What about Princess Leia? That’s even better.”
We haven’t seen the Star Wars movies. Mom says we’re too young. But we’ve heard about them from other kids. Lacey at school has a picture book all about the story, and we’ve seen Princess Leia in her white dress, carrying a gun through the spaceship. Leia is much more exciting than Cinderella and balls and dancing.
“We’ll get in trouble.” My hands are already smoothing the material, though.
“Nobody will know.”
Underneath the dress are two small pink blankets and one blue stuffed bear. The bear is a twin to the one sitting on my bed, the one that goes with me into dreamland every night.
Wrapped in one of the blankets is a picture. Marley and I stare at it, trying to make sense of the image. A girl holds two babies bundled in pink blankets. The girl has my mother’s face, but she’s wearing blue jeans and a T-shirt and has long, loose hair hanging down almost to her waist. She wears lots of blue eye shadow and thick mascara.
The girl looks like Mom, except that Mom always wears a dress or slacks and a blouse. Her hair is short. She never puts anything on her face except lotion and ChapStick.
The picture makes my stomach feel sick, so I wrap it back up in the blanket. I pull the dress on over my head. It makes a whispering swish and spills out around me on the floor, more like Cinderella’s train than Leia’s dress. Marley picks out a pair of high-heeled shoes, and I’m balancing on them, precarious, checking out my transformation in the full-length mirror, when the closet door opens, and the Evil Stepmother stands there, staring at me, hands on both hips, lips pressed tightly together in an expression that means I am in serious trouble.
Because it’s not the Evil Stepmother at all, and I’m neither Cinderella nor the brave Princess Leia saving an empire. My own real, true mother has caught me snooping in things that do not belong to me.
“What are you doing?”
It’s a trick question and I know better than to answer. She can see what I’m doing.
“Who were you talking to?”
Her eyes burn me. I try to hold her gaze, but I’m balancing on high heels. My foot slips into the toe of the shoe and then sideways. I topple over, grabbing at an armful of dresses for balance, but they slide off their hangers and come with me, all of us in a heap at the bottom of the closet.
Mom moves between me and the suitcase, closing the lid.
“Get up. Take it off.”
I scramble to obey, only I’m tangled in fear and fabric, and in the end, her hands lift the dress over my head.
“You are not to come in my room without permission. You are never to play in this closet. Do you understand? Look at me when I’m talking to you.”
My eyes travel up to her face, the same face as in the picture, only not so soft. I can’t look her in the eye, so I find the scar on her left cheek, a thin white line, and focus on that. The face in the picture didn’t have this scar, and I find that comforting. The picture girl couldn’t have been my mother, holding two babies wrapped in pink blankets.
“Now,” Mom says. “Tell me again. Who were you talking to?”
“Marley.” The name croaks out of me like a frog. I bend my head to hide my face, but Mom catches my chin in her hand and forces me to look up at her again. Her fingers are as hard and sharp as the gingerbread witch's. They hurt me.
“There is no Marley,” Mom says. “Do you understand me? I’ve told you before, you’re too old for an imaginary friend.”
“She’s not imaginary.” I’m shocked and frightened by my own boldness.
“Look around you,” Mom says. “Do you see any Marley?”
The fingers shift to my shoulders, both hands now, both shoulders, and she gives me a little shake. “She is not hiding. She is a figment”—shake—“of”—shake—“your imagination.”
My shoulders hurt, enough to bring tears smarting into the backs of my eyes, but I won’t cry. I won’t. I know better than to say anything, and I set my chin, defiant.
“Promise me you will stop this silly game,” Mom says. “Promise me. Now.”
It’s the first time I’ve defied her. That one word hangs in the air between us.
“You will give her up. You will give her up now. This is the end of this nonsense.” Mom grabs one of Dad’s belts from a hook in the closet. With her free hand, she clamps my wrist in an iron vise and drags me out of the closet and over to the bed.
I don’t fight her. I’m too shocked to do anything but let her bend me over her knee. When the strap comes down on the backs of my legs, I start to struggle, but by then it’s too late. She’s got me pinned. The belt keeps coming, thwacking down on my butt, my thighs.
All my resolution not to cry is gone by the third hit, and I hear myself wailing, loud and sad.
“What’s going on?”
Dad’s voice stops everything: the thwack of the belt, Mom’s torturing fingers anchoring me in place, the loud sobs bursting out of my throat. Both of us freeze, heads turning to look up at him.
“I’ll take that,” he says, very quietly, and tugs the belt out of Mom’s hands.
“She was snooping in the closet,” Mom says. “Into my stuff. Playing pretend.”
“We weren’t snooping,” I whimper. “We were exploring. Marley is real. I don’t care what you say.”
“See?” Mom says. “She still hasn’t learned. Give me back that belt.”
“Leah,” he says. This time his voice is a reprimand, a reminder, the tone of voice he uses on me when I run into the house without taking off my muddy boots.
Mom’s fingers press harder into my skin. They are going to tunnel through flesh and meet each other, and then the bone will crunch in her grasp. Marley whispers in my ear that maybe Mom is an ogress and not my real mother at all.
“This is ridiculous,” the ogress says. “This Marley nonsense has got to stop.”
“Let me deal with it. Please, Leah. You’re too angry.”
Dad looks like the hero in one of my favorite fairy-tale movies, offering himself to the dragon in exchange for the princess.
The ogress’s fingers are really starting to hurt. I keep my jaw clamped, but the whimper gets out anyway.
“Leah.” Dad’s voice is very gentle now. He’s doing some sort of eye juju, his face only inches away from the ogress. He puts his hands over hers, and she lets go of my shoulders.
The Dad Magic melts something inside her. She makes a strangled noise that turns her back into Mom and hurts me more than the belt ever did. Dad sits on the bed and puts his arms around her. She hides her face against his shoulder.
“Go to your room, Maisey. I’ll be there in a bit,” Dad says. His voice is muffled, his cheek pressed against my mother’s hair.
My butt hurts and my legs hurt and the sounds my mother is making hurt me even more. I lie on my bed, my face buried in the pillow. Marley is here, but she looks thin and tattered around the edges.
“I have to leave now,” she says, and even her voice sounds thin.
“Don’t forget me.”
My heart is a lump in my chest when she evaporates and leaves me alone. I’m cold. My room is cold. I climb into bed with my bear and hide under the covers.
I refuse to come out of my room for dinner.
“I’m not hungry,” I tell Dad when he comes to check on me, but after he’s gone, I eat the cookies and milk he left on my dresser.
Much later, Mom comes to tuck me in. I’m already in my pajamas and under the blankets, Grimm open in my hands, the lamp shedding a circle of light on the pages.
“I’m sorry,” Mom says, perching like a bird on the edge of my bed. “I got too angry.” Her eyes are red and puffy, and she talks like her nose is blocked with a cold.
“Can I have Marley, then?”
She sighs. “There is no Marley. I got mad, and I’m sorry for that. But you need to grow up. No more Marley. Now, are you ready to read?”
I look up from the book. “I can read it by myself.” It’s true. It’s been true for a long time—I just hadn’t realized.
“I could read to you anyway.” She looks sad, sitting there on the edge of my bed. Part of me wants to hug her. But my legs are still burning from my whipping, and Marley’s gone, and in that moment, I love my mother and I hate her in equal measure.
“That’s okay,” I say, keeping my eyes on the page, even though right now I’m not making sense of any of the letters. “But thanks anyway.”
She lifts her hand as if to stroke my hair, then lets it fall onto the blanket between us. I pretend she isn’t there, that I'm all alone with the book. When she sighs again and leaves me, I bite my lip to stop calling out after her. And when the door closes behind her, with a barely audible click, I know that if I have punished her for taking Marley from me, then I have also punished myself.