Rituals

By: Jacqueline Skokna

    May stood at the kitchen counter and peeled one potato after another, watching the skins fall into a little pile and wishing like a child for things to change. The peeling was mechanical, it was simple enough, a job she could do, a job she had done over and over. She looked up from her work. Outside the window her husband Christopher was playing with Lydia, her four-year-old, in the backyard. They looked happy playing catch together. Lydia, her only child, was always giggling with Christopher. He reached his large hand out to catch the blue ball Lydia threw. It looked like a baseball mitt compared to Lydia’s fingers, like ten little ivory towers. But the difference was beautiful, she thought. Such a clear distinction between protector and protected. A daughter and her father was a sight unlike any other.

    May looked outside at the gorgeous late-summer afternoon, the two gingko trees they’d planted a few years ago canopied over the grass that was a bit patchy now in some places but still soft, still a place to sit when their legs got tired or those summer nights when they laid their heads back and stared up at the stars in their wonder. That was one of the good things about being so far from Chicago, even if southern Illinois wasn’t as glamorous: the city lights were absent at night; the navy sky the only backdrop for those little bits of light that could mean so much for someone who felt empty or lost.

    But it was light out now, sunlight pouring down like water, and the stars were of no significance. Lydia chased the blue runner ball with such fervor and energy and life — May wanted to steal this energy from her, or at least find a way to make it her own. Christopher really was sweet to Lydia, and seeing this reminded May of the way he treated her when they were first together, like she was some kind of coveted planet in a galaxy that only contained darkness and he couldn’t help but notice her, touch her, love her, marry her, a cycle they had seen before and had memorized like a song.

    It had all happened so quickly. Now May felt like it was someone else who was in her place six years ago, making those decisions, always so agreeable with her yeses. Since she was a young woman she was inclined to please people, namely men. It was her way of both making them happy and avoiding conflict, and over time her submissive nature began to pass for something like kindness.

    Christopher was someone else now too – that is what the years do to passion, she thought. The mundanity of life morphs it into nothing at all, and often times, something worse. Christopher took May everywhere those first couple years – the lake, the aquarium, the fanciest restaurants in town, the annual Catholic picnic. He held her hand under the dinner table, walked her home each night like gentlemen do. He praised her for her long golden hair, her almond-shaped eyes, and showed her off like a celebrity. But May knew now that being young and beautiful was not the gift that people thought it to be; in fact, it was a trap, made you more vulnerable to those who only wanted you for such things. So was the case with her. Christopher would say he loved her, but his hands upon her felt more like a claim of ownership than an expression of affection. He had never once called her beautiful without following it with, "and you are mine."

     Still, it was hard not to get caught up in his infatuation. The week leading up to her birthday the first year they were together, he bought her a different kind of flower every day – sunflower, tulip, daisy, forget-me-not – removing it from his work bag like it had always been there, like he was completing a task preordained to happen. It was by far the kindest thing anyone had ever done for May, and on the last day, her birthday, he gave her a white rose – her favorite. When May’s mother saw that rose, she cried happy tears and claimed his act was the pinnacle of true love. And May believed her mother; it was just something you did.

    That’s how it is with us women, she thought now. Those one or two little things that men do, those sweet little things, they resonate with us, grab hold of us, find a place inside our visions and stay there, making a home, skewing it more and more every day so that one day we don’t know who we are anymore, because we only saw the good, because we were always thinking of that one white rose we think will be enough to change the men in our lives. But it never is. And the saddest part is, she thought, is that we would rather be mistreated than alone. Who taught us to be this way?

    May squinted her eyes out the window. She couldn’t take them off her husband and daughter. Christopher’s arm muscles tightened as he grabbed Lydia into them and threw her up into the air. She loved this. May could hear Lydia’s squeal of delight even though the back door was shut. May smiled, but was forcing it. His love for Lydia shouldn’t make May feel jealous, but still, a kind of envy swelled inside her, quickly followed by anger and shame for acting like such a child. But didn’t she have a right to feel this way? May wanted him to give her affection the way he used to, the way he always promised he would. There were hints of it now and then –  it’s not like he didn’t touch her. But it was his words that were falling short of touching her.

    She was almost done with the potatoes. Things at home felt easier when she focused on each task at a time, so she tried to draw her attention back to the task in front of her. The water was boiling over the stove so she turned around to put the potatoes in. A couple droplets of water shot up out of the pot as she did this, burning her hands for a split second. She swore violently inside her head, running her hands under ice cold water to ease the pain, just like her mother had taught her. She looked back up out the window and noticed Christopher and Lydia were gone. They must have gone to the front, or maybe to Elm Park a couple blocks away.

    So she finished the rest of the dinner while trying to shove thoughts out of her mind, the ones that took up too much space and only compounded her frustration and sadness, the ones that told her her husband was angry and mean and nasty and what was she doing staying with him. She combatted each one like a warrior, forcing herself to deal with it later, although she was never sure when later was. The thoughts collected like a pile of bones, rattling each time she tried to ignore them.

    She got the steak cooking with the onions and olive oil and she watched as it let off steam, filling the room with a comforting smell. She let it brown while she poured the potatoes out of the pot and into the strainer in the sink. More steam rose now and warmed her face as it traveled upwards before disappearing. She put rosemary and salt and butter on the potatoes, stirred them together. She took the steak sauce out of the fridge. She tried to focus on her breathing.

    Fifteen minutes later, she heard Christopher’s footsteps up the back porch, followed by Lydia’s tiny taps. The sun was much lower in the sky now, but its rays were strong, travelling through the kitchen window and hitting her frowning face. They entered together, Christopher shutting the back door.

    “Hi, you two,” she said. She hoped he didn’t notice the uneasiness in her tone.

     “Hey, hun.” He rested his arm on her shoulder and a little shock traveled through her, a mixture of delight and fear. He was looking outside the window as he did this and not at her. Was he seeing something she wasn’t?

    “Let’s eat, sweetie,” he said to Lydia, grabbing ahold of her hand. They sat down at the table, leaving a track or two of mud, making sure May would have work to do tomorrow. There was always more work to do. She would always be kept busy. This was the life she lived.

    Lydia swung her legs under the table and drank her glass of milk.

    “Did you have fun with Daddy?” May asked her in the voice she always used with children.

    “We played catch and hide-and-go-seek and I hided in the best spot!” she said.

    Christopher laughed with her. “Let’s pray,” he said, grabbing May’s hand.

    May joined him in saying the traditional prayer they’d say before meals: Bless us oh Lord for these thy gifts…

* * *

    After dinner, Christopher sat at the table finishing his meal while May washed the dishes. Lydia played with ABC blocks in the playroom, which was really just a tiny corner of the office. Her voice sang every nursery rhyme she had learned in the past couple weeks at preschool, making her presence known in a house that lately had been dripping with silence. Humpty dumpty sat on the wall, humpty dumpty had a great fall, she chirped, and then it became, The wheels on the bus go round and round, round and round, and Mary had a little lamb, little lamb, little lamb.

    May continued with her scrubbing, warm water and soap suds pass her wrists. Christopher sat at the table on his computer answering work emails. May thought about the ways he fell short as a husband. Times like these, when he left the housework to her instead of offering to help. Even worse, it was the way he spoke, his comments getting more critical as time went on, complaining about what she had made for dinner, claiming his job was more important than her job of raising Lydia. She didn’t know what to say to him, and whenever she tried to stand up for herself it just made him angrier. Better to stay silent.

    But now she wanted to speak; she was yearning for attention. “How was work, sweetheart? Is the latest project going well?” May asked, her back to him. Christopher worked as an agent at an insurance company.

    His fork was scraping the glass dish, making a screeching sound.

    “Fine,” he said. “Sam has been slacking lately, though, leaving most of the work to me. We’re sitting down laying plans today and the guy was not giving any input. His mind is just somewhere else.”

    May turned her head around to see him shaking his head, eyes still on the computer screen. A surge of anger rose in her. Sam, a kind man who lived three blocks away and who she knew through their church volunteer group, was taking care of his dying mother who was just given two months to live. Of course his mind was somewhere else.

    “How about the pay raise you mentioned?” said May, changing the subject.

    Christopher scoffed. “Why do you keep bringing that up?”

    “I just thought – ” started May.

    “I don’t want to talk about it. Finish your dishes, please.”

    Her heartbeats picked up in pace; she could feel it between her ears. Christopher’s feet tapped on the black-and-white tile floor, making her anxious as she finished the last couple pots. She wore her mustard yellow dress with the short sleeves and the wide skirt that came down to her knee. She had always felt beautiful and confident in it; she had worn it for the couple years she taught first graders, but now she looked at it through new eyes – it looked tacky and she felt insecure. She turned off the water and rubbed her hands on her dress, not caring about the dark marks they made on it. Christopher got up, leaving his dirty plate on the table. She heard him travel over to the playroom, and she thought that despite his coldness at least he was spending time with their daughter. How important it was for a young girl to have a father who loved and care for her, to teach her how men should treat her.

***

    May was awoken in the middle of the night by the piercing scream of her daughter down the hallway. At first, it felt like a dream of her own, some kind of nightmare, because in her dreams she’d be in a place unknown with volcanic lava painting the ground with the lucidity of fire’s tongues and her daughter, precious and sweet, stood near the edge of a cliff with smoke swirling its way around her, her feet battered and bloody from the heat. At first, she seemed to be singing like she always did, a happy child, quiet but joyful. But May was met with a horrible realization soon after – her singing was screaming this whole time and she was in danger. May was responsible for her. But there was no way up the slick rocks, no way to save her.

    So dreams crossed over into reality when she heard her little girl sobbing with her familiar frantic breathing. May met her in her room, where her feet with kicking underneath the quilt, like she was trying to run away but couldn’t. After turning on the closet light, a little fluorescent bulb that made the room look vaguely like a hospital room, May took Lydia in her arms. She was having a night terror, this was normal, had been happening for a year and a half now. She’d awake startled and horrified at nothing at all and cry and cry, her eyes open but not fully seeing the scene in front of her. Despite its normality, these night terrors frightened May – it looked like Lydia was being tortured. Lydia’s cheeks glistened in the dimly lit room and she looked like she was seeing something her mother was not, the most horrible thing imaginable in the world and it was all the worse because a child so young does not understand this pain. May ran her hand across her daughter’s head, smoothing her hair and wiping her wet cheeks with the sleeve of her nightgown.

    “Shh, shh, it’s okay,” she cooed.

    Not ten minutes later Lydia was calmed down – it had passed like a wave. May laid her down on her bed, tucked her in and set her teddy bear in the corner near her pillow. Her daughter had a serene face now and could rest her body and mind. May closed the door three-quarters of the way and moved back down the hallway, ready to fall right back asleep. Her husband had slept through it all, as usual, his snore picking up in volume like a revving engine. She rolled back over into bed and in the moments between half-awake and half-asleep pieces of molten rock were scalding her daughter’s arms, burning off chunks of flesh. She didn’t know where they were falling from.

* * *

    On Sunday morning, May entered St. Anne’s Catholic church holding Lydia’s tiny hand, Christopher holding the other. The incense smelled like cinnamon and firewood, and made its way from the first pew to the last, past the high ceilings and the stain glass windows, all the way to the elderly couple in the back who were finishing a pre-Mass rosary.

    In the center aisle, they stopped at the big ceramic bowl of holy water and made the sign of the cross. May picked Lydia up so she was tall enough to reach the holy water, and she laughed as Lydia stuck her whole hand in, making a splash. A couple families sitting nearby smiled with affection at this, that shy, human look strangers give parents when they see them with their children. But Christopher looked at May with judgement, alarm, and annoyance. They were making a scene.

    They walked to the corner they always sat in, bottom left, and they genuflected and opened the blue worship books to the announced page, forty-seven.

    May listened to the opening song, happy to hear something beautiful:

    Gather us in, the lost and forsaken. Gather us in, the blind and the lame.

    Call to us now, and we shall awaken. We shall arise at the sound of your name.

    The choir sang each note with as much attention and care as the one preceding it, with several voices blending into one, creating a sound so full and lovely May expected it to appear as something or someone she could see, angels or even God himself. She loved the Catholic church for many reasons, but mostly because it felt like home – it was what she grew up in. Christopher sat next to her, Lydia in between them. May felt Christopher rest his hand on her knee and with this touch she felt tension release from her muscles. This was the first time she felt truly comforted in a while. Still, she knew this feeling was fleeting, similar to the song that was then coming to a close. So she prayed for the notes to last, even when the hands upon the instruments came to their final rest.

* * *

    Fall was edging its way into summer, and in May grew a nostalgic desire to crunch her feet through the leaves that would soon meet the ground. It was a Wednesday afternoon, and the sun was peeking from behind the clouds, offering just enough light to shine through the small square windows in the laundry room.

    In a couple hours, May would pick her daughter up from pre-school, come home, give her a snack, make dinner, smile at Christopher and ask him how was your day – the usual routine. This tiny room with its pale yellow walls and its minimal amount of furniture – a washer, a dryer, a garbage can, and a sink, stood large and firmly in the ground, like gravestones. She wondered how much time she spent here in a week, a month, a year. Whatever it was, it felt like too much.

    She started to grab the dirty clothing from the wicker hamper, a compilation her family’s clothes from the past week and a half. Christopher’s khakis and button-ups, a royal blue dress of her's, Lydia’s pink and white polka-dot pajamas – she placed each piece of clothing in the washer while the memories attached to each flashed through her mind. Similar to doing dishes, a calmness began to arise from this methodical work and she didn’t completely dread being in here like she often did. She got to the bottom of the basket and grabbed the last couple socks and underwear. But just as she was going to pour the cup-full of detergent in, she noticed one of Lydia’s pairs of white underwear had what looked like faded blood dried into it, not just a drop or two, but a big stain, covering nearly half of the little piece of fabric. Was this normal for a five-year-old? Was she seeing things wrong? An uneasiness began to rise in her belly – perhaps her daughter was sick with something and she had to schedule an appointment with the pediatrician. May quickly sprayed it with the stain fighter and threw it back in, adding the detergent next. She closed the lid and put the wash on delicate. Maybe it wasn’t even blood she saw but just a kind of discharge. Surely she was overthinking it. She didn’t let her mind go to the place that it was trying to edge her focus onto. She listened as the noise of the washing machine regained its familiar rhythm.

* * *

    Later that week, she sat on the front room chair flipping through channels in a mindless way. It was near the middle of the night now, and Christopher and Lydia were fast asleep. She ended up on a news channel that made her feel worse, more hopeless. It flashed images of fire and policemen and crying children. These days it was one disaster after another.

    It was time to go to bed. She switched off the TV and shut off the lamps, and walked with caution toward the stairs in the darkness. She felt like she was blind, and this inability to see frightened her; it was just another impairment on the long list of things that was wrong with her, her life. She took the stairs two at a time and was hit with a rush of endorphins at the top. She bent over and breathed for a couple seconds. Then she heard the sound of a door shutting – Lydia’s. At this hour? She turned the corner and saw her husband standing there outside Lydia’s door.

    “What are you doing?” she asked, accusatory.

    “She had another night terror,” said Christopher.

    “No she didn’t,” she said. May would have heard it, even from downstairs. She was always the one to help her through them while Christopher slept, unbothered.

    “Be quiet, you’ll wake her,” said Christopher.

    May reached her hand out toward him, grabbing his upper arm with all the strength she had. “What did you do to her? Tell me God’s truth.”

    “You’re crazy,” he said. “You’ve lost it. It’s the middle of the night, go to sleep.”

    “What did you do to my baby?” she cried.

    He started walking down the hallway, and she could see just the outline of him. He could have been a stranger, and in fact, he felt like one. She followed him into their room, and he walked around her, shutting and locking their door. She started crying, and fear crept inside her.

    “We’re going to bed,” Christopher told her.

    “Not until you explain what you did.” She went over to her side of the bed and laid down. She was feeling lightheaded.

    “I’m going to leave you if you tell anyone about tonight. What you say will be a lie anyway,” he said. “You’re a liar, May. You’re sick. You need help.”

    She was in shock from his words, but a part of her couldn’t help but believe them. Maybe she was sick. She wrapped the comforter around her, scooting to the furthest side of the bed so he couldn’t touch her. Her crying perpetuated her exhaustion, but still she kept her eyes open, staring toward the crucifix above their computer desk – a small, gold shape that reflected the bits of moonlight seeping in from the windows. She thought to herself: I hate you, God. She prayed to herself: Save me, God.

* * *

    May wasn’t doing well. This morning she tried saying the rosary but her mind was so distracted she only made it through two Hail Mary’s before giving up. So she just sat there on the living room couch running her fingers along the string of beads, memorizing their smooth feel and counting the groups of ten aloud, repeating the cycle after she was done, creating her own kind of prayer. She pressed one finger hard against the metal crucifix, but its dull stab wasn’t enough to interrupt her stream of anxious thoughts connected to each other with something like the rosary string, only stronger, and it wasn’t man-made.

    Then, she sipped her daily coffee, unaware of the scalding temperature, her mind telling her she deserved the burn, the pain, the punishment it gave her – it was all she knew. Her vision started going blurry, and when she closed her eyes she saw unnatural shapes, long like arms, but with circular bulges growing an irregular pattern of holes, dripping thick blood upon Lydia, covering her thin golden hair and her little heart-shaped face until she was unrecognizable. May opened her eyes. The room grew smaller.

    Later, she lay on her unmade bed and rocked back and forth, just a couple inches forward, just a couple inches back. If someone else were in the room, and May was sure there was, he would have barely detected it. Her eyes were out of focus, and she stared toward her dresses hung up in their joint closet. Black, brown, white, yellow, blue – they went from being distinct and separate to one blurry mess, like when you try to paint something beautiful but mix too many colors together at once. She went from breathing in through her nose to periodical open-mouthed gasps, and her eyes darted from one corner of the room to another, certain she saw flashes of movement from the door to the bed. Yes, someone was in there with her.

    And she knew it, perhaps she had always known it, that her and her daughter were both victims in a house she did not know how to leave. Nausea rose in her belly as she thought of Christopher touching Lydia at night, his large hands upon her, her night terrors that occurred after. There was no way a child so young could process the horror other than to scream. May hated herself for not hearing the scream for what it was. It was all her fault; it was always her fault. She looked down at her hands and they went from her’s to someone else’s to not hands at all – just two appendages not connected to her body, glowing in their paleness.

    Inside her mind, she saw a man whose face grew less recognizable the closer May walked toward him. The minute she reached him, drawing her hand out for help, her body appeared back at the spot she was before, only to walk toward him again, a recurring moment she could no longer control. Who was this man?

    Her body grew heavier, her lungs shrank, her feet lost all their feeling. Slowly she succumbed to whatever her senses told her she saw, and fear sat beside her on the mattress, its hands traveling up her back, starting to reach around either side of her neck, closing off her vocal chords to any possibility of sound.

So May rocked back and forth, her thoughts less rational now, riding her own consciousness like waves. She wasn’t the one in charge anymore, just sat like a spectator to the hell that was revealing itself. Who was the person moving her? She couldn’t tell. It became less about the movements she was making, more about the fact that they gave her something to do.