Author’s Note: “Looking Too Hard at a Flame” is excerpted from my unpublished novel “Cynthia” about a 13-year-old’s magical thinking in her attempts to deal with complex emotions. It was inspired by memories of the turbulent ‘60s when I was a young adolescent and used symbolic rituals to cope with things beyond my control.
Looking Too Hard at a Flame
DOWNSTAIRS THEY TALK OF DEAD PEOPLE. Upstairs I’m drawing a spidery hand with long fingernails inside my favorite book. The hand is the only thing I can draw. I learned it from a book called Learn to Draw, and when I got to where I could draw it without thinking, I threw the book away, because I hate books that tell people how to do things. My favorite book is old, with “FEB” in faded pen on the flyleaf. It’s about a girl who slept in a closet and wrote her thoughts down, by candlelight, in the margins of the Bible. So I’m writing my own thoughts in the margins of Wuthering Heights, which is the name of the book.
My name is Cynthia Burns. I’m thirteen and live with my aunt, Deirdre. I like cold black tea, strange books, and fire. I don’t like old photographs. I also am invisible a lot of the time. That’s all true, especially the last sentence about being invisible. It’s because of how they look at me, like I’m someone else.
Pictures in a box by the fireplace show them like they were long ago: Deirdre, my aunt, was beautiful, and in one snapshot rides a horse, her long hair flying. Toby, her brother, was once tall and strong. Now he weighs three hundred pounds and drives a chartreuse station wagon with fins. Suzanne, his wife, still wears her hair in that braid. The stranger appears in just one picture, where he stands on a rock with clouds behind him.
When he knocked on our door, it was night, and it was raining. I didn’t recognize him from the picture, even though he was handsome in a sad, pale way. He was no real age. He wore a long black coat and looked very clean. When Deirdre saw him, she gasped and said, “It can’t really be you.”
“Can I come in?” he said. “If not, I understand.”
Rain sizzled on the sidewalk while she made him come in. There was no other sound.
“This is Edward,” she said after closing the door. She told him I was Cynthia, and he said, “Hello, Cynthia,” but I felt my face fading out anyway.
They sat on the red couch. I sat in the beige armchair. She asked him where he’d been for so many years, and he said picking apples, fighting fires, and trying to run away from many things. He looked at me again.
“You hardly look any different than you did on your twenty- first birthday,” he said. But he was talking to Deirdre.
“I was never twenty-one,” she said.
“You were. I tried to light the candles with your cigarette lighter, but the wind kept blowing them out.”
I’d heard people talk about the coconut cake and the candles and the mescal when Deirdre turned twenty-one, but not since I believed in the tooth fairy.
“That was probably the last time I had any fun,” she said, and lines appeared in her face.
“Even though the truck was full of cacti,” he said, “which made it dangerous to sit in for everyone but that store mannequin. The one Faith brought along.”
Deirdre burst out laughing. He laughed too, and that was the first mention of dead people. Namely Faith, who used to sketch store mannequins in the desert.
Faith was Deirdre and Toby’s sister. She also gave birth to me one night and then died two months later. She never introduced my father to the family.
“Cynthia looks like her.”
I’d been waiting for that. But not looking forward to it. And I knew Deirdre would say yes, it’s eerie because of Cynthia’s expressions.
My hand, holding my cup of tea, looked like someone else’s hand. Still, I finished the tea. And while I drank it, they discussed the beauty, wit, and quaintness of the dead.
If they’d only talked about how witty and beautiful dead people once were, I wouldn’t have minded him being there. The problem was that they started talking about the day that the dead had died. When that happens, I feel like I’m trapped inside the picture of Faith where she stands in front of my grandfather’s house with bare feet and one arm around a mannequin. Once I dreamt I was inside it, the glass pressing on my chest.
“It’s burned into my memory,” Deirdre said. By then, he’d spent the night on the couch. “I was about to walk out the door when the phone rang. I was going to pick up the shoes she was going to wear in the wedding.”
“It wasn’t your fault,” he said.
“Yes, it was. It was my life Faith thought she was ruining. She wrote me this beautiful letter about it.”
“How is that your fault?”
“I don’t think I ever picked up those shoes.” She laughed hysterically after saying that. “I’d gotten them dyed.”
“It was my fault,” he whispered. “I betrayed you both.”
CASSANDRA, Toby’s daughter, is my age. We’ve read all of each other’s books and are both related to people in the box by the fireplace. We talked in her backyard, next to a row of abalone shells.
“My father thinks we should all hate Edward,” she said. “Because of how he drove Faith to suicide. Edward was in love with her, you know.”
I sort of figured that. “Was he in love with Deirdre, too?”
“Of course. He was Deirdre’s boyfriend. I thought you knew.”
Cassandra said her parents argued about Edward for hours when they heard he was back. Then Suzanne brushed her hair, and Cass watched her, asking questions.
“My mother says Deirdre and Edward went out together for years. They were young and crazy and stayed up late singing folk ballads. And drinking wine. People expected them to get married after they graduated from college. But Edward decided to marry Faith instead. She was there for the folk ballads. And the wine. Your book of Wuthering Heights was hers.”
“I know all that. But why did Edward decide to marry Faith instead of Deirdre?”
“He’d fallen in love with her, of course. And he was sorry for her because she’d gone and gotten pregnant from that man she never introduced to the family. My mom says Faith was ‘grateful’ to Edward for wanting to marry her. But it rather hurt Deirdre. Edward being her boyfriend and all. She only forgave him because they were folk music types. In fact, she helped Edward talk Faith into marrying him. Then she took Faith out and bought her a wedding dress. It was sky blue.”
It had stopped raining by then. Vaporous clouds floated like giant tufts of very white cotton. Usually, I would have liked the roots of the trees, which were gnarled and twisty. And the way the clouds looked reflected in a piece of broken glass. But I felt something pressing on my chest, because Deirdre has always made me wear sky blue.
“The night before the wedding, Faith hung her wedding dress on the door of her closet. And afterward she wrote a letter to Deirdre saying she was very sorry, but she just could not marry Edward. She turned on the heater so gas would leak out, and they found her the next morning, lying there in her nightgown.”
We sat for a long time, watching the shadows of the trees on the grass.
“The dress hung there for about a week,” Cass went on. “Because of everyone being in shock. And then Deirdre gave it to the Salvation Army.”
“He ran off. I guess when you’re into folk music, and you’re in love with someone, you do things like driving them to suicide.” “If it weren’t for you, I’d never know anything,” I said. Then I told her about the shoes. “Deirdre had them dyed,” I said. “But never picked them up.”
Cassandra’s eyes widened.
“Deirdre did too pick up those shoes. She put Faith’s letter in the box with them after reading it. My mother says Deirdre still has the note and the box and the shoes in your attic.”
EDWARD moved his small, old traveling bag into Deirdre’s room. He put his boots by the wall and laid his Edwardian coat over the bed. Then they sat on the couch, her legs over his lap while he gazed into her eyes. He played with the ends of her hair.
“Have you hated me all these years?” he said. And she said, “I could never hate you.” They made out. And when they noticed me watching, they looked at me that way.
Faith was obviously taking over my body. Or maybe my mind. Or at least hiding in the closet, watching me through the mirror. So, I went upstairs and lit a candle I have stuck to a china dish.
The flame got bigger and smaller as it flickered in a draft, and finally, only the bit of fire seemed true, like a burning fingerprint against the dark. Because I had no blue eyes to look like hers anymore. But Deirdre came in to say good night. And she said, “You remind me of my sister, doing that.”
“WHAT DO YOU MEAN?” he said the next day. “I told you why I came. I needed to see your face again.”
She was leaning her back against the kitchen sink.
“You said you wanted to see me.” She took a drag on her cigarette. “But who’ve we been talking about since you’ve been here?”
“We all loved her.”
“Especially you,” she said. “But before that, it was me you loved. You loved me first.”
He was sitting at the table.
Deirdre went on about how he disappeared after the funeral, which made her too upset to pick up the shoes. After that she cried, and he left. From my room, I could see him on the boardwalk, hanging around a streetlamp.
HE CAME BACK in the morning.
“I should have hated you,” she said, with her back against the sink again. “Why haven’t I? Instead, I’ve cherished my memories. Of both you and her. I kept them pressed in the pages of my thoughts like dried flowers. Then you had to come back and crunch them to powder.”
Edward mumbled, “How have I crunched your memories?” However, Deirdre just went on.
“Tell me the truth,” she said. “Why did you come? Were you hoping to get absolution?”
“I was hitchhiking through a desert town, wind blowing dirt in my eyes, and remembered how we used to sing ballads at three in the morning. And I had to see your face.”
“Did you remember the ballad about the knight? Riding along his way? Thinking about his wedding?”
I expected Edward to answer, but he never did.
“Come to think of it, it was the fairy queen that wrecked his wedding,” Deirdre said. “According to the song. She put some kind of spell on him.”
“The fairies in those songs aren’t exactly Tinker Bell.” He kind of muttered it, like he was talking to himself. “They’re powerful. And not benign.”
“I can’t cherish those songs anymore,” Deirdre said. “She wrecks everything.”
“I shouldn’t have run off,” Edward said. “It kept us from resolving anything, and now it’s too late.”
“How would we have resolved anything, even then? We’d have had to hear what she had to say. And she was gone.”
“Didn’t she leave a note?”
My back was turned, making tea, but I heard the “click” of Deirdre’s lighter.
“There’s no point in reading it now.”
“You still have it?”
“Of course I kept it. But I don’t remember where it is.” “I’ll bet you only read it once. And you’re still running from whatever she said.”
“She’s gone,” Deidre said. “Everything passes. We’re just creatures that live and mate and die. Like bats that use cacti to get pollen all over themselves so flowers can reproduce.”
“Bats don’t drink mescal and stay up all night making fools of themselves.”
I was about to leave the kitchen when I heard my name. I’d forgotten they knew it.
“How about Cynthia?” he said. “Don’t you want her to read Faith’s letter?”
But she said, “I think we should separate.”
There was a long silence while I poured hot water over the tea bag in my cup. Then he said, “Are you throwing me out?”
“Yes,” Deirdre said. “I never got the chance to do it back then.”
After a while, he came downstairs with his traveling bag. His eyes were wet when he walked out the door.
FOR THREE DAYS she stayed in her room, and I took the bus to school and ate boiled hot dogs for dinner. When I boiled the hot dogs, I asked her if she wanted any, and she said no. On the third day, when I came home, she was walking through the living room in her red robe.
“There you are,” she said. “I knew you were here.” Her eyes shone, and I thought maybe I wasn’t invisible anymore. But then she said, “Where’s Cynthia?”
“What do you mean, ‘where’s Cynthia?’” I said. “I am Cynthia.”
“Where are my cigarettes?” She turned around, looking for them. Her red, filmy robe twirled and billowed, and I thought of flames for some reason. Then she caught sight of the mirror above the mantel. “Do you really think you’re Cynthia? Just look at yourself.” She pointed. “Next you’ll say you’re a mannequin. Like the ones you used for models.” I must say I felt confused.
I could see, just by looking in the mirror, that I was Faith. It’s true that the mirror needs re-silvering and warps your face in interesting ways, but that had nothing to do with it.
“Cynthia’s only thirteen,” Deirdre said with a mean smile.
I looked around for Cynthia. I saw nothing but the red couch and beige armchair.
“You killed yourself,” Deirdre said. “But it did you absolutely no good.”
The mantel mirror stretched my face upward like a flame, and I remembered hanging my sky-blue wedding dress on a closet door.
“I remember that,” I said.
“Of course you remember it. You know who you are.” She got that mean smile again and said, “Do you honestly think I could confuse you with Cynthia?”
“I AM Cynthia.” I thought maybe I was, after all.
“Why aren’t you wearing sky blue?”
“I am wearing sky blue.”
“You’re not,” Deirdre said. “That is a black dress.”
“No, it isn’t.”
“Is not. And besides,” I said, “Cynthia has other clothes.”
“Cynthia,” she said, all disgusted. “What do you know about Cynthia?”
I couldn’t think of any answer.
“She’ll be home any time now. If I were you, I’d be ashamed to show my face.” She found her cigarettes and lit one. “I’m the one raising her.” She walked toward the kitchen carrying her ashtray. “You’ve never finished anything in your life.”
I sank onto the red couch, my hands in my lap. They were Faith’s hands. And that’s when I did remember finishing something. A drawing of the hand.
“I have, too, finished things.”
By then, Deirdre had disappeared through the kitchen door. I followed her, seeing myself in the mirror on the way. And I could see that I was Cynthia because I had on a necklace Cassandra gave me for my birthday.
And then I figured I should call Toby, my uncle, and tell him Deirdre was going crazy. Unfortunately, that meant I had to follow her into the kitchen where the phone was. I didn’t want to be in the same room with her, but I did it anyway.
“So you’re following me now?” she said. “Before, you were trying to get away. This is fun. Like when we used to play hide- and-seek.”
I dialed my uncle’s number, but it rang with no answer. Deirdre just sat at the table, smoking.
“It’s too late,” she said. “You should have tried calling for help before. Now you’re already dead.”
I ran up the stairs, and there were no thoughts in my head at all, just a very dark place.
In my room, I saw the candle on the china dish and remembered how I’d stared into the flame until my face disappeared, and Deirdre saying, “You remind me of my sister with that look on your face.”
Then I realized it was Deirdre. I mean, Deirdre made me invisible. She was really the fairy queen. Not Faith. Deirdre had been turning me into Faith all these years.
IN OUR ATTIC, a mannequin stands against old wallpaper with a pattern of Grecian urns. There are boxes. Also, a guitar and a steamer trunk. I found the shoe box inside the trunk wrapped in a scarf. Deirdre had sealed the whole thing with masking tape long ago. She’d wound it round and round several times.
I felt wrong undoing the tape. It wasn’t my trunk, and they weren’t my shoes—plus the mannequin stared at my hands while I was doing it. Inside was a pair of high heels, blue and slim. They looked new, and under them was the note. My heart started to beat very fast.
Promised you I’d someday tell, so I will. Must write fast, as it’s getting hard to think.
When I knew about Cynthia, I wrote him but got no answer.
So I went to his mother’s house to tell her. She showed me a letter he’d written her from Korea. He’d married a woman there whose house had gone up in flames. His mother was sorry for me, and for Cynthia, and for the other girl. What else is there to say?
The night we met, he’d offered to read my palm. He showed me the Mount of the Moon. He said I would have just one child and showed me the little cobweb line. After that he kept holding my hand. I tried to withdraw it, but he pulled me toward him.
As my marriage to Edward has approached, I’ve looked at my lifeline daily. It’s short and ends in a forked strand, like the rest has been chewed off.
As we stood on the porch tonight, he asked me what was wrong. It interrupted my thoughts, just as I was picturing my wedding—the real one—in a white dress. I tried to pull away, but he held onto my hand, and I almost slapped him. By then I’d already decided to do what I’m doing now. Which gives me a wonderful sense of lightness and relief.
much love, FEB
AFTER READING THE LETTER, I stood there for a long time, knowing the soldier who married the other girl was my father. He had driven Faith mad as well. Edward had tried to help but didn’t understand that my father was the one Faith wanted to marry. I knew I had to go downstairs, then, and give the letter to Deirdre, so she could remember that, and maybe understand it. But when I got to the kitchen, I could hear her before I walked in. I felt afraid because I remembered that she was crazy now.
“God knows where he slept last night,” she was saying.
“Don’t worry about Edward,” Suzanne’s voice said. “He spent the night on our couch.” My aunt Suzanne’s voice makes me think of soft yellow things, like spun gold and sunflower petals.
“I’ve been talking to Faith for days,” Deirdre said. “I wish I could stop.”
“Deirdre, keep talking to her. It will help you get yourself back. Your young self. The one that went into deep freeze when she died.”
“Edward did that to me,” Deirdre said. “When he ran off.”
“Faith did that to you,” Suzanne spoke sharply.
“You never liked Faith,” Deirdre said.
“I didn’t care for some of the choices she made.” When I heard it, there was a tingling in the letter where my fingers held it.
They were at the kitchen table, Deirdre disheveled in her red robe, Suzanne drinking tea. When they saw me, they looked startled, like I was a ghost.
THEY’RE TALKING ABOUT IT ALL NOW—Deirdre, Edward, Suzanne, and Toby—as I sit in my room, drawing the hand inside Wuthering Heights.
Deirdre is almost sane again, and I’m becoming visible. A little. For example, my lifeline is nothing like Faith’s. It’s very long and grows down, like a root, to my wrist. Still, out of the corner of my eye, I see the hem of a sky- blue wedding dress. It’s been flitting around since I read the letter, appearing and disappearing, fading into the heat. Once I saw it on the staircase landing. That time it left an imprint, like the spot of light I see sometimes after looking too hard at a flame.
Mary Gayle Newton is a writer and retired teacher whose work usually involves women’s issues. She holds a BA in creative writing from UCLA and an MA in English literature from San Francisco State University. Her short stories have been published in The MacGuffin, Evening Street Review, is acoustic, Potato Soup Journal, Borrowed Solace, Atherton Review and October Hill. She lives in Ohio.
Her story is from the Delmarva Review’s fifteenth annual edition. The literary journal, based in Talbot County, Maryland, has featured the new writing of over 500 authors worldwide. Almost half are from the Chesapeake and Delmarva region.
The new, sixteenth edition will be published later this month. The journal is available in paperback and digital editions from Amazon.com and other major booksellers. Support comes from tax-deductible contributions and a grant from Talbot Arts with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. Website: www.DelmarvaReview.org