By Christina Reiss
When the school bus turns the corner at the top of the block, Mother hurries out of the house, clad only in a nightgown and slippers, smoking a cigarette. All day long she has waited, living for the moment when the first of her children returns home. As the school bus comes to a stop, Mother stands close to its folding accordion door, watching as her youngest child descends the steep steps. When Ivy reaches the bottom step, Mother throws her cigarette into the grass and lifts her to the ground. The school bus driver watches this daily ritual with a frown before shrugging and closing the door.
As the school bus pulls away, Mother takes Ivy by the hand and leads her down the pathway, up the front steps, into the empty brick house. Mother’s hand is cool and clammy, a tremor of excitement running beneath her skin like an electrical current. Ivy would like to drop Mother’s hand, shake it off, but instead she grips it tightly as she follows Mother into the kitchen. There, a snack awaits that Mother has prepared with great care. Apple slices, raisins, and a smear of peanut butter form a deranged face on the plate’s white surface. Sitting down at the kitchen table, Ivy eats greedily, knowing this snack will not be enough. She is always hungry these days, stuffing food into the hole Mother’s unhappiness creates. When Ivy is finished, she stares down at the empty plate, willing more food to appear. Mother sits down at the table across from her, letting the torrent of words she has been storing up all day.
Today’s topic is “ligatures.” Even though she is only six, Ivy knows what the word means.
Yesterday’s topic was pills, with Mother listing the prescription drugs she has in the house and describing the ways in which she can obtain more through acts of fraud and deceit. “Aw faw, you broke the law” is a saying that is going around Ivy’s school. Every time she hears it, she thinks of Mother, the trouble she is in. The topic that Ivy hates the most is guns. Four or five long guns stand at attention on Father’s side of the bed, boxes of ammunition lying at their feet. Father says no self-respecting American would keep them locked up. To hear Mother talk, those guns flirt with her, begging her to pick them up and stroke their cold hard shafts. Ivy has seen Mother picking off cans at the makeshift shooting range in their backyard. Unlike Father, Mother is a good shot.
“I need to ask your opinion,” Mother says, mopping her brow with the back of her hand. “I am worried about two things. First, the pipes in the basement, the ones that run along the ceiling, I don’t think they can hold my weight.”
Ivy glances at Mother, trying not to see what she can’t help but notice. Mother is skin and bones. It has been days since Ivy has seen her eat. It may well be that the pipes can hold her weight.
“You know when they hang someone? How they drop them? We don’t have anything like that here.”
Mother looks around the kitchen as if expecting gallows to appear. Ivy knows exactly what she means. After school, they watch re-runs of westerns, sitting on the family room couch where Mother takes her naps. In the towns where the shows take place, a sturdy platform is constructed in the middle of the town square. As a bad man is dragged through the dusty streets, the good people of the town gather to watch. When the bad man is marched up the steps to the platform, he resists, twisting and turning as he tries to break free. Once he is overpowered, a coiled rope is slipped around his neck and a black hood is placed over his head. There is a moment of silence before the man plummets, the noose snapping his neck with a satisfying crack. When the crowd disperses, he is left there, lifeless, swaying.
Ivy is thinking about the bad man, who will cut him down, where his body will go, and whether his family will cry when they hear what has happened when Mother interrupts her.
“If the ligature is tied to the pipes in the basement, it’s going to rip them off the ceiling,” Mother points out, pausing to let them both imagine the sagging pipes, their sudden breach, the water gushing out of the ruptured metal, flooding the cement floor.
They are silent as they think. Although Ivy closes her eyes, she can feel Mother’s eyes searching her face, probing into her mind, ferreting out the thoughts Ivy wants to keep hidden.
“We could tie it to the bannister on the staircase and I could jump off?” Mother suggests.
Soaked with perspiration, there is a sheen greasing her skin so that when hers eyes light up Mother seems as if she is glowing. There is a thrill in the air that Ivy miserably shares. She keeps her eyes trained on a small smear of peanut butter, avoiding the twin fires in Mother’s eyes.
“The second thing we need is a rope,” Mother continues. “Something strong, something that will not break. I have looked all day in this godforsaken house. I couldn’t find a goddamn thing. Can you think of something that will work?” she asks, reaching for Ivy’s hand.
Because she must obey Mother, Ivy searches her memory for objects that might satisfy Mother’s quest. She has explored her parents’ bedroom without their permission, opening the metal box on their bureau where Father’s childhood keepsakes are kept. Inside the box, a braided leather leash that belonged to a puppy Father received from his own mother on his birthday. Father has told them not once, but many times, that he was allowed to keep the puppy for only one day before his own father sent it to live on a farm. It is why, he explains, they cannot get a dog of their own. Under the leash, there is a black and white photograph with curling brown edges. In it, a young boy, arms crossed in front of his chest, stands next to a thin woman who winces into the camera. Ivy removed the photograph, intending to show it to her older brother and sister when they got home from school. Within the hour, she lost it in the confines of the rambling house. She has told nobody what she has done. Like a boomerang, the sins of that afternoon return.
“What is it?” Mother asks, her voice quickening. “You have thought of something, haven’t you?”
Ivy shakes her head, her tears scattering across the plate, trying not to think of the dog leash, trying not to see its strong braided leather. Mother’s ears prick, her eyes narrow as she leans forward.
“What is it, Ivy?” she asks again, punctuating every word. “What. Is. It. Ivy?”
Ivy’s eyes do not leave her plate. There is no answer that will stop the flow of questions, nothing that will ward off Mother’s feverish stare. Although it is the hardest thing in the world, Ivy must remain silent. If she says anything, what she fears most will come to pass, and Mother will carry out the deadly plans she has been making all day.
The clock above the kitchen table ticks loudly as Mother’s voice descends into a conspiratorial whisper, scheming against the evil forces that plague her, raving as her voice suddenly spikes, higher and louder, like the ascending notes of a flute. Ivy tries not to listen but certain dark words cannot be missed. Looking up at the clock, she reminds herself that at four o’clock her brother and sister will get off their school bus and return home. They are a few years older than Ivy and will lead Mother to her couch where they will bring her glasses of warm milk and hold her hand as night descends. Father will come home much later or perhaps not at all. Staring up at the clock, Ivy offers a prayer for every tick as Mother continues to talk.
“Please keep Mother safe. Please keep her safe,” she whispers to herself, careful not to let Mother see her lips move.
Christina Reiss has been a finalist in the Howard Frank Mosher, Able Muse, Tiferet, and Great Midwest Writing short story contests. She has published short stories in Fail Better and Scarlett Leaf. She lives in Vermont, is the mother of three daughters, and is married to a woodworker.