Young Tara grew up in the prison of her mother’s mental illness, the bars of her cell reinforced with delusions and secrets too thick to bend. Will the understanding of the depths of her mother’s dysfunction motivate her to break free before it’s too late—or is Tara destined to fulfill the role cast for her in this twisted parody?
My mother believes herself to be Scarlett O’Hara. And Father plays along.
I slip the white chiffon’s spaghetti straps off the plush satin hanger and hold at arm’s length this dress chosen to contrast against my tanned skin and dark hair—and against the ebony black piano. In a few moments, Miriam will help me tie a red satin ribbon in an ostentatious bow around my waist. Another ribbon, thinner and dotted with dainty white pearls braided into my locks, will complete the ensemble.
I’m surprised Mother doesn’t make me wear a corset.
I smooth the dress flat on my four-poster bed and lie back to stare at the canopy one last time. Everything about our home is ostentatious. Draperies. Ruffles. Antebellum South artifacts fit more for a museum than a home. Heavy furniture in velvets and velours. Some original. Some replicas.
All Gone-With-The-Freakin’-Wind style. Right down to my name.
I’m anything but antebellum. And we don’t live in the south. Not one hint of a southern drawl. I can’t even fake a drawl.
I prefer cell phones and superhero movies in high definition. We have one television in the sitting room tucked behind the heavy oak doors of an antique armoire. If you didn’t know it was there, you’d never know it was there. And it’s only wired to a DVD player. No cable or Netflix services for Tara. We only have one movie in the house—well, several copies of the same movie. All other contraband must be snuck onto our property and properly stowed away behind winter coats and loose floorboards until Mother falls into her fragile state of fitful sleep and Father retires to the liquor cabinet.
Half the time when my parents say my name, I’m not sure if they’re speaking to me, about me, or about our three-acre property (which Mother also named Tara) in the upper peninsula of Michigan. We have a large house, yes, and some would declare such a massive abode an “estate.” But that’s not what Mother sees when she looks out her window. She sees a plantation like on the movie set. Sprawling hills, fields full of dark farmhands, sunsets painted with technicolor clouds. Every detail matching and morphing between scenery described in the novel and the Tara of the silver screen.
Right down to the family graveyard.
And the rest of us must see it, too. Or we pay dearly.
I cross my arms over my stomach and will the churning to stop. I don’t get nervous before these mid-morning recitals. Twice a year, year after year, Mother parades her uppity group of hens onto our “estate” and marches me to the piano. Put on display.
After the second year of this, I stopped caring what the chattering ladies thought of my occasional missed note on some pre-Civil war era piece. So the nerves had stopped firing acid into my stomach.
But today, I have acid by the gallons. I swing my head and shoulders over the side of the mattress and pull up the dust ruffle to peer under the bed. Half-hanging upside down, the blood rushes to my temples. I reach underneath and feel the canvas strap of my backpack, packed last night with a few staples from the kitchen and my dresser drawers. I swing back up longways next to the ball gown and let the blood settle to its rightful position as I lie with my eyes closed and inhale deeply, then exhale as slowly as I can.
I stand and stretch. I check that my travel clothes still hang in the closet within easy reach, even though I’ve checked five times already. My post-recital clothes, for when I take off the last ball gown I’ll ever wear. Dark blue denim jeans, long-sleeved gray T-shirt with the Ghostbusters emblem plastered across the chest, tan hiking boots. A heavy brown jacket, relieved from its post from the back of Father’s closet, now stands sentinel over the other pieces in my closet. I dry my sweaty hands with the jacket’s sleeve.
I let the musical score run through my head as an imaginary metronome sways out the timing of the notes. Every second important. Every second matters to the rhythm of the score. I stand in the middle of my bedroom and stretch out my arms to glide over imaginary keys, my fingers running through the piece. Muscle memory now. An easy piece, really, with the years of lessons—since the time my feet wouldn’t reach the pedals and swung freely under the bench. Since before my fingers were long enough to grace the keys in proper form. How oblivious that small child had been. Wanting to make Mother proud. Yearning for Father’s arms and tight embrace and to hear him call my nickname with such pride. Ivory.
I think of the thousands of hours of practice until the truth became clear. That all wasn’t right with Mother. That all the training had simply been to appease her dangerous delusion.
I shake off the intrusive past and turn again to the chiffon resting patiently on the bed. I hear Miriam’s footsteps outside my room. I close the closet door after I dry my hands again on Father’s jacket. Today I’m nervous, and rightfully so.
This is my last recital. The last time my fingers will pound out Tara’s Theme.
The last time I’ll hear Father utter my nickname.
Because I refuse to be Scarlett O’Hara’s prisoner.
Even if she is my mother.
As Miriam tugs and tucks the waist ribbon just so around my midsection and wrestles the bow into perfect loops, I gaze out the window at the newly budded maple trees spanning the yard and try to remember that moment when I realized my family was epically screwed. That I had been born into a circus instead of a loving unit. A similar feeling to when I realized there was no Santa Claus; I was in early grade school, but I can’t pinpoint exactly when. My classmate Alicia had told me, but I wasn’t really upset because, somehow, I’d already known.
Same with Mother’s delusions. And then with Father’s. I knew down deep.
Miriam starts on my hair. Pulling and tugging until my scalp hurts. Mother wanted me to call this lady “Mammy.” But Miriam rolled her eyes and refused. Miriam is as white as any United States president, all but the one, anyway, and she is not our slave. Come to find out later, she’d been planted in our home by my concerned aunt when Mother found out she was pregnant with me. Miriam is a mental health nurse. Sent more to watch over little Tara than to cure my mother, but she fit the part of household servant well.
And it kept Mother calm. To have a Mammy just like Scarlett.
I realized Mother was ill during our weekly viewing of Gone with the Wind. We were watching that scene where Scarlett drives the buggy through Shantytown and a man attacks her. Mother flinched and cried right along with the lady on the screen, curling herself up into a ball. Father swept into the sitting room when Mother’s cries had escalated to screams and scooped her into his arms and carried her off to her bedroom—a separate bedroom from his—and called Miriam for help.
I’d been left on the davenport. Shaken and alone. Alicia told me the next day no one calls couches davenports. And no one watches Gone with the Wind every week. Let alone had that tale as a childhood bedtime story. And no one our age refers to their parents as Mother and Father.
Something was wrong.
That was in middle school. About six years ago.
I thank Miriam. She gives me a quick squeeze on the shoulders and tells me I’ll be great today. I thank her a second time, but this time I square up and look her straight in the eyes. “Really. Thank you for everything you’ve done for me. And my family.”
She gives me an odd look, nods and then leaves the room.
This thank you serves as my goodbye to the woman who cared for me more than my own mother. Even if she did it for a paycheck.
I examine my image in the oval standing mirror. Picture-perfect. White dress. Red ribbons. I don’t wear rouge. Mother will pinch my cheeks before I’m presented to the crowd to blush them up.
And I’ll let her. Because that interaction will serve as my last goodbye to Miss Scarlett.
As I wait for my cue to descend our staircase and greet the guests downstairs, a soft knock at my door signals the arrival of my father. I open it. He kisses my cheek and we sit on the end of the canopy bed.
“You look lovely, my bonnie lass. Just lovely.”
I thank him and take his hand. I twist his worn golden wedding band around on his finger. He looks older today. He’d started looking much older than his years about ten years ago. Mother’s illness had worn him down.
And then he’d joined her.
I’d once asked him why mother hadn’t named me Bonnie. I had the dark hair like the child in the movie. It had made no sense to me that Tara won out when she’d already named our home that. A home my father had spent a slice of his inheritance on to acquire for her.
“You were supposed to be a boy. She was hoping for a daughter later on.”
That reply likewise made no sense to me at the time, but I didn’t press. I started to understand her illness when I entered middle school—or at least I had an awareness of it thanks to Alicia. A couple of years after, I learned you can’t apply logic to an illogical mind. I leaned on Miriam more so in my teen years, and I was grateful my aunt paid for her services. Miriam had spoken with me many times about my parents. She’d used some fancy psychology terminology, but basically, they’d created an imaginary world for themselves—and for me—and if we didn’t play along, things could go downhill fast.
But Miriam had no clue how far downhill things had gone before she ever came to work at Tara. And my aunt didn’t know, either.
I’d only learned of the real horrors just six months ago.
Mr. Avery knew. He’d assigned our class an English paper. One that should’ve been completed with canned responses to inflate grades and egos and impress the teacher. It was that time machine bit. “If you could go back and change anything in the past, what would it be?” I took a chance and told him the truth.
My time machine would sling me to Margaret Mitchell’s time. To destroy the manuscript or otherwise sabotage her progress. Because if the novel were never written, maybe my parents and I would have a normal existence.
Mr. Avery pulled me aside after he’d graded the paper. He’d given me an A.
And he’d given me a way out.
I lean my head on my father’s shoulder and will my tears to stay behind my eyelids. We just sit here on the bed in the quiet. He needs that from me, I think. A quiet presence. Mother is anything but.
I’m grateful for family money. A series of wise investments in automobiles and aircrafts a generation or two ago had left my father and aunt very comfortable. Or I’d be on the street because both of my parents would be in jail.
What a butterfly effect. Because my grandfather had economic smarts and endowed his children with a small fortune, my mother, Miss Scarlett to the bone, had been attracted to my father for the financial gain it afforded her.
I wonder if Grandfather would’ve changed his will if he’d have known what would become of his grandsons.
Or to me.
Father stands and rubs the back of his neck. He walks to my dresser and runs his hands over my award certificates and diploma. I graduated high school last week. For this, I will be eternally grateful for Miriam’s intervention. Mother had wanted to hire a tutor and keep me sequestered at Tara. Miriam said I’d be better served in the “system.” School was my only respite from the madness at home, and I took full advantage of it. Graduated with honors.
And at school, I’d found my savior.
I’ve always known I’d leave Tara someday. And six months ago, that day all the twisted puzzle pieces aligned, I knew I would never come back.
A quiver runs through the deepest part of me, beyond my stomach, closer to my spine, as I watch Father examine my awards. And as I think about Mr. Avery.
“You did well, Ivory.”
“Thank you, Father.” I stand and pick up my high heels. It’s almost time. I meet him at the dresser and push up on tiptoes to give him a peck on the cheek.
And this serves as my final goodbye to this fractured man.
After Father leaves the room, I place my heels just outside the door in the hallway. I return to the bed and pull the backpack from its hiding place and replace the ruffle. I drape the pack over my shoulder carefully so as not to mar the dainty straps of my dress. I retrieve my post-recital clothes from the closet and toss them over my arm, pick up the boots, and softly close the closet door. I look over the room before stepping into the hallway. This is my third goodbye— Miriam, Father, this room—in less than an hour.
Three down. Three to go.
I tiptoe to the back staircase and descend barefoot with my load to the back entryway. A breeze greets me through the open window. It smells of locust blossoms and freedom. I’m glad the spring rains have held off.
Two shovels lean against the corner, spilling tiny remnants of their work onto the wooden floor. Mother and Father have plans for me after the recital. Miriam is clueless or the police would be here.
But I can’t call anyone. And logic doesn’t apply in this situation. No one would understand. And they are my parents. And I think I love them. Or at least the idea of them.
Even if they wanted a third boy.
I remove the lid to the large basket. Three months ago, I’d accompanied Father to a flea market. We spotted this old woven basket that stood as tall as my hips and as wide as a piano bench. I’d never asked for anything on these trips. We were hunting treasure for Mother, and none of it appealed to me. But I wanted the basket. I needed it.
He didn’t think Mother would approve. But I hung on his arm and blinked at him the way I’d seen her do so many times to get her way. He caved.
I’d felt a rush of power I’d not experienced before. Doing something for myself. Outside of the will of Scarlett.
Mother didn’t like it, but I told her it would hide my ugly tennis shoes so I didn’t have to bring them all the way into the house. And she caved. I peer into the empty basket and drop in my backpack first, then layer in the jacket, boots, shirt and pants. Every second will matter, so the order is important. I replace the lid and give the shovels the finger before I turn to the staircase.
I scamper up the steps and slide into my heels waiting patiently for me at my closed door. As I tuck an unruly strand of hair back into the braid, Miriam comes up the main staircase and smiles.
“It’s time, my dear.”
I smile at her. My heart pounds. If she’d been a few seconds earlier, I’d have been caught.
Every second counts.
I follow Miriam with delicate, poised steps and perfect posture down the staircase and onto the landing. The great room bustles with guests. More this time than before. But that’s not my worry.
Mother comes from her thriving milieu, arms outstretched. She’s dressed in an Irish green dress, floor length, all lace and ruffles and poof. She wears a comb boasting pearls and tufts of white and green feathers in her auburn and gray hair. The other ladies passing in the background are dressed similarly. The men are in old fashioned multi-piece suits. Walking canes and parasols abound.
The guests think this a costume party of sorts.
To Mother, it’s real life.
To me, it’s purgatory.
She places her pale, icy hands on my bare shoulders and holds me at arm’s length. “Tara. It’s time.” She kisses me on the forehead.
With both hands she reaches up and pinches my cheeks hard and then rubs along the cheekbone.
I give her a peck on each cheek.
Four farewells down. Two to go.
I turn to face the room. Vaulted ceilings, heavy goldenrod draperies, and patterned wallpaper give the place a funeral home feel. I guess that’s fitting. Faces I’ve seen before smile and nod in approval. Some faces are new.
One face, slightly masked under the wide-brimmed dress hat, belongs to my savior.
Mr. Avery is blending in well.
I turn to the baby grand. Mother has placed an ostentatious display of daffodils, white roses, and ferns on the piano’s lid. I slide down to the bench. Adjust my dress. Position my feet. Make that last micro-correction to my posture and place my hands on the keys.
I close my eyes and picture my metronome, but not the one with the oak casing and simple metal pendulum used during my practices for over a decade.
I reset the one I created over the last few months, piece by breathtaking piece. The casing is made of shimmering ebony—so black it’s almost purple in some of my mind’s rays. The pendulum is carved from the finest ivory with intricate lacy filigrees. The sliding weight is a solid ruby.
I reset this metronome in my head to sway out the beats until the recital is over. Until all the notes pour out of my fingers and onto the black and white rectangles for the last time. Until every breathing being on Tara’s grounds stands in ovation and I take my next-to-final bow.
When Father calls me Ivory one last time.
I rush out the back of the kitchen, leaving the pile of brown-paper-wrapped long-stem roses—minus two red ones—on the counter. The flowers served as my excuse for stepping away from the recital. The roses needed water. Miriam offered, but I told her I needed some air. She understood.
And I need to leave now, even if I have to bypass air and hold my breath for the next several counts. Taking the roses cost me a few seconds. But these are my last two goodbyes. The ones that really matter.
I leave my heels in the kitchen and pad quickly around to the back entryway. I toss the lid off the basket and pull on my jeans underneath the white chiffon. A quick glance over my shoulder to be sure I’m alone—because every second counts and the ruby weight and ivory pendulum swing so fast, pink rays burst from the motion. I pull off the dress and pull on Ghostbusters. Boots are next, I don’t have time to tie them. Jacket on. Backpack slung. Roses in hand. Then past the shovels and out the door.
I sprint toward the tree line, toward the boundary of our property.
Toward the gravesite.
A few hundred yards and I’m not winded. Mr. Avery suggested I take PE again my final semester. Even though I didn’t need that credit. Mr. Avery was right.
My savior. He’s left the truck he’d taught me to drive waiting for me past the tree line on a lonely country road. Keys under the seat. A wad of cash in the glovebox. A map to freedom. I can hear the engine grind to life as I turn the keys. It nearly drowns out the ticking of the ivory metronome, but I need a few more seconds before I bolt.
I kneel beneath the oak tree, the noon sun sprinkling welcoming warm yellows through the rustling leaves. This tree, this spot, can’t be seen from the front of the home where the festivities continue.
Four fading headstones, simple concrete rounded rectangles, were here when father bought the place. Resting places belonging to owners long since forgotten. But they served as surrogates, I believe, for the gravesites of Tara’s families.
The other three headstones are newer. Sharp white rectangles not yet worn with the wind and weather. Like three piano keys torn from the keyboard and wedged into the earth, the space between them serving as the blacks.
Two markers have the beginning and ending dates—dates spaced much too closely together.
I turn to the third headstone. It’s a blank canvas. Patiently guarding the freshly dug pit. A shallow grave.
The events of the last six months, the realizations, the nightmares, the training and preparation. All of it, comes rushing back. I look over my shoulder. No one’s coming. No one’s missed me yet. My metronome grows impatient. Ivory and ruby in hypnotic sway.
The real Scarlett had three brothers. All died newborns.
My Scarlett had no brothers. But she did have two sons. That’s when her morphing and matching of novel and film took an ugly turn. And it took my father with it. Covering Mother’s sins. Helping her, even. There were two shovels.
Miriam doesn’t know. Aunt doesn’t know.
But I know. I think I always have.
I let the tears escape as I look into the pit. The pit meant for Scarlett’s third brother. Mother’s third boy. I was supposed to be that boy. I am that boy in her mind.
And in Father’s.
And their gravesite nestled on the Tara Plantation isn’t complete.
I run my finger over the names and lay the blooms on my baby brothers’ graves. Final goodbyes to two brothers I never met.
I unzip my pack and pull out my practice metronome. I stand and glance over my shoulder at home one last time.
I hurl the oaken timer into the pit, and as it shatters against the hard, brown clods so does the ebony and ivory metronome in my head, the ruby splintering into a dozen sharp red shards. The cords holding me here begin to break and fall away. I feel lighter. I take to the tree line.
Ivory’s song is about to begin.
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Copyright © 2019 by B.A. Paul
This work is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed herein are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. This work, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.