Most Beautiful Woman -- fiction by Emily Shull
West Point, 1980
She is the pearly white wedding plates in our parlor. The kind adorned with dainty cherry blossoms and painted by meticulous hands, stowed away on high shelves and caked in layers of dust. Only to be disturbed when winds from the north blew in, or the relatives filed in like soldiers fleeing from an enemy army. And when those plates are removed, if someone’s finger happens to stray, or if an inebriated uncle stumbles into the chest full of her treasures, she will drop a leaf in the wind, falling from its branch. Shattering when she reaches the floor. And she will become fragments. Her once unfurling cherry blossom petals, once pink and pristinely painted on the plate’s rim, will metamorphose into shards, intended for my bare feet to step on. She can never be replaced. She can never be repaired. She was a gift. Now she is gone. And the scars on my toes are what remain.
My family had recently moved back to West Point in 1976. It was the summer prior to my eighth-grade year, the year before we had lived in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. During those summer months, she had rebounded. Rather than lying on an austere hospital bed, she was leaping through the dewy grass, wearing no shoes, along with my little sister and me. Or she was huddled on the sofa, beneath a knitted blanket, between my older brother and father as they watched a movie. She bounced back and became the mother she had been before my father departed for Vietnam, and before her own body raged war against itself, more pernicious than any of the skirmishes and battles fought in the jungle only a few years previously. And even though she then had energy, she still had to wear her chestnut wig.
She strode into the store as if nothing dragged her down. I dreaded going in with her. I was given no time to complain though, for she kept plunging ahead like a White Star Oceanliner, leaving me, a small sailboat, tottering in her wake. I had to follow her. There was a rope tugging me forward, propelling me in the direction she was headed. Maybe it was the new jeans, Earth shoes, and soft sweaters I was about to receive. Maybe it was that if I stopped mid-step and shuffled back to the car, she would know; she would discover that the reason was her.
Would the cashier stop to point out the stiff strands of hair strung like straw on her head, plastic like a doll’s? Would the shoppers observe the scarlet speckled lumps embedded on her ghostly skin, paler than the china we used every Christmas? Would they notice that where she once had a blossoming bosom, there was now nothing, only railroad track scarred ribcage hidden by pads? Could they see that she was just a silhouette? A phantom? That all she was is sickness? Or would they overlook her? Let her disintegrate into the air, pretend she wasn’t there; not even glance her way.
“Jane,” my mother spun around and ordered. “We don’t have much time to do shopping today, darling. I need to be home by five to start dinner, so we’ve only got just a little under an hour.” I kept my pace steady and traced the asphalt parking lot with my eyes. “Jane! Let’s go, you’re walking like you are balancing china plates in your hands. Pick up the pace!”
I sighed, “alright,” and trudged up to where she was. What if I was seen with her? What would people think? And my new classmates? What would I tell them if they saw her?
She eyed me as I came to a halt beside her. “You know,” she began, pulling open the glass door to the shop, “You should really think about running cross country next fall when you get into high school.”
“But, but what about volley...”
“Wait, just hear what I have to say, please. I really think you’d make a great runner, just like your father,” she finished and waited to follow me through the door.
“Maybe,” I nodded, pausing to scan the labyrinth of cracks along the sidewalk with my eyes. The way they twisted and wound, leading in new directions, then promptly creased all together, much like human life. I floated inside, leaving the splintered cement behind me.
“Good afternoon, ladies,” beamed one of the saleswomen, as she sauntered up to greet us. “Can I help you find anything today?”
My mother bit her lip. As we stood there, I could smell the sweet Chanel N°5 she wore every day, wafting from her body. “Ummm… we are just looking for back-to-school clothing, but thank you.”
“If you need anything, let me know,” the lady responded before stepping away into the rows of fabric, soon lost amidst the brightly hung silk and charmeuse.
“I’ll go look for some sweaters,” I said, as I entered an aisle without my mother, twisted by the notion that when we go try on the apparel in the fitting rooms, my mother, if she finds something herself, must remove her wig.
“Jane,” she hollered from across the aisle, “did you find anything?”
“Not really, you know we don’t really need to try anything on if you don’t want to. We can just go home,” I badgered, my words tumbling off the tip of my tongue as I kept my gaze on the department store’s once pearly white tiles, which are now smeared with grime. I glanced up and watched my mother’s dark oak eyes fogged over.
“You need new clothes for school, darling. We can do it quickly I promise,” she gathered the clothes tangled in my hands and propelled herself towards the changing rooms, the scent of her Chanel perfume lingering in the trail. I gave in, the obscure rope once again tugging forwards.
I fastened the door shut, ensuring that the lock was latched securely. My mother handed me the garments and began to undress. She ripped off the wig first, quickly, like a hand springing away from a steaming pot or a sizzling pan; she exposed herself, the sweat which trickled on her fuzzy head, the empty stops where her wavy dark hair used to be. I checked the lock again and prayed no footsteps would pass our door before trying on the pink and white sweaters I had picked out for myself. What if the lock stopped working? What if someone saw her, her head bare, nothing but unorganized clumps left?
They carted my mother away in an ambulance a few weeks later. When they pulled into our driveway, I knew that vehicle the instant it arrived because of the red and blue flickering lights that reflected on the panes of my bedroom window, obstructing my view of the street. When I gazed out, all I saw was the flaring illumination of color.
They barged in our front door first, like it was a branch barricading their way, and marched right into her bedroom, where she lay; shouting in hoarse voices over their blaring radios. They then lifted her off the bed, as if she were a leaf, wispy, weightless, easily blown into the stream of air. Which she was.
I remember her bones were brittle. Her skin was the color of the china her mother once gifted to her years ago for a celebration, pale and white as a polished pearl. But on her skin lay scabs, red and full of puss, showing that the enemy had spread. They were little marks protruding through her once-golden arms and neck.
Her chest was not garnished with pearls. Her wrists did not waft the scent of a pricey perfume, but one of rot. She lay still, lips mumbling incomprehensible words.
They ferried her out, my father closing each door in their wake. But before he slipped out the front doorway, he paused. He looked back at my siblings and me, all sitting on the stairs, and he forced himself to smile. How do I know it was forced? I could see under the surface of him. I saw the tiny tears bubbling in the corner of his eyes. I saw how his lips twitched before he turned around and walked away. I had never seen my father cry, not even at funerals for his fellow soldiers. And yet I knew he shed a few tears as he stumbled into the ambulance with her.
I wrapped my arms around my sister Louisa, her porcelain face distorted with a stream of silky tears and snot. She knew then. Even before I did. She was too young to understand how to deny, how to establish a wall around one’s heart. She was only a few inches shorter than I was and yet sitting there, knotted in my arms, she seemed so small like my mother had when they carried her away. A doll of glass china.
We stayed glued together, concealed by the wall and rail of the stairs, unable to view the red and blue lights as they faded; we clung to each other until we knew they had vanished around the street corner. Forever a grain of rice in my memories. She did not return after that. I never saw her again.
I’ll never know if she wore Chanel N°5 that morning. Whether she spritzed her neck and wrists in the fragrant perfume, allowing herself to feel like nobility. I wonder if the nurses let her. If she asked and they helped her spray the golden liquid over her blue hospital gown. I never discovered if she adorned her chest in her pink and white pearl necklace, one that had belonged to her grandmother before they were hers. When I asked my Aunt Rose about it, she said the only thing that embellished her lifeless body was the uniform greyish-blue gown. Aunt Rose was what a stranger would describe as blunt.
My father did not wake me up that morning like he usually did.
“Jane,” Aunt Rose whispered, tapping my shoulder. Baffled, I kept my eyes latched shut. “Jane.” I did not move. I lay lifeless like a brittle brown leaf on a day with no wind. Something, that morning, compelled me to stay in bed, bundled beneath the comforter. Something in me knew that the moment my toes reached the floor, the day would be spun upside down. “Jane, you must get up, honey. You’ve got school this morning. Come on, it’s Friday, the last day of the week. You can sleep in tomorrow.”
I rolled over and groaned, fluttering my eyes open. I glanced across the room at a bed that lay vacant; the sheets tucked into the corners, without a crease; the pillows fluffed and propped up against the headboard. Where was my sister?
“Come on, Jane. Let’s get up. You’re the last one to wake,” Aunt Rose said, tossing my sheets which were draped across me to the foot of the bed.
“I’m going,” I moaned, planting my warm feet on the icy oak floor, the ground almost shaking beneath me.
That morning, I staggered down the stairs, consumed by sleep, eyes aching, every limb sore. My sister waited for me downstairs. Her dark eyes, a reflection of my mother’s, stared up at me like a portrait: expressionless, not a slip of a smile on her soft lips.
We were in the middle of a lesson about the impacts of the Silk Road during the Han Dynasty, an hour and a half into school, when the phone behind the desk of my teacher, Ms. Fitzgerald, reserved only for her, rang. I remembered I was wearing my new downy sweater, pink was the color, and a jean skirt, slightly wrinkled; all worn together with my Earth shoes, which I had begged my mother and father to let me buy months before. Ms. Fitzgerald stopped her chalk mid-sentence, letting a trail of pearl-white dust drop to the floor. She scurried over to the desk. All of my classmates looked about the room puttering slight phrases to one another off their lips. Ms. Fitzgerald lifted up the phone like she was plucking a diaphanous leaf off her winter coat.
“Yes,” she grumbled into the phone’s speaker, nodding her head as the caller from the other side murmured things to her. She kept her eyes down the whole time as if looking up would blind her eyes.
After a few moments, sighing, she hung up the phone, “Jane,” she huffed out a long breath of air. “Mr. Bacon wants to speak to you, it’s a matter of urgency.” Ms. Fitzgerald raised her eyes to meet mine. I stole a glance over at my friend, Kate. Her eyes were a sea of robbed pearls. She knew, even if I could not fathom it.
I felt the room shaking, quivering, quaking. The floor was no longer solid. Peppered across the tiles were fragments of plates, china plates. All the china had fallen off the shelf. And as I stood up, my knees wobbling beneath me, I knew they would cut through my feet, but my pain would be silent like the whole class was.
Ms. Ftizgerald marched to the door, as I staggered over, placing my feet in the stops which seemed to contain no broken china.
I followed her out of the room. All the eyes of my classmates trailed after me as I departed, like they were enemy snipers, in the jungle, waiting to pounce on human prey. Down the hallway Mr. Bacon stood, slapping his polished black oxfords against the ground. His mustache that day was groomed, and his hair seemed to be flecked with more grey than usual.
When I reached him, he placed a hand on my shoulder, “Jane, I am sorry to inform you that your mother passed away this morning.”
“Ok,” I glared down at my untied Earth shoes, not a smear smudging their shiny leather. Why was Mr. Bacon telling me this?
Ms. Fitzgerald began to tap my back. “I am so sorry, my dear.”
Not waiting a second, Mr. Bacon pronounced “Your aunts are waiting for you downstairs.”
They were sitting cross-legged in the cherry wood chairs the school had put in the lobby; Louisa sat between them. While they waited for me, they would dab their eyes, maybe gaze at portrait pictures of each of their own children, or squeeze the porcelain hand of Louisa. When they saw me coming down the school stairs, they rose from their seats.
“Oh, Jane,” Aunt Rose said, letting go of my sister’s hand to come and embrace me. She placed her arms around me. Her sweater smelled of cheap mall perfume.
“Your father has gone to pick up your brother,” Aunt Jean informed. Aunt Rose released me from her grasp and allowed Louisa to thrust her lanky arms into a hug with me. And I clung to her until my aunts told me it was time to go and we rode home.
For months after, whenever I would feel the tears nudging their way to the surface of my eyes, I would run to the hall coat closet. My father was never up for going through it, so her things still lay in the back. And just like the leaves, I would surround myself in the foliage of my mother’s coats. Soaking in the Chanel N°5 perfume that still lingered in her fur coat. And I would sculpt an image of her in my mind. All her scars. All her blemishes. Her smile. Her teeth. Her heart. Her strength. And then I knew. She was stronger than the frail plates stacked in the parlor. Probably stronger than all of us. Certainly had endured more. She was unbreakable. And she was beautiful. The most beautiful woman in the world. My mother.
Emily Shull is an aspiring young author from Connecticut. Outside of writing, she loves to spend her time reading, running cross country, baking, and hanging out with her friends. Becoming a writer has always been her dream career, and now that she is a sophomore, she hopes to start the process.