The Miller’s Daughter

by Ellen O’Connell


I was trying to make my heart stop beating but was not very good at that yet, although I worked on it every day. Sitting on the front porch, I had taken over the wooden swing Kate sat on with her vampire boyfriend, who wore a long black coat and had damp-looking skin. On a telephone wire across the street perched small dark birds, and against the clouds they looked like the alphabet written with black pen on white paper. The day was crisp and dry, and I hummed a song about elephants. My mother had put me in overalls that day, and I was pointing my feet hard. Every day, I thought, I looked more and more like a ballerina.

Across the street I saw a woman come out of the Pink House, and I wondered what the world she was stepping out of was like. I wondered what the world she was stepping into was like. My mother said it was different from our world. As soon as I saw her I tried to make myself invisible by sitting very still and feeling smaller than a teaspoon. I stopped breathing and my cheeks swelled out as though they were full of something hot. The seconds lingered and the woman turned her head and looked right at me, and for just a second something remarkable happened. For just a second it felt like the rest of the world stood still and only she and I kept living, so that afterward we were one second older than everything else. Her eyes were lustrous and my instinct was to run inside and bury my face in my mother’s apron.

Through the porch windows I saw our house, almost always full of people. That house will always be the house I love most in the world, more than all the houses I have lived in, more than the houses I have visited. I could see the living room, with books that were full of other people’s lives, people who never even lived at all. In my mind I picked one up and told the characters, you don’t even exist, not like I do.

When I looked back across the street the woman from the Pink House wasn’t there anymore, but I could see the spot where her eyes were, and the air seemed empty without them. I shivered in my neck and my arms, and swung back and forth, back and forth, with only the arms of the warm California winds to push me. I wondered how high astronauts could go up before they couldn’t see the planet Earth anymore, and then when that happened, what direction they looked when they thought of their mothers.

My father kept a blue tin of adult biscuits on the top shelf of his study, but Kate and I both knew about them. When the new baby was born I would teach him about them too. Biscuit was another word for cookie, and adult biscuits were too expensive for children to eat. He kept another tin of them in his office at the university because he had a sweet tooth a mile long.

In the afternoons my father let me take Bridget out for a walk while my mother took a nap. There was a trick to walking Bridget: I was not allowed to cross any streets, and that’s how I knew that I was walking her around the block. I was also not allowed, under any circumstances, to let go of Bridget’s leash. Usually it was Kate’s job to walk Bridget, but she was with her vampire boyfriend doing homework. I learned a new word that day from her: obnoxious. That’s what I was when I told her to help my mother carry groceries in from the car. I imagined Kate and her vampire boyfriend at home, their elbows making deep indentations in the quilt on her bed.

The clouds crowned the tops of the mountains that morning and somewhere down the hill there was the Pacific, stretching like fabric all the way to the Channel Islands. When I collected mussel shells with Kate at the beach I looked hard, across the world, for Japan. Looking at the ocean was how we knew the world was round. You could see it in the horizon, which was when the world stretched out on its back in front of you, like it was always tired and languid. The horizon was an arc, and it folded down out of view. Nothing interrupted the ocean but land, but that was the biggest interruption of all.

Bridget was black and was only afraid of men in hats. She pulled on the leash, pulled me forward like she couldn’t wait to see what was two steps ahead of her, like it was the most exciting walk of her life  I wondered what would happen if I just let go of her and she could go as fast as she wanted, where she would run to, and for how long, and if she would know the way home to us. On the corner of Valerio and Laguna I stopped and picked honeysuckle and put the end to my mouth. I made a circle with my fingers, imagining the honeysuckle was really a tiny trumpet, and I held the trumpet very carefully because it was full of the churning air that comes before rain. With my eyes closed, I sucked the small sweet drop inside the flower and threw it, empty and orange, to the sidewalk. There was only a taste in honeysuckle. How many flowers would I have had to pick if I wanted a cup full of honey? Jars full of flowers, hundreds of them, and it would take more people than I knew to pick them for me before they died.

I gave a flower to Bridget and she ate the whole thing.

My mother was going to have a baby boy about that time and I was the only one who knew it. Every night I prayed for him and my mother and father told me, “It might be a baby sister, you know.”

And I said, “I know it’s a baby brother because that’s what I’m praying for.” I prayed for a brother so that he could be my Nutcracker Prince and look exactly like Baryshnikov. He could lift me and carry me and save me from absolutely anything in the world. Ballet was something to say with your arms and legs and feet, and you said it to Baryshnikov and anyone else watching. Ballet was not something you talked about, it was something you did. Like my father, who didn’t talk about gardening the way he talked about Shakespeare. He just did it because in the end he could make things grow, and they grew in every color and contained every sweet smell. Ballet was like that for me too, and someday I knew I would do it perfectly because why would you do anything if you weren’t going to do it perfectly?

I turned another corner and saw a woman watering her lawn, and she said hello. I noticed the way her dress clung against her chest, like a bathing suit, and her heart wasn’t far below. She stopped watering when I passed by so Bridget and I didn’t get wet.

“Thank you,” I said.

“You’re welcome,” she told me.

“You’re welcome too,” I said.

It didn’t feel confining to never cross streets; I could always walk forward or back. I could keep walking forever around and around the block, constantly surprised when I saw our yellow house again, and the avocado tree in the yard.

Bridget smelled the air as if she smelled something important. Around us the blue jays were drowning in the sun. Another dog ran toward us from a gray and green house, and only a thin fence stopped it from attacking us. It stood on its back legs like a human being and its eyes were wild and glassy, like two polished stones. Bridget ran away, and I held her leash, even as I slid on the pavement, leaving my skin behind me, and could hear the dog barking away, far off in the distance, where we had already passed. The world looked bigger from the ground, and it felt hot on my elbows and knees, on my stomach and chin. A man behind me shouted, Let go, he shouted, and I let go.  Bridget ran on without me and I rolled over to see how much blood had soaked through clothing and skin. It looked like a bolt of electricity that I wanted to touch, just to see what it felt like to let something besides air go through my fingers.

The man who shouted ran to me and gathered me in a small bundle in his broad arms, cradling my weight. He didn’t seem worried about whether my blood touched his clothing, only about taking me home as though he was Baryshnikov and I was the swan. The man’s name was Richard; he was my father’s friend from the university, a quiet professor with a soft beard and scalloped eyes. I lay my head against his chest and pretended my hair wasn’t matted and dirty. It is a feeling I wish I could have back as an adult, the feeling that it isn’t weak to lean your head against someone’s chest.

“My father is going to be so mad that I lost the dog,” I told him with a sigh.

“I think he’ll understand when he sees you,” said Richard. He was right, as it turned out. I thought I knew my father better than anyone, but as I was passed to him, I saw all the ways I was wrong.

Sometimes I put my hand down my underwear and thought about sick men. I imagined their foreheads slick with sweat, their lips pale and parched, their eyelids heavy with fever. I imagined their breath catching in their throats and pain ringing like a siren in their heads. With my eyes closed I lay on my stomach with my hand in my underwear and squirmed around until my cheeks were flushed.

I knew that when I was grown up I’d like best to be a miller’s daughter, because that seems like the kind of girl that men fall in love with. I had no aspirations to be a miller, or to marry one, only to grow up and call myself the daughter of one, and wear a circlet of ribbon in my hair, right around the crown of my head. I would live until the age girls are when men fall in love with them, for life to me did not stretch past that age, but only to it. I had recently decided I didn’t want to be a pilgrim anymore, because their hats were too clumsy. A miller’s daughter was more practical, and much more pathetic.

In France, where they didn’t have pilgrims, fruit was called by women’s names, such as Mirabel and Clementine. Everyone was lucky in Europe. I had already been to Italy twice, and my father pretended he was Italian when he talked about things like basil and his children. Humans pretend things all the time, just to make our days into better stories at night. If I only told the absolute truth to myself I would want to be someone else, someone named Mirabel or Clementine, who was surprised by each new season, even though it is just the approach of what the calendar has already foretold.

I always tried to peel a tangerine in one long ribbon, which wrapped around itself and hung like a ringlet of skin. It smelled like morning air and I threw the peel over my shoulder as my father made coffee.

“G,” I said to Kate, who was late for school. “I’m going to marry someone whose first name starts with a G.”

“George,” she said, grabbing her backpack. “Gerald, Gabriel, Gilbert.”

She was already out the door, and in front of her was a new day, full of rain.

“Be a good chap and excel,” my father shouted to her, just like he did every morning, just as he would to me when I started kindergarten the next year.

I stood behind her in the doorway and across the street I saw the woman come out of the Pink House and sit on the curb, looking right at me. I walked into the driveway to pick up the newspaper at the edge, pulling off the string so I could put it in my hair. The woman waved, and I turned around on the heel of my saddle shoe and imagined her looking at my back as I walked away from her and wondered if it looked small to her.

She followed me. “Good morning,” she said from behind.

“Hello,” I said back, turning my head halfway so she could see my ski-slope nose. I shivered because I imagined she was a bad man, that she had hooks for hands. My legs were still scraped up from the day before and they stung when I bent them. I was wearing a skirt because I wanted everyone at school to see them and to ask what happened. I wanted to tell them in a tragic voice, “Oh, nothing.  Nothing at all in the world.” I wanted them to beg me to tell them the story.

“What’s your name?” the woman called after me. I thought briefly about telling her it was Mirabel.

“Ellen,” I finally answered.

“You’ve grown up really pretty,” she said, taking an elegant drag on her cigarette.

“Thank you,” I told her.

“You’re welcome.”

“You’re welcome too,” I said.

Maybe she came over to me and whispered in my ear. Maybe I walked to her and reached out my hand, still smelling of tangerine. Maybe she told me then that she was my real mother. I can’t quite remember. I think she told me I was looking more and more like her every day, and soon she would be ready to take me back home, just the two of us. When I try to think back to that morning, I am not sure whether it is even that woman I remember, or the lavender rain that seemed so encouraging. It might just as easily have been some later morning, or something I was afraid had happened, or worst of all, something I invented years later. In any case, it is something I understood then must be a secret.

In the car that morning, my mother drove past the Mission, all white and pink in the morning, like a pair of cold cheeks. I threw my hands up in the air and shouted, “The Mission!”  It was something we did every morning, something I had done since I was a baby.  It was the one landmark that made sense to me because it was always where it should be, and the bells rang the same time every morning, telling everyone, come to church, come inside this church.

“Can you imagine what the Spanish settlers must have thought when they first saw this?” my mother asked, and in front of us was a wet day, all the way to the ocean and the Channel Islands. We looked over our shoulders, down the hill, and we could see the whole world opening up like a fist uncurling and showing us something. The day was mauve and unsure.

“Sing the song about the train,” I told my mother.

“You know it makes you cry. I’m not going to sing it anymore.”

“I promise I won’t cry today if you sing it,” I said. In my mind I crossed my heart and hoped to die.

She began to sing in her clear high voice, and I sang the first verse with her. By the second verse my voice was already too weak to sing, and I swallowed back my promise not to cry. I swallowed it hard into my stomach and looked out the window at the brown mountains and the farm fruit stands of Goleta.

Into the bright morning, my mother sang:

“In the wreckage he was found lying there on the ground,

And he begged them to raise his weary head.

As his breath slowly went here’s the message he sent,

To the maiden that he had planned to wed.”

Daytime trees leaned close over us on the way. My eyes pooled with tears for the dying engineer. It was sadness, lovely and gleaming as bone. This was what I imagined it felt like to have a broken heart. It would be many years before I knew how much worse it is than a sad song your mother sings to you.

It was only a few days before the woman from the Pink House saw me again, and it almost seemed like she was waiting to say something to me. I had Bridget on her red leash and saw the woman sitting still, in one place, like a tree. Her gaze moved down the gray blocks of pavement, up our rosebushes, and up the stairs of our front porch, landing on me. She called out something, but the wind just swallowed her voice.

“Ellen,” she said, and laughed contemptuously, as if she had been insulted.

I was careful not to talk to her, not because she seemed like a bad man, but because I was trying to make myself believe she was.

“You know who I am, right?” she asked carefully. “Did your mom ever tell you?”

“What do you mean?” I asked her. Her hair was inky and savage.

“I’m your real mother,” she said softly, not unkindly, but sadly. Her new story began to form its shape right there, between us.

“No, you’re not,” I told her, but I looked at the way light made shadows under her cheekbones. It was at that moment that I learned that we are defined not by the things we have done, but by the things we are capable of doing. She was beautiful the way the barking dog was beautiful, with a starless stare. I had never seen snow, but if it were to fall, I thought it would look nice on the peak of her black hair. She took my hand, and somewhere inside me, this gesture found a home.

“I know this is hard for you to understand,” she said quietly, “but will you at least listen to me?”

At this time, my mother and father both worked, and Kate was a teenager. The new baby was coming soon, and it was all we talked about. Somehow, in that minute, I was filled there with curiosity, with delight. It was something for me to focus on.

I looked up at her and wrapped the leash around my hand, around and around, until I could not move it.

“This is Bridget,” I told her. “She’s a black lab.”

All the things that were mine came to me right then, all the things I knew for certain, and they pushed everything else away. I was in the mood to believe everything over again. Above our heads, the trees were saying something in the wind, to each other. She took my hand, and her grasp was like she was reaching into the waves to grab a handful of sand or a tangle of kelp before it got pulled away with the water.

“Do you believe me?” She asked as though she cared about my answer.

“Sure,” I said, because I didn’t want to hurt her feelings.

“Where are you going?” She stood up and brushed imaginary crumbs from her denim thighs.

“We’re taking a wander,” I said.

“Are you going someplace new in the world?”

“No,” I told her. “I can only go around the block. I’ve never been anywhere new. I don’t think there is anywhere really new, only places that are new to me.”

I thought about taking her someplace new. I thought about the turtle pond in the park near our house, about the Moreton Bay Fig with roots exposed like a maze that you could sit in, where you could close your eyes and pretend you were a breathing part of the tree.

“How old are you now?” she asked. The way she walked took up most of the sidewalk.

“Four, which is the oldest I’ve ever been. How old are you?” But she didn’t answer, so I let her be quiet a while.

“Have you ever been to Europe?” I asked her after a few minutes.

“Only to England,” she said. “I met Princess Diana and we had a tea party.”

“Some people are the luckiest people in the world,” I sighed.

“But that happened about a hundred years ago.”

“Even if it happened yesterday, you’re still the luckiest person I know.”

“Luckiest person I know, luckiest person I know,” she said, and started to laugh.

There were a few more minutes of silence as we wait for Bridget to sniff all the flowers.

“Oh god,” she started saying, over and over. “Oh god, god, god, oh god.”

“Oh god,” I said, because it seemed like the right thing to say just then, and I always liked to say the right thing.

“God bless you,” she told me.

We passed the honeysuckle bush, and I picked one and smelled it and kissed it and sucked the honey out of it quickly. I gave one to her too, but she threw it on the ground. Everything seemed to groan under the afternoon’s weight.

“Your parents have just been taking care of you until I was ready for you again,” she said.

“Okay, sure,” I said.

“You’re my real daughter, and I’m your real mother, and that’s the end of it.”

“That sounds fine.”

We walked around and around the block, and maybe crossed some streets as well, but it’s hard to know. I wanted to tell her about Captain Hook behind my bed and what I felt when I thought about sick men. I wanted to lean in and smell her ear and whisper about my father’s adult biscuits, and ask her what she saw when she closed her eyes and if they were the same things I saw. I wanted the rest of time, but by now we were walking through heavy shade.

If I half shut my eyes and blurred the world through them, I could turn the afternoon into an impressionist painting, maybe even one I painted myself. I was younger than she was by so much, but at the end of the walk we were the same age. We gave each other delicate, open looks as we said goodbye on my front porch.

I went inside to help Kate and my father roll out the pasta. I went inside to press my nose into my mother’s hair. I lay on the living room floor with Raggedy Ann as the sun went down, and there were squares of light on the Turkish carpet, and I wanted to be unsure of what happened and what did not. Then I closed my eyes and heard the gulls from the ocean and the way the trees outside blew against each other. It seemed to be the end of something more than just a day.

My mother and I took walks in the evenings, and she pointed out flowers that grew in neighbors’ yards. She let me pick one from each garden so that at the end I had two fistfuls of makeshift bouquets. In my hands, neglected flowers, hastily pulled, freshly picked; I grasped them like you grab a runaway animal. I never went too far into my own mind or in the neighborhood then without taking my mother with me.

“This is a cactus,” she taught me. “You should never touch them because they prick you.”

As she said this she reached out and touched it, and a bright slice of blood appeared on her finger.

“Ouch,” she said, sticking it in her mouth. “You see? Here I tell you not to touch it and then I go and touch it. Stupid, stupid.”

“Can I kiss it to make it stop hurting?” I asked.

She pulled it wetly out of her mouth and I kissed it.

“All better,” she told me. She stuck it back in her mouth and there were shallow pools under her eyes, but they did not spill over her lids. Years later she told me that her finger still stung like anything, but this was one of the sacrifices people make every minute of every day for their children’s feelings. There is not always much you can do, but when you can, you have to do that much.

Sometime in the following days, I told my mother that the woman from the Pink House became the kind of stranger I had just wanted to glance from my window, the kind of stranger I whose eyes I had never expected to look into. My mother might have laughed, she might have been angry, she probably held me tight against her.

“She’s not my real mother, is she?” I asked.

“No.”

I think I must have known that all along. And because I liked being held against my mother, and because I liked when my father sat me down and asked me exactly what happened, and how long we were gone, and what she said to me, I began to tell them a story. It was an intricate story, and I spun it slowly, going back and adding things if I thought of them later, aware that a story must have tension, and something at stake, and something lost. I added these elements if they were not already there. I saw on their faces that the worse the story was, the more they filled their eyes with me. They stroked my hair and held my hand. My mother called me her angel baby, her pumpkin pie. My father called me Ellsbug. And then, like a word spoken in an empty room, it hovered and evaporated: the retelling, the feeling of pride, and maybe, if I did make it up, those parts disappeared too. I took a bath and put my hair underwater so that it floated around me like a mermaid. I practiced pointing my feet hard and wore a string in my hair to bed, just like a miller’s daughter would.

And then the strangest thing happened. It was some days later, either one or many, and I was home with Kate, who was locked in her room with her vampire boyfriend. From the dark wooden living room, red lights flooded the floor like spilled paint. I opened the door and the neighbors all stood on the sidewalk, arms crossed across their chests, each face dark and hidden.

The woman from the Pink House was there, with her arms cuffed behind her back. Three policemen stood with her, and one of them put his hand on her head and pushed her into the car, like a jack-in-the-box. I wanted to run to the policemen and tell them I wasn’t sure if the story I told was right or not, and ask them how many things have to be a hundred-percent true.

I stood in front of our house and looked at the protected faces of the other people on our city block, up the hill toward Olive Street, down the hill towards the honeysuckle. The police car drove away silently, and I watched it as it got smaller and smaller until finally it disappeared from view. The street emptied, and it seemed as if it had always been empty and I had imagined everything. The birds on the telephone wire above me made thin musical noises.

Most of me knew I was right, and part of me wondered if what I thought happened was true at all. This is the story I have let nest inside me. One day, a black-haired woman and I took a walk. I would like to meet her and ask her someday what she remembers, and how much our two stories overlap.

That night I told my mother and father and Kate that the woman left the Pink House, and asked if they thought she was coming back.

“No,” they all told me.

I asked them if once you told a story you could take it back, if it hurt someone. I asked them how to know if what you say is true if you mostly forget.

“Depends,” they all told me.

In bed that night I prayed for the baby boy that was about to be born. I prayed if I was not going to be brave or good, at least let me marry someone handsome.

And then the trees outside my bedroom window scratched and talked. What did the trees say? They said, I will be right here until the end of my life.


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