I adore mother-daughter stories and this dreamlike one by Tanya Aydelott kept me rapt with its mysterious atmosphere and mythic elements. With a delicate hand, the author seduced me into a strange, magical world that felt very original, surprising, and psychologically complex.”
—Jandy Nelson, New York Times bestselling and Printz Award-winning author


She remembers the first time she saw the unicorn tapestries. Mama had just moved them to New York City, piling their weathered brown suitcases in the foyer of an apartment almost too small to be called a home. On a sticky August afternoon before Mama started her new job on TV, they took the M4 bus, crowded and noisy, up to the top of Manhattan. She sat in Mama’s lap, watching the other passengers: the teenager with the headphones so much larger than his ears, the tired woman with thick ankles and stretched shopping bags, the older gentleman with a checkered hat tugged low over his bushy white eyebrows. She couldn’t see his eyes. There were young twins, their hair bound up in braids, babbling to each other in a language she couldn’t understand, and an older brother watching them with exasperation. Maybe she wasn’t the only one who didn’t know their language.

“We’re here,” Mama said gently, and pried her loose. 

She hopped down the big step of the bus and looked up at the imposing building, this place Mama said was important for her to see. Mama said that about many things, and usually the girl wasn’t sure why they were important, even after she had seen them.

The museum was fairly large, with narrow stairwells and hushed, cool rooms. She felt her heart leap when Mama pointed out that one entire archway had been brought over from Spain, dismantled and reassembled to look exactly as it had in its original location. She thought, This is what I am, too. Brought here like a stone and expected to fit. She reached out to touch the pitted arch, but Mama gently tugged her back. 

Outside, there were spindly dwarf trees and a small herb garden laid out by the curators based on a medieval plan. Mama pointed out the fruit that was beginning to grow, the small glossy bodies rounding into recognizable shapes. The girl watched butterflies and squirrels dart in and out of the greenery. The air was scented with herbs and flowers, nothing like the greasy gas smell of the city. She wanted to stay here, away from the cold stone walls that had been stolen from their homes, but Mama took her hand and moved them back inside.

They stayed for a long time in the room with the unicorns. Mama had told her stories, but nothing looked the way she had imagined. Instead of gentle, sloping heads, the unicorns had beards, and their mouths were turned down as if they were sad or worried. And they were being hunted, first by dogs and then by men. The final unicorn was captured and enclosed, its body torn by sharp spears. The cage around it was low, but the unicorn could not escape it.

Mama touched her cheek, and she realized she was crying. 

“Yes,” said Mama, “we should cry for them.”

“But they’re not real,” she remembers saying, her young voice high and hot.

“Things can be real even if we never see them,” Mama said. “Most things are. Don’t say a thing isn’t real until you know for certain.”

She remembers being bewildered and afraid. “Why is there a belt around its neck?”

Mama let out a breath. The dark shadows that had begun to ring her eyes seemed to have moved lower, into her voice. She said, “Things that are unexplainable—these are things that people feel they must control. Magic. Beauty. Art. Creatures like the unicorn, which they aren’t even sure are real. Even in their imaginations, they cage them.”

Her eyes moved from the unicorn to Mama. This was something important, something she needed to know. “People, too?” she asked, her voice hollow like a shell.

Mama passed a hand across the girl’s head, smoothing the stray hairs at her temples. “Oh,” she said softly, and, “yes.”

Someone came into the room then, feet slapping against stone, and bumped up against Mama so she had to move to the side. “Hey,” the voice said, and then, “Hey, I know you—you did the desserts on that morning show! Let me get a picture with you.”

Mama demurred, as she always did, and they left very soon after.

On the way out, the girl had wanted to buy a postcard—one of the ones showing the unicorn with its horn in water, before it was brought down by the hunters. But Mama said no, the magic was in remembering the unicorn, not owning it.


Mama’s new cooking show was not, initially, a success. That came later, after the producer suggested she wear low-cut blouses and skirts that flared and heels that made her stand differently. She became someone else. The make-up crew curled her hair and threw red on her lips and splashed dark paint across her eyelids and eyelashes. She and the girl laughed about the transformation; they called the TV version of her “Marlena,” after an actress Mama had admired when she was young. Marlena would smile and the live audience would thrill to her; she would bend over in one of her new blouses to reveal a soufflé, and the producer would promise her champagne. “The camera loves you!” he would crow every time the ratings came in. 

“It won’t last,” Mama would say in her throaty Marlena voice, fluffing her skirts and patting her dark hair. “We’ll leave here soon and do something else. But for now, this is fine for us.”

The girl spent afternoons in the studio watching her mother become Marlena, and nights watching Marlena turn back into her mother. There were trips to restaurants and museums, evenings at literary salons where the adults talked for hours in smoky, dull-scented rooms, weekend out-of-town trips to go antiquing and pick through racks of fashionable old stoles, and jaunts to toy stores where they bought puzzles and paints. 

There was one place Mama wouldn’t take her. When her class had a field trip to the Prospect Park Zoo, Mama drew her out of school for the day and they went across the city to the Museum of Modern Art. The girl remembers protesting; she had wanted to spend more time with the other children in her class. But Mama was adamant. “Bodies are cages already,” Mama said, something dark and pained in her eyes. “There’s no need to see cages inside cages.” 

At the MOMA, Mama stood for a long time in front of Willem de Kooning’s Woman, I. “Can you see?” she finally asked, one hand so tight around her purse strap that her knuckles showed white as bone. “Look how she escapes her body. Look how he’s given her wings.” She led the girl through the exhibit, stopping before Picasso’s Two Nudes and Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. “Look how their bodies are and are not, at the same time.” 

There was a wistfulness to Mama’s voice that was all hers, with none of Marlena’s brass. 

“They’re ugly,” the girl said. She remembers how she had hated the way the artists smudged the women’s bodies so they looked small and vulnerable. She remembers how her own body felt as though its edges were smudging into curves. Some days, it had felt like she was becoming a stranger to herself. “They don’t look finished.”

“They’re in the wrong skins.” Mama’s cheeks were pale, like the blush roses she sometimes received from fans and left with the studio’s doorman. “Being trapped inside the wrong skin can feel like a curse. The moment you find the right one, you can’t wait to live in it.” 

Her gaze grew faraway then, as though she were looking past the paintings, and the girl turned away from Les Demoiselles, uncomfortable. 

When they got home, Mama poured so much rosewater into her coffee that the air was nearly pink with it. She drew from her oracle deck that night, and the first card she pulled was Grief.

Mama stopped using the subway soon after that, saying that more and more people recognized her; she was uncomfortable with their attention. “New York is fine,” Mama would say. “There’s no need to go national.” Her producer was upset; he wanted to send Marlena on tour across the U.S., not just giving cooking lessons but interacting with local chefs. Mama had loud phone arguments with him, her sharp heels clicking against the hardwood floors of their second New York apartment—slightly bigger than the first, with an armoire they’d found at an antiques shop in Hudson and a sideboard and mirror from Essex. It seemed like home always reflected cities or towns they visited and left, never the city they walked every day. “I know what I want,” Mama would tell her producer, “and I know what I don’t. Stop trying to change my mind.” 

One night, Mama hurried them home from the studio without even taking off her makeup. She stank of grease and had an angry splotch of red at the base of her neck. Once the door was closed and locked behind them, she brewed and drank two cups of tea scented with rosewater, then met her own eyes in the mirror over the sideboard. “Don’t ever put yourself on display,” Marlena said in Mama’s voice, her eyes heavy with liquid eyeliner and exhaustion. “They’ll never give you back.”

The girl knew their time in New York was up when Mama stopped using rosewater in Marlena’s desserts. It wasn’t because the rosewater was running out—Mama was careful to have three bottles in the cupboard, always, just in case. But the bottles disappeared from the television kitchen, and then the three bottles at home became six, and then nine. Mama began staying up late to check and re-check the numbers in her bank account; one morning, the girl found a fistful of cash tucked inside one of the tea caddies. She began putting her favorite books into a suitcase and deciding which of her clothes to bring with her and which to donate, and when Mama said they needed to go, she already had one bag packed and was nearly finished with a second.

The week before they left, they went to see the unicorns again. This time in a taxi, with a driver whose music jangled and slurred, and who eyed Mama again and again in the rearview mirror. Mama tipped him so he would not wait for them.

They did not walk through the gardens of the Cloisters. They did not spend time looking at the Spanish archway or the French chapels, even though she ached to see that Spanish stone again, to reassure herself that it was still there. 

They went straight to the unicorns and stood for a long time with them. This time, she noticed that the colors on the tapestries were faded and whole sections were coming loose, but the majesty of the creatures was still there in each thread. The unicorns were beautiful, or perhaps a word beyond beautiful. They were calm, exaltation, peace. And for their otherworldly beauty, they were hunted.

“Remember them,” Mama told her. “It will be a long time, I think, until we are here again.”

Mama squeezed her hand then, so tightly her bones had squeaked, and stepped away. 

The girl stood alone before the unicorns. She felt her body move with every cold breath, her ribs and skin and lungs stretching to keep her alive. She looked at each unicorn in turn, counting them, memorizing them. And for a lonely, chilled moment, she was sure they looked back.


They moved south. Mama’s hair became gold, then black, then auburn. She darkened and lightened her eyebrows, changed her shoes from heels to flats to sandals to boots. Bracelets appeared on her arms, became watches, then disappeared. She had four earrings, then none, then two. A beauty mark rose high on her right cheek, but was gone one morning and reappeared days later by her clavicle. Her smile widened and shrank, grew brittle, grew edges. Marlena came back only once, for a television commercial for a cooking oil, and then Mama threw out all of Marlena’s dresses and make-up. They wouldn’t even watch the real Marlene’s movies, Mama said; they were done with that name forever.

She bought a car, threw their books and clothes into the trunk, and locked it tight. Sunglasses to hide their eyes; haircuts to frame their faces differently. Mama said she was enrolling the girl in the school of life, and bought an entire set of encyclopedias for her to read. She sent postcards to New York and Chicago and places the girl did not remember, mail that never had a return address. When they checked into new hotels and found messages awaiting their arrival, Mama did not read them aloud. 

One night, the girl woke in a dark, sterile hotel room to the sound of Mama weeping. It was a wrenching noise, no less horrible for being muffled in the overstuffed hotel pillow. She crept from her bed to her mother’s, placing her hand on Mama’s elbow. Mama’s skin was hot, too hot, and she snatched her stinging hand back.

“Mama?” She remembers the fear, the worry.

“It hurts.” Her mother’s voice was tight and scratchy, and the girl realized that it was Mama’s whimper that had woken her. “It hurts.” 

The girl knew what to do, or at least where to start. She boiled water in the electric kettle they always carried, filled a mug, and poured in enough rosewater that the air above the mug was fragrant and wet. She carried the steaming mug back to Mama and tried to get her to sit up. “Here,” she said, and reached around her mother’s shoulders.

Something pricked at her palm. Hissing, she bent over Mama to see. Something was on her skin, or maybe in it, something sharp, something trying to grow—

Mama sat up quickly, rubbing her hands across her face. She took the mug from the nightstand and gulped down the hot rosewater. As she drank, the color returned to her face. “I’m sorry,” she said when she had emptied the mug. Her voice sounded almost normal. “Did I wake you? You should go back to sleep.”

“Mama,” the girl asked, “what’s wrong with your back?”

Mama looked at her for a long moment. She pulled at the neck of her nightgown, easing it down and baring her shoulder blade. There was a dark red blotch, like a burn or a bruise that hadn’t yet realized it was supposed to purple, and Mama let out a quick breath when the girl gently touched its edge. 

Nothing poked out from her skin. It was still hot to the touch, but it was smooth.

“Are you okay?” The girl didn’t know what else to say.

Mama nodded. “Could you—would you put some cream on it for me?”

The girl brought three of her mother’s creams to the bed. As the months had gone by, she’d noticed the growing collection of bottles and lotions, and wondered why they were all suddenly necessary. When she was little, Mama had only kept one or two bottles on her dresser. Now there were so many that they had their own case, a zippered bag embroidered with swans. Mama kept it in her suitcase with her cards. 

Mama touched each of the bottles in turn and chose the one she wanted. It was made from rose hips, and when the girl unscrewed the lid and released the scent into the room, Mama sighed and her face gentled. “Thank you,” she whispered. “I don’t know what came over me.”

They left the next day. Mama’s face was still swollen from crying, but they said nothing to each other about the tears, the red blotch on her right shoulder, or the one she had revealed, after the girl had spread the cool white cream on her skin, on her left. 

When they checked into their next hotel, Mama said she was taking a bath and locked the bathroom door. She was inside for a long time, and when she finally emerged, the steam that billowed out of the room was tinted pink and smelled like roses. She drew her cards before bed, and the first card she pulled was Deception.

It was in Knoxville, Tennessee that it happened. They were coming out of a department store, Mama slicking on a new lipstick, when a shout stopped her. “Hey—hey, Lianne! Lianne, wait.”

Her face froze. Her foot, about to lift and propel her into the next step, paused; her heel was already off the ground. It would have been comical, except that when she turned, her face was ashen and the lipstick color, which had been so perfect just moments before, was suddenly all wrong for her. 

“Lianne, I knew it was you,” the man said, striding toward them. His face was deeply tanned, flat and grooved like the backside of a hatchet, but his hands were steady on Mama’s wrists. He shook her, very gently, as though he were afraid movement would cause her to disappear. “Where did you go?”

He caught sight of the girl, and his eyes widened. 

“Lianne?” he whispered, and Mama seemed to crumple, right there, so that he was holding her wrists but somehow also holding her heart.

“I can’t, I can’t,” Mama said, but of course they did.


The man’s name was Ted, and he knew Mama from—before. Before everything, it seemed. Before the television program, before New York City, before D.C. and Chicago and Savannah. Before she learned how to paint her face and talk into spotlights. He knew her when she traveled alone. 

A few days after he found them, they accompanied him to Nashville. Mama was careful to tell the girl that they would be staying with Ted for a time, but she was also careful not to say when they would leave.

In Ted’s house, she helped her mother take down the heavy, dark drapes and replace them with lighter fabrics; hang bright paintings and prints in place of the mirrors he had on every wall; and lay richly-colored carpets on his cold floors. It was like doing magic, the girl thought, the way Mama transformed his house from a mausoleum into a home.


And there was another new school for her. Mama refused to let Ted pay for it. “Some things,” she said testily when he offered, again, “we can manage on our own.” The girl did not feel brave enough to ask Mama which things they couldn’t manage. 

“So she had dark hair when you met her?” the girl asked him once.

“And she was skinny,” he said, shuffling a deck of cards. He was teaching her to play gin rummy. “Bones, mostly. I used to feed her pancakes with extra syrup and milkshakes with three cherries on top, and still she was just this bitty thing. My momma thought she must be half noodle.”

The girl laughed, thinking of the desserts her mother made with thin noodles curled around each other, fragrant fruits and syrups nestled in their curves. 

He flashed his teeth at her and dealt. “She was skinny as a rose stem,” he drawled. “Like a line of paint down a highway. I kept feeding her and feeding her, and that line didn’t get any wider.” He looked at his hand and reordered the cards. “And then she wasn’t skinny anymore, and then she wasn’t here anymore.”

“Was that because of me?” the girl asked, lifting the top card from the deck. She paused, looking tightly at the eleven cards in her hand, trying hard to concentrate only on which card she would trade back. 

He put his cards down—face down, because he wouldn’t let her win easily, not even like this—and looked at her. She liked this about him, that he could look directly at her without flinching, that his eyes were patient and did not judge. He simply met her gaze and waited.

“No,” he said after a quiet moment. “But I’ve been missing you all these years, even when I didn’t know it.” His gaze touched her eyebrows, her cheekbones, the light glinting on her middle part. “Even your hair is like mine.”

She lifted the end of her braid and looked at it. Her hair was brown; his hair was brown. But Mama’s hair could be brown, too, any shade she wanted. If he’d said that her eyes were like his, she might have agreed. Or her height—she was going to be tall, just like him, probably at least four inches taller than Mama. If he’d said the shape of her chin, the way her big toe edged ever so slightly to the side, the way her nostrils flared when she got angry—any of those would have convinced her. But he said hair, the thing she was most sure was changeable.

“Mama’s hair is brown,” she replied.

“It’s the curl,” he said, and picked his cards back up. “The curl in your hair doesn’t come from your momma.”

There were days she was glad she didn’t look very much like her mother. She’d seen how Marlena tried to dodge but could not escape the people around her, how the eyes on her were a constant weight she struggled against. But she’d also spent days wishing she had the same grace, the same smooth-milk skin, the same casual wave and flip to her hair. When she was little, she had tried on her mother’s lipsticks and frowned when they didn’t look good on her. Clipped on earrings, and grimaced to find them too big for her face. She’d once tried styling her hair with her mother’s hairbrush, and then had to ask to be unsnarled from its bristles. 

“It isn’t—I’m not—” she said, and blushed hotly when Ted looked at her.

“Of course not,” he said mildly, and waited for her to play her card. 

She played; he played. The hand continued for a few more moments, and as she drew close to making her third set, she asked, “Do you hate her for any of it?”

Ted’s answer was swift. “No.” He chewed a moment on the next thought. “How could I? Even when I missed her, even when I was confused and hurt, even at the lowest point, she was always—Lianne.” He played his final card, face down, laying out a perfect hand, ace to the ten of spades. “One day, hopefully, you’ll see.”

The girl considered this. She wasn’t sure how she felt about getting romantic advice from Ted, particularly when he was winning. “What about me?” she asked. “Are you mad she took me away from you?”

Ted sighed. “I didn’t know why she left, not at first,” he admitted. “And I didn’t know about you, so how could I be mad about that? If anything, I was hurt. But then—well, she had her reasons.”

The girl’s nose wrinkled, and she gathered the cards to shuffle and deal. The deck was well-worn and slick; the design on its back was a loon, the patterned feathers carefully reproduced in dark blue ink. 

“Reasons?” She thought about where they’d lived, the things they’d seen. She wondered what would compel her mother to leave. “Like being on TV?”

Even as she said it, she knew it wasn’t right.

He laughed, low and wary. “Sure,” he said, “we can say that.” But then he shook his head. “No, it wasn’t that. It was—well, she lost something important, and I couldn’t help her find it. Maybe she’s spent all this time looking for it.” 

The girl thought about the trips she and Mama took, the antique stores and vintage clothing shops, the auction houses and flea markets and midnight bus rides to cities she could barely pronounce. She wondered what a search would have looked like if Mama had stayed in one place.

Mama rolled her eyes when Ted started teaching the girl gin rummy. “It’s a game we can all play with my mother,” he said by way of explanation, winking at the girl and dealing Mama into the game.

“Your mother never liked me,” Mama reminded him, pressing her fingers against the back of the cards. She was wearing white, a color she had never worn as Marlena, with a string of jet beads around her neck. She looked young and happy and helpless.

Ted only laughed, saying in his solid, confident way, “Having a granddaughter will change things.”

“She’ll spoil her, just to spite me.”

“Your daughter?” Ted had a broad voice; it took up space, smoothing corners and making lights brighter. He filled rooms with the grin his words always seemed to carry with them. “She wouldn’t dare.”

On Tuesdays, they went to visit Ted’s mother in her retirement community, just a short drive from his house. Ted called her Ma, and Mama called her Nancy, or Mrs. Holland. When they met, she instructed the girl to call her Nana Nancy. She styled her hair in tight golden curls, always brushed to shine, and wore three rings on each hand. She liked to talk about her jewelry when Mama was in the room, and about Mama when she wasn’t.

The girl overheard Mama and Ted once, when she was supposed to be doing homework in another room. She wanted Ted’s help with math, which was her least favorite and hardest subject. She had come looking for him, and heard him arguing with Mama. Or maybe it was Mama arguing with Ted.

“I swear she watches me, Ted. She watches me like a—” Mama stopped short.

Ted’s voice was smooth, unhurried. “She’s just curious, like a magpie.”

“I hate that she watches me. I hate that she knows so much about me.”

“Just that you were in New York,” Ted said. He sounded uncharacteristically grumpy. “didn’t even know that. She only told me when you’d left and it was too late for me to come find you. That’s when I learned you’d been on TV.”

Mama was aghast. “She watched my show?”

“She found your recipes online,” Ted told her. He hadn’t heard the tremor in her voice. “I’d been eating your desserts for months and I didn’t even know it.”

The girl was careful to make no sound as she returned to the living room where her textbooks were waiting, the shiny white pages splayed open. 

The retirement community was a series of small bungalow homes with tight little yards, and a larger central building that served as the social hub. Nana Nancy liked them to come to the little café at the social building so she could show them off, her Ted and his marvelous daughter, what a beauty she was going to grow into, and her mother, that one. Mama would be all smiles for the residents, her laugh full of rosewater and honey. 

But when they returned to Nana Nancy’s for a final sit-down with tea, Mama would grow quiet and restless. She’d take her teacup and roam the house, touching photographs and nudging the Lladró bird figurines Nana Nancy collected out of their dust-roughened places.

One afternoon, when Nana Nancy was relating her plans for her eightieth birthday party—“The women in my family usually don’t live this long, so it’s special,” Ted had said—they heard a small thump and a muffled cry. 

“Why,” said Nana Nancy, her painted eyebrows rising, “I think that was from the guest bedroom. Teddy, go see what she’s knocked over.”

Ted was only half out of his chair when Mama burst in. There was a splash of tea on the edge of her skirt, and her hands were full of something dark and glossy. Her cheeks burned red.

“What is this?” she asked. Her voice was flat, like a freshly cut board. It shoved splinters into the air. “I’ve been looking—How long have you had this?

Nana Nancy’s eyes were hard as opals. “It’s not polite to go through another person’s things.”  She coughed once, delicately, and touched a napkin to her thin, spidery lips. When she spoke again, her voice was casual, but the girl saw that her hands were shaking. “I picked it up at an estate sale, but I haven’t worn feathers in at least a decade. I was thinking of giving it away.” Something bright and birdlike moved in her eyes. “Why, do you like it?”

Mama moved swiftly into the room, shoes striking the floor. The scent of rosewater scorched the air around her. “It’s not yours,” she seethed. “It was never yours. How dare you.”

Nana Nancy lifted her chin. Goosebumps rose on the loose skin of her neck. “Teddy, be a dear and get her a glass of water,” she said. The white rims of her eyelids flashed. “There’s no call to go flying off the handle.”

“I am taking this,” Mama said, her eyes raking over Nana Nancy’s thin skin, perfectly coiffed hair, wrists just beginning to darken with liver spots. She looked down at the thing she was holding. “You will never get it back. You will never use it again.” 

The girl only realized she was standing when her shin smacked into the coffee table and set cups rattling. One of the crane figurines—one of the more expensive ones, Nana Nancy had said—wobbled and she reached out, gasping, to catch it before its graceful neck snapped. When she straightened, she caught the flick of Nana Nancy’s eyes.

Mama noticed, too. “How dare you, she said to Nana Nancy. She said it again, and it sounded as though the hinges of her voice had broken: “How dare you.”

Ted put his fingers over Mama’s, over the thing she held in her trembling hands. “Lianne,” he said, his voice trying to bring brightness back into the cramped sitting room, “I’m sure she didn’t mean—”

No, Ted,” said Mama, and she jerked around, grabbing for her purse. “We’re leaving.”

“So soon?” asked Nana Nancy, her six rings winking. “There’s still tea and meringues. They’re your recipe.”

But Mama was at the door, fumbling to wrench it open, and Ted murmured something to his mother and Nana Nancy purred back, and then they were outside in the shocking sunlight, and Mama’s breath was a shudder, then a sigh, then a wail. 


When they got back to Ted’s house, Mama swept her upstairs and shut the door against any interruption.

Mama was breathing hard. Her eyes were wild. There was something frightened and frightening living inside them. “Do you remember the unicorns?”

The girl nodded. Of course she remembered the unicorns. She remembered the stolen stone walls, too, and the fruit trees twisted for human pleasure. She remembered the bus and the babbling twins, and the taxi driver’s greedy eyes.

“Sometimes the things you’ve been waiting for and fearing, they just happen,” Mama said, moving to the window and shoving it open. Cool air blew into the room and rumpled the sheer curtains. “Do you understand?”

The girl shook her head.

“I wish—I wish I’d never found it.” Mama’s voice dropped; it wasn’t clear if she meant to be heard or not. “I wish it didn’t hurt so much. I wish we’d never been discovered.” Her breath was a tight gasp. “I wish Ted had never found us, but oh, I’m so happy he did. For you.”


Mama turned and pressed her hands hard against the curve of the girl’s face. “I love you,” Mama said, bending to place a fast kiss in the center of her forehead. She smoothed her thumbs across the girl’s cheekbones. “I have loved every minute with you.”

The girl was bewildered. “I love you, too,” she answered breathlessly, confusion taking the space of air in her body. “What’s happening? What’s going to happen?”

“I am so sorry, baby,” Mama said. “I am so sorry.”

Ted knocked on the door, saying something that the door held back.

Mama unwound the jet beads from her neck, pushing them into the girl’s hands. “Remember,” she said. “Remember I love you.”

The knocking was louder now. Ted’s voice was impatient.

The girl felt the unyielding shape of the beads against her skin, her palms, her thin fingers. A shudder started in her knees and she said, “Mama, please.” She wasn’t sure what she was asking, just that she needed to put words into the space between her body and her mother’s. “Mama, don’t.

“I have the best daughter in the world,” her mother said, tearing her earrings from her ears and pulling her shirt out of the wide belt of her skirt, “the best and most wonderful child I could have ever asked for. I have lived a good life; I have seen amazing places, and it has been the best adventure to share those places with you. And I love you. I love you.

Mama was nearly naked—just her slip was left, covering her bra and panties, as if she knew the girl didn’t want to see that last stretch of skin. Rosewater scented the air, and the air felt sticky with promises and secrets. 

“Mama,” said the girl again, hating the rough note in her voice.

Mama opened her fingers on the thing she had brought back from Nana Nancy’s house. Her eyes met the girl’s, the dark liquid of her irises swimming suddenly with shadows and branches, and then the glossy thing was up over her head and her bright eyes were gone. Ted crashed through the bedroom door, splinters falling onto the carpet and a noise like a train whistle rushing out from his body. “Lianne!” he cried, voice cracking like glass, and the beautiful black bird before them flapped once, twice, and disappeared out the open bedroom window.


She remembers all of this. She remembers the unicorns, their hooves protected by little skirts of hair, their mouths downturned. She remembers their eyes, wild and mocking, which seemed to know her the second time she came to visit. She remembers the Spanish arch, torn from its home and brought across the world to be an example to schoolchildren and art historians. She remembers the fruit trees, planted to human design, pruned and shaped for the benefit of the gardeners. And she remembers her mother, beautiful and glossy, free until she wasn’t, untethered until the cage was shut around her. 

Nana Nancy didn’t live long after that. She fell in her garden and never came home from the hospital. The EMTs said that when they got to her, they found two glossy black feathers near her feet. Ted refused to take them. And the girl couldn’t bring herself to touch them.

Ted bought a black suit for the funeral and a black dress for the girl. She wore her mother’s jet beads to the cemetery and threw a single skinny rose onto the dirt over the casket.

“Well,” Ted said, hands deep in the pockets of his stiff suit, and they watched as people slowly made their way out of the cemetery. Everyone had driven, and the line of black cars stretched bleakly to the gates. Ted said it was the way his family had always done it: no one ever walked if they could drive somewhere.

“Will I still go to school here?” the girl asked, because she hadn’t known what else to say. Her mother had never mentioned boarding school, but she knew it was a thing that existed in Nana Nancy’s world and, therefore, in Ted’s.

Ted drew her to his side, dropping a long arm around her shoulders. “Yeah,” he said roughly, his voice a small fire in the gloom. “And we’ll visit museums whenever we can. She would’ve liked that.”

They never needed to say who “she” was.


They traveled in Ted’s reliable sedan, or bought tickets for the train or airplane. She tucked vials of rosewater into her backpack, pouring them into sweetened boiling water and, later, when Ted said she was old enough, into her morning coffee. Something eased inside her with every sip, something she hadn’t realized was clenched and tense. 

Ted watched her drink, his mouth curling gently at the sides; he said she reminded him so much of her mother, even though her height was coming in, and they told each other stories of how she lit up rooms and stages and sidewalks. “She was here, wasn’t she?” he asked her once, when he was tired from a long day’s drive, almost stumbling when they finally made it home. “I didn’t imagine her?”

They went to see the McNay, the Getty, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. One summer, they spent two weeks in Washington, D.C. visiting all the national museums and memorials. She liked the still exactness of Andrew Wyeth’s paintings, especially the one of Christina in the meadow, looking towards a farmhouse with her face turned away from the viewer. They traveled to Pennsylvania and Maine to see Wyeth’s studios and the paintings on permanent exhibition. Ted wanted her to “contextualize” his work, and they went to exhibits of N.C. Wyeth’s paintings in New York and Massachusetts and North Carolina; he wanted her to see how the son took what the father taught him and turned it into something new, something of his very own, and how his own son did the same. They ambled through famous and lesser-known museums, tracing light and shadow and reading plaques posted on chalk-grey walls. 

She knew what he was doing, and she loved him for it. He was giving her reasons to stay, finding her beautiful things to feed her starving heart.

Ted never minded when she sat for hours in museums, sketching. He hung her paintings throughout their house. When she said she wanted to draw a mural on her bedroom wall, he nodded; a week later, there were paints and brushes waiting. After he saw her design of roses and wings, he gave her a book on historic rose cultivation and offered to help her plant a garden. 

She knew he meant well, but her designs weren’t rooted in the world around her. They came from the stories her mother had told, from the faces of the cards she didn’t quite dare to pull for herself, and from the shapes woven into the tapestries she remembered seeing so long ago.

On her thirteenth birthday, Ted watched as she unwrapped her last gift. It was the crane figurine from Nana Nancy’s house—the expensive Lladró she had almost broken that last day. Her startled eyes met Ted’s; he smiled at her and said, “She would have wanted you to have it.” 

Later, when she knew he was out of the house, she crept outside and smashed the figurine into shards with a hammer and, when that wasn’t enough, stomped them to dust.

Ted promised her a trip to Spain and France for her high school graduation, a chance to visit the museums there. “And the churches,” she murmured, thinking of the stone museum at the top of Manhattan. What would it be like to see those walls in the places they had been meant for? Would it help her feel settled, or would it just be another stone wall?  

She did not ask Ted these questions. 

They never spoke about the thing her mother had found or how she had left. The only time they came close was a bright spring Sunday, when she was sketching a swan and worrying over the arch of its tender neck. “She lived longer than anyone expected,” Ted said from the doorway, and for a scalding moment the girl thought he meant her mother. “It was something of a miracle.”

She was fifteen when they did a unit on mythology in her English class, reading about men who turned themselves into monsters to conquer the world and women who became beasts to avoid their men. She gave Ted a draft of one of her papers and he brought it to breakfast, his cheeks drawn and eyebrows low. “This is a good paper,” he told her, watching her sip at her rosewater coffee, “but the books never tell you what’s true. She didn’t become a monster, you know. All she did was leave everything monstrous behind.”

The girl promised herself to never fabricate reasons for why her mother chose to leave her: she already knew the most important one. Being trapped inside the wrong skin can feel like a curse. The moment you find the right one, you can’t wait to live in it. 

But knowing something does not mean making peace with it, and she ached deep in her bones. 


At a party when she is sixteen, West Benson pulls her aside and tells her she is the prettiest girl out of all the girls there, or at least the prettiest one not wearing make-up. His hand is slick and insistent against her skin. 

Later, once he has taught her that her body is filled with holes, she finds herself shaking in front of an open window, looking up at a sky dark as feathers, dark as an unhealed heart. The air smells like rosewater and salt. She can’t get warm.

“What,” says West Benson, his voice thick with something she doesn’t like and has never liked. “You wanted it.”

She doesn’t turn. Her mind is full of stones and fruit and creatures in pens. 

She hears the clink of a belt buckle fastening, and then West Benson is standing behind her and breathing hard on her shoulder. “Huh,” he says, and reaches out. There’s a black feather on the windowsill.

She slaps his hand away. “That’s mine,” she says.

She can hear his pout, even though she doesn’t turn her head. 

She thinks of the unicorns, of hunters, stone archways stolen and moved across oceans, ripe fruit waiting for someone else to come pluck it. She thinks of de Kooning, erasing his women in order to draw and redraw them. Picasso pointing women towards and away from each other, their individual bodies misaligned. And Wyeth, who gave Christina a canvas but hid her face. She thinks of bodies that exist as prey instead of promises, of girls who see unicorns until they can’t anymore. She thinks of her mother, who said the body was a cage and who colored hers in with paints and clothes. She thinks of the last card she watched her mother pull, the night before she disappeared: Courage. And she thinks of West, with his clammy words and sharp hands, who would have carried a spear and attacked stone churches and turned Christina around to face him, and only him. 

She thinks of all the ways there are to give up. 

She thinks of all the ways there are to escape. 

Inside her ribs, her heart thuds. She feels too many places on her body where her skin has failed to provide cover. She aches for a sip of rosewater, for something to ease the hurt that gathers inside her bones. Her shoulders flex; for a moment, she thinks she has wings. 

In her fingers, the feather stretches into a cuff, something that can be tied around a wrist or a waist or a neck.

She thinks of all the ways that giving up and escaping are the same, and all the ways they are each other’s opposite. In her mind, she shuffles a deck of cards and pulls the ones she needs. Grief. Deception. Courage.

“Here,” she says, and throws the glossy thing at West Benson’s face.


Later, when the party is over and she is back home and there is a shrieking turkey out in the front yard and West Benson’s parents are calling around to find their son, she says what she says about her mother: “Yes, he was there. He was until he wasn’t.”

Ted, bewildered, will wonder aloud what to do about the turkey. She will tell him to keep one feather, and then shoo the bird away. 

One day, perhaps, she will want the feather for herself.

{ Edited by Sharyn November. }
This new voice is sponsored by David Levithan.