Halloween Special: 'Mourning Becomes Shelburne Falls'

Halloween Special: ‘Mourning Becomes Shelburne Falls’

Being dead is not so terrible, but there are things to miss: you and Father, of course, and my pet lamb, and the luna moth who lately, to my delight, decorated my hand.

I see you and Father perched by the house like two black swans, silent and still. You sit in your rocker as if you expect me to come up the hill, pushing my doll-buggy, followed by Dody, the hen we named together. Our little red hen. I want to cry out, ‘I am here, Maw’, but you will not hear. I am above the world now, not in it, and you must go on without me.

‘Effie, do not call me “Maw”,’ you said often, ‘it is common.’

‘Very well, Maw.’

You would grab me then and laugh into my ear; your breath warm and moist and welcome. And I would press my face to your breast and savour the thrum of your heart where, you said, there was a chamber all for me.

I never reached corset-age, Maw, but I should like to know what whalebone feels like, snug around my ribs. Does that surprise you? You thought me a small girl but I was sprouting fast. I was ready to become a woman, ready for all the accoutrements you had: rags for the flow, stays and tortoise shell combs to keep up my hair. But none of that was to be. The scarlatina came and laid its hand on me and, oh, I felt unwell. Tiny red spots stole over my body, from neck, to arms, to belly, and the fever made me swoon. My tongue was a rough strawberry and nothing you did, Maw – nor Father nor the doctor – could save me. Not a thing.

But I am made of pure memory and I can visit us, as we once were, whenever I choose. I can conjure up bedtimes and birthdays and dwell with you there. And I can also call on you at home. I come, mostly when you are not wishing for me, or wanting me. Though your wishes and wants pull on me like mother moon on the tide, but it is when your mind is trained elsewhere that I like to visit. I stand by the spinning wheel and watch your nose crease as you feed the thread. I watch the light make a halo of your hair and your black dress shines like jet. I long for you to pull me into your arms and say, ‘Effie, you are my best girl.’

And I will say, as I always did, ‘I’m your only girl.’

Then you will shoo me away – ‘Out now, dearest, go take the air’ – for flyer and bobbin must work so that wool may be spun. Outside, my lamb waits for me on the hill, ready to start our next adventure, chasing the luna moth that flits like a bright green kite, tails and all, above the grass.

You seem caught in a spell, Maw, a spell of my weaving, though I didn’t mean to do it. I am sorry that I had to leave you and Father; it is not what I would have chosen for myself. I wish more than anything to hear you say, ‘Stop slouching, Effie! Do not slurp! Animals are not allowed indoors!’ Though I sulked mightily when you said those things before. I would give my two legs to be back with you, my flesh once more teeming with blood.

You must not slip under, Maw. Father needs you. You are his helpmeet and men need wives more than women need husbands. You know that this is true for you told me so yourself.

Listen now, Maw, and listen well. I am not dead. I am waiting.

 original illustration by Dean Lewis