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Dinosaurs on Other Planets by Danielle McLaughlin

Read Online Dinosaurs on Other Planets by Danielle McLaughlin Fiction Book

Overview: In a raw seacoast cabin, a young woman watches her boyfriend go out with his brother, late one night, on a mysterious job she realizes she isn’t supposed to know about. A man gets a call at work from his sister-in-law, saying that his wife and his daughter never made it to nursery school that day. A mother learns that her teenage daughter has told a teacher about problems in her parents’ marriage that were meant to be private—problems the mother herself tries to ignore. McLaughlin conveys these characters so vividly that readers will feel they are experiencing real life. Often the stories turn on a single, fantastic moment of clarity—after which nothing can be the same.

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Dinosaurs on Other Planets by Danielle McLaughlin

Read Online Dinosaurs on Other Planets by Danielle McLaughlin Book Chapter One

Begin on the feast day of the goddess Guanyin, that she may grant mercy. Or on the cusp of winter when the cold will numb bones splintered like ice on a broken lake. Begin when she is young, when the bones are closer to water and a foot may be altered like the course of a mountain stream.
It is Tuesday and the woman who comes to clean has been in, leaving the hall smelling like the inside of a taxi, a synthetic pine fragrance called Alpine Spring, though it is the first week of November. Janice unbuttons her wet coat, hangs it on a peg. She has thought to mention that she dislikes the scent, but she and the cleaner rarely overlap, and, written down—I do not like the air freshener—the complaint seems trivial, almost petty. There is also the fact that the woman cleans for a number of other mothers at the school. Janice already senses a hierarchy of allegiances, suspects minor betrayals and indiscretions.
Music is coming from upstairs, a heavy thud of bass that vibrates through the ceiling: the sound of Becky skipping hockey practice. Mrs. Harding from next door will be around. She will have been sitting by her front window, watching for Janice’s return, and will now be struggling into her ankle-length fur, lacing up her shoes, ready for the assault on Janice’s front steps. She will complain how the wet leaves make them slippery, as if Janice has set a trap, and then, the music stopped, she will sit for an hour at the kitchen table, sniffing a cup of tea and talking.
As she climbs the stairs, Janice pauses on the half landing to rearrange the collection of crystals, miniature figurines of birds and animals. They are displayed on a table by the window where the light shows them to best advantage. Every Tuesday, the cleaner removes them to dust the table, and every Tuesday returns them in reverse order. Today, inexplicably, the table appears not to have been dusted, and still they are out of position.
In her daughter’s bedroom, a row of stuffed toys gazes from a shelf. The years haven’t been kind, each toy suffering its own peculiar disability: a ragged tailless Eeyore, a molting one-eyed teddy bear. Becky scowls when she sees her mother. “I told you to knock,” she says, switching off the music. She turned fourteen the previous July, and has suddenly grown taller and broader. Her face, already too round to be pretty, has become rounder, and she has taken to wearing her long brown hair, her best feature, in a tight bun. She is sitting on the bed, still in her school blouse and skirt. Her shoes and her gray woolen socks have been removed, and she is winding a pair of Janice’s tights around her right foot, the nylon already laddered where it stretches across her toes.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Janice says.
“Binding my feet.”
Janice watches her daughter attempt to curl her toes underneath her foot, watches them spring back up again. “You’re kidding, right?”
“It’s for a history project with Ms. Matthews. Basically, it’s about how women suffered long ago.”
“I still don’t understand why you’re binding your feet.”
“So I can em-pa-thize?” Becky says. “So I can see what it was like to be oppressed? Basically.”
“How old is Ms. Matthews?”
Becky doesn’t answer. She is winding the tights in a band around her toes. Just below her ankle is a silvery pink scar where she caught it in a door as a child, and the skin has grown back a shade lighter. She takes a strip of white material from a pile beside her on the bed and begins bandaging her foot, winding the cloth round and round, until the foot is a white stub.

Split the belly of a live calf and place her feet in the wound, deep, so that blood covers the ankles. If there is no calf, heat the blood of a monkey until it boils. Add mulberry root and tannin. Soak the feet until the skin is soft.
THE ROOM IS COLD, and Janice makes her way across the debris on the floor—underwear, magazines, aerosol canisters—to close the window. Tampons in brightly colored wrappers spill like sweets from a box on the dressing table, beside eye shadows and lip gloss. They seem out of place, these adult things, as if a child has been playing with the contents of her mother’s handbag. The bedroom is toward the back of the house and overlooks a narrow garden that slopes to the river. When Becky was small, Janice had worried that she would wander away and drown, and one summer Philip constructed a fence from sheets of metal nailed to wooden stakes. It has served its purpose but is an eyesore now, the metal sheeting buckled and rusted. Once spring arrives, Janice thinks, once the days are longer and the weather milder, she will dismantle it. She shuts the window and draws across the curtains.
Becky is still busy with the tights. Beside her on the bed are several sheets of paper, including one headed “The Art of Foot-Binding,” a poor-quality facsimile of a handwritten manual. Next to it is a page of photos and diagrams, some accompanied by instructions: Rub the feet with bian stone, or a piece of bull’s horn. Janice does not immediately recognize the thing in the photographs as a foot. It is a grayish-white lump, toes melted into the sole like plastic that has been left too near a fire. The owner of the foot smiles shyly out at the camera. There is something grotesque, almost sordid, in the way she displays her deformity, like a freak act from an old traveling circus, and Janice looks away, back to her daughter’s feet. As she watches Becky winding the strips round and round, she recognizes the delicate scalloping of the Egyptian cotton pillowcases from the guest bedroom.
“Damn it, Becky! Have you any idea how much those cost? Couldn’t you have used something else? Anything else?”
“I searched everywhere,” Becky says. “There was nothing else. If you were home, I could’ve asked you for something else, but you weren’t.”
“Maybe I should explain to Ms. Matthews the oppressive cost of pillowcases.”
Becky scowls, stops winding the bandages. “Why are you being such a bitch about Ms. Matthews?”
“Haven’t I told you not to use that word?”
“What word?”
“You know what word. And for the record, I’ve no problem with Ms. Matthews. I just think she’s got weird ideas about homework.”
“You hate her,” Becky says.
Janice takes a deep breath. “I don’t hate her,” she says slowly. “I’ve never even met her.” But as she says it, she remembers, from the open house two years previously, a slight red-haired woman with a choppy asymmetrical hairstyle and Ugg boots, though she had thought of her then as a girl because she was barely distinguishable from the gaggle of teenagers flocking around her.
“If you’d gone to the parent-teacher meeting you’d have met her. Dad met her. Dad likes her.”
Janice considers this, decides to let it go. She begins to pick up clothes from the floor and hang them in the wardrobe.
Becky continues bandaging her foot. “Ms. Roberts hates her, too,” she says, “but Ms. Roberts is jealous because Ms. Matthews is a dote and everybody thinks Ms. Roberts is a cunt. Which she is, basically.”
“Becky!” Janice stops gathering clothes. “You are never to say that word again. Do you hear me?”
“Ms. Matthews lets us say anything we like.”
“I’m warning you, Becky….” There comes then the sound she has been hoping for—the sound of the house phone ringing. “We’re not finished with this, Becky,” she says, wagging a finger at her daughter. “Not by a long shot.”

When the skin is smooth, break the four small toes below the second joint and fold them underneath. Take a knife and peel away the nails. They may creep like Mongolian death worms into the darkness of the heel and that way a foot may be lost.
THE EVENING BEFORE, SHE had gone with Philip to a fortieth birthday party in a restaurant in Douglas village. Angela, the birthday girl, was an old college friend. More precisely, she was an old college friend of Philip’s, because although they had all been part of the same set once, Janice had never liked her. Angela’s three teenage daughters were there, afflicted already with their mother’s mannerisms: the coy, flirtatious giggle, a tendency to stand too close and engage in unnecessary touching. They had rushed, shrieking, at Philip, and one of them, the middle one, had called him “uncle” and kissed him.
In the car on the way home, Janice said, “I think Angela’s got too thin. It’s showing in her face.”
“I thought she looked well,” he said. “She didn’t look forty, that’s for sure.”
Janice was driving. She glanced at him in the passenger seat, but he was staring out the window. “Know what her sister told me?” she said. “Angela has them all on diets. Those poor girls. That little one can’t be any more than twelve.”
“Fourteen,” he said. “Same age as Becky.”
“That’s still way too young, Philip.”
“She’s banned crisps and chocolate,” he said, turning to her. “It’s hardly a human rights issue.”
They were approaching a junction and she braked sharply. “And that’s what you and Angela were discussing?” she said. “Holed up together at the bar all night?”
He sighed. “Angela likes you,” he said. “She’s only ever tried to be a friend. I wish you’d give her a chance. We were talking about Becky, actually, about how she’s put on weight.”
“I don’t believe this,” she said.
“Come on,” he said. “You must have noticed, too.”
“I’ll tell you what I noticed,” she said. “You sweet-talking plastic Angela all night. If it wasn’t Angela it was one of the daughters. Don’t think I didn’t see. That blond one had her hand practically on your ass at one stage. She’s worse than her mother.”
“Let me out,” he said. “Let me out here. I’ll walk home.” They were stopped at traffic lights, and he rattled the car door but it was locked.
“Big fucking gesture, Philip—we must be a whole five minutes away.” But she was crying, wiping her eyes furtively with the back of her hand. He could have reached across and released the lock, but he remained in his seat, and when the lights changed she drove on. He didn’t speak again until they pulled up outside the house. She was sobbing now, tears running down her cheeks. He unfastened his seatbelt.
“Did you ever think our lives would turn out like this?” he said.

Prepare bandages of white silk or cotton, ten chi long and two cun wide. Break the arch of the foot and wind the cloths in figures of eight, knotting at instep and ankle. Do not be unsettled by the cries: The breeze that sighs at night about the lotus bulb, by morning gives way to petaled sun.
SHE HURRIES ACROSS THE landing to their bedroom and picks up the phone. “Hi,” she says.
These postfight conversations have the quality of a folk dance, a complicated system of advance and retreat, executed with varying degrees of grace. Perform the correct movements, in the correct order, and eventually they will be returned to the point they departed from. “Listen,” he says. “I shouldn’t have said those things last night. I’m sorry.”
“We were both tired,” she says. “Angela always puts me on edge. I don’t know why I let her get to me.”
“Angela has a way of getting to people,” he says. “It’s her special talent.” And she knows he doesn’t mean it, knows he likes Angela, has possibly even fucked her at some point, but she understands, too, that he is offering Angela up by way of apology. She lies back on the bed and closes her eyes.
“I’ve been thinking,” she says. “What you said last night, about Becky’s weight? I’m going to have a word with her.”
“Don’t, please,” he says. “I was out of order.”
“No,” she says. “You weren’t.” Mostly because it was expected, but now that she has said it aloud, she wonders if perhaps he mightn’t be right.
“I’d hate her to be upset,” he says. “She’s a great kid. But whatever you think is best.”
“It wouldn’t do her any harm to lose a few pounds.” She waits for him to say something else, but he falls silent. She senses he is preparing to wind down the call. “Will you be home for supper?” she asks, while she tries to think of something else to say, something to hold him.
“I’m afraid not. I have to take clients to dinner.”
“Where will you take them?” she says, but already he is saying “bye, bye, bye,” and then he is gone.
She returns the phone to its cradle and sits a moment on the edge of the bed. These calls usually act as a sort of poultice, the fact of them more than anything that might be said. This one was different. It was the way he hurried to say goodbye, she thinks, the way he managed to take leave of her so very easily. She goes to the mirror to fix her hair. Her hand flies to her throat when she sees Becky in the doorway. “Goodness, Becky!” she says. “You gave me a fright.”
“Was that Dad on the phone?”
Janice nods. How long has the child been there? she wonders.
Becky begins rhythmically kicking the doorframe, five kicks with the right foot, five with the left, her feet encased in wads of white pillowcase. “Is he coming home for supper?”
“No, he’s meeting clients.” She points to the bandages on her daughter’s feet. “Take those off and go do the rest of your homework.”
Becky shakes her head. “No can do. I’ve only just put them on.”
Janice goes over and tugs at a loose end of cloth on her daughter’s right foot. The girl yells and kicks out, catching her mother on the wrist. She turns and heads in an odd, stumbling gait toward her own bedroom, arms held out from her sides as if negotiating a tightrope. One of the bandages comes loose, unfurling behind her as she walks.
Janice rubs her wrist. “That’s it, Becky,” she says, following her across the landing. “I’m going to the school tomorrow. I’m going to see Ms. Matthews.”
Becky has reached the door of her own bedroom. “That’s a coincidence,” she says, “because Ms. Matthews wants to see you.” She pulls a piece of paper from the pocket of her skirt and, crumpling it in a ball, flings it at her mother, striking her in the chest. Then she goes into her room, slams the door, and turns the lock.
Janice picks up the piece of paper, smooths it out. It is an appointment slip headed with the school’s blue crest, the spaces for day and time left blank. A handwritten note in large, looped writing, little circles over the i’s, asks her to telephone to arrange an appointment. There is nothing else, no clue as to the nature of the meeting sought, only a signature in the same looped script: Madeleine Matthews. The slip is dated two days previously. Janice bangs on her daughter’s door. “Becky,” she says. “Why does Ms. Matthews want to see me?” But there is no answer. When she tries again—“You’re being childish, Becky. We need to talk about this”—Becky still doesn’t reply. But when Janice is halfway down the stairs, she thinks she hears her daughter say something, something that sounds very like “bitch.”

If a foot is large, or the toes fleshy, place among the bandages shards of glass or porcelain. This will bring a rotting of flesh which, in time, will drop away, leaving the foot smaller and more pleasing. Bind at least twice a week, or, if the family is rich, every day. Soon, a valley will form between cleft and heel, dark and secret as a jade gate.
DOWNSTAIRS, SHE POURS A glass of wine and sits at the kitchen table. She thinks of Philip, in a restaurant somewhere, eating attractive food served by attractive waitresses with soft, glossy mouths. She shuts her eyes, but instead of disappearing, the waitresses come into clearer focus, a troupe of smiling, agreeable young women. And as the image sharpens it begins to morph, the women layered one on top of another, until they merge into one, a woman with red choppy hair, incongruously, for a restaurant, standing before a whiteboard. It is Ms. Matthews. Happy, unbroken Ms. Matthews, glowing with that singularly youthful emotion: hope. Oblivious Ms. Matthews, reaching back through the centuries to find herself a bit of trouble. And though Janice knows it is a trick of the mind, still it unsettles her.
There hasn’t been another woman, at least none of any significance, since Mandy Wilson’s mother six years ago; this she is reasonably sure of. There has, perhaps, been an occasional, discreet straying, evidenced by a temporary distancing when he gets home from a business trip, a restraint in the way he touches her. But nothing like that time when she feared she had lost him. Then, even the nights he was home, asleep beside her, she would get up and walk the house in the small hours, touching things, trailing her fingers along walls, the backs of chairs, as if trying to hold down whatever it was that was slipping away.
Other nights she had taken things out to the garden, things singled out for destruction during the day: ornaments, serving dishes, a shell brought back from holiday. She would go to the end of the property, where Philip wouldn’t hear, and she would smash them against the fence. One such night, glass littering the ground at her feet, she had looked back up the garden and had seen a light come on in the house next door, saw the blinds raised, the outline of Mrs. Harding’s face at the window.
But she had endured somehow, and her endurance had been rewarded. He had come to his senses, as she knew he would, and when Becky’s birthday came round, Janice had walked up to Mandy Wilson’s mother at the school gates and handed her an invitation. Mandy’s mother turned up at their house that Friday afternoon, her daughter shy beside her in a blue party dress. She accepted a glass of elderflower cordial, complimented the cut of the crystal. And then she and Janice and the other mothers had engaged in shrill, giddy conversation, had even laughed, if a little hysterically, while small girls ran up and down the stairs, or sat in circles on the floor, plaiting each other’s hair.

Go before dawn to the statue of the Tiny-Footed Maiden. There you must leave balls of rice mixed with wolfberry, and a pair of silk slippers, no bigger than a sparrow.
THE SCHOOL COMPRISES THREE two-story blocks of 1970s buildings and a glass and steel extension that houses the computer labs. The school insignia, MATER MISERACORDIA, is in steel lettering above the entrance. Ms. Matthews is waiting for her in an empty classroom, correcting assignments at a long rectangular desk. Her hair covers her face as she bends over a copybook. A pack of coloring pencils, neatly pared, lies beside a pink stapler and a dish of multicolored paper clips. “You must be Becky’s mum,” she says, standing up to shake hands. “Janice, isn’t it?”
“That’s right,” Janice says. She notices that Ms. Matthews doesn’t say what she is to call her.
“Please,” Ms. Matthews says, gesturing to a chair on the opposite side of the desk, and Janice sits down.
Ms. Matthews sits back in her own chair, and her hands erupt in a flurry of busyness. She moves the stapler an inch to the left, squares the edges of a sheaf of paper. Janice watches her run a finger along the inside collar of her blouse, adjusting it, though it already stands so rigid it may have been starched. “So,” Ms. Matthews says, bringing her hands to rest on the desk in front of her. “You got my note.”
“I wanted to see you anyway, as it happens.”
“Oh?” Ms. Matthews’s hand goes again to her collar, just a quick touch this time.
“Yes, it’s about the foot-binding. I don’t feel it’s”—she pauses to allow the word more resonance—“appropriate.”
Ms. Matthews’s head tilts slightly to one side. “It’s something I do with my girls every year. They usually find it interesting.”
Her girls? Janice thinks. What proprietary claim can this woman possibly make, she who is barely more than a girl herself? And every year? How many years could that be, exactly? Three? Four?
“It’s a bit medieval, isn’t it?” Janice says. “Literally.”
“Well, actually,” Ms. Matthews says, “and this is very interesting, it was practiced in certain remote parts of China up until the 1940s. But it’s not about the dates, is it? I prefer to take a broader sociological perspective.” She has picked up a ballpoint pen and is striking it against the desk, not unlike something Becky might do, and Janice has to fight an urge to tell her to stop.
“They’re fourteen,” Janice says. “Their feet are still growing, it could damage their bones.”
Ms. Matthews frowns. “Sorry?” she says. “I’m not following—”
“I’ve seen how tightly Becky winds those bandages. It could cut off circulation.”
Ms. Matthews edges her chair back, putting a fraction more distance between herself and Janice. “Obviously,” she says, “we don’t do any actual foot-binding. Basically, we discuss it, watch videos on YouTube, that sort of thing.”
The classroom feels suddenly hot and airless. Janice wants to open a window, but Ms. Matthews is speaking. “Perhaps,” she is saying, “this brings us, in a roundabout way, to why I wanted to see you. Have you noticed Becky seems unsettled lately, more withdrawn than usual?”
Than usual? And is Becky withdrawn? Quiet, certainly, but “withdrawn” is different, isn’t it? “Withdrawn” is something else. “She’s a teenager,” Janice says. “ ‘Withdrawn’ is the factory setting,” and she hates herself as soon as she’s said it.
“As you know,” Ms. Matthews says, “Becky finds school socially challenging. That’s always been a problem, but, basically, it’s becoming more pronounced. The teasing about her weight hasn’t helped, but I’ve tried to put a stop to that.”
“How come we’re only hearing about this now?” Janice says.
Ms. Matthews looks wistfully toward the window, out to the manicured green of the hockey pitch, where girls in yellow gym gear gambol like lambs, despite a biting November wind. “I did mention it to Becky’s dad,” she says, “at the parent-teacher meeting.” She rests her hand on the pack of coloring pencils as if it were a talisman. “I understand,” she says, “that there are problems at home?”
“What do you mean?”
“Becky mentioned there are tensions….”
There will most certainly be tensions, Janice thinks, when she gets home and speaks to Becky. She has an urge to find Becky’s classroom and drag her outside by the scruff of the neck, to ask what she thinks she is doing, discussing their business, their private business, with this stranger. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she says.
Ms. Matthews opens her mouth. This is where a little age might have saved her, where a year or two might have made all the difference, but she really is the girl Janice has taken her for, and so she says, “I meant between you and Becky’s father.” Her position shifts slightly toward the door, her body ahead of her mind, readying for flight.
Janice wants to grab her by the hair and slap her. She knows what Ms. Matthews is trying to say, knows also that she must not be allowed to say it. Ms. Matthews is speaking again, the thing that she must not say twisting on her tongue, emerging in hesitant darts of words and phrases.
On the other side of the room, beneath a poster of the Gobi Desert, is a wastepaper basket. Janice makes it to the basket in time to vomit. She vomits all over an empty juice carton and pencil shavings curled like a ribbon of orange peel. Then she vomits again. She straightens up, wipes her mouth with her hand. Her eyes are wet and she dries them with her sleeve, but more wetness rises up and she realizes she is crying. Walking to the door of the classroom, she glances at Ms. Matthews and sees that she looks stricken, shocked; more shocked, Janice thinks, than if she had gone ahead and slapped her.

A foot, once bound, will be bound forever: Few can withstand the pain when bones awaken. Tend to it carefully, but always in darkness. The beauty snared beneath the bandages may dissipate in light.
SHE SITS IN A café for a few hours until the staff put the chairs on the tables and begin to mop around her feet. When eventually she goes home, she finds the hall and the downstairs rooms in darkness, save for the flicker of the TV in the living room. Becky is sprawled on the couch, her feet bound in white bandages and propped on a beanbag. Janice switches on the light. “Becky,” she says. “We need to talk.”
Becky blinks, rubs her eyes. She mutters something under her breath, then picks up the remote and begins surfing channels.
Janice positions herself between her daughter and the screen. “I went to see Ms. Matthews today.”
Becky puts down the remote, letting the TV come to rest on a cartoon station.
“Your father and I are very happy, Becky. Do you understand that?”
Becky stares at her mutely.
“And if you ever have worries about that, or any worries at all, you come to me first, okay? I’m not blaming you for anything, Becky, please don’t think I’m blaming you, but we’re a family, we’re a team, and we need to trust each other.”
Becky is examining her fingernails, poking at her cuticles.
Janice sighs. “All right,” she says. “I’m going to make a start on dinner. Then we’re going to sit down together and you’re going to tell me what you said to Ms. Matthews.”
“I can’t really remember,” Becky says. “We talked about lots of stuff.”
Janice feels the nausea returning. “You must try to remember,” she says. “It’s important.” She nods at Becky’s feet. “And I know that’s not homework, so take off those bandages.”
Becky gives no indication of having heard.
“I said take them off, Becky.”
Slowly, Becky raises one foot onto the couch and begins to unwind the bandages, letting them fall in spirals to the floor. Underneath, her foot looks white and pale and startled. Red marks run across her toes where, Janice sees now, she has used elastic bands to hold the tights in place. Becky examines her toes, the arch of her foot. Her small toe is a bluish-white color, beginning to pinken as the blood comes rushing back. She forgets for a moment that she is fighting with her mother. “Look,” she says, holding up her foot, “it’s got smaller.”
Janice bends and squints at her daughter’s foot. “It’s exactly the same size it always was.”
“It’s not,” Becky says. “It’s smaller.” She gets up and hops across the floor to where she has left a pair of canvas pumps. She slides her bare foot into one and wriggles it around. “See?” she says, “it’s loose. It wasn’t loose before.” She hops back across the room and flops onto the couch. She reaches for a strip of cloth from the floor.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m going to sleep in them, see what my feet are like in the morning.”
“You most certainly are not.”
“You hate me,” Becky says. “You want me to have big, ugly clown feet like Ms. Roberts.”
Janice pulls the strip of fabric from her daughter’s hand, rips it in half, then in half again, and flings the pieces onto the carpet.
“Stop it! You’re ruining them!” Becky jumps up, swaying a little, hopping on her one bare foot. She tries to gather the strips, but Janice kicks them, sends them scattering across the floor. “I hate you!” Becky screams. “I wish you weren’t my mother. I wish I had any other mother in the world except you.” She hobbles to the stairs, one foot still bandaged. Holding on to the banisters, she hops up the first set of steps, stopping to rest on the half landing.
“Get down here now,” Janice says. She begins to climb the stairs after her daughter.
Becky shakes her head. Outside on the street, the lamps come on, a soft glow falling on the stairs, on the table with its crystal animals, glittering as if they’d been torched, sparking with light and fire. Becky, in that instant, is alight, too, as fierce and beautiful as a starlet from an old black-and-white movie, her hair falling loose of its bun, her face flushed. And in the next moment, she is a child again, dismayed, confused, scorched by the life sap bubbling up through her.
Janice is beside her now. “Come on, Becky, you’re being silly.”
Becky wipes away a tear. “Yeah?” she says. “Well, maybe I’m silly, but at least I’m not fucking pathetic. No wonder Dad hates you.”
Her hand catches Becky high on the cheek, just below her left eye. She watches, as if in slow motion, her daughter toppling backward, the table crashing to the floor. The little figurines collide as they fall, cracking, splintering, slivers of crystal lodging like miniature stalagmites in the carpet. And in the immediate aftermath, just for a second, there is utter and complete silence; that brief, fleeting silence she has heard described on television by survivors of terrorist attacks and explosions. Becky gets shakily to her feet, putting one hand to the wall to steady herself. Her face is pale, apart from a red gash beneath her eye that has already started to bleed.
“Oh no,” Janice whispers. “Oh no.” She sinks down beside the upturned table, the floor all around glinting with shards of birds and animals. She looks at her hand, tingling still from the force of the slap. The ring on her middle finger was a gift from Philip years back that she has kept meaning to get resized. It has slid around, as it is wont to do, the stones now to the underside, a hard ridge of diamonds.
Becky puts a hand to her cut cheek. She barely seems to register the blood on her fingers when she takes them away. As if in a daze, she rights the table, returns it to its position beneath the window. Then she drops to her hands and knees and begins to gather up the crystals: the ones that have survived and the broken ones, dozens of severed limbs and shattered torsos.
“Don’t,” Janice says, sobbing. “Don’t bother. There’s no point.” Reaching out, she traces a finger along the trail of blood on her daughter’s face. “He will leave me now,” she whispers. “He will never stay with me after this.”

How beautiful the tiny slippers, the swaying walk, that will forever keep her from the fields. Let her begin now her dowry: slippers embroidered with fish and lotus flowers, crafted by her own hands.
THERE IS A CRAB apple tree, planted by a previous owner, at the end of the garden, the ground all around a pulp of bruised windfalls, though she had sworn that this year she would harvest them. She leans against the trunk, listening to the river flowing by on the other side of the fence. Looking back at the house, she sees that the light is on in Becky’s bedroom, the curtains closed. Later, lights come on downstairs and she sees Philip moving about the kitchen, and she makes her way back up the garden to the house.
When she slides open the patio doors, she sees that she has startled him. He still has his coat on and is taking a beer from the fridge. He turns and she studies his face from across the kitchen, trying to gauge what he knows. “You scared me,” he says. “I didn’t realize you were home. Where’s Becky?”
When she doesn’t say anything, he comes over and puts an arm around her shoulder. “You’re not still mad at me, are you?” he says. “I thought we were okay,” and he kisses her on the forehead.
“Philip…” she begins, but overhead a door opens, and she hears footsteps coming down the stairs. She moves away from her husband, goes to stand at the far side of the room. Becky’s hair hangs down her back in a single plait, and she no longer looks fourteen but like a child of eleven or twelve. She has washed her face and put a Band-Aid on her cheek, a square fabric dressing that covers not just the cut but the skin all around, too. She has removed all the bandages and her feet are in a pair of pink slippers.
“Hey, princess,” Philip says. “What happened to your face?” He puts down his beer and goes over to her. “Did something happen at school? If something’s happening at school you need to tell us. Janice, have you seen this?”
Becky winces as he touches her cheek. “I fell against the fence playing hockey,” she says. “It’s only a scratch.”
“Let me see,” he says, but she takes a step back.
“It’s fine, honestly,” she says, “Mum had a look already. She put some antiseptic on it.”
He throws his hands up in a gesture of defeat. “Okay,” he says. “I guess you girls have it under control.” Picking up his beer, he goes out to the living room.
Later, while Philip is watching TV, Janice goes quietly upstairs. On the half landing, she sees the crystal animals have been reassembled, the casualties glued back together, crudely but effectively, each figure back in its correct place. She stops outside Becky’s bedroom and listens. There is no noise, apart from a soft, papery sound, like pages turning. She tries the door handle but it is locked, and then even the paper sounds stop, and it is so quiet she can hear Mrs. Harding through the walls, moving around the house next door. She considers calling to Becky through the door, but doesn’t know what to say, and is afraid Philip might hear. After a few minutes, she goes back downstairs.
It has started to rain, a drizzle first that quickly becomes a slanting downpour, hammering against the glass of the patio doors. She sits at the kitchen table, looking out at the darkness of the garden, watching rainwater leak through the center join of the doors to form a puddle on the kitchen floor. She watches the puddle grow larger, not bothering, as she would usually do, to fetch a mop and bucket. It is something that happens every time it rains, a fault dating to the doors’ original installation. She has meant to get them fixed, or replaced, but it will be impossible to find a tradesperson this close to Christmas. She will wait until January, when things are quieter. She will do it then.

A man will seldom touch a bound foot. Knowing this, into the smallest of her slippers, let her sew a pouch: There she will keep her darkest secrets.

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