Faces and Darkness Separate Us
I. Bloody Mary
It was the white God’s day of rest. That did not stop Vantrilla Friendly from sending her daughters out to fetch water. Vantrilla sat before the mirror every morning and pulled the strands of silver from her long black hair. She woke at dawn with her husband Carlisle. As he spent the morning working in another man’s field, she avoided all light that didn’t reflect from the glass. When she cooked biscuits for breakfast, the curtains in the kitchen were drawn. When she swept the living room, she would move between the patches of sunlight.
On days when the South Carolina sun beat on the fields and brought Carlisle’s skin from russet to red, she sent her daughters out to the well to bring water home. That way the light would not touch her. The light would not darken her.
Her three daughters. It was their fault. The lines in her forehead deepened and the rings around her eyes darkened and her hips widened every time she thrust one into the world. Vantrilla grew more tired every year since she pushed the first one out in 1905. Never thought she’d feel so haggard by age thirty-four. It worsened every day.
Her own mother had worn age with grace. Even when Mama looked like leather on her deathbed, her chin was high and her eyes glimmered. Vantrilla did not inherit this poise. Every line, every wrinkle, every gray hair weighed her down. If avoiding sunlight was the only way to fight, then that was what she was going to do. It wasn’t about beauty. No. It was about control. She couldn’t control how people saw her, but she could control how she saw herself.
Mama had worshiped the sun, like all of her mothers before her. In the stifling heat of summer, they would all dance for the Green Corn Ceremony. For the corn to grow, they had chosen to wither. Vantrilla refused to wither as they did, and the crop still grew. They were foolish. All that time in the sun made their skin so deep that when the white folk came around with their pens and papers, they marked them all down as Negro. As Vantrilla’s people lost their dances, their stories, all they had were the words that were written on those papers. That were written by people who knew nothing about them.
Vantrilla knew that Carlisle thought she was sick. Because she refused to leave the house when the sun shone. She knew that if he weren’t so beaten down by the end of every day that he would’ve taken a lover by now. If he believed in a hell, he would not be afraid to burn there. He burned all day long. Even if he had a lover, there was nothing for Vantrilla to do, just as there was nothing he could do to bring her into the sun.
The girls were old enough to do all of the work outdoors now. They had aged her enough already, so those tasks became theirs. Eliza was the eldest, almost a woman now. She carried the two largest buckets in, her cheeks flushed and dark. She was always the first one to return, long and lean like Vantrilla. Letha, though she was the youngest, usually was back second. She was nine and still got away with carrying only one pail of water. Rosalie was short and thin like her father. Carrying two pails was more of a strain for her.
With the water Eliza brought home, Vantrilla would wash the floors and boil corn for supper. The water Letha brought in would be for drinking. Much of it would be saved for Carlisle for when he came home. With the water that Rosalie brought back, the whole family would bathe. Vantrilla bathed last. Sat in the tub that she had lowered Mama into in the months before she died. As the water rippled, twisting the reflection, her face looked like Mama’s.
Rosalie made sure her sisters stayed awake past dark. After she was sure Ma and Pa were asleep, she took a candle from the kitchen drawer and the box of matches she had hidden under her mattress and the three sisters snuck into the bathroom. If Ma found them with matches, they would be in a lot of trouble. Not because the fire was dangerous. She didn’t care about that. She cared about how much the matches cost.
“I still think this is a waste of time.” Eliza said. She had the biggest bags under her eyes.
“We have to get up so early tomorrow, Rosalie. We got to do this tonight?”
“Haven’t you always wanted to see a spirit?” Letha asked. She was more excited than she let herself sound. Just as she was on the walk home from the well, when she planned this with her sisters. “Cousin Will said he saw one when he did it.”
“Cousin Will might be our dumbest cousin,” Eliza said. “And that’s an accomplishment with how many cousins we got.”
Eliza always joked that she couldn’t crush on any of the boys because they were related to all the boys. It was more truth than joke, though. Just about everybody left in Four Holes looked about the same. “Come on, it won’t take long. Y’all just scared.” Rosalie knew she had them now. Eliza was too proud, and Letha wouldn’t want to feel left out.
Finally, Eliza snatched the matches and lit the candle. As brave as Eliza pretended to be, she wouldn’t say the words. Letha and Eliza both looked at Rosalie. Rosalie did it, heart pulsing, but still only three faces flickered in the mirror. The closest thing to a ghost was the smoke from the candle after they snuffed it out.
yraM ydoolB .I
The mirrors’ eyes are open now. The girls stood before them in yellow candlelight. The tallest one had her arms crossed, waiting for something to happen. The smallest looked terrified, her face somehow chalky and dark. The middle one, they could see most clearly. Her face and body were wider than the other two. She was hardly taller than the smallest. She was the one who held the candle. The one whose voice they had swallowed.
Mirrors all talk to one another. Much like all rivers flow to a larger body of water, mirrors all flow to the same place in the end. The mirrors in the house watch them, all together. This kind of sight can grow. They see through the light reflected from windows and water. When the girls peer into the black eye of the well, the black water looks back.
The mirrors watch as the mother’s hair goes from black to silver faster than she can pluck. Her hair and skin lighten until she is pale and colorless and beautiful. White as a ghost. They watch as the father’s body breaks—his eyes become glossy, his back twists, his hands become raw. Their eyes are hungriest for the girl that woke them. They watch her grow. How her breasts and belly swell. They watch her weep after the well takes the smallest sister. That black eye holds that girl’s body forever and her rot poisons the water.
They hold the things that can’t be reflected. Each mirror holds the smallest sister’s face. Her dark body. When the mother passes, her body thin and white as bone, they take it from her. They put the dead mother and daughter in every corner of the room. The girls wanted to see ghosts, so they give them. The little girl’s dark body, ugly as it was, was perfect for hiding in shadows. The dead mother’s body—with its long arms and legs made pale and elegant by death—was perfect for reaching, for clawing. There is skin that gives back light and there is skin that takes it in. Skin that takes it in, like all things that take but do not relinquish, becomes impure.
II. Bloody Mary
Grandma Rosalie looked in mirrors even though she couldn’t see anymore. Back when Ariel used to visit Grandma Rosalie at her old place, her attention always turned to the mirrors. Now her grandma was staying in their guest room. Her eyes were getting bad, so Mama took care of her. Well, Ariel helped too. Mama stayed home with Grandma Rosalie on days that Ariel worked day shifts at the 4-Mart, and Ariel was her caretaker at night when Mama worked longer shifts at the hospital in Ridgeville.
Ariel liked their nights together. Grandma Rosalie told her things that Mama wouldn’t. She told her about Mama when she was a kid, how she used to get in all sorts of fights with the boys at school and how she’d spend half of her recess in the nurse’s office. She told Ariel about the way Mama used to carry around her doll, Little Opal, all weekend. She talked about how badly her daughter wanted to be a mother. And she talked about Ariel’s father, a white man named Earl Riche, and how he walked out on Mama when she told him she was carrying his child.
There wasn’t a single picture of Earl in the house. After Grandma Rosalie told her about him, she looked through every drawer and book and photo album. Nothing. Ariel had gone sixteen years without hearing more than a few words about her father, so any knowledge Grandma Rosalie had, she devoured. The stories distracted from Grandma Rosalie’s mirrors too. Ariel remembered how the mirrors in Grandma Rosalie’s old house used to scare her, and that was a feeling that never really went away. It was a feeling that was getting worse lately. Ariel covered the mirror in Grandma Rosalie’s room while she ate up her supper downstairs.
Ariel stayed as far from those mirrors as she could. It felt like something was moving underneath the sheet. Like something was moving underneath Ariel’s skin.
Ariel took Grandma Rosalie upstairs after they finished their chicken and biscuits. “Can you please take that sheet down, Ariel?” Grandma rocked in her chair, knitting by touch. She stared right at the mirror.
“How’d you know I covered it even?”
Grandma Rosalie let out a dark laugh. “What good is having a mirror when you can’t even see yourself? That’s how you think, ain’t it?” Grandma Rosalie knew just how to make Ariel feel bad. Blind old bat had a knack for it.
“Fine.” Ariel pulled the sheet down and felt a rush of heat.
Grandma Rosalie was quiet for a bit. They listened to the cicadas screaming outside. “You see her too, don’t’cha?”
Ariel looked toward the mirror, waited for her grandma to speak again, afraid to speak herself. There was a shadow in the mirror that didn’t belong.
“I can’t see a damn thing, but when I look in the glass, I can see her. Clear as day.”
Mama and Auntie Eliza had told Ariel about little Letha. She died young. Auntie Eliza could talk about it, but Grandma Rosalie never really got over it. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I know you’ve seen her too. Just like my sister. Just like your mother. You can try to deny it, like they do, but it’ll only get worse.”
“Come on, Grandma. It ain’t real.”
It wasn’t real, and neither were the nights that Ariel dreamed of eating glass and woke tasting blood. And neither were the nights that Ariel caught glimpses of a red moon in the silver when the moon was supposed to be white. And neither were the nights when Ariel’s reflection was not her own, but a dark girl drenched in water. It was water. It was water, wasn’t it?
“She is.” It felt like Grandma Rosalie could see Ariel for the first time in years, the way she was looking at her. It made Ariel’s head feel light. “Ghosts are. You just don’t have any of your own yet. I’m sure mine will get passed along after I go.”
That’s when Ariel understood. That’s why Grandma Rosalie was finally telling her. That’s why it had been getting worse. Grandma thought she was going to pass this along. And she thought it would happen soon.
“You’ll believe it when you see it. And you will.” Grandma Rosalie said. “Just know that ghosts can’t hurt you. But they can try like hell to make your hurt yourself.”
yraM ydoolB .II
Call them Mary, if you must. Call them what you will. Those things that watch all people from behind the silver of mirrors. Some call these things Mary Worth. Some woman, some witch, unable to bear children. Covered in blood. Red from head to toe. Mary fashions Rosalie a ghost of her own. Little Letha Friendly, too young to bear children, and red from head to toe. Her skin, the same color of what lie beneath it. A monster in her own right. All she lacked was the blood, so the mirrors put the spirit into blood.
Rosalie becomes a mother to Esther, Esther becomes a mother to Ariel. The blood gets passed along, and so do the ghosts inside it. The silver eyes watch, in the glint of the scalpel, as Ariel is pulled from the womb. They watch as the doctors with lily-white skin, as lovely as the flower itself, cut Esther’s parts so she will never be a mother again. This unclean mother in sterile surroundings. She needed to be cleaned from inside out. Hollowed out. Nothing could be done about her skin, but the doctors stopped that darkness from spreading.
Esther did not want this, of course. She smiled as Ariel grew in her belly. She filled shoeboxes with little bibs and booties that her mother knitted. She kept them in her bedroom closet, next to her music box. She had a journal full of names. Names that she practiced saying with her daughter’s name. She did not want this, but it is for the best.
She weeps when the doctors tell her. She weeps in the bathroom while her infant sleeps in her crib. While Ariel toddles from room to room. After Ariel leaves for school. After Ariel takes the car to work. Esther clutches her belly as it aches for what it cannot have.
The mirrors can haunt her too. Show her little red babies. They have eaten the light of so many faces, there might as well be one for every name on Esther’s list. Their memories are exact. They drink Esther’s sweet tears. Just because they reflect a face twisted by sadness doesn’t mean they are not smiling.
III. Bloody Mary
Five years pass, and Grandma Rosalie passes with them. Three more years pass, and in them, Ariel falls in love with a man named James. Then nine months pass, and Ariel brings her daughter Elsie into the world. Mama is overjoyed when the doctor places Elsie in her arms. Mama always told stories of mothers that never got to hold their babies, whose babies were given to other families before they even stopped screaming. Mama cries happy tears that drip onto Elsie.
“You forget how warm babies are.” Mama says.
Helpful as she is, loving as she is, Mama nags. She nags that Elsie doesn’t have any siblings. Elsie is already five, Mama says. She needs a brother, a sister, she says. One that’s close to her age. She needs someone to walk through life with, to grow with, to protect and be protected by. But Ariel doesn’t have time for another kid, or money for that matter. Even with all Mama’s help, it’d be too much of a strain. Ariel works sixty hours a week at Ridgeville Clinic. James taught math at the school during the week and worked as a line cook at Hop’s Diner on the weekends.
Ariel and Mama hang the clothes out back, letting the afternoon sun pull the moisture from her linens and scrubs, from Elsie’s Sunday dress, from James’s trousers and button-ups, from Mama’s blouses. When the sheets sway in the wind, Ariel thinks of the sheets that she once used to cover Grandma Rosalie’s mirrors. She thinks of the girl she often saw in the reflections of shadows. She thinks of how much that girl looked like her daughter.
“You’re a wonderful mother, Ariel. Elsie is a beautiful girl. I don’t understand why you don’t want another child.”
“Want has nothing to do with it. We don’t have the time.”
“I’m here. Elsie is easy to watch. I can handle another baby. Wouldn’t be a problem at all.”
“I appreciate you looking after Elsie. But I don’t appreciate the meddling.”
“I just want Elsie to have what you didn’t.”
“I have plenty, Mama. It’s you that didn’t get what you wanted. No matter what I do, I’m not going to be able to give that to you.”
Dollhouse mirrors are always a little imperfect. They warp things in a way that real ones don’t. Strange that the doll has nothing inside of it but air. Elsie could squeeze the head with her little fingers and it would collapse, distorting the doll’s face, warping it into something uglier, something less familiar. Strange, too, that the the doll is so pale. Mommy’s skin doesn’t look like that. Elsie’s isn’t either. Though her skin is a little closer to color of the doll’s. Elsie notices the way that skin lightens for that instant when you apply pressure. Just a little bit brighter, if only for an instant.
Elsie knew her body wasn’t empty like the doll. She knew she was full and heavy. But the first time her skin comes apart, the first time that bright blood stains the world, she is not ready. She is playing. Running back to her bucket of chalk. She falls. She does not cry though. The strawberries inside her body paint the sidewalk, her hands. That prickly sting runs down her leg, like blood. And then through the rest of her body, also like blood.
yraM ydoolB .III
We are not cruel, nor did we ask for this. This is not our fault, but we are truthful. We are not the water, but the light that bends over it. We did not push the girl into us, she is not part of us, but we hold her. Yes, we were part of the scalpel, but we did not cut the young mother. Yes, we drink the water that flows from you, but we are not the reason you weep.
We have followed you through eighty years of blood. We have swallowed your kin. Once the water has been tainted, all you can do is pull up rot from the well.
Carson Faust is a queer writer, and an enrolled member of the Edisto Natchez-Kusso Tribe of South Carolina. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in TriQuartely, Waxwing Magazine, Foglifter Journal, and elsewhere. He currently lives in Minnesota.