EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece also shows promise and seems commercially viable. Most readers are women, and mother-daughter- family issues sell books if
they offer something new. If I were an agent, I might encourage the author to tighten this before submitting more, but I might not. Alberta, when you
submit, pick your agent and/or publisher carefully.
My mother’s maiden name was Stone. It’s how I always thought of her-like the hard solid mineral matter rocks are made from. Houses are built of
stone. Her first name was Rose-a prickly bush that bears fragrant flowers. Odd how a given name can sum a person up.
It happened on a Thursday. Two days earlier we’d celebrated my husband Steve’s birthday. Mine would arrive Saturday. I’d forced myself to
phone my mother first thing that morning when my defenses would be strongest-primed to withstand her caustic tone. I braced myself for the typical,
strained conversation with its shrieking subtext:
Haven’t heard from you in awhile. Too busy to call your mother? I guess your patients matter more to you. It’s not easy living by myself. Do
you ever think about that?
Strangely enough, it had felt lately as if my mother and I were drawing the usual battle lines less fiercely. Hostilities seemed to have waned as I
moved into adulthood and she into advanced age-abetted, without question, by her regular doses of lithium.
I’d spent the entire morning, routinely, with my psychotherapy patients. One man, I’m sure, consulted with me just after nine. A woman, whose
face I can still see, filled the noon hour. But whoever they were, and whatever my clients and I spoke of that day-whatever I may have spoken of with all
the clients I saw-is lost.
I can remember that after lunch with a colleague, I’d planned to return to the office for a two o’clock patient: just enough time to gather mail at
home and scuttle back. Vaguely, I recall pulling into the driveway. I can even place myself in the old BMW coupe I owned at the time-because I
remember the car’s year.
And then, shock assaults reverie.
In a split second, everything becomes background-quite forgettable-and then, suddenly, simply, never the same.
The spring light gleamed through the leaded glass entry window, as I opened the heavy oak door to collect the mail from the chute inside the
house. The oversized catalogues and Penny Saver ads had already spilled on to the rust tile floor-cluttering the narrow entryway. Gathering the rest in
haste, I shuffled through Master Card statements, a City of Sacramento utility bill, Charles Schwab trade confirmations, perhaps even the Smithsonian
magazine among assorted junk mail-mindlessly sorting them into piles. Her letter was not the first in the stack. But I recognized the handwriting instantly.
My stomach seized by instinct, anticipating some sharp reprimand or other. For what? Who knew? I never knew. An unforeseen slight I’d
unknowingly committed. Keeping my mother placated required mountains of vigilance; often I failed. As simple as that. Steve had recently, for example,
neglected to acknowledge her birthday gift rapidly enough-a gift delivered predictably early. I anticipated a reprimand. This was how my family conducted
business: expressions of gratitude conformed to a tight timetable.
But this time, this letter--it wasn’t your garden-variety reprimand. The words jumped off the page.
By the time you receive this letter, I’ll be gone. I love you more than…
I don’t remember whether I read to the end. My eyes saw the words. And if my heartbeat slowed to a crawl, my body mobilized instantly.
I phoned Steve first. I heard his breath suck in, then come out hard. Yes, he affirmed: I should immediately phone the manager of her building,
instructing that she enter my mother’s apartment.
Trembling, I punched the numbers into the phone. The manager grasped the terror in my voice. She would phone back at once.
Time ceased. Sound ceased. I waited.
The surfaces of my home office, not quite the color of candlelight, stared back at me. Original crown moldings. Double-hung windows. Once a
comfort, these features were now inert and cold. Neither the oak branches framing the paneled windows, nor the storybook setting beyond registered.
Without seeing, my eyes roved the out-of-focus shapes, the pale facades.
Next move. Next move. Call Dr. Phillips, my mother’s young psychiatrist. I phoned, reached his answering service. Left an urgent message.
Dr. Phillips. I’d chosen him carefully some years earlier, around the time my mother relocated to Southern California from Florida following her first
breakdown. Advice from a reliable colleague led me to Dr. Phillips’ mentor, a respected psychiatrist who ran the Affective Disorders Clinic at UCLA. He’d
recommended Phillips-well-schooled in the cutting edge biology of bipolar illness-unequivocally.
Dr. Phillips had managed my mother’s medications. She never considered the talking cure. What good were pills now?
I hung up, recalling a consultation with him on a Saturday evening when my mother, disinhibited from drinking at a family celebration, had suffered a
full-blown manic episode. We’d tried to drive her home, but Steve had been forced to physically restrain her from jumping out of the car. She’d possessed
the Herculean strength characteristic of a person in the throes of mania-remarkable, nonetheless for a five-foot-two-inch woman of 100 pounds.
Shouting to be heard over traffic from a roadside pay-phone, Dr. Phillips had advised admitting my mother to UCLA, where two security guards were
required to straitjacket her. I’ll never forget the humiliating walk from the emergency room to the locked ward alongside my mother, strapped to a gurney.
Pitch black skies surrounded us as we passed through the glass corridors and the rhythmic clang of the trolley wheels filled the dead air. She reviled me to
the attending medical student with stories of her self-sacrifice on my behalf:
“Did your parents finance your undergraduate and medical education? My daughter Alberta had it made.”
No matter I was a psychologist at a School of Medicine on another UC campus where this attendant could just as easily have been my own student
as the person in charge of my mother’s care.
The piercing ring of the manager’s call stopped my heart-dissolving the flashbacks. Hesitating to utter the words she knew I most feared, she
spoke slowly, enunciating with care.
“It is as you suspected.”
Over twenty years earlier, another stranger had spoken similar words.
My father had died suddenly from a massive heart attack-a fact that the adults, in their misguided wisdom, had chosen to temporarily withhold from
me. No one had counted on an eight and a half-year-old Nancy Drew wannabe, determined to track down her dad.
Leads from the deceiving adult spin had yielded nothing. Sequestered at a relative’s home with a babysitter, I contacted Cedars of Lebanon
Hospital, where my father had allegedly been admitted. The hospital had no record of him. Attempts to reach my grandfather failed when the directory
assistance supervisor refused to release his unlisted number.
I dialed the memorized number for my own house again and again-Poplar five-nine-nine-seven-six-and again and again I listened to it ring into an
infinite silence. No word had come from my mother over the course of two days. I wanted to go home. But it felt like my home had disappeared-sucked
away, like Dorothy’s Kansas.
How could I know it was the day of my father’s funeral?
The rotary phone and I were by then nearly soldered together; the heavy receiver sweaty in my palm as again and again, I dialed the number to his
college office. Finally, an unknowing switchboard operator answered.
“Who are you trying to reach?”
“Bob Nassi,” I blurted out.
“Dean Nassi passed away.”
I phoned Steve again to verify what he surely already knew.
“She’s dead. My mother is dead.”
Here memory fractures-neither fully forgettable or retrievable. Steve uttered words meant to console: I’ll never remember them. Somehow I was
able to understand that he’d come home at once.
My thoughts ricocheted in a kind of white noise. What about my own patients, due to arrive in hourly succession?
Hurry. The phone. As if underwater, I looked for my appointment book with the necessary numbers, and made the series of calls. I spoke in a
perfectly rational, reassuring tone of voice. I used the words “family emergency.” I can’t remember a single one of those calls now.
Then I phoned Dr. Phillips again, to tell him that his patient had died. The conversation, like so many others, has vanished. I’m sure I must have
questioned him, careful not to project blame-though longing for a place to properly hang it. There was nothing, no one, beyond my mother’s life of tragic
losses, to blame.
What I wouldn’t be able to tell him was what the autopsy eventually revealed. My mother had ingested an overdose of lithium carbonate. Lithium!
She had used her cure to kill herself. My mind then all but useless, I spoke what I hoped sounded like words of comfort to Dr. Phillips-aware at some level
that, directly alongside the horror of my own loss, I most dreaded being in his position.
I told Dr. Phillips I might wish to meet with him for a post mortem-then at once regretted saying this. Much better to play the role of colleague
than that of suicide survivor.
Auntie Annie confessed feeling terrible guilt: she had argued with my mother the day before. I felt a deep stab, assuming she was also recalling a
premonitory call to me, months earlier:
“Alberta, I have to talk to you about your mother. She’s not doing well. She’s not making a life for herself. I really think she needs to move to
Sacramento to be closer to you.”
A pause, in which my stomach fell as if punctured.
“Oh, Auntie Annie, I can’t encourage her. For the first time in my life, I’m happy. I won’t allow her to spoil it.”
“What can I say? She won’t last much beyond your wedding .”
Annie had known, first-hand, the accelerating downward spiral of my mother’s despair and isolation. But she had known very little about my
mother’s chaotic behavior: the alcohol binges, the rages and threats, the paranoia and stalking, the cinematic screaming that occasionally brought
neighbors running. Less still did she know about my desperate childhood, when I felt trapped by an emotionally volatile mother. Despite a straight-A,
student body president persona, I often felt close to the edge and flirted with suicide from a young age.
Nor could Annie imagine my mother’s frenzied phone calls to my job, berating me to department secretaries. All my aunt had seen was that I’d
slipped away. Abandoned my mother in her suffering. Failed as a daughter.
Lisa, my older sister stand-in who had bailed me out of more than one maternal crisis, waited for us at the Burbank Airport gate, her face a grim
mask. Our own faces taut, Steve and I embraced her, collected our bags, and climbed into her old white sedan parked curbside. The incongruous
Southern California sun streamed through her fraying feather collection dangling off the rearview mirror. While trying to piece together events, we drove
straight to Topanga Plaza mall to shop for my mother’s burial gown. She had always told me precisely what she wanted, imagining, inventing her death
ahead of time, keeping her conclusion close to her for comfort. What she wanted: A peignoir set in palest lavender-amethyst, to be precise. The color of
What to wear: Always a problem in her life. And now, apparently, just as pressing an issue in death. She’d planned the elements of her funeral the
way others plot the details of a wedding. Given the turbulence of her life and the horror of her self-destruction, my mother had been determined to
appear-when people last gazed upon her-in repose.
While I fingered silk and nylon, staring at styles and colors as though they embodied a crucial test that everything depended on my passing-I could
not stem an almost out-of-body bewilderment. This kind of attention was normally reserved for choosing a mother-of-the-bride dress: not a burial shroud.
The sheer perversity of trying to please her in death-as I never could in life-staggered me.
I selected a gown. More periwinkle than purple, the empire waist gathered slightly and the matching robe fastened with fabric covered buttons.
The clerk folded it meticulously, pausing in her motions to look up.
“Shall I gift wrap it?”
Alberta Nassi's work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and Conclave: A Journal of Character. She studies nonfiction writing with Lauren
Slater and listens to other people's stories from the privacy of her consulting room in Sacramento.
Jenny’s identical twin sister, Amy, pleaded with her not to read their grandmother’s diary. She tried everything she knew to keep Jenny away
from the cave. Once there, Amy begged her not to open the rusted doors and not to stride onto the wooden planked floor where the Welsh girl had
During the terrible moment that Jenny floated above the opening in the cave floor, she stared into her sister’s terrified face knowing how
horribly wrong she’d been about the story in her great-grandmother’s diary.
Amy flung herself at Jenny. Her thin arms reached out to her sister in a futile attempt to pull her away from the opening that appeared the
moment Jenny cast the spell. Through the cold air, Jenny’s desperate attempt to catch hold of her sister’s hand failed. Her grip on the wand in her
other hand weakened. It flew off into the darkness as a murder of crows exploded out of the light-filled chasm below her feet.
Jenny plunged past them into the blinding white light. As she looked up, her sister’s face vanished from view. Jenny’s mind closed to the world
she knew. A scream froze in her throat. Her breath came in short gasps. With each heartbeat she plummeted farther into the abyss.
In seconds-or maybe hours-or perhaps no time at all, leafy branches flashed past her. They slapped hard against her face and body. On and on she
plunged until she cleared the last of them, slowed, and floated onto her back in the soft grass of a vast meadow-her eyes closed tight against the soul-
piercing light shining from above.
Thoughts swirled so furiously through her mind they became a meaningless blur. When they settled enough for her to grab onto one, it brought
a cold terror to her heart. The wand was real, the incantation real-and everything she loved was now far beyond her reach. She stumbled to her feet.
The ache of her half-empty heart overwhelmed her. A noise forced her eyes open. A troupe of people, dressed all in black, rushed up the slope
at her. Jenny dropped to her knees, wrapped her arms about her head, and screamed. The pain of being separated from Amy overwhelmed her.
She never saw the young man named Arture grab her arm, or his sister Annare draw a wand from her belt a twin to the one Jenny had lost
only moments before she fell. Annare’s dark eyes flashed. She pointed the wand at Jenny and ordered her companions to bind Jenny’s hands behind her
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” The words leapt from Jenny’s quivering lips.
“She speaks the language of the Golau,” Annare, said.
“But she dresses in strange clothes,” her brother replied. “And her features are not those of a Golau.”
Annare nodded. “If she is involved Shala’s escape, as I suspect, our mother will know.”
Tied to a rope, held by a tall man, Jenny numbly stumbled along after him with no idea where she was going, or what fate awaited her. They
marched on to the castle of Queen Lenora, who’s court lay east of the Great Tree of Wyter the magical tree Jenny had dropped through.
Annare, Arture, Jenny entered the throne room of Queen Lenora. Exhausted, Jenny stumbled before her. Barely able to focus on the tall, slender
woman, Jenny’s eyes wandered through the folds of her long black robe. Her attention drifted to an ebony-colored leather girdle and came to rest on
the silver-handled wand laced to it.
Jenny dropped her gaze to the floor. Her wrists ached, her hands were numb and her mind filled with a vision of her sister’s face. She sobbed.
The Queen pointed at Jenny. “This one belongs to the world above the Darricod.” She placed her hand under Jenny’s chin, raised it, looked into
Jenny’s tear-stained face, and smiled. Jenny’s bindings dropped to the floor.
Jenny stared blankly into the Queen’s black eyes. “I’m sorry,” Jenny said, . . .I. . . I shouldn’t be here. Could . . . could I . . . just please, please, go
The woman wiped a tear from Jenny’s cheek. “I am Queen Lenora, child, and we Corbies mean you no harm. I apologize for your treatment at
our hands, but these are dangerous times.”
The Queen motioned to a young girl standing to her right. “Please take our guest to the kitchen and see that she is given a proper meal. When
it has been done, bring her to Shale's chambers so she may freshen up. Then send word to me that I may join her.”
The girl led Jenny down a wide, stone stairway to an immense chamber three floors below. She sat Jenny at a long, rough-hewn, wooden table
in front of a wide fireplace and left without speaking. Several large kettles dangled above the fire on long, iron hooks. Next to them, a pig slowly turned
on a spit. Its pungent odor mingled with the sweet smell of baking apples and cinnamon.
The older of the two women working in the kitchen asked, “Are you allowed to eat meat?”
Jenny managed a weak, “Yes, Ma’am.”
The older woman’s brow furrowed. “What sort of address is Ma’am?”
“Where I come from,” Jenny said, forcing herself to continue speaking, “it’s a respectful way to address a lady who is older than you are.”
“A lady, am I?” The woman chuckled. “I fancy I’ll not be called that again.” Then she cut a large piece of meat from the pig and placed in on a
wooden plate along with a number of roasted vegetables, and a spoonful of bubbling baked apples. Beside the plate she set a cup of wine. “Eat up now.
You’ll feel a sight better after you have. Let me know when you’re finished, so I may send word to the Queen.”
The younger of the two women, glanced at Jenny, but busied herself cutting more vegetables at a sideboard near the fireplace. Every so often,
as Jenny ate, the girl stole another glance at her, but remained silent. On one such occasion, Jenny caught her eye and said, “My name is Jenny.”
“I’m called Fain,” the girl replied in a soft voice. Her dark, double-braided hair hung down her back. The white ribbon tied around it danced along
just above the woolen girdle that encircled her waist as she chopped away. Jenny nodded to Fain.
When Jenny had finished a few meager bites, she got up, walked the short distance to where Fain stood. “Thank you very kindly for the food.”
“Come then, girl,” the older woman said. “Her Majesty will be wantin’ to see you.”
The same girl who had taken Jenny to the kitchen reappeared and walked her to the biggest and grandest bedroom she had ever seen. An
elaborately carved four-poster bed, covered in a beautiful mint green and gold comforter, sat against the far wall. On the oak dresser next to it laid a
profusion of combs, brushes, mirrors, and hair ribbons.
On the wall opposite the dresser hung a portrait of, Shala, the Queens daughter. Her beautiful ebony locks cascaded along each side of her thin
face. She wore a shiny blouse festooned with pearls. But it wasn’t her dress, or hair, or her flawless milk-white complexion that caught Jenny’s
Jenny stared at Shala’s dark eyes-eyes she could not have seen before. Yet, the feeling she had overtook her mind. Without meaning to, she
thought of her sister, Amy. She walked to the window, looked out over the balcony and wondered if she would ever see Amy, or her parents or her
home ever again. She breathed deeply to ease the tightness in her heart. She could hear her grandmother’s warning to never try the spell and a soft
sob escaped her lips.
Below her, the lawn drifted away from the castle. Its dark green grass flowed into a vast meadow dotted with wild flowers of every imaginable
color much like the one near her own home. Jenny started to tear up when her attention was drawn to several dark objects in the sky just above the
horizon. She watched as they slowly became large enough for her to recognize them as birds, exactly like those that had flashed past her and on into
These landed on the grass below. Jenny’s eyes widened and she gasped, as the birds transformed into three young men-dressed the same as
Arture and his sister. A gardener, trimming a hedge not ten feet away, gave no notice whatsoever.
Jenny turned and ran toward the door.
Queen Lenora blocked her path.
Jenny stared at her with wide eyes. “I just saw birds become young men.”
The Queen responded in a calm voice. “I understand that you find this place and my people quite strange.”
“I shouldn’t be here, Your Majesty.” Jenny bowed her head. “I just want to
go back home where I belong. Amy tried to. . . I shouldn’t have. . .”
Queen Lenora raised a hand and laid it on Jenny’s shoulder. “Events that began a very long time ago involve us all-and it’s no mistake that
they’ve led you here.”
Robert Marvin earned a BSED from Ohio Northern University and Masters Degree in Education from Bowling Green State University. He taught AP biology
and has twice received awards from Writers-Editors Network International Writing Competition for first chapter submissions. (2012, 2013)