Orphans | Amanda Gowin



The surname was taken seriously, in the way that those who desperately search for purpose will grab and snatch at a thing to be, to fall into—light twinkling through a seam torn, fingers wiggled through to stretch the hole into a window or an ocean, until meaning can be found. And if the water turns out to be lukewarm or better, or the sky to be blue, and time-consuming, one will jump

For Mandy, the water smelled like roses. When her daughter or niece shoved me out of the car at the mailbox and said I’d have a granny now and didn’t need a mommy, the mailbox that said Roseberry had perched on a post claimed by winding vines of heliotropes for countless years.

I remember sunshine; being abandoned in Heaven. Mandy had no children, spent her years cultivating roses instead. The yard sloped up and away from the road, gravel drive cutting it in two with a crooked swatch of grey. In my purple jelly shoes, squinting at what appeared to be the Red Queen’s garden bleached pink by the summer sun, I expected flamingos to poke their heads through the shrubs or peacocks to wander under the arbors—white peacocks made of lace and glass, framed by archways of heavy blooms.

Far off at the edge of the horizon, miles for a child I guess, was a white clapboard farmhouse, no place for a queen—but what was she if not a caretaker? Nurse and nanny, consulting her Burpee catalogs instead of Dr. Spock, rocking in her chair, slowly, rhythmic as a metronome,

stopping mid-squeak as she switched the knife-sharpened pencil nub from hand to hand before deciding which to use to make her notes. “In my day you had to learn right-handed, my head just decides which one to use, makes no difference to me,” she told me once, while I sat on the faded wood floor with a needle and thread sewing purses—but I knew her hands better than she did, and evenings while she flipped catalogs and marked pages she wrote with her left; mornings when she listened to the bulletin board on the brown box radio at the kitchen table and used the seam ripper to turn all my purses back to wash rags, she used her right. “Good practice,” she somehow smiled with the corners of her mouth turned down, “but I got to wash the dishes with something.”

Truth is I’ve got Florence and Mandy all mixed up in my mind. I know the clapboard house was green, and Florence’s yard was dotted with snowball bushes and forsythia, flat and prone to flood with a flat blue sky backdrop—Mandy had the roses and the sloping yard, the metal screen door woven with silvery vines and the letter R in the center, the promise of thin teacups, and exotic birds in the crafted shrubs on either side of the drive. Florence had a silver coffee percolator that caught the sun to throw a curved prism on the yellow linoleum, and spent the mornings ripping seams and smiling with the corners of her mouth turned down, among the tiger lilies I’d meet yellow kittens or a yipping Pomeranian, and her mailbox was surrounded with unkempt Periwinkle and Bachelor’s Buttons.

There were nests of baby Robins in the branches of Florence’s trees if you knew where to look, and I did, but that was before I knew not to touch. I’d wedge my knees and toes in the forks of the branches and stroke the reptile baby skin

and the tufts that sprouted, my heart nothing like a metronome while I looked into their wide-open mouths, then creep quietly from the trees, the awe and curiosity in my fingers transferring my fate to them.

Too little to remember which mailbox I met first, one belonging to the woman who married into the name Roseberry, one that married out of it. I met the ends of both driveways with cheap squeaky shoes and a suitcase weighted only by formality. One woman had a white bun on the top of her head and one had a black bun on the top of hers; one observed silent afternoons and one played Ralph Stanley while she washed the dishes. One took me in because she’d had no children; one took me in because she’d had no mother.

By the time I was eight years old they were both in the ground. I only remember one funeral because all funerals are the same, so what does it matter? People cry and fill the green-carpeted room with the wrong kinds of flowers, and the undertakers fold tiny white Bibles into paper-soft lifeless hands, then the ground is filled with dirt and the long table at the house is filled with food under crinkled and sparkly foil.

And the peacocks and the Pomeranians vanish, shuffled out of the way with the little girl and her egg-blue suitcase.



Amanda Gowin lives in the foothills of Appalachia with her husband and son. Her work has appeared in magazines and anthologies including Burnt Tongues and Gutted: Beautiful Horror. She is a fiction editor at Menacing Hedge, and author of the collection, Radium Girls (Thunderdome Press). More information on her life and work can be found at lookatmissohio.wordpress.com.

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