Friday, April 5, 2013

Get Thee Behind Me

By Bettyann Moore

Part I

Even before her daughter was born, Rosemarie knew she would be gifted, and powerful. Her hopes for normal – average, even – dwindled with each passing day. The cinnamon was the first sign.

Rosemarie hated cinnamon, always had. When others walked past the cinnamon roll shop in the mall, their noses snuffling in great drafts of spicy air, Rosemarie was gagging into her sleeve, hurrying past.

So, in the first weeks of her pregnancy when she started craving the stuff, Rosemarie knew it was more than just a passing fancy. She tried to stop herself, really she did, but any time she tried to ignore the desire – no, the need – her guts would twist in pain. She simply gave in. Soon she was buying cinnamon sticks by the gross, using them to stir her tea, grating them over pancakes, chicken – even spaghetti. She kept stashes of Red Hots and, heaven help her, cinnamon Jelly Bellies, all over the house. It placated her growing fetus.

It came as no surprise to Rosemarie that she went into labor six weeks early. She wasn’t worried, but knew that she shouldn’t lose any time getting to the hospital. The child was in a hurry. There was no husband or boyfriend to wake up, no birth coach to alert, and her mother was 800 miles away, still in the home Rosemarie had grown up in – waiting, no doubt, for her errant daughter to return.

After leaving a message for Dr. Benton, her insanely good-looking gynecologist, Rosemarie threw a few things into a backpack, made sure the cat had enough food and water and waited outside for the taxi. By the time it pulled up to the curb, the taxi driver’s eyes wide with trepidation at her obvious condition, the contractions were just five minutes apart. Between the lack of traffic at 2 am and the driver’s desire to keep his taxicab clean, they pulled in front of the hospital in record time. Rosemarie gave him a $20 tip.

Before she knew it, Rosemarie was flat on her back in a delivery room, prepped, stirruped and surrounded by nurses nervously watching the swinging doors for the good doctor. Judging by the looks they gave each other every time they looked between her legs and how much she wanted to push, Rosemarie knew he was cutting it close.

Benton finally strolled in just in time to catch the baby as she slithered out of her mother’s body. A few seconds later and he began to wish he hadn’t gotten there in time at all. With a firm grip on the child’s crossed ankles and a nice hold on the head and neck, Dr. Benton, a 20-year OBGYN veteran, nearly dropped the baby when he turned her over and looked into her eyes.

They were the clearest, deepest green eyes he had ever seen on anyone, let alone a newborn. They were wide and focused and looked right down to his soul. He grew dizzy and for a few awful and graphic seconds, Dr. Wayne Benton saw how he was going to die.

A woman leaned against a brick building smoking a cigarette. Benton rushed toward her in eager anticipation. The Eiffel Tower rose up behind them in the distance. The woman raised her arms and Benton reeled in pain, a red stain growing on his bright white shirt. He slumped to the ground.

Everyone in the OR, except Rosemarie, gasped when it looked like the child would slip from his grasp. The head nurse came to the rescue, taking a firm hold on the little girl before placing her face down on the mother’s stomach.

Rosemarie had taken it all in, had seen the doctor’s white death mask pass over his face, his dazed eyes. She’d seen it before, in others. Her daughter – her name would be Esme she decided then and there – was powerful to be sure. But Rosemarie was, too. While the nurses twittered around the doctor, she steeled herself, reached back into her memory for the right string of protective words, then looked down into her daughter’s eyes, now the normal, milky eyes of a newborn. There was a jolt of recognition, but no revelations. There was, though, the curious and irresistible feeling of profound, ancient love.

Benton, whose cool, doctorly demeanor had returned, busied himself with delivering the placenta, though his mind was elsewhere. He vowed to himself then and there to never set foot in Paris, or the whole country of France for that matter. The nurses cast worried looks his way as he bent to his task. The head nurse retrieved the baby, assuring Rosemarie that she would return her once she was weighed, cleaned and wrapped snuggly. Rosemarie closed her eyes, wincing slightly as the placenta broke free.

Before long, Esme, now asleep, was back in her arms.

“You can go ahead and try nursing,” the nurse told her. “Don’t expect too much. It’ll take a few days for the milk to really come in, but for now the little one needs the colostrum to build her immune system. You might have to show her how, Mom.”

Rosemarie pulled open her hospital gown to free a breast and nuzzled the nipple against her daughter’s cheek. Esme’s eyes popped open and without hesitation, her eager mouth latched on. Rosemarie felt a painful, almost sexual tug from breast to groin as her daughter nursed.

“Goodness!” the nurse cried. “She took right to it!”

“Oh dear,” Rosemarie said, looking down. “I guess I did, too.”

Milk, it seemed like rivers of it, was seeping through the thin gown from her other breast. Esme was nearly gasping trying to keep up at the other.

“Oh! Why, I’ve never …” The nurse scurried off to find a breast pump, a container, something.

Rosemarie smiled down at her daughter. “You’re a little shit,” she thought, with affection. “I sure hope I’m up for this.” Esme kept on nursing. Rosemarie craved cinnamon. She laughed out loud, which everyone took for happiness. Everyone, that is, but the doctor, who patted his patient on the knee, avoided her eyes and scurried out the OR door.

Three days later, back in her second-floor walk-up, Rosemarie broke down and called her mother … but not before making herself some cinnamon toast and a cup of cinnamon tea. It had been three years since the women had last spoken. Celia Gianconni had been expecting the call.

“She’s beautiful, Momma,” Rosemarie told her. “She has your eyes. And such white, white skin and all this black hair! I swear I could almost braid it!”

“And?” the older woman asked.

“And she’s a little piggy, wants to nurse constantly! I think she might have Gramma G’s dimples...”

“You know that’s not what I mean, Rosie,” her mother interrupted.

Rosemarie took a swallow of tea.

“She … well, she …”

“It’s okay, love, I know, I know. She’ll need guidance, teachers ...”

“No!” Rosemarie spat. “I’m not bringing her back there! I’ll deal!”

Celia bit her tongue. “Okay, baby, okay. You’re her mother, you know what’s best. Just remember we’re all here for you and for Esme. Your aunties, your uncles and cousins … we’ve all been there.”

Rosemarie sighed. What her mother said was true and her heart ached for home at times, for that cloistered, loving place – that cloistered, smothering place that she had finally broken free from. No, she’d deal.

And deal she did. While she refused to set foot in her home town, Rosemarie did allow her various relatives to visit. She drew the line at the extensive extended family. On her first visit, Celia locked eyes with her 3-week-old granddaughter and stayed that way for half an hour. Exhausted afterwards, she slept for several hours, only to rise and do it again.

For weeks, the relatives trooped in, oohing and aahing, delivering pronouncements.

“She will have the world at her feet!” one great-uncle declared.

“Nothing will stop her!” a great-great-aunt, so stooped she could only see the floor, decreed.

“I don’t know,” a niece – the black sheep of the family – said, “she doesn’t look that special to me.”

After each visit, Rosemarie combed the place; she’d found small talismans and charms in Esme’s bassinet and crib. Special or not, the child could still choke.

It was fairly easy, those first few months, to keep Esme away from the public eye. Rosemarie worked from the apartment. She shopped online, even for groceries. Well-baby check-ups proved relatively easy once Rosemarie told curious parents and children that Esme had an extremely catchy disease. Until Esme learned to control her gift – and who knew when that would be – Rosemarie kept the child’s world small. Thus far it contained the relatives who still trickled in, the UPS guy who never looked up from his electronic signature tablet and old Mrs. Dunst, the legally blind woman who lived in 2A.

Rosemarie had no social life, not really. If she felt the need for a bit of male companionship, which was rare, she didn’t go out until late at night when Esme would likely be asleep and then she would take her over to Mrs. Dunst’s apartment. A night owl, Mrs. D played opera on an old turntable all night long and slept during the day. She collected prisms, stringing each one on fishing line. Every other week or so, when her son came to check up on her, she had him hang the light-catchers from the ceiling. She had thousands of them. Walking into her apartment was like walking into a disco hall on steroids. Esme seemed to love it.

The cinnamon cravings continued. Rosemarie figured they would do so until Esme was weaned … if she was ever weaned, that is. The girl wanted what the girl wanted and knew how to get it. Toward the end of Esme’s fourth month, Rosemarie found a stuffed dog in the crib that she knew had been on a shelf. If she was wet and uncomfortable because Rosemarie didn’t change her fast enough, the diapers worked themselves off. Rosemarie would find her daughter gleefully kicking and gurgling, her little butt drying in the air.

“Talk to her,” Celia told her over the phone.

“Ma, she’s just a baby!”

“She’s not just a baby, Rosie, and you know it.”

“But ...”

“No ‘but’ about it. I remember a certain girl child who liked to call animals into her room. Live animals. Dogs. Cats. Birds … even snakes.”

Rosemarie felt herself blushing.

“I just kept talking to you, even though you were smaller than a minute. You would cock your head to one side and listen. I explained how other people owned and loved those animals, and how you were depriving them of their company … you got it, eventually.”

Rosemarie sighed. “Is it always going to be this hard?” she asked.

“Oh, honey, of course it is. And it’s going to get harder.”

“Well, that’s comforting,” Rosemarie murmured.

“Why do you think Lincolnville came into existence in the first place?” Celia asked. “Our families needed the protection, help and understanding that came with living in a place all together. It’s why I kept you here as long as I could.”

Rosemarie bristled. “I do okay,” she said. “I manage.”

“Hmmm, yes, you ‘manage.’” The sarcasm in Celia’s voice came through loud and clear.

“I have to go, Mother,” Rosemarie said. “It’s time to feed Esme.” She looked down at her soundly sleeping daughter as she hung up the phone.

The young mother and daughter continued to manage. Rosemarie talked and talked and talked to Esme, whose understanding belied her age. She did get weaned and Rosemarie never ate cinnamon again, though her daughter continued to crave it. By the time she was of school age, Esme had learned to control her “meddlings” with other people’s minds. Mostly.

Rosemarie could have home-schooled the girl, but wanted to bring her up as normally as possible. She did, however, walk to and from school with her every single day. She arranged play dates for Esme, though none of them were ever reciprocated. When the thought crossed her mind that maybe her daughter was too different from the other children, that perhaps they were afraid of her, she wiped the idea right from her head.

“She needs to be around other kids,” she insisted to Celia.

“She needs to be around her own kind,” her mother countered.

“Ma, I’m not going through this with you again! She’s doing great!” Rosemarie didn’t mention the time Esme had been accused of stealing another girl’s red spiral notebook. She swore she never touched it and Rosemarie knew that was probably so, but it was found in Esme’s backpack nonetheless. “It was the color of cinnamon,” the girl defended herself later.

Such incidences continued to follow Esme throughout her school years. Some more bizarre events – like the time the physical education teacher found her purse dangling from the stage lights in the auditorium, or when the principal opened his desk drawers and out flew hundreds of mosquito hawks – were never attributed to any particular person. But Rosemarie knew.

And even though the girl swore that she had nothing to do with her math teacher running out of the school building, hopping in her car and driving it smack into the side of a grocery store, it was also the same day that Rosemarie read about Dr. Benton’s murder, so the two events were forever tied together in her mind.

The math teacher survived, but was remanded to a mental institution. Dr. Benton, though, died just as he had seen it in Esme’s newborn eyes, even though he never set foot in Paris. In fact, his third wife, whose fondest dream was to go to Paris with the man she loved, resented Benton’s refusal to take her there. The resentment festered and the relationship deteriorated. It didn’t help that the man was two-timing her with a young actress (and probably others, though the news story didn’t mention that).

Benton had arranged to meet the young lady on a Friday night, after her last performance. He watched the play, then stayed in his seat long after everyone had left. Finally, she came out on stage again, dressed in a tightly-belted overcoat and nothing else. Benton rose from his seat and made his way on stage; just as she reached for him, a shot rang out from the balcony, where his wife had been the whole time. He died instantly, though not before his brain finally registered that the stage backdrop featured a grainy likeness of the Eiffel Tower.

Rosemarie jammed the newspaper down into the garbage can beneath soggy coffee grounds where Esme wouldn’t be likely to see it. When the girl got home from school that evening, Rosemarie had made up her mind.

“Hey, lovely lady,” she blurted out when Esme walked in the door. “It’s Christmas break, what do you think about a vacation?”

“You mean, like, go somewhere?” Esme asked. At the age of 15, Esme had mastered the art of sarcasm.

“Yeah, like go somewhere, somewhere like … I don’t know … how about visiting your Grandma out in Colorado? You could learn to ski and meet some cousins ...”

“I thought you didn’t like Colorado.”

“I like Colorado just fine,” Rosemarie insisted, more to herself than Esme. “I just thought you might like to see where I grew up. And there’s a whole town who can’t wait to meet you.”

Esme smiled up at her mother. “People like us?” she asked, her eyebrows wiggling up and down.

“Well … yes, of course there’s that … but mostly it’ll just be fun to get away, don’t you think?”

“Sure, Mom, sounds good.”

“It’s settled then,” Rosemarie said, “Lincolnville, Colorado, here we come!”

After settling the cat at Mrs. Dunst’s the next day, the little family loaded the car and hit the road. Were she alone, Rosemarie would have driven the 800 miles in one day, but decided they would stop for a night at the fanciest hotel they could find along the way. Crossing the plains the next day, Esme’s excitement grew as they neared the mountains. Her excitement was contagious and Rosemarie found herself actually looking forward to going home; she had missed the mountains and, surprisingly, Lincolnville.

Lincolnville was a stodgy, old man of a village nestled between two mountain ridges. At 11,500 ft., it had its own ski hill with a rickety lift and a decrepit ski lodge, but its amenities stopped there. Unlike most mountain towns, it had no trinket shops, soda fountains, high-end clothiers or even a good place to get pizza or coffee. It did have one small Safeway, a gas station, a single tavern and a drugstore, none of which sold postcards or locally-made key chains. There was one K-12 school, a non-denominational church and a library.

All 3,313 community members were related in some way. They liked the town just the was it was.

Rosemarie hadn’t told anyone she was coming to town, even her mother. There was no need to. As they made their way down Arbutus, the town’s main street, it was apparent that everyone knew anyway. It was one of those wonderful Colorado mountain winter days: The sun blazed in an almost-too-blue sky while giant piles of snow banked the streets. It should have brought everyone and their mother out to enjoy the day, but the street was eerily quiet. Only the tell-tale twitch of curtains and blinds gave the townsfolk away.

“Where is everyone?” Esme looked a bit spooked.

“Oh, they’re there, trust me.” Rosemarie nodded toward a brightly painted Victorian on the corner of Arbutus and Snow Avenue. Just in time, Esme noticed a curtain draw closed in one window and a bent blind slat in another; she could just make out an eye in the opening.

“Mom? What are they doing?” Esme’s eyes grew wide.

“They’re being silly, is what they’re doing, my love. Go ahead, open the window and wave.”


“Yep, really.” Rosemarie smiled to herself.

Esme hesitated, then cranked down the window and began waving as they drove by each house. Soon, she was really into it and gave long, drawn-out parade waves that set Rosemarie to giggling.

“Hey, someone waved back!” Esme cried, causing her mother to hoot out loud.

“That was your Great Aunt Judith’s house,” she said. “I’ll be that we won’t be at your grandma’s house more than … oh … 10 minutes and she’ll show up. Wanna bet?”

Esme eyed her mother. This was a mother she’d never seen before. A fun one. But 10 minutes? No way.

“Okay, I bet,” she said, reaching across the seat to shake on it.

Celia, coffee cup in hand, was waiting on the front porch of the fanciest, oldest house Esme had ever seen. The girl had unbuckled herself and was out the door before Rosemarie could even put the car in park.

“Grandma!” she yelled, running up the stairs to embrace the old lady.

“My darling child,” Celia cried, hugging her, then held her at arm’s length. “Let me look at you!” Celia locked eyes with Esme and held them until Rosemarie joined them.

“Ahem! Your daughter is here, too, you know,” she said, smiling.

“Welcome home, my prodigal daughter,” Celia said, hugging her. Rosemarie rolled her eyes; her mother had always been a drama queen.

“Oh, and look who else is here,” Celia said, nodding toward the street. A short, rotund woman wearing the highest, pointiest shoes Esme had ever seen was mincing down the sidewalk toward them.

“Great Aunt Judith?” Esme asked, looking at her mother.

“The one and only,” Rosemarie replied, then whispered, “You owe me.”

“Oh, my stars and garters!” Aunt Judith cried as she hobbled up the porch stairs, “Is that you, Rosemarie? And who is this lovely being?”

“Judith, you know darn well it’s Rosemarie and her daughter Esme!” Celia impatience was obvious. “Now let’s get inside and let them get settled.”

Esme’s eyes widened when they entered the house. “You live here, Grandma? By yourself?” She slowly turned in a full circle, trying to take it all in. “It’s like a castle!”

“Pshaw,” her grandmother scolded. “It’s just a house. Your mother used to live here, too, once upon a time.”

“Mom, you never said you lived in a castle!”

Rosemarie looked chagrined. Esme was definitely becoming way too enamored with Lincolnville.

“It’s cold and drafty three seasons out of the year and only slightly less so in the summer,” she said, risking her mother’s wrath. Celia, whispering something to her sister-in-law, ignored her, as did Esme.

“Look at that tree!” the girl cried, running to the decorated Christmas tree. The tree, the tallest she’d ever seen outside a museum or bank building, nearly reached the living room ceiling and the ceiling was 25 feet high. It was surrounded with gaily wrapped presents. Esme could see her name on some of the tags.

“Mom, seriously?” Rosemarie said, pointing to all the loot.

“Just a few gifts for my favorite girls,” Celia said, dismissing her. “Who wants hot cocoa?”

After the cocoa, Aunt Judith made her way home. The drink had made Rosemarie drowsy, but Esme was still on high speed, checking out the various rooms (there were 14) and her grandmother’s odd collections … the drawers of desiccated snake skins especially captivated the girl.

“Darling,” Celia said, noticing her daughter’s drooping eyelids, “why don’t you go up to your old room and take a nap? I’m sure Esme and I can find things to entertain ourselves.”

Rosemarie wasn’t sure she trusted her mother alone with her daughter – who knows what she’d tell her – but she really couldn’t stay awake another minute. Reluctantly, she agreed. “Two hours, don’t let me sleep more than two hours, you hear?” she said to them both. They nodded, looking, Rosemarie thought, guilty already.

When she heard the bedroom door close, Celia walked briskly to the foyer and snatched up her purse. “How about taking a drive with your old grandmother?” She held out her hand and Esme took it eagerly.

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