The Women of Harper House
Her mother would tell you she’d never been good at climbing; a false hope. At twelve years, Wren Harper mastered ascending the ancient white poplar just beyond the garden gate of the Harper estate.
She climbs now despite her dress, aided by the pair of Docs she found in the back of a closet. She doesn’t know they once belonged to her mother, Sophie Harper, before she graduated high school.
“Pass it up,” she says to her friend below.
Wren laughs at Atticus as she jumps, trying to hand off the net. The girls are a collection of once-hipster names their mothers magicked back into existence.
Sophie watches with generations of Harper women who’ve passed before as her daughter climbs above.
The women of Harper House have been held within the tree despite their deaths, bodies buried elsewhere. They exist in earth and root and branch; a punishment for brutality and blood spilled on the property.
Had Wren’s mother known of her fate, she never would’ve slipped her toes over the edge of the roof, arms extended like wings.
* * *
Sophie’s need grew by the day, cradling her newborn. Too often, she wondered what it would be like to spread her arms wide. Would it be like that rhyme? And down will come baby, she sang, always gave Wren those sugared lullabies.
When she was pregnant, Sophie thought about the bedtime stories and the beautiful things she’d teach her child to believe in: kindness, love, the world, herself.
She wanted to mend a broken heart.
But when the baby was born, it broke her. Sophie didn’t feel the connection like she knew she should, but she’d smiled and kissed Wren over and over to prove she could.
The child was a creature who cried and writhed and didn’t need a story or a song, but wanted only breastmilk and blankets. Sophie had a hard time nursing, and in swaddling she felt the tenuous breath slip from herself into the babe, a tiny wraith; she sucked Sophie’s soul and her milk and her everything.
The day of her death, Sophie took the steps barefoot. Her toes curled over the shingles, which had cracked in the summer sun.
Now, she resisted the urge to name the green of the leaves. The backyard trees would outlive her.
Sophie spread her arms, and she flew.
At first, she soared, and then the breaking seared through.
Her dying started slow, breaths weakened. Toward the last, Sophie no longer tasted the sweetness of the almost-autumnal air, instead there was the tang of earth and rain and the gum of worm macerated in her mouth.
“The fall fractured the femur, ruptured the femoral artery, and she bled out.” Someone, the coroner perhaps, told Sophie’s husband in hushed tones: voice soft, succinct.
Sophie’s eyes stilled to glass, but she saw them take the woman she used to be, swaddled in the body bag, bones broken beyond repair. Her thoughts seeped from the roots of the poplar back to the branches above.
* * *
In the years that followed, Sophie never visited her grave because cemeteries were for the living, not the dead, and there was no escaping the tree.
* * *
“What are we doing, Wren?” Atticus calls from below the tree.
The women of Harper House wonder the same thing.
“I’ve named her Ophelia,” Wren says. “And we all know Ophelia fell.”
“That’s a made-up name,” Atticus says.
“Read a book,” Wren says.
Atticus asks her phone about the validity of the name. “But Shakespeare’s just, like, dead,” she says, skimming the wiki.
“So is my mother. But she was probably like this Ophelia and that’s why,” Wren says. She lifts the net above her head and plunges it down, scooping the bird from the branch.
“But the babies, Wren. What about the baby birds?” Atticus’s voice shakes.
“We’ll take care of them,” Wren says, climbing down from the tree. “We have to protect them now.”
Wren’s mother watches as she pulls pins from a pocket in the dress. The pins had belonged to Sophie’s mother, but the heads were still bright red despite their age.
The youngest Harper instructs her friend to hold the bird, and she tries, but it fidgets, and attempts to fly free.
“I have to do everything,” Wren says, holding the squirming shape in one hand, pin in the other.
The first pin stills the bird.
Blood pools in the palm of her hand.
Atticus runs from the yard, sobbing, while the women of Harper House stay silent.
The crimson cools as night descends.
Wren strokes the wings and sings the name, “Ophelia. Ophelia. My Ophie. Sophie. Sophie.”
Her mother would tell you blood never touched the earth, and so the fate of the women of Harper House would not befall her daughter.
But Wren rips feathers from each wing, bone from body; the insides spill like jewels beneath the star-infested sky.
When her father calls from the garden gate, she smiles down at her work.
She buries the bird beside the tree.
Wren climbs back up to the branch, takes the nest. The young cry with her as she carries them back to Harper House.
Originally published at www.oneforonethousand.com on November 2, 2016.