Whenever I asked my mother, tell me about the caul, she’d moan and sigh like the wind. From what I understood, it was a bluish web covering my little scrunchy pink face as she shoved me out into this world. The delivery doctor had to peel it off – a sticky, thin thing, a membrane, like a spider web. Peeled it off, put the balled up cottony mess into in a metal specimen tray for later microscopic examination. “That’s why you are trouble with a Capital T,” my mother would fume when I was a child.

I still see her now, wiping her hands on her apron, whose embroidered cherries clashed with her sour disposition. Making vanilla fudge and then yelling at me while she stirred the Karo syrup, because I was not her favorite, after all, even though I was an only child. Those frenetic baking sessions filled the kitchen with tension that churned my stomach and stirred my brain.

Pictures formed and words spilled out, innocent and unbidden. “Daddy bought you a gift,” I said one day, swinging my freckled legs as I sat on the counter while syrup and chocolate bubbled in the pan. “Perfume. In an orange box.” I twined an unruly curl around my finger. She stopped cold. Wet fudge dribbled from the spoon onto her slender arm, and pain tugged the corners of her violet eyes. “Don’t start with me, Hazel. Please don’t start. Please?” She stared at me for a moment, then, just as I braced for further rebuke, she kissed me on the top of my head. Such was my mother, a woman at war with her natures.

“You’re a silly child, Hazel. Do you know that?’’

I gazed back. “It’s true, Mother. It’s true. Daddy’s being nice.” My legs stopped swinging, and I bit the ragged edges of my finger. “Perfume is nice.’’ 

This was a house of chaos, cloaked by regimen. The door opened like clockwork at six that evening. The smell of alcohol preceded my father’s entrance. He set an orange-wrapped box on the kitchen table. My mother froze. “Open it!” he urged as he set down his leather briefcase and kissed her on the cheek. Tentatively, my mother slit the orange wrapping paper with her manicured thumbnail and unveiled a crystal bottle of Yardley perfume. “How did you – where did you …” She looked from me, to my father, and back to me. The paper fell from her hands and drifted to the floor. “I’m asking you, Hazel. Tell us what’s going on here,” she said, stepping towards me. Anger creased her forehead. “You’d better tell us!” I ran from her, sending the plate of fudge flying.

I think that “the futures,” as I called them, were too much for my mother. Like the time I saw Grandpa Abe drowning at the beach. Only he wasn’t drowning. He was just standing there, up to his knees, smiling as unusually gentle waves lapped at his legs. And I started banging on my plastic beach pail and screaming, “Grandpa Abe is dying! Grandpa Abe is dying!” and my mother yelled, “No he’s not! Stop it, Hazel!” And then Grandpa Abe dropped straight down into the water like a sea monster had tugged on his ankle. His arms flew back and his palms pointed up like he was holding up the sky, and his life ended right there at Crane Beach. Heart attack. Abel Cole, drowned, May 15, 1957, Gloucester, Massachusetts. 

Those futures were like headlights coming at me, boiling my brain for a while. They’d borrow part of my body, and I would float. Sometimes it felt like somebody was pressing on my shoulders, and I’d start shaking. I’d hear whispers, and singing.  I escaped in dreams. I commanded them. “Fly away, bird,’’ I’d tell myself, before settling against the pillows and slipping into nightly slumber. I’d fly over the fields across the road from our house. Over the stream where bugs strode across the creek like Jesus.  Upwards, over the utility poles that marched across the fields. You’ve never felt anything as glorious as flying in a dream. Higher and higher until the air ran out and the wings disappeared from my body and I’d slowly float down, and awaken just before touching ground. Sometimes my futures frightened me: their meaning proved impenetrable. I tried to own my magic, until it owned me.

Before her unexpected death, one for the books, really, my mother aimed for fancy. She smelled like musky southern roses. She exuded beauty, with her violet eyes — Elizabeth Taylor eyes — and skin soft as peaches. And yet, all the while, something unkind coursed through her, and I could not tell you why. Was it the town? This small Massachusetts town, where no trains ran and nothing moved, really. Stultified, a stopped-up place of little or no consequence. A claustrophobic two-bedroom house with a kitchen in which you could barely fit a table for three. She was mired. Stuck with a bookkeeper husband who was handsome, with his coal-black hair and gentle gray eyes, but steadily cowed and beaten down; a husband who went to work and came home to blunt his torment with whiskey. Stuck with the ball and chain of her Trouble-With-A-Capital-T daughter. 

“I could have been a model,’’ she would say to my father. “Except I married you, and had Her.” Instead, she sold Avon products, a desperate move of a desperate woman. She wore nubby sweaters and pencil skirts, and eyeliner to bring out the Elizabeth Taylor-ness. She plastered on a fake smile, carried her monogrammed Avon case and wore people down with her pitch until they bought products just to make her go away. She did so well, Avon gave her free make-up and face cleansers that accumulated in a bathroom cabinet until they filmed over with dust.

My mother had a meanness. Sometimes she heated up something fierce, like a hot poker. She was born with it, and over time, it outweighed the good. Then it crept through her, like cancer.

During my childhood, before exasperation morphed to anger, before malignancy eclipsed periods of kindness, my mother had hopes for me. She would dip her finger into rosewater and dab her wrists, the crooks of her arms, and below her jaw. “Pulse points,” she’d say, demonstrating. “These are your pulse points, Hazel. Can you feel that? Each pulse warms the perfume and releases the scent.”  I tried, I tried. I tried comportment. Back straight, eyes forward, ankles crossed, hands folded prayerfully in my lap. I failed. My eyes wandered; I bit my fingernails. My socks drooped. “Maybe you’ll get the hang of it, or maybe not, Hazel. I doubt it,” she would say. I had potential, what with my auburn curls, blue eyes, and slender frame, but no matter how straight I sat, or politely I presented, my mother sensed darkness in me. A child with strange fixations and disturbing utterances, even in sleep. Her kisses were largely for show, their disguised intent as barbed as a bee sting. “Now go on,” she’d say. “Go do your dreaming, or whatever it is that you do.”

And so, growing up, I dreamed.  I dreamed when I was nine that my mother slipped and broke her arm. After that dream, I told her to be careful on the stairs, but days later she tripped and tumbled down an entire flight. “Little witch,” she said, as she lay on the floor. “You made this happen. You did this to me.” But I didn’t. Did I? I dreamed that a black widow spider crawled out of the laundry, and a week later one did; it crawled onto my mother’s hand like black magic stamped with a red hourglass. She shook the spider to the floor, where it disappeared beneath the washing machine. My mother hoped that it died, but now and then I saw her down on her hands and knees, checking.         

I dreamed that my father left us, and left me alone with her. Packed his gray suits, his leather briefcase, and what ghost of pride remained, and left. I lived in dread of his departure.

 My mind tried but over time it failed to fly away. I tried during Sunday drives when my parents argued, oblivious to me. “You’re letting her go on with this. It’s dangerous,” my mother said again and again. And each time, my father’s hands gripped the steering wheel until his knuckles turned white and blotchy. “You’re too hard on her. You’re too hard on me. What has happened to you?” His face would go pale and a shock of his blue-black hair would fall across his forehead. People found him handsome. He was kind, and he liked to hold my hand, which irked my mother no end. From the back seat, I tried to shout, “Stop it, I’m frightened, I’m frightened,” but no air moved across my windpipe, and no words came out. My fright grew. Now I saw hulking shapes in dark corners, sharp objects in dreams. And imperceptibly tiny insects. 

 My mind flew away in school, where I huddled in the back so nobody would stare at my drooping socks or notice my lack of comportment. Huddled, until teachers forced their way into my thoughts and the class remembered the little sorceress of the auburn curls and ungodly mind seated behind them, known for my odd outbursts from out of nowhere. 

“There’s a gun,” I blurted one day in fifth-grade. I interrupted Mrs. Lang, who had been asking me about the glacial topography of Massachusetts. “He has a gun. He’s going to kill her.”  

“Who has a gun, Hazel?” Mrs. Lang stiffened. My classmates snickered and shouted: “Hazel is a witch.” “Hazel is a bloodsucker.” “Hazel has fifteen toes.” 

I couldn’t tell Mrs. Lang that Maureen Delmonico’s father had a gun, that’s who. And he was going to shoot Mrs. Delmonico with his silver gun. Mr. Delmonico wore ugly all over him, like grime dug into his clothes. He had a brown mole in the middle of his forehead, brown as wet sawdust. He radiated his ugly soul around town. He radiated it when my father and I saw him at the hardware store one time, and my father grabbed my hand as if to protect me, because my father was like that. With me, he was gentle. My father greeted Mr. Delmonico with an even-toned, “Hello, Frank.” Mr. Delmonico glared in return. As for me, Mr. Delmonico wanted to grab my spirit. I saw the pincers in his mind. I smelled rotting sawdust.

Mrs. Lang sent me to the school nurse the day I blurted out the thing about the gun. The day the class hooted at me, while I cradled my head in my arms. The nurse gave me aspirin and called my mother to suggest I needed quiet time, away from school. My mother arrived in a ball of fury. “This nonsense will be the death of you, Hazel,” she said, steering with one hand while punching the car’s Naugahyde seat with the other. “It will be the death of all of us.” Her jaw jutted, and I noticed pinpricks of blood issuing from a ragged cut along the edge. And another faint, ragged scratch, on her forearm. Something new, and jarring. I pointed, then dared to ask how she had cut herself. My mother dug into her purse, rummaging through crumpled paper, jangling coins, tissues and whatever else lay at the bottom of that green vinyl cave. She pulled out a razor blade, and slashed at the air with one hand. “Like this. Like this,” she said, slashing again. Her face reddened and her breathing quickened and hitched, and I thought she might slash herself here and now, for real. “There. Are you happy, Hazel?” She thumped the steering wheel, leaving a purplish indent on her hand.

I pressed my fingers into my palms and shrank against the seat. While my mind screamed “Let me out,” my tongue lay inert, like a teaspoon in a spoon rest. My mother’s incongruent fragrance wafted over me and settled like suffocating fog. Sticky. Like something you couldn’t quite climb out of. Like a caul.

The next night, Frank Delmonico shot Gilda Delmonico to death at 68 Howland Lane. No one had murdered anyone in town that anyone could remember. No one at the newspaper had ever had been forced to write a headline like that. A banner headline, in bold point type: “Husband Shoots Wife to Death While Children Hide in Closet.” Mr. Delmonico had been a plumber. Just a regular plumber, who kept a nickel-plated Colt .45 in his top drawer, police said. Who beat on Mrs. Delmonico to make himself feel good. The police had prior reports, but never pursued him. Those beatings remained secret until he murdered his wife. The state took away the five-year-old son and the three-year-old daughter and entered them into child protective services, also noted in newspaper accounts.

The phones rang from one house to the next, and a stream of whispers coursed through town. Some whispers involved me. 

“Hazel, you have to stop this,” my mother said, stomping the floor until a ceramic lamp dropped and shattered. She was a hot poker all right. “No more predictions. No more. Keep your mouth quiet. Do you hear me? Do you? Keep your mouth shut. Or else.”

Or else what? As if my silence would fix this. As if. 

I was poison, she said. “You killed Grandpa Abe at the beach. You brought it on. You made him drown.” All because of that gauzy peculiarity visited upon me at birth. “You made me fall down the stairs, Hazel.” And that spider, she said. I lured that spider to the basement, with my black magic.

My father would only whisper, “She grew up strange, you see.” We sat in the den one Saturday afternoon while my mother plied suburban plats with her powders and fragrances. He reached into the closet and pulled a manila envelope from behind a shelf of 33 LP’s. He patted the floor beside him. “Come here, Hazel.” He gulped at a glass of whiskey, and tipped like the arm of a metronome as he removed photographs from their confines. Photos of my mother as a child, wearing a tiny but womanly silk sheath dress and pearls. And another, in a low-cut blouse, her face swathed in make-up. Posed suggestively for the camera.

“Why are you showing these to me, Daddy?” I asked. “Why do you have them? Who took them?”

“I want you to understand. Her father took them. Do you understand? They were evidence.” His face crumpled, and he gulped more whiskey. “Your mother was broken from the start.”

No, I did not understand. I only sensed something terribly wrong.

My mother’s rage grew. It surged from my parents’ bedroom. One night it escalated to a brawl.  “You’re a failure!” my mother screamed. “A goddamn failure! You’re weak, do you hear me?” Glass shattered and something smacked the wall. My mother stormed out and left through the back door.  From the bedroom, I heard my father whimper.

The wreckage lay strewn on the carpet the next morning like the broken contents of a smashed piñata. Glass shards from the broken mirror. Avon face powders, tubes of lipstick, and eyeliner samples. Dresser drawers yanked from their berths, spilling piles of nightgowns and T-shirts and summer slacks. A broken perfume bottle that leaked its aromatic contents into the carpet. A hole in the wall from a punched fist. 

Husband and wife retreated into silence. The walls shrank around us.

When my father finally packed his bags and disappeared from our lives one year later, my mother whispered, “That’s on you, little one.” I made my face into a mask. I bit my tongue to keep from shouting, “No it isn’t, no it isn’t. You’re the poison. You’ve poisoned me. You made him go.” But my voice stuck.

Rain washed away the tire marks my father left behind, and we heard nothing from him. How could that be? I thought he had loved me, that gentle man who taught me how to ride my bike, who simplified the complexities of math, who made it a point to ask me about my day. That gentle man who sought to understand my strangeness, and not condemn it. But gradually, he pulled away from us. He caved to her, he caved to drink, he ran. He abandoned me, leaving me to tiptoe around the off-kilter woman who grew edgier by degrees.

In my dreams, she glowed volcanic red. During my waking hours, we barely spoke.

The kids at school had new fodder. “Hazel’s mother is batshit crazy.” “Hazel’s father ran away.” “Hazel is a leper.”

I tucked my head down. I kept quiet. Out of anxiety or fatigue, teachers let me be. During the next few months, the taunts subsided. I could sit at a cafeteria table without someone calling me a freak, or sticking gum in my hair.  Summer came and went, and by junior high, I had mastered my disappearing trick.

There, but not. Dull and silent on purpose.                                                                                       

At home, I tried to tamp my mother’s volatility. We fell into a pattern of avoidance, with only occasional idle chat of the sort between strangers. When she raged, she raged alone. I scratched another notch on the door frame: five foot-six and gangly – taller than my mother. I chopped my auburn hair. I collected oddities during late-night rambles through the neighborhood and the woods. A sparrow’s nest. The ragged tip of a fence post, spotted with lichen. Tattered bike streamers. A girl’s gold barrette. I assembled those oddities into a shrine. Staring at it fired up my brain with visions. A lost boy, buried on a hill two towns over. Phantom crows screeching towards our house.

But I never saw the disaster coming.   

Of all things, it was a tick. A tick the size of a poppy seed carried my mother to her grave when she was only 37. The medical examiner ruled natural causes; anaplasmosis. Done in by a black-footed tick. Weeks before, an aging terrier had wandered into our yard and stood next to my mother. She stiffly ran her hand over the dog’s coat, then immediately wiped her hand on her leg. “Filthy,” she muttered. “Filthy old thing.” That was just enough, though; one quick skim along the dog’s back. “That tick must have crawled up and latched onto her,” the doctor said after it was all over. 

The tick bite went unnoticed, then suddenly, she burned with fever. The fever soared to 105, her white blood cell count dropped and she screamed and sweated in confusion and pain, until she died. Antibiotics did nothing. Her body refused a cure.  That’s what the doctors told me. I did not know, because I stayed away, and let her die alone, stuck with IVs and thrashing in anguish. And to tell you the truth, all of that made me very happy. Does that make me evil? Was I to blame, for a tick? You can’t tell me I knew about the tick, or that I placed the tick on that dog and made it jump onto my mother’s body, but she would think so. My mother would have said so, she would have told me that, had I stood by her bedside like a dutiful creature instead of her demon daughter.  

Instead, I had a drink. A toast to Marilyn Beecher, 37 years of age, of Rowley, Massachusetts. Death from anaplasma phagocytophilum, the bacteria transmitted by the bite of a black-legged tick. Perhaps if my mother had not paid that dog her last flicker of attention, things would have turned out differently. But she did, and she died, and I was glad. If my father got hold of that news, if he read her obituary somehow, he never showed up. I never heard from him again.

“Cremate her,” I told the funeral parlor. I sent her marriage certificate, and her Avon lady bag, and her cruelty to the crematorium with her. Burned to ashes, along with her bones. 

My mother won’t let me be now. She haunts me, in the shape of a girl without a face. I see her late at night at the foot of my bed. She disrupts peaceful moments. I think she’s trying to say that God is coming to get me. I really do, and I pray now. I’ve been praying every night, and I’m not really a religious type. That child calls my name. She calls it, and my brain has been boiling, and bullets are whining through my dreams. God is coming in a silver storm. He’s going to scoop me up, and it frightens me, to tell you the truth. God is going to scoop me up and wrap me in a web, and it won’t be just a caul over my face. It will be a cocoon. I can feel it, and I don’t think I can live in a cocoon for all eternity, wherever it is that we go. I came outside this morning and discovered a new unearthly tint to the sky. My dead mother says that God will claim me if it’s time, and there’s nothing I can do about it. She has spite in her voice, just like she did after the sea monster grabbed Grandpa Abe and pulled him under the water.

I did nothing to warrant this. I am lighting candles.

Photo by Liza Polyanskaya on Unsplash

CategoriesShort Fiction
Karen Lee Ziner

Karen Lee Ziner is a writer and longtime journalist who lives in Providence, Rhode Island. During her reporting career at The Providence Journal, she received awards from the Overseas Press Club of America and the national Society for Features Journalism. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times and the former Boston Phoenix. She was twice a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She is an inveterate traveler who prefers long-distance train travel to cramped seating in the skies; a skilled photographer and an urban gardener. She volunteers as a “baby-cuddler” in a hospital neo-natal intensive care unit.