Curse of the Ninth
Virginia is born in 1947 in the middle of a blizzard when the storm of snowflakes are so dense that the hospital room is coated in a film of blue shadows. Her mother curses the entire night, red-faced, and sweaty. Even after Virginia appears from between shaking legs, her mother refuses to let her husband into the room. Virginia hears this story later, how her mother was too afraid to tell her husband that the child they prayed for was a girl. Virginia wonders why her mother didn’t just leave her father then.
Virginia’s father is absent for the majority of her childhood. After a series of miscarriages her mother suffers through, he moves into the bedroom at the other end of the house, only appearing at six o’clock for dinner before turning the radio back on and drafting up blueprints for his current project. He never says what he’s working on and she never asks, nor does her mother.
When Virginia is seven, her mother hires a piano teacher and retires to the main bedroom, where she smokes Chesterfields and watches the walls yellow while her daughter learns to elongate her fingers, to make mistakes without crying, to smile without teeth. Virginia knows the ins and outs of every music sheet before she knows her mother’s favorite color. It’s purple, but exists nowhere in the home. For Mother’s Day, she makes a card with pressed and dried purple anemones and presents it to her mother with a proud grin. Her mother places it on the windowsill, allowing the light to leech seemingly impenetrable color from the construction paper, which exposes the numerous passes of the glue paste that had dried to the card.
Virginia has fourteen summers before her father dies from a sudden heart attack. In a rare moment of honesty, her mother says that they’re better off. They spend her fifteenth summer up in Maine, where the two rent a bungalow for the week and lick identical ice cream cones before they can melt down their chins. For a week, Virginia wakes smiling and immediately shucks on her bathing suit before breakfast. She swims in circles in the ocean, waiting for her mother to dip a toe into the foam that gathers on the shoreline. Her mother never swims, though she bathes in sunlight in an area where she can keep an eye on Virginia despite her daughter being old enough to swim on her own.
Her junior year of high school, Virginia falls in love with a tall boy named George. He’s a year older, and by their first anniversary is already in college pursuing an engineering degree. She makes scrapbooks for him, borrows lace and glitter from her best friend, Ruthie, and stains blank pages with kisses using her mother’s Avon lipstick in the shade “Wild Honey.” She finally understands the other girls who squeal over the half-baked boys in the hallways. She wants George’s eyes on her all at times. She wants to search the planes of his hands until she can read them like braille. Virginia graduates from high school as valedictorian and credits George in her speech for being her guiding light. Her mother scowls in the audience, arms crossed over her chest.
Virginia moves into Willimantic State College when the viridescent leaves burn to orange. She decides to study education, figuring she can make a living being a music teacher. One day, while navigating through the hallways in the arts building to avoid her roommate, she hears a melody of clarinets and trumpets, a sound so bright she can see their conjoined resonances gleam. She gains the courage to make herself known to the artists before her nerves tell her to turn and run, and finds a group of five people who all look at her like they’ve been caught red handed. Virginia fumbles through an apology, telling them she heard them and they sounded simply magnificent and she’d love to play the piano with them sometime but if they say no that’s okay too. The leader, a pretty red-haired girl, laughs and says being discovered was inevitable and she’d love for Virginia to join them on a trial basis. Virginia leaves with a smile on her face, and comes back that Friday with a book of sheet music. She plays with that same group every week—with the exception of the week she was sick with the flu—until she graduates.
George proposes to Virginia when she graduates from a college twenty miles from her childhood home–though he promises she’ll never use her degree in education. She finds a lacy cream gown with long, ballooned sleeves and wearing it, understands what it’s like to feel supremely beautiful. In a short veil, Virginia marries George in the courthouse on Main Street in front of a small audience and together they move into their first home in Windham Center, a nice county in which to raise their future children. They buy a beautiful sage green house on a corner lot that welcomes the couple inside and promises to never let them go. Virginia spends a lot of time outside in the garden, stroking the wilted stems of her daffodils. George never mentions the flowers, though the neighbors have a lot of positive things to say. The women coo at the hyacinths and offer advice about the best type of soil to plant hydrangeas in. Virginia likes what they have to say, though sometimes she wishes the women would talk about something other than their married lives.
Virginia gets pregnant within the first year of their marriage when she’s twenty-four. She gives birth to a daughter on the cusp of spring, and when her daughter takes her first real breath, Virginia vows to teach her how to play the piano, or perhaps pay for string lessons. She wants her to be soul-beautiful, not just pretty. Her daughter is destined to be better than her. Virginia sees the entire world in her daughter’s wrinkled palms. She finds a grand piano at a music shop downtown and tells George she’ll never ask for anything else in the world. Just this one thing, just this one time. Monday through Saturday, while George is at work, she sets up her daughter in a bassinet behind her and interrogates the piano keys until she is certain her daughter knows every note, every chord.
Virginia has two more children with George before telling him she’s done having his children. Her marriage starts to crumble after her youngest is born, though it doesn’t collapse completely. The baby wails all night and disturbs the older kids, and George most of all. More often than not, George sleeps at his office, slumped across the coffee-blotched sofa he found on the side of the road. Virginia picks at the stains on her shirt, smoothing over her hair as she shuffles through the darkness of early dawn in the bedroom. When she walks into the bathroom, she finds a towel and covers the mirror. She longs for George to come home, to wrap his arms around her the way he used to at night. Virginia has shriveled underneath the lens through which George looks at her. She gets back into bed and stares into the dark walk-in closet until the sun scorches her dry eyes through the window.
When her children are all old enough to be unsupervised, Virginia plays Beethoven on summer weekends, fingers feverishly probing the piano keys, never fumbling, while her children play in the pond out back. Her husband comes home from work, but she pays him no mind just as he does her, navigating the first movement of “Moonlight Sonata,” bent over the piano in prayer. When night falls and the children are back from their adventures, she wrestles them into their beds, smells the cherry-scented detangler on their scalps, and tells them to dream of birds. As she brushes back her son’s hair, she tells him to imagine a hummingbird nestled in the shell of a giant honeysuckle, its belly full. Imagine the absence of hunger. Imagine being able to fly. Her son giggles, bookended between a dream and consciousness.
“People can’t be hummingbirds, Mama. You know that!” he exclaims. Virginia smiles.
After George leaves her in ‘89, she finds a job working at an art supply store where she is paid five dollars an hour. She unloads the truck with her coworker, Irene, breaking pink nails on boxes and boxes of oil paints and brushes and colored pencils. One day, while sorting the display of art portfolios, she accidentally scratches one. Her manager does not fire her, but takes from her pay until he’s reimbursed. It takes two weeks of shifts to pay off the damage. She can’t find it within herself to apologize to her son about the lack of birthday presents, but bakes a cake using leftover ingredients from the thinning pantry. As she watches her son blow out the birthday candles, waxy smoke in her face, she imagines her home going up in flames. She feels guilty later for the way the image of her charred body brings relief.
Virginia reconnects with Ruthie—who goes by Ruth now. The two share vodka tonics at the dive bar in Storrs, leaning together in a two-man huddle to drown out the college students stumbling through the fifth karaoke rendition of “Friday I’m in Love.” They laugh until they cry, gossiping about their old choir teacher and their children, falling out of their chairs when the alcohol turns coherent thought into giggles. Ruth closes out their tab before they spill into a shared cab and wind up at Ruth’s place. When Virginia wakes up the next morning, she eats breakfast with Ruth in silence. The cornflakes stick on her too-dry tongue, which the tang of orange juice does nothing to solve. Their friendship has been dulled by sobriety. Virginia wonders when it became so hard to have friends, or perhaps when she became so unlikeable.
Most of Virginia’s children have families now. Her daughter has two children who seem to never leave their mother’s orbit, circling her as though she were the sun. Her son adopts a beautiful little boy with his wife, and Virginia can tell from Facebook that they’re happy. Her youngest son comes back home to live with her after a series of what he calls “uninformed” financial decisions. For three years, she watches him leave for work, though he never manages to leave the bedroom in her basement. The selfish part of her is happy. She feels her tether slip from her fingers every day. Virginia figures that if her son’s here, if he always has a room here, then, at least someone needs her in some way. Every night, the two share a bottle of the cheapest vodka, sitting across from each other among the hum of the T.V. static.
Years bleed into one another and Virginia begins to forget the notes of the piano. She spends an afternoon fumbling over flat keys and slamming on the pedals of the piano. She knits until her fingers atrophy into a stiff mess and the scarves unravel. She stops visiting her grandchildren, having nothing to offer except herself. Virginia can’t stand her daughter’s husband anyway, so she decides that it’s for the best. She watches cooking shows and shouts into a sour glass of chardonnay when the chef adds too much spice. It’s the most she talks all day. At night, Virginia stumbles into bed and pulls a pillow to her chest, trying to soothe an ache that doesn’t seem to have a remedy. She listens to the crickets haunt the night outside her bedroom window, how they scream until the birds wake.
Virginia can’t leave her recliner anymore without help, and dispatches her son at 7:30am every day to make a screwdriver and microwavable Jimmy Dean breakfast sandwich. She eats half every morning and requests that her son leave the other half outside for the black cat that slinks around behind the trees in the front yard. Virginia won’t eat again until the next morning. The process repeats itself until she falls three times in one day, and the paramedics tell her she has to come to the hospital. When she says no, they refuse to listen.
All of her children come to the hospital at varying times. Her daughter is the second to arrive, though she comes all the way from the West Coast. Virginia can’t look at her from where she lays in the bed, fluorescents surrounding her daughter’s head like a halo. Virginia wants to scream. She wants to get violent, wants to spit on the nurse’s face and demand to be transported back to the safety of her worn recliner. But she does nothing. Virginia closes her eyes, ignoring the ways her children gasp after hearing about her liver, how it’s a miracle she’s lasted this long despite the drinking. Somehow, however, she finds her way home.
When she’s seventy-six, the hospice nurse turns on Mozart. Virginia yells at her daughter to be quiet, silencing her oldest’s farewell. She turns her head, good ear pressed away from the flat pillow. She raises a limp, yellow arm and slowly wiggles her fingers to the tempo. Violins whine and dip in the bedroom air, coming to an impressive and devastating crescendo before ceasing completely.
Mollie McMullan is a junior at SUNY Geneseo. In her spare time, she enjoys chasing her dog around in circles and cutting up magazines for collages she’ll never complete.