Today, Ernest Mitchell is not happy. The cacophony coming from everywhere in his house is joyless for him. The type of person who needs a lot of time to himself, he wonders how he became the patriarch of this ever-present boisterous bunch.
While his youngest daughter, Rose, sits on the floor, completely absorbed in drawing the solar system, Ernest grumbles about how winter is such a challenge for him. Even though it is the afternoon, he can see part of the moon suspended haplessly in the sky, the white, pock-marked sliver staring back at him through the window. He feels the ache of the icy air in his weary bones as he makes his way to his chair and starts to softly hum a song that his mother would sing to him during his childhood,
I see the moon
And the moon sees me
The moon sees somebody
I want to see
Slumped, with his back to the front door, he sits in the wingback chair that everyone refers to as his. Usually this chair harbors piles of guest coats from the revolving door of extended family coming in and out for endless cups of coffee and card games.
To say it is a cold day is an understatement. Outside, the February wind forcefully whistles across the frost-tipped acres of grass that roll up to meet the brick faced-front of the MItchell home. Inside the house there is a warm glow—a sense of comfort that seeps between the cracks in the chaotic life of a large family. In the big house there is always activity. On every floor someone is doing something—racing to get ready for work or practice, plucking eyebrows and bleaching hair, hiding the pieces of a broken lamp, running after a guilty basketball, baking brownies. The hum and buzz of the chaos is safe and familiar and jaggedly happy.
Silently, angrily, Ernest sits, listening to the women chirp about and bully each other. They’ll have it their way, he thinks miserably. He closes his eyes and feigns sleep as the day wears on.
The women he thinks so carelessly of are his wife, Paige, and one of his daughters—the smart one—Eleanor…Ellie. Paige is busy folding laundry while Ellie sits, pencil in hand, at the kitchen table leaning over a science textbook. Ellie has the unique ability to completely concentrate on two things at once. She can hold a very convincing, emotionally available conversation, while blatantly reading about (and remembering) how to dissect a frog. It’s a talent held by very few, and Ellie was just born with it. Her mother, on the other hand, can barely keep track of her own thoughts as they race about in her harried mind.
Paige is in a state of constant concern. One moment she thinks about the physical danger one of her children probably faces and then in the next moment she frets over the moral transgression she is sure another is about to commit. Most of Paige’s mental wanderings are based in well-meaning worry but usually land somewhere south of what most people would call “normal.” So, Paige is often seen muttering to herself while she folds tub after tub of laundry—a never-ending pile—her hands perpetually intertwined in a mountain of clean clothes sitting on one end of their long kitchen table.
Even with all of her frayed nerves and mental acrobatics, Paige is a quick-witted woman. She had always been first in class—“in her day”—and never lets her children forget that they come from smart people. Today, as ice silently creeps up the outside of each window pane Ellie and Paige toss a topic between them the way tennis players whack tennis balls over a net. The pair constantly try to best each other while desperately trying to predict where the next statement will land.
The subject today is the youngest child in the family. Specifically, how Rose seems touched or affected by something that the rest of them could not—or would not—see. Rose rarely takes a hard line about anything but instead looks at the edges of an issue and works her way into the middle from all sides. Approaching all things in life with what seems like a timid tenacity, Rose irritates her sister to no end and confuses her mother completely.
There was a day, once, when Rose was about eleven when she just stood. She didn’t go anywhere and she didn’t really do anything but stand in a room. She would respond monosyllabically but without rudeness when asked questions. She never really looked anyone in the eye nor did she speak without being spoken to.
“No,” she didn’t want anything.
“Yes,” she was fine.
“Yes,” it was a nice day outside.
“No,” she’d rather not get any fresh air.
Ernest Mitchell paused as he walked by his youngest daughter on that day. He slumped his shoulders ever so slightly, shook his head, flattened his lips into a line and then retreated to the basement.
Rose went unnoticed by most of her older siblings on this day. In a big family, full of big personalities, it is easy to fly under the radar. Her oldest siblings were always busy—driven by the fear of missing something important their friends had to say. They were constantly running in and out of the house hurtling toward all the places they were meant to be—which was never where they were.
All that day, and part of the evening, Rose stood in the living room with its long formal curtains that were overdue for a wash. She leaned on the faded white wall that needed a fresh coat of paint. The imperfections of this room were on the right-side of “lived in” and each scuff and mark had a funny story behind it. Rose was not concerned on that day about the heel prints her brother Bobby made up near the ceiling from the daily handstand workouts he had done last summer.
Her eyes stayed slightly averted—sometimes to the baseboard, sometimes unfocused right in front of her. At first the edges of her ankle socks distracted her—they had a scalloped lace accent placed in a thin fold over from the top of the sock—but eventually she could push beyond the feeling of the polyester fabric that was not quite scratching her skin and feel the weight of her shoulder against the cool wall.
Paige had thought at one point that Rose may have been having a silent seizure—she had read somewhere that that was possible but then one of the older boys had fallen off of a ladder in the backyard and, well, Rose was basically fine so her mother went and saw that the other one was alright.
Ellie, however, took this day very personally—she felt utterly shunned by her sister. The two of them are close in age and Ellie, as the older sister, feels she has some sort of leadership role between the two of them. Rose has always been nonplussed by this because she never feels the need to be led anywhere. She simply goes where she needs to go. She simply does what she is supposed to do. If anything can drive Ellie to distraction it is the idea that Rose does not want, or need, guidance of any kind.
As a matter of fact, on that same “standing” day when Ellie came upon her sister she tried several things to bring Rose back to earth. She snapped her fingers. She clapped her hands in front of Rose’s face. She tickled her elbow. She whispered sweetly in her ear. She whispered angrily with hot breathy menace. None of these things could break Rose’s trance. Rose simply told her sister to stop and when, of course, Ellie did not stop, Rose just ignored her and waited for Ellie to go away. Eventually that was exactly what Ellie did—she just left her sister to it. Whatever “it” was.
There is one person in the family who thinks Rose is hilariously funny and smart. James can’t get enough of his sister. He doesn’t care that she is a bit odd or, as Ellie would say, that she “just thinks of things differently.” He finds her endlessly interesting and doesn’t bother her when she does things that seem strange. On that same “standing” day he came upon her and although he was quite surprised by her behavior, just as others were, he didn’t say one word to her. Instead he joined her.
For a pleasant half an hour he, too, stood and stared with an unfocused integrity. The silent pair stood as the seconds and minutes dragged by and at first they could hear each other breathing. Then they could only hear the rush of silence as time was lost and their minds floated. When this had sufficiently exasperated Ellie, she stomped in and out of the room silently throwing her hands in the air until James simply left. Rose went on standing.
Now, on this wintry February night, James is doing his homework and as Rose is going to bed he calls out to her as she walks down the hall. He asks her what she had been doing that day not too long ago when she was just standing in the living room. Rose stops and looks at James’ inquisitive face shielded by bottle-cap glasses above a crooked smile. She thinks about the frost-covered hills of rolling grass just outside their front door and the dark night sky that caps them all onto this earth from high above.
The explanation she gave Jamie made his shielded eyes twinkle in acknowledgement. She begins hesitantly and then, once she gets the first few words out, she rushes forward with confidence.
“The universe, if it had air, would make sounds. I learned it in school—that the planets, the moon and stars…and everything in our solar system, and beyond…everything moves slowly in harmony through the emptiness of space. I imagine it sounds like an orchestra warming up.”
Now, caught up in her wonderful interpretation of an imagined phenomenon, she continues painting the picture with her words and bringing James into the stars with her.
“You know, as the rings of Saturn hum and slice their way through the void—each great big form of energy moving across the next—pushing against whatever keeps the planets from catapulting around space.
“Maybe even the glow of the moon we see is somehow also sound reflecting off of the sun?”
She was listening for that lunar harmony. She was trying to hear the galaxy grind out a song.
A long-forgotten ladder lay on the frozen grass In the backyard.
Their mother stood in the warm kitchen, lost in thought, while she folded another load of laundry.
Rose said goodnight and Ellie, who had been asleep for an hour already, dreamed sweetly about scalpels and frogs.
The soft twang of a guitar came from the basement and Ernest’s melancholy voice is heard singing,
I see the moon
And the moon sees me
Maggie Barla is an author in her soul but by day she works in IoT (Internet of Things.) Born and raised in the Northeast she moved her young family (husband and two kids) out to the Pacific Northwest in 2016 and now happily lives where the deer and antelope roam.