A Mirror on Esther's Wall
Walls can't really talk, not technically, lest someone give them mouths, but once upon a time, great suffering can channel thought—or even more—into a construct of wood, nails, foam, and drywall. Just pray that it is not a wall privy to all of your darkest secrets, for who knows, perhaps it doesn't even need a mouth to bring them to the light.
"If walls could talk," says the female police detective, making her way across the burnt down kitchen.
If only we could, I think as her steps drag along, kicking ashes out of her way.
"Or see!" A male voice exclaims. "Man, look at the way his body burned. Wasn't he that famous chef? Looks well done to me!" He laughs.
The detective approaches my side of the kitchen, where I stand with only a strip of gypsum board untouched by the flames and a mirror hanging off a single painful nail that pierces through drywall and wood.
"Weird place for a mirror," she says as she approaches. "Jeez, I am surprised this wall didn't collapse. You can see right into the bedroom."
She wipes the soot off the mirror, painfully resting her other hand, warm and clammy, against my undamaged piece of drywall.
Suddenly I see her as she clears the smoky darkness out of my field of vision.
Her face pales with terror, but she still places her palm on the mirror's surface, as if saying, "It's just a mirror."
Except it's not just a mirror, but a window into my soul.
Last Birthday — This Summer
In the beginning was the Wall,
And the Wall had Ears,
And the Wall was Ears.
But the Wall was blind.
—Esther Briar, last known poem, unfinished
Summer. Heat. Singing. I know the words for these sensations and sounds by now. Birthday. Even that, a word combining the others. I sit silent, blind, and solid on the west side of the kitchen, taking it all in, thinking that, in a way, it’s my birthday too.
"Thirty-seven!” One of the women shouts. "You look great for thirty-seven," meaning my sweet Esther.
One evolves significantly in thirty-seven years, from the geometry of studs, drywall, nails—the body—and the foam-filled space between—the soul—to something altogether different: a thing aware. Esther taught me that word back when she still talked to me, but then she too has evolved.
"Who's counting?" Esther replies, her voice more mature than that of my younger Esther, who used to tell me her dreams and recite me her poems.
"Nobody, of course. But have you been under the knife? Come on, we were always your closest pals at Menlo High." The same woman, malice and playfulness mixed in her voice in uncanny harmony.
"The only knife I've been under is the one cutting this cake," Esther says, followed by the thwack of steel cutting through cake and hitting wood. My beams cringe; I am not fond of knives, even if they are the tools of her husband's livelihood as a chef—or perhaps precisely because of that. "And look what it's done to me."
Laughter. As the voices rise and fall in a cacophony of laughs, old echoes resonate between the panels of drywall: teenage Esther and some of these same girls laughing just like this, but with less bitterness. Some time, long ago—I lack good temporal estimation—they all sat on Esther's bed on the other side of me, talking about boys.
Farther back yet, I recall an even younger Esther and her thunderous little voice bringing me into consciousness.
Awakening — Thirty-seven Years Ago
Silence collapsed at the first sound to cross the liminal surface of my latent awareness: a newborn’s first cry, so passionate and desperate that it woke each grain in my wooden bones, activating memories of my own making, like a breathy song:
Saws gnaw through scaly bark. Spruce trees collapse on dirt and fallen leaves. Sliced alive into two-by-fours, my bones. From crushed gypsum crystals, water, and recycled paper, my dermis in thick sheets. Fiberglass, cellulose, and foam, my flesh. Metal for joints. Nail guns crucify my many parts into being: wall.
Premature Esther cast her primal scream into the bedroom like hooks fishing for my consciousness. Her pain echoed mine: the cutting of her dying mother's womb wide open to rescue her little body, the trauma of being drawn out of a cavernous darkness.
Motherlessness had bound us irreversibly.
By the time she was old enough to stand up on her crib and touch the freshly painted surface of my drywall, I understood concepts like unwanted child, motherless, orphan, although it was all encoded in sound and feeling rather than words.
Language came later, painfully, for both of us. One word, one sentence at a time, I captured the essence of spoken communication alongside my little Esther. Early in our mutual learning, though, I could tell her voice differed from that of others. Whereas Aunt Millie's voice was precise, cutting through my drywall like a knife, Esther's voice was muffled, as if she spoke from inside a wall.
“Get your dirty hands and your face off the wall, child!” Aunt Millie would shout, not realizing that Esther was trying to feel the echo of her own words within me.
That reverberation, the only sound I could emit, helped Esther assess the quality of her own voice until she learned to modulate it in a way that concealed the inadequacies of her speech. Most people could not tell that, as a child, Esther had been nearly as mute as I was.
Yet, in many other ways, Esther remained as silent, if not more, than the other three walls in her bedroom.
Betrayal - The Autumn of Fire
As leaves fall from the aspen trees,
Like gold-yellow alms for the poor,
Would I were not on my sore knees,
Seeking gifts from my paramour.
—Esther Briar, Menlo High Poetry Guild
As a senior in high school, Esther's poems were almost always about love, knights rescuing her from her aunt's impossible tower. If she hadn't loved school for the mere pleasure of learning, she would still have endured it as an escape from confinement. Thus, her other poems were mental exercises about thwarting entrapment, mostly directed at Aunt Millie.
"Baba Yaga's poisoned claws, Cutting deep as tempered swords, Gave the maiden one just cause, To tear down the witch's wards."
By then her voice had matured into a soft, melodious tone. Yet, behind each verse lurked a simmering hate for her demeaning aunt and what she represented.
"Wall, should I really use her nickname?" She asked me after reciting the verses a third time, her body leaning fully against me. I felt not only the vibration of the poem's words but also her body's warmth. "Will Baba know she is the witch and I the wounded maiden?"
Esther had always called Aunt Millie, "Baba," the only double syllable "word" she could speak until she had started using me as a sounding board.
I don't think she'd notice, I thought, knowing that Aunt Millie was otherwise distracted by young Aldrich, who visited her every night. They'd laugh in the kitchen before their voices disappeared into a maze of dead walls outside of hearing range.
"You're right, Wall. She won't even get the reference." Esther moved away from me and settled on the bed. "You know? She doesn't even realize that Aldrich's eyes are set on someone younger and funner."
But just as wounded, I thought, not knowing Aunt Millie's exact past, but sensing some darkness there. I also knew that every old witch comes from a betrayed maiden. Then, when that maiden turns into an old witch, an even younger maiden is always ready to snatch her magic staff.
When the knock on the bedroom door came, I should have known who it would be, but the fluidity of my concept of time often made me forget human events, such as Aunt Millie's trip to Detroit.
"Esther," the young man's voice said as the door creaked open. "Sorry, I'm here to see your aunt. She—" His voice faltered, the single syllable ringing in the room like a subversive whisper.
"She's not home, Aldrich," Esther said, her voice unwavering. "But I am."
After a few minutes of silence, followed by heavy breathing and the rustling of clothes, all I could feel was Esther's naked back pressed against me, sliding warm and moist against the paint that would for sure peel off from the friction. Aldrich stood uncomfortably near, panting in a way that made me wish this were middle-school Esther instead, who had kept me clothed in the smooth paper of posters of David Bowie, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and Joy Division, whoever they were.
Now with the posters gone, I stood naked as she uncovered—not through spoken words, but through muffled and incoherent moans—brand new meanings for words I thought I knew well. Passion. Surrender. Carelessness. Fire.
Disfiguration - That Accursed Winter
The only time I heard Esther's voice the entire, accursed winter that she was gone, was through the crackly medium of an answering machine, a wedding gift for Millie and Aldrich from a cousin that worked in cutting-edge technology.
"Aunt Millie, this is Esther. You're probably wondering why I'm calling after running away six months ago. It's okay. You don't have to answer." There was a moment of static silence. "You know how I feel about Aldrich. Just look at the patches of wall where the paint has come off above the miserable piece of mattress you gave me for a bed. Well, you were always right about Aldrich and me and should have never married him; he is a monster! Believe it or not, I don't actually hate you anymore, not after what he made me do."
Here the recording suddenly stopped after hearing, to my horror, a sudden shuffling of feet in the kitchen area where I knew the answering machine was.
"Don't you ever call this house again, runaway whore! I wish you would've died right along with the whore that bore you." The acid in Millie's voice burned through me, abrasive, hurtful, but not being able to hear more of Esther's young adult voice pained me even more. With a loud thud that rang through the room—and through me, she hung up the phone.
The silence that followed was oppressive. Millie seemed to not even be there. Like a cat, she moved stealthily, as if on alert all the time. As it was common for me those days, silence devoid of human tones always threw me into a stupor, so I soon dozed off.
A while later, painful scraping on the bedroom side woke me from my slumber. It was as if my skin was being cut open by an angry beast.
"Should've never let her live," I heard her next to me, Millie, angry, using some tool to scrape at what remained of the paint. "I will tear this wall down if it's what it takes to cleanse this house from her taint!"
I wished for once that I had a voice, that I could scream my anguish and tell the woman to stop, to please stop. There was nothing I could do but to bear the scraping, the screaming, the punching. Hearing for years about the horrible ways in which Millie humiliated Esther had always sounded so painful and so sad, but this was my first time experiencing her wrath directly.
Parts of me began to go numb, almost as if all the damage were somehow affecting my consciousness. Millie wanted to erase all memory of Esther and, in some uncanny way, she could sense that I held memories of what Esther was before she had run away from Millie's grasp, pregnant out of wedlock like her own mother had been.
Oh, how I had wanted to know Esther's daughter, to hear her and feel her grow in the same crib next to me, her mother's faithful wall. I wanted to know her name, her little girl—somehow Esther had known it would be a girl. What scared me the most was the thought of something happening to Esther and for the little one to become an orphan, or worse, whether Esther had followed through with Aldrich’s dark wish.
The scraping stopped. Silence reigned again, except for the murmur of cars in the distant highway, no breath nor sign of movement to tell me whether Millie was still in the bedroom. I felt naked, aware of the absence of paint on a large area in my middle section, as well as conscious of the cracks and gouges all over the drywall.
Then she started again. This time, the cold head of a sledgehammer broke through the drywall once, twice, beyond count. I felt myself begin to fade as cold air invaded the privacy of my inner space. I was sure I would die this winter, certain of it, consumed by the wrath of this woman as she broke me down to my components.
"Millie! Stop!" Aldrich's distressed voice rang in the room, added to the loud banging of iron against wood, the sound of splintering, and the grunts of a woman gone mad. "Stop! What's come over you?"
The hammering continued for a few more blows until it thankfully stopped. I heard the sound of a struggle between the two of them and then the clang of the hammer hitting the floor.
"Did you get her pregnant? Is that it?" Millie's voice pleaded, thankfully farther from me.
"Who, for God's sake?"
"You know who!" Millie was now crying, a strange sound for her, made more tragic by the incongruence between what I knew her to be and what was coming out of her mouth. "Esther, Aldrich. Did you get Esther pregnant?"
Ill-fated News - This Summer
I flew to watch the death of Spring,
Along the meadow, on a broken wing,
Perched by the lake, all out of dreams,
While the Moon's likeness on still waters gleams.
—Esther Briar, from her book My Hidden Truths
A cell phone rings in the kitchen. Esther's hesitant steps move toward the sound. How much less confident this older Esther is. She answers the call. "Hello?" There is a gasp, a sudden intake of air. "Meadow?"
I listen in, curious. I just about know the names of all of Esther's friends and don't recall a Meadow.
"Yes, right now is good. He's not home." There's a tinge of sadness in her voice, apprehension as well. "You know how it is, taming the beast."
There's silence on this end of the line as I work through the names that have been uttered in this home. Nothing comes to mind.
"That is wonderful! Oh, you will be so happy there. The sun is always shining." After a few seconds. "Here? Summers here are unbearably hot."
Hot indeed, I think, suffering too until the air conditioning guy makes an appearance to fix the unit.
"Visit? No. Out of the question. There's nothing for you here." Her voice falters as the mysterious Meadow says something on the other end. "You know I can't leave."
My mind races in worry. She can't leave. Aldrich would not permit it. I would not want it, even though I never understood what brought her back to Aldrich after Millie's death. And what ever happened to the baby girl?
"I know. I know. But you have your entire life ahead of you. There's nothing here but old ghosts. And the Millers have been so superb with you. I couldn't have done better, not with—" She seems to choke before she says Aldrich's name. A moment later, "A mirror? Why would you send me a mirror?"
A mirror? This conversation gets more intriguing by the moment. Gosh, if only Esther still confided in me, told me her secrets. She had mentioned mirrors before but I could not quite grasp the concept of them.
"Oh, I see. I don't really know much about all that new age stuff." She laughs but there is no mirth in it. "Well, honey, I will get to the PO box as soon as I can. Aldrich is running an all-day banquet tomorrow, so that should give me a chance to go."
Outside, I hear the sound of a vehicle approaching. It's Aldrich's, his brakes squealing up the driveway. Careless bastard!
Esther has heard it too. "Okay, hon. He's home. I'll try calling you tomorrow when I get the package. I've memorized your number. I can't save it in case he—" She stops mid sentence as we both hear the sound of the front door opening. Her steps toward the stove are quick and calculated, as is the rustling sound of her cell phone going back in her front pocket.
"Hey, hon. Welcome home!" Esther says sweetly, though I can hear the undercurrent of fear in her words. "Figured as you've been cooking all day long, I would make you something tonight." The sound of the wooden spoon against the frying pan echoes rhythmically, steadily, a counter to the waver in her voice.
"You won't believe who I just ran into," he says, moving away from the kitchen toward the living room. I sense malice in his tone, a trap. The sound of the keys being thrown on the coffee table seems angry.
"No idea, who?" Esther's voice is almost subterranean, the old speech impediment creeping in as her anxiety rises.
"Remember Doctor Percy, the abortion doctor?"
She stops completely, leaving the room in a silence that has a weight to it, like a block of concrete sitting on a sheet of drywall, crushing it slowly but surely.
Then all hell breaks loose.
Resistance - The Autumn of Fire
Esther barged into the room, filling the space at once with all the sounds that were representative of her being: her agitated breathing, her steps heavy and rushed, the sound of clothes coming off and falling here and there, a sign of worry. I knew my girl, although I had no idea of what had triggered this heightened state.
Then she ran to the bathroom, shutting the door. I hated it when she chose to cry in the bathroom, all the way across the room, with walls as dead as a door knob. I could only hear the evidence of motion, of her doing something in the bathroom as if she wanted it over with, whatever it was.
A while later she came out and thankfully sat on her mattress, leaning her body against me. Sobs came first, then words: "I'm pregnant."
I parsed through my ever growing list of words. Nothing. This must have never come up or warranted my attention. Please, I thought-willed her to tell me. What does it mean?
Her body was hot, feverish, as if an internal fire were consuming her slowly but steadily. "It's probably a girl. Would you like another baby girl, Wall?"
Another girl? But I only need one girl, my Esther.
I felt her turn around, pressing both hands flat against the wall as she used to do when she was a baby girl. "I don't know what will happen with her. Aunt Millie will probably ask me to give her up—or worse. Do you think Aldrich will want her? He is the father."
It all came together. Pregnant. Was she telling me she was going to be a mother? Delight filled me at the prospect of another baby girl like Esther, after all, she had already grown up and it seemed one day she would leave. She could leave the baby girl here, next to me.
"I'll have to take us away somewhere."
No, no! She could not leave and take the newly promised baby girl away from me. I couldn't bear to lose both.
The door flew open before I could finish this line of thought.
"Hey." It was Aldrich, the father. Could he help Esther remain in spite of Aunt Millie? "Did you do it?" He paused. "What the hell are you doing holding onto the wall like that?"
As she moved away, I could still feel the warmth of the area where her palms had been, pressed against me like a plea for understanding, for guidance. I had none. I was just a wall, Esther's wall.
"It's on the sink," she said quietly.
"What's on the sink?" There was an edge to his voice, a double sword of fear and dark intent.
"The thingy, with the result." She lay down and I could feel her head against me. She was so grown and yet she felt so small.
I could hear Aldrich walking to the bathroom, carelessly throwing the door open so that it hit the wall. Thank God it was a dead, unfeeling wall. "Shit! Shit! You said you were on the pill!" His steps again, this time approaching us angrily. "What games are you playing, huh?"
Suddenly she was taken from me, her form dragged from the bed, causing the mattress to move up and down a few times.
"Here," he said, and I could hear paper against cloth. "Doctor Percy. He helped—" Hesitation. "Never mind, but call him tomorrow. Tell him it's for me and that I'll pay for everything. It needs to happen soon."
"What needs to happen soon?"
"Are you dumb on top of getting yourself pregnant? To get it out! Get it out before it's too late!"
I could hear Esther's sobs coming back, bubbling out of her being like notes of agony. "I can't; I won't kill her." The words came out unclear, blurry around the edges. She was working herself into a state and was letting her speech control falter.
"There is no 'her.' There won't be anything. You do this or I run to your aunt. She will kill you for this." This seemed to stop the sobs. "He will take care of it. Tell him it needs to be done right away," he said even as his voice moved away toward the bedroom door, shutting it quietly behind him.
Moments later, Esther stood pressed against me, stomach and all. I had her all to myself for a few precious moments before she would say the words that, by now, I was already expecting. The moment lingered and I feared the fall of the sword, certain and cold, as precise as Aunt Millie's words.
"Can you feel her?" It was not what I expected; I thought it would be good-bye. "She's going to live; I'll make sure of that."
I tried to sense something different about her stomach, and yes, there was a warmth, but nothing else, no movement.
"But I promise you, she will find a way back here, one day."
What about you? But she was already lying on her bed. Tomorrow would be a day for good-byes. For now, I would go into sleep pretending that deep inside her I had heard the tiny beat of a human heart.
Retribution — That Accursed Winter
I didn't know how long I had slumbered, nearly unconscious after Millie's attack, but I remembered dreams. Dreams! Esther had always shared the impossible narratives of her dreams, explaining how seemingly random they were, part memory, part—something else. I had never had a dream before.
The murmur of many voices is what had awoken me, a steady sound like Aldrich's car engine when he just lets it sit running in the driveway. No one spoke above a whisper and the atmosphere was somber, worse than pure silence. The faint recollection of dreams still lingered, echoes of sounds and of voices, things I could not quite decipher happening around me too quickly for assimilation.
A male voice rose above the murmuring. "We are here today to pay our tribute and respect to a devoted woman of God, our sister Millie Briar..."
He continued in that vein while I tried to parse through the supposed dream. Two voices arguing. Anger filling every word. A struggle in the kitchen. Things being thrown around. A drawer flying open.
In the house the man went on. "...she was taken by the misguided hands of criminals who for a piece of gold did not wince at taking a precious life."
A precious life. It made me think of Esther's poetry. Didn't she used to write poetry based on her dreams to help her understand? Life. I recalled rhymes, how I loved them; they were the echo of a sound that strengthened two words, linked them, like Esther and me. Life, I thought. What rhymes with "Life."
Then I had it: "Knife."
Suddenly the disparate sensations of the seeming dream coalesced into a narrative. The sound of the knife coming out of the drawer, desperate screams, more struggling and finally a wet, fleshy sound. Then, dead silence. It was like remembering in bits and pieces, as if I had been in and out of consciousness while these things actually took place around me.
Then I recalled the sound and tainted feel of Aldrich, definitely him, placing something inside me, sharp metal cutting right through the exposed insulation until the object disappeared inside, as if in a womb. Later his careful hands had worked on replacing the drywall, replastering, patching me up, painting me.
What he hid within me would stay there until the day someone tore me down—or worse, burned me down.
Judgment — This Summer
It still hurts, the hole where the nail holding the mirror pierces through the drywall, right into the wood. I hear Esther's breathing in front of where the mirror dangles.
"Sorry," she says, but to whom? No one else is in the room. "Sorry, Wall, for leaving you, for not speaking to you again"
She speaks to me! Oh, dreamed joy; it's been so long, my Esther.
"It's ironic that Meadow would send me a mirror of all things." Her voice is steady, sustained by an energy that I haven't heard since the days of her poetry, something like certainty. "If you could only see me."
See you? But you've always told me walls can't see.
Then something extraordinary happens: I can feel her hand, even though the mirror hangs between her skin and the painted surface of my being. The mirror has somehow become a part of me, like another beam or another sheet of drywall.
"Can you see me? I am all beat and bruised, Aldrich's handiwork."
Suddenly something new comes into being, a sensation like that of sound but richer, more energized, tantalizing, and confusing. Then I hear Esther's steps recede and at the same time the new sensations change in similar fashion, as if entwined with the sound.
"This is vision, my dear Wall."
She walks me through the process of vision, explaining as she goes, moving about and bringing objects within my field of view until that part of me that passes for my intellect begins to make connections. Among those objects are pictures of herself and the young woman Meadow. I can also see the bruises left by Aldrich's cruel hand on Esther's face and I don't need further explanation to understand that there is damage, that she can never be the woman in the pictures again. Oh, my ever changing Esther.
"We don't have long, but this I need you to see."
We continue the dance of light and sound until late in the afternoon, and even though she has no way of knowing my progress, it is almost as if she can sense it. A part of me wonders what this will do to my newly found ability to dream.
When we're done, I see her walk to the kitchen, where I now both hear and see her doing something behind the gas stove. I hear a slight hiss, like a breath of air being exhaled ever so slowly with utmost control. I am so excited about my new sight that I don't really spend too much time thinking about it.
Then she does the strangest thing. Approaching the mirror she kisses the glassy surface and as she moves away I can still see the imprint where her lips were, like a memory.
"Good-bye, Wall," she says as she disappears behind the periphery of my vision, but I can hear her steps as she walks into the bedroom and lies down on the bed.
At least, it sounds like she does.
When the detective lets go of the mirror, coolness replacing the warmth of her hand, I know that she has seen it all. Though still in shock, her complexion begins to regain some of its color. Immediately, she rummages through the remnants of burnt foam inside me, what's left of my flesh.
In the meantime, another figure appears at the door, walking toward me.
I think the male officer is going to intercept her, ask her to leave, but he is somewhere else in the house, distracted. Inside me, the detective still searches and searches; I can feel her hands desperate, knowing, seeking what she knows she'll find.
A beautiful young face fills the mirror. It's like Esther's, nearly, but in her brow I can see some of Aldrich's cruelty—well, as much as I could see before he had lit a cigarette, igniting the gas-filled house into oblivion.
Meadow, I think, and strangely, she nods.
"Wall," she says softly, and it's Esther's voice all over again, but softer, sweeter.
She raises her hands and seems to wrap them around me, reaching behind the mirror, which is now a part of me.
"Found it," I hear the detective exclaim proudly, knowing well that she has found the knife, the weapon that Aldrich had used on poor Aunt Millie, "Baba." I feel as she carefully collects the knife.
Then the feeling is suddenly gone. All that I was: studs, beams, drywall, nails, vanishes, my soul somehow alchemized by the fire straight into this mirror.
I am still here, in a new form, looking at what must be the living room, though my view is partly blocked by Meadow's arm as she carries me away, out of the house, out of thirty-seven years of wall consciousness to become, what?
Mirror, I think gladly, drowning in the light that sparkles amid green leaves while the whisper of the wind speaks directly into my ear, like poetry.
She waits for you.