Aphelion Issue 278, Volume 26
November 2022
 
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The Claw-foot Bathtub in the Woods

by Meg Smith




When Amma arrived on a slaty November morning, it was not with a sense of homecoming.

            This house where she’d spent much of her childhood was like most houses on the narrow street – built in the mid-1800s, and still showing its early elegance.

            Unlike some of those houses, it had not been carved up into apartments in which college students lived in seasonal migration.

            When Beryl opened the door, Amma took a moment to assess the woman in front of her.

            She was not tall, but had the same bearing of purpose Amma recalled. Her hair was short, and silver, her blue eyes filled with a light of intent.

            Still, it had been five years since they last met, and Amma observed marks of frailty in her face.

            “Oh, is it good to see you,” Beryl declared, and drew Amma into a sharp embrace that made her wince.

            “And you,” Amma said. On the subway, and the bus, she’d prepared a greeting.

            Beryl had always brought out that feeling. Of a need to be -- what. Armed, somehow.

            Once inside, Beryl said, “You’re very good to do this.”

            Amma thought perhaps they both knew.

 Beryl needed someone to watch her house while she spent two weeks in Florida, taking care of the rental home she owned there.

            Amma knew what the trip meant. Beryl was making preparations to relocate there. Then, this house would follow others on the street, going onto the market for eventual carving up.

            The price would provide for a secure retirement, and Florida would provide a more moderate cost of living unknown in the Boston area.

            As for Amma, she’d agreed to come because the house was about the same distance from her job as was her claustrophobic efficiency, and Beryl was paying her as well as providing food.

            Amma had insisted it wasn’t necessary, although it was.

            “You can stay in your old room,” Beryl announced, “You’ll find I didn’t change it much, although there is some laundry in there.”

            Amma said, “I’m sure it’s fine. You know, it’s like a reunion.” They smiled at each other.

            Amma realized she hadn’t removed her coat. “Well, I’ll just go up and put my bag there,” she said unnecessarily.

            “Of course!” Beryl declared. “Tonight, I want to take you to dinner!”

            Amma said, “That’s very kind,” and didn’t argue. Going out to dinner meant ambient noise, ambient people, and less of the awkward intimacy that had marked their relationship.

            Upstairs, Amma looked around the small, almost monastic room, and dropping her bag on the bed, pushed back at the urge to allow memory to flood through her.

            The 21st century has dawned, her brain reminded her.

            The 1970s and the nervous elementary school girl who once occupied this room were gone.

            In their place was a new millennium in which people argued out loud on phones in the supermarket, often about private matters most people, at one time, would have never shared in public.

The elementary school girl was replaced by a tallish woman in her mid-30s still searching for purpose.

            But memories were hard to vanquish fully. Amma stepped down the hall, looking at the dark green wallpaper, with dancing roses -- Beryl put it up herself, as she had the wallpaper throughout the house.

Beryl was self-sufficient and resourceful -- two qualities Amma felt she had not taken with her when she left this house, at 21, to start and then summarily drop out of college.

            An impulse possessed Amma to look, of all places, in the bathroom.

            So much of the house had not changed, but this part had.

            In the bathroom had once stood an object Amma did remember with affection -- an old-fashioned, claw-foot bathtub.

            As a child, at bath time, it had been a place of adventure.

            But when she opened the door, she gasped.

            The tub was gone. In its place was a walk-in tub, and a steel bar for getting up and down.

            I won’t mention it, Amma decided. A sense of loss would not leave her, however.

            The stairs were creaking, and there was a male voice. “Amma?”

            Beryl’s son, Dennis.

            “Yes, it’s me,” she said, fighting a sigh.

            They’d grown up together, but Amma did not feel fraternal affection. “Ah, good to see you,” Dennis said with a keen sense of obligation.

            Amma smiled. “Yes. I --”

            “She had that put in last year. I had to insist,” Dennis said.

            “Well, she needs to be safe,” said Amma, turning toward the staircase.

            “She loved that tub. Loved it so much, she kept it.”

            This genuinely surprised Amma. Dennis said, “Have a look,” opening the door to the small room on the other side of the bathroom.

            There it was, burnished in copper, an entire tableau around it, with flowers, curios, and a stand of books.

            Books for reclining in the time for a leisurely afternoon of reading, at least, in the imagination.

            At once, it made sense. It was Beryl’s refusal to concede. She’d use the walk-in tub to make Dennis shut up. But the claw-foot bathtub was staying.

            Not only was it staying, it was being elevated from a functional thing to a work of art.

            Amma knew that in one sense, she owed Beryl a lot.

            After Amma’s parents died, Beryl had given her a home, keeping her out of foster care, and in stability. No moving from place to place, or school to school.

            But Beryl was about perfection.

            One day, when Amma was about seven, she was sitting in the claw-foot bathtub, surrounded by toy boats and rubber ducks.

            Beryl was passing in the hallway and stopped to look in on her.

            “Hello!” Amma called out, and held up a rubber duck that was dressed as a ship’s captain.

            Beryl responded with intense perusal, as if looking over jewelry in a glass case, and not liking the selection.

 “Amma, my dear, you are getting stout,” Beryl declared, “Too much starch.”

            Beryl moved away from the door, as if she’d disappeared in a cloud of smoke.

            Until then, the tub had been her sanctuary, her childhood world of solace. After that, it became a place where she inspected her body – its folds, its flaws – which advancing toward young adulthood seemed to exaggerate.

            Amma brushed away at the memory. From that moment on, she knew, whatever the chatter about “body acceptance,” Beryl had done her a service. Beryl had shown the reality of the world, which all the “body acceptance” would never change.

            Beryl was, overall, an expert in deflating ideals, mystical beliefs, and absurd expectations.

            It began here, Amma thought, looking at the walk-in tub. The end of fantasy, of possibilities, and the beginning of life, with feet nailed firmly to the ground.

            The dinner at the restaurant was a blur – a patchwork of sleek, orange and teal lanterns, the “healthy heart” selection from which she found herself ordering, and the waitress she encountered, crying in the ladies’ room.

            Amma asked if she was okay. It turned out, the waitress, whose name was Sheila, had to put down her cat, Marmalade. Amma and Sheila stood, embracing, sobbing, and then touching up each other’s makeup before exiting.

            It was the only clear moment she could remember when they returned home.

            As she lay in bed, Amma looked at the hazy light through the window, listening to a distant siren, and clacking of a freight train over tracks.

            It occurred to her that the sounds she heard at night had not changed since childhood.

            Where she lived now was close to a woodland reserve. The thought of it made her smile.

            It was then a thought occurred to her that made her laugh softly in the darkness, before sleep settled in with a great, soothing cloud.

            In the morning, Amma felt a queer silence within the house. She dressed furtively and came downstairs to the kitchen, looking around.

            It was then that Dennis came into the kitchen, holding a bulging shopping bag, which he put down on the floor. “Mom’s in the hospital.”

            Amma struggled. “What? What?

            “I wasn’t going to wake you,” Dennis said, rummaging in his pockets – but Amma knew he wasn’t looking for anything. “In the night. Stroke. Or something. I don’t know.”

            “Why are you here?” Amma demanded, anger and bewilderment in her voice.

            Dennis shrugged. “I’m not going to sit by her bed and fret. Why grow more resentment?”

            He turned and left, with Amma standing in the kitchen, laughing, swallowing hard on a bitter taste.

            I should go see her, Amma thought. She felt, as she so often had – a spectator to an unpleasant and never-ending conflict between a man who wasn’t her brother, and a woman who wasn’t her mother.

            “And I was supposed to be grateful,” she said to the ceiling, noticing a brownish-yellow stain. “So out of character!”

            Amma called the hospital, but was told no one but immediate family could visit. Amma was about to start arguing that she was, for all intents, a daughter, but stopped.

            She stared at the phone on the wall – harvest gold, and pristine. Beryl would never give up her landline.

That would be living with a dreadful lack of preparation.

            Amma stood, looking around the kitchen, the tidy table, and the orderly pantry, and along with the stain on the ceiling, a solitary, immobile insect casting a sad shadow within the overhead light.

            She started to cry. Then, the thought from last night, the sweet thought that came before sleep, came back to her.

Outside, Mrs. Hamblin across the street watched from her porch as a trailer awkwardly angled into an open spot outside the house.

Mrs. Hamblin had a habit of providing Beryl with a full report of Amma’s comings and goings as a child. Anxiety flashed in Amma’s mind as she saw her.

Amma waved, but did not go over to her. After all, Mrs. Hamblin had broken her trust so long ago. No reason to act out of friendship. They were not friends.

In any case, Amma did not think time was on her side. She’s going to tell her everything, Amma thought, before realizing, she will never get the chance.

Now, as in childhood, Amma wished for someone in whom she could truly confide.

It was a world full of Mrs. Hamblins, who divulged secrets instead of protecting them, or of authority figures like Beryl, who admonished living a life of order with no need for secrets.

Throughout her life, Amma had sometimes taken people into her confidence as an act of bargaining.

Some of those people might have served as life partners, if there was anything about them – or her – that nourished a sense of permanence.

For the past several months, the person she’d enlisted in a transitory bond was James.

When she called him about her plan, he supplied unsurprising protests, but soon relented.

Amma told him that what she had in mind was part of an installation project, “Home, Sweet Forest.” It was a thin ruse, but he conceded.

James lived in his parents’ house, and much about him reminded Amma of Dennis.

James’ family home was an olive-green, split-level ranch at the edge of a cul-de-sac. The house had a yard without a fence that faced a stretch of woods.

In a few years’ time, the woods would likely be gone, with palatial homes and a furrow of trees remaining in the center as “open space.”

The owners, the Banner family, were unapologetic about turning down an offer from the town to purchase the land for preservation.

But for now, the woods, with its tangle of brush and weeds, served Amma’s purpose, though as impermanent as everything else in her life.

Amma told James more than once on the drive over: “They could always change their minds. Anyway, their daughter is fighting them on it. I think she wants to plant a commune there.” She laughed, but James did not laugh with her.

“Let’s just do this,” he sighed. “I have to get the trailer back tonight, or it’s charged another day.”

James’ parents were at their other house in Boca Raton. This, despite his father’s fear of flamingos.

It was not a graceful transition. Amma had not given much thought to the weight of the tub – which she realized, had to be at least 200 pounds.

They stopped it every few feet, and James muttered a lot of foul words strung together with a snort at the end.

The uneven ground was muddy in patches, and thin twigs snapped them across the legs.

The light was fading.

“Here,” she said, finally. She was chilled by her perspiration.

“Yeah,” James said, looking up at the sky – as if some answer rested there, with the fragment of moon.

James looked at her. “Yeah,” he said again.

“So,” Amma breathed, watching the fog of her breath in the cool air. “We did it. Thank you.”

“Yeah,” James said again, his feet shifting the dried grass.

“Well,” Amma said, “I think I’m good. Thanks for all the help.”

“That was it,” James said, and his incredulity was clear.

“Well, yes,” Amma said.

“So… what now?” James said.

“Nothing. I’m good. Go home. It’s cold.”

“You’re just… going to stay here?”

In the darkening air, Amma could see anger and frustration pooling in his face.

But he said nothing more. He turned, stepping over fallen branches and lumps in the earth.

James did not like most of her schemes, but complied with them, as he did now.

Amma shivered. “Don’t worry,” she said softly, knowing he could not hear.

She was slightly surprised by the mournful call of a Canada goose, flitting overhead in a broad shadow of wings.

She stared at the tub – its artful restoration, in the midst of the spindly trees and tall grasses.

Amma knelt, down and with some awkwardness, unlaced her boots and pulled them off. She held the tub’s edge to sturdy herself, but it shifted slightly, and she almost fell back again onto the muddy ground.

Her legs shaking slightly, she pulled herself up. Gingerly, but without grace, she stepped into the tub, the cold of its surface reaching through her socks to her feet.

She lowered herself, and the tub shifted again, sinking a little on one side.

After a few moments, however, Amma felt calm, and stretched out, the hard, unyielding, curling back against her shoulders, her head leaning a bit forward.

Her feet braced against the other end; with one toe, she pushed playfully at the space where the tap had been.

She looked upward; the clouds had moved on, and the moon’s hazy glow illuminated the sky.

Her muscles began to ache from the arduousness of getting the tub out to this place, and she decided it was worth it.

They were reunited. No one to critique her, or point out the hazards of eating too much pound cake, or that she would catch cold if she stayed in the water too long.

It was all well-intended, she told herself. But, still.

Mrs. Hamblin would surely be telling Dennis what had transpired at the house while he was out.

 Perhaps Dennis was cutting her short to tell her his mother was in the hospital, and now he had to oversee plans for the Florida house.

Mrs. Hamblin would be sharing that tidbit with the mail carrier, for whom this information would have little value, and who would stare back quizzically.

Sooner or later, Amma knew, someone would discover it. But now, there were too many crises for anyone to go looking for a tub whose use was purely ornamental.

The air was cold. Amma’s jaw chattered. When she closed her eyes, the cold retreated a little.

Eventually, she’d bring other amenities – a chair, perhaps, a stepladder, on which to stand vases of wildflowers, and perhaps a shelter constructed, over it all.

“A cottage,” she said aloud. It could be bought and assembled. That might infuriate the Banners, if they ever got around to selling the land.

As a child, she’d come into possession of a book of fairy tales. Such a book would be a must for the sanctuary she was planning in her mind.

She remembered that a recurring theme was a little girl fleeing to the woods, to find she was not alone. She was seeking asylum from the denizens of the woods. What form might they take? Witches? Goblins? Elvin shoemakers?

Amma opened her eyes and looked up again at the moon, as if for some guidance on this matter.

“I believe it’s only you and me,” she said aloud, “And, of course, these trees and plants. No offense to anyone.”

A Canada goose let out a cry.

“Quiet,” Amma muttered, and laughed.

The tub shifted again. Amma sat forward a little, in annoyance. But she looked up and saw that the tub had not shifted on its own.

“James!” she hissed, but there was no answer, except for another goose’s cry.

Amma looked around, then up at the sky. “Dennis!” she shouted.

Then, she remembered.

Dennis has no idea where she is. Maybe he is at his mother’s side at the hospital, or arguing with his former wife, about their 12-year-old daughter, Jerry, who yelled at her mother for smoking.

Then, with a chill in her voice: “B-Beryl?”

But Beryl was in the hospital, fighting to command her life.

Amma lay back once more.

Someone, she realized, was crying out, even pulling at the edge of the tub.

She heard something like a strange language, but a language she could understand, somewhat. It was more a feeling than words: “You were away too long.”

A stab of hurt, of loss, shook her. It wasn’t Beryl, or James, or Dennis, or even a goose in solitary flight.

“You gave me away,” Amma answered. Her voice quivered as the air grew cooler.

“I didn’t.” The goose’s cry.

Tears started to course along her face – warm, then quickly growing cold.

“It doesn’t – it doesn’t matter,” she said, finally. “I’m back. We’re back.”

I’m back, in the belly of the mother beast, she mused, with a chilled laugh.

They were magical people, from a magical place.

But even magical people sometimes fall apart. Then, the sturdy, non-magical people like Beryl step in.

“This is the end,” Amma said, “We’re back together, and this is the end.”

My true mother, with her magical belly, and magical, clawed feet. No one is going to dig up this place and put houses here.

They wouldn’t dare.

Amma looked toward the moon, momentarily darkened by the shadow of geese.

Wisps of snow started to fall.

She did not long for birth, to be pushed out, to leave.

“It doesn’t matter,” Amma whispered drowsily, “We’re together.”

THE END


2022 Meg Smith

Bio: Meg Smith is a writer, journalist, dancer and events producer living in Lowell, Mass. USA. In addition to previously appearing in Aphelion, her poetry and fiction have appeared in Dark Moon Digest, The Cafe Review, Muddy River Poetry Review, Sirens Call, The Horror Zine, and many more. She is author of five poetry books and a short fiction collection, The Plague Confessor. She welcomes visits to megsmithwriter.com. 


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