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.
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.
of those houses, it had not been carved up into apartments in which college
students lived in seasonal migration.
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.
had been five years since they last met, and Amma observed marks of frailty in
“Oh, is it
good to see you,” Beryl declared, and drew Amma into a sharp embrace that made
Amma said. On the subway, and the bus, she’d prepared a greeting.
always brought out that feeling. Of a need to be -- what. Armed, somehow.
inside, Beryl said, “You’re very good to do this.”
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.
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.
would provide for a secure retirement, and Florida would provide a more
moderate cost of living unknown in the Boston area.
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.
insisted it wasn’t necessary, although it was.
stay in your old room,” Beryl announced, “You’ll find I didn’t change it much,
although there is some laundry in there.”
“I’m sure it’s fine. You know, it’s like a reunion.” They smiled at each other.
realized she hadn’t removed her coat. “Well, I’ll just go up and put my bag
there,” she said unnecessarily.
course!” Beryl declared. “Tonight, I want to take you to dinner!”
“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
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
and the nervous elementary school girl who once occupied this room were gone.
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.
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.
possessed Amma to look, of all places, in the bathroom.
So much of
the house had not changed, but this part had.
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.
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.
were creaking, and there was a male voice. “Amma?”
me,” she said, fighting a sigh.
grown up together, but Amma did not feel fraternal affection. “Ah, good to see
you,” Dennis said with a keen sense of obligation.
smiled. “Yes. I --”
that put in last year. I had to insist,” Dennis said.
needs to be safe,” said Amma, turning toward the staircase.
that tub. Loved it so much, she kept it.”
genuinely surprised Amma. Dennis said, “Have a look,” opening the door to the
small room on the other side of the bathroom.
was, burnished in copper, an entire tableau around it, with flowers, curios,
and a stand of books.
reclining in the time for a leisurely afternoon of reading, at least, in the
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.
was it staying, it was being elevated from a functional thing to a work of art.
that in one sense, she owed Beryl a lot.
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.
was about perfection.
when Amma was about seven, she was sitting in the claw-foot bathtub, surrounded
by toy boats and rubber ducks.
passing in the hallway and stopped to look in on her.
Amma called out, and held up a rubber duck that was dressed as a ship’s
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.”
away from the door, as if she’d disappeared in a cloud of smoke.
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.
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.
overall, an expert in deflating ideals, mystical beliefs, and absurd
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.
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.
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.
to her that the sounds she heard at night had not changed since childhood.
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.
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.”
struggled. “What? What?”
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
you here?” Amma demanded, anger and
bewilderment in her voice.
shrugged. “I’m not going to sit by her bed and fret. Why grow more resentment?”
and left, with Amma standing in the kitchen, laughing, swallowing hard on a
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
“And I was
supposed to be grateful,” she said to the ceiling, noticing a brownish-yellow
stain. “So out of character!”
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
“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
“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
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
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
Then, with a chill in her voice:
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
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.”
© 2022 Meg Smith
Smith is a writer, journalist, dancer and events producer living in
Mass. USA. In addition to previously appearing in Aphelion,
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
She welcomes visits to megsmithwriter.com.
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