by C. Michael Chase
“Ms. Natalie Persephone?” a thin voice asked as I approached its owner, standing in front of the apartment building.
I nodded in reply, holding out my hand and flashing a forced smile. “If you’re Jake Lowenfield.”
Jake had sounded like a short, thin, mouse of a man on the phone, but he was taller than I expected at about five eight. His crisp business suit fit him very well and his wire spectacles gave him a shrewd look. He had short, thinning, light brown hair, and a wide forehead over deep blue eyes that were used to sleep deprivation, and he held an expensive briefcase in one hand.
“That I am, miss,” he said with a dip of his head, accepting my hand with his free one in a light but firm grip, his palms cold in the midsummer morning. He looked to be about thirty-five, but his movements and posture made him seem younger. He waved his hand toward the apartments. “Shall we?”
“Yes,” I said. “Let’s get this over with,” and stepped toward the building. He rushed to open the door for me, and then led me up the stairs to the third floor. He shoved a key into a lock and pushed the door open, letting me go in first.
I expected my mother’s apartment to be a typical drug den of clutter and refuse, with piles of trash and dirty clothing, stinking of body odor and desperate depravity. I took a deep breath of the musty air in the old building as the door swung wide, steeling myself to deal with whatever pathetic leavings were on the other side.
I opened my eyes and stepped through the door, reaching to the side, my hand sliding up the wall until it found the light switch. The light flicked on and…
The place was clean. The hardwood floors in the small hallway leading deeper were smooth, only the dust of the intervening weeks of neglect marring its surface. I took a few steps into the empty apartment, noticing the wrought iron coat-rack hanging from the wall, the small table standing next to it for keys and change and mail. The mail was organized in a neat holder, and the trash can next to the table wasn’t overflowing.
I exhaled slowly, and turned back to the door. “Has the landlord been in here? Have they started cleaning everything out?”
Mr. Lowenfield stepped through the door, setting his briefcase down and sliding out of his tan trench coat, settling it on the coat-rack. “No, ma’am. The apartment is paid up until the end of next month, and they haven’t been in here at all. You’ll have plenty of time to go through everything and decide what you want to do with it.”
The end of the month? No, the end of next month? That wasn’t right. Drug addicts didn’t pay their rent forward. I cocked an eyebrow. He nodded with a small reassuring smile.
I turned away and stepped into the common room. The white carpet gave softly under my tennis shoes, and the air carried the faint scent of rose. Roses. The carpet was clean, and even looked like it had been vacuumed recently. It hadn’t, but there hadn’t been anyone in here for almost three weeks after my mother had died. Heart attack. It had taken them that long to get a hold of me, per her will.
But this wasn’t adding up. Drug addicts didn’t have wills, they didn’t pay their rent forward, and they didn’t leave everything to the daughter they had abandoned twenty years ago. That just wasn’t the mother I had known.
I looked into the kitchen, but the illusion wasn’t dashed. All the appliances sparkled white, the dishes clean on the drying rack, a green plate with bread crumbs in the sink.
“Is there a problem?” Jake asked from behind me.
I turned back to see him walk into the dining room, a little alcove, windowed on three sides, off the common area with a small table surrounded by four tall-legged chairs. He placed the briefcase on the table and clicked it open.
I shook my head. “Just… Wasn’t what I expected.”
“No?” he asked, pulling a faded envelope from the briefcase, a spidery scrawl across its front.
“No,” I sighed, approaching him and the table. “What’s that?”
“I don’t know,” he said, holding it out. “Her will instructed me to give this to you.”
The paper had looked old and brittle in his hand, but it was firm yet supple in mine, the mark of high quality paper. I looked down at the spidery scrawl. “To My Daughter, Natalie Persephone,” it read. Every letter was precise and uniform in a curious blend of cursive and print, the style that someone develops over years of writing things for others to read.
I turned it over in my hand. An unbroken signature sprawled over the seal on the envelope. I could make out the “J-A” in her first name until it descended into a series of wavy lines that weren’t anything but her personal mark. It had been twenty years since I’d seen even that much of my mother.
I remembered trying to forge her signature at six years old for a school permission slip. Many hours poring over a sample, trying to get my unsteady little hands to get it just right. The bunnies at the petting zoo were counting on me to get it right. I smiled at the childish memory for a moment, remembering my desperate determination. The bunnies had been counting on me.
“Do you need a moment?” Mr. Lowenfield asked, breaking me away from my memory.
“Yes, please. I’ll just…” I shook my head lightly, trailing off.
“I’ll wait here,” he said after a moment, gesturing to the couches in the common area. “Take your time.”
He pulled out some papers and sat at the table as I turned away from him. But I didn’t stop at the couch. I kept going, back into the hall, slowly opening a door I had passed on the way in. A closet, the faint smell of its stored cleaning supplies wafting out. I tried the next one.
The scent of roses was stronger in here. Not overpowering, but it jumped from a barely perceived fragrance to a light scent. The carpet in here was still the same clean, white, springy material as in the common area. A large bed filled up the far end of the spacious bedroom, covered in its floral patterned bedding, its wooden headboard set up against the wall.
The surreal illusion of organization and cleanliness continued, even in my mother’s bedroom. A small, antique, vanity dresser sat next to the door, across from the bed, its polished dark wood surface gleaming as I flicked on the light. A larger standing dresser of the same dark polished wood loomed from across the bed. An empty basket of laundry sat on the bed, its fresh-cleaned contents folded carefully in neat piles on the bed, waiting to be put away, as if she hadn’t had time to finish the chore she had begun.
I closed the door behind me, taking in the sights, this part of my mother that I couldn’t grasp, couldn’t understand. My mother hadn’t been this organized, this clean. When I had expected a dirty drug nest, it had been because I had lived it until she had run away.
The bed was soft and cool underneath me as I sank down onto it, looking again at the envelope in my hand. There was something heavier at the bottom of the envelope, like a piece of jewelry; I guessed it to be a small necklace.
The paper came apart with a soft tearing sound, much quieter than I had thought it would for such a rigid paper. A letter of the same paper was folded precisely into it. I pulled it out, revealing a thin leather cord attached to a black, opaque, reflective crystal hanging from a silver loop. A simple silver clasp was connected to each end of the cord.
I opened the letter, looking down the page at her spidery scrawl. The date was from almost four years ago.
“My daughter, Natalie,
‘ ‘Tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus. Our bodies are our gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners.’ – Shakespeare’s Iago
One small letter is not enough to tell you everything I want to. How sorry I am that I wasn’t there. That I didn’t get to see you grow. To try to explain myself and my actions to you. But I can’t.
I can only say I was wrong. I put weeds in my garden, and choked out the flowers. There is no one to blame but me.
I have spent these past six months trying to work up the courage to come to you, to apologize, to take the blame for the horrible things I’ve done to you. But I don’t have it in me. I’m sorry for that.
And so this. I’m sorry.
My only wish is that you remember this. Be your own gardener, and choose with caution what things you encourage to grow. Sometimes, the garden becomes too corrupted for anything but compost.
I love you,
My vision blurred with tears as I finished the letter. My mother. She had turned herself around, and still, she had been too ashamed to come to me.
“…too corrupted for anything but compost,” I whispered, staring at the blurred handwriting. My fingers brushed over a slightly discolored part of the paper, across its slightly water-damaged surface, where tears had dried as my mother had written this letter.
After a few moments I looked up at the mirror on the vanity dresser, wiping the brimming tears from my eyes. My eyes were red and my cheeks blotchy, my curly red hair framing my pale face, small nose, quivering lips. I noticed a small picture tucked into the bottom of the mirror frame. A little girl’s joyful eyes stared into the camera, a generic blue background from a school photo from so long ago. Its edges were worn and frayed, and parts of the picture were fading, where time and events had worn away the ink.
“Mom,” I whispered thickly, staring at the little red-haired girl from twenty years ago.