The Aunts came one after the other in a procession of pantsuits and leather loafers. I purchased their services with the money I had left from my father. They marched up the concrete stairwell of our fifth floor walk-up, never-minding the shed snakeskins of used condoms, the daggers of broken brown bottles, the oily mystery puddles, the ground out cigarette butts, the walls smeared with ash and feces. They would give my daughter the gifts and blessings I could not, the gifts and blessings my parents didn’t give me. The Aunts ascended armed and perfumed with their lilac, their lavender. Tea rose. Sandalwood. Potato salad. Ziti casserole. Banana bread. French roast. Wrapping paper, tape, and ribbon. I watched them through the peephole.
They rapped on our door; seven soft knocks with their seven soft fists.
Petal swaddled in pink muslin and sleeping, was oblivious to the knocks of the world.
The Aunts shuffled in. Pant legs aflutter, they glided past the wiped and whitened walls.
Things would get better when I wasn’t birth sore, bleeding, sleepless, and so in love with my little princess and my prince charming, Rex, that I was a float-y, blissful, ache. And things would be better when Rex got it under control. He was working on getting it under control. He really, really, really was. I wouldn’t have stayed if he hadn’t promised. The Aunts were paid to give their gifts to our daughter; they wouldn’t judge. Still I polished every fucking thing till it shined, sparkled, and glittered like the Northern Lights on the coldest, darkest, Northern winter night.
The Aunts shed their coats and their packages, piling them on the table I had fancied up with a stiff, floral, dollar store tablecloth and a large yellowed doily my grandmother had crocheted once upon a time.
The Aunts gathered around Petal’s crib of thin white spindles.
“Live Nudes!!!” blinked in daylight neon through the window. A police car flashed its reds and blues, siren-ing down the street. Someone yelled, “Get off my tits motherfucker.”
“Look-it,” said one of the Aunts leaning down over Petal’s puckered bud of a face, “Look-it how peaceful.”
Petal, my five-day-old sleeping beauty, her eyes fastened tight, eyelashes intertwined, her soft little lips, almost quivering with breath rested, with her arms stretched past her head.
Rex was retching in the bathroom. Just puking out his guts, rattling the porcelain, kicking his feet backward into the door, banging the hell out of it. He had the faucet going as if the anemic trickle of low-pressure water could drown out his frantic racket.
The First Aunt, at the head of the crib, bent down over Petal, slipped an object out from the depths of her trench coat and pinned it to Petal’s swaddle, right above her bird-tiny chest. The gold of the rose brooch glittered, and the diamonds encrusting it sang out stars of light. “May you always be the most beautiful girl in the room. May you always glitter as brilliantly as a rare jewel on the sun. Even in the deepest caves of darkness, your beauty will shine.” She bent down and kissed Petal on her lips.
“Coffee,” I said. “I should make coffee.”
The Aunts didn’t move their gaze from Petal for a breath, a blink, or a twitch while I ground their gourmet French Roast in my rumbling, screaming blender.
“Alright then,” said the Second Aunt, stationed the first on the right side of the crib. She was tall and stern, gray and brown, some kind of shore bird of the apocalypse, “My gift to you is intelligence, the capacity for wisdom and for wit.” She licked her finger and made a circle of slobber on Petal’s forehead. “Among the pile of packages, wrapped quite effectively, is a large, leather-bound book of tales, fables, stories, and myths, with which you can enhance your already increased capacity for understanding and navigating the world. Also there, you will find a second leather volume full of History. A third is devoted to Geography, and a fourth to Science and the Natural World.
You will have a flexible and fertile mind. You will be clever and cunning, and wise. You will know more than the most tenured professors…more than the most versed trivia masters.”
“Perhaps you should have saved the poor girl’s body the weight of all those pages and sprung for a laptop,” one of the Aunts on the other side of the crib teased though I was the one who had not sprung for the top tier package.
The next Aunt, the Third Aunt, had a dusty-rose tint to her clothes. She wore a pleated skirt, a cashmere sweater, and pantyhose two shades too dark. She only came up to the shoulders of the Second Aunt. When she moved, it seemed as if her bones were made of mercury or some kind of liquid that gravity didn’t apply to. Her voice, when she allowed her lips to part, was soft, fluid yet measured, somehow maintaining a sense of sternness with no hard edges. “My darling,” she spoke, “May you learn to flow over the rocks with nary a twist to your gait. May you grow to sway with the breeze and never tremble or tremor. May you know the excesses of your own demeanor and of the world, so you may be all the more steeled against them.” She opened her palm, and resting inside was a small, glass-worked koi on a thread. She tied it to the crib. It spun and spun between two of the perfectly white spindles.
“What a nice segue,” said the Fourth Aunt, the Aunt at the foot of the crib. “What a nice segue indeed.” The Fourth Aunt was exactly the tallest of all the Aunts, the most athletic, and the most lithe. Her clothes moved with her and she was moving all the time with an assortment of purposeful gestures and poses that seemed to be part communication. She did a plié, and then tossed her body up into a small, joyful leap. “Dance,” she shouted, and I imagined Petal throwing up her arms in startle, but she didn’t stir at all. “Dance!” The Fourth Aunt folded over into downward facing dog, her derriere pointed up to the ceiling. She unfastened her scuffed oxfords. She drew her feet out of her shoes, tied the laces together and hung them over Petal’s crib. “My child,” she said, taking my baby’s feet in her hands, “There will be no dance that can defeat you. Your body will be fluent in the language of music, of rhythm, nuance, expression. Your muscles, your very bones will speak in music, in dance, as natural as breath, as enchanting as magic.”
“Very well spoken, my dear,” said the Third Aunt. The Fourth Aunt nodded and dropped to a deep, show-off-y curtsy, then deepened to a low bow, gesturing to the Fifth Aunt on the left side of the crib.
“Beautiful,” she trilled. The Fifth Aunt had a labyrinth of tight braids running along her head, short sprigs of baby’s breath sprayed from them. Her skirt and her blouse were both ecru, long and loose. She reached behind her and pulled out a ukulele that she had set against the wall.
The First Aunt clapped her hands together, “How delightful.”
The Fifth Aunt smiled back at her, held the ukulele against her body, opened her mouth and…
“Help me!” Rex screamed from the bathroom. The Fifth Aunt put the ukulele down, and slipped her finger into Petal’s hand.
“Let me out of this mother fucking prison! I need medicine!” Aunts shifted in their shoes, tugged on their skirts or at the knees of their khakis. The Sixth Aunt turned over her wrist to check the time. I didn’t want to make them late for their next appointment.
“Excuse me,” I said.
The wooden chair wedged under the bathroom doorknob rattled, shook, and leapt in place. I took a deep breath. Rex just needed fresh air, and it wasn’t really fair of me to keep him from the Aunt’s blessings. He should be there.
I knocked the chair out from under the knob. The door burst open. Something hard caught me above the eye. Rex shoved the door and me behind it, thump-sprinted down the hallway bare-chested and barefooted and barreled out the front door.
The bathroom was a mess. The toilet was stopped up with toilet paper. Water burped off the lip of porcelain. Every thing, every bottle, jar, makeup palette, Q-Tip was on the floor. The medicine cabinet mirror was hanging on by a hinge.
“Lovely, lovely,” the Fifth Aunt said when I made it back to the living room. The coffee was half gone, and the banana bread had been nibbled on. Our chipped plates and mismatched mugs filled the sink.
The Fifth Aunt picked her ukulele off the wall and cradled it back in her arms, “I simply must get the recipe for that banana bread dear.”
“Just a secret family recipe,” The Second Aunt said looking at her hands, “No big deal. Of course I did adjust it to be gluten free, so it’s made with combination almond and coconut flour. I also substituted brown sugar for most of the white sugar, and of course I toasted the walnuts before including them, and then there’s the matter of browning the butter, which really should go without saying.”
“Oh yes, yes,” ad-libbed the First Aunt, “I think I came across that recipe on the Internet. AllRecipes? The pictures of it were awful. Not appetizing at all.”
The Fifth Aunt closed her eyes, dropped her jaw, held a chord with her left hand, lifted her fingers and slid them up and down the fret board while her right hand fingerpicked frantically, tickling and teasing the music out of the ukulele. “Baby mine” she sang, with her eyes closed, her tongue rolling out the syllables, savoring them, spinning them gently out of her mouth, and into our ears.
I wiped a tear with my sleeve.
When the Fifth Aunt was done, the Aunts clapped. The Fifth Aunt slipped the ukulele back in the case, and kissed each of her palms. One she pressed lightly against Petal’s lips, and the other she wrapped around Petal’s tiny hands. “And like that,” she said, “the music is yours.” Looking at me, she said, “And so is the ukulele. Hers. It is not worth much in money,” she warned me, “but to the girl it will be priceless.”
The Sixth Aunt folded her hands in front of her; they hung down with her skirts. “What a kind offering,” her voice cooed, highly pitched, but not too highly pitched, sweet, but not too sweet, softly, but perfectly audible. “Everyone, such kind offerings.”
The Sixth Aunt dipped her head down to study Petal, “And my precious soul, that is exactly what I have to offer you. Kindness. Goodness. A clear sense of what’s right and wrong. Humility. Compassion. Empathy. You will understand that you are superior to no one and that no one is superior to you, and you will treat people accordingly. You will take responsibility for your actions, and you will give people second chances. You will give gifts for no reason. Your generosity will be purely motivated and boundless. If you have any enemy in this life it will be Injustice.”
The Sixth Aunt drew an index finger over her lips, pulled back Petal’s swaddle, uncovering her chest and painted a heart over Petal’s in lipstick. “Never forget that above all, your heart is who you are.”
“Hear, Hear,” applauded the First Aunt.
“I say, that was a fine job,” said the Second Aunt.
“Thank you all, very much,” I said, “We really appreciate it.”
“Of course, my dear,” said the Third Aunt. Would I have to tip them? I hadn’t thought of that before. I had a little cash I’d been saving in a tampon box, but not enough for all of them.
“True, true,” agreed the Fourth Aunt, wiggling her toes into the carpet, “We do not get as much work as we used to. My legs need the stretch every once in awhile you know.”
“This darling has been particularly quiet,” said the Fifth Aunt.
“Not a peep from her,” the Sixth Aunt agreed, “Not a peep.”
“She’ll be hungry soon,” I said. My breasts were heavy and full, uncomfortable. “Anytime.” I said.
“Of course, of course,” said the Third Aunt. “Well it was brilliant to meet you, to come to your beautiful home.”
One of the Aunts coughed deep in her throat, I’m not sure which.
The Seventh Aunt, shuffled up to the crib from the back of the apartment, my room. She yawned and rubbed at her eyes with slim tan boxing gloves over her hands.
The Aunt of Strength. The Aunt who would teach my daughter how to kick ass and take names. The Aunt whose gift would inspire her to never relent to fear, to bullying, to other people and other things controlling her. I hadn’t noticed the Seventh Aunt slip away. There were so many Aunts; it was hard to keep track of them all.
“Did I miss anything?” the Seventh Aunt asked on her way to the coffee pot. “Just black,” she called to me.
“It’s gone a little bitter,” I warned.
“The bitterer the better,” she blurted, “This old tongue can take it.”
I poured her a cup. She fumbled at the mug with her boxing gloves, batting it around the counter like a cat. I grabbed a straw and popped it in her mug.
The other Aunts were gathering their coats and riffling themselves back together in a line.
“Hey, I haven’t gone yet,” the Seventh Aunt shouted, “Keep your wigs on and wait for me will you?”
“My dear, said the Second Aunt, “You were supposed to go first.”
“Hey,” the Seventh Aunt countered, “Don’t tell me how to live my life. She’ll get her gift. After my coffee. I’m not as young as I used to be.”
“None of us are,” said the Third Aunt, but she wasn’t agreeing.
“There is supposed to be an order to these things,” the Sixth Aunt reminded her.
“Order, schmorder,” The Seventh Aunt said, and then miraculously drew up the rest of the coffee through the straw, rubbed her boxing gloves together, and sauntered up to Petal’s crib like a bulldog. “Let’s do this thing.”
The rest of the Aunts shuffled back to their places around Petal’s crib.
“Come on, dear,” the Seventh Aunt shouted to me, “What are you doing all the way over in the kitchen?”
“Watching,” I said, “Staying out of everyone’s hair.”
“Being respectful, I would imagine,” piped in the Third Aunt.
“No, no no,” the Seventh Aunt admonished, “Be anything but that.”
“My, my,” the Sixth Aunt tutted as I make my way over, “Brashness does not become us.”
“It isn’t ladylike I know,” the Seventh Aunt scratched at her bottom with her boxing glove, “Being ladylike is not all it’s cracked up to be.”
“Surely…” started the First Aunt.
“Look, look,” the Seventh Aunt blustered. She was red faced and her hair seemed to be escaping its loose bun out of a yearning for adventure, “We can argue this all day. I used to be Obedience for Christ’s sake. I never would have survived this long if I hadn’t changed. Anyway,” she bent her head down and wiped her sweaty forehead off on her sleeve. “Back to the matter at hand.” She looked down at Petal and smiled. “Oh, how cute. Look at how hard she is. You can already tell, this one is going to be tough. This one is going to punch life in the nose and while it’s bleeding she’s going to tell it to screw itself with a chainsaw.”
“It will be bedtime soon,” warned the First Aunt.
“That it will be,” agreed the Seventh, “ So my darling, my gift to you is…”
“Holy fucking God,” Rex howled as he fell back into the apartment. “What the hell is wrong with you woman?”
“Keep your nasty ass boxers on and sit down.” The old woman behind Rex looked a little like the Aunts: gray hair and tiny bones, but she was dressed in black and gray instead of various shades of brown. She did not come in laden with packages or with a pleasant scent. She smelled a little bit like mold and carried with her only a small black purse that hung from her shoulder. Also she wore too much blue eye makeup and a terrible shade of orange lipstick. It took me too long to realize it was my actual aunt, Mildred. She looked ten years older than the last time I saw her, a year ago, my father’s funeral.
“While you’ve been having your nice little party,” she said to me, “I found this one in a frenzy in the hallways, knocking on people’s doors, causing chaos. I just took a wild guess that he belonged to you.”
Aunt Mildred had Rex by the wrist, her nails digging in. She threw him at the couch, and then sat down beside him, tucking her skirt under her knees. When he tried to pop back up, she hit him in the chest with her handbag.
The aunts shuffled in their shoes, and just looked at each other. The Second Aunt checked her watch.
“I thought we didn’t do the evil, curse-y one anymore,” The Fifth Aunt said. “People were asking for their money back.”
“This is Mildred,” I said, “My father’s sister.”
“So who are you all then?” Mildred asked, scowling directly at the Third Aunt, “Her mother’s sisters?”
“We are The Aunts, that’s all you need to know,” the Seventh Aunt said, bouncing her boxing gloves together and off each other, for some reason, like she was getting warmed up to use them.
“Well whoever the hell you are, congratulations. Congratulations on getting to celebrate this little hot mess.”
“That is no way to talk about a baby,” the Fourth Aunt scolded.
“Yeah, because that’s who I’m talking about,” Aunt Mildred said.
“Why did you come?” I asked her. There was a smudge of something on a wall behind the crib, something I must have neglected to clean off, something that escaped my attention. The smudge moved, scampering quickly to a crack in the ceiling.
“I guess I heard the news. Didn’t I?” Aunt Mildred said.
“Ding, ding, sweetheart. She’s a delight. Wanted me to check on you.”
“Don’t tell her where I am,” I said, “Please.”
“Well,” the First Aunt said, “We just need to finish up with the final blessing and then we can be on our way and let you catch up with your loved one.”
“That’s right. That’s right,” the Sixth Aunt agreed. She patted the Seventh Aunt on the shoulder, “Go ahead dear.”
Aunt Mildred said, “Your daughter doesn’t deserve to grow up like this.”
“There’s love here,” I shouted.
“Your daughter doesn’t deserve to grow up like this,” Aunt Mildred repeated.
I stared at my ragged ass, stupid, stupid fingers. “What about me?” I muttered to those asshole hands of mine, “Did I deserve to grow up like that?”
Aunt Mildred’s orange lips tightened. “I did what I could at the time.”
“Trips to the zoo? Pizza parlor dinners?” I cried, “You took me out, but you always brought me back.”
“With books,” she said like it was a defense. “Clearly they gave you hope. Clearly they still give you hope.”
The Seventh Aunt approached Aunt Mildred, “You want me to punch her lights out?”
“No.” I said. I sank to the ground. The carpet smelled like actual shit.
Rex crawled over the arm of the couch and ducked and dodged Aunt Mildred’s graspy fingers, running back out the door and down the stairs, thumping, thumping, thumping.
“He’ll be back soon enough,” Aunt Mildred said.
“Maybe you’ve avoided it,” she said. “But one day your daughter is going to find that damned needle, just like her father, just like your father, and when she pricks herself, she’s not going to be gone for a 100 years until someone saves her. She’ll be gone forever. Forever. There will be no saving. No miracles kisses. That’s not how it works. Just fucking memories and funeral lilies. Who cares if she knows how to sing and dance?”
The Seventh Aunt crouched down beside me, put a boxing glove on my shoulder. “Hey,” she said, “Look in my pocket.”
“You’re not a real fairy godmother,” I answered, “You get paid by the hour.”
She said, “So what? We need to eat like everyone. Doesn’t mean we don’t have magic. ”
She pushed her hip out to me and there was something paper sticking out of her pocket. I slipped it out and stared at the photo, the Polaroid of me as a little girl that I hadn’t seen in years. Maybe Strength found it in my closet, maybe she found it in some hidden time capsule. In the photo, I am snarling with a smile tucked under my irises, too young for the teeth I am missing. I am holding a huge water gun, pointing it at the photographer. It was empty, Dad thought it was funny. I was trying to protect him. Thought he was dead when I came down the stairs, the way he was laid out on the floor. I was so confused after he took that picture, I cried, and my mom yanked the water gun out of my grip and gave me something to cry about, and the bruises left over had me crying for days, had me learning how not to cry, how to absorb pain, hold it, not show it, never show it to the person who caused it.
“I look…plucky,” I said and handed the picture back to the Seventh Aunt, “but you don’t know that photo like I do.”
“You are still alive,” she said. “Your mom, your dad, they were doing the best they could.”
“Their best was pretty shitty.”
“Yes, it was pretty shitty,” the Seventh Aunt said, “but…”
“The family curse,” Aunt Mildred said, as she began scooping things out of her handbag and then dropping the same things back in. She handed me a check and a handful of strawberry hard candies.
“Needles and fairy tales,” I muttered. Prince Charming, you wait for him to save you and he’s a trash can, and his kingdom is a landfill, and he puts you to the same damn work you were at before, and one day you wake up as your own stepmother, and one day you wake up, and you’ve been asleep for your whole life, and you are covered in bruises and ashes and pumpkins, globby seeds threaded in your hair, rotting, and fairy godmothers surround you with your one beautiful uncomfortable shoe held so tightly around your foot. As they chitter, chatter, trill and coo, you feel breeze refreshing your leaves, you feel grass growing beneath you.
Petal began to cry. My nipples started purging milk, the wet spot on my top spread fast, like from a wound in my heart. The Aunts parted as I approached the crib and lifted Petal into my arms. Petal was not a glass shoe. Her skin was warm, soft, pink, and her own. She snuffled for my breast, brought her mouth to me, feeding herself. Petal was not a wishing well. She was not a golden key or a poisoned apple. She was not a talking frog. Not a secret name. I held her in a one-arm cradle, my other hand grasping a thin white spindle. Not a blessing. Not a curse. Not a promise. Not a threat. Not even a miracle. Just a daughter. Just like me.
CAROLJEAN GAVIN’s work has appeared in places such as Bending Genres, Barrelhouse, Flash Flood, The Ampersand Review and is forthcoming from The Conium Review. Currently she is raising two rambunctious boys, a novel and a story collection.
Image via Pixabay