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About The Book

An NPR Best Book of 2015

Love and sacrifice intertwine in this brilliant debut of rare beauty about a girl dealing with her mother’s schizophrenia and her own mental illness.

Fig’s world lies somewhere between reality and fantasy.

But as she watches Mama slowly come undone, it becomes hard to tell what is real and what is not, what is fun and what is frightening. To save Mama, Fig begins a fierce battle to bring her back. She knows that her daily sacrifices, like not touching metal one day or avoiding water the next, are the only way to cure Mama.

The problem is that in the process of a daily sacrifice, Fig begins to lose herself as well, increasingly isolating herself from her classmates and engaging in self-destructive behavior that only further sets her apart.

Spanning the course of Fig’s childhood from age six to nineteen, this deeply provocative novel is more than a portrait of a mother, a daughter, and the struggle that comes with all-consuming love. It is an acutely honest and often painful portrayal of life with mental illness and the lengths to which a young woman must go to handle the ordeals—real or imaginary—thrown her way.


1. “Clock” is derived from the word “bell.” Wearing bells can protect a person from fairies—and from falling into a fairyland where time does not operate as it should.

June 11, 1982

Because I’m only six, I’m not allowed to go into the woods alone—nowhere near the farmer’s ditch, and most especially nowhere near the Silver River. Daddy worries I will drown, and Mama worries about everything.

I’m getting better at sneaking out. I crawl my way from the house to the orchard, and then I run from tree to tree, hiding behind each one until my arms become the branches. And I can be a rabbit too—I can be the runaway bunny. The Johnsongrass is tall in the space between the orchard and the ditch and hides me the rest of the way. Once I’m by the water, the tall cottonwoods and thick raspberry form walls to separate the worlds, and I can’t be seen from the house or the yard.

Mama is helping Daddy pack. I had tried to help but she got mad.

“Fig,” she said. “Leave us alone!”

Then Daddy smiled at me and ruffled my hair with his big fingers. He looked at me with eyes that said, Sorry.

“Go and play,” he said, and his voice was soft, and the soft melted Mama. The angry red drained from her face and she was almost normal again. Mama is always pretty, but without the red I could see the soft splatter of pale freckles around her nose. Daddy touched her arm and said her name in a quiet way. He said, “Annie,” like he was reminding her of something she’d forgotten, and then she turned and smiled at me too. And with her voice, she said, “Sorry.”

“I didn’t mean to snap,” she said. “I just need to talk to your father.”

“Alone,” she said.

Then she kissed me on my forehead—the special place between my eyes. The place Mama calls my third eye. “Everyone has them,” she always says, “but not everyone knows how to use them. The third eye is a magic eye because it can see all the other worlds.”

Mama is referring to fairyland.

She isn’t talking about the world outside Kansas or even just beyond Douglas County, where we live on a farm. The closest town is Eudora, and Eudora, Kansas, is what it says on all our mail, and Eudora is where I go to school and will continue to go until I graduate from high school.

Eudora has a feed and seed, a hardware store, a pharmacy, a post office, a newspaper, a diner, a one-room library, a morgue, and a handful of churches scattered here and there, including the Sacred Heart of Mary, where my grandmother goes even though she lives in Lawrence now. Sacred Heart is more than a church; it’s a private school as well. It covers all fourteen grades in one building, while the public school system has Douglas Elementary, Keller Junior, and Carter High. There is talk about closing down the high school and busing all the teenagers to another high school in another town in another county, but it hasn’t happened yet.

Mama doesn’t care for the Eudora Library. “All they stock is romance novels and car manuals,” she says, and takes me to the public library in Lawrence instead. And sometimes we go to Topeka, but mostly we don’t go anywhere. I stay within a triangle of highways and interstate. I stay inside the square acreage of the farm. I stay at home.

I visit the farmer’s ditch when Mama takes her bath or does her yoga. This is where I bring all the meat I won’t eat. This is my secret. I don’t like the idea of eating something dead.

Stepping onto the bridge, I become a tightrope walker.

The farmer’s ditch runs away from the Silver River, where my uncle likes to fish. And the Silver River marks the end of our land to the south. Everything on the other side of the river belongs to the McAlisters. While I dare the dangers of the ditch, I would never go to Silver by myself, and I am always careful about getting back to the house before the sun goes down—before anyone knows I am missing.

With arms outstretched like a tightrope walker, I walk across the board, but I only go far enough to toss the meat onto the other side before turning around. Returning to my side, I crouch behind the old log and wait for the dog to come and eat the scraps.

Mama hates dogs. “It’s a phobia,” she has said many times. Then she showed me the word in the dictionary, and I learned that ph makes the same sound as an f.

Mama was bit by her uncle’s dog when she was little. The dog was named Sticker, and he bit her on Easter. Everyone was sitting at the table getting ready to eat, but first they had to close their eyes and pray. “I never did like to pray,” Mama said, and this is when she slid out of her seat to sit under the table, where Sticker was curled into a ball of sleeping fur and hidden teeth.

My uncle Billy says, “Always let a sleeping dog lay.” But Mama did not let Sticker lie. She scratched behind his ears, and Sticker whirled around and bit her on the face. “When I opened my eyes,” she said, “I could see his throat.” She was taken to the emergency room and stitched back together. This scar hides behind her eyebrow and is nothing compared with her other scar—the one that came later.

When the dog comes, I think about petting her, but I don’t.

I stay behind the log, watching her watch me. We both practice being still. This makes her feel safe enough to come and sniff the pork chops or the drumsticks or whatever meat I’ve brought to her. Today, I brought a link of sausage. She never stops watching me, one eye dark and the other a cloudy blue. Because she watches me like this, I feel like I’m the one she’s actually eating. And this is not the first time I’ve ever felt like a piece of meat. She never barks or howls or growls. She sniffs the air, and sometimes the sniffing makes her lips curl back into a smile that isn’t really a smile. Her gums are a wet blue-black, and there are spots on her tongue.

I think she has a family, because she carries the bones away. At first, she is slow—she moves like she is only stretching—but then she runs. Once she is running, her feet don’t even touch the ground. During the day, I try to run like this. I try to run away, but my knees get in the way because they don’t bend right. And sometimes I catch Mama watching me. Her worry comes pouring out of her body like something spilling. It drips off her clothes, and her worry is the color of shadows, and it moves like water. From the porch, it seeps into the steps—pouring out into the grass where I am trying to run like a dog. Her worry comes for me.

*  *  *  *

June 21, 1982

After a long day of working in the flower garden, Mama and I decide to have a picnic dinner instead of eating inside the house. The fireflies are coming out. Blinking yellow lights, on and off, here and there, they change everything about the orchard. And Mama and I go to another world—one like Wonderland, or Oz. We go to Never, Never Land.

When I asked if we could go to fairyland, Mama tried to scare me away. “Figaroo,” she said. “You don’t really want to go.”

And then she said, “It can be very hard to come back from fairyland,” and that was when she looked away and her face got all sad.

“Sometimes it’s even impossible,” she said.

Mama says if I do end up in fairyland, not to eat or drink anything while I’m there. “Those are the rules—otherwise, you can get stuck,” she says. “It’s like a spell.”

When Mama talks about fairyland, she uses the word “lure.”

Fairyland is a lure. I want to fly and make friends. Most of all, I want to be able to change the size of my body from big to small whenever I want.

I lie back on the picnic blanket, looking at the tangled branches above. In the changing light, I see the little green apples—still too hard and sour to eat. The black branches crisscross the sky. The sun is setting, and that side of the sky looks like melted orange and strawberry sorbet. On the other side, the moon is rising. And in the middle, the sky turns into violet—the color of my new favorite crayon. The darkness brings a chill, and the Kansas humidity turns into a cold damp. Mama wraps herself in a shawl to keep away the chill.

Mama packed a picnic dinner: cubes of cheese bought from the Fergesons’ dairy farm across the highway, and Stoned Wheat Thins, green grapes, new cherries, and little cucumber sandwiches cut into hearts using Gran’s old cookie cutters. My belly is full like a pregnant woman. We’re on an old quilt spread beneath the trees. Mama is wearing a white dress with crocheted edges—the one she calls a garden dress. “It’s vintage,” Mama says. “It is almost a hundred years old.”

Mama collects old clothes, and this is what she wears when she isn’t wearing paint-splattered blue jeans with peasant blouses or worn-out T-shirts.

She is beautiful in the delicate lacy gown, and I wish I was dressed up too, but Mama says, “You are already perfect, my dearest Fig.”

She helps arrange all my stuffed animals so we are sitting in a circle while she reads out loud. When she’s done with the Peter Rabbit books, we imagine the lives of all the rabbits on the farm—what their names are, who is related to who, what they do for a living, and where they live.

Daddy is away with Uncle Billy.

I think it’s an emergency, but no one wants to talk to me about it because I’m only six years old. It doesn’t matter that I was born from an emergency, or that I’ve been reading since I was four. It doesn’t matter that I can read better than my entire class, and it doesn’t matter that I know how to use a dictionary and an encyclopedia.

Looking things up is one of Mama’s favorite things to do, and it is one of my favorite things to do with her. Mama keeps the encyclopedia in the living room. It belonged to her father once upon a time, but he gave it to her when she went to college.

“Not only do I want you to have knowledge at your fingertips,” he said to her, “I want you to have a piece of home to forever keep.”

Mama says she’s lucky to have this encyclopedia. “Just like I’m lucky to have the few family photos I took with me to college,” she will say, “and some of my mother’s dresses, and the teddy bear that’s now yours.” But really she isn’t lucky at all. She’s only lucky to have these few things because everything else was lost in the fire that also took her parents away.

The encyclopedia has a black cloth cover with gold lettering. The cover looks dusty, but whenever I try to wipe it clean, I find there isn’t any dust. Mama says it looks this way because it faded from the sun, but it must have faded from another sun, in another living room, because our living room is always dark—even when all the lamps are turned on.

I used to use the encyclopedia as a booster seat, and before that I used the same wooden high chair that Daddy and Uncle Billy used before they grew into boys who grew into men.

The encyclopedia is always open now, trying to catch new information.

It sits on a wooden stand, which makes it easier for a person to use because the encyclopedia really is that gigantic. It has to be. Daddy says most encyclopedias come in sets—sometimes an entire book for just one letter of the alphabet—but this one holds everything from A to Z. And this reminds me of Sacred Heart and how it covers everything from preschool to high school.

The dictionary is not as big or fancy. Mama keeps it on a shelf in the cabinet with the glass door. It has a wonky brown cover that is starting to fall off, and Mama showed me how it has a spine. “Books are bodies too,” she said. “And the pages are the wings that make them fly.”

Mama has another dictionary—a little paperback she carries in her pocket. She checks off all the words she looks up. She uses a pencil. Check. This is the dictionary I use to look up “lure.”

lure: something that tempts or attracts with the promise of pleasure or reward.

The sky is now a darker violet, and the crickets are beginning to sing. Mama and I have been quiet for a long time. Once, I interrupted a quiet that was like this by saying, “It’s too quiet,” and Mama said there was no such thing. She said love is the ability to be comfortable with others in silence. She made it seem like I didn’t love her, and that made me want to cry.

“Did you hear that?” Mama says, and I’m glad she’s the one to interrupt the silence. She was sitting, but now she’s standing—and that makes me dizzy. She’s leaning toward the woods where the wild trees grow along the ditch. She cups her ear with her hand. I listen too, but I don’t hear anything. Mama stands there, her face twisted with worry, and I know she’s hearing something—something I can’t hear.

I listen hard.

I listen until I can’t help but hear all the rustlings in the parts of the world gone black. The deep whispers below the cricket song. And then I hear the sound of something coming. All the tiny apples in the trees above turn into human eyes. They look around. At the woods, and then they look at me. They look sideways and they keep blinking.

My stuffed animals huddle close together. They wrap their fuzzy arms around one another and don’t reach for me. I pull myself up and go to Mama, but she only puts one arm around me even though I need both arms to feel safe.

She’s using her other hand to listen, and her eyes dart back and forth like the eyes in the trees. I nose my way into Mama’s shawl, trying to hide inside her, but she is too thin and there is no room for me. She tightens her grip on my shoulder, and I try to hide from how much this hurts.

“Run!” Mama screams. “Now, Fig ! Run!”

And she takes my hand, and we are running. There is no time to grab my stuffed animals or even shout for them to run as well. Mama’s bigger, and she can go much faster.

I make us trip and fall.

Mama has to stop again and again to pull me up. And then we’re running again. And now we’re coming into the front yard—through the cottonwoods and the long shadows of the cottonwoods—into the yard, where the grass is short and less wild because it is cut grass, but Mama doesn’t stop. She lets go and I fall, and now she’s on the porch, still screaming for me to run.

“Now, Fig, now!”

I am crying. I cry the way I cry when I cannot stop.

Why won’t Mama come and get me? Where is Daddy? I want him to come home—to swoop down and pick me up with big strong arms and carry me inside, where the walls will make it safe again. But Daddy isn’t here and Mama won’t stop screaming. She keeps pointing at the shapes behind me where dark and light draw a line of safe and not safe. She screams and points at the world on the other side of the tall trees. At the shapes that stop moving whenever I turn to look.

*  *  *  *

“Are you any warmer?” the policeman asks. The one who wrapped me in a blanket.

The policeman sits in Daddy’s armchair but doesn’t lean back the way Daddy does. And he doesn’t put his feet on the coffee table.

I’m sitting on the sofa, and Marmalade is next to me. She is next to me only because she was already there whenever it was that I sat down—I know this even if I don’t remember sitting, or how I got inside. The cat is curled into herself, and every once in a while she twitches her tail. This is how Marmalade reminds me not to touch her. The cat doesn’t like anyone but Mama.

The policeman sits on the edge of the chair like he’s ready to pull his gun at any sign of danger. I try not to stare at the gun. It scares me. The policeman is younger than Daddy. His uniform is brown, and he keeps his hat in his lap. It’s the same kind of hat worn by the bad man in Curious George, only brown instead of yellow. I hate the bad man with the yellow hat because he is always capturing George. Mama taught me how “capture” and “catch” have the same meaning. The bad man with the yellow hat captures George and takes him away from the jungle.

He takes George away from a world where he belongs.

I want to ask if the policeman saw my stuffed animals in the orchard, but I don’t. We both pretend we aren’t trying to listen to the conversation in the kitchen, where the other policeman is talking to Mama. They’ve been in there a long time. I can’t tell what they are saying. They talk in hushed grown-up voices—interrupted only by the ticking of the grandfather clock.

“Don’t be scared,” my policeman says. Then he tries asking again. “Exactly what did you see?” he says, but I shrug. I have no idea what I saw. I’m not good at talking, especially not to strangers. Strangers and talking make my throat feel weird. I sit very still, and I don’t say anything.

It sounds like Mama is crying, and this makes my policeman stand. He puts his hat on the coffee table before walking toward the kitchen without actually going in there. He checks on them from a distance, but he keeps looking back at me like he’s worried I’ll disappear if he doesn’t keep looking. He turns, about to head back to Daddy’s chair, when something in the dining room catches his eye. And now he’s poking around in there instead. He circles the table where Mama works on her art—the same table where Daddy ate all his childhood meals. Except for Thanksgiving or Christmas, we never eat in the dining room. We always eat in the kitchen, even when we have company, which we almost never do.

There is a pile of broken china dolls on the table and a large coil of rusted barbed wire. The power drill is charging. The tiny red light blinks on and off in the semidarkness. There’s a spool of copper wire and a wooden box full of pliers, wire cutters, hammers, and tin snips.

Mama has been making mobiles to hang around the farm, only she calls them dream catchers. She hangs them in the barn and from the trees—wherever she thinks they’ll look pretty. They remind me of cobwebs. Caught inside the webs of copper wire are quartz crystals. They dangle amid the arms, legs, and faces of the broken dolls.

My policeman looks at the encyclopedia. It is still open from me looking up Newfoundland dogs, which is the kind of dog the Darlings had in Peter Pan. The nanny dog. The policeman picks up the magnifying glass—the one I left out. I broke the rule, and rules are important. I forgot to put the magnifying glass away. It is always supposed to go back inside the special black velvet bag to keep it from breaking into a million pieces or starting fires. Mama’s parents died in a fire. This is just one reason my birth was bittersweet. Mama never got to show me off to her mother and father.

I want to take the magnifying glass away from him, but I don’t. That would be rude. Instead, I hold my breath and cross my fingers to keep the magnifying glass safe. He brings the glass to his eye and then pulls it away. He does this again—back and forth—and as he does he never stops looking through the glass. And I have to keep holding my breath and crossing my fingers because he won’t put it down. He brings the magnifying glass to his face and looks at me. The eye behind the glass is big and bulging and no longer matches his other eye.

I hold my breath in a way where he can’t know. And my fingers are crossed inside the cave of the blanket he wrapped around my body. He looks at me through the magnifying glass, and I know he is only trying to be funny. I should laugh. I think about what it would be like to laugh right now. To be the little girl little girls are supposed to be. But he gives up just as I’m about to try.

Holding my breath and crossing my fingers works: He puts the magnifying glass on the encyclopedia, walks into the living room, and sits back down in my father’s armchair. He doesn’t pick up his hat. He leaves it on the coffee table between the two piles of Mama’s art books. He leaves his hat on top of my three new library books.

His hat hides The Headless Cupid—the book Mama let me check out even though she said I was too young for it. “The book is supposed to be a little scary,” Mama warned, but I promised not to be afraid. Mama looked at me and bit her lip. Then she said, “Okay, Fig, but only if we read it together.” And this is what we were supposed to do tonight before I went to bed. We should be upstairs in my bedroom reading The Headless Cupid right now instead of talking to the police.

*  *  *  *

I see the look Mama’s policeman gives my policeman when he walks into the living room. Mama follows him—wringing her hands and biting her lip. She walks slow and looks confused. My policeman gets up, but then he stands the way I do when I’m waiting for a grown-up to tell me what to do. He starts for the door only after the other policeman does.

Before they leave, Mama’s policeman stops and turns around. He pulls something from his shirt pocket and hands it to Mama. He calls her Mrs. Johnson, and I hold my breath and cross my fingers because Mama hates to be called Mrs. Anything. “My name is Annie” is what she usually says, but tonight she doesn’t say anything at all. She just takes the piece of paper and looks at it.

She doesn’t seem to understand.

“If anything else happens,” Mama’s policeman says, “call that number and they’ll dispatch us straightaway.”

My policeman puts his brown hat back on and winks at me, but he doesn’t wink as well as Uncle Billy. Then he starts to turn the doorknob but changes his mind. Letting go, he squeezes his hand into a fist, and then he stretches all his fingers out again. He is watching me. Mama’s policeman looks annoyed, like he just wants to go, but my policeman turns to Mama.

“Maybe there’s someone you could call?” he asks. “Someone you two could stay with until your husband gets back?”

Mama shakes her head. “We’ll be fine,” she says, but her voice doesn’t sound like Mama. It’s too high. She apologizes for making them come all the way out here, and I’m relieved because she isn’t going to call Gran, who is the only person we have to call. And I do not want to stay with her. I never have and I never will, but just in case, and because it’s already worked twice in one night, I hold my breath and cross my fingers.

The policemen close the door behind them, and Mama wanders back into the kitchen. Marmalade stands, stretching. Then she jumps off the sofa and follows Mama.

I start to follow Mama too, but then I remember the magnifying glass and the important rule about putting it away. I head toward the dining room, and that’s when I hear Mama’s policeman laughing. Through the window in the door, I can see them on the porch. They are wavy through the old glass. They’re getting ready to go down the steps, but Mama’s policeman laughs so hard, he has to stop and grab the railing. His laughter seems to make my policeman nervous; my policeman turns to check the house, then he looks through the same window I am looking through, but I am quick—I duck behind the wall, and he doesn’t see me.

Mama’s policeman stops laughing long enough to call Mama crazy. “She said there were goddamn dingoes out there.”

And I think of the program Mama watched last night. The one about the missing baby girl.

“On the eve of what would have been Azaria Chamberlain’s second birthday,” the newsman said, “we bring you the latest in the murder trial of the century.”

First they showed a picture of the tiny baby in her mother’s arms. Even though she was dressed in white, they made a big deal about a black and red baby dress.

“Not suitable,” they said. “Not for a child.” There was no baby in the dress they were discussing.

“The Chamberlains are Seventh-day Adventist,” the man went on, “And according to an anonymous tip, the name ‘Azaria’ means ‘sacrifice in the wilderness.’ ”

When they showed the baby’s mother, Mama sucked in her breath and bit her lip. The other mother had a funny accent. Again and again, they showed her saying, “A dingo took my baby.” But when I asked Mama what a dingo was, she looked at me like I had startled her, and then she said it was time for me to go to bed.

Their voices change, which means the police are walking away, so I unwrap myself from behind the wall and slide across the hardwood in my socks to crouch by the door. There is a slot in the door even though we have to get our mail from the box on the highway. I push the slot open to watch them walk toward their car, and now I can hear them better.

“Maybe it was coyotes,” my policeman says, but he doesn’t say “coyotes” the way Mama does. He makes the word rhyme with “boats” instead.

Mama’s policeman laughs again. “ ‘A dingo took my baby,’ ” he says, but then I can’t hear them anymore—just the sound of car doors slamming, the engine turning over, and a car driving away, tires crunching gravel. I listen until all I hear are crickets. I close my eyes and watch them rub their legs together until their black bodies turn into tiny violins.

I put the magnifying glass away, but before I go into the kitchen I flip back to d.

dingo: a free-roaming wild dog unique to the continent of Australia, mainly found in the outback.

There’s a picture of a mother dingo and her cubs. The mother’s eyes and mouth are closed, and there’s something about her face that makes her look like she is smiling. The same smile I’ve seen before; the one that is not a smile at all.

I think about the word “unique.” Both Daddy and Mama use this word a lot. They are forever telling tell me how important it is to be unique. Daddy said everyone in the world is unique, but Mama shook her head and told him she strongly disagreed. “Unique” means “one of a kind.” It means there are no dingoes in Kansas because there are no dingoes in America.

Mama sits in the kitchen at the table, and she still looks confused. The overhead light shines through her hair, turning the strawberry blond into white, and she’s taken off the robe. Now it’s draped over the back of the chair like a crumpled shadow. She’s looking at her hands, rubbing them together. She rubs them in a way where it looks like she’s trying to pull off her skin. It reminds me of when Uncle Billy skins a rabbit. After he makes all the different cuts, the way he pulls and pulls. And the fur slides off the body the way a sock comes off a foot.

I sit down at the table, across from my mother. I set The Headless Cupid on the table, hoping she’ll remember the promise she made to me. But Mama doesn’t look up. She doesn’t look at me and she doesn’t look at the book. She only looks at her hands, which she continues to rub away.

Marmalade brushes against Mama’s leg and meows the way she does when she wants to be fed. But it’s like Mama can’t hear or even feel the cat, so I go to the pantry and grab the bag of Meow Mix. I fill the cat’s bowl, spilling some, not that Mama notices. Marmalade makes awful noises like she is grinding bones with her sharp teeth. With my hands, I sweep up the spilled cat food, and then I make a point to change the old water out for fresh water, but Mama still doesn’t notice or say thank you like she normally would. She just sits there trying to rub herself away while the cat eats.

*  *  *  *

I sit at the table with Mama for a long time. Marmalade finished eating forever ago and left the kitchen for her spot in the living room.

I pick the book up and pretend to read, but I can’t concentrate. I flip ahead, hoping Mama will tell me not to. Mama still doesn’t look up. I begin to read chapter six because I am six years old, and almost right away there’s a word I don’t know: “initiation.” I try sounding it out because I think doing this will make Mama be a mother—it will make her want to help me, only she still doesn’t seem to hear me as I stutter through the vowels and trip over the t’s, and I’m forced to give up.

I close the book harder than I should and set it down with a thump. I am loud compared with the rest of the house, and I take a deep breath, trying to take the noisiness back into myself. Then I try counting to keep from holding my breath and crossing my fingers, which my body wants to do because that’s what it’s been doing all night. But I worry it won’t work anymore if I do it too much. Besides, I’m not sure what it is I’d be trying to stop, so instead I count all the sounds the grandfather clock likes to make. I separate the sounds into categories of high and low.

The moths fly around the kitchen light and burn themselves on the hot yellow bulb. Caught inside the glass cover, they die. If Daddy was here, he’d use the step stool to climb up and take the cover down. He’d dump the dead bugs in the trash and wash the cover like he’d wash a plate; he’d dry it with a dishcloth and screw the fixture back into the ceiling. The moth wings sizzle.

Mama finally stops rubbing her hands, and she looks at me. She looks right into my eyes, and I see how her eyelashes look like spun gold. She blinks her tears away and her whole face changes: My mother returns.

“Oh, Fig,” she says, “you must be so scared.”

She gets up and comes to me, covering my body with her body. She is a mother spider with a million arms to wrap around me. I can’t see anything because my face is buried in her belly, but I wonder if she can see the book—if she is remembering. Still holding me, Mama whispers in my ear, “It’s time for bed,” and when she pulls away I make sure her eyes follow mine, and now we are both looking at The Headless Cupid.

“Maybe tomorrow,” Mama says, and I feel bad because when I look at her again the tears are back. They are rolling down her cheeks. “Maybe tomorrow,” she says, and then she offers me her hands to pull me up, and I let her. We leave the book behind, and Mama forgets to turn off the kitchen light. On the stairs, she walks behind me like she’s afraid I might fall. But then she walks like this even after we’ve reached the top and we are walking down the hall to my bedroom.

Mama gets my nightgown from the top dresser drawer. “Put this on,” she says. “I’ll be back to tuck you in.” As I pull the nightgown over my head I hear Mama in the bathroom—the sound of the medicine cabinet being opened and then the clatter of bottles being moved around. She is looking for something she can’t seem to find.

With my nightgown on and my short hair full of static, I go to the bathroom. Mama looks at me in a way that makes me feel like she doesn’t want me here. That she doesn’t want me to see what she is doing.

“I need to brush my teeth,” I say.

Mama smiles. “Of course you do,” she says, but doesn’t move out of the way. I have to stand in the doorway while she continues to look through the cabinet.

After she pulls everything out, she finds what she’s been looking for—a small brown plastic bottle that looks like all the other small brown plastic bottles that are kept in the cabinet. She puts everything back but this one—this one she holds on to. With her fingers wrapped around the bottle, she steps back to make room for me to brush my teeth, and when she steps back the bottle rattles.

Mama stands in the doorway, watching me. Her face above my face in the mirror. We look alike and we don’t look alike.

There is no red in my blond and I have no freckles. I am the same kind of thin as Mama, only my face is round while her features are more severe. Mama has hazel eyes, streaked with green and gold. My eyes are brown and boring. Mama is beautiful and I am something else. But Mama doesn’t make me feel ugly the way Gran does; Mama makes me feel like I’m the prettiest girl in the entire world.

When Mama goes into her room, I listen to all the familiar sounds. The way the rag rug muffles her steps, and the sliding of a dresser drawer as it opens and closes. I hear the soundlessness of Mama as she pauses to look in the mirror—the one from Daddy with the two brass birds cast to look like they are ready to fly away. When Mama comes back, her hair is down and she’s wearing a long white nightgown like the one I am wearing. Soft cotton and eyelet flowers. She leads me to my room, and when I get into bed she sits down next to me.

“Do you think you can sleep?” she asks.

I don’t want to be brave anymore. I hear something in the yard, and I’m worried about my stuffed animals. I don’t want them to be cold or to get hurt. I worry about rain.

Mama brings the quilt to my chin and tells me to breathe. I breathe the special way she taught me—where I fill my belly with air and make it as round as a balloon. While I breathe, Mama starts to build the protective dome she builds around my bed whenever I am scared. She stands to shape the air with her hands. They move like she is working with clay.

“I make it from love,” she says. “And nothing bad can get through.”

Mama calls the construction of the dome a ritual. “Rituals are important,” Mama says, and I realize this is what I’ve been doing. Holding my breath and crossing my fingers is a kind of ritual to make something stop or not happen. When Mama’s done building the invisible dome, she rubs her hands together. She’s thorough, and I can almost see it—the way light hits glass and makes it not so see-through anymore. I see the scratch marks on the other side where something tried to claw its way in but couldn’t get through.

*  *  *  *

Mama is still asleep when I wake up. With the sun in the sky, the world is safe and warm again. I look at the orchard from my window. I can see the quilt, and some of my stuffed animals—the trees, and the slope of the land, hide the others.

I get dressed and go to the orchard to gather everything and take it back home with me. I walk the path that last night had to be run. What I am doing is called tracking. Uncle Billy taught me.

I track Mama. And I track myself.

The birds are singing and the sky is blue. The southern pasture is sun kissed with dandelions and buttercups, and the bright sprinkle of yellow makes me smile. A group of rabbits scatter when I come upon the remains of the picnic, but everything else is as it was.

My stuffed animals sit in their circle, and my teddy bear is still leaning against the picnic basket, the cloth napkin in his lap damp from the morning dew.

I breathe in, and the air makes me stand up straight and tall. I hold the air inside my body and I cross my fingers until I’m no longer scared, and then I head toward the woods and the farmer’s ditch. I don’t try to hide what I am doing. Today is one of those days when Mama will sleep in late.

This is where the animals come to drink. Wild and not wild. And this is where I feed the dog, but she is nowhere to be seen.

Instead, I find an owl pellet—matted and gray. Using my fingernails as tweezers, I pick out the tiny white jawbone of a field mouse. The sun shines through the trees, turning parts of the water into gold. Where the light doesn’t reach, the water stays dark: black like the reverse side of a mirror.

*  *  *  *

It takes three trips to carry everything back to the house, and when I’m done I fall asleep on the couch. When I wake up later, I peer into Mama’s room. She’s sleeping on her side, facing the other way. She still hasn’t moved, and Marmalade is curled up by her feet. The sun shines through the curtains and turns Mama’s skin into lace.

My stomach growls and I realize I’m hungry, but I don’t want to bother Mama. In the kitchen, while I’m waiting for my toast to toast, I try reading The Headless Cupid. The book opens to chapter six again, and I find that “initiation” isn’t the only word I don’t know. But at least I can pronounce the other ones—words like “occult” and “ordeal.” I’m more than happy to abandon the book when it’s time to spread my toast with butter and homemade strawberry-rhubarb jam. I wonder if there’s a difference between “cult” and “occult.” The word “cult” had something to do with the picture of baby Azaria’s black and red dress. The picture of the dress without a baby actually wearing it.

The apple juice hasn’t been opened, and my fingers fumble to break the seal on the plastic jug. It’s hard to pour because it’s so full. I put my glass on the floor to try—something Uncle Billy taught me to do—but instead of coming slowly, the juice rushes out, spilling everywhere. It spills across the black and white tiles, square after square like a game of checkers. And this is when Daddy comes home. He is alone. I don’t know where my uncle is.

“Have an accident?” my father asks, smiling.

Daddy puts his backpack down and gets on his hands and knees to help me clean. When we’re done, we stay on the floor. The floor glistens, and the house takes a deep sigh. Daddy calls this settling. He tosses the used rags into the sink and wipes his fingers dry on his blue jeans. He kisses me on the very tip top of my head: According to Mama, this is my crown chakra.

“So where is my beautiful wife?” Daddy asks, and when I tell him she’s still asleep I see the way his face changes. How he checks the clock on the stove.

I might read better than any kid my age, but I can’t tell time.

Daddy is heading up the stairs fast, and I hold my breath and cross my fingers to make the bad feeling go away, but it doesn’t go away, so I quietly follow my father. I stand in the hallway. And Daddy is saying Mama’s name. He says it softly like he does when he’s saying my name to wake me up for school. Each time, a whisper.

“Annie. I’m home.”

But he’s too quiet, and she isn’t waking up. And so he says her name a little louder: “Annie,” he says. Louder and louder, he says her name. Again and again. He says “Annie?” like it’s a question, and then it’s not a question anymore, and he is shouting, and her name is no longer a name.

I come to stand in the doorway, where I can see what I don’t want to see. Daddy sits on the edge of the bed, and Mama is still on her side like before, but she is no longer made from lace. She is made from shadows now. When Daddy tries rolling Mama over, Marmalade hisses at him, and her teeth are sharp and blue-white. Daddy moves Mama, and Mama’s arm rolls off her hip, falling in a twisted way. Daddy rolls Mama onto her back, and her body buries her arm, where it gets folded even more wrong than before.

Screaming is different from shouting.

I’ve never heard my father scream before. He sounds like a little girl. As he screams, my body fills with silence. And I am choking on the quiet lodged inside my throat.

Daddy is shaking Mama. Her face jiggles from side to side, and I wish he’d stop. I am worried he will hurt her. Mama is Sleeping Beauty.

Daddy grabs the phone from the bed stand and holds it between his face and his shoulder. He does this so he can still hold Mama with his other arm. One spin on the rotary, and I remember this sound from somewhere as I listen to the ringing. A woman’s voice comes on the line; she is loud. “Operator. How may I help you?”

Daddy is looking at me now, and because he is, it feels like I’m the one he’s talking to. There is spit on his lips, and his jaw is clenched. He asks to be connected to emergency services.

“Right away,” he says. “I need an ambulance.”

*  *  *  *

At the hospital in Lawrence, I’m not allowed to move.

“Don’t go anywhere,” Daddy says.

There’s a television fixed to the corner of the ceiling. I sit on a love seat, watching the soap opera, only there is no volume. A woman sits before a mirror, talking to herself as she brushes her long red hair. Then it’s a different room, and a different woman. This woman has long black hair and has fallen asleep on a couch. A tall man is watching her. I stare until the characters turn into fuzzy little dots, and when I close my eyes my brain is filled with the same black-and-white static.

*  *  *  *

Daddy kisses me on the forehead, and his breath smells like coffee. He paces back and forth from the waiting room to the hallway with the big double doors at the end.

The doors that swallowed Mama.

On the coffee table is a stack of magazines and a blue vase full of fake flowers. Mama hates fake flowers. “They’re unnatural,” she says. “Because they don’t die.”

Under the television in the waiting room is a painting of a snow-covered meadow with a small house and dark woods in the background. Looking at the white snow makes me feel cold. Daddy comes back and he, too, is shivering.

“Come on,” he says. “Follow me.”

I stand and I begin to walk. But I’m not the one making my body do what it is doing. I follow my father. I follow him all the way into the painting—into the snow-covered pasture behind our house. The snow is deep—deeper than any snow I have ever seen. Walk behind me, Daddy says. Use my footprints as places to step.

I step into the holes he leaves behind, but sometimes I miss.

His legs are longer than mine, and I can’t always make it from one footprint to the next. I step on the snow by mistake and it holds me. It is strong and I am small. But when I try to walk on the snow, it collapses and I’m swallowed by the cold white.

Inside the hole, Mama is Snow White, and the seven dwarves have come to get her. They carry her down the stairs, through the living room, and out to the driveway. They slide her glass coffin into the back of the ambulance. “Sir,” one of the dwarves says as he takes a pen from the breast pocket of his white jacket, getting ready to write, “do you think your wife had reason to attempt suicide?”

Daddy looks at me. He says no but nods yes. And then he hands over the little brown bottle from the night before, only there is no rattle.

This bottle is quiet.

About The Author

Sarah Elizabeth Schantz grew up in a bookstore named The Rue Morgue—one of the first mystery bookstores in the US. She is an accomplished short-storyist, with many awards under her belt. Schantz holds an MFA in Writing & Poetics from Naropa University. She currently lives with her family in an old farmhouse on the outskirts of Boulder, Colorado, where they are surrounded by open sky, century-old cottonwoods, coyote, and screech owls. Fig is her first novel.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books (March 29, 2016)
  • Length: 352 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781481423595
  • Grades: 9 and up
  • Ages: 14 - 99
  • Lexile ® 890L The Lexile reading levels have been certified by the Lexile developer, MetaMetrics®

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Raves and Reviews

** STARRED REVIEW ** "In a novel rich with metaphors, newcomer Schantz explores the tender, heartwrenching relationship between a schizophrenic mother and her highly gifted daughter. The beautiful and remote rural setting underscores Fig’s isolation among classmates who view her family as strange and her joy during fleeting moments when her mother appears to be cured. Readers will get a strong sense of the powerful bond of love between parents and child as Fig’s family strives to navigate the quagmire of mental illness."

– Publishers Weekly, *STARRED REVIEW*, March 2, 2015

"Readers who appreciate melancholic, lyrical narratives will likely be moved by Fig’s heartbreaking tale."

– Booklist, April 1, 2015

"Schantz gives readers insight into mental illness and how it affects the people around those who suffer from it. As Fig grows from six years old to an adult, she deals with her mother’s illness in both healthy and unhealthy ways. Readers soon realize that Fig is dealing with her own mental illness. Schantz’s portrayal of this complicated relationship and fight, both within the character of Fig and with her mother, is touching and unsettling at the same time. It is beautifully painful to experience."

– VOYA, April 2015

“Somehow both lyrical and searing, Fig portrays all the fear and confusion and loneliness of living with an unstable parent. And yet, this book offers a redemption that is as honest as it is believable. A remarkable debut.”

– Patricia McCormick, Two-time National Book Award Finalist for Sold and Never Fall Down

"A thought-provoking debut that gives voice to children coping with the hardships of being raised in families afflicted by mental illness. By merging reality and fantasy, Fig delivers an authentic portrayal of sacrifice, strength, and, ultimately, love. This is a story that needed to be told."

– Kristen-Paige Madonia, author of Fingerprints of You

"Sarah Elizabeth Schantz's words are so beautiful they hurt. This is an astonishing debut novel—and one not only for young adults, but for all adults. At the heart —and very much the soul—of the book’s powerful narrative is Fig, her voice as authentic at six as it is at eleven. I felt a sense of loss at the end and wanted to keep on reading and reading...Fig is destined to become a classic. Truly the most memorable book I have read in years."

– Agatha Award-winning author, Katherine Hall Page

“In Fig, Sarah Elizabeth Schantz has written a spectacular debut of rare beauty and courage. This fascinating journey into a young child's mind is both haunting and electrifying. Fig is one of the best books I’ve read in years, and Fig’s unique voice will stay with me forever.”

– Lauren Sabel, author of Vivian Divine Is Dead

"This beautifully written story is a painful look at mental illness. An element of fantasy weaves throughout the narrative, with Annie’s tenuous grip on reality and Fig’s magical thinking, and references to fairy tales, The Wizard of Oz, and Alice in Wonderland abound.... an incredibly haunting story about mental illness and family bonds."

– School Library Journal

“Schantz's exquisite prose brims with nature, blood, literary references and intense emotional silence….Achingly gorgeous.”

– Kirkus Reviews

"It’s a rare debut from an author that bares the soul not only of the characters,but of the reader as well."

– Jeff Pfaller,

Awards and Honors

  • Bank Street Best Children's Book of the Year Selection Title
  • Colorado Book Award

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