Even after I have reached the pinnacle of my growth, I still find safety in my yellow room, a museum holding the souvenirs of my existence. My collections of pinecones and pressed leaves are here, as are the stacks of tattered comic books I’ve read a hundred times. There are miniature soldiers as well, salvaged from my father’s childhood and passed from him to me. Feet molded to tiny platforms, they wield weapons and bugles, and stand at attention as I rise up, up, pushing right through the roof to look down on the little world below.
I can see out, all the way to far-off lands, and I can see back, to years and years ago; place and time unravel in all directions. My eyes and ears are many times the size they should be. My heart is swollen. My bones are weak. But something good can come from even the most terrifying things. For everything that is taken away, something else is given.
So here I am, head in the clouds. Family photographs resting in my huge hands. I hold the pictures by their edges, the way I was shown to as a little girl, and I see me and my mother and father locked into the grains of silver. My thumb can obliterate a house or a row of people, so I take great care as I crack open the flat, drab photographs to release us all in a spill of color.
First to come is my father, James. I hover over him as he makes his way through town on his postal route, and along the way I see Elspeth, my mother, deposited at the suit factory, reaching for the sewing machine in front of her. Her brown hair curves around her ears and is smooth and glossy, trimmed to perfection. Her skin is pale but flushed at the cheeks, and her lips are fuller than usual. Pregnancy softens her, but she has always been pretty in her quiet, delicate way. The big belly that contains me is covered by a dress she made herself, white with yellow swirls. Later she will undo the stitches and refashion it to fit her slender frame, but for now the belly beneath comes between her and her work, and I feel the hard ridge of the machine press against my forming body. The vibration as it pulls the cloth through is my clue to the outside world, like the hum of her voice, or the sound of James whispering each night, telling me how things will be. But nothing prepares me, or any of us, for what’s to come.
Elspeth quits her job at the suit factory weeks before I am born, when her stomach gets in the way of her arms reaching the machine. Everyone says she has to be farther along than she thinks she is, or that there are two babies inside of her rather than just me. Is it because she is small, or because I’m big? Already we are defined by each other, and we haven’t even met yet. We haven’t looked at each other or touched on the outside. Thinking of it this way, the fact that I’m growing inside her body seems like an invasion of privacy. Hers and my own.
I watch as the other seamstresses throw a party for Elspeth on her last day. Someone brings a three-tiered cake dripping with icing, with a china baby on top surrounded by sugared violets. Sitting in the quiet factory that normally whirs with the sound of machines, Elspeth looks at the figurine—his fixed gaze and his menacing smile. She insists someone else cut the cake, but then she is given the piece with the baby stuck to it, and he stares up at her as the sweet taste fills her mouth. She has never liked sweet things.
She begins to see out her pregnancy in the ordinary ways, readying the very room I’m in now and napping in the afternoons. She paints the walls bright yellow, which is not a popular color nor one she particularly likes, but something compels her to do it. Me, perhaps, pushing a wish through the umbilical cord. Every day James comes home from his postal route and says he wishes she would wait and let him do the painting, but she can’t possibly wait. She is nesting, or panicking. She climbs up and down the ladder and pushes herself to exhaustion with the need for everything to be just so. I am an honored guest due to arrive at any moment. All of my things await me in their appropriate places, and in this room, where Elspeth often sits in silence, an aura of anticipation rises, yellow as the sun, around which everything revolves.
The women at the factory have used their various skills to fashion sleepers and booties for me, as well as little hats and underthings. One woman—Iris—embroidered the flower of her name onto a bib, which to Elspeth seems a strangely personal thing to do, given that Iris is nothing more than a co-worker. More clothes and blankets have come from my grandmother, who saved everything from James’s infancy. Elspeth folds the linens into dresser drawers scented with lavender sachets. But as the pregnancy progresses, it seems unlikely that I will fit into such tiny garments.
Day by day I turn in Elspeth’s womb, a dark, shadowy place with an orange glow. My ears prick when James sings to me, and I sit still, hugging my legs and listening, sensing his presence outside. The orange glow dissipates when he comes close and puts his ear to Elspeth’s belly, and then seeps in again when he moves away. I put my hand out to him, and he sees it moving under her skin, presses his own palm against it.
My time is coming closer. Elspeth’s stomach stretches farther and rings of purple discolor her ankles. She is bedridden in the days leading up to my birth, and James brings her meals on a tray and eats next to her, propping her up with pillows. But her appetite is waning. There is no room in the overextended stomach that bulges beneath her nightgown. The heartburn, she says, is unbearable, and she has to sleep sitting up, which means that the weight presses on her bladder, and she feels a constant need to pee. Her toes are cold and James has to put her slippers on for her because she can’t reach that far herself. In the hard line of her jaw, in the frantic shifting of her bloodshot eyes, he sees an anxiety caused by something other than physical discomfort, and he waits for her to confess a wash of fears that would be lessened by the simple fact of her head on his chest, the drum of his heart beneath her ear, as always. That is his role, the soother, but she doesn’t ask to be soothed, and he is unsure how to behave when nothing has been requested of him. At times in his life he’s known this to be his weakest trait.
While convinced she is as terrified as he, James doesn’t offer his own fears for discussion, or explain his irrational panic when, between Monday and Tuesday in the middle of the night, he hears the doorbell ring. It rings once in his sleep to awaken him, and then again as he rises on his elbows in bed, blinking. He looks at Elspeth, whose face, inches from his own, is still as death. As he is sometimes moved to do, he puts his hand in front of her mouth to satisfy himself that she is breathing. In his slippers he steps through the dark house, stands in the hall, and places one eye close to the door’s window.
“James, what are you doing?”
Her voice startles him and sends a shock up the back of his neck and over his scalp. He turns toward her and sees her standing in a column of light that comes through the window. Her hands clasp her big stomach, and he watches my foot travel across the width of her, masked by clothes and skin.
“Did you hear the doorbell?” he asks.
“No. I heard you.”
He puts a finger to his lips and opens the door. A leaf scuttles across the walk. The sailboat chimes tinkle in the breeze, and then slow to nothing. Under the yellow porch light, the pavement glistens with dew.
“Come to bed,” she tells him wearily. “You were dreaming.”
And beside her his heart aches in the darkness. He keeps his eyes shut and lets his mouth fall open in case she’s watching him. He even fakes a snore rattling at the back of his throat, and rolls away from her to face the wall. But he remains awake, waiting.
Later James will tell me I was born with manners—you rang the doorbell first, and then we asked you in
—and he’ll pass over the other details of the night and morning: the gush of water breaking, Elspeth squatting in the tub and him in there with her, stroking her hair and feeling altogether useless in underwear and bare feet. She clings so tightly to his legs he thinks his bones are crushing. As he watches her moan through the contractions, a deep animal sound that echoes throughout the neighborhood, he feels almost afraid of her power. For it is she, holding him so tightly, who keeps both of them from slipping down the drain in a black spiral. This is an emergency—he should have known. Her eyes roll back in her head, and red veins creep across the whites. She has to tell him, “Call an ambulance,” and he lays her down in the tub and runs to the phone.
Even in the hospital she believes what is happening to her has never happened to anyone else before. As they wheel her away, she looks at James and sees the fear in his eyes and knows she can’t say what she’s thinking: We’re dying. The baby and I will both die together
But her silent frenzy subsides as the anesthetic pulses through her. It rushes along this vein and that to ensure tranquility, and she feels herself smiling and rising to another place. There is no such peace for me. I come shuddering through a hole too small for me, fighting to stay inside of Elspeth while every part of me is squeezed and shoved forward. Forceps clamp my head and pull me. Light burns my eyes, sounds scrape my eardrums, and the cold air pierces through me. The cord that joins us is cut, and though it was part of both of our bodies, neither of us feels it happen. I am washed and bundled by strangers who record the first details about me as Elspeth sleeps. In a way she isn’t present when I am born, even farther off than James who roams the hospital halls with his shirt crookedly buttoned, his socks mismatched, his mind traveling to other bone-chilling events as a way of convincing himself he can get through this one too. Until a nurse taps his shoulder.
“Mr. Brennan,” she says. “Congratulations. You have a healthy baby girl.”Chapter 2
In the autumn of 1947, I weighed eight pounds, two ounces. Everything about me was normal, James had been told this, but he felt relieved that he could see it from the doorway, where he stood grinning foolishly with a spray of carnations in his hand. Elspeth held on to me, beaming and staring out the window. My milky, brand-new eyes followed, as if I was searching for someone out there. James inched forward and sat beside us, perched on the edge of the bed. When Elspeth turned toward him, he pressed his forehead to hers, so they formed a kind of temple over me, a position that looked like a promise from each side but was only two tired people resting. James said, “She’s beautiful,” and Elspeth agreed. But that was just what everyone said about all babies.
They named me Ruth Frances Beatrice Brennan, and took me home. The days blended together, one into another with no distinctions. The crying, the feeding, the changing, the chafing, the washing, the soothing, the burping, the singing, the sleeping, the waking. As new parents, James and Elspeth were surprised by their fatigue, as well as my dismissal of it. If someone had told them what to expect (and no one had), they hadn’t taken it in, and now, rather than forging ahead, they were rolling and rolling.
Sometimes Elspeth hung over me with smears of purple under her eyes, the skin there loose and fine, like something that would tear easily. She begged me to understand, though she knew she asked too much of me. Just as I asked too much of her, and him, and they of each other. James formed a habit of going to get things before they were needed, because it made him feel helpful and also allowed him to escape, just briefly, what he’d never expected to have to endure.
Soon, ghouls and monsters came to the door, demanding candy. They stood on the step while the wind moaned behind them, and Elspeth dropped sweets into open pillowcases, imagining me and all the things I’d be on future Halloweens. Eyes darted behind homemade masks. All evening the creatures came and went with the wind. Their capes and gowns whipped around their bodies, and a witch’s hat flew by with no witch beneath it. James relit the grinning jack-o’-lantern each time the wind extinguished it, but sometime after midnight Elspeth parted the curtains and saw it in the road, smashed to pieces. No matter. It had disturbed her more when it sat glowing on the porch, nose, eyes, mouth eroded, like a real face rotting away. She let the curtains fall closed and walked back to her chair, clip-clop
. In those early days, she wore her shoes until bedtime; James wore his tie. There was something formal about both of them, in their individual ways and their interactions as a couple, while there was something primal about me, the thing they’d made together.
The autumn wind continued as Elspeth fed me from one breast and then the other, and watched my jaw working as I sucked each of them empty. For much of my life to come I’d be hungry, dying of thirst. I looked up at her as though I’d really begun to see her, as though I’d already discovered if I can see you, you can see me
, and while I waited for her to speak, she sang a song about rivers, and stroked the rim of my ear, up, down, up, down. My ears were almost see-through. She could place her fingers behind them and see them moving, as with the fine porcelain tea set she’d brought from England, with its rosette pattern that her mother had picked for her own married life. Things go back and back, just as they go forward.
When she finished her song, I rested in my playpen, peering through the bars and observing her as she went about her tasks. Sometimes, the watch shifted; as I lay sleeping in the bassinet she’d trimmed with ribbon and lace before I was born, she sat looking at me, unable to believe I had come, that loving me was so easy and such a burden right at the same time. She couldn’t just sit and love me, she had to do the countless things that proved it to be true, and she had to keep on doing them, hour after hour. With every day that passed, she felt a little more of herself disappear, and it reminded her of when she’d come to James by ship, getting farther and farther from England and leaving everything she knew of herself behind.
Outside, in the first winter of my life, the trees stood like black skeletons and the snow came and smothered everything. Icicles hung in glittering clusters from the eaves troughs, and my eyes turned a clear, deep blue. Every day I could see farther away, with greater clarity, but the mysteries of being alive multiplied. Elspeth, an English war bride, hated Canadian winters, and any sign of her discomfort made James tend the woodstove too faithfully, so the house was overly warm and I passed my days in a fog of lethargy. Eyelids heavy, limbs of rubber. Elspeth took care of my every need, combing the wisps of my hair with her fingers. Such a peaceful feeling. There was a silence to those early years, as if we were all three contained in a bubble each knew would burst, and we were savoring this sacred time given to us.
At first I was a squalling new baby, carried from room to room, with no power of my own. But I was growing. Soon, in my high chair, I pierced wild blueberries with one tooth and sucked out the contents, spitting the skins onto the tray. As I took my first steps in stiff, white shoes, my big feet gave me a puppyish look. By two I was surprisingly articulate, and began to introduce myself to other children at the playground.
“Hello,” I said, sidling up to a girl with clips in her tufts of hair. I curled an arm around her little shoulders and pressed my face close to hers. “I’m Roof.” Blink-blink
. “What does your
The little face across from mine stared in wonder. The mouth went O, and I moved to the next child.
“What does your
Wasn’t it strange how no one would answer? The vacant expression on each new face, the wide, drifting eyes, and the swings swinging in the background. I wandered from child to child, and no one knew what to make of me. The playground was its own world, with green grass stretching on forever, and a sandbox that kept unearthing treasures the deeper you dug. But none of it held me the way a child’s face did. Whenever I saw children I wanted to grab their small hands in mine and squeeze, and pull the little people around with me.
I was already different. But there was nothing wrong with me yet—there was nothing bad. Elspeth and James mimicked my funny expressions, the way I called myself Roof
, and my enduring ability to turn everything into a question.
“See, Ruthie,” said James, “the leaves are falling.”
“Well. Because the trees are going to sleep.”
“Why are they going to sleep?”
“Because they’re tired from growing all summer.”
“Why what, Ruthie? Why do they grow?”
“Why do they grow in summer?”
“Well, because that’s when it’s warm.”
“Why is it warm in summer?”
“Because that’s when our part of the earth is closer to the sun. See up there?”
We craned our necks.
“The sun,” I said, squinting.
“Why is it yellow?”
“It’s a big ball of fire in the sky. Yellowy-orange fire.”
“Why doesn’t the fire go out when it rains? Why?”
“I guess because the sun is higher up than the rain clouds. It’s farther away.”
On it went. He was floored by how much he didn’t know—the very basics of life on earth—and how much he might learn by raising me.
Photographs from this time show the possibility in my little girl’s face, and Elspeth becoming less happy as the years went by. By the age of four I began to look foolish in the frilly dresses Elspeth stitched on her sewing machine, one every few weeks since I outgrew them so quickly. My rubber boots were the size of a seven-year-old’s, but I loved how they took me through puddles to the shores of a distant land. There were trees that talked, and flowers that grew taller than me, and roads of yellow brick as in the Land of Oz. This was a place I escaped to again and again, and I wished, sometimes, that I could take Elspeth with me, but when I tried to imagine her there I saw her as she had become in her ordinary world, with her worried expression, her whispered prayers that came on suddenly and filled me with fear. I knew (though the guilt from it ached in me) that the place would wither upon her arrival. No, I didn’t want her in my secret land.
Instead I took her dressmaker’s dummy, the sleek, brown form that had come with her from England. The dummy had a lovely, gentle shape, and could be wheeled from room to room along the roads of my imagination. It would be years until I tired of her, until I understood that the downfall of imagination is that it always, always ends. I tied a ribbon to her wire skirt, and slipped with her behind the curtains the day King George VI died. Elspeth wept into the laundry, scrubbing stains with the hard bristles of a dangerous brush. Crying for something that felt like my fault, though I’d never known King George or any other king in my lifetime. For Elspeth’s sake, I wished I could revive him. At Christmas, I’d gotten a dollhouse complete with gingerbread trim and miniature people, and now I made it George’s house, his country house, and peered at the royal family through the windows, reaching in with my big fingers to move them from room to room. When I stared long enough at the faces with their painted expressions, I got a scary feeling that the dolls were becoming real right before my eyes. I was staring them into being. It didn’t matter that I was many times their size; they still frightened me, so I pinched the curtains closed to keep them from seeing me, and tucked the house away for another day.
The doctor laughed when he saw me next.
“Well, there seems to be no stopping Ruth Brennan!” He dismissed my aches as growing pains, though he gave me several sideways glances.
Elspeth didn’t believe him, but she wanted to. James simply wished everything would be okay, that someone who knew things would tell them so. Clusters of hair sprang from the doctor’s ears, and it was perhaps these that kept him from thinking clearly and diagnosing my condition.
“Is there anyone else exceptionally tall?” he asked. “In the family, I mean?”
James thought of his stocky parents and his brother Norm, five-six with sloping shoulders. “No, not really,” he answered. “Well, a cousin, I think, on my grandpa’s side. Or a cousin twice removed?”
Great Gregory, they called him, a rodeo star. Great Gregory could ride his bucking bronco for so long without being thrown off that the horse would eventually sink to the ground with exhaustion, and Great Gregory would scoop him up and let him ride on his massive shoulders eating feathery oats until a second wind came.
On Elspeth’s side, two mannish aunties, Franny and Bea, soared in unison to at least six-foot-four. She’d told me herself. Their names were my middle names, but no, sorry, there were no pictures. The aunts lived in England, and I always pictured them as Gog and Magog from a book we had about England’s medieval parades. Two wicker giants with old sheets for clothing and frizzed, tinselly hair. Fierce guardians of the city of London, they’d paraded in the Lord Mayor’s Show since the days of King Henry V. To make the people wonder, they were set forth in all their ugliness, marching as if alive, wielding swords and shields, but within they were stuffed with nothing more than paper and straw. The Great Fire gobbled them, but Gog and Magog, like all the best giants, could be made and remade—of wicker, of wood, of legend. Time and again they would fall victim to the small but ruthless mice that chewed away at them, or to mold, floods, the Blitz. And time and again they would rise up to guard once more.
Our town was cut in two by a river. Three bridges hinged the halves together; Elspeth said these looked like toys compared with the more grand bridges that stretched over the Thames in London. Our house was one of many in a residential neighborhood at the east end of town. Where the streets ended lay a meadow fringed by forest, and, in front of that, a secluded, marshy beach. The public beach was on the opposite side of the river, along with tidy neighborhoods that mirrored ours. A road curved along either bank, like two lines drawn to keep the town from slipping down into the water. The buildings of downtown—the shops, the town council offices, the fire station, the police station—sat facing each other, with the river between, and further on from them stood the school, a series of churches, the factory where Elspeth had worked, and finally the pulp and paper mill.
James’s mail route took him down toward the water several times and back up again through the quiet streets. Every day he delivered good news and bad into the mouths of houses. Lifting the lips, he slid the letters in. He wore a sharp blue uniform and kept his heavy bag strapped over his torso. It grew lighter as the day wore on, and his step quickened with the pleasant notion of burdens falling away. The route was his chance to order his world. As he walked, he thought about me and my awkward, gangly way of moving. I looked like a marionette on invisible strings, my wayward limbs drifting out from me. He told himself that I’d had a head start, as the doctor had suggested, and that soon I’d slow down and become normal. A little larger than normal, but it was true that the human race was growing in stature, and he’d read that tall people do well in life, better than short ones. He was five-foot-nine, bigger than his brother Norm, but during the war it had not been lost on him that his superiors really were tall men, for the most part, with broad shoulders. Which wasn’t to say that he’d envied them or had wanted to be different. He was actually quite content, even thankful. He remembered waiting for the ship that would bring Elspeth, along with hundreds of other brides, and how he’d first spotted her in the crowd, coming down the ramp toward him, bringing a merciful ending to the most violent chapter of his life and hers: a time when he’d killed and nearly been killed himself; a time of enormous loss for her.
But if he was happy, or able to tell himself he was, she was less so. After all, she’d left everything behind: a neighborhood still digging itself out of the rubble, a church whose steeple had split in two, the graves of loved ones, and a little hat shop that had passed through generations and come through the war (like her) physically unscathed. And now, in return, there was me.
As I got taller, Elspeth dreamed that she’d woken up during my birth and had tried to push me back into herself. The pressure sent my blood coursing through me like a poison. My legs grew bone-thin with huge knees, and my arms bulged at the elbows. The dreams came and went, and if she woke crying in the night, James held her until she slept again—was actually thankful for the nightmares because they made him feel useful, and got her reaching for him. Each morning she woke curled into him with a fresh hopefulness, a kind of blank slate, until the realities of her days came through to her again. And she looked at him as he slept, and wondered what her life might be like if she had never come to this place where the blandness of her surroundings was inescapable, and people spoke too slowly and smiled too much with their big, white teeth. What would her life be like if she and James had never met?
There almost had been someone else. Richard Wilson, tall, with beautiful eyes. He was so charismatic that even streetwise cats ran to catch up with him on the sidewalk. There in front of the hat shop, they rolled over in front of him and asked to have their matted bellies scratched, and he smiled, complied for a moment or two, and carried on his way.
By five I had a snarl of black curly hair and my blue eyes were round as buttons, as if everything that passed before them surprised me. Which wasn’t true. I already knew that things unfolded a certain way no matter how hard I wished, and that God wasn’t someone you asked for things.
But I lit up in the presence of boys and girls. I could happily play alone at the beach if the other children were close by. In the sun making castles, I transformed a piece of bark into a bridge just by placing it within the frame. A twig with a leaf at its tip grew into a flagpole, and my finger dug a watery moat wide enough to keep the enemy at bay. This game I could play all day unless the laughter of the children drew me in. Then I lumbered after them, barely noticing my size as sand sprayed behind my feet, and my overlong arms and legs flailed clumsily. I flopped on top of a girl to capture her the way a normal child catches a frog or a mouse. The girl pinned beneath me screamed a scream that vibrated in my own body. How I loved that closeness! The smell of skin and hair in my nostrils. But then the dark shadow of Elspeth enveloped me, and her hands clasped my armpits and pulled me up from the child whose smooth skin was dotted with sand.
The girl scrambled out from beneath me. Laughter was barking out of me when the girl turned and said in a serious voice, “Can you stop chasing us, please? We just don’t want to play with you.” I swallowed and nodded, hot all over. I felt Elspeth watching, hearing every word.
Her hand squeezed mine as we returned to our towels, and neither of us spoke as she brushed the sand from my feet and folded the towels corner to corner. She took me home in the car with the wasted sun still shining, the summer day barely begun. The car’s wheels hummed over the riverside road, and I felt the rumble of the bridge beneath us as we crossed the water. The hum again, turning homeward. The whole way I looked out the side window at the trees rushing past, and the houses, my giant face superimposed upon them.
The questions I asked as a little girl had an effect on James even when we weren’t together. As he walked his mail route, he pondered the mysteries of ordinary things such as the structure of houses, and how it had come to be that four walls and a roof sheltered people. He thought about every detail, including the hinges that held the doors on and the windows that brought in or shut out the world, depending. He thought about the foundation of a house, which couldn’t be seen but was the tough, deep root of an otherwise precarious structure. Since the average ceiling was eight feet high and a door was less than seven, he imagined that I would one day grow past both those heights, up through the ceiling, the snapping rafters, the roof, and that I was certain to ask him, “Daddy, what if I never stop growing?” And he would have to answer, because he’d always answered. He prided himself on that. What would he say? That’s impossible, Ruthie
But was it? He pictured the roof tiles lifting up into the sky like birds flying, and then he shook his head and focused again on the doorknobs, the hinges, and his own sure steps on the sidewalk.
He believed happiness was a matter of conviction, so he sometimes whistled, but such buoyancy was wearing. There were days when the weight of his bag of letters became unbearable, and his uniform, the navy pants and jacket, felt as though it had been dipped in lead. And then it reminded him of his soldier’s uniform, heavy with wet mud and stinking of war, and that deepened the heaviness, which came on slowly until it overcame him. To lift his foot, an ordinary foot, was to lift the foot of a giant. If he opened his mouth and let his voice out, he felt certain it would be a baritone voice, but so slowed and distorted that the words would be meaningless.
As he expanded out and up, he looked down on the trees and the pattern of houses that formed his route, and a teardrop fell and made a lake in an empty field. He tried to put his foot down, but everywhere he looked there was something he might step on. Little people went by on bicycles, and a lost deer hurried over his shoe, thinking it part of the landscape. Get out of the way
, he bellowed, but the words stretched and droned like a strong wind. He was so far away. Perhaps no one could hear him; but at least they couldn’t be frightened if they didn’t know of his presence. He put his huge hands to his huge face and covered it, just as a child would do, believing that if he couldn’t see, he would also not be seen.
When he took his hands away, he was small again, standing on the sidewalk to his own home. For a long moment he stared at the house, its white stucco exterior blazing in the sun.