Mother was a moon-faced woman. Her visage was not merely of lunar pallor or rounded, with Aleutian cheekbones; rather her head was a small luminous moon. The moon was said to have appeared suddenly at menarche, and was quite beautiful, especially at night. Hers was an unusual existence, of course, and most solitary. My father had been her tutor. He once said he fell in love with her intensity. She had unfortunate experiences in her early womanhood.
Villagers tormented her due to her appearance. When she was orphaned and inherited a sizable sum, my father purchased a remote parcel, a land of abundant orchards and fertile fields, far from any village. They lived in near seclusion. Such was my early boyhood. I interacted with no one aside from our beagle, my parents, and the household staff. My mother was a magnetic force for me, compelling yet distant as a heavenly body. I have no memory of her scent, her embrace.
My governess, a playful and nurturing companion, provided succor from loneliness and was like a member of our family. She dined with us nightly until that singular winter. I suppose I first sensed disharmony when the governess began taking meals in the kitchen, with the cook. During that time my mother seemed to smolder when she regarded the governess.
As one might expect, mother’s head was less dazzling by day. In fact, Mother had little daytime energy and would take naps of three to four hours during the bright afternoon, emerging with a fresh glow in the evening. My governess would fade into the background each eventide as Mother began to shine. There were phases too: the bright area waxed and waned according to her particular temperamental humors. Her countenance was unlike the appearance of the Earth’s moon because during the crescent moods, the greater portion of her head would not appear absent. The effect was that of a lunar eclipse: the sphere of her head would be shadowed, with only a portion of it shining. Her mentality fluctuated with the phases. My mother’s moods were mysterious, but the visible phases gave me warning so I learned to calibrate my expectations to her illumined presence. Gibbous meant gaiety. Her flute–like laughter filled the room. She would stay awake all night playing original compositions on the pianoforte.
Perhaps diminished fortitude caused the waning, since her light sourced from within, not from earthshine. Her crescent and new moon phases were times of extreme melancholy that I experienced as emotional apogee cycles. On one occasion I heard her crying and, creeping into dimly lit drawing room, saw her head inclined upon my father’s shoulder, a trembling sickle of light framing his ear. I stole away unnoticed. A crescent moon unnerves me still.
There is one tintype of our family, taken during a full phase and in the image, her facial features are invisible. The “man in the moon” image on the common moon comes from topographical rilles on the lunar surface, but my mother’s features were more like those seen through the aqueous membrane of a sun–shot lake, shadowy shapes in the depths, as fish sometimes appear below the glittering water on a sunny day. This single manmade image captures the full brilliance of her glow, though her countenance is not discernible, so one who did not know her could not read her mood. The quality of the radiance suggests probable happiness, though one beyond natural expression, quite heightened even for her. At times the household was overwhelmed by these displays and slow to adapt to her mood, despite the notice fluctuations in her radiance gave us. On this day, my father and I did not appear to rise to her elevated emotive state. I, in my short pants and Eton collar, was probably no more than seven years of age. My expression was wary. My father, dapper and compact, wore a melancholy expression in this photograph. My mother glowed with special pearlescence, her face contrasting with the dark taffeta of her gown. I have no memory of that dress so I cannot comment on its color, how it may have looked in life, set off by her gleam, and I don’t know what occasion prompted him to hire a photographer to come to our parlor and capture our family in emulsion.
My mother lived perhaps a year beyond the time of that image. Her death was during that terrible, beautiful winter and was preceded by an unusual number of days, perhaps weeks, in which she flared full. She played fierce music until her fingers cramped and I don’t believe she napped during this time. A uncustomary heat emanated from her person. The outdoor sky was overcast, so she glowed more strongly than usual and in my recollection “the other moon” as I called it, was absent from the sky. For me, Mother was the genuine moon, and I was puzzled when the celestial body was asynchronous with her shine. Perhaps I believed the other moon was a reflection of her. Each night during this long full period, my mother gathered her skirts and stalked the grounds of our estate. Her effulgence shone through the hedgerows and cast eerie shadows on the snow. And then, on her last living day, her lovely pearl turned red, a blood moon atop my mother’s shoulders.
I was taken from the home for the remainder of the day, but not before I witnessed shrieking and babbling, a language not of this world. She had torn her emerald gown along the sleeves and bodice. I believe I was trembling when the governess led me away. The governess had a flask of hot milk and blankets in the sleigh, a wicker basket of picnic food and hot bricks wrapped in wool at our feet. We went down to the sugarbush and I was given a cup of snow, mounded and drenched in syrup. The sleigh pulled us through the fields, and we stopped to build figures made of snow. I made a woman with an enormous snow sphere upon her shoulders, which I wrapped like a shawl with one of the woolen lap blankets from the sleigh.
“It’s Mother,” I said.
The governess wiped tears from her eyes. “She’s beautiful. A good likeness.”
The day turned bright and despite the unsettling beginning, was one of the most rapturous of my childhood. The driver made a little fire and we roasted upon sticks apples from the root cellar. We entered thickets bejeweled in ice, which then dripped with diamonds of melt. We danced in the snow, the governess and I. She was especially loving and lovely that day. Her cheeks rubied and beneath her woolen hat, golden curls set round her face like a gilt frame. I loved this governess. She was voluptuous; her fragrant bosom was a welcome pillow for my head when I tired. She had always a trim waist, but now there was a melon–like protrusion that pushed apart the pleats of her dress, and she left the middle buttons of her cape loose. She rested her hands upon her middle at times, as though something there caught her attention. We left the meadow and the snow mother in her tartan shawl, and we rode around the property in the sleigh. We saw a stag with an impossibly large rack of antlers in the orchard. It plucked a withered apple from a branch and turned toward us, crunching. Its appley breath misted the air.
We were gone most of the day when the dinner bell sounded, more rings than usual, plangent tolling throughout the field. The governess pulled me closer and I could feel her arms trembling around my body. I must have sensed her dread because I shrank from her bosom and she told the driver in a tremulous voice, “Not just yet. One more turn around the meadow, please.” I smelled the dusty–clean equine odors, the lily of the valley of the governess, and the cedar–infused wool against my cheek. We turned at last into the circular gravel path in front of the house. I saw drawn curtains, black bunting.
The house was dim. In my mother’s room I had never seen such darkness. Her light was out. Gray, stony, I couldn’t bear to look at the rock–like orb on the pillow. I ran from the room.
Months passed and the governess bore a girl I came to understand was my sister. It is perhaps maudlin to say I felt eclipsed by that girl, but it is not untrue. She, my father and the governess formed a trinity from which I felt cast out. Shortly after the girl’s birth I had the foresight to secret away the tintype. For years I kept it hidden in my armoire.
My life now contains a preferred loneliness away from society and even the company of servants. The tintype is framed in gilt and sits upon my nightstand, protected by this solitude. In winter I roam the orchard, watching for a sole stag and throughout the year I keep meticulous record of the lunar phases. On each full moon I fling open the drapery and wallow in its glow.
Shelley Elkovich earned the MFA in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a BA in English literature from Wellesley College. She is an alumna of the Tin house workshop was awarded a Playa residency. Her house in Oregon is home to stacks of books—when her husband is away, she lets the books come up on his side of the bed and stay all night. Her fiction was published in the print literary journal The Flexible Persona, the Dr. TJ Eckleburg Review, and Ellipsis Zine. Shelley is working on a novel.