Erin reaches out her hand to sweep away the cobwebs that had been spun unseen behind the elegant curtains. Kevin is gone; the curtains are gone; the cobwebs are left. Her fingers are extended, long and strong, but her hand shakes, so she quickly draws it back.
"Stupid...it doesn't matter..." she says aloud.
But it matters. She is as empty and angrily forlorn as the Kevin-stripped apartment. Erin leaves the grime that the curtains had hidden and turns again to the empty rooms. All the carefully chosen furniture, the expensive ornaments, even the photographs have been carted away. Only her clothes and Chrissie's toys are left, thrown about on the deep brown carpet.
"I never thought you'd do so well, marrying a man like Kevin," her mother says. Her pink fingers lightly stroke the arm of the brown velvet chair as she looks around the apartment.
"He knows his way around," her father agrees. "Knows how to get what he wants."
"Yes, he's strong," her mother says warmly. "He'll look after you."
They smile proudly at her, at the apartment. Erin smiles as she sets down the tea tray. Then all three look around at the apartment once more, surprised still at its perfection. Erin has pleased them at last, because of Kevin.
"You just work on being strong, honey," the warm black woman at the crisis centre says. She stares with rock-gentle eyes at Erin, compelling. "One of these days you'll wake up and say, 'I never want to see that no good man again. Never!' Because once you leave him, that man can never beat you up again. Even a smart-talking lawyer can't beat a wife that's gone. And your baby, child. You can't forget your baby."
Erin lays her head against the fat old woman and cries and cries. Then, like a child, Erin learns the steps of escape from Kevin, of how to hang on by the fingernails to the instinct to protect her baby, of how to tell her family that she is leaving Kevin because he beats her.
Kevin and Erin work beside each other on her parent's white love seat. He has stacked the papers for his law brief in precise piles on the coffee table before him. Erin is again aware of the order he creates, and tries to push her own scribbled notes for an introductory psychology paper into similar piles.
"Silly," he says and smiles. He rearranges the papers for her, squeezes her newly-ringed hand, and then stands up abruptly. "You won't have to worry about college courses when we're married," he says, pulling her up into a tight embrace. "I want an old-fashioned wife who will stay home and wait for me."
Erin feels herself drawn into the brown warmth of his sweater, feels the excitement of his hard muscles, and pulses in the belief that he will bring her alive at last. They break apart laughing as the clock chimes the hour.
Erin sits alone on the edge of the white love seat, and stares fixedly at the old clock on the marble mantle. Its tick, tick, tick has judiciously measured the moments of her childhood. It politely raps out snippets of time. No more.
Her parents sit across from her on the matching love seat. Her grandmother, proper and silent in her endless role of the Nova Scotia aristocrat, rocks firmly in the antique rose chair, partially shadowed. Erin sees her parents are prepared to be slightly amused by the drama she is presenting. After all, their mock solemn glances ask, what could really be so important? You are so young – what real crisis is there for a twenty-three year old?
Erin tries to be simple, to be dignified. She gulps, sniffs, and stammers.
"What's wrong, dear? Why didn't you bring Kevin?" her mother asks.
"Kevin and I are breaking up. I'm not going back!" she blurts at last.
"Why not? Have you really thought about this, dear? You know you're much too impulsive. And what about Chrissie?" Her mother's voice is angry now, a sharp whip of sweet reason. She uncrosses and recrosses her legs so that she is at an angle to Erin. Her father rubs his chin, scrubbing the shaved skin.
"I've thought about it," Erin says, angry at last. "He...he hits me."
Her father stops rubbing and stares at her, his hand still suspended in the air. Grandma stops rocking. Her withered lips are pursed. Her mother's eyes are fixed on Erin's face.
"He hits you?" her mother repeats. Erin nods, trying not to cry. She is ready for their outrage, for their protective arms to pull her to them and nurture her at last. Oh God, how she needs to be held with love, where there is no fear.
"What in God's name have you been doing, Erin, to provoke your husband like that!" her mother bursts out.
The clock continues to tick, tick, tick, then suddenly strikes the hour, and chimes the prayer of her childhood.
Oh Lord, our God,
Thy children call.
Grant us Thy peace,
And bless us all.
"That boy, Kevin," her grandmother speaks up, "always seemed to me to be a pushing, inferior sort of man."
The chair begins its slow creak, creak again, in time with the ticking of the clock.
"My God," Kevin says the first time, "look at the mess on this carpet."
Erin stares anxiously at the white threads and lint that mar the dark richness of the floor.
"I...I'm sorry," she murmurs. "I was sewing and didn't get a chance to vacuum."
"I work like a fool all day, trying to make something worthwhile for us," he says, "and you just sit around! Vacuum it now!" he commands. His arm shoots out, catching her in the breastbone, and smashing her hard against the wall. Hard wall, raping cold between the shoulder blades.
She reaches out for him, but he is already in the bathroom, sloshing water about, cleaning himself up after the day of work. Her chest aches, but she vacuums.
That night she tells him he hurt her. He explains in his soft, deep voice that it had been a cruelly hard day, that Mr. Thomson had been angry with him, that he is afraid he won't make it in such a prestigious law firm, and that the mess was too much. She cries. He says he is a brute, and wipes off her tears. They make love, and Kevin says it's the best they've ever had. Erin lies awake rubbing the bruise on her chest, and promising herself that she will keep the apartment just the way Kevin wants it.
Erin shifts nervously on the white loveseat and tries to answer her parents' questions, all edged with contempt. Her head is bowed as she stares at the floor, pulling her long, trembling fingers. She tries to sound cool and dignified, the way her mother wants her to, tries not to let the fear mangle her voice.
"I am begging for my life," she whispers at last.
"I wish you wouldn't be so dramatic," her mother says.
"Erin must stay," her grandmother speaks up from the shadows. She pauses, yesterday eyes flickering as she looks from one to the other. Erin's mother makes an impatient noise. "The baby," her grandmother goes on in a granite monotone, "we have a responsibility to the baby." The chair begins to creak again.
"But he's such a damn good lawyer," her father bursts out at last. His thin fingers shake, and he lowers his eyes.
"I just don't understand you, Erin," her mother says, her voice low, throbbing. "You've always been such a happy child. How can you expect us to understand this!"
Her mother begins to cry angrily, twitching her mouth and tugging her skirt pleats. Erin is confused. Is she supposed to comfort her mother and father? Chrissie cries sharply from the upstairs bedroom, and so Erin escapes.
Her baby is sitting up, sucking her thumb, staring suspiciously at the pink plush rabbit stuck in the corner of the white crib. She is not afraid, for even when her emotions have gone beyond fear, Chrissie stares at her mother with seemingly blank eyes set above the fullness of her pink cheeks. Her eyes fasten again on Erin's, and the hot stream of life is confirmed.
"Your eyes are saving my life," Erin whispers as she picks up Chrissie. The baby pulls a handful of her hair, then yanks the hoop in Erin's ear.
"No!" Erin cries out at the unexpected pain. Her fist clenches, jerks, then relaxes slowly. Her breath exhales.
"I hate you," she hisses, then carefully lays Chrissie on the floor within reach of toys, away from anything dangerous. Erin lays down alongside her and sobs silently into folded arms. At last, Erin turns her head and their eyes meet above the forest level of the soft pink carpet.
"I love you," Erin whispers.
Erin is lying on the floor, the deep brown carpet below her, Chrissie's playpen on the far side of the room.
"You stupid bitch," Kevin hisses, his voice soft as soft as honey and his face as hard as white wax above her. She tries to crawl away, but he kicks once again, sinking his shoe into her belly.
"Bitch," he croons. She wraps her arms around herself. Pain in her legs now, numbing waves. Kevin kicks again and again. The brown rug, the hissing of him, her own muted screams.
"No...please..." Erin pants, begging. She hunches her head down. Please God, let him stop before he kills me. She tries not to whimper, to lay utterly passive. A move, any little move, and he may start again.
"I hate you," Kevin says. He lifts her to her feet. She staggers. He holds her by her upper arms, smiling as she cowers away.
"Don't you twist away from me. You're mine! I own you!" he shouts and punches her in the belly again. She falls to the floor and lies there.
"Please don't kill me," she tries to whisper, but the words bubble and die in her mouth. Is she dying this time? She stares vacantly across the room, lost. Chrissie's eyes. The tiny body pulled up to the side of the playpen, endless blue eyes staring at her, only at her. They call her, reach for her.
"Oh baby," Erin says, and loses consciousness.
The next morning, Erin moves painfully around the apartment, trying to do her allotted housework. It is Saturday. Kevin silently reads his newspaper, occasionally looking up as she awkwardly cares for Chrissie. He becomes angry again if she is too hurt to move about.
Chrissie is quiet, does not cry, does not try to crawl any more, but sits in her playpen turning her teething ring over and over in her tiny fingers. The blue eyes have crystallized in Erin's thoughts. Chrissie must not grow up watching her mother crawling on the floor, begging for mercy.
"You're a good baby," she murmurs and leans over the playpen to lift the child. Erin holds Chrissie against her, and looks over at Kevin; she will kill him herself if he tries to hurt her child. The woman at the crisis centre is right. She never wants to see Kevin again.
It is past midnight. Erin lies in the white canopied bed of her childhood, listening to Chrissie whimper and stir. Soon she will wake up and cry in waves of shrieks and whimpers as the pain from the cutting molars shoots up into her head. Her mother has told her that Chrissie must not be allowed to cry at night because, "You know how it disturbs your father. He is under a great deal of pressure at work, and must not have his sleep interrupted."
She does not say that she is having a luncheon for the bridge club tomorrow, and so must also sleep well. Erin knows her mother is trying to be loyal, trying to look calm and relaxed and in control of the tragedy of her daughter's return. Yesterday, her mother hosted the meeting of the Women's Club, because she says it is easier to thoroughly clean once, order cut flowers once, and get all her social duties over with at once.
"I considered cancelling," her mother says, slipping her arm around Erin's stiffened waist. "But it would be awkward, and then people would think I am ashamed of your marriage failing. No matter what, I won't act as if I'm ashamed. I can do that for you Erin." And she bit her soft pink lips, straightened her white wool skirt, and looked away.
Erin pours the tea and coffee, passes around the delicate pink and white cakes, fields the prying questions that gush from behind wide toothy smiles and narrow glittering eyes. She smiles as her mother and grandmother have taught her, inclines her head to the jabbing questions and sweet frosting of sympathy. And now she is afraid that the fear that seeps behind it all, the shame that she alone has crawled on an elegant brown rug, begging for her life, will spew out of her, will froth in blood brown vomit across the white sofa, the little cakes, and the soft voices. Her hands that hold the bone china cup begin to shake, and she stares about her, hunted.
"No, not every marriage works out," her grandmother's old voice is a monotone of sculptured granite in the room of white silk blouses and soft pink voices. She takes the cup and saucer from Erin. Her hands are large, thick-veined, but still showing strength. They do not shake.
"Thank you, dear. Could you check in the kitchen for more cream, Erin? Thank you." She turns to those soft women and her creased frame blocks their words.
As she stands in the kitchen, trembling, Erin hears Chrissie crying upstairs. The women will accept that she has gone to tend her baby. She escapes them.
Chrissie is awake now. She begins to wail and thrash in her crib. Reluctantly, aching with the exhaustion of endless nights and fathomless days, Erin lurches from the bed. She wraps her housecoat around herself, resentfully eying the crib that has been crammed into the room that was once hers alone.
The white sofas are ghostly blobs in the moonlight as Erin paces a figure eight around them. The clock tick, tick, ticks. At endless intervals it chimes pieces of the childhood prayer; soon it will strike the hour and chime the whole thing. Erin feels herself to be wading in a daze of noise and exhaustion. Chrissie is still wailing; Erin cannot comfort her at all.
"I hate you," she says to the small body writhing against her aching shoulder. She tries to remember that Chrissie is saving her life, but can only think of how she used to lie against Kevin's strong body, feel his coarse softness in the night, and know she belonged somewhere. She must belong somewhere. If she could get a job, she and Chrissie could start off together. But her mother has told her politely that she is too old to babysit, even while Erin tries to begin again. Then she adds with the anger she has tried to hide, "You made your bed; you have to lie in it."
Erin sighs. Chrissie screams.
"I hate you," she whispers again to Chrissie. But even this does not fragment the exhaustion or the shrieks. Chrissie presses her wet face into her mother's neck, snuffles and moans restlessly. Erin holds her tightly.
"I'll take her for a few minutes and give you a break," her grandmother says. She stands silhouetted in the moonlight, the deep rose and light brown pattern of her robe making her seem larger and less distinct than usual.
She switches on the light, settles herself in her rocker, and holds out her hands to take the baby. Chrissie looks at her great-grandmother's face, sniffs in terrible sadness, then settles against her, sucking her thumb. The strong, veined hands cuddle her closely.
"Sometimes they just need a change of hands," her grandmother says. Erin sits down by the rocker, and her head droops in exhaustion and shame.
They sit quietly together, the tick, tick of the clock and the suck, suck of Chrissie's lips on her thumb, the only sounds.
"I don't know how to quiet my own baby," Erin says at last, trying to laugh at herself, hoping she won't cry. "I don't know what to do. Mom thinks I'm a failure as a woman." Erin stares at the floor. She is begging again, begging for mercy from those who said they loved her once. She is so small, so useless, so helpless, and so angry that they have allowed her to be hurt.
Her grandmother sighs.
"When I was eighteen, my parents allowed me to go to Truro, to Teacher's College. That was very unusual, very daring," Grandma says, staring into the shadows. "I met a man, a young fisherman. My parents would never have accepted him, of course, but he was a good man. How can we be so foolish...." She pauses a moment and strokes Chrissie's hair. "I became pregnant. He drowned on New Years Day, when his ship went down in a storm. I was barely able to finish college without it showing. My parents did not want me at home, and so my father made arrangements for me to stay with a cousin of his in the Midwest -- my board in exchange for help with the housework." Her grandmother pauses again, then continues.
"They were not kind. My son was born in August. A hot, hot night." Her hands caress Chrissie's damp hair. "He died when he was eight months old. Our room was cold and draughty; he caught pneumonia. And died. He would be fifty-four now, if they had let me bring him into a warmer room. They all said it was a good thing he died."
Her grandmother stares at the baby she holds. As her hands stroke Chrissie's hair, her old fingers shake.
"I haven't known what to do," Erin says.
"You endure, you do what you can, and then you walk out the other side," her grandmother says, words gritty. She sighs then. "Here Erin, take your baby. I'm too old and tired for this."
Silently Erin takes Chrissie who looks up at her, smiles, and snuggles into her shoulder. Her grandmother moves slowly up the dark stairs. Erin switches off the light and begins to walk round and round the white furniture. She holds Chrissie tightly against her, reluctant to separate herself from the warm, sweet moistness of her sleeping baby.
Toward dawn, Erin looks out the front window, pushing aside the velvet curtains. The cobwebs are thick here, but her hand is steady as she brushes them away.