On a cold night in Boston, I sat in the stiff, wooden chairs of the funeral home. The deceased being my own dear, aged uncle, I was placed in the third row. I can still remember the dim candlelight, the sound of silent sobs, the thick, cloying scent of decaying flowers that was Mother’s perfume. All of these things I took in as I cast my gaze down into my lap. Poor, blind people...I truly did feel bad for them. None of them in that room knew what had truly happened. But I did.
Uncle was, at first glance, a kindhearted, easygoing man. He attended the church services every Sunday, he gave generously to the children’s home, he was quick with laughter and a smile. A widower, he spent many of his days at home, gardening or entertaining guests. Most often were these guests my family, the family of his much beloved younger sister. Mother and Uncle were the only surviving children of their parents (all others had been born still, you see), and were very close, which is why we were invited to dine in Uncle’s house so often. I recall the antique beauty of the old place; the laboriously carved wooden banisters, the lovely porch, and the darkly intricate wrought iron gate, closing it off from the rest of the world.
Of all of my mother’s children, I was the apple of Uncle’s eye. He showered me with attention and called me his little sparrow, even into adolescence. I, of course, basked in all of the love I was given, as little children will do, but never did I imagine what would come of it.
Everything changed in my fifteenth year. I had finally grown into myself, as Father like to say. I was a young woman, a new addition to the society of the grown. I walked the streets with dignity, feeling an odd sense of surprise to see the young men stare as I passed. They found me comely, though I never knew it then. Looking back, I now see how attractive they found me: my large, expressive eyes; my creamy skin; my new shapely form; the slightest bit of gold peeking out from beneath my bonnet…all of the things I had in common with my deceased aunt, who was the former beauty of the town. But of what use is a pretty face when it hides a filthy secret?
My uncle was a fan of the drink, I am a bit shamed to say. Nearly every time I saw him, he had a bottle of ale or brandy in his hand. But neither my family nor I thought much of this, seeing as the drink had never appeared to steal Uncle’s wits from him, except for one unfortunate party at the Jameson house, where, suffice it to say, uncle went home soaking wet with a fish in his left sock, which we found later that night. But that was the only instance where my uncle had ever shown any sign of drunkenness, so it was soon forgotten, which was why Uncle, the respected and able adult that he was, was to escort me to my first adult party in town.
Uncle and I walked down the dimly lit cobblestone path from his house to the town, where the party was to be held at the Smith home. We picked our way along carefully, as years of daily use, by feet and by wagon, had caused the stones to disintegrate and crumble away in certain places on the road. I nearly tripped twice upon the loose pebbles and tree roots from the ancient, stooping willows that lined the way, but Uncle placed his large gnarled hand firmly on the small of my back, to prevent my fall. Finally we arrived to the main street of town. As we passed an abandoned, decrepit old shop, my mind reeled over the momentous night I would have. There would be dancing, drinking, and laughter. I would no longer be treated as a child like my younger sister Elaine. I would finally be welcomed into adult society.
Uncle and I turned onto the street where the Smiths’ house was located. And then we were there. I saw several of my older friends, standing off in a group to the left side of the main parlor.
“Uncle, may I go speak with my friends?”
“Of course, my little sparrow…just be certain you stay where I will not lose sight of you.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Of course. If I am needed, fetch me by the brandy.”
“Yes, Uncle.” And I ran off to join my friends. As I approached, I was greeted with smiles and congratulations for my entry into young-adulthood. Hours we talked, and the words flowed from our mouths like the brandy flowed into Uncle’s. But I gave no thought to his excessive drinking, as I had seen it many, many times before.
After hours of idle chatter and the smiling faces of those that I knew, and those that I didn’t, I called Uncle over to myself to take me back home. I could smell the sour alcohol on his breath, and he was swaying back and forth like a reed in the wind. Maybe he had drunk more than I thought. But still, I gave it no worry. On the empty road back to our house, Uncle stopped. I turned to see him staring oddly into my face.
“Uncle?” I said. “What are you doing?”
“Mmariannn?” he slurred, taking a step closer.
“No Uncle, it’s Louisa, your niece.”
“MariannIwanntyouubaack.” Again, he stepped closer. He was a mere two feet from me now.
“Uncle, I’m not Marian!” Another step. “You’re worrying me!” And another. He was nearly on top of me.
“Mmmariann!” he yelled, and grabbed my arm and yanked me to him. He held me closer, and I felt his hands creeping over my body. My scream for help was caught in my throat as he threw me to the grass. That was the night my innocence was taking from me, and I knew Uncle would never remember it due to his drunken state. But I would. I would always remember what had been done to me; what had been taken. Even if no one else ever knew.
I snuck home in the murky dawn as Uncle lay unconscious in the trees beside the tired trail to my home. I woke my parents and notified them of Uncle’s state. I did not say what had occurred the night before. It was too fresh. Too painful in my mind, a black stain on my soul. My father and brothers set out to retrieve Uncle, leaving me to help Mother in the kitchen with breakfast. I cooked the meat, outwardly silent, but inwardly roiling. How could last night have happened to me? What had I ever done to deserve what had been done? What would happen if anyone ever found out? What was I going to do? And then Uncle was led through the door. I reeled back, spattering myself with scalding hot oil from the pan. I didn’t even feel it, but nonetheless, Mother hurried over, clucking like a hen. I assured her that I was fine, still staring fixedly at the sagging, swaying form of my uncle leaning on my oldest brother.
I couldn’t look at him. I couldn’t meet his bleary gaze. Just the thought of looking into that man’s eyes filled me with dread, guilt, and disgust. The feeling didn’t fade. Day after dreaded day, Uncle, oblivious to what he had done during his drunkenness, invited us for dinner. And each time, I would stare at my food, trying to ignore my surroundings, and saying as little as I could. Uncle was much the same, joking and calling me his sparrow. But my usually easy smile at the nickname was now forced and fake. He had broken his little sparrow. She would not fly again.
The dinners became too much to bear. I could feel Uncle’s hands sliding over me every time I felt his gaze land on me. I could hear his raspy breath in my sleep. His wild eyes were ever present in my dreams. I could not sleep, I could not eat, I could not live. Each day was harder to bear than the last. He was around every corner, waiting to take me again. Was he there, in that shadow on the wall? Was he hiding in my closet? I went through the weeks in constant paranoia.
It came to a peak when I saw him in my mirror, breath fogging the glass, eyes boring into my soul. His hand reached out and grabbed my wrist, hard. I struggled against his grip, trying desperately to free myself, but he would not release me.
“Let me go! Let me go!” But he would not. He held on with an iron grip. To my right, I spied my hair brush. I grasped it and threw it at my uncle, hoping to distract him long enough to free myself. The mirror shattered; I was freed. Yet I could not keep living with his constant harassment when all eyes were turned away. I knew he snuck away to try to get at me again, and I would not have it. I knew what I had to do.
At our next family dinner, I did not have to force my smile as I felt the cool glass vial against my skin. When Mother started toward the kitchen to make the tea, I stopped her and volunteered myself instead.
“Are you sure?” she asked me.
“Yes, I am positively sure.” And I was.
I walked into the kitchen and found the old pot that Uncle used to brew the tea, and I went through the motions that I had seen Mother do hundreds of times. Once the tea was done, I poured out each cup. One for Mother, one for Father, five for my siblings, and myself, and the last for my dear old uncle. I placed each fine cup on the tray, and as Uncle’s blue one was set down, I poured the contents of my little vial into the sweetened tea. The smell of almonds filled the room. I pushed open the door with my hip and stepped into the dining room, greeted by the faces of my family, and a monster. I saw the black shadow no one else seemed to see, hanging around him like an oily cloak. It repulsed me. But soon, the shadow would be no more, and the thought made me smile. One by one, I set the cups on the table, each in front of their owners, leaving Uncle’s for the very last. After everyone had their drinks, I proposed a little makeshift toast.
“To our family, our happiness, and to my dear Uncle.” And we all drank.