There is a tapestry there, in the palace museum. A million little threads woven with gold. Where hands are linked and nature is all around. People are free to go where they want and the river flows.
I can’t search for her at night. That’s because the scarecrow paces those long marble hallways setting sticky paper down for mice. One time I came out at night and I saw him rip a mouse off the paper while it was still alive. I swear he giggled. It’s not that I’m afraid of him. Only I can sometimes still hear the sound that the mouse made when he did it. So instead of looking for her, I lie under a fancy bed and play with the dust bunnies. I wait for sleep to come and I hope the scarecrow has forgotten about me after all this time.
It’s 6am when I wake up, like I always do, to the happy sound of clattering keys and shiny-shoe footsteps. I don’t know his name, don’t speak his language, but when he talks it sounds like low piano keys crawling out and gently patting sleepy children on their heads. He talks to himself, or sometimes he hums. I think he may be lonely. I wonder.
Just like me, he loves the river tapestry. He always pauses in front of it and stares at those flowing threads. Sometimes I wonder if the scarecrow is keeping him here too. I wonder if he’s been to the river like I have. I watch him stare at it each morning. If he could see me on those security computer screens his jaw would hit the floor so fast.
I roll onto my belly and pop my head out from between the frilly bed skirts. Look left. Look right. You might think it’s silly. A grown woman sleeping under the bed, but this is what it takes to stay in such a palace. It’s really a lovely place.
I slide out on my stomach and I’m sure to fix the ruffles in the bed skirt. Then I crawl along the length of the wall and try not to sneeze from the dust bunnies hip-hopping around my face. They nuzzle me with their whiskers and make my eyes water until I have to brush them away. Outside the wavy glass I can see the sun bouncing beams across the courtyard. I try to remember how outside feels. Is outside a real place or a moving picture? Sometimes the river in the tapestry moves.
I sneak into the bathroom. A public one. Every day I long to take a bath in the golden, claw-footed bathtub in the queen’s chambers, but water doesn’t actually run there. Perfumes and flakes of gold and the tears of fat ponies used to be poured into that bathwater and the queen would sink in and let a rare smile pop out of her porcelain face.
I am no queen. I wash myself in the public sink with the pink liquidy soap and scratch the plaque off my teeth with my fingers. I keep my fingernails very clean. Once a week I wash my hair with that soap and now it is very brittle and angry with me. One time someone left their hand lotion on the edge of the sink and the cleaning lady didn’t throw it away so my skin was happy but then I ran out.
The cleaning lady is very tired all the time. She has a big job and her phone is always ringing. Sometimes, before the palace opens, her phone sings out through the marble and her voice rises and falls like an ocean in a storm. I get to perch in one of my hidden places and listen to her voice chopping up and down.
Her voice reminds me of mine when I used to speak to my Mother. I think she must be speaking to hers because sometimes she laughs and it sounds like the first drops of rain that kiss the sidewalk before a shower. Then sometimes she whispers with a high note of desperation, the way a violin sounds when you choke it too much. The cleaning lady has a beautiful voice but it’s not as nice as the lonely man’s piano keys. Sometimes he talks to her and the sound of them speaking is like a song. I think they might be in love because he only sounds happy when he talks to her and sometimes when he talks to himself he says her name.
I lost my Mother. In this palace. Not like she’s dead, but she’s just lost somewhere. I can’t leave until I find her but I could if I wanted to. I remember the journey we took here like yesterday; it was the deadly quiet nighttime and I was still a child. My Mother wrapped me in layers and layers and strapped me into the front seat of our car beside her. We always played music but today was quiet like one army listening for the footsteps of another army. She kept smiling at me but her eyebrows were pointed up like little arrows to her worried brain, whirring.
It seemed that all those silvery ghosts had finally gotten to her. I used to think they were beautiful, like silver scarves hanging. They found their way into our little house through the smallest cracks and they whisper-sang. Sometimes she would scream at them and banish them, beating them with a broom and they would swoop away with mouths like little o’s. Sometimes she would turn our stereo all the way up and we would make a pillow fort to pretend we couldn’t see them. Sometimes they piled on her and she lay in bed holding them in her arms. My mother hated it the worst when they would smooth my hair back and cup my chin with their silvery fingers. It made me shivery but was also soothing like wind.
One night we got into the car and it was silent and she had a smile painted on her face like our Christmas nutcracker. She knew exactly where to go that they wouldn’t find us. So we drove to the river and I helped my Mother push our car in so that everyone would think we drowned a beautiful death. Then she carried me through the forest and up the hill to the palace. Everything was white and gold.
A man opened the doors for us and he seemed so nice but I still didn’t like him. He looked like a scarecrow. He said we would be very happy here. He didn’t mention that there was no water for the bathtub.
Now it is daytime and the palace opens soon. I hide in the bathroom stall until lots of feet have come and gone and there is a small crowd in there. Women love bathrooms because we can go in and talk about all the things we don’t want men to know. If you want to hear about anything that’s really important, you can check two places. One place is the margin of a notebook two students pass back and forth while the teacher isn’t looking. The other is the women’s bathroom.
I come out of the stall and nobody pays much attention to me. During the opening hours, I’m free to search for her. So I start with the kitchen. It is preserved the way it used to be in the old days. They have fake food on the table and a cook mannequin with her back to the viewers. That is not my Mother. When the room is empty I crawl under the long table to look for her. I do a very thorough search because I don’t remember what she looks like. Sometimes I even check under the legs of each chair in case she’s squished under there.
They serve free snacks with the ticket into the palace but you have to eat them in that one room. I take a croissant and a coffee and I slip an apple and another croissant into my pocket. If someone thinks it’s strange that I’m visiting this museum every day, they don’t say anything. Sometimes the security guard and I stand side by side staring at the river tapestry. He never looks at me twice.
I search for her whenever people aren’t looking. I roll under beds. I check the drawers of ancient dressers. Once I found a mouse and I clutched the poor brown thing in my hand asking “Are you my Mother?” over and over and when she didn’t answer I shook her and she bit my hand and little droplets of blood fell on the ancient carpet so I threw her all the way across the room. I never checked to see if she was dead.
I search for my Mother in the faces of the marble statues in a hall that has a mirror covering the whole wall. The statues have heads that turn when you aren’t looking so you have to go right up to them and stare into their eyes to really know that they aren’t her. One time I saw my Mother inside the statue’s eyes so I pushed it hoping it would fall and break open and she would emerge like a little chicken from an egg. But the statue didn’t budge and I lost sight of her in there.
I used to ask the women visiting the museum if they were my mother because they had high heels and pretty fingernails like she did. But they would get worried and one tried to hold me and call a security guard so now I just watch them carefully to make sure they are not her, searching for me.
I think she must be searching for me, both of us going around and around the palace museum but never bumping into each other. Like two children on a carousel, unable to see each other. Sometimes I turn around and walk the opposite way, in case she’s been following me the whole time. Then I imagine she had the exact same thought that I did, and she turned around too and now I’m following her. Sometimes I think I see her ankle or the swish of her hair turning a corner and I race up to find her but the room is empty.
It is night. I’m sure my Mother is lying under a bed somewhere too, wishing she could search for me but the scarecrow is stopping her. Tonight, I am brave because I haven’t heard the scarecrow’s footsteps at all since the lights went out. He must be away. I hush the worried dust bunnies and I crawl out along the wall. Where should I search? If my Mother remembers me at all then she’ll come to the tapestry because she’ll know that I used to love the river before. I go to it in the dark with moonlight bouncing off my face and making a silver pool around my feet. I am alone, staring at the place where people are free to do what they want, and the river flows and flows. I have never gone out at night like this.
I notice a little hanging thread, not sewn into the tapestry, a friendly finger wiggling to me. There is nobody to see. I touch my finger to the finger. I wind it around, the way my mother used to wrap her finger around a loose thread on my clothes.
She is not here.
I tug. The thread pulls up and up and other little threads pop out with it. I pull more and the golden snakes wiggle out, sick of being stuck in this tapestry tank. They start to coil at my feet, hissing. The tapestry starts shuddering and waving and heaving. The threads move their tired joints. I tug and tug and there’s a sound like a live mouse being pulled off of a sticky paper. I pull until the tapestry is nothing but a pile of wiggling threads at my feet. I will never have to look at that fake tapestry again. With people linking hands, and nature all around.
There is no such thing as a river or a place outside of this one.
Artwork by: Norman Rockwell “Girl at the Mirror”