A Clean-Swept Room by Raennah Mitchell

For days after her mother’s death, while adults move around her making funeral and guardianship arrangements, Sarah stands by walls. Her six-year-old fingertips search the wallpaper in the day care where they have placed her. Peach-colored blossoms overlay faint gray stripes. She turns away and leans against them. Across the room, other children color, drive toy trucks through a box of rice, dress in capes and felt hats. Sarah rolls her head from side to side, imagining she can fall backward into her mother’s arms, the paper flowers closing over them.

The squat woman who lives here asks if Sarah would like her to read a story or sing a song or draw something. The woman has a gift for copying book illustrations by sight without tracing them. She holds up a drawing of a princess and a troll. Sarah shakes her head at these things and waits over nine hours for Ellie, her mother’s sister (who doesn’t look like she could be), to drive from Massachusetts to Virginia. The squat woman drags her stubby finger along the route on a map and explains that Ellie is taking longer to get there because she wants to stay longer once she arrives. This is why she isn’t flying. She will need her car to take Sarah to school every day once summer ends.

Sarah is asleep in an armchair when Ellie arrives. She opens her eyes and sees a tall woman with flat brown hair. Ellie has lived somewhere else all of Sarah’s life and they have only met a couple times before. She appears young somehow, not as grown-up as teachers and parents. She has a broad forehead and small, straight eyebrows, not arched like the dark brows of Sarah’s mother. She leans over Sarah, awkwardly hugging the armchair, as if Sarah alone is too small to absorb all her grief.

* * *

The night her mother died, Sarah crawled into bed with her. She had dreamt of Charlie, drunk, howling outside the house as he had a few nights before until the police took him away. Her mother pulled her close and breathed sleepily into her ear, pushing the nightmare further from her mind with each breath. But after a couple hours of sleep they awoke to the sound of something at the window. Her mother told her to hide and lifted her out of bed, pushing her toward the closet. Sarah crouched down inside it, among the pumps and wedges, the darkness pounding in her ears, and pulled the door shut. She heard the voice of her friend Anna in her head, counting to 100 as she did when they played hide-and-seek, speeding up and slowing down alternately in a way that always made Sarah’s heart race. She heard her mother fumble for something, and saw a small light appear beneath the door. The thing outside struggled with the window. Glass shattered and the metal curtain rod hit the hardwood floor.

A voice that sounded like Charlie’s yelled “Shit!” and sucked in air between its teeth. Its movement sounded big and Sarah imagined a hunched monster shaking glass out of its fur as it stood to fill the room. She heard her mother yell, “Get out!” But the thing only growled back at her, and the walls began to knock and thud as her mother screamed.

* * *

Ellie and Sarah check into a motel beside a Waffle House that overlooks the interstate. Sarah clutches her olive green suitcase, like a visitor in her own town. This is her first time staying in a place that isn’t hers or her friend Anna’s. Their room has a kitchenette and microwave. The first night sleeping next to Ellie in the twin beds, Sarah dreams that Charlie slams her mother so hard into the wall she disappears into it. This time she doesn’t leave a red stain. Instead the wall seals itself up, remaining white. Sarah starts, her chest rising and falling so fast she can feel her skin tighten around her ribs. She looks over at Ellie, whose body is lumpish under the heavy bedspread. She wants to peel back the corner and join her aunt but is too afraid the monster will return through the window and take Ellie from her too. So she props her eyes open for as long as she can until sleep drops them.

The next morning they are still sleeping, or pretending to, when they hear a knock. Ellie climbs out of bed wearing green shorts and a gray t-shirt, and answers the door. A man stands with a stack of covered dishes, a round tin on top. Sarah can’t make out his face with daylight behind him, the heavy curtains drawn shut. She pushes her knees up to her chest and breathes into the blanket. He explains that he lives in the house across from where Sarah and her mother lived. He gestures toward Sarah and she shrinks further into herself. The tin is full of homemade biscuits with butter and jam, he says. The covered dishes are baked macaroni and cheese, and green bean casserole. Sarah wants the man to leave—for the door to shut out his voice, his arms bent at the elbows, his thick brown boots. She wants Ellie to step away from him. Ellie tells him to come in and stands aside, closing the door behind him. She leads him to the kitchenette and he nods at Sarah as he crosses the room on his long legs, and smiles in a funny, gathered way, as if his lips have buttoned on one side. He puts the baked dishes in the mini-fridge and leaves the biscuit tin on the counter. Ellie thanks him and he leaves.

She brings the tin over to the bedside table, pulling off the lid. A warm smell wafts up, and Sarah emerges from the covers. Sarah is glad for the food, glad that they will not have to leave the inside for the outside. Here she can stay covered and shut-in. She takes a bite of a soft biscuit. Lately it has been hard for her to swallow, so she has had to learn to chew more slowly. Her mind will wander and begin to think of her mother’s touch or laugh and her throat will ache like it’s being stretched from the inside out and her tongue will slack. But if she focuses hard on the taste of things, she can make her jaw and tongue move as they are supposed to.

Ellie spends most of the morning calling people to tell them her sister died. She paces the long porch, the open hallway that overlooks the parking lot and leads to all the rooms on the second floor. When she walks by the picture window, Sarah can hear more than the muffled sound behind walls. She hears Ellie choke out words: bastard, killed, climbed through the window, pulled her by her hair, by her hair. Sarah’s scalp begins to prickle and she rubs the bumps down, her legs suddenly cold. She turns on cartoons and doesn’t laugh. She looks at the yellow wall by the bed and stands to touch it. She puts her ear to it, presses her forehead into it to try to understand the hardness and pressure. She pats a fist against it to feel the reaction in her bones, then pounds. Her skin is just beginning to warm when a deep voice yells, “Hey!” and pounds the other side of the wall. Sarah drops to the floor and crawls to the bathroom, her heart racing, her bare knees sliding across the cold tiles.

She curls into a ball, wondering if Ellie heard anything. She begins to shiver and stands slowly, using the vanity to hoist herself up. The door to their room is still closed and she can hear Ellie’s voice outside. The cartoons are pumping color into the room. She lies down on the bed with a pad of paper, and empties a box of crayons. Thinking of the squat day care woman and her princess drawings, Sarah pulls her photo album out of her backpack. She turns to her favorite photograph and tries to copy it by hand. Her mother let her hold the camera and take the photograph all by herself. Her mother’s face is out of focus, her usually precise eyeliner blurred. But she is smiling. Her body has no outline, her skin shifting into tiny dots that float away from her bones into the sky. Her red hair curls up in the breeze, the tremor in Sarah’s too small hands shaking the curls out like ocean waves.

They had gone for a drive—something they did when her mother was restless. “You wanna go places?” her mother would ask. Passing through the town’s traffic lights, Sarah stared at a map of the county and pointed to the road she wanted to take. Her mother knew back roads well, and taking the curves Sarah imagined they were encased in a marble rolling along a labyrinth of chutes. They pulled off at a crumbling stone wall to eat the tuna sandwiches they had packed. And there her mother let her grab the bulky camera from the backseat and click the shutter.

Charlie never joined them on these drives. Sarah remembers meeting Charlie that spring and liking his hairy arms. They seemed stronger than those of her friends’ fathers, like they could flip you through the air and catch you again. She didn’t know where her father was, and never noticed his absence until she saw her friends with theirs. It had been a surprise to find they had fathers at all. But none with arms as big as Charlie’s.

By the time Ellie comes back inside, her eyes puffy and red, Sarah has finished copying the picture of her mother. The red crayon is too bright, too jarring, so she uses brown for her mother’s hair, like Ellie’s. Ellie looks down at the image and says, “That’s a good way to remember her,” letting her fingertips linger on the corner of the drawing paper.

“Mommy let me hold the camera,” Sarah murmurs.

“She did? Did she tell you she used to study photography?”

“Yes. And you do drawings.”

“That’s right. Looks like you have a talent for drawing, too.”

“I want to be a photographer.”

“I wanted to be just like your mom, too. My whole life. Our parents said I was her puppy, always following her around.”

“And then what happened? Why didn’t you follow her around anymore?”

“She changed. And I guess I changed.”

* * *

The day before the funeral, Ellie asks Sarah if she has a black dress. They search through her bag but can’t find one. Ellie says they’ll need to go to the department store and buy one. Sarah doesn’t want to leave the room. She doesn’t want to move among people or stand in her underwear in a brown dressing room, changing out of soft clothes into stiff ones. She cries until her cheeks feel damp. But Ellie says after they buy a dress they can drive to the place in the picture, the green field where her mother once stood. Sarah agrees. They leave the motel, Sarah wearing her pajamas and clutching Ellie’s hand. The sun cuts across her eyes, so she focuses downward, on the concrete walkway, her hair falling into view. The sky is too big above them, too far from the top of their heads. Sarah has never felt so small.

A black dress swings over the dressing room door and Sarah pulls it over her head. The room is small, but different from the closet she crouched in. The fluorescent lights catch everything. The walls are thin and she thinks a body could break through them, like a cartoon. She cannot let herself picture her mother on the floor in red. So she thinks simply that her mother has been broken, taken apart. She pictures her as toppled building blocks, scattered and buried. Then a clean-swept room with bare walls. Ellie stands outside the dressing room, fiddling with the hanger, waiting for Sarah to open the door. Sarah looks down as she pulls the dress over her body—watching the color of her skin disappear under fabric. The dress is plain except for a black sequined flower on the front. She touches the petals. She has never seen a black flower before. The material is heavy and binding, too rough for summer. It doesn’t feel like it belongs to her and she doesn’t want it to. It moves with her, swishing around her shins, but she knows it will stick when she sweats. She opens the door and spins when Ellie asks her to.

“Good,” Ellie says. She asks if Sarah likes it.

Sarah shrugs. She slips back into her well-worn clothes and nothing has ever felt so good against her skin.

After Ellie buys her the black dress they get back in the car and Sarah feels safe again, shielded from light and space. She tells Ellie which turns to take to get them to the field. Ellie keeps looking at her through the rearview mirror as Sarah sits in the backseat, as if watching for Sarah to fall asleep, as if she is a baby, or someone who might disappear. They pull up by the tumbled-down wall. Ellie helps Sarah out of the car and lifts her on her hip, Sarah’s legs dangling down. She is too big to be held. She slips slightly and Ellie gently stands her on the ground, then helps lift her over the wall, and follows.

They stand in the field—Ellie is crying and won’t let go of Sarah’s hand. She grits her teeth and turns her head, stomping her foot and squeezing Sarah’s hand too hard.

“Ow,” Sarah says, pulling her hand away and holding it to her chest, stepping back. She looks down at her fingers.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Ellie says, panic in her eyes. They brighten a little as she asks if Sarah likes to yell. Sarah shakes her head no and Ellie says, “Let’s try it.”

Sarah looks up at her aunt, who drops her mouth open and a squarish screech falls out that deepens into a moan and cracks into a shrill note that lingers. She cries quietly and won’t meet Sarah’s gaze. Sarah looks at the field and yelps, once, twice, stomping her feet and swinging her arms. She looks up again and Ellie’s smile is buttoned on one side like the neighbor’s.

They heat up the baked mac and cheese in the microwave for dinner, and fall asleep with the TV on. Sarah wakes up to the flickering of a commercial and it feels like very early morning. Ellie is still sleeping. An image of her mother, hurt, comes to her and she pushes it away. But she remembers Ellie’s words: bastard, pulled her by her hair, by her hair. Her scalp prickles again, and she glances at Ellie, then gets out of bed and walks without a sound to the bathroom. She turns on the light and shuts the door. She looks at her reflection in the mirror—her pale face, small eyes, and pointy nose. She opens Ellie’s manicure bag on the wet sink top and pulls out a pair of tiny scissors. Wrapping her hand around a chunk of brown hair that falls past her shoulders, she begins gnawing at the roots with the blades. Wisps of hair fall down in front of her face, tickling her nose. The scissors tear free and leave her hand suspended, holding a fistful of limp hair. She drops the hair into the sink, and watches it curl back on itself. Her mind maps out divisions before her hand can grab them.

Once she can move her head more freely and better see its shape, she cuts the remaining hair to about two inches from her scalp as evenly as she can. She looks like she could be a boy, though a small one. Running her hands through what is left, she tries to tug at it, her fingers only slipping away into air. This is right. This is safe. No one can now use her hair as a harness to drive her through a wall. She brushes the handfuls of hair into the wastebasket and dusts the counter with her palm. Her head feels light, but cold, as she scrambles under the covers, and soon returns to sleep.

In daylight, Ellie wakes stares at Sarah’s hair.

“Oh my God, Sarah, what did you do?” she gasps. Sarah rubs the sleep out of her eyes and touches her head. She says in her small voice, “I got tired of it long. I cleaned up the mess.”

Ellie sets her jaw back in place, and climbs out of bed. She kneels on the floor. Her forehead wrinkles as she stares at Sarah. Then she closes her eyes for a moment and says, “You look beautiful.”

Sarah is surprised. She knows she has done something dangerous, something that requires permission. But Ellie’s eyes open and she smiles.

After heating up biscuits for breakfast, they dress for the funeral. When they step outside the motel room onto the porch, the warm rush of air tingles Sarah’s scalp. She runs her hands over the fresh-cut ends. Her neck feels cool, even as they descend the stairs under the sun. The sky does not hover as it did before. She does not have to scramble to tidy up the room inside her head. For now, she is walking with her aunt into an open field.

Raennah Mitchell
Raennah Lorne Mitchell lives in Charlottesville where she attends literary salons and readings at WriterHouse, lunches weekly with a group of women writers affectionately known as “the coven,” and plays guitar and writes songs. When not at work in academic publishing or revising drafts of her two novels, she spends quality couch-time with her fiancé, Steve, and their cat and dog.

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