There were few ants the day my mother arrived. They'd been a constant annoyance all spring but when she came for a visit they nearly vanished until the very seconds after she left. I walked in from waving at her departing car until I was certain she could no longer see me; this was an unspoken tradition we had every time one of us flew away from the other. I shut the front door, went to the kitchen, and the multitudes were back; lined up on the windowsill searching for water droplets and single bits of cornmeal from English muffins.
The ants had arrived just when the untamed flowers started to bloom in the front yard. Perhaps they were encouraged by my lack of attention to the landscaping, to the way the perennials and wildflowers and weeds grow with reckless abandon, crawling up the front steps and trailing across the porch swing to net themselves to the screens of my windows. When I woke up my first morning here the sunlight filtered through the layers of greenery and spread across my sheets in tinted hues from the hibiscus and ivy that wove itself along the front of the house; nature's stained glass.
Then the ants began to crawl along the stems and vines and find their way inside, drawn by the sweetness of my iced tea, by the lone grape on the floor, by the mere presence of a living soul in the house. No matter how many times I mop or wipe the counters, they come back every morning. The local exterminator laughed when I called. He said I should be happy they're just the sweet-loving kind and not carpenter ants. He said if I had carpenter ants I'd be looking at thousands of dollars for new insulation and a full inspection to see how bad the damage was. He said I should cut down the vines. He offered a telephone number for a local landscaper.
This house is a style called “cape,” which made my mother laugh. In the Midwest most of the homes are “ranch.” It had been ownerless for some time when I put an offer down on the structure and everything inside. The woman who owned it had died and had no living relatives so the house sat in probate for months. Not many people choose to move to this section of the north shore outside Boston, but the town of Libbey, perched on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic, had always been my destination for inspirational road trips during grad school. It was my secret hiding place from life, from the world, from my husband in the end. It was the only thing that remained untainted while I had been with him.
I found out I was pregnant the day the home went on the market. I was sixteen weeks along which meant the last time my ex and I had been together before I walked in on him and our upstairs neighbor was really Life's way of displaying its twisted sense of humor. I had been living in Libbey for three months. Just long enough to have learned there are no coincidences here. In this town some things are meant to be and you just have to know how to navigate your way through the nuance.
The house had been passed down through the Keller family until its last owner died, a woman named Eloise. She had been a ghostly presence in Libbey, Eloise. She’d had waist-length white hair, falling down her back straight and stiff like stalks of sun-bleached wheat. She never spoke, not at the end. She’d walked along the cliff every day, many times a day, up until the day she died. Some people said she had been waiting for the train that would bring back the man she had loved when she was young, but trains don't travel to Libbey anymore; they haven't for some time.
When I first moved here, after the incident with my upstairs neighbor and my husband's unceremonious revelation that he'd had papers drawn up, I was shocked into preservation mode and holed up in a room at the local bed and breakfast. I was supposed to be writing a novel, my next novel, a project I had promised my agent a month before. I was supposed to be put together at this age: well-published, well-situated, well-loved. But when all of my supposed-to-somethings turned pear-shaped I retreated to Libbey and I sat. I sat with notebook empty, with laptop off, with book unwritten. And I watched the town. I watched it breathe because that's how best I can describe the feeling of Libbey, an instinctual inhalation and exhalation of life. People work here, they live here, and occasionally they have a community gathering on the Great Lawn under the massive beech tree overlooking the steel-grey Atlantic. I felt as if I were a blot on their lungs; a black eye or errant stubbed toe. I was lazy. I tried to be inconspicuous but everyone knows everyone in Libbey, and they've known me since I began hiding out here.
I watched Libbey and that meant I watched Eloise, and soon she developed into a character – the heart-worn old woman who walks the cliff every night, waiting for her one true love. It was plot-gold staring me in the face, walking by me every day, and I wrote about her. Once upon a time there was a version of me that would never have taken advantage of a person like that. But that was when I lived in the Midwest, and as my mother reminded me during her visit, a person has to harden themselves a bit to live in New England; you need a thick shell, a crust of ice, to insulate your soul out here. Also I was desperate.
I often wonder what my mother truly thinks of me now. She acted the same during her visit, said the same things, offered remedies for colds and justifications for my response to life's entanglements. Her everlasting support is enabling, for better or worse. But during her visit I had seen in her eyes a sense of remove that she never used to have, a distance from the world. Maybe it's my impending and unwed pregnancy, or this place. Maybe it's my insulation; maybe the thick crust of ice through which I now look at my mother filters things in a way I never noticed before – the true way.
I haven't asked what she thinks I should do about the baby. It’s clear I’m going to keep it, but I haven’t settled on whether or not I should tell my ex, who has moved on to bigger and better things with the neighbor. Time is running out on that decision if I'm going to make it before the baby is born. I also didn't ask my mother whether she thought it was okay to use someone else’s life in a novel, a choice that ultimately allowed me to profit off someone else's bad situation, and then buy their house. I think she'd have drawn her eyebrows in thought and told me to do what is best for me and that perhaps Eloise would appreciate her story being told, someone giving life to her home. It would have been a motherly response, if I had asked what she thought.
My mother has taken to caring less deeply about things. Instead of the hearty Midwest-born-and-bred mentality, she's become a person who isn't so scared of the wider world. It started with her decision to go back to school for her Masters. Then she began to attend conferences, local to her home in Minnesota at first, Leech Lake and Duluth, but eventually Montana and California and Arizona, lectures on Native American history and the holocaust. She began writing poetry, or rather, she began writing poetry again. She did things girls do at eighteen when they haven’t had the chance to learn better. She did things she hadn't been able to do before.
She'd been unhappy, my mother. She was unhappy a lot when I was younger and she was a single parent, but I thought she'd entered a phase of life where that kind of thing was behind her. She was remarried after all. But her second husband, my stepfather, had let her down in the way men often do of women when we set out with expectations of change and they seldom comply. Even in our sixties women still have hope that men will rise to some higher level in a relationship; that a man will want to be better, different, for a woman.
My mother said the whole thing had made her lose faith in humanity, which made her lose faith in herself. She said she wished she'd never gone down that road with him. That she'd walked away when he first asked her, "Do you know who I am?" She'd seen the world now. The underbelly that gets darker the more you risk stepping outside your comfort zone.
I had been unhappy too, many years ago, and then not so many. But I don’t talk about those times with her. There are boundaries that form in a mother-daughter relationship when you both reach a certain age. You start lying to each other when you might never have before, in order to preserve the delicate balance of a female bond, in order to make the other person worry less. Tiny lies, short lies. Things are great. You are happy. Work is fine. He is good. You live in constant fear of disappointing one another.
Eloise had been pregnant once when she was younger. There are newspaper articles in the library archive about what happened that summer, and people still in town who had been young when the incident occurred. You can’t forget something like that, especially when you had to watch a shell of a woman relive it every day. There are also the letters she had left in the house. In every place you might imagine one would hide letters, and some places I wouldn't have even guessed.
I scrubbed the house from attic to cellar the first week I moved in. Vacuumed the couch cushions and dusted what little furniture there was. Hung the floor rugs from tree branches in the yard and beat them with the vacuum hose. Inside, on the built-in bookshelves, arguably the house's best feature, were hundreds of books. The value of these is priceless. First editions of Henry James and Oscar Wilde; Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, F. Scott Fitzgerald. They had been amassed by Eloise's ancestors, handed down with the house.
Hidden inside the pages of the greatest writers of our time, protected by literary merit, were letters penned in cursive on pale pink stationary over a rose watermark. There are hundreds, one or two written every day for nearly sixty years as best I can tell, smooth handwriting in the older letters, shaky scrollwork in the more recent as her memories and faculties deteriorated.
The letters were hidden in the books in the house that I'd bought that had been hers. I haven't been able to work my way through them all, but they end on the day she died and go back to before the incident. Back to the day Jack Holloway left her in Libbey to go home to Chicago.
They are sad in the way a bright-eyed girl in love can be so hopeful but so oblivious. I already knew what the end result of all these letters would be: an eighty-year-old woman walking the cliff every day, reliving the disappearance of the man who left her.
The newspapers had chronicled the love story of Eloise and Jack that summer because that was the kind of thing newspapers liked to publish back then – happiness instead of heartache. There were pictures of them on picnic blankets surrounded by other tourists, reviews of parties in the society pages reflecting a Libbey that had been bright and extravagant once.
They'd met, they'd fallen in love, and at the end of summer, he had left. Disappeared, actually. And with him he'd taken the very thing that had made Eloise the belle of Libbey in the society pages, her invisible spark, the chime of her laughter. She’d become sallow-skinned and dull-eyed. She had seemed to wilt without him that August, writing letter after letter, postmarking them to an address in Chicago, always telling people he'd be back on Labor Day, before he started school in Boston.
And on that day, the day Jack had promised to return, Eloise walked to the train station ready for her happy ending. It was noon but the sky was black, it was summer but the wind and rain from a hurricane tore at her dress and hair. That hurricane is The Hurricane here in Libbey; the only one to ever make landfall on their homes, the only one anyone talks about. Across the Great Lawn Eloise sought shelter under the beech tree and from the shop and restaurant windows the townspeople watched as God took matters into his own hands with a jagged, blinding streak of light, so white the outline was burned into retinas for days, and into memory for life. Eloise lost their baby that day, and when Jack was never seen or heard from again, she lost her soul.
The newspapers and people in town speculated that Jack hadn't even been his real name, that he'd been a philanderer, a crook. That he'd ridden the train to Libbey that summer with the single goal of finding a young woman to take advantage of. And when summer ended, townspeople said, he'd ridden the train right back out without a thought or care to the woman he was leaving behind. But when a stone-faced elderly couple from Chicago showed up with Jack’s picture and birth certificate demanding information on the whereabouts of their son, whom they’d said had shacked up with a gold-digger from the town of Libbey, rumor turned into speculation, and speculation into speechlessness.
Libbey had changed that day; it became a town that locked its doors and stopped inviting tourists in for coffee and cake and tales of the good ol' days. A few years later the train would no longer travel their way, and the townspeople who were young at the time remember how their parents had felt about that – good riddance, they'd said.
Eloise hadn't been able to decide what to do about her baby. Fate had made that decision for her. When she lost the baby she lost herself. She had kept writing letters to Jack but stopped putting them in envelopes; stopped bringing them to the post office. She had carried them around town with her and people would find a loose leaf tangled in their hydrangeas or floating in their birdbaths. She'd stopped talking to anyone but herself and her empty womb.
Late at night, when my nausea has subsided and the heartburn kicks in, while the ants find their way into my house, I ponder what I would have done in Eloise's situation. I see her, facing me in a mirror, her eyes shut off, a black void. I wonder what life I'm giving to my child whose father doesn't know of his or her existence yet, and may not ever. What letters will I leave when I pass? What will he or she see in the mirror when I am gone?
Eloise had been in her late eighties when she died. No autopsy was performed. She hadn't spoken to anyone in years and judging by the condition of her pantry, she hadn't been eating much either. It appeared from her cabinets that she'd been living on saltines and tap water. She hadn't left a will that anyone could find, or a bank account or retirement fund. She'd owned the house and had lived off monthly installments of social security, cashed at the local bank wordlessly, general gestures, shaky signature. Eloise Holloway.
I think there must still be plenty of letters hidden here. Sometimes at night when I can't sleep I'll get up and check the nursery. I'll peel up a corner of carpet that looks loose; or tug on a warped baseboard. Less and less I'll take a book down from a shelf to have a pale pink leaf fall to the floor, but I know there are more. The one and only time I tried to garden I unearthed a metal toolbox rusted shut. When I'd pried the thing open a pile of rust-pink letters slid out. Each time I find another letter I file it with the rest in a series of boxes in the attic. I do my best to keep them in chronological order, but I can't bring myself to read them all.
I discovered the ants the same day I found the letters. It seemed that while the dust had settled into the nooks and crannies of the home, while Eloise subsisted on saltines and water and heartache, the ants were fooled into thinking there wasn't anything of interest to them inside. But I came and one by one they began to invade, finding my crumbs and every grain of sugar that fell through the folds of the bag.
I set traps and bait, leave little cardboard squares in the corners at night with clear circles of sweet, sticky glue on top. In the morning there might be one or two ants stuck in the quicksand, but a dozen others march in time along the sill of the window overlooking the backyard. Skittering away from my hands as I swipe a paper towel along their trail. My mother said ants are unpredictable creatures.
I'm not able to get rid of the ants and I'm not able to get rid of Eloise's letters. I avoid them; stick them in boxes in the attic where my mother slept in a makeshift guest area in the eave. She said she would have been happy sleeping in the living room or even on the floor of the nursery, but I wanted her to have her own space while she was here. And there were the ants to consider. She was always wanting less from people, my mother; less attention, less fuss. On her birthday every year she wants nothing but time to go for a walk in the woods on the other side of town. She wakes up, drinks her instant coffee, puts on jeans and a sweater with her old tennis shoes, and walks to the woods. It’s the only thing she gives to herself: the freedom to be alone, the choice to be lonely.
The first week she was here my mother asked for a tour of the town. She had said she wanted to see all the places I wrote about in my novel, Eloise’s novel, but I think she really just wanted to examine the new place I call home. We had both been divorced now, which only compounded the fear we inherently felt for each other, as women, as family.
We'd wandered the streets and cracked sidewalks, up and down the narrow alleys. I'd shown her the diner and library, the Great Lawn and sprawling beech tree. She'd leaned precariously over the edge of the cliff and peered down at the gaping hole in the side of the cliff wall. There was a cave that had been buried in the same hurricane that changed Libbey so many years ago. The cave had opened up when another section of the wall collapsed in the fringe winds from Hurricane Sandy. The beach was off limits; tatters of police tape a reminder of the unpredictability of sand, the way it can shift unexpectedly, and of the body they’d found inside. Forensics experts and specialists in land erosion had spent days walking up and down the stone steps carved into the side of the cliff, examining evidence and structural integrity. The body they pulled from the sand was little more than bones and a pile of letters that had faded so pale it was hard to tell they’d ever been pink. A few weeks after the excavation insurance adjusters advised there was too much potential for another natural occurrence to cause even more of the cliff to collapse and had submitted their recommendation to the local authorities that the beach be closed for good.
I'd stood back from the edge of the cliff to watch my mother gaze at the ocean; hold her unruly mass of curls away from her face. For months after her visit I found those spirals in my couch cushions and corners of the bathroom. A single one would be hanging from a ceiling fan; another wrapped around my daughter’s pinky toe. When I went back inside my house on the day she left, the ants were marching in line along one of her stray hairs. It stretched out on the windowsill, the curl pulled into a gentle wave. The ants walked along its undulating path one by one. I had known they would return. Ants don't change their habits so dramatically; they're like humans that way.
About the author:
Alayne Fiore is a graduate of Emerson College in Boston with a degree in Media Studies, a minor in Fiction, and a Certificate in Literary Publishing. She is the owner and operator of Rozlyn Press, a small press for female fiction writers, and a volunteer screener of fiction for Ploughshares and Redivider. She is currently enrolled in Emerson's MFA Creative Writing program. This is her first publication.