Wednesday 29 September 2021

The Vivarium


by Kathleen Wheaton 

Irish coffee


Mackie was responsible for his mother’s death. Of course, nobody blamed him—he had to get born! How did a baby come out of its mother’s body? Through a special door. This he learned from his nurse, Molly. It was 1918 in Oakland, California. Mackie was four. He lived in a dark-shingled house with long windows, along with his twelve-year-old brother, Henry, his eleven-year-old sister, Ida Belle, and their distracted, grieving father. The garden overlooked an arroyo and was fragrant with lantana, jasmine, roses.

            Clara, a friend of their father’s, had found Molly. Back in Ireland, Molly had lived in a castle, where she took care of Lady Jane and Lady Anne, two silky-haired English girls who never spilled their tea.

            On her first afternoon in Oakland, Molly made a pot of tea and carried it upstairs to the nursery on a tray with four cups. Mackie wanted tea, with milk and lots of sugar. Ida Belle, reading in the window seat, said ‘No’ without looking up.

            Molly didn’t scold her. After a while Ida Belle said, ‘No, thank you.’ Molly nodded.

            ‘Oh, all right,’ Ida Belle said, and flung her book down as if Molly and Mackie had been pleading with her for hours. In her stockinged feet she padded down the hallway to fetch Henry, who was in his room with his king snake and the mice he raised to feed it and his pet raccoon in a cage. Henry came along but stood in the doorway, refused the tea.

            ‘I killed our mother,’ Mackie said, to start the conversation.

            ‘Why, Mackie, you didn’t mean to!’ Ida Belle exclaimed.

            ‘Maybe he did,’ Henry said. He was smiling, which meant he was kidding.

            Molly would answer any question you asked. What was Ireland like? Lovely, soft green. Not like California, so brown it made her thirsty to look out the window. What happened to Lady Jane and Lady Anne? Republicans set fire to the castle, so the girls had to return to England, leaving Molly lonely as a unicorn.

            The three children, also Republicans, glanced uneasily at one another. Molly kept on talking: In Irish, unicorn and lonely are the same word. The boat to America was full of ruffians. She didn’t care for men, particularly.

            Me neither,’ said Ida Bell,who over her long life would marry four times. 

            One night, having his bath, Mackie asked Molly how babies came out of mothers. He pictured a small, round door with a brass knob, like in Peter Rabbit’s burrow.

            Mackie could read. Nobody had taught him. At his request, Molly read Beatrix Potter to him every night before he went to sleep. Then suddenly he could do it alone—it was like being pushed in a swing.

            ‘You’ve just memorized it,’ Henry said. But no, Mackie could pick out words in other books, even in the newspaper.  

            He read The Tale of Peter Rabbit to Clara after dinner. She came every couple of weeks to see how they were getting on. ‘Oh, my stars,’ she said, and hugged Mackie sideways. Her dress rustled like dry grass.

            ‘He’s a prodigy,’ said Mackie’s father, who was an architect. He sat across the room in a wooden chair he had designed, with whiskey in a heavy glass.

            ‘There’s your special door, Clara.’ Mackie pointed to the picture in the book.

            ‘My door?’ Clara said.

            'For a baby to come out. All ladies have them. Molly told me.’

            ‘Oh, dear,’ Clara said. ‘I am sorry, Roger. She came so highly recommended.’

            His father shrugged. ‘She’s a country lass. You must admit it’s funny.’

            ‘I’ll find you the right person to raise the children, I promise. I’m so fond of you, Roger. I’m fond of all of you.’

            ‘I know,’ his father said. He looked into his glittering glass, then at Clara. ‘Thank you.’

            A week later, he was dead, too, of a golfing wound. It said so in the newspaper. Later Mackie heard someone say that his father had been cleaning his gun. Cleaning it on the golf course? Henry had a .22 rifle which he cleaned on the floor of his room, after putting down newspapers to protect the carpet. The shells were kept in a box on top of the bureau. Their father had said that if he ever walked in and saw the gun and the bullets stored together, Henry would receive a walloping he’d never forget.

            You’d think that Mackie, the prodigy, would never forget the funeral of his own father. Five hundred people attended. For the rest of his life, Mackie would sift through his memories, but it was gone. What he retained was their last morning in Oakland before the children took the ferry to San Francisco, where they were to be raised by their aunt. Three suitcases lined up on the gleaming redwood floor. Clara smiling with red, puffy eyes. Henry opening the cages and tipping over the glass-fronted vivarium, the snake and the mice and the raccoon crossing to the edge of the lawn in a row, as if their journey to the arroyo had turned them into temporary friends. 


About the author  

Kathleen Wheaton grew up in California and worked for 25 years as a freelance journalist in Spain, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, and Bethesda, Maryland. She is the author of the collection, Aliens and Other Stories, which received the Washington Writers Publishing House Fiction Prize.





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